Friday, March 22, 2019

AIA lecture "Engaging The Edge": Defying Expectations for the Inner Harbor

The local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, AIA Baltimore, premiered its traditional spring lecture series in an all new format yesterday: Good bye to the old style glamour architect's "show and tell" with glossy slides. Hello to a philosopher and a climate activist, to an inspiring combination of theory and practice! And yes, including the moderator, there were two architects as well.
On the edge of water and land: Oyster program to clean the water

The local architects making up AIA's lecture committee took a considerable risk in leaving behind a format that has worked for 40 years!  But the local AIA isn't your grandfather's Oldsmobile: social consciousness and high participation of young architects who want get something done propels several committees to new levels of civic engagement.

Unfortunately, the lecture series announcement is rather obtuse. Titled "Engaging the Edge" there is talk of a swimmable harbor, of a design competition and coordination with the Baltimore journal based T3XTURE in best archispeak, according to the Urban Dictionary "Large, made-up words that architects and designers use to make themselves sound smarter than you". Examples: "initiate the overall dialogue [..] and set forth the theme of 'the edge', the nature and culture of conditions at the intersection of land, sea, and edge, explored from the perspective of philosophy, architecture, and ecology". All clear?

The first speaker, Ed Casey (The World on Edge) is a philosopher, certainly not using Archispeak, his explorations into  Phenomenology and Ontology scanning "earth, cosmos and divinity" also created a rather obtuse curtain consisting of words like geo-ontology and geo-directionality and concepts such as "land as an existential state". No glossy slides at all. But the philosophical tour de force from Greek antiquity to Hegel and Heidegger was short. It certainly pushed the minds of those who cared to listen beyond the usual spheres. Here was somebody who didn't speak so much about the looks of the built environment but about what it does to our minds. Casey made clear why the edge-condition between water and land should be of particular interest. He closed with the inspirational quote that  at "the edge of the water is where wisdom reveals itself”.
A softer edge at the Harbor: Floating grasses
Edward S. Casey identifies how important edges are to us, not only in terms of how we perceive our world, but in our cognitive, artistic, and sociopolitical attentions to it. We live in a world that is constantly on edge, yet edges as such are rarely explored. Casey systematically describes the major and minor edges that configure the human and other-than-human realms, including our everyday experience. (Casey, World on Edge book blurb)
This was the perfect jumping board for architect and professor Travis Price, FAIA (The Spirit of Place) to show actual built stuff. In this case, his work with students which he had taken around the world to build  astonishing structures of contemplation and celebration in just 9 days. His learning by doing resembles the approach of the late Sam Mockbee's teaching in the Rural Studio at  Auburn University in Alabama who was a strong believer in learning by doing. Much of Price's student projects sat right on the water's edge, in frequently highly spiritual spaces. Beautiful slides provided plenty of the eye candy of conventional lectures. Price and the students proved that one can build modern, yet authentic and site specific, with culture, poetry and ecology in mind. Price's short but esoteric presentation still left his listeners wondering how these built miracles could be tied to Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
Lecture logo
About Spirit of Place-Spirit of Design
Founded by architect and professor Travis Price, Spirit of Place-Spirit of Design is a design-build, educational program for undergraduate and graduate architecture students. Over the past 18 years, the program has resulted in a series of 17 built projects with students and local host countries, that respond to regional ecology, the diversity of the vanishing cultures, threatened historic resources, and building and craft traditions associated with the historic sites. Projects have taken place in Peru, Canada, the United States, Ireland, Nepal, Italy, and Finland. See (Catholic University)
This is where the third presenter, Carmera Thomas, Program Director at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation came in when she explained her direct actions at the Inner Harbor. She manages oyster gardening in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, growing over 400,000 baby oysters in the harbor waters and provides hands on learning experiences which connect inner city students with the issues of water and ecology.
in April 2016, Waterfront Partnership partnered with CBF to hire a shared program manager position and form a more intentional partnership between the two organizations. The program manager helps to increase awareness and environmental stewardship and coordinates the Greater Baltimore Oyster Partnership program. The five-year-old program now includes over 600 volunteers through community engagement and Baltimore City public school students. (CBF)
Land meets water: from the Spirit of Place (Ireland)
The vision is to make the harbor “swimmable and fishable. Seeing the City students venture out on the Harbor waters was the perfectly brought to life the abstract concepts of the earlier speakers. Now it all made sense! Here was action on the edge, here was a notion that so far lives only in the mind (the swimmable harbor) and here was the spiritual act of liberating kids from their locked up condition in their often unsafe neighborhoods by transgressing that edge between land and water.
“The lighting was so bright. People had scooters. They had bikes. They had babies in strollers. What city is this? This is not Baltimore City.’ Because if you go up to Martin Luther King Boulevard” — the demarcation between downtown and the west side — we’re all bolted in our homes, we’re locked down.” (Renee McCray, a Baltimore resident speaking to the new Police Commissioner after she had recently visited the Harbor)
That the entire waterfront is essentially beyond reach is part of "The Tragedy of Baltimore". Far from being "Baltimore's living room", as developer Jim Rouse had envisioned the harbor, it has become a place for "them", the tourists, the rich, the "other" for way too many.
The excess of commerce and tourism: Entertainment at the Harbor

In spite of this perception, the reality is a  HarborPlace that is run-down and tired with failing businesses and desperate attempts of creating attractions. (Ripley's Believe it or not"). Rouse's pavilions have become barriers between the land and the water and should go, the ill conceived six and seven lane roadways ringing the harbor hold a firm grip all around the Inner Harbor and prevent easy access.

All speakers asked their audience to think about how to make Baltimore's water more accessible and an attraction for everybody, not only in the touristy way of attraction, but also in the transformative spiritual, relaxing way that water in the heart of a city can provide.
Youth access to the water: Oyster program

Starting from the big picture of the cosmos, the land and the sea, the mind and global examples the tri-part lecture was a brilliant way of setting the stage and releasing the Baltimore mind from the narrow cage of the usual loop thinking.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Additional lectures will take place on March 27, April 24 and May 1, each at 6pm in the Brown Center of MICA on Mt Royal Avenue. The lectures are free and are followed by a reception. For the complete series look here
Water access for City youth: Living Classroom 

Local knowledge is at one with lived experience if indeed it is true that this knowledge is of the localities in which the knowing subject lives. To live is to live locally, and to know is first of all to know the places one is in. (Edward S. Casey)

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