01.22.09 Everyday Urbanism at LACE/LAForum

Everyday Urbanism
remains a confounding experiment that revels in the present, messy state of things, but its updated version brings with it a more deliberate set of follow up questions after the last decade. Its authors too have had to make their ways in the compromises of the public sector (John Chase in Urban Planning at the City of West Hollywood), the hustle of the private sector (John Kaliski with his Urban Studio practice in L.A.), and the minefield of academia (Margaret Crawford at Harvard’s School of Design) since the turn of the millennium.

Thursday night’s ten-year birthday party, at LACE/LAForum in Hollywood, meant to salute all three authors (all were present) and their achievements concerning the subject matter. Fortunately, the event instead generated a re-hashing of the controversies the book originally launched, and possibly added a new epilogue for the book in everyone’s mind: Does Everyday Urbanism’s stance against conventional urban design mean anything anymore? And is the idea of the user-as-designer still relevant?

As an alternative to New Urbanism, Everyday Urbanism argued that by moving through one’s own city and through the experience of Mom and Pop stores, ad-hocism, nomadism, and D.I.Y. construction and graphics in one’s environment, designers could begin to understand the value of these urban elements in terms of orientation in the city, community identification, new economic potentials, or new forms of public space. Architects, urban designers and developers could take note of these everyday elements, interpret them, and then use them as tools with which to build.

Remember 1999? We didn’t know if the world might come crashing down on us in Y2K, we were finally making it out of the last recession, we braved the earthquakes and firestorms of the mid-90s, and there was a big surplus in the Federal budget – waiting for a rainy day as Al Gore used to say. And we hadn’t yet been attacked by terrorists in New York, ushering in a new interest in defensible architecture.

Flash forward to Everyday Urbanism now. We have the Grove and Americana. We have Dubai and Mumbai and the Bibao effect. We’ve had house-flipping, and soap operas about real estate on HGTV, and now a deflating bubble, sucking a lot of people out of the business. There’s a screaming need and challenge for new infrastructure and a re-engineering of our modes of energy production and consumption. Folks attending Thursday night’s event wanted to know if random sprawling strip malls and the cartoon paintings of fruit and veggies on the stucco wall of an Eastside mercado were still enough to re-invigorate our hobbling profession. The panelists said yes: The thinking behind Everyday Urbanism has become a built-in reflex in how we work and observe the city; it’s opened new opportunities for group design, community participation in design, and a reconsideration of authorship in a field that should be tacking its course away from Starchitecture and towards a new potential for the author-less-ness of things as they are for real people – away from corporate populism. Still sounds a little 90’s to me, but we could all use a happy flashback and an image of a painted stucco wall with Monica Lewinsky and Jesus to lighten the moment.

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