Digital Placemaking in the Urban Environment: Creating a Mourning Process for Lost Spaces

Kelsey Aschenbeck
Mar 20 · 8 min read
One of the buildings in my neighborhood set to be destroyed

I have always had a fascination with the urban environment — perhaps because I grew up in a very remote area where there were more cows than people — so it seemed only natural that I would combine this with design and technology for my thesis. This quarter was an extension of my research into digital placemaking and saw me creating prototypes that I inserted into my neighborhood to gauge how others felt about the changes they and I were seeing.

How I Arrived Here

I have always vaguely known my how: I wanted to create a playful digital interaction for the urban environment that allowed residents to perceive, participate, and/or critique their neighborhood with the digital devices available to them. In the previous quarter, I explored how placemaking is an important approach to designing public spaces that focus on a local community’s assets that promote happiness, economic boost, or the well-being of residents who use the space. Digital placemaking uses these same principles, but allows the digital space to affect the physical space. Here is one of the projects that initially inspired me:

Shadowing by Chomko and Rosier, 2014.

The methods used here allow for placemaking in a more engaging way — they are invitations to re-make what a physical space mean to residents by using digital means. I knew that I wanted to focus on my own neighborhood of Capitol Hill in Seattle, but I wasn’t sure who my audience was or what their motivations were. I borrowed a framework from my experience at a mini-conference called Contested Spaces that I used to figure this out.

Sticky notes filled with crazy ideas.

This gave me the feeling of moving forward, but the truth was that this was yet another dance around the issue: I still had no “why” in my thesis.

Observations

I went back to the sketches from the Autumn that I had made when I first started to observe my neighborhood. They feature spaces that are touch points where people interact with each other, but I noticed one in particular that I had made from my apartment balcony. It was an interesting building that was going to be torn down for a hotel space and I had decided to document it before it was gone.

From top left, clockwise: Thomas Street Mini Park, Summit Slope Park, Summit Ave Bar, and Feathered Friends Building in South Lake Union

Looking at my more of my research from the Autumn quarter, I saw that a lot of the public authoring I had documented featured writing or graffiti on construction notices next to older buildings. I started to walk around my neighborhood and sketch these buildings that had construction notices as a way to document them before they were destroyed. The longer I drew them, the more sad I became. I realized that there was nothing I could really do to help these buildings — their comment period had long since passed. I continued my documentation and shared my drawings and thoughts with others.

Buildings that have construction notices in front of them in the lower (and north) Capitol Hill neighborhood.

While I knew I had zeroed in on what my why in this these project was, people were continuing to ask me why. Why do I care? What makes these changes happening now more special? Perhaps it was because in my native Texas, if a building had made it a hundred years you kept it around to honor it for its sheer tenacity to stand up to the unpredictable elements. I realize that other places are not so precious with their older buildings. It wasn’t until a friend sent me an article called “Death to Minimalism” that let me articulate this to others. The article describes why the pattern language that new urban builds have taken up is so off-putting. It lacks “soul” or an indescribable quality that makes it feel right. The author introduces this “quality without a name” as a concept from Christopher Alexander’s “Timeless Way of Building.”

As do many of our modern buildings, these new cubes in the neighborhood lack ornamentation and in some cases, a sense of craft. Craft is subjective and can apply to lots of qualities in the built environment: it can call on ornamentation, building materials, design that pays attention to its specific environment, or even a monumental shape that tells a greater story of what goes on inside the building (this type of design has been praised heavily in the last few decades (think Frank Gehry) but it doesn’t work so well when applied to residential housing). Ornamentation can be anything from a brick pattern to gargoyles that inhabit the corners of taller pre-war buildings. There are a lot of reasons why ornament was declared a crime but the primary sentiment was that the ornamentation of the built environment was part of another era. (And in some cities who were re-building themselves after WWII, a reminder of what had been and what they didn’t want to emulate.) Smooth, streamlined, a machine for living, etc. (although that last one was rooted in ideas post WWI and really gained steam after WWII) were all descriptors for how this new society saw itself and how they wanted their built environment to look. They got really carried away, which is why things like the original Penn Station were destroyed to make way for other pattern-languages…

Penn Station in New York City, before and after 1963—one is light filled and full of ornament, one is a modernist shit-hole.

But as many studies show, we crave complexity. It’s one reason why we love nature so much: the complexity in nature can be seen from far away or as you zoom in. Our brains love it. For our brains, the opposite of complexity is death. The author of Death to Minimalism then quotes a manifesto that was opposed to the way Adolf Loos and his colleagues saw the world (their rallying cry was “Brevity is a Crime.”)

Wilderness, ornament — they cannot justify themselves economically, therefore they are to die. To resist, we must praise the useless, the inefficient, the unnecessary, the magically elaborate, the circuitous route and the impractical solution. Let there be mazes, overgrowth, prolixity. Life is a fractal, not a line.

Which is why when boxes are replacing complexity, the whole neighborhood — or anyone who likes to take a walk and get a refresh from their day — suffers. By saying this is the accepted norm, we promote a pattern language that does nothing for humans, but everything for the developers who want to make a profit by putting up ugly shit and asking people to pay over $1,000 a month to live in a 150–300 square foot box. I wanted to know if others felt the same, so I set out my first prototype.

Postcards

Postcards and their spots on construction signs.

I took the sketches I had made and put them on postcards. I made a colorful sign complimenting whatever graffiti was currently most visible on the construction sign and stapled them there with some pencils. I got a few responses back (there was a record snow that week, so I can imagine a lot of people weren’t out and about). I am hoping to expand upon this first idea and make another way to capture this. I’m in the process of making a prototype that overlays a funeral notice on top of a camera stream. People would have the opportunity to document details and upload them to a google drive file.

More of the Mourning Process

I soon realized that I was only addressing one part of the mourning process of these older buildings: the intervention needed to span to the remembrance and reflection portion of the the whole process. I came to this conclusion after seeing a construction site in my neighborhood. I couldn’t remember what had been there before, so I had to use Google Streets in order to create a sketch of the former house.

Past, Present, and the Future of the site.

Again, I wondered if other people felt the same, so I created a webpage that allowed people to “time travel” between what was on the site and what will be on the site. I put up a poster to lead people to the site and invited them to fill out a form after.

I created animated gifs to show the destruction and rise of the boxy structure that would eventually be there.

Moving Forward

As I presented this to students and faculty, there were several issues that came to light. The first was including people that would eventually live in these boxy buildings as stakeholders. It’s not their fault that these older buildings are destroyed, so I want to explore walking the line between the dark humor my animations create and remembering what was there before in a respectful way to these residents. Out of that issue came another: I still haven’t fully defined my audience. Over the break I plan on defining this better, completing my final prototype, and drawing up plans for what my final project will look like.

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