True Stories

True Stories

I really enjoy forgetting. When I first come to a place, I notice all the little details. I notice the way the sky looks. The color of white paper. The way people walk. Doorknobs.  Everything. Then I get used to the place and I don’t notice those things anymore. So only by forgetting can I see the place again as it really is.

-Narrator (David Byrne), True Stories, 1986

Talking about Cities

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(Image 1. 2220 Elm St. reveals a memory of what once stood in this vacant parking lot)

Cities don’t talk. Spaces don’t talk. Buildings don’t talk. We can talk “about” architecture and planning, but we can’t talk to it. As cities like Dallas continue to grow, our conversations about them become complex and ambiguous, and they happen with others or within a mirror as a guiltless projection of oneself onto a place. We talk “about” cities and buildings because they, like words, are a tool for communicating to each other. We talk to each other because we want to know more about ourselves. We talk to each other because our beliefs are formed by argument, and because, whether or not we like someone, we often support them when we know why they hold certain beliefs or dispositions. For this reason, architects and planners are needed to lead the discussions currently unpackaged in the public sphere to help communicate why cities are the way they are.

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(Image 2. The billboard and roadside lights are directed towards the interstate in Deep Ellum, where attention is granted at night. Here we see that communication is more important for the interstate above than the pedestrian below.)

Last November, the Association of Architecture Organizations (AAO) convened in Dallas under the theme ‘Connecting People and Place’; a heroic effort to connect the living to the built in the form of communication. Two of the speakers were Will Doig, author of Salon.com’s “Dream City” blog, and Brent Brown of the Building Community Workshop and Dallas Design Studio. Doig, aimed at connecting with cities while Brown exposed his process of communicating with people.

“We have confused relationships with our cities, we either love them or hate them,” said Doig, “But we are always talking about them, and it’s not just architects and designers.” Most people defer their voice to an architect or planner in the room on topics of ‘urbanism’, claiming they don’t know much about it, yet every day people talk about the functions of a comprehensive city; how long a commute might take, where they might want to live next, who will teach their children, or where their dog might play outside. “I call them ‘armchair urbanists’,” he said, “They know everything and nothing. They enjoy the follies of their neighborhoods, and they are emotionally attached to them.” The trick is not convincing people to talk about their environment, but convincing them that they’re already talking about it, to real people, in real places. There is a curiosity in the human imagination that is unparalleled.

With an economic downturn came a reassessment on the way our cities function. As younger generations buy fewer cars and houses, they quickly gain a voice in urban centers. They are thrown into a wide range of demographics and speak amongst each other as neighbors and citizens. Even the older generations in suburban homesteads are excited to experience the marvels of an urban renaissance. While taste, style, or design may differ from one generation to the next, the needs are still familiar, and through verbal and visual communication, both generations are focusing on a reductive approach to create great places to provide those needs. Grass-roots organizations, neighborhood associations and the like, are communicating on much smaller platforms but do so more often.

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(Image 3 – A printmaker presses in his new workspace in the night in Deep Ellum)

Designing From the Ground, Up

(Images 4 & 5. Brent Brown and the BC Workshop talk with locals to document and communicate the reality of our built environments.)

With any flux in population or size, there comes with it a multitude of outsider views onto the existing setting.  Each new person has a new idea about that setting, and their respective agendas help describe it. Especially in large cities like Dallas, where professions are varied and specialized, our feelings about a place are personal and important. Architects and planners may talk about architecture in a different way, but the truth behind it all lies in the streets, in the hands of the public; the end user.

Brent Brown and the BC Workshop have worked endlessly with neighborhoods and communities to effectively communicate needs and distill them from wants. Brown says “There are defensive positions in some neighborhoods. For example, when we went to La Bajada, in West Dallas, before the construction of the new Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, there was a lot of tension. The key is staying calm and listening.” Listening requires patience, humility, and an open-mind, and it is pertinent that architects continue to do so. Brown described it as “practice” that has proven healthy for his clients, owners, and staff at-large.

The Workshop is less interested in planning as they are in understanding and knowing the neighborhoods that already exist. Brown’s team at the Workshop filters through layers of process in understanding place-time specifics. First, they begin with stories, asking “What is your neighborhood?”, filming citizens and their reactions with no strings attached. The stories teach the young office (The BC Workshop has an average employee age of 26) how to listen, and what to listen for. Then, the process of engagement is developped. Charettes, guerilla exhibits, and community events allow the planning process to function from the ground-up as opposed to 20,000 ft. (Image 6. Community Involved exhibit, constructed and directed by the BC Workshop.)

The public forum is no longer centrally located. Rather, it is dispersed throughout the city grids. It takes a group like Brown’s to set the stage for the forum to reassure the public that they are not forgotten. Upon that stage are citizens like you and I. Some are transplanted. Others have been there for decades. All of them, however, are knowledgeable of their surroundings and value similar traits in the quality of a place. Neighborhoods like La Bajada have come together in crisis and have accomplished great things without the luxury of financial backing. They face more challenges as West Dallas is developed, yet they are confident that it will become everything it needs to be and more.

Know your Neighborhood

Dallas has a lot to talk about, and people are definitely talking. Go out to Clyde Warren Park this weekend and look at how many people point into the glare of Museum Tower, or look out towards the white noise of the rising interstate. Look at how many people interact, smile, or formally meet. Look at the people looking up at the skyscrapers wondering if anyone is looking back. Look at the faces on people as they drive by safely in the cabin of their car.

Go to Deep Ellum and see the opposite; rejecting facades with frequent vacancies, with few people roaming the streets in the day. Here, neon signs and tattoo parlors are celebrated more than a park, for example. Absurdly secured doors and small peep holes deprive the pedestrian of transparency, yet all is somehow still beautiful. Deep Ellum communicates to us our desire for imperfection, depth, time, and quirky craft. It has made great efforts to become the unique neighborhood it is today. (Images 7&8)

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True stories are told here because it is a place we can collect. It’s a place we may call our own. We can watch each other and contemplate on our own childhood leisure. We learn about ourselves and discover common interests, no matter the differences in taste or style. Clyde Warren Park allows two neighborhoods, uptown and downtown, to converge in a place where new things can be seen, heard, smelled, and experienced. These experiences ground us, away from the television and out of the automobile, and provide the space for conversation and communication in the public realm.

Perhaps it is true that our conversations in a city are personal projections onto it. We share experiences from other places to make sense of the unfamiliar one we enter. The same can be said for planners and architects, where designs are personal projections onto a setting, designing for ourselves as opposed to the user. While we are optimistic in thinking this untrue, we are also aware of the culture that we are currently designing in. We want so much and need so little, and therefore, should continue the conversation with neighborhoods and citizens. We shouldn’t have to forget where we came from to redefine who we are.