Denver Street Level… with a Stroller, A Guest Post from a new(ish) Mother

Nothing re-contextualizes a city’s public, street-level environment quite like having an infant in tow.  While life’s errands and events were once a seamless rhythm of transitions from home to mode of transport to destination, leaving the house as a new parent comes with an entirely new choreography.

Six months into parenthood, while I’ve eased up a bit since the early months, I still catch myself considering a list of logistics rivaling a CIA operative about to embark on a strategic mission each time I leave the house. 

What mode of transportation should I bring—a stroller or a baby carrier?   Are there sidewalks? And if so, what condition are they in? How long will I be out?  Can I run multiple errands while visiting one location?  Will this location have a changing station and/or nursing room?  Is the space I am visiting outdoors or indoors, and what additional blankets or shading do I need to temper my baby’s microclimate? 

Prior to parenthood, there were many specific ways in which I engaged with the city’s urban fabric.  As a practicing architect working near the heart of Downtown Denver, I have ridden on my fair share of entertaining mallrides, felt the warm glow of the cosmopolitan bustle at Union Station, and spent many dusky Friday evenings perusing Rino’s cultural and epicurean venues.  A fan of local businesses, seasonal markets, and public parks, I have walked and biked through many of Denver’s unique, rapidly-developing neighborhoods.

Fast-forward to early parenthood.  Suddenly my means of navigating the city has become less about novelty and more about predictability.  Prior to having an infant, I hadn’t considered IKEA’s sinuous walking paths, set amongst the backdrop of carefully-organized living environments, as an exercise and entertainment destination on a rainy day.  Nor did I appreciate the diversity of merchandise available under the roof of America’s beloved Super Target.  Despite my proximity to Cherry Creek North, I didn’t give much thought to what I now consider one of the more well-planned pedestrian environments in the City of Denver.

Borrowing Bob Dylan’s words, things have changed.

As a new mother that aspires to remain an active, urban-dweller throughout maternity leave and beyond, here are several planning features that might facilitate a positive parent outing/ experience.  While most of these planning principles cater to universal design strategies, these features have quickly become important enhancements to the quotidian routines of early parenthood.

  1. Wide, flat sidewalks with curb cuts and generous indoor circulation paths.

Many Colorado parents opt for all-terrain strollers that support the state’s “active lifestyle.”  These strollers tend to have a wide frame and impressively-large all-weather tires.  While navigating narrow, cracked sidewalks and jumping curbs might appeal to those that enjoy testing their strollers’ off-roading capabilities, a smooth and barrier free experience remains preferable while pushing perhaps such precious cargo.

While the Denver Post recently reported that the City of Denver’s 2017 operating budget has earmarked $2.5 million for new or fixed sidewalks on city-owned property.  Perhaps more challenging is how Denver might provide assistance in improving neighborhood sidewalks that fall within the responsibility of the homeowner.

This principle also applies to the idea that indoor spaces have wide circulation paths that might accommodate strollers in aisle-ways and areas surrounding displays in retail environments.

  1. Mixed-use retail environments that mimic the urban microcosm.

Three months into parenthood, I’ve appreciated mixed-use developments that necessitate only one trip via car or public transportation.  Upon arrival, being able to accomplish many activities and tasks on-foot without having to open and fold a heavy stroller or strap a sleeping baby in-and-out of a carrier numerous times creates a more enjoyable experience for all participants involved.

My new-found appreciation of Cherry Creek North stems from its rich diversity of programming and thoughtful attention to the pedestrian scale and public space(s).  In many ways creating a parallel to a small village, one might meet a friend for coffee or a meal, pick up groceries and other household items, fit in a workout, stop by the library, and/or engage in a round of retail therapy all in one trip.  These activities are enhanced by a pleasant pedestrian scale that boasts wide sidewalks and pedestrian-preferred crosswalks, ample landscaping and benches, continuous stretches of active, ground-level retail, and fairly inexpensive metered parking.

