Archive for January, 2012

why we volunteer

We started   Community  :  Benefit a year ago.  An opportunity to offer back innovation and solutions that broaden and better our spatial and personal experiences, we formalized our passion to be out there helping.  Sometimes, the commitment is spawned from a nagging guilt over living and working in a breathtakingly beautiful place.  Oftentimes, it is in response to a call for action, an immediate need that has to be filled.  Most times, it conflicts with deadlines and other work crises making us wonder why we bother.  Today, we are again reminded that whatever the reason for the commitment, and whatever the obstacle to honoring that commitment, we always get something wonderful in return—a Personal : Benefit.

We are not just talking about the warm fuzzy feeling one gets from doing good, although, that is really nice.  We are talking about experiencing the camaraderie of being with like-minded and equally passionate, yet diverse, individuals.  Building sustaining relationships that continue well past the volunteer service has ended.  Using our skills to close a gap in resources to make something truly extraordinary.   Having fun while installing art that speaks to a community-wide purpose.  Experiencing the excitement of something new and challenging.

A year later, we are non-profit board members, organizers, and extra pairs of hands.  We are pursuing our passions in the environment, community leadership, recreation, contemporary art, sustainability, and local food production.  We are each experiencing wonderful returns as we give to our community.  If an opportunity to volunteer presents itself to you, seize it.  We promise you won’t regret it.


I’ll meet you at the corner

Is it the planner who defines perceptions of public space or is it the individual user? This chicken and egg conundrum has no definitive answer. Each individual moving through the city from destination to destination has a unique trajectory that ultimately helps define the ever-changing shape of the city. The planner, always on top of the game, recognizes the patterns and trends of the collection of individuals. Working together, the planner and the individual should create meaningful civic spaces. Consider examples of planners taking the tabula rasa approach (think Brasilia) and consider examples of bricolage-style community building (think illegal settlements) and you see can see how one does not work well without the other.

Lets go back to the individual, who is each one of us, as we move through the streets between various destinations. As we walk, negotiating the sidewalk becomes a sort of dance, a unique improvisation of asserting, ceding, drifting and stopping. The route is not without form, as the street grid gives us a structural framework for finding and remembering our way. As we walk, we drift in and out of different states of awareness. Walking down the length of the block we may be lost in our own thoughts, but once we reach an intersection our focus is usually called to some thing or some body that requires our attention. As a nexus of streets and sidewalks, intersections are the most dynamic points in the grid, and the corners are places where we are more likely to have chance encounters, meet friends and greet strangers. They are natural places for pause and conversation, for seeing and being seen. We are more likely to make eye contact with passersby at intersections. Any business located on a corner will double its visibility and often be considered a landmark when giving directions, as in turn right at the cafe.

Viewing intersections in this light, the design possibilities are limitless. Street corners are more than just the intersection of streets and sidewalks, they are points of opportunity, and they could be designed to engage communal fraternization. If it is mandatory that pedestrians stop at crosswalks for traffic signals, we have a captive audience!

Community connections are a hot topic in Aspen these days. We are all excited about pedestrian friendly linkages between the mountain, downtown and river, and hopefully  the city will consider the intersections as key points for design opportunity to enhance our vibrant civic environment.

in praise of alleys

It is obvious that as our cities become denser, the more important open space becomes.  But what defines urban open space?  Parks, plazas and greenways are wonderful expressions of sensitive and functional preservation of land for community use, but there are many unsanctioned spaces just as valuable. We have made it our business to seek out these untapped spaces and, similar to a collector of coins or baseball cards, amass them (at least mentally), waiting for their value to rise. Alleys are one of these untapped spaces.

Alleys are a city’s sleight of hand.  While we shop, dine or trudge off to work along streets, avenues and boulevards, alleys deftly conceal all the unsavory truths of our urban habitation.  Dumpsters, electrical meters, grease traps, smoke breaks, those that want to hide, and those that we want hidden. Alleys become little gray smudges in the urban experience that we observe from our peripheral vision, dark canyons into which we seldom pass. And though the alley and main street are spatially similar, their function differs so wildly that we are unable to see them as mirrored selves; and we are happy to ignore the alley.

Which is understandable.  Next time you find yourself walking with a few minutes to spare, turn towards that gray smudge in the corner of your eye.  Venture down that alley for a few blocks and mark what you see. Garbage, utilities, delivery men, loading docks, air conditioners, exhaust pipes. Note how truly unglamorous the alley is as it humbly accepts all that we need but don’t want to know we need. The esoteric exterior manifestations of interior functions. Delivery and removal of items that seem to exist without origin or grave. The gritty skeletons and organs of our urban lives.

And then look again.  Because we are so willing to ignore alleys, they become spaces available for other uses. Private places for conversation. The real entrances to buildings. Canvases. The impromptu living rooms of smokers seen in two vinyl chairs. Alleys then are not just infrastructure passageways but vital components of the urban landscape, rich and inviting.  And grimy, too. There is a reason we avoid alleys, but development pressure in our ever growing cities may force us to change our opinions of them.  What might they become then?

the worst seat in the house?

The Sonic Arboretum

any seat. Ian Schneller and Andrew Bird’s Sonic Arboretum and associated live performances at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago are designed for ambulatory experience. The museum’s atrium is temporarily transformed into a dynamic soundscape through the installation of sculptural speakers. These reinventions of the phonograph, formed from compressed recycled newspaper and clothes dryer lint, project a series of richly layered compositions generated by Bird during his recent residency at the MCA.

Defying the traditional (unidirectional) concert experience, the audience is intended to wander through the space during the event, catching variations in sound as it is amplified to different degrees, bounces off the confines of the space, and in some cases, is expressed in pulses through the rotation of speakers. Bird fades into the background: on stage, he manipulates the established loop, but vocals and live instrumentals fall into line with the recorded composition, with the result being less a performance and more the invention of an environment.