Discovery Green, Houston, Texas
Tuesday was our final thesis crit. I felt progressively more ill as the day went on, weakly giving my presentation when my turn finally came, second to last in the lineup, and then going straight home and collapsing. But I’m back on my feet, if not back up to full speed – more than ready to wrap up the semester.
The current topic in Principles of Practice class, programming, seems appropriate since it was a bit a contentious thread throughout Tuesday’s presentations. We don’t want to be prescriptive in what users can do in the spaces we design, and too often we describe this as a ‘lack of programming.’ But the critics rightfully challenge this notion: we need to define a range of activities and design landscapes that support them and embrace our role as designers of program as much as physical space.
I think these two sides are actually the same coin, and we’re just looking at a problem of definition. I’m not sure we’ve ever had ‘programming’ defined for us in class before – it’s just been thrown about until we pick up on its usage (like the godawful ‘tectonic’). For you non-landscape architects in the audience, ‘programming’ is the choreographing of activities: what are people supposed to be doing in the space? We can decide this first if we want, and let program generate the physical layout and material structure, using the landscape as a catalyst for social functions; or program can be an overlay on top of a landscape that primarily performs ecological, structural, memorial, or some other non-human-centered function.
Most of our studios have dealt with accommodating certain program elements, like farmer’s markets or a playground, which may be more or less embedded in our designs. They’re a list of boxes to check off. The more interesting programs are those we define for ourselves, but perhaps we didn’t think of these as ‘program’ as a result. For example, an early studio project of mine proposed an interactive wetland: the program was observation and interaction with functional nature, with the goal of educating people about their symbiotic relationship with nature without being didactic about it. If framed in the discourse on program, I might have said that I wasn’t programming the space, because I’m not telling people precisely how they can interact with the wetland. Yet I do have a specific goal in mind and a good idea of the range of possible activities that I want to encourage in order to achieve that goal. In the design, this translated into a series of platforms; some high and perforated for people who want to just watch from a safe and clean distance; and some low, subject to periodic flooding, for people who want to poke at reeds and frogs and stick their toes in the mud.
I believe we want to say free-form play and exploration are not program because programming was introduced to us students as constraints. We’re resisting the idea that the designer can mandate what users are able to do. But the truth is, any design will have its affordances: some activities will be encouraged and others discouraged by the structure and amenities. Blank canvases, those wide open plazas like Schouwburgplein Plaza, end up as dead spaces most of the time because they really only accomodate large group activities. They seem program-less, but they actually have one a very specific program that precludes all others.
Contrast this with the theory behind Project for Public Spaces, that the more specific activities you can pack into the same space better. This strategy can draw a diverse range of people and put them together, furthering a larger program of community development. PPS’s ideas were put to the test in Houston’s Discovery Green. Packed over 25 programmed spaces into a park less than 12 acres large, it was inserted into a downtown that no one wanted to visit – there were not existing communities, destinations, or things to do. Now, with multiple events hosted daily, millions of Houston residents visit the park every year. PPS consulted on the project early on, so Discovery Green is designed entirely to support social functions; and it’s so successful in placemaking endeavor that new businesses and residences are being developed nearby. By designing to program, Discovery Green seems to have single-handedly transformed downtown Houston into a people-friendly place.
Not every landscape needs to be a community center. But whatever the goal for a place, embracing programming and clearly defining what it means for our landscape – even if we define it at a more abstract level, like ‘engaging with nature through bodily movement’ (if I can take a crack at what the program might be for Mickey or Tyler’s thesis) – allows us to create specific designs that encourage these forms of interaction. When we imagine the narrative of someone visiting a landscape, that person is most directly participating in programming: the activities in and of the place. We should still leave room for novel, ad-hoc activities that riff on the programming theme, like the blank slots in a mad-lib; but if we forgo programming altogether, no one is going to come in and write the whole story for us.
Schouwburgplein Plaza, Rotterdam, Netherlands