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Thursday, March 1, 2018

Shared Autonomous Vehicles (SAV), Tom Fisher: Minnesota Design Center

Graphic above shows how SAV's utilize less pavement and typical neighborhood streets may be re-designed to increase green space and recreational activities.

MDC Director Tom Fisher is rapidly becoming the go-to person on the land-use implications of Shared Autonomous Vehicles (SAV).  Since December, Fisher has given presentations on this topic to Cargill management, to the Regional Council of Mayors, and to the Transportation Research Board in Washington D.C., among others.  His work focuses on the pervasive and disruptive impact that SAVs will have on often-overlooked aspects of the built environment such as parking lots and ramps, driveways and garages, and suburban lawns and public park systems. He also predicts that SAVs will have a disruptive impact on traditional public and private service professions such as truck drivers, taxi/on-demand drivers, delivery drivers, auto dealerships and insurance companies, not to mention car manufacturers.

Mason Riddle is a MDC Communications consultant, and writer on the visual arts, architecture and design.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Victor Gruen: Visionary Urban Designer

In 2018, one wonders how the Austrian architect Victor Gruen would approach the current state of retail shopping, and how he would use design thinking to solve problems now experienced by brick and mortar stores due to the ever-expanding online shopping universe. That and other questions were addressed at the Victor Gruen: Visionary Urban Designer, a recent event hosted by The Minnesota Design Center.  Gruen (1930-1980) revolutionized the retail landscape when he designed Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota. Southdale, the first fully enclosed, climate controlled shopping mall in the United States, opened in 1956 to great fanfare and was developed by the forward-thinking Dayton Department Store Company. 
The Victor Gruen: Visionary Urban Designer featured an open discussion with MDC director Thomas Fisher, Viennese architect Judith Eiblmayer, Viennese sociologist and cultural critic Anette Baldauf, and architect Alan Bruton, who investigated Gruen’s impact on 20th century design. The most radical question addressed, however, was “What would Gruen do in a radically changing, 21st century retail landscape?”
As originally conceived by Gruen, Southdale was to include housing, schools, medical facilities and community assets such as parks and play areas for children, most of which was never realized. (Currently, housing is being developed at the outer boundaries of Southdale.) Gruen went on to design other shopping centers in the Twin Cities and across the country. So widespread was his design vision, that he became known as the “Father of the Shopping Mall,” a label he later vehemently rejected. His original retail design concept was utopian - his communal spaces would bring people together and serve their needs. Gruen never intended his vision to produce vast acreage of asphalt parking lots or structures devoted solely to the cult of shopping. When Frank Lloyd Wright visited in 1956, his distaste for the entire Center was widely reported.
            The “What would Gruen do?” discussion continued after the MDC event by email when Baldauf wrote to me, “I think, considering Gruen’s psychodynamic, he would locate the center of power, as he always did, and pitch what seems today an outrageous idea but will soon reveal itself as an appropriate mode of survival: He might call up Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, and ask him out for lunch. There Gruen would remind Cook of his last keynote speech, praising Apple stores as the new town squares of America. Gruen might assert that he is happy to see Apple following his legacy, taking responsibility for the public good. But he would remind Cook to go beyond semiotics, to reinvent Apple and provide public services like open libraries, a tuition-free university and last, but not least, a living wage.” Provocative food for thought.
Bruton agreed with Baldauf, writing “I also think he would be heartened by the sense of urban activism in which ordinary citizens increasingly engage, and their increasing desire for more dense and multi-programed, urban re-developments in our hollowed-out downtowns, as well as in his denatured suburban malls. So, perhaps, Gruen would become something of a populist leader in the revitalization of the American mall as multi-use civic centers, again.” 
            The MDC Gruen event also included a screening of the documentary film The Gruen Effect: Victor Gruen and the Shopping Mall, written and directed by Baldauf, and Katarina Weingartner and, in which Bruton performs as the protagonist. (Here’s the trailer)
Baldauf also signed her book Shopping Town: Designing the City in Suburban America, a fascinating read, part memoir and part design philosophy, published by Minnesota Press 2017.
Mason Riddle is a MDC Communications consultant, and writer on the visual arts, architecture and design.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Post Office and St. Anthony Falls District Urban Design Studio

