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Monday, January 30, 2012

Recalling Michelangelo

***Please see my latest book, The Science of City Design: Architectural Algorithms for City Planning and Design Leadership, on in both e-book and paperback versions.***

Michelangelo’s statue of David represents the dignity of man as he faces adversity, at least in my opinion. The Borgia conflict was simply the stimulus for his universal statement. If we moved David to a congested street corner festooned with the baggage of commerce and traffic control, it would corrupt his message -- like the tenements and crowded streets of Manhattan corrupt the message from architecture. Moving David from the Piazza della Signoria is my attempt to illustrate that intensity can overwhelm a message that depends on context. 

The open space of The Natural Domain sits on one side of the context scale. Four divisions of The Built Domain are on the other. The design of these four divisions: Shelter, Movement, Open Space and Life Support will determine the balance we achieve and the message we send. From this perspective, architecture is shelter with a message. It is not an object of privilege. It creates space within its domain, but its context will continue to suffer from excess; and survival will hang in the balance, until its public message is recognized at the intersection of speculation and survival.

We must be able to measure intensity, understand its implications and predict alternatives before we can pursue the city design of context and capacity in the public interest. Context, capacity and intensity affect our quality of life within The Built Domain. Balancing these elements involves design specification values, public debate and regulation. Without adequate regulation, we will be left with isolated sculptures of achievement in blighted wastelands of speculation. In fact, many urban areas have already achieved this dubious distinction with inadequate information, incomplete knowledge, uncoordinated regulation and the random application of opinion.  

From this perspective, massing context, capacity and intensity is the first order of business for architecture and city planning. It is needed to produce adequate city design compositions that yield physical, social, psychological and economic stability. The Michelangelos among us can then release form, function and appearance from massing to enhance the places created and message intended. In my opinion, it is the only strategy that has a chance of sheltering growing populations within a limited Built Domain that does not threaten its source of life – The Natural Domain. 

If David sits on a street corner, his photograph must be carefully composed. I don’t know how many times I’ve been surprised by the context of an architectural masterpiece after studying its picture in a history book. This alone convinced me that there is another dimension to architecture. I am not the first to call it city design, but it has little financial support because urban composition has been left to the marketplace -- and the inadequate design of zoning regulation. The result has been a context of sprawl, intensity and instability that now threatens the planet with its growth.  

The lesson from David is that design excellence transcends the object. Its message depends on context the way speech depends on place for gravity. In the case of modern architecture, its message will be one of secluded privilege until it can speak in the context of public benefit with the language of intensity.  

Intensity options are potential stones of knowledge for David’s sling. The target is a Goliath called precedent. The goal is adaptation. Architects and planners can rise to the occasion with others as David scans the horizon. This is where design excellence in the public interest can be found. Anything less will be a statue on a street corner.
AUTHOR NOTE: A policy goal is a sound byte without a leadership strategy. I suggested a strategic planning agenda in “Replacing Density”. For those who wish to read more, please see the detailed companion essays entitled, “Context, Capacity and Intensity” and “Parking Variances Offer a Glimpse into the Future”.

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