Alexander Garvin gave a talk a few weeks ago at the Yale School of Architecture about his experience planning New York City’s unsuccessful bid to host the 2012 Olympics. Without exaggeration, this story deserves to be turned into a movie, or at least a documentary.
Here’re some of the things I took away from the talk:
1) Cities are a work of collective authorship: An obvious point, but one that hit home as Garvin talked about the back-and-forth between a bewildering cast of stakeholders, including the architects whom Garvin selected to draw up visions for the Olympics in New York. It put me in mind of the famous “Yes, and…” improv method - receiving something that someone has done, riffing on it, and throwing it back for further play.
2) Urban planners are haunted by parallel universes: Garvin brought renderings of the different projects that would have been built had New York won the bid, and you couldn’t miss his deep disappointment that some of those concepts never made the leap from the plane of ideas into reality.
When most people have a poor experience with some aspect of the city, they can only clench their hands in frustration and wish that something would be different. The pain must be particular acute for urban planners, who will forever have to live with the ghosts of projects that could-have been.
3) Cities are the by-product of numbers: Again, obvious, but it was fascinating to see real world examples. The specific dimensions of courts and the infrastructure requirements of certain sports all played a very real role in siting and design decisions.
4) Urban planners are in the business of delight: When I think “urban planner,” I’m put in mind of Very Serious folk who are too busy worrying about how to keep a bridge in the air to have a sense of humour. One particular anecdote reminded me that the best urban planning aspires to create moments of wonder.
Garvin spoke longingly about a plan for a mobile system of entertainment barges. They would have run months before the beginning of the games, and each barge would have featured public concerts and performances from different countries.
Are party barges critical for any city? Probably not. But they could be pretty awesome.
- Emmanuel Quartey