  1. Clean, sanitary restroom facilities that go beyond code. 

On a recent trip to Japan, I was struck by the universal design features in the majority of public spaces, transportation hubs, and cultural institutions.  Besides the elaborate electric toilets with multiple cleansing options, each accessible stall had an infant seat in which a child under six months could be placed while their mother used the facilities.  This small addition to public amenities would make a seemingly simple need safe and less awkward for parents out with their child.

Upon expecting, several new mothers I met told me of their appreciation for Nordstrom bathrooms, which boast comfortable couches and areas for privacy in nursing/resting while shopping with an infant.

A little extra care and investment in public restrooms for functions such as nursing and changing enable parents to feel more comfortable in leaving the house for extended stretches of time.

  1. Don’t underestimate the importance of public, urban parks.

During the first two months of life, a newborn is not vaccinated, and it is typically recommended by the Pediatrician that parents avoid confined areas.

So where to go to get out of the house?

Public parks and open spaces within walking-distance of neighborhoods are critical resources for exercise, fresh air, and an opportunity to “reconnect” with the outside world.

I can’t count how many times I walked around Washington Park during the first few weeks of my child’s life (sometimes twice in one day,) but I know that this beloved public park served as a savior of both my sanity and post-pregnancy recovery.

While babies grow quickly, the first several years of life provide parents with numerous considerations that seem counter to a spontaneous, out-the-door approach to small and large outings.  My hope is that as Denver continues to grow, design features that demonstrate empathy and sensitivity to parents with young children might be incorporated in new and existing public spaces, cultural institutions, and neighborhoods and mixed-use developments.

 

The Importance of What We Do

aalto-4Many of the conversations architects have with other architects are about our value. We know what we do is valuable and we know why we do it. It seems our recurring problem as an architectural profession and one we can’t seem to answer is “how do we get the public to understand why the work we do is so important?”

To increase the perceived value of architecture, increases the wellness, health, safety and equity within our communities and cities. But yet, we are a small profession (relative to law and medicine) and it is often difficult to share how architecture makes an impact.

Last week I visited the Alvar Aalto Library at Mount Angel Monastery outside of Portland, OR. We happened upon a monk whom was waiting to give a group a tour, but apparently hadn’t shown up. It was clear this monk thoroughly enjoyed giving tours of this beautiful building and was happy to do so for a group of architects that just happened to walk through the door.

What struck me most, outside of the architecture, was how appreciative this monk, who was not formally trained in architecture, was of this building. He expressed some of the design intent behind painting the roof orange (to change the color of the northern light entering the building) or how Aalto compressed the entrance only to release the visitor into the soul of the library. I wasn’t sure whether or not to attribute his depth of knowledge to a pure love of architecture or the fact that he spends day after day reading (presumably anything but more specifically architectural books) honoring his vow of silence.

It became clear by the end of this trip, that architects cannot be solely responsible for spreading the message of why architecture is valuable to our society and has an impact on many societal issues we face. Similarly, this was clear when the monk took out a coin from the rare collection dated 36 AD and told us researchers had tested and believed this to be a coin owned by Pontius Pilate. None of us on the tour were Catholic, but understood the weight of who once owned this coin and the impact that has had on world history. Clearly there have been powerful messengers of Catholicism.

After passing around the coin, this very jovial monk said very solemnly “What you all do as architects has never been more necessary and has never been less appreciated.” I took this as a charge to go back to my desk and figure out how to best equip those around me to speak about the power and importance of architecture. This isn’t about gaining more clients or building the next iconic museum. The very core of what we do is to create a better built environment for all of those living in it.

I challenge you, whether you are an architect or a friend/family of an architect to talk with someone about how our buildings affect our lives. Once we all become messengers, we have a better opportunity to build great places for all.

The Architect and Design Thinking; Navigating the business sector’s eager adoption of architecture’s iterative process and language, and architects’ potential role in its acquisition and deployment…

I recently edited an interview for the Young Architect’s Forum “Connection” magazine featuring a conversation at the 2016 AIA Convention between Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA and national President of the AIA in 2015 and Virginia E. Marquardt, AIA.

