Field Notes


Inspiration: Jan Kattein Architects

Description

Jan Kattein Architects is a London-based architecture, urban planning, placemaking, developer, etc firm which uses architectural practice and design as a tool for dialogue and exchange, empowering the community. Their projects are small, scrappy, and amazing. 

Discussion

I’ve been most obsessed with Blue House Yard (Instagram), a temporary redevelopment of a former carpark including creative work and retail space, a public square for markets and events. Maybe I’m older but to me this is the positive outcome of architecture applied to urban space, not some blobs which leak. The market-scale of their projects is quite evocative. 

Points of Inspiration

  • I love their line drawings. I’m not a huge fan of the god-eye-view, but it is often a necessary requirement to see the overall scheme. And they imbue this view with joy and life that I instantly want to go to this place.
  • Their forms are very basic, and typological, which makes reading the schemes clear and easy.
  • I love that they are also investors and developers in their schemes. This shows (to me) that they are true believers, and aren’t designing things which waste client’s money.

All photos and drawings in this post by Jan Kattein Architects. You should hire them.

About this project

I am obsessed with the city. While I grew up in suburbia, I went to an urban college and lived in big cities for the last 20 years. I’ve lived in Boston, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Chicago, New York, and Mumbai, with major stops in London and Singapore. That’s the greatest hits of urbanity right there.

A lot of attention is paid to the big moves of the city and great work has been done, from Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City, to Lewis Mumford’s The City in History, to the most iconic example, The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. These are big overarching books well worth your time.

But they miss the smaller details of urban living. Municipalities – Cities, villages, urban and suburban areas – are full of small bits of urban fabric which we almost never foreground: street furniture. These bits of urbanity are the unsung heroes of city life. They help keep us moving safely about our day by deploying signage and traffic lights; hold our newspapers before and after we read them; street furniture protects us with bollards and separated bike lanes; and street furniture brings us joy with trees and art.

I envision this project to be similar to another seminal, if controversial book: A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander. Perhaps these are the smaller-scale patterns which flow from the objects themselves. I can only be so presumptuous. This website endeavors to present a wide cross section of communities, taking into account varying densities, geographic location, community age, and mobility mix, allowing wider insights. 

Wide-scale scholarship in this area, especially at this scale, is limited. Conducting and analyzing quantitative and qualitative will give designers and Civic Practitioners additional information and inspiration, leading to better decisions, positively impacting their communities.

Examples

You can check out some typology examples here:

Or try these:

Output


All of this research can flow into final artifacts in different ways. The key design problem is finding the intersection of what I find inspiring, what other people find interesting, and what makes sense. So far, I’ve shortlisted the following outputs:

Website

An encyclopedia and digital notebook for this project allowing experimentation, charting inspiration, prototyping, and recording all the work completed for this project.

You are here.

Field Guide

A portable guide for identifying street furniture, markings, and urban typologies in the wild. I envision the first edition focused on New York City, with future editions covering other regions and cities, as there will be a great deal of communal overlap worldwide (but I have to start somewhere).

Left: Old mockup.

Walking Cards

A set of identification cards practitioners can use as they go about their day, acting as both flash cards and design tool allowing exploration of new typology combinations.

Left: card prototype


I need your help

So I’ve been doing this project on and off for a few years, and while I’m invested, I’ve just gotten to the point where I can show the work in some organized format. I have some questions:

  • Is this useful to anyone? Am I just obsessed with this stuff?
  • What can make it better? What should I do less?
  • What kind of content do people want/need?
  • Is there an appetite for a Kickstarter/Patreon to help defray some of the cost?
  • What form factors are the most useful, or interesting?
  • I’m still working on the overall tone of voice for this project – go one way and it’s too dry, the other way and it’s too niche.

Inspiration – Magic: The Gathering

Note: This inspirational entry is way outlandish, and at the far end of what I envision the form of the final field guide. Wildlife Treasury is closer to what I imagine this project to entail, both in terms of form factor and content. These posts are an attempt to pull back the curtain on the design process.

Description

Magic: The Gathering (or MTG or simply Magic) is a turn–by–turn card–based game where players face each other, draw cards, and try to kill their opponent by causing damage. Each player assembles a deck composed of spells, artifacts, creatures, and land cards (with different land types). New cards are continually produced and released, creating a complex ecosystem of collectors and players, with detailed rule systems.

