August 3, 2006
An unorthodox project encourages the residents of Portland to participate in the shaping of their city.
The Vision Vessel certainly attracts attention. It resembles an outdoor shower stall due to its 23-foot-long vinyl screen that coils around it and lends an air of mystery to whatever lurks within. Inside the curtain stands a triangular eight-foot fiberglass column skinned with gleaming white oak and maple. A keyboard protrudes beneath a video screen flush with the polished surface and an inviting “START” icon flashes on the screen.
What is this thing? Essentially, the Vessel is a mobile recording studio crossbred with a ballot box, commissioned by Portland, Oregon mayor Tom Potter as part of a wide-ranging initiative to reform the city’s vaunted urban-planning process. The city’s “visioning process,” a year-plus-long effort, has made ample use of hoary old citizen-involvement strategies: round-tables, neighborhood meetings, focus groups, questionnaires printed in a Babel of languages. The Vision Vessel, though, is designed to rocket democratic discourse into the podcasting age by fusing racy design and dirt-cheap technology.
The Vessel began as the haziest of sketches in the minds of Lindsay Utz and Morgan Currie. Both young refugees from mainstream public-TV, the pair had started a new non-profit,Public Media Works (PMW). They hoped to land one of the small grants available from the city’s project. The pitch: that with the help of a mobile phone booth—or something like that—they could harvest input from Portland’s hordes of young, creative, and politically disengaged transplants. “We knew we wanted something mobile,” Utz says. “If you’re going to reach out to creative types, you have to go where they are. They’re consistently underrepresented in the traditional places civic dialogue takes place.”
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The intrigued city council awarded PMW a grant of $11,217 late last year. Enter Ryan Lingard and Brad Demby, young designers who work for the well-regarded Portland architecture firm BOORA. They figured PMW’s project would make a good after-hours portfolio piece. (They also figured it would take about 100 hours, which Lingard says was only wrong by a factor of five.)
After a couple false starts—“Our second design was this kind of severe sculptural piece that architecture students would have loved, but no one else,” Lingard says—they hit upon the Vessel. The translucent vinyl scrim would provide both privacy, encouraging visitors to uncork their deepest armchair-urbanist thoughts, and built-in signage. (Plus, they talked a local company into donating it.) That soft shell would conceal a sturdy tower designed to roll like a warehouse handcart.
“The tighter the object was, the less likely it was to fall apart or let the technology inside it get bashed around,” Demby says. “In the end, we ended up with an object that was less overtly architectural and more like product or industrial design.”
Over 500 cumulative hours in Demby’s basement and garage, the designers crafted their sleek tower. Inside, a Mac Mini (powered by a car battery, which also adds ballast), a microphone and a digital camera record responses. Chunky plastic casters lend both mobility and blue-collar stability. Meanwhile, interactive video produced by PMW delivers a rotating series of open-ended questions about Portland’s future. You can answer via keyboard, or cut an audio podcast if you feel so bold.
As the Vessel (code-named “Vern” by its team of creators) roams Portland art festivals, farmers’ markets, colleges, and street fairs through August, that mother lode of input piles up on the project’s website, visionvessel.org. At the project’s conclusion, the mayor’s office will fold the mountain of citizen wisdom into its larger effort to reimagine the city’s goals and inner workings.
And Vern’s future? According to Utz, groups in other cities have made tentative inquiries about cloning the effort. And the tower could always be loaded with new, entirely different interactive content—perhaps even something that has nothing to do with urban planning or civic involvement.
“This could be a new frontier in on-line dating,” Utz says. “You never know.”