When asked what changes Richter would like to see 15 years from now in architectural professional practice, she replied, “ We [architecture professionals] have talked about expanding our services so that we don’t bracket ourselves within ‘just’ design. Architects need to find ways to apply our set of skills, knowledge, and ability to solve problems creatively.  I think being able to find options is one of our main strengths as architects.  We are not formulaic and that’s what makes us so valuable when it comes to weighing options and helping our clients sort through whatever issue might need a solution.”   She proceeded to say that, “While architects shouldn’t bracket themselves, it’s very important to realize that architects build.  We build buildings, we build spaces.  We can’t forget the core of our profession.”

Richter’s comments regarding the architects’ ability to think iteratively and in an option-oriented manner highlighted one of my favorite aspects or our profession. When approaching a design problem, we already know that there is no one perfect solution, but rather, a multitude of options that must be studied and explored in order to build consensus regarding which option is most appropriate given a specific array of constraints and overarching project goals.

This past week I began to think through the potentials of diagramming a site for a new project. Wrapping my head around how I might create 4 distinctive options that solved a similar problem but in different ways was teased out in a quick sketch exercise, followed by study and some preliminary testing, conversation, and of course, more drawing.  The results felt exciting and latent with potentials that will continue to be tested against our client’s vision, needs, and long-term goals.  Already I am excited to see which scheme has the most promise, and do not feel married to a specific parti in favor of recognizing that the iterative process needs to once again be fed through a literal feedback loop that will garner new strategies and results.

Having returned this past May from C2, a conference in Montreal geared towards “Commerce and Creativity,” it seems that “big business” is also seeking this type of iterative thinking– and with great marketing gusto and enthusiasm.  During my time at C2 I attended a Master Class taught by a partner with Deloitte Digital, a self-described “digital consultancy” that “brings together all the creative and technology capabilities, business acumen, and industry insight needed to help transform our clients’ businesses.” The class was titled “Innovation in the Digital Era,” and focused on “exploring how leading innovators are able to disrupt their markets.”

Not sure what to expect, I was amazed to find myself in a class that was teaching principles and strategies of design thinking and prototyping paired with product development and outcomes. When I met someone in the class that worked for Deloitte Digital, they mentioned that some of their staff was comprised of architects, and that these individuals were achieving success in their new roles.

Much in the way that IDEO and other companies that aim to use design thinking as a lens with which to solve problems, architects’ process of working iteratively to generate quick solutions to evaluate and refine is being adopted and celebrated across industry sectors and various forms of media.

When I asked Mia Scharphie, founder of Creative Agency, a social impact design firm based in Boston, about the concept of “design thinking” being appropriated across a wide range of business sectors as a tool for re-thinking existing issues or initiatives by engaging users directly and prototyping potential solutions, I appreciated her initial response “they [the corporate sector] stole our words!” She then countered by adding, “The design process allows for uncertainty and creativity, which is deeply optimistic and imaginative.  To see examples of that being valued in the world outside of design is something I feel great about.  Design thinking as the marriage of ethnography and open-ended problem solving is a great process that can produce great things.”

As for my personal opinion, I second Richter that architects’ unique academic training instills a certain juxtaposition of rigor and “what if” that helps facilitate diverse, rich dialogues and thinking that hopefully result in, as Richter reminds us, amazing built work. What I also hope is that architects continue to sit at the table in multidisciplinary settings, where the rigor of the design process might add value to problem-solving even when built solutions aren’t required, not only as a means of generating unique solutions to various problems, but demonstrating a certain level of rigor and process that goes beyond the adoption of sometimes ambiguous or slippery words like “innovation.”

And I think it will: it seems like there has never been a better time and appetite to think iteratively not only in our work, but  in the diverse and applicable ways architecture professionals may want to utilize their varied skill sets.

Lessons from AIA Convention 2016

Annually, 20,000 architects gather at the AIA Convention. AIA Philadelphia hosted the AIA Convention this year, and while the Convention theme varies from year to year, the ability to be inspired remains constant.

Convention keynote speakers included Julia Louis-Dreyfus, actress from the hit shows VEEP and Seinfeld, Neri Oxman, designer and architect leading research in digital fabrication interaction with the biological world and Rem Koolhaas, Pritzker Prize-winning Dutch architect and theorist. Various other speakers and leaders were sprinkled between the main keynotes. Most notably, Denise Scott Brown, Hon. FAIA and Robert Venturi, FAIA received the first AIA Gold Medal to be awarded to a pair of architects.

