Why does place design, even award-winning design, not always deliver good outcomes?
Sometimes architectural or system-wide innovation can only be piecemeal, not unified. A well-known example is Los Angeles. No unified design theory can practically be applied, and no naturally agreeable solution emerges from the hundreds debated for the city’s sprawl and variability. Even the airport, LAX, cannot arrive at a completely integrated redesign. Only Disneyland in Anaheim -- as Ray Bradbury famously pointed out -- is the greater metro area’s “natural” center.
Portland, Oregon, on the other hand, has to be strictly regulated to keep its “best walking city” Walkscore status. The city must struggle directly against the car-based tendency to urban sprawl that keeps commuting time and costs so high in the rest of the country. The Mercer study -- a ranking of quality of life across world cities -- positions “good infrastructure” as a leading indicator. Public space—in the US, at least--is constantly embroiled in a contest between the needs of the driver and those of the pedestrian; deciding which will win out as a serious design issue.
Other collateral damages: places that don’t work or actually spawn crime, waste, boredom, stress (the result of other people as well as a bad environment) and hazards as the price for ignoring human factors in the design equation: useless parks, noisy, crowded, dangerous public transport lounges, waiting rooms uncomfortable to wait in, slow post office lines, scary parking garages, half-empty state capital city centers – I’m looking at you, Baton Rouge--and deserted public squares. Dani Pipano, founder of Gate 1 discount travel, stresses that safety and security are his first priority when he searches out new and interesting world venues for his tours. Comfort and attractions come in a distant second because without them, there is simply no possibility of a desirable user experience.
Less successful places suffer from “incremental disenchantment.” They just don’t work the way people expect, and the more they are experienced, the more they disappoint. A micro-example: Americans are trained from birth that traffic moves on the right side of the road. This carries over to how we walk through space. We tend to hug the right side of the aisle in supermarkets as we also hug the right side of a public staircase. As a result, when we approach a public building with double doors, we expect the entry to be the one on the right.
We don’t think about this until we find ourselves in a place where this is not the rule – start up a public staircase in Japan and you will quickly learn to move to the left to avoid everyone coming straight at you on their way down. We understand that things are different in another culture, but they get truly weird when it happens in our own.
Near our home is a chain store with the strangest entryway – it’s your basic double glass door with “Entrance” and “Exit” clearly marked--except, due to an anomaly in the building design, the entrance door is on the left, with the exit on the right. Even more confusing is a railing installed between the doors to further separate them. So when you try to enter the right (wrong) side, you then have to back away from the building to step around the railing, compounding the first problem: setting directions that violate the expected right-in, left-out rule. People are constantly held up, diverted, confused, and annoyed by this odd entry.
People do not like being publicly embarrassed, and visibly fumbling with an action as simple as a store entrance is a public embarrassment. Despite being a branch of a major chain on a heavily trafficked street, the store is the least busy of all its neighborhood branches. There is no way of measuring how many customers simply walked away after being negatively conditioned by this awkward and counter-intuitive experience.
A switched-up entry seems a small problem. But for the designer of greater spaces, bad design experience (“How many visitors does your design keep away?”) is a hard lesson to learn, since all that can be measured is the admissions tally. Visitation numbers don’t include visitors who never appear. And asking the visitors who do show up about their experience—at museums, for example--does not include the responses of the busloads of “under-served” schoolchildren (or as we like to call them, the “uninterested”). Nor the interested seniors kept away by the sheer noise of those busloads echoing the marble halls.
Even designers who usually get it right can fail if they start with the wrong premise. Disney’s California Adventure was a good idea gone astray – not because of the rationalized answer “Why would anyone go to a park about California when they are in the real California?” – but because the Disney Imagineers did not build the same California people hold dear in their minds.
There is, in fact, a virtual California that lives in the minds of people worldwide based on generations of movies and television programs. You can conjure it all up yourself without any prompting. It’s the California of the Golden Age of Hollywood, the Spanish colonial California of Zorro, the Barbary Coast of San Francisco, Rosie the Riveter and swing music, redwood forests, beach parties, and surf music. That’s the California people would pay to see because it’s the one they dream about but and can’t find now in the real thing.
