I write this from the Getty Center’s courtyard. I’m here avoiding the heat and traffic, and can say it exceeds all expectations. The Getty Center, if you’ve never been, is perhaps the best place in Los Angeles. Clean, cool, intentional, peaceful, grand yet intimate, and accessible by everyone, the Getty is a prefered working space and a haven from Los Angeles. Dan Klyn turned me onto it last year during his visit after listening to a week of my constant reprobations of the sprawling suburban mess I currently inhabit.
Today, I might say I like Los Angeles. Ok, well I don’t like it, but it’s better than tolerable today. OBVIOUS: I hate LA. I am willing to take heat for that statement. Haters to the left—yes, I’m trying to move ASAP. Feel free to go to town in the comments below.
That said I frequently conversate with people who love it here, generally don’t get jazzed about alienating or offending people I respect, and therefore I’m seeking ways to put a respectful frame around my distaste. This week, two awe inspiring experiences helped me see exactly why I loathe LA in articulable ways. After a great talk by Christian Crumlish at LA IxDA on social design patterns and attending the Overdrive Exhibit at the Getty Center I was able to see, synthesise, and understand clearly that Los Angeles can have a profound and debilitating sense of “placeless-ness”. Yes, this is a real thing.
THE PLACELESS CITY EXHIBIT
Overdrive: LA Constructs the Future 1940-1990 is “The first major exhibition to survey Los Angeles’s complex urban landscape and diverse architectural innovations.” As an information architect and former special collections librarian, this type of exhibit is an easy sell. Furthermore, I was motivated to attend as I wanted to uncover some ideas to help me frame my loathing of LA with actual data. The materials, text, artifacts, exhibits, and images presented surely would capture the systemic nature of failing when shown in aggregate. I really hoped to see some patterns in the brokeneness in this exhibit.
And boy, did this exhibit deliver. A plethora of confounding objects, infuriating text, and broken systems were showcased:
- Examples of novel structures derived from the desire to use new aerospace materials in the 40’s which after a few seasons in the sun and a couple earthquakes became unusable antiquated relics of “THE SPACE AGE!”
- Winding, under planned, underfunded highway systems criss-crossing the landscape seemingly at random, dividing communities rather than connecting them
- Public transportation projects stalled and stifled due to lack of politician interest and concerns of profit
- Airports made to give a modern jet-set impression to those who saw it from afar (though it is now rendered unusable by most who ever tangle with it’s inappropriately scaled pathways)
- Aesthetically beautiful structures created with form over function as the norm rather than the exception
Small pockets of intentional communities, organic cultures, and human scaled, sustainable livable patterns and structures do exist, and were presented as afterthoughts or novel experiments in this exhibit (and often were in reality, commerce centered rather than human centered). This experience and the information contained within it drove home with examples, data, sketches, city plan, and blueprints what I always suspected but up until today could not articulate: LA is a place of form over function, “how” before “who or why.”
In the cacophony of the glamorous “Hows” running rampant over all the “Whos,” LA has become a place without placeness. To quote Gertrude Stein and a plethora of other bright people in various contexts, though not necessarily about Los Angeles: “There is no here here.” The city, while once promising, seems to have lost the gestalt placeness in the pursuit of materiality and glossy innovation, and often the resulting places don’t fit the needs of the users of the space. Said in other terms, if LA was a website or digital product, it would have world class, jaw dropping, award winning examples of interaction and visual design, and almost NO information architecture. I left the exhibit inspired, overwhelmed, invigorated, and ready to change the world (or hell, at least LA). If we can frame the problem in words, flows, models, and pictures, can’t we solve them?
With this term in mind, I’m starting to think on the proclivity of systems and services I work on professionally to fall victim to the same issues (dare I say, wicked problems?) that ruin Los Angeles. It’s been speculated that digital environments may remove the placeness of environments—that there is no here here. There are a ton of challenging and visionary thoughts out there on paths to intentional placemaking in digital environments and I don’t intend to deconstruct or explain those here. (Though, I recommend Andrea Resmini’s “Placemaking 101” and this amazing (and occasionally hilarious) conversation between Resmini, TUG’s Dan Klyn & Andrew Hinton, and Jorge Arango as a start.)
TOWARDS INTENTIONAL PLACEMAKING THROUGH IA
Just because a city government has a commerce backed master plan for a metric crap ton of highways doesn’t make it a great idea. Just because arches are trendy and a structural designer has spent 3 years to learn how to build them doesn’t make them appropriate, durable, functional, or delightful for an heavily trafficked airport design. Just because a UX / IA person has social tools, systems, and patterns available doesn’t mean it will foster placement and add value at an organization.
If not planned and architected correctly, digital products and places can become like LA: a hot mess and/or a vacant place-vacuum to put it lightly. In digital systems and cities alike, sometimes placelessness can, and should, be avoided. If structured intentionally, but flexibly, with a focus on human sensitive placeness, digital environments (and cities?) can become useful, sustainable, content and context rich, uplifting, delightful places people willingly choose to inhabit. There are no silver bullets here for the perfect solution or structure or fail safe ways to fix the wicked problems germain in large failing systems and cities, but there are some things to chew on.
Like most things worth thinking about, these thoughts beget more questions than answers: How are we as IA / UX practitioners, or problem solvers at large, going to architect our digital systems and cities to make our shared meeting and living places useful and attractive? Can we consider social design patterns proven in digital environments to solve malfunctioning cities? to what extent do these patterns and approaches translate? What tools and methods and problem framing techniques do we have to start improving our shared physical places?
Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before, but I’ll be happy to say it a million times: if we as practitioners do one thing, let’s pause and look at the “Who and Why” before we start building the the “How” – digital or non digital or cross channel. In the relevant words of architect Denise Scott Brown: “Architecture can’t force people to connect, it can only plan the crossing points, remove barriers, and make the meeting places useful and attractive.”
Let’s architect before we design before we build. Let’s work towards making our digital environments and the actual places we live intentionally useful, attractive, and placeful. Let’s get involved and out of our boxes and do things right. Let’s make places, online and offline, that we delight to live in.
MAKING THE CASE FOR PLACE
There are a vast amount of scholars and practitioners in the Information Architecture field, as well as cross disciplinary leaders and organizations, doing this exact work and thinking I’m calling for. This isn’t a new idea. They are thinking of using, and in some cases actually using, IA and UX methodologies to improve not only our virtual places, but our entire human experience, shared public spaces and cities included. I encourage you to check out these placemaking resources and get yourself excited:
BOOKS & PRESENTATIONS
- Pervasive Information Architecture by Resmini & Rosatti
- As mentioned before this informal talk on placemaking from some IA big brains – Klyn, Hinton, Arango, & Resmini
- Building a Sense of Place Across Channels by Andrea Resmini, UX Lisbon 2012
- A riveting case study of IA methods used to fix the Johannesburg Art Gallery by Jason Hobbs, IA Summit Poland 2012
- Andrew Hinton’s book Understanding Context
WORKSHOPS & EVENTS
- Placemaking in an IA workshop: Andrea Resmini on placemaking at UX Australia
- Place and UX: This year’s Midwest UX theme is place
- A Non-Profit dedicated to supporting placeness in the real world exists
- And last but not least, a cross diciplinary approach to fixing LA: LA Gov Jam
KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR
- Andrea Resmini’s in-progress book on Designing Place
I’d love to hear your comments on place, placelessness, the Getty Center, and how we can use UX / IA to move beyond the computer and tablet and tackle these wicked problems in our communities below in the comments. I’m also open to your impassioned defenses (or vitriolic defamations) of Los Angeles as a system where people live… (first, please see this Morrissey quote).
Many thanks to Christian Crumlish, Andrea Resmini, Dan Klyn, Andrew Hinton, Peter Morville, The Getty Center, and Los Angeles for helping me start to think about these things.
Thank YOU for reading.
Now… what can we do about Los Angeles? Any one call dibs on Detroit?