Architects in attendance experienced no shortage of provocative thinking this Convention. The theme “Imagine +” inspired attendees to think bigger, broader and challenge the profession and our practice. It was evident from the speakers that it is time to challenge the profession’s shortcomings. Rem Koolhaas noted that “Architecture has a serious problem today in that people who are not alike don’t communicate.” It is interesting to note that while this might be an issue within the architectural profession, architecture is not alone. By starting to address this communication issue, we become more relevant to our communities, who are also experiencing communication issues between dissimilar people.

While we must be aware that major shifts need to occur in our profession, we also need to be aware major shifts have been occurring. Awarding the AIA Gold Medal to a duo enforces the idea that collaboration is key to our profession and is imperative to the success of projects. In addition, social impact remains a prevalent topic in many of the Convention sessions and highlights how architects have a role to serve in the resiliency of our communities. Notwithstanding, many sessions featuring the role of women in our practice is imperative to achieving aforementioned shifts and addressing the shortcomings.

As Rem Koolhaas mentioned, architecture’s greatest value may not be architecture of buildings in the future (Fastcodesign.com). If we look at Silicon Valley, they have stolen our titles (i.e. Software Architect). If we look to Washington D.C., politicians for better or worse speak to the “architect of a bill” or the “architect of legislation”.  While we all acknowledge that there is merit and need in having architects design our built environment, we may also need to embrace the need for our professionals to think beyond the design of a physical courthouse or multi-family structure.

It would be difficult not to see we are at an interesting point within the architectural profession. With exponential technological power of digital fabrication and the continuous push for a more equitable profession, it could be argued we hold more potential power in our communities as a profession than ever before. However, if we don’t take a tip from Rem and learn to communicate outside of our 20,000 friends, we will have difficulty being of any value to the future.

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Colorado Architecture Month: What’s Your Impact?

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It’s that time of the year again. Opening Day for the Rockies, at-capacity patios downtown, and Colorado Architecture Month! You might be familiar with some of the events that occur during April around the state, but do you know why Architecture Month exists?

Architecture month has the potential to serve as one of the greatest public outreach campaigns we do. A series of public events are set up all around the state to highlight the importance of architecture in our everyday lives and ensure the community also understands that design matters.

You can find a series of events on the AIA Calendar throughout the month. While the events are great, what are you doing to share the value of architecture? Does your firm have a blog? Are you able to share images via social media? AIA Colorado has put together a series of blog tips and ideas to encourage you to get out there and write.  Personally, I have found one of the best ways to share what we do as architects and why it is so vitally important to our communities is to just talk about it. The other day I took a Lyft and the driver asked what I do. As soon as I said architecture there was a sense of awe from the driver. I then took this as an opportunity to explain how our projects impact the community and why it is so important to have an architect. I don’t know if I converted a community member into an architect-believer but having these conversations with as many people as possible is the best way to engage the public and our neighbors.

As seen with this Lyft Driver, there is an aura of respect around the words architecture and architect. But we have a difficult time communicating why everyone and every community are deserving of good, well-designed architecture. In my opinion, good architecture doesn’t solely need to be the construction of a beautiful museum or new music hall. Good architecture should have an impact, whether big or small.

In October of last year, the Emerging Professionals of the AIA Western Mountain Region an afternoon and visited the 4th and 5th grade students of Silverthorne Elementary School in Silverthorne, Colorado. We took a few hours to explain to them the basics of architecture and why it is so important. We then took them through the process of design by designing Little Libraries, which will be installed in their communities. A few of our EP members, Max McCloskey, Assoc. AIA and Jim Hillard, AIAS UC Denver President led an effort to actually construct these little libraries. I have to say, the community of Silverthorne is quite lucky to have these well-designed, albeit little, libraries in their community. Our EP team is taking the rest of Architecture Month to finish these up and will then deliver them to the school for installation in the Silverthorne Community.

We all have the ability to impact our communities. Use Colorado Architecture Month as an opportunity to share your impact.