Posts Tagged ‘unwelcoming space’

Retro-Future Washington, DC

March 13, 2014

 

View of street in SW Washington

When I visit Washington, DC, I generally stay in the quiet, friendly, tree-lined neighborhood known as Southwest.

View of SW

It’s not the well-known Washington of stately neoclassic buildings, famous monuments, and cherry trees.

Much of Southwest was wiped out by so-called urban renewal in the 1950s and 60s, when planners were in love with the idea of destroying the old-fashioned urban grid, with its pedestrians and human-scaled buildings and street life, and replacing it all with freeways, giant buildings, and parking lots.

Old and new building together

Such a freeway separates Southwest from the very heart of Washington — from the National Mall, in fact — and the result is incoherent and strange. The zone between Southwest and the Mall is a sort of demented, brutalist Radiant City¬†gone dark.

 

Building on stilts

Buildings on stilts with highways running under them!

 

Underground parking zone

Soulless, creepy zones devoted entirely to automobiles!

 

More stilts

More stilts on top of crumbling overpasses!

 

Ugly structures and Smithsonian

… All within a few minutes’ stroll of the Smithsonian Castle, the other museums, and the Mall.

 

It’s the result of a conscious decision by planners and politicians to favor the automobile over people — a bias that is still very much evident in the Washington metro area today. I hope that some of my future posts will examine the consequences of that decision.

 

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MoMA NYC: Still Pretty Dim

November 30, 2012

On a recent trip to New York City, we stopped in at the Museum of Modern Art. An otherwise interesting exhibition on the work of the Brothers Quay was marred by a series of ridiculously unreadable labels in a gallery that featured the artists’ dioramas.

bros q dim label

Yes, there’s a label in that murk. The image was taken using the available light in the gallery.

If a visitor came equipped with night-vision goggles, a flashlight, or the eyes of a nocturnal creature, a label might look like this:

q b lit

For most of us, however, it looked like this:

bq black

This is the opposite of access, comfort, and common sense. There is no excuse for it.

 

Sue Bierman Park, San Francisco: bland does not equal comfortable

December 10, 2011

The people/entities/forces responsible for creating public space in San Francisco have done another mediocre job – this time with Sue Bierman Park on the Embarcadero across from the Ferry Building.

After a couple of years of work and almost two million dollars in renovations, the park looks like the “before” image in some kind of open space competition – a blank slate just waiting for benches, trees, paths, recreational spaces, and other amenities.

There’s no shelter from wind (in windy San Francisco), no shade or shelter from sun or rain (ditto), and there are very few benches for sitting.

 

There are these strange items – either an art piece or someone’s idea of clever seating, or both. All they’re good for is collecting rainwater.

There has been an ongoing discussion of installing a children’s playground at the park — in a neighborhood with none — but apparently not everyone with a say in the issue is in favor. Why there is even a controversy about this is beyond me – what’s not to like about a playground?

 

Calif. Academy of Sciences, part 3: A ghost of its former self

November 3, 2011

The California Academy of Sciences, as it now stands, is a big and busy place. On a typical day it teems with visitors, most of whom seem to be enjoying themselves.

In the midst of all that space and light and color, I suspect that most visitors don’t realize how much of that space is basically wasted – soaring ceilings that go up to nowhere – or how many of the exhibits are pale shadows of what the Academy had before it was remodeled to such fanfare several years ago.

 

Remembering the old Academy, I can’t help compare these cheesy, cheap biology exhibits to the old Life Through Time installation, which was immersive, engaging, and far more modern than any current exhibition.

 

The new Academy has vast floor space given over to static signage and rudimentary touch exhibits. The old Academy was stuffed with curiosities, cleverly designed and displayed. Its huge collections were readily accessible to anyone who was interested.

 

What’s really sad are the physical remnants of the old Academy that the new one is built around. The old Reptile and Amphibian Swamp, which featured a number of live alligators and crocodiles, now contains one forlorn albino alligator.

 

The railing, with its seahorse motif and bronze starfish atop the bannister, is a reminder of the old-fashioned skilled handiwork and well-thought-out whimsical design elements that were everywhere in the old building.

 

The African Hall is pretty much as it was – a quiet, dark, and contemplative space that also serves as a reminder of an earlier age of museums, when naturalists “collected” (shot and killed) animals, which were then mounted in dioramas with great skill and artistry. What puzzles me is why the Academy chose to keep its African Hall but not Wild California, an equivalent space filled with evocative dioramas of California wildlife. For better or worse, they don’t make exhibitions like that anymore; once Wild California was dismounted and destroyed, it was gone forever.

Nonetheless, the new Academy is wildly popular, with lines out the front door on weekends. Most visitors are from out of town, I think – another difference from the old Academy, which was one of those beloved institutions where kids who were taken there grew up and them brought their own kids in turn. The new Academy substitutes zing and flash for substance and love. Ultimately, there’s not that much there, which is a loss for us all.

 

 

Calif. Academy of Sciences Aquarium: Second-Rate Monterey

October 11, 2011

The Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences tries very hard to be another Monterey Bay Aquarium – going for that immersive, “wow” experience that MBA does so well:

The problem is, the aquarium at the Academy is basically an afterthought, stuffed into the basement, with nowhere near the square footage of its southerly rival.

It’s disturbingly dark (as opposed to serenely dark), with no straight lines – which makes for a rather disorienting visitor experience. Not to mention difficult to navigate for anyone with mobility issues.

Low lighting often makes for signs and labels that are difficult to read.

