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Sunday, January 2, 2011

"Contextualization": That's Supposed To Be Good, Isn't It?

Planning In Emeryville: 
'Contextualization' Is The New 
Buzz Word

by Brian Donahue
Over the last decade or so there's been a quiet revolution going on in the arcane world of city planning and Emeryville has not been spared its effects. The form of this revolution is a new and codified way to develop cities dubbed 'contextualization'; seemingly innocuous yet profound in its effect on how cities look and feel, our city included.
Emeryville has embraced contextualization in the core planning law both in the new over-arching General Plan and in its local antecedents such as the Park Avenue Plan.  It has been recognized by the City as a best practice when considering building design.  

Contextualization:  What It Is
In a nutshell, city planning contextualization simply means new buildings should "fit in" with surrounding existing buildings.  To 'fit in' is taken to mean the new building should architecturally acknowledge the surrounding pastiche of buildings and be reflective of the existing built environment.  New buildings are to be site specific.

The idea of course, is to avoid the odd "sore thumb" architecture that tends to happen in the absence of planning.  There is an acknowledgement that visual harmony is desirable and inappropriate and clashing architectural styles are antithetical to it.  While this may seem to be common sense, this idea is relatively new in city planning parlance, at least in municipal law.

All this is for the good and it is refreshing to see law reflective of the collective accommodation of visual aesthetics in the public realm like this.  There is a danger however; when the law is applied in a brutish manner, the original good intent is subverted and there is a degradation of the resultant public space.  This, unfortunately is what is happening in Emeryville.

It's Failing In Emeryville
In Emeryville, contextualization has been interpreted in a very obvious and literal way.  Hence, new buildings are made to blindly copy the existing neighboring buildings.  So where there are brick buildings, the new building will be brick and where there is stucco, there will be stucco, and so forth.  This is a stultifying and inelegant response that creates a kitch simulacrum of place like the Bay Street mall.  The goal should always be to create an authentic sense of place.
The ubiquitous brick in Emeryville is especially problematic.  Old brick buildings help create a sense of place not only because of the palpable sense of history they embody but more importantly, there is an inherent logic that's viscerally accessible; the brick carries the weight of the roof in a structural way that conveys presence.  These buildings feel substantial and authentic.  Standing next to them, one can feel their weight and permanence.  The new simulations, with their non load bearing "lick and stick brick", have none of these essential qualities and their slavish obedience to a brutish idea of contextualization makes a mockery of the real thing.

A Quick Primer
A better interpretation of contextualization would use the idea of the 'compliment', that is a juxtaposition of a building's essential qualities.  Compliments can come in the form of color, texture, material, and so forth and they can be thought of as an opposite.  In the field of color, compliments occur on opposite sides of the color wheel.  So for instance green is the compliment of red and yellow is the compliment of violet.  This works when the color saturation is equal and there is equality in value (relative lightness or darkness).  Color theorists have noted that complimentary colors are pleasing to the human eye and this is universal across all cultures.  Similarly, texture and other qualities have their compliments as well.
The color wheel:
opposite sides are complimentary
Beautiful compliments:
The orange of the leaf against
the blue background

Rough brick texture
has a compliment

Glassy smooth texture

A Better Way
We could start to make a more sophisticated and elegant city simply by paying closer attention to aesthetics.  Perhaps future Emeryville planners could see the value in using complimentary colors and textures instead of thuggishly trying to make bad copies of what already exists.  Maybe we could see a short and squat old red brick building (if we stop tearing them down) next to a new tall and slender building with glossy blue/green panels and stainless steel accents creating an exciting and visually activated public space.  Ironically, City Hall itself is an example of the idea of the compliment with the new addition adjoining the old part of the building.  Here, a less elegant approach would have been an attempt to copy the old portion with the new.

Emeryville planners need to be more cognizant of these most basic lessons every artist knows if we are to craft a nice place to live.  We should stop the dumbing down of visual aesthetics.  It is shameful that 'experts' have license in all fields of endeavor except for the expertise that artists might bring.  Experts are deferred to elsewhere except where the professional talent of an artist is needed.  Up until now it's been city planning experts on the staff and business people on the Planning Commission absurdly making visual aesthetic decisions for how a new building in our town should look.
Additionally, buildings in an urban environment create a psychology of space, either for the good or the bad, in their collective massing.  Of course visual aesthetics such as the use of compliments, also contribute to the psychology of the space created and this should not be treated so lightly as it has been in Emeryville.   City Hall should take up this challenge since this is such a cheap and easy way to incrementally increase livability in our town.  All it takes is a little more sensitivity and an admission that aesthetics are at least as important as other qualities they have heretofore acknowledged.  We should stop the brutish way in which contextualization has been taken up and we should demand a more enlightened approach.

1 comment:

  1. I have to agree. All planning should take context into account, but if the purpose is improved aesthetics and function, blind copying of styles will have the opposite effect.

    When you first look at the new city hall building next to the old one, the effect can be pretty jarring, but thank heavens the planners of the new building didn't just copy the old one.