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Notions: From Rendering to Reality

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Posted on October 22, 2010 | Blog Category:
By Tamara Hilmes



Thursday evening, I attended a lecture in the Johnson Memorial Building at Middlebury College by landscape architect Susannah Drake. A graduate of Dartmouth and the Harvard School of Design, Drake has since moved on to even more impressive venues. From March 24 to October 11, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) featured the work of Drake and her studio, dlandstudio, in an incredible exhibition called “Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront.”

I was not fortunate enough to see the actual exhibition, but just based on the various slides that Drake clicked her way through on Thursday, I was impressed. Drake outlined the types of problems that the New York waterfront will face in upcoming years, and it wasn’t pretty. What with ice caps melting and water rising, a category two storm could inundate 61 percent of lower Manhattan.

I am not even sure what a “category two” storm is — but yikes.

And when Drake began to show absolutely gorgeous renderings of their urban design concepts that were dreamed up to work with and respond to the environment, I was as blown away as if I’d experienced one of those C-2 storms, myself — half by their incredibly crafty designs, and also completely mesmerized by the work of whatever brilliant graphic designer they make the beautiful flow charts, maps, and life-like renderings that stood illuminated on the gigantic screen in front of me.

I mean it — never before have I been so in love with a flow chart.

The projects themselves, though, were gorgeous in both concept and presentation. I was particularly taken with the Brooklyn neighborhood revampings that featured street trees, open green spaces, added walkways and hidden highways and new community centers. Drake and her colleagues are taking these urban centers that have been right where they are for hundreds of years, and completely restructuring their flow, function and aesthetic — and all in a very positive way.

Part way through the presentation, I was, oddly enough, reminded of the Bristol Planning Commission meeting that I attended on Tuesday. And partway through a discussion of the maintenance and upkeep of street trees, it struck me — in the same way that Drake and her team were attempting to rework an urban landscape in order to prepare it for the next however many decades or even centuries, so were the members of the Bristol Planning Commission taking on a task that inherently entails paying attention to every last detail and also, an element of legacy.

Though the members of the planning commission may not be professional landscape architects like Drake and her colleagues, their task is equally as crucial and, in a way, terrifying.

What if once one of Drake’s renderings became a reality, something didn’t pan out — what if the concept of a “sponge park,” though supported by a great deal of pre-planning and research, turned out to be a complete flop? On a conceptual or theoretical level, taking risks and adding touches of creativity is all well and good, but once something enters the real world, there is a real-world level of responsibility attached to each and every decision that an urban planner makes.

So I do not, at all, blame the members of the planning commission for feeling a need to debate and discuss every single, nitty gritty detail on Tuesday night — a two-and-a –half hour-long meeting is nothing in comparison with the tens, or hundreds of years that the new town plan and zoning regulations will be in place.

And what if they were to get something wrong?

A too-lax maximum for building footprints could mean giant supermarkets, apartment buildings or hotels popping up in historic downtown Bristol several years down the road. Mess up a road setback requirement and you could be left with a jagged Main Street with buildings jutting out into the sidewalk, or set back at an awkward distance.

Dozens of scenarios, hypothetical situations and what-ifs filled the room as the group continued to work every nook and cranny of the dimensional and use standards for the “Village Business” core.

“What if one entire side of the downtown were to burn down one day?” proposed Willow Wheelock at one point. A developer could easily buy up all of the fire-sale land, they surmised together. They quickly realized that special provisions would have to be included in order to protect downtown Bristol from the whims of fate — and of future residents.

Large-scale planning projects like those of dlandstudio and the Bristol Planning Commission simply leave me in awe. I’m utterly fascinated by them, but boy — though I’ve often found New York City slightly scary and intimidating (being the Kansas girl that I am), it’s nothing compared to extraordinary task being taken on by John, Bill, Ken, Stan, Willow, Sue and Kris in the next couple of months.

And I, for one, can’t wait to see how it all turns out when those carefully planned and drawn renderings finally become reality.

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