Feb 19, 2012

Being bold on a scale

Making big changes when it comes to city planning is a tricky thing. Well, all changes are tricky in one way or the other, but changing the physical environment in the place we call home is serious business. To feel safe, we need to know our way around, the practicalities. We don’t even have to like them, the force of habit is so strong that we a lot of times prefer things as they are, because anything else is unknown and therefore scary. Our comfort zone is a powerful force.

Big changes are to come in Umeå and in Seattle as the two cities front porches, their waterfronts, are going to be redesigned. As if that wouldn’t be hard enough, both cities have chosen to hire people from out of town for the job. Ohhh. What would they know about our city? What would they know about us? Who we are? What we need?

In 2004 six acclaimed Scandinavian architects presented their different visions for the river waterfront in Umeå. They flew in with their models and eyes and minds seeing things in our city we weren’t aware of, telling us things foreign to us. The reactions were all over the map, from anger to happy excitement, but I would say Umeå landed on overwhelmed skepticism. The proposals were bold, the match with the more modest residents of Umeå was hard to reach and nothing of it happened at that time.

So, it was interesting reading Seattle Times the other day, quoting Marshall Foster, planning director for the city: "We're not afraid of bold. We love bold. But now we're trying to make it fit Seattle.” He was referring to the redesign by applauded James Corner of James Corned Field Operations of the downtown waterfront, proposing a grand promenade between the Pike Place Market and the Seattle Aquarium, including a series of tiered plazas and staircases overlooking Elliott Bay and the Olympics. Corner is now scaling back, responding to the local architects and city planners.

The City of Umeå’s way of scaling back was to take back the overall design of the waterfront, and hiring an out of town celebrated architect only for the new building for cultural arts, Kulturväven. Kjettil Thorsen of Norwegian firm Snöhetta, responsible for the building that is actually now going to happen, has an awareness of these matters: “ We have these ideas about everything old being beautiful and needs to be taken care of. So; everything new is foreign, scary ugly, and makes us uncomfortable. Snöhetta is trying to make contemporary architecture available to the public, to make it positive. If we succeed in bringing out that contemporary architecture adds something to the community, we have come a far way.

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