Design Arsenal

The co-curators of the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam want to arm the masses with a new design tool.

The town of Ave Maria, in Florida, was planned as a Catholic-based community.

What does it take to make a city accessible to all? How do we foster truly inclusive urban design? These are some of the questions being raised by the 2009 International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam. Founded in 2001, the Biennale has evolved into a worldwide gathering of exhibitions, conferences, lectures, and other activities devoted to themes of architecture and urbanism. The fourth event, which opens in September, is titled “Open City: Designing Coexistence.”  Though the theme sounds fairly warm and fuzzy, the U.S. curators’ response is a provocative one—and they want your help.

Tobias Armborst, Daniel D’Oca, and Georgeen Theodore—the principals of Interboro Partners in New York City—are curating the North American portion of the Biennale. The team was asked by head curator Kees Christiaanse to explore the concept of “community” in North America as seen through the ideal of the open city—a place where diverse social and ethnic groups can coexist, interact, and generate relationships. “Most people think that the open city doesn’t exist in America,” D’Oca says. “The open city is always there, you just have to look really hard.  What we’re doing is examining the ways that Americans sort themselves into communities.”

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One aspect of this effort is the rather sinister-sounding Arsenal of Exclusion/Inclusion, a dictionary of tools that planners, developers, and others can use to create exclusionary and inclusionary spaces in America. Tools range in scale from the very large (mortgage discrimination) to the medium (restrictive covenants) to the relatively small (residential parking permits). D’Oca and his collaborators looked at the good, the bad, and the ugly in urban design, inspecting everything from national policy to what they dubbed “glitches” (planning mistakes that inadvertently produce heterogeneity). “The Arsenal has become the spine of the exhibition and we’re up to 98 entries,” D’Oca says. “It’s a toolbox that shows us how our landscape is constructed in the first place. How do we sort ourselves via planning tools? ”

He points to the Catholic town of Ave Maria, in Florida, as one good example: “How do you come up with a community that is only for Catholics? There are all of these tools that you need to use in order to produce a place like Ave Maria.”

D’Oca also names NORC SSPs—or Naturally Occurring Retirement Community Social Service Providers—as an example from the Arsenal of Inclusion. As America ages, many buildings around the country suddenly house large numbers of seniors. Providers help to retrofit these naturally-occurring retirement communities with necessary services to allow elders the ability to age in place. “They try to retroactively service buildings, communities, and neighborhoods with the kinds of amenities that seniors need, but usually only get in expensive continued-care retirement buildings in the suburbs,” D’Oca says.

Several of the entries in the Arsenal will be enlarged and mounted for the Rotterdam exhibition. Arsenal terms will then be linked to examples of specific projects that use these tools.

Many of the terms were researched and defined by the curators, but the Arsenal also includes submissions from some 50 contributors. Scholars and experts in the field were approached, so the entry on homeowner’s associations, for instance, was written by Setha Low. Wendy Plotkin wrote about racial-restrictive covenants. Other entries, however, came from an open call for submissions (full disclosure: yours truly contributed one on university-based retirement communities). And it’s not too late to submit your own suggestions for this growing dictionary. Just e-mail the curators before July 1.

The International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam opens on September 24 and runs through January 10, 2010.

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