26 September 2008


I have already spoken about movement in this blog. It is really one of my favorite topics. And I really do think it is underepresented in the discussion of architecture and urban form.

What? No wait! That can't be. The discussion of movement is one of the most critical parts of urban design. The same can be said about occupant flows in architecture.

True. But I have one word for you.


Movement has been reified in the discussions. Moreover, it is not necessarily any particular form of movement that has been reified, but movement itself.

In urban form movement is considered in design, but it is too often considered as where to do put roads so people can drive from point A to point B. The question of "do we need roads in the first place", or "where will we park when we get there", is less often asked. The reason why the discussion of movement of urban form is critical is acknowledged by urban planner itself. Urban planning is heavily skewed towards building structures for the effective flows of people and goods. It is less often about whether those flows are really necessary in the first place.

Of course, by definition, some flow is necessary. But the question is not what flows are necessary, but how to maximize flows. I am admittedly, looking mostly at the United States and its car obsessed culture in making this point.

Comparatively, in Japan, it is possible to live in the country-side without a car, let alone in the city. The necessary avenues of movement are there to move people from point A to point B and back again. And yet, much of Japan is still of a very old urban form, where except for the main arterials, there are many places where automobiles are not even considered in the design and layout of the region.

Much of the Japanese urban landcape is pedestrian based. Even in newer urban spaces, like the perfect grid of central Fukuoka City, there are very few cars on the side roads that were built for them. They are more sort of long narrow parking lots for the shops on them. And I can assure you that you definitely feel like you are invading non-automotive space when driving down them. Compare that feeling to stepping into a sidestreet in New York City.

The practical upshot is that movement can take many forms in urban design, yet much urban design can get caught up in specific kinds of movement. Currently it is the automobile. Before that it was the trolley car, before that the railroads, before that the barge canals, before that navigable bays and channels, and long before that the processional routes to the temples.

But there is an important shift that occurred somewhere around the rise of Mercantilism. That is movement ceased to be about how people move and become more about how good and resources move. In other words, urban form became less about people and more about the flow of goods and services. In other words, it became about things.

This brings us back to my mention in a previous post about modern architecture and urban form being about the technology and the people. Movement is no longer really seen as something that people do, but rather as a technique. Which is to say, it is no longer a verb, to move, but has been reified into a thing, movement.

Its thingness can be clearly seen in a work like the OMA redesign of the Seattle Public Library. The stacks form a beautiful flow, progressing gracefully through the building from one end of the catalog to the other. The entire building has a nice organic feel to it in terms of the way things flow through it.

So why can't people find their way around the building?

Well, besides the need for better wayfinding, the fact that the building itself represents or captures a certain type of flow or movement, does not mean that this movement is commensurable with the needs of humans moving through it. In fact, the self-contained, fluid spiral of movement that is the building's conceptual structure, may actually be disorienting to people since it's self-contained nature creates and illusion of seamlessness that make the interfaces with exterior elements more difficult to find. Interfaces such as ... exit doors.

A beautiful building, of course, and it captures a representation of organizing knowledge whose structure is seemingly continuous and lends itself to being represented as a flow. In those senses it is very much a success. The failure of people to find their way around it is, by contrast, almost a triviality. It is easily fixed by some improved signage to help with wayfinding.

The problem arises in that this building is not unique in its failure to adequately address the way in which people will move through space in relation to the final structure. Though, admittedly, compared to most of what is out there, it makes a darn good attempt.

Whenever designing a structure for human use or habitation, we need to make sure the human factor does not get missed in the design. Talking about movement needs to start with how it is that people move about and what can be done to maximize the valency of simple human movement. Not transportation, movement. Movement, in the end, is a something that people do, not an abstract concept to be represented in material form, except as art.

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