Unlike Monterey Bay Aquarium, entire wings of which are bathed in natural light, the new downstairs Steinhart Aquarium is lit only by ceiling lights. Exhibits like the Tidepool, which ideally should attempt to reproduce or at least realistically represent the experience of a real tidepool at the open ocean, instead become something you might see next to a craps table in the eternal twilight of a Las Vegas casino.

For anyone who remembers the old Steinhart Aquarium, pre-Renzo Piano rebuild, the new aquarium is a sad experience. The old Steinhart was spacious, contemplative, and actually had far more tanks with a lot more sea life. It was, and felt like, an integral part of the Academy of Sciences – and its exhibitry related a lot more to the local environment of northern California. It was successful on its own terms without trying to be something it wasn’t.

 

Calif. Academy of Sciences: Everybody Line Up

September 14, 2011

I visited the California Academy of Sciences earlier this year for only the second time since the old complex of buildings was torn down and replaced with a new edifice designed by Renzo Piano, which opened in 2008. This visit confirmed my earlier first impression: the new Academy is long on crowds and, unlike the old Academy, short on absorbing exhibits.

It’s also a place of lines. Lines to get in the building…

 

Lines to get into the famous Rainforest exhibition…

Lines to get into the planetarium…

lines in the aquarium…

and lines to eat in the overpriced cafeteria…

It’s a huge building, but relatively little of it is given over to exhibit space. There’s a lot of open floor with high ceilings where visitors wander semi-aimlessly.

On the other hand, the new Academy is very popular – the lines are there not just because of poor design but because there are lots of visitors. Most of them, I suspect, are from out of town or moved to SF after the old Academy was torn down, so they have no basis of comparison. In any case, they seemed to be enjoying themselves.

For contrast, here is a Peter Hartlaub SF Gate blog entry, with photos, on the old Academy.

 

LACMA: White cubes still rule

April 11, 2011

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art still believes in white cubes – those minimalist display spaces that are an essential part of the modernist art experience in contemporary museums.

It seems to be a requirement that the white cube, in its purest form, must have no seating, as in this photography exhibit in the newly opened Resnick Pavillion.

 

Across the way at the Broad Contemporary (a museum within a museum), the scene could have been lifted from any major art museum any time in the last 50 years:

White walls, wood floors, no seats, pensive visitors in black, and a television on the floor – cathode ray, no less, for that classic touch.

An adjoining gallery had the requisite ambiguous constructions:

And to complete the sense that the visitor is but an acolyte at the altar of culture – a mere supplicant who must work hard for any rewards the art might have to offer – we have the inevitable unobtrusive label in the small typeface:

The Broad’s insistence on the old-fashioned “display-space-must-not-in-any-way-compete-with-the-art” aesthetic would almost be endearing if it didn’t make for so much discomfort.

 

Florence, Italy: Where the streets have no room

February 1, 2011

The historic Renaissance core of Florence, Italy looks much as it did in previous centuries.

At street level, however, there is a problem: a city scaled for pedestrians, carts, and horses is filled with traffic.

 

The sidewalks are incredibly narrow. Many are narrower than this:

The result is that pedestrians and cars have to share space in a way that is not safe or convenient for either.

This was around late December or early January, when tourists are at a fairly low ebb. I can’t imagine the chaos of summer.

San Francisco Botanical Garden: Just Go Away?

October 17, 2010

Ever since the San Francisco Botanical Garden started charging admission to visitors who are not residents of San Francisco, there has been a dramatic drop in the overall number of visitors. It’s obvious that SF residents are staying away, even though they still get in free. Why?

Taking a leaf from Stephanie Weaver of Experienceology, Beth and I decided to look at the Botanical Garden entrance experience to see if it had somehow been made inherently unwelcoming. Are potential visitors being subtly prompted to turn around and go away?

When it was free, you could just walk in through a wide-open, welcoming gate. Now the gate is closed, and the first thing that greets you at the main entrance is a kiosk.

There is often a line, because even those who don’t pay have to stop and show San Francisco ID. When you get to the head of the line, the booth is dark, and the person inside is semi-invisible.

Welcome to Passport Control! May I see your papers?

Next to the booth there is only a narrow space through which to enter the garden. To the right of that is a fence.

Note the ugly construction cones (this is a garden?) and the sign forbidding you to do you pretty much everything.

How do you say “keep out” in Spanish, Chinese, and Russian? Of course, nothing says “afterthought” like paper and Scotch tape.

Hey, you kids, get off my lawn! Okay, I guess we will.

A clear, warm, windless day on a holiday weekend in San Francisco, not a cloud in the sky – and hardly a visitor in the Garden. Back when it was free, this lawn would have been dense with visitors, tranquilly enjoying the sun.

These stone benches, located in an especially warm corner of the garden, would have been crowded with people, many of them elderly.

Today, hardly a soul.

It’s pretty clear that in setting up an admission process for all visitors, whether or not they actually have to pay a fee, the San Francisco Botanical Society has managed to discourage people in general from visiting their now exclusive-seeming garden.

They couldn’t have done it better if they had planned it that way.

Worst Seating Award: Palazzo Grassi, Venice, Italy

October 12, 2010

Palazzo Grassi is a museum of contemporay art in Venice, Italy. From the outside, it’s a classic Venetian palazzo fronting on the Grand Canal. The interior has been extensively remodeled into a series of classic White Cubes displaying a major collection of minimalist and conceptual art.

Here is a photo of the only seating in the whole place:

That’s it: two padded cubes in one room of a huge five floor museum. A grim denial of the frailty, or even existence, of the human body. Talk about suffering for Art.

On the other hand, there wasn’t a lot of competition for these cubes. We were two of only about a dozen visitors in this heavily promoted museum – in a city that gets tens of thousands of tourists a day.