Over the course of Fall semester 2017, 12 graduate architecture students at the UM investigated placemaking opportunities of the Saint Anthony Falls district along the Mississippi River, and ways the historic Minneapolis post office building(s) could support the riverfront experience. The studio built on MDC’s  2016 “Downtown Minneapolis Post Office Revitalization Preliminary Research Report” that looked at post office reuse precedents across the country, the Central Riverfront Framework, and specific site characteristics. The students conducted additional environmental scans, developed four district plan options and 12 post office adaptive reuse concepts. Key ideas for seasonal public life include food related experiences, river activity, and institutional use that would compliment the Guthrie Theater and the Mill City Museum. The student’s architectural reuse concepts dissected the massive building and connected the adjoining neighborhood to the Mississippi River both through and around the structure. The studio was taught by MDC Senior Research Fellow, Tim Griffin, and supported by Rich Varda and Tom Fisher.  During 2018, the team’s ideas will be part of the public discussion that is advancing the Riverfirst vision that extends from Gold Medal Park to Weber Parkway. The model will be a useful tool to envision the central riverfront reach.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Urban Places, Seeing the World through Design

Most people today live in cities or small towns around the world. I always pick places to sketch that illustrate an architectural integration with the landscape in a way that reflects their unique place on the earth. They are places where culture and landscape are closely connected. They are often historic and some are contemporary, but all exhibit places where landscape is integrated into and with buildings in very comfortable and simple way reflecting climate and culture. Some of the sketches of compact urban places, like narrow medieval streets or plazas connect with nature only through the sky. Sometimes it is the character of the line between the earth and sky that catches my eye and that is why I drew it.

Dewey Thorbeck, FAIA, FAAR

Land/Water Places, Seeing the World through Design

Often the most dramatic places I have visited are those located where land and water meet. Perhaps it is because all life evolved from water providing a visceral connection to the edge between water and land. Water may be along the sea, along a river or lake, but all reflect an interesting connection that sometimes is work related, sometimes transportation, and sometimes agricultural. They may be historic as well as contemporary, but are all to me very clear, dramatic illustrations of the connection.

Dewey Thorbeck, FAIA, FAAR

Rural Places, Seeing the World through Design

The rural areas of the world are special because they are places that have a strong connection with the natural and cultivated landscape illustrating the closest possible connection between land form and architecture reflecting the character of people who live and work with the land. The sketches are of places that I have visited that illustrate this connection and often are working places where the land is cultivated and utilized as the primary economic source. They may be historic places as well as contemporary, but regardless exhibit a clear and understandable relationship of site, culture, and climate.

Dewey Thorbeck, FAIA, FAAR

Seeing the World Through Design

Designers, architects or landscape architects who draw and record their travels in sketches have a special way of seeing the world. It is a methodology where images are engraved in their mind rather than on film. The photograph shows you reality as seen through the camera lens, while the sketch records the emotion and character of place as seen through the eyes and hands of the designer.

I studied architecture at the University of Minnesota and Yale University and later was fortunate to win a Rome Prize Fellowship in Architecture to the American Academy in Rome. During the two years I lived there, I had the opportunity to travel extensively throughout Italy and Europe, drawing places that have a strong and close integration between humans, architecture, and landscape. To me the most beautiful places in the world are those that express this connection in a profoundly human way.

I find that when I look back at my sketches it was the rural hill towns in Italy that attracted me the most, because they were so different from the rural communities in Minnesota where I grew up. On a recent visit to Italy, my wife and I were having breakfast on a restaurant terrace in the hill town of Montepulciano and I made this sketch showing the edge of the city and the valley below (Figure above). The sketch illustrates the nature of an Italian hill town as a city on a hill where for centuries farmers lived together as a community, loaded up their donkeys in the morning and went down into the valley to grow food, and then returned in the evening back to the community.

Since my early travels in Europe, I now have over 35 sketch books filled with drawings that record places I have visited. They are important as I have expanded on my architectural and teaching careers, and later as founder/director of the Center for Rural Design at the University of Minnesota. The Center, now terminated, was the first in the world to consider design as a problem-solving process for rural issues.

Several of my sketches are included in my first two books to help explain rural places, and my third book now in process will include 200 drawings. The sketches are of rural places that have a strong connection between the natural and cultivated landscape, reflecting the character of people who live and work with the land, urban places where rural culture and agriculture are closely connected, and the most dramatic places where the land and water meet linking agriculture and boat transportation for transfer to food markets elsewhere.

Sometimes when I am sketching in a public area I will have a whole group of school kids hanging over my shoulder watching me draw. Other times they cluster around because they want to see what I am drawing, as in this photograph of me showing my sketches to young school kids in a rural village on the Ayerwaddy River in Myanmar. (Figure below).

My sketching technique is to use black ink pens on the site and then add watercolor later that evening in the hotel. The sketches are all of places that I think are exceptional and make a unique statement about the relationship between humans, animals, and environments. All have a relationship with the landscape that I found very interesting, meaningful, and beautiful.

Dewey Thorbeck, FAIA, FAAR