The great sell-off

There is growing talk and conjecture over the future of the American suburb, and, in particular, over the very large suburban home sometimes not-so-affectionately referred to as the McMansion. As baby-boomers begin to retire in increasing numbers and age past the point of being able to physically maintain large homes and accompanying grounds, planners are beginning to wonder whether some of these homes might not become subdivided into multifamily housing, and whether some will remain vacant, contributing to an ongoing glut of single-family homes. Rather than see this trend as unavoidable sad fate, we would like to see it as a golden opportunity to rethink and reimagine the suburban landscapes these homes sit within. If these dwellings are to become multi-family housing, this will mean increased density and thereby increased concentrations of spending power. If these areas were physically retrofitted to encourage the development of amenities within walking distance – meaning concentrating that spending power in particular areas – that spending power could translate into new suburban hubs of commercial and pedestrian activity. Think of it as the new Victorian Mansion surrounded by the 2010 version of San Francisco.

For more on the future of the McMansion, click here

For more on the baby-boomer-spurned housing glut, click here

Topiary taken to the next level

A snapshot of some of the fantastical tope-scapes of Pearl Fryar

The intricate, otherworldly and meticulous tope-scapes of Pearl Fryar are an amalgamation of greenery to be poured over and marveled at. They are also a good end-point for the nearly year-long endeavor of highlighting the most tragic of topiary in and around the urban landscapes of Los Angeles and Minneapolis. In the pre-blogging days tragic topiary would have filled a coffee table book of a finite number of pages. You’d flip through it, maybe go back to the ones you most liked, and it would be done. In the day and age of blogs, variations on a theme – in our case, topiary – are almost expected to persist endlessly, regardless of whether they have run their course. While we have loved ferreting out and highlighting some of the ugliest, most ridiculous topes ever to have been created, we do feel that it has run its course and that it’s time for PRAIRIEFORM to come up with a new weekly endeavor full of just the right amount of kitsch, zest, and contemporary relevance that makes you want to come back for more. We will hint that it will involve cute but nuisance bunnies, and the contemporary city, and it will be in Swedish and in English, but we will say no more until the endeavor has been fully launched. Stay tuned for details.

Thanks to Jorgecito for the Pearl Fryar link

Place and memory

Hammarby Sjöstad, set to the music of Pistol Disco

Hammarby Sjöstad is an expansive redevelopment area located in a former industrial area just south of Stockholm proper (formerly known as Norra Hammarbyhamnen and Södra Hammarbyhamnen). Save a couple of former factories now converted into offices and housing, little remains from the district’s industrial (and trailor-park) past. Over the remains of a bygone era has been constructed, in essence, the physical manifestation of the most current discourse on sustainability and urban development: multi-family housing placed within a grid of walkable/bikable streets, easy access to greenspace – and ample quantities of it – relatively close proximity to transit, and commercial spaces lining the ground floors of buildings on major boulevards in the district. To walk and bike within Hammarby Sjöstad is to get a sense of a particular statement about a desired direction of modern development. Absent much indication of what came before it, and given the sheer newness of the entire zone, the result is a district that feels much like a shell of buildings and streets, a zone that is devoid of the aggregate layers of experience and memory that are mixed within the older districts of the city. This begs the question as to whether we can even create satisfying places and spaces where there is little to no physical memory – housed equally in structures as well as the minds of its residents – of what has come before.

Looking out over the Baltic from the edge of Sandhamn

There has been much ado within urban planning and design circles of late over the notion of place and the perennial quest for creating a sense of place in the day and age of strip malls, drive-thrus, and cul-de-sacs. Much of this discourse has centered around physical form and has argued that a sense of place cannot be found within the strip-commerical, auto-oriented development that has become virtually synonymous with the modern American built landscape. The reasoning goes that if every place looks like everywhere else, than how can that place cause one to feel that they are anywhere in particular? Yet nonetheless within these seemingly faceless landscapes people do live their lives, fall in love, stay up too late, vow never to speak to someone ever again. History – the history of human experience and memory – still occurs and is produced within the most banal of spaces.

This is not to say that the nature of one’s physical surroundings cannot heighten one’s experiences; they can and they do. Rather, it is to suggest that this sense of place cannot be produced by good urban design and physical form alone. Place, to be created, may require memory and a layering of experiences across time. The Baltic Sea at the edge of the Stockholm Archipelago appears as a virtual carbon copy of Lake Superior along the Arrowhead of Minnesota. One location is perhaps no more striking than the other. However, if one holds years of memory and experience of one or the other environment within their psyche, the other virtually similar environment might not ultimately seem as salient, or moving.

In this same vein, Hammarby Sjöstad may simply be too young to feel like much more than the physical, constructed version of a contemporary idea; the physical vestiges of history that were once there have by and large been erased, and the new fibers of experience and memory in the newly built environment have barely been created. The lesson we draw from Hammarby is not that we shouldn’t try to steer modern development away from the strip-commerical crumminess that has become all too familar to us as a civilization, but that we need to remind ourselves that built form is part of a much larger, time-spanning puzzle in the quest to create a sense of place in a world of noplace.