Saturday, June 16, 2007

Block 47


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I learned exactly two things today, and this is one of them. Right across the street from the convention center, at MLK and Holladay, there's a weird little half-block, landscaped as if it was a park, but unmarked, so you can't be sure whether you're visiting a city park, or trespassing.

I took these photos way back in December, but I've only just now figured out what the deal is with the place. So here's the dirt. It's owned by the PDC, and although it sure looks like a regular park, it's (supposedly) only temporary. As soon as the PDC finds a sufficiently well-heeled crony who wants to build here, poof, no more "park". That's the plan, at least.


Until the PDC took an interest in the place a few years back, this plot was just another ugly parking lot, a blight on the landscape and (more importantly) a drag on local property values.

The PDC put out a pair of press releases about the project, and the Daily Journal of Commerce also ran an article about it. From the first release:

"The challenge for us was to think about making an immediate impact on the site that will last for five to ten years," said Kurt Lango, principal of Lango Hansen. "As landscape architects, we tend to envision landscapes in terms of how they'll mature in 20 years or more."

Lango Hansen explored historical information on the site and collapsed the patterns of plat maps and building footprints since 1889 into one frame as the geometry for their site design. Different materials will recall site uses over time. For example, brick will be used in the corner where a barbershop and restaurant used to be. A stone mound with grasses growing out of it will signify debris mounds that once collected on the vacant lot.

While the initial design formalizes past site uses, it will evolve over time. The varieties of plant materials will be allowed to overgrow their boundaries and form new patterns.

Given the temporary nature of the project, the landscape will incorporate recycled materials into the design wherever possible. PDC is currently reviewing their other properties for materials and pieces that can be used on Block 47.

As the recycled materials are temporary and not meant to endure decades of weather, the open space will highlight a unique approach to detailing. Timber for benches will be sanded down to reveal historic patina, and concrete for the seat wall is being sheared to show aggregate patterns. Places for art are also an integral part of the design.

So it's intended to be temporary, and it's supposed to "evolve" over time. In other words, they didn't spend a lot to build it, and they aren't going to spend much to maintain it, either, and the hope is that it'll at least decay gracefully over its lifespan. The basalt mound you see here actually evoke the piles of garbage that used to accumulate here back in the day, except that the new mound is much more sophisticated & artistic than the original, plus it stays put when the wind blows. It's kind of remarkable having art inspired by heaps of trash, but hey. I actually kind of like the thing. Even if you don't happen to agree, you still have to admit it's a step up from the genuine article. You're all with me on that part, right?

There's an old DJC profile of the designers here. The Hansen half of the firm describes the project thusly:

Block 47 (an urban garden on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Holladay Street) is a good example of that, where we were looking at actual maps of what had happened at that site over its history and expressed them through the landscape. We also built in a way of allowing everything to outgrow its boundaries over time so the pattern does break down over time, knowing that eventually a hotel is going to go there. That whole evolution is built into the project.

So if you can think of a way to really enjoy the place, you ought to hurry up and do it now, before the threatened hotel goes in. Although at last word (September '09) the hotel's on indefinite hold due to the bad economy. So you do still have time to visit, if you're so inclined.

The designers can talk all they like about historical plats, and rubble mounds and whatnot, but when I see the place I always think of my mom's chocolate crinkle cookies. If I ever manage to drop by on a light snow day, the analogy will be perfect.

And yes, I do realize Mom knows how to access the interwebs (sort of), and might be offended if she knew I was comparing her cookies to chunks of basalt. That's one of the great things about using a pseudonym. Sure, she might still be offended, but she'll probably assume I'm a total stranger. Or at least she can't prove it was me. Which is the key thing, you know.

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