Last week was the second design charette that was held by BIG in the service of refining their design for the site of the former Civic Arena. In case you missed it, here’s what happened at the first one.
I say sneak peek, this was about as much of the design as we were shown. This is one of the things I want to get to later, is that BIG has not done a good job of communicating in advance what they intend to show and what they are looking for feedback on.
This was the first indication that this meeting would be much different.
I was a little better at taking pictures this time. Still gotta up my hashtag game though.
Basically, this was the meeting I expected to have the first time, with BIG having done some research and had some basic idea for the design.
Spoiler alert: not this public, not on this night.
I’m gonna take a break here for a second. Who uses Twitter? Because this is a hot-button thing and as far as I can tell I was the only one tweeting about it. Here’s the only tweet from BIG on Oct 19:
… and this is their project. Also, you’d think maybe the Hill District CDC would let people know about the meeting, even if they didn’t want to take a position. But aside from some oblique references to gentrification a week later, there is only a tweet linking to an article talking about the first phase of site development, AKA not the stuff BIG is doing:
And I couldn’t find anything from Pittsburgh on the 19th with these hashtags: #gentrification, #hilldistrict, #civicarena, #affordable. Who knows, maybe I’m doing it wrong.
aaaaand we’re back.
Kai’s face when he was asked to hand over the mic:
This was the first time, as an outsider, that I had heard a clear-cut, tangible request. It was nice to hear that before things got really off track.
Then we got a less helpful, clear-cut, tangible request:
This part cracked me up a little bit. The question was: how much is maintenance of this park going to cost, at which point Kai appeared to be relieved, took the mic back, and started talking about all the factors that affect maintenance costs. He really wanted to go all Grateful Dead and stretch it out for a while. But then the resident clarified and said she wanted a to-the-penny figure, and if such a figure could not be provided, then BIG would have no credibility.
Not to minimize the concern, but to hinge all credibility on a figure that couldn’t possibly exist yet? Yikes. It’s indicative of the tension an suspicion that surrounds all facets of this project. There were also some pretty cutting remarks along the way.
I mean, to be fair, BIG is based in Denmark, which has a much whiter population than the Hill District. But still, that hurts a little bit.
Once everyone had the chance to rage out a little bit, we ended at a decent place, with a woman making some reasonable suggestions for answers that BIG might endeavor to get before the next meeting. Now, some of you may be asking, “why didn’t they just answer right then?” Well, that’s the tough part. It’s not really BIG’s responsibility as the architect to address affordability unless the people employing them (in this case, McCormack Baron Salazar and maybe the Penguins) tell them to. Which puts BIG in a tough spot. The most accurate thing they could say is: “we understand affordability is important to you, but that ain’t our thing, so take it up with our boss.” That’s not going to fly, because it stinks of deflecting responsibility. Moreover, nobody from McCormack Baron Salazar is going to show their face, so the frustrated public doesn’t have much recourse other than to shoot the messenger. They also can’t say “don’t worry, we got it covered” because they can’t follow through without client sign off. What to do, then? Not sure if it was the best course of action, but BIG basically decided to eat shit until people got tired of feeding it to them.
Kai didn’t come right out and say that affordability was out of their control, but did imply it by contrasting it with something that they could control (parking). I think this is a good approach, but one that takes some finesse to deliver. He’s saying, look, don’t go “all or nothing” on affordability. You might not be able to get it. At least make the most of the opportunity we are giving you now, which is to have some say in how the place is designed. Deliver that argument the wrong way and come across as glib, arrogant, or worse, all resulting in outrage.
From this point on things kind of petered out. The “design” portion of the charette was, as far as I could tell, exactly the same as the first one, which was to put post-its on design boards.
*yawn* Nobody else was that into it either, the crowd thinned out pretty quickly over a half hour or so, and Kai-Uwe Bergmann decided to eschew closing comments entirely.
Which brings me to my problem with these charettes. I’ll just say that, as a nonblack nonresident, my opinions are pretty irrelevant. But as a designer, these meetings are pretty frustrating. It’s unclear to me in advance of the meeting what information BIG intends to present, and it’s equally unclear afterwards what BIG thinks they’re getting out of these meetings. The cynical interpretation would be that BIG doesn’t need to get anything out of these meetings, that they already know what they want to do, that they’re only doing these charettes to make themselves and whoever else is watching feel better. I’d like to think otherwise, based on the level of research that they seem to be doing, and the amount of time they actually seem to be spending in the neighborhood. But they don’t seem to be translating that experience into productive meetings. It’s hard to say how productive these meetings could actually be, given the justified preoccupation with affordability. And whatever they got out of the last meeting, it seems like they’ve been able to translate it into a site plan with some promise. But that doesn’t excuse the redux of an uninspired format.
We’ll see what BIG has in store for the last meeting, which as far as I can tell has yet to be announced. When they do announce it, you should come so I’m not the only one tweeting about it.