If this sounds geeky and complicated, it is.

Discussion

Ok. So I was (am) a bit of a nerd/geek growing up. And while I used to collect baseball cards, they just sort of sat there. While collecting things connects to a deep part of my wanting to complete things (this this project itself and my inspiration on Wildlife Treasury), baseball cards didn’t always feel useful.

So enter Magic, where you could put together a deck and face off against people; create customized decks and quickly experiment on gameplay; and create deeper backstories to these illustrated cards. I also played Dungeons and Dragons and Mechwarrior. Magic took less time and provided a more casual gameplay environment.

Like I said, I was (am) a bit of a nerd/geek.

The world of Magic is sprawling, and while the rules seem complicated, they are fairly simple once you play a few times (have you every tried to explain the rules of Baseball, Euchre, or Bridge to someone?). These simple rules create deep complexity and variation, much like cities themselves.

Points of Inspiration

  • Subscription and expansion sets allow growth and extension. Since I’m not going to get all parts of street furniture and urban typologies published on the first pass, this is a useful conceit.
  • Iterative play: there are a lot of gameplay options. A lot. Which increases complexity but allows for customization.
  • Beauty: some of the cards are quite striking and are pieces of art into themselves. How might I use beauty and illustration (besides photography) to make the everyday pieces of the street feel important and beautiful?
  • Story: each card contains a bit of a story, taken together feed into a larger universe. What is the story – explicit or implicit – should I tell?
  • Cult: Magic continues to have a cult following, how might I build a tiny cult around street furniture?
  • Typology Game: wouldn’t it be cool if there was a game based on these street furniture typologies? Where instead of killing your opponent, your aim is to make the street better? Could there be a card game based on the same research? Would people play it? Maybe.

Examples

More inspiration

Inspiration: City Stamps

Description

United Airlines in–flight magazine Hemispheres had an article about cities featuring customized city stamps.

Discussion

I love cancellation stamps – especially customized ones (see Fancy Cancels). In much of my work, stamps are something that I try to force into the project until I, or someone else, call attention to the absurdity with attendant mockery.

I think the messy physicalness of a stamp can lend some authenticity to the experience if done right. Stamps rule.

The Hemispheres examples aren’t great, but they were surprising, and I appreciated the little bit of thought that went into them.

Points of inspiration

  • Not everything has to be original
  • If people want to find their street furniture, is there a fancy cancel for that piece?
  • Details matter

Prototype: Cards

Some of my inspirations have been card decks of varying kinds – I’ve shared aircraft identification cards and Wildlife Treasure – and I wanted to share an early profile of what a card might look like (prototype above).

The design challenge is figuring out what information is germane for a card versus a printed pamphlet versus a website. Not only is form factor and brevity a consideration, but thinking of what someone might want to do with the different form factors is also important.

I can imagine a world where the cards are useful/fun as flash cards, small enough to bring along a city walk. Where the printed pamphlet acts as a more of a reference book, and the website the complete storehouse.

History: Georgetown Call Box

1969: Call Box and Street Lamps, 28th & O Streets N.W., Washington D. C. Photo by Jack E. Boucher from the Library of Congress Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey.

The Historic American Buildings Survey is part of Heritage Documentation Programs (HDP) is a division of the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) and came about during the Depression as make-work projects for out of work photographers, engineers, and architects. These programs continue to this day, now with student–led teams working in the summers for course credit.

The three surveys – HAER/HABR/HLS –are amazing works of documentation performed last century throughout America. The Library of Congress continues to scan and upload photographs from this survey, making these three surveys invaluable for research.

Photo Description

This modern call box, placed in an opening in the U–shaped upper bracket, is supported on a columnar circular base on which a shield reading “Electrical/D.C./ Dept.” is attached to the south side. The text is enclosed in a palm wreath. At a height of 29″ on the base is an acanthus band. The bracket which holds the fire box is also decorated with acanthus and is supported on a bulb of acanthus with a base formed by a wreath of bound bayleaves and berries. At the top of the bracket is a modern extension pipe 27″ long with a light at the end. Old photographs show that this pipe replaces an extension which was taller, fluted, and terminated by a capital which supported a spherical globe. Below the bracket the lower portion (50″) is painted gray; the bracket (25″ tall) and fire box are painted red; the upper extension pipe is also gray. The total height of the unit is 8-1/2”. The base of the pillar Is about 19” in diameter. Many coats of paint have made, the features of the cast iron much less distinct.

