Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Theory vs Practice

In recent years, the attention given to city infrastructure and “terrain vague” conditions has reached a boiling point. This has constituted a kind of worldwide panoply of freeway architecture- not only in theses but in the chic world of high-gloss car-commercial starchitecture. We have buildings next to the freeway, buildings under the freeway, buildings over the freeway, buildings for the freeway, and particularly, buildings that mimic the freeway. Programs that were never meant to be linear are stretched to the breaking point. Asphalt, as it was in Gehry’s house, is now not only a material but a critique.

It is astounding that, given this seemingly universal concentration in the profession, that none of the innovation has traveled into the realm of the lay city. Other infrastructure has been reclaimed readily—docks, piers, canals, warehouses, aqueducts, power plants—but these are not only usually scenic to begin with but almost always derelict. Freeways, on the other hand, not only lack the romantic quality of an industrial ruin, but are already occupied, and hostile or even deadly to occupation.

The actual practice of freeway architecture seems currently to be one of camouflage. Cities that can afford to simply put them under the ground. Cities that can’t have found ever-better ways to screen them away, from murals and sound-walls to new greenery. This vast divide between theory and practice deserves investigation. The vast majority of sub-freeway rehabilitations are borderline failures. If we do not codify and evaluate existing strategies, no real innovation will take place in 99% of the relevant urban conditions. Not every city can afford a “big dig”.

What if it has been all wrong? What if these spaces are not only habitable but pleasant? Why, in all of the bluster about reversing CIAM urbanism, has nobody made a case for the inclusion of infrastructure in mixed-use zoning? And why on earth can’t we reverse freeway tropes, and create a space that unifies and delights? Underpasses are high-traffic, well-known, pre-roofed areas that are owned out-right by the public. They exist in every city in the world. And they are the greatest fallow urban resource we have.