Nov 12, 2011

Cold winters and sunny visions

“You have a challenging situation with the weather, this isn’t Barcelona or Sydney, this is a cold place with long winters”. Words spoken in Umeå one would think. Cause we sure have long cold winters and Barcelona and Sydney are pretty far away. But no, that comment was made in Seattle a couple of weeks ago by James Corner of James Corner Field Operations at a presentation of the design for the new Seattle Waterfront.

And the question which raised that comment was: “You are showing lots of images of great beautiful weather, what is going to make this a populated place on a windy cold afternoon like today?”

That question brings me back seven years ago, to 2004. The snow storm in the southern parts was so bad the top architects of Scandinavia heading for Umeå with their power points and enthusiasm got stranded all over the map. Well, eventually they all arrived, cold but still in good spirits, and the outside reality and the inside visions presented that day couldn’t have been more different. And the funny thing is, those images, happy people rollerblading, biking, skate boarding and strolling along the sunny Umea waterfront were all so similar to the visions presented in Seattle 2011 that I’m wondering if this is some kind of universal longing we are all carrying. Or is it architects and city planners of the same school, time and age? Don’t get me wrong, I love it! But it’s really interesting how, again, Seattle and Umea are moving on such parallel tracks.

So, the contemporary Umeå waterfront story has a name: The City Between the Bridges (Staden mellan broarna). The most central part of the waterfront is about a eight block stretch between two bridges crossing the Umeå River, that’s why the name. Also, as this has been discussed and processed for decades it’s become like an Umeå family member that really needs a name.

Then, in 2003, the City and the main Umeå developer Balticgruppen (The Baltic Group), agreed on a contract for developing the area. Six Scandinavian architects were hired by Balticgruppen to design separate visions for The City Between the Bridges. These were exciting times! Eminent names like Snöhetta, Bjarke Ingels, Henning Larsen and Gert Wingård presented highly different but equally stunning visions for our little city. We reacted with curiosity, skepticism, fear and enthusiasm.

The Snöhetta proposal was the one that was agreed on. Due to politics though, possible miscommunication, mistrust and reasons that are still in the fog or at least not cleared out in the open, the City of Umeå didn’t follow the plans through. Various grades of disappointment, resentment and trust issues ruled this question for years until a new situation forced the City to finally move on. I would say though, the inhabitants of Umeå (from here on referred to as Umebos (bo = live, live in Umeå), are in a state of pending awaiting, not trusting anything really before we see it happening.

And what about the Seattleites? Well, it seems like the very ambitious plans for the waterfront is doing a good job trying to get on stage, and the people listening to James Corner the other week made it too the front row. But overall it’s like the redesigning of the waterfront is dodging in the shadows behind the all-consuming debate about the demolishing of the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the plans for the deep bore tunnel. I am carrying good hope though for those happy people rollerblading, biking, skate boarding and strolling along the sunny waterfronts. And expecting cozy warming fires for our cold long winters. Rainy in Seattle, all snowy in Umeå. My two cities. 

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