Rambled thoughts on Architecture, Urbanity, and the 7th Generation

November 1st, 2009

Oklahoma City Pei Plan (source: Doug Loudenback)

This morning, I read this old article at OKC Central about a architecture critic’s visit to Oklahoma City and comments on the City’s efforts back in the 1960s through 1980s with interest.

While some of what the critic Hiroshi Watanabe said sounded well-reasoned and has proven to be largely correct (praising Bricktown, the potential of the Myriad Gardens, etc), one thing that sticks out, both in regards to the efforts of I.M. Pei that preceded the critics visit and to the comments by Watanabe on the quality of the setbacks and plazas surrounding downtown office buildings, is the influence of architectural trends and the general lack of urban understanding.  Simply put: a good architect does not necessarily equate to a good urbanist. In fact, many renowned architects are very poor urbanists with destructive tendencies when given an opportunity to work at too great a scale. Along these lines, an interesting debate has been taking place between proponents of Frank Gehry and members of the more Jane Jacobs minded (actually, more accurately, William Whyte minded) Project for Public Spaces (PPS).  The debate was sparked by a question about the quality of public space provided by Gehry buildings asked by Fred Kent, head of PPS and a recent speaker at the Oklahoma City Mayor’s Development Roundtable, at a symposium in Aspen; to which Gerhy responded, if at all, with a pompous disregard that astounded some in attendance.

In the end, a great city has to be a collective effort.  Architects certainly have a tremendous amount to contribute to the conversation and to the overall aesthetic.  Planners, urban designers, engineers, real estate developers, etc – also all have much to contribute to shaping the ultimate urban environment.  But none of these professions, or any other profession for that matter, should wholly dictate the detailed form of the urban environment at a broad scale.  Ultimately, an eclectic mix of many persons contributions; spread out over decades or centuries of the technologies and styles of generations; creates the type of city that I consider great.  In truth, I am concerned more with creating a framework that will sustain and grow a great city for a long time to come. Key decisions about the overall framework of city development have given us the cities we see today, even if we did not know the importance of those decisions at the time.    The  seventh generation approach is interesting to consider when making major decisions that will impact the historical, current, and future urban environment:

“Oren Lyons observes that the first mandate of traditional Haudenosaunee [Iroquois] chiefs is to ensure that their decision-making is guided by consideration of the welfare and well-being of the seventh generation to come:

‘What about the seventh generation? Where are you taking them? What will they have? (Lyons 1980, p. 174).’

“The seventh generation principle applies to the ancestors as well. In honoring the ancestors, one expresses gratitude to them as the seventh generation, which they kept foremost in their decision making and for whom they sacrificed.

What types of projects or policies will do the most to serve and respect future generations?  What projects and policies may hinder future generations? I have some ideas of my own, but would rather hear what you think.  Thoughts?

3 responses

  1. Terry comments:

    I had to think about this entry. We are in the middle of planning living spaces and so everything about the subject is interesting to me.

    As I drive around looking at housing additions and office parks and so on I often wonder about the audience that the developer envisioned or did he. Or in speaking to other developers who have more experience and hearing them discuss products and markets I worry about losing the notion that real people will eventually use these spaces. But when discussing the practicalities with my bank I am brought back quickly to the market aspect.

    On the generations question I had to write my own lineage to see where I fit. I am the 7th generation born on United States’ soil and only the 9th from that first immigrant. So I’m uncertain about how many generations but looking ahead and behind is surely important to me.

    Thanks for an interesting post.

  2. Blair comments:

    Thanks Terry!

    Yeh, seven generations takes the idea of planning ahead to the extreme. Perhaps, two generations, or even only one is more appropriate.

    That facet that no bank is willing to offer terms over multiple generations, demands that we create something that is sensible from a business standpoint in the short-term. Maybe we can create projects that provide the necessary short-term results, but make an effort to build places that allow for growth and evolution over time.

    Boston’s Back Bay is an example that comes to mind. HIstoric Preservation has certainly slowed the pace of change, but the changes are careful, deliberate, and have led to the creation of a great place. There is also likely a need for districts that change and evolve rapidly, though the volatility will cause both success and failure.

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