Unfortunately, you can’t build a dream on a discount budget--what management at the time tried to do. They cut corners, they wanted “synergy” with their other brands, ESPN, and ABC, that had nothing to do with California in the visitor mind. They built an amusement pier because they wanted to use cheaper off-the-shelf carnival rides rather than design the sort of unique attraction experiences Disney is noted for. The result: It wasn’t California, and it wasn’t Disney.
A quick aside: at the time the park opened to a less-than-stellar reception, we asked our late colleague, Senior Imagineer and Disney legend John Hench, what he thought of the place. He just shrugged and said, “It worked better as a parking lot.” Which is the whole point of designing for the mind of the user – while the parking lot met their expectations, California Adventure did not.
And this brings up a key point about designing for the mind of the user. There is reality and there is hyperreality and you are building for the latter. While it is historically true that California had amusement piers – and still does, in the minds of everyone outside California (the entire rest of the world) amusement piers are “owned” by the East Coast as Coney Island and Atlantic City.
Design and purpose
We need to begin at the beginning of cultural time, starting with Jericho, the first recognizable city from the Neolithic age in 10,000 BC with its Temple to the Moon. Every place ever built was created for a purpose. And the foundation of every place ever built, from the mud and brick of the first known civilization, Sumer, is set on and around a single platform: the human brain.
Pylons and plaster are simply the materials necessary to create any structure in 3D, where they can be experienced by the body through behavior along the lines sparked by the mind and imagination of the native builder or professional architect in real space and time. Oxford recalls England’s 11th-century origins in its gothic revival landscape and the Renaissance in its Venetian bridges. The Yale campus in New Haven, or the Princeton campus in New Jersey are virtual British elite settings – Downton Abbey for academics. These places, besides their own local functions, connect us cognitively and emotionally to other times, places, people, and ways of life and the life of the mind. The imperial Romans themed their villas to look like Greece, just as the English themed theirs to recall Rome.
But plenty of structures within the built landscape are just sheds to keep off the rain, wind, and sun, or even vaults with locks to keep the stuff inside from moving or disappearing, commercial or residential. These are buildings with neither heart nor art. Meanwhile, the best environments are those we love to live with and within. The better bedrooms, studios, patios, even basements, along with more public offices, concert halls, and airports. Far beyond acting as essential shelter, they make hundreds of other functions possible, even easy, as a kind of technology to extend our potential and prowess.
Such artful structures allow us to do more than work, study, practice, produce, dine, converse, sleep, and dream; they energize our plans, remind us of our past, and transport us into the future by igniting the imagination through an act of immersive collective memory.
At the apex of these human pursuits enabled by well-designed places is the American theme park, invented over sixty years ago. Or perhaps we should say re-invented. Its precursors were many, from every era and continent: the Cardo – the ancient Roman marketplace whose footprint is still visible in modern mall design; the market towns of Europe and colonial America, royal parks and zoos, promenades and pleasure palaces like the fabled Summer Palace of the Qing dynasty in Beijing in 1750. The follies and ruins of Pompeii made -- and still make -- the ancient world real and tangible to the modern.
Taken as a unified whole, good place design creates the right conditions for something to occur or develop, by priming the minds inside those buildings to think, make decisions, and act in one direction rather than others.
Unfortunately, we value good design for the same reason we value a precious gem – for its rarity. It shouldn’t be that hard, and yet poor place design is the rule rather than the exception. There is no single reason for this, but one of the key ones is the lack of understanding of how the end-users actually think about space as the move through it.
The next time there is a major building project near you, look at the architect’s model and concept drawings and notice how the people are placed – perhaps a half-dozen figures in a grand plaza – widely spaced and doing nothing in particular except strolling through. We call it architecture porn – the fevered dreams of the designer lovingly rendered as detailed drawings starring the buildings, with people thrown in as an afterthought for scale.
The best, most-loved, places echo those that first live in the human mind. That’s design principle Number One.