Project description

These records were made in 1969 during a project to record 14 structures and a group of 16 items of “street furniture” in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C.. The project was conducted by the Commission of Fine Arts with the cooperation of the Historic American Buildings Survey. The resulting documentation was donated to HABS by the Commission and published in 1970 in HABS Selections Number 10, Georgetown Architecture: Northwest Washington District of Columbia.

Inspiration: Aircraft Identification Cards

Description

Physical deck of cards, or a pamphlet, which aid in identifying aircraft (usually enemy aircraft), for use by both civilian and military users. Often uses a mnemonic to make recall easier, for example: the US military uses “WEFT” as a mnemonic for the major features of an aircraft: Wings or rotors to provide lift, Engines to provide power, a Fuselage to carry the payload and pilot, and a Tail.

Discussion

I’ve had some form of these identification cards saved on my hard drive for, well it feels like forever. There is something beautiful about abstracting something so complex into a simpler version in order to identify it. 

Normally I give a large side eye ? to those who appropriate martial iconography and forms. It both feels like cosplay, and an easy way to slide into some form of design Godwin’s law. That being said, to me these are formally beautiful and a snapshot in time where clear identification of fried or foe meant the difference between Hitler on your doorstep, or overcoming fascists. 

Also note: there are versions which are actual playing cards. I’m not sure the provenance of these cards. My guess is that they were remanufactured, but I’m not sure. What they certainly are not are the gauche target cards from the ill-fate Iraq war. 

Inspiration Points

  • Not relying on the coloration of the specimen, but rather the shape, characteristics, and what the specimen does.
  • Simple line drawings, in black and white, eventuates the specimen shape, parts, and characteristics over color.
  • Black and white photography equalizes individual style, or even age of photo, in order to focus on the specimen. It also allows me to use historical photographs without them looking dated or out of place.
  • Just look at that typography! It is certainly not Futura (close, but should be). I would love to consider Futura as the main typeface: isn’t as overused as Helvetica or Gotham (both faces are quite nice). Futura is a nice sans serif with a point of view. Wes Anderson surely understands what I call Nostalgia Adjacent by his ubiquitous use of color palettes, locations, and typefaces to evoke nostalgia, and how this is a great artistic tool. Certainly the nostalgia that the typeface brings (at least to me) can help set an “always been there” feeling I want for the Field Guide.
  • Use both sides: while initially I was considering a form factor analogous to a card deck with consistent back and unique face, this set of cards really opened by eyes for me to ask myself why I couldn’t use both sides for informational purposes.

Further reading

More Inspiration

Rooftop Catalogue by MVRDV

MVRDV releases new book outlining possible typological interventions on the rooftops of Rotterdam: a solution for the scarcity of space in the city

Inspiration: Wildlife Treasury

Description

The Wildlife Treasury was a subscription-based card collection, featuring an encyclopedia of the world’s animals. The first package included a bright green plastic case to put your card collection in, and then each month additional cards would come in the mail, where you would have to sort them.

Discussion

I loved these as a kid. I think this fed right into my sense of order and arrangement – by needing to organize and shelf each card in the specific Order/Genus/etc – along with my imagination. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, so family trips were wherever a KOA Campsite and a day’s drive could take us.1Often listening to Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run So these cards allowed my young brain to wonder. Looking at them now, they really do feel like slow-motion Instagram of the late 70’s.

Inspiration points

  • How might we use subscription to heighten excitement and to paper over the fact that I won’t have every single piece of furniture or urban typology mapped out, since I’m only one person, and there continue to be new products put onto the streets.
  • How might I use the card format to make it more playful – the City is here for us to use as Adam says.
  • I love the simple taxonomy icons. Full stop.
  • The use of great photography.
  • This is surely a nostalgic play on my part, but I loved these.

More inspiration

Rooftop Catalogue by MVRDV

MVRDV releases new book outlining possible typological interventions on the rooftops of Rotterdam: a solution for the scarcity of space in the city