Too often in the study of built environments, we talk about the hypothetical experience of a place instead of actually engaging it. The premise of this trip was to counter that by experiencing first-hand several of the urban conditions often discussed in studios and seminars. Exploring the streets of Copenhagen, Rotterdam, and Berlin, I was drawn to the “life between buildings” over the well-defined spaces. While I came back with both conclusions and questions, one recurring observation centered on the surfaces I walked on in each city.
On materiality in city streets :
There is something accessible about the scale of a standard brick that is lost at the scale of a large concrete panel: one conjures up images of hands and craftsmen, the other of efficient machines. We can easily imagine what it takes to lay a brick or stone paver, yet it is much more difficult to contemplate pouring a massive concrete slab. In the latter scenario, there is a layer of distance erected between us and the surface we walk upon that deadens our experience.
In American cities, efficiency and budget have historically trumped pedestrian experience when it comes to street design. This trend has given us sidewalks comprised of large slabs of concrete, rhythmically interrupted by expansion joints that register in our brains the passing of both distance and time. On European streets, the consistent breaking down of this material scale turns the surface from a series of figures to a field, blurring the experiential length of our journey.
As humans, I think we welcome more guidance and direction than we are willing to admit. On sidewalks with small-scale materials, subtle changes in pattern communicate different uses and functions and, as pedestrians, we adjust our actions accordingly. Directional patterns tell us where to look for crossing traffic and how to pass someone moving too slowly in front of us on our walk to work. Other shifts in pattern tell us where to park our bikes, our cars, and the limits of our spatial dominion while eating lunch at an outdoor cafe. These subtle hints about function add an important and pleasurable layer to our subconscious experience of city streets.