design linguist

Translating observations of the everyday through the languages of design and culture

12 November 2009

A GROWING BAR GRAPH: Reading the Vietnamese Skyline

The Vietnamese urban sprawl consists of regularly-sized building sites, developed in varying capacities. In this case, the size of your house is literally a bar graph of your family’s income, status and wealth. Built in layers and multiple phases, the housing can be read as a slow progression up as the years or income increase. Anthony Bourdain mentioned in his travel show that extended rebar is the third world’s sign of eternal optimism, “We’re not done building yet!”

The housing becomes information graphics reflecting the urban fabric or neighborhood community. Often the year of completion is placed on each phase so the entire structure’s timeline is on display for all to see.

The skyline shows the progress and struggles in the community. The blocks are not built in a consistent density or height. The standard of living is still being created and being raised. It is visually captured floor by floor….

01 October 2009

SEPARATION ANXIETY: Denying the habits of a pedestrian

Jurong Point, a mall located in West Jurong, Singapore, just opened a new expansion that doubled the size of this shopping destination to make it “Singapore’s largest suburban shopping mall”. Along the new addition is a promenade that serves as the organizing element connecting the three main mall entries, a series of accessible storefronts and the exits from a transit hub. The area also occasionally holds seasonal performances and bazaars. The new space is an active area and major thoroughfare serving as a quasi-public plaza.

At the western end of the plaza is a street intersection. If I drove east through the intersection, I would be driving right down the new promenade so there is a natural connection between the mall and the public circulation on the urban grid. Or so one would expect. However, this direct connection between the sidewalk and promenade has been denied by a 1.25m (4’+) height difference and a swath of tall landscaping. The first opportunity to “officially” exit the promenade at this terminus is 30m (98’+) around the corner of the mall where the cars turn in to the parking garage. I say this is the “official” way to leave because there is a curious gap where the landscaping breaks for a 1m (3’) strip of finished concrete that slopes from the promenade level to the sidewalk level. Except for the 5” curb that delineates the public space from the encased drainage ditch there is nothing to keep someone from traversing this path, and as I would have expected, traverse they do. Up and down a flat slippery slab of concrete to continue what is a natural sense of progression and connection.

I’m surprised the designer didn’t see it coming or purposely chose not to address an obvious issue of a major circulation zone running straight into…nothing. Design needs to be clear and concise. This situation is the convergence of multiple errors including denying the urban context, not understanding the pedestrian’s goal of efficiency and sending mixed signals. It showcases that the suggestions of a designer are only obeyed when they align with the assessment of the user. How long until the fence appears?

UPDATE: A fence didn’t appear but a planter box did. However, as these photos show, that didn’t seem to work in stopping passage of pedestrians. This is a perfect example of the situation that I reference in my 07MAY09 post, “Be Ready to Build a Dam”. The fundamental use patterns of this space have been denied and the pedestrians are demonstrating this with their feet. How long till the dam appears?

24 September 2009

CATCH 22: Interact, but don’t

This model of the Singapore Pavilion for the Shanghai World Expo demonstrates the need for presenting a clear and consistent message when works are placed in the public realm. I wonder how many visitors ignored the “Please Do Not Touch” message and pushed the button to discover it lights up the model. Oops, I guess I just incriminated myself.

10 September 2009

THE SHAPE OF A POCKET: An everyday genius in the grocery line

The photos above are quick snapshots of an older gentleman’s pants as I waited behind him in the checkout line. This gentleman had sewn on to his trousers multiple pockets that appeared to have been dissected from other pairs of pants. The front of his button-down shirt was also modified in a similar manner with pockets from other dress shirts sewn on to provide him access to eight pockets in lieu of the typical one or two.

Now I must say it appeared this man was not entirely sane or “with it” as we might say, but I was taken aback by the shear genius his attire displayed and how truly innovative he was. Here is a person who obviously has many uses for pockets, and it is so hard to find off-the-rack clothing these days that fill this niche. So why not just add more to your garments? With some thread and a needle this DIY approach enables him the ability to expand his storage capacities without seeing a tailor for custom wares or needing excessive supplies. He has hacked his own slacks to create a condition that fits his requirements.

This gentleman serves as a reminder of how the everyday layman can often have an answer that would have never been considered by the experienced or well-trained.

If we start from the essence of a need and not from what we have seen before or what might be acceptable, we can end up with a truly unique result as this individual has done. With his simplistic approach--additional storage needs means more pockets--he has unlocked a new avenue for others to explore.

03 September 2009

A VELVET LINE IN THE SAND: Messages in the public realm

It seems like everywhere I turn these days I’m running into a velvet rope line. This is not however due to an increase in my nightlife or a sudden rise of exclusive “invitation only” events in Singapore. The velvet ropes I’m running into are telling me what not to touch. As I mentioned in a previous posting (Mixed Messages, 12March2009) there is an aspect of the public realm that can’t be controlled and when the attempt is made to do so it becomes an awkward and uncomfortable place.

Typically the velvet rope is a way to signify a sense of class while maintaining some resemblance of order. It is almost an apology in its appearance. “Excuse me, I really don’t want to have to do this, but I really must not have you go in there.” or “I’m sorry, but I must ask you to wait over here. Please do pardon the inconvenience.”

However, the uses shown above relay odd messages as the ropes aren’t actually protecting anything as in each case the objects are still well within arms reach so the message switches from “Please keep your distance” to a line drawn in the sand as “Don’t you dare touch this.”

A symbol which traditionally had a sense of manners from both parties involved, these photographed situations now leave the visitor the recipient of an accusatory tone that they were going to do something wrong, if only given the chance. The velvet rope now is a preemptive strike against one’s dirty or clumsy hands and subconscious desire to break things. What I believe the installer failed to recognize is that it didn’t occur to me to touch said object until he placed a bullseye on it. I can see the argument that these stanchions keep the children at bay, but if so shouldn’t they be about 60 cm lower?

All these ropes remind me of the little signs you sometimes see in knickknack or thrift stores, “You break. You buy.” Reading these warnings serves to keep my hands tightly to my sides while heading for the door. The true message and tone those four words set is, as a visitor, I’m seen more as a problem or liability than as an opportunity.

The ropes do become a barrier, but not for what they are protecting. They become a wall between people, an obstacle to mutual trust and an obstruction to a welcoming environment.

06 August 2009

OPEN VOIDS: The difference between place and emptiness

The Singaporean heartland is full of open voids, not open spaces. These areas are future building sites lying dormant, not parks to be used, to be experienced or to add to the lifestyle of the surrounding residents. Often times to underline this notion that this no-man’s land should remain so, a sign is placed that reads, “State Land, Use at your own risk.” These open voids while providing light and air, do not add anything to the character or street life, and I would argue they actually subtract from the surrounding estate by creating a negative draw.

I find in Singapore voids are often mistaken for, or misunderstood as spaces. This situation makes me reflect on Le Corbusier’s notion of “towers in a park” and realize that his concept relied on the notion that these towers of living would actually be in a park, and not just an open void.

09 July 2009

WAITING FOR SOMETHING TO HAPPEN: The opportunity sitting in front of us

I cannot remember how long it has been since I first started noticing all the people sitting on the stairs at the City Hall MRT station. But now since I have, I’m amazed every time I pass through this major interchange at an obvious expression for public seating. I haven’t done any research to know why these steps are such a hotspot but it suggests to me there is the potential to create a dynamic public space that could capitalize on high traffic audience while satisfying the need to congregate in this transit hub.

18 June 2009

SEARCHING BY CONTEXT: Finding solutions from different angles

The other day I was trying to remember the title of a book I wanted to track down and could not remember the title or the authors. I’m not the best at writing things down and I often rely too much on my memory to recall random bits and pieces, ultimately to my failure.

I typically remember more about the context of a situation than any specific details. In this particular instance, it was where I first discovered the book. I knew it had something to do with influencing human behavior and that the article had mentioned glowing red Bank of America ATMs. With a Google search of those items, I quickly found the article and subsequently the book title. After this successful search I realized how information today can be retrieved, and inversely, stored, in so many different ways. Instead of having to know a specific data point, I could search via the information’s context.

I know this isn’t rocket science, but it serves as a reminder that we need to always search for the work-around and to be flexible to overcome roadblocks in our process and projects. A linear progression is so far behind us that the available network of content always allows another way to arrive at a solution. The more we view the process from different angles or approaches, the more we are likely to find what we are looking for.

In case you were wondering, the book is NUDGE by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein. I haven’t managed to get the book yet, although next time I’ll know where to find the title information.
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