Learning from Main Street

A workshop studying downtown Norman, Oklahoma, reintroduces students to the power of place.

On a balmy April day, the sidewalks are crowded with students walking to class, their heads down, eyes fixed on small screens. Some glance at the pavement under their feet, where messages of all kinds are written in chalk, advertising events and services. We’re on the University of Oklahoma campus, with its dramatic Cherokee Gothic architecture set around a great, verdant mall. I came here to teach a workshop, part of the Bruce Goff Chair of Creative Architecture series. We’re about to learn from Main Street.

For the past few years, while waiting for their new school to be finished on campus, the architecture students have occupied a former department store nearby. This makes me think that the urban experience, fresh in their minds, might prove to be useful in connecting the new kids on the campus with their neighbors and, in the process, creating a buzz about just who these architects are and what they do.

Main Street, even the tiny sliver of it that remains in sprawling Norman, is filled with ideas about successful adjacencies, the power of graphic communication, a mix of functions, with scale, texture, detail, and color creating a mélange of urbanity. But it is the people on Main Street, chatting with neighbors and connecting with strangers, slowing down for
a greeting, looking into each others’ eyes, and shaking hands, who offer the most lasting lessons in the connectivity of public spaces.

Armed with Google maps of the campus and downtown, phone cameras and computers, notebooks and pens, we set to work. The students say it disturbs them that they know so little about the other disciplines on campus. But what they really want to explore is connecting with one another. As the hours fly by, a series of playful sketches emerge—a bike that powers a coffeepot (caffeine and snacks are big on any college campus), a strategically placed seesaw that puts at least two people together at one time, a face game that asks passersby to guess who the architect is. We discuss funny feedback mechanisms and games that require several people to operate them.

Though we spend a lot of time on ways to use technology to bring people together on screens, these ideas are eventually rejected because, as one student puts it, “that’s what we want to get away from.” In the end they decide that no matter what form their design might take, it needs to communicate real-time information, it should be mobile, self-supporting (solar and wind powered), easily folded up and maintained, and call attention to the imaginative skills architects bring to the built environment. And everyone agrees that the design would benefit from input by engineers, graphic designers, journalists, and other specialists available on campus. After the obligatory charette, the exhausted but enthusiastic presenters are asked by the dean to continue the conversation when they move back into Gould Hall at the end of the summer.

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