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Friday, May 14, 2010

Utopian Cities at SPUR

Photo by Colleen McHugh

Through May 28

When urban planners think big, the resulting plans are often labeled “utopian.” Does this mean “head in the clouds” or “impossible to achieve”? Or does it mean “planning with more concern for the occupants than for profit”? The current exhibit at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association’s year-old SPUR Urban Center sparks all these questions and more. It is the perfect kind of show for SPUR’s modest exhibition space. The view from the street draws you into the simple high space. There are no gimmicks here, just a broad sampling of city plans pasted on the wall. You can skim the surface or really look at them. The catalog is modest for its $35 price tag, but useful for further study.

The exhibit didn’t require huge crates or expense. They are decals pasted on the wall. SPUR matched the paint color and the cities seem to blend into the wall. Of course, Dan Wood and Amale Andraos, the architects (of the NYC firm WorkAC) who curated and produced the show, taught a seminar on utopian urbanism at Princeton, and had some help from their students.

It’s like a crash course in urban design.

Photos by Colleen McHugh

Architects will want to know what scale everything is at. The scales are beneath the plans. Due to the limited wall space, some of the plans don’t have quite enough space around them. You have to get down on your knees to see everything. But that’s kind of the way cities are.

While it is common wisdom that we need to densify our settlements, some cities, like Port-au-Prince, are going to try and dedensify because the population puts more demand on the infrastructure than it can take. A lot of new urbanism became an excuse for denser and more lucrative suburbs for developers. It’s time to think boldly, but now we can’t make as many mistakes as we did in the past.

Of the 49 city plans shown in the exhibition, very few were ever realized. But it’s time to be rethinking how we live together as we are forced to change the way we use precious resources like oil and water and to rethink the nature of free market capitalism. This show is a good reference point.

Check it out before the end of the month!

Photos by Colleen McHugh

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