Barrage Balloons

In 1938 the British Balloon Command was established to protect cities and key targets such as industrial areas, ports and harbors. Balloons were intended to defend against dive bombers flying at heights up to 5,000 feet (1,500 m), forcing them to fly higher and into the range of concentrated anti-aircraft fire—anti-aircraft guns could not traverse fast enough to attack aircraft flying at low altitude and high speed. By the middle of 1940 there were 1,400 balloons, a third of them over the London area (from Wikipedia).

Amazing that these almost-adorable balloons were the final line of defense against German dive bombers (in all ways their aesthetic counterpoint). Their casual floppiness are also a nice antidote to the shiny, hard, and shapely architecture that dominates the media lately (think Zaha), partly because contemporary rendering techniques encourage complex and slightly reflective surfaces. We have been toying with pneumatic structures lately – as has Roger Sherman, our creative partner and design muse in Los Angeles.

“The Roger Sherman Architecture/Urban Design (RSAUD) team designed a super-scaled, family-focused, all-season recreational park in the form of a tipped-over Empire State Building, with alternating levels of parking and other uses, for a 30-acre lot in Ronkonkoma serving a major Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) station and regional airport” (from the Long Island Index).

And of course, if I am riffing on pneumatic architecture, I couldn’t leave out Archigram’s Instant City proposals. This version, depicting an installation at the intersection of Santa Monica and San Diego freeways (1969), isn’t too far from Roger’s house and office.


Sochi and Aesthetics

Alessandra Stanley wrote in the New York Times: “Putin may be hoping to use the Games to project Slavic power and Russian exceptionalism, but Friday’s immersion course in Mother Russia had an unmistakable glint of Hollywood make-believe and show-business pizazz.” Stanley made several references to Disney as the inspiration of the spectacle, implying that the show was decidedly lowbrow and therefore, not worthy of a more serious critical analysis. But if there was anything Disney about the design ambitions of the show, it was only the oblique reference to Disneylands’ original “It’s a Small World” attraction, a decidedly psychedelic take on international harmony.

There were other references to visual culture too. The stunning wood block print-inspired seascape that was projected on the floor bore more than a superficial resemblance to Rockwell Kent’s wood-block prints that illustrated the 1930 edition of Moby Dick.

While I am sure that there were more appropriately Russian references the designers of the ceremony were thinking of (too), I’m disappointed that Ms. Stanley didn’t expand her commentary to include a discussion of the specific visual characteristics of the presentation. Her critique floated above any kind of rigorous analysis and instead commented very generally on the relative sophistication of the aesthetics (“the . . over-the-top Slavic spectacle . . . (was) presented in a slick, Disneyesque package”) and the relationship between the rhetoric of the ceremony and Putin’s power (quite close). This resulted, partly I think, in her lack of knowledge of the sources of the visual imagery and the sophisticated way that the design of the production commented on more recent examples of culture that aims higher than lowbrow, while remaining accessible to a broad audience. Avatar and the spectacles of Cirque du Soleil were Sochi’s antecedents; but Sochi’s designers aimed to make a more ambitious cultural stew. I, for one, thought it was pretty fantastic.


Sneck-down, sneck-down!


The view from Utile World Headquarters at Summer and Arch Street. Can you spot the sneckdowns?

While some may be bemoaning the latest winter storm to blanket the east coast, those of us who enjoy winter sports and innovative urban design strategies have something to be thankful for: 2014 is the winter of the sneckdown! For the uninitiated, the term is a combination of “snow” and “neckdown” (clever, isn’t it?) that describes a new fad in urban place-making. The neckdown and its variants are well known strategies for slowing vehicular traffic and creating more pedestrian-friendly streets. The sneckdown is the neckdown’s ephemeral cousin, cropping up only when a fresh snow covers the city. Automobiles quickly delineate their preferred paths of travel, leaving the sneckdown to serve as means of defining spaces that could be reclaimed by pedestrians. It’s an idea that seems to be going viral, with sightings in Philadelphia, New York, Denver, and even across the pond.

The question is: will summer’s sunshine and blue skies melt away winter’s dreams of urban reconfiguration? Or will sneckdowns find a permanent home in the toolkit of small-scale urban design, akin to the rise of other tactical urbanism projects in recent years? Stay tuned!

BONUS: Proposed theme song to be listened to while scouting for sneckdowns in your neighborhood!