Authenticity in placemaking

AS220's

AS220’s “Unpacking Authentic Placemaking” at the Peerless Building. Left to right, standing and on panel: Marc Levitt, Lucie Searle, Rick Lowe, Myrna Breitbart, Umberto Crenca and Andres Duany. (This and first photo below by David Brussat)

As part of its 30th anniversary celebration, the Providence arts collaborative AS220 gathered several expert “placemakers” under the deep atrium sky of the Callendar, McAuslan & Troup Building (1873, 1892). Called the Peerless Building now after the last in a string of department-store occupants, its five-story atrium bears all the stigmata of a supposedly authentic place. Its lack of attention to finished detail leaves it with the look of still being under construction. So it is “authentic.” But is it authentic?

Atrium of Peerless Building.

Atrium of Peerless Building.

This sort of question (though not the one I’ve raised here) animated the four experts all evening. (In deference to their amour propre, I use the word expert loosely.) They were Rick Lowe, an artist/activist in Houston; Myrna Breitbart, who teaches urbanism at Amherst with a focus on race, gender and class; Umberto Crenca, an artist and founder of AS220; and Andrés Duany, a town planner and founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism. Marc Levitt, a local storyteller and polymath, ran the proceedings and was successful at fomenting discord, especially between Lowe and Duany. The panelists interrupted each other frequently, as planned.

The disagreements about placemaking were authentic. Still, Duany was obliged to hurl several grenades to thwart mutual admiration, which is the enemy of frank discussion. He irked Breitbart and Lowe by remarking that some housing types naturally dilapidate to the point of affordability. Lowe blamed lack of investment. Duany claimed that government red tape was the main obstacle to community self-regeneration. Breitbart countered that city services for neighborhoods that artists can afford to live in is vital.

Duany pointed out that Detroit is an art mecca today because bankrupt city government cannot afford to regulate (that is, suppress) its practitioners. He urged cities to create Pink Zones, geographically circumscribed places where government would butt out, at  least insofar as artists, the arts and arts-generated redevelopment are concerned.

Sidewalk at AS220. (tripadvisor.com)

Sidewalk at AS220. (tripadvisor.com)

Lowe suggested that authentic placemaking was difficult in American society because the sensibilities upon which it depends are subservient to the nation’s “grow, grow, grow” mentality. Duany countered that American society has developed an organic ability to self-correct, and warned against focusing exclusively on artists. Crenca argued that “we need to live the collective.” Duany was not so sure. Successful neighborhoods, he said, require people who can fix carburetors, too, and successful advocacy for vibrant communities needs “people who can dot i’s and cross t’s,” because artistic heads are often too far up in the clouds.

Duany mentioned developers and bankers as among these, bringing to mind my old theory that Bert Crenca’s fierce, jut-bearded visage had some role in generating financial support for AS220’s first facility on Empire Street.

Much discussion revolved around the concept of “tactical urbanism,” the impromptu grassroots capture of public space, an example of which was the “chair bombing” of Times Square – placing chairs in lanes for vehicular traffic – which people loved so much that the city government took it over, and which worked so well that the city government then tried to shut it down. (It had started to attract “nudes” angling to mug with tourists for cash. Mayor de Blasio has since backed down.)

Parklet near Peerless Building on Park(ing) Day. (downtownprovidence.com)

Parklet near Peerless Building on Park(ing) Day. (downtownprovidence.com)

Providence has gone all-in on “parklets” – parking spaces “captured” by folks who, while feeding the meter, artfully transform them into little parks, with couches, maybe palm trees. There’s an official day set aside for that now, though it may generate less love for goofy little parks than nasty looks from drivers. Have parklets and chair-bombs been co-opted? Perhaps. That does not mean that as gestures they are pointless or useless. How to scale up tactical urbanism and other local successes remains an unanswered question. It may be argued, however, that New Urbanist placemaking has already reached beyond the local to a national or even a global scale.

Lowe pointed out that if you give 30 3-year-olds a blank sheet of paper they will all draw, but not so by the time they are 30. What happened to them? Were they stunted by their education? by society? Duany rejoined that they became bankers, dentists or artists at fixing carburetors who eventually raise families and move out to the suburbs, succeeding at business and moving back into town only after artists had been deployed by developers to make a neighborhood cool. Or something like that. The group argued all evening over such urban theories – their implications, even their accuracy.

Breitbart referred to placemaker Jan Gehl, whose work reflects many placemakers’ habit of gazing off into the distance, suddenly deaf when the question of beauty in placemaking arises. Often, public space is difficult to animate because it is surrounded by sterile, even sinister architecture that suppresses the free and lively sensibility that must inhabit a place for it to be truly vibrant and hence genuinely authentic. The Congress for the New Urbanism may be officially neutral toward style, but reality is not.

The difficulty of reaching conclusions in debates like this does not mean they are useless. The packed room, after all, was composed mostly not of artists but of nonprofit and public arts facilitators. This is what they live for. The key is funding. Grants are mother’s milk. And they look down their noses at “Western, European art.” Duany urged the audience to view the Sept. 30 episode of South Park, the animated TV comedy, called “The City Part of Town,” spoofing the arts bureaucracy – “including myself,” Duany insisted.

At the end of the session, AS220 lauded Buff Chace, who redeveloped the Peerless and other downtown buildings as residential lofts. He was also my landlord for 11 years when I lived in the Smith Building, his first downtown rehab. He combines the traits of developer and artist with panache. What he has accomplished – that’s authentic.

Leaving aside people like Buff Chace, it turns out that authenticity is difficult to pin down. No surprise there. There was authentic agreement and disagreement over placemaking last night, and that will be so as long as artists, and the rest of us, seek to make place.

Happy birthday to AS220!

[Correction: Early versions of this post referred to the animated TV show Family Guy. It was the South Park episode of that name to which Andres Duany was referring. You may be required to register; it’s free. Warning: I have registered and have been unable to view the episode. It seems to queue up, then nothing. Maybe I lack some necessary computer thing to view Hulu vids.]

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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