Author Archives: Russell

A New Vision for a Public Square

Cities often overlook their forgotten public squares and parks as key economic development tools. Providence is slowly rediscovering this fact. I have had the pleasure of illustrating the redevelopment vision for Kennedy Plaza. Currently, the square is mostly know as a bus transfer center. However, it is the planning groups aim that one day this space will house New England’s largest, outdoor public market. I am particularly excited about this goal considering my bike ride to and from the office passes right through the square.

It has been a pleasure working with all the partners on the creation of this vision. It represents the best ideas the Friends of Kennedy Plaza have today, and they are looking for ways to improve upon it. Visit www.kennedyplaza.org to submit your comments.

The film would not have happened without the skills of Ben Chace. Check out his award winning film Wah Do Dem on Hulu. If you would like to know even more about what is in store for the future of Kennedy Plaza click here.

Retrofitting Suburbia: The Future of Real Estate


Fellow CNU board member, Ellen Dunham-Jones has a wonderful presentation up on TED Talks. I am lucky enough to be working on one of the projects she mentions, Mashpee Commons. She, as well as Galina Tahchieva with her Sprawl Repair Manual, have been doing a wonderful job pushing this emerging innovation in real estate development that is sure to help change the American landscape for the better.

How can your community address the following?

1. Plan for retrofitting  suburb locations at a regional scale. These projects are improved by their proximity to transit, and additional density