Aesthetics and the City: Building Community

Aesthetics and the City: Building Community

A week ago Newsweek published “L.A. Residential,” an essay showcasing the work of three prominent architectural firms tasked with envisioning a Los Angeles of 2030. The three firms were asked to consider how the built environment would influence the way in which Los Angelenos would live, work, commute and play 20 years into the future. Minus the presence of genetically-engineered slave replicants, the architects dealt with many of the same factors considered by Ridley Scott decades ago with his apocalyptic film Blade Runner.

In 1982, Scott prophetically envisioned the Los Angeles of the Future to be over-dependent on technology, over-populated and controlled by corporate powers. The difference, though, between Scott’s vision and the reality faced by the three architectural firms is that the architects were asked to design an urban environment around the feel-good theme of community building. Ridley Scott’s Los Angeles had no need for community building and instead projected a top-heavy society of the future in which city residents who resisted the dominant corporate culture fled to off-world colonies. Each architectural firm used aesthetics to envision a design solution to address the issue of how the built environment could create community out of the social and economic realities of today. However none of their solutions truly “built community” in the broadest sense; instead their solutions spoke to one type of city resident—one who frequently used technology, participated in the creative economy and shopped at glass-walled mega-centers.

(One interesting community-building solution is Target Town, proposed by cityLAB-UCLA. Named for the popular retailer, the architects at cityLAB imagined residents in the near future would be working, shopping and playing in large retail parks of fun sponsored by big box stores. Renderings of Target Town reveal a large complex with the red Target logo on the rooftop of every building. CityLAB-UCLA celebrates Target Town by explaining that: “leveraging the identity of brands will be key to building community in places as diverse as Los Angeles.”)

From what I saw of the projects, each firm envisioned a future city that, like Blade Runner, was built on sets of assumptions about its residents — a city that was built by others for others — instead of creating a city in which residents were invited to alter, participate, and invest in its design. None of the architects used the power of aesthetics to challenge the system right down to its fundamentals and create true social bridging.

The city of the future isn’t found at Target Town but in architecture that inspires, engages and encourages interaction and creativity. The Michael Maltzan architectural firm was close to reaching this goal with The Park of Activity, but Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe did better with “Paris Beach” — which for 3 months each year, not only brings sand to the Seine but also brings surprise, creativity and democracy in the form of dialogue to the center of the French capital.

Rebar, a design studio in San Francisco, mixes spontaneity with public space by reclaiming the pavements. Armed with metered street parking, two hours worth of quarters, a sheet of Astroturf and a lawn chair, residents create little micro-community parks on city streets. The point is not necessarily to bring nature into the city (although one can’t help but recognize the beauty in the above mentioned examples) but to allow the city to respond to the needs of its residents by permitting us to exert our presence in spaces we all own collectively.

In Montreal, a Canadian artist named Roadsworth, moved by 9/11 and angered by massive oil consumption, decided his city needed more bike lanes. So he went out at night and painted them on to the streets. New York resident Joshua Allen Harris uses plastic bags and the wasted energy coming off city ventilation grids to bring city streets to life with animals and other friendly beasts tied to the grids and that inflate as air blows out. In Washington D.C, Mark Jenkins creates realistic human sculptures out of tape which he installs throughout the city in trash piles, street corners and even on top of billboards. And in Amsterdam, Nina Farkache created a home bench called “Bench ‘Come a little bit closer‘“ with disk-shaped seats that glide over a marble-topped bench, allowing people to play with personal space. What would happen if we installed Bench ‘Come a little closer’ in our parks? The work of these artists is part social commentary, part aesthetic acupuncture and part urban play.

Do we really expect in 20 years that glass-walled mega-centers and corporate parks will lead to social bridging? Building community will happen when individuals have the opportunity to participate, both passively and actively, in the aesthetics of the physical city and thus, feel as if they are a part of their city. The examples mentioned use an aesthetic experience to amuse, start dialogue and cause people to think creatively. Only until we expand the threshold for aesthetic possibility in our cities will we see creative possibility in our minds and truly create social cohesion. Without this, it is likely our modern metropolis will bear more in common with Blade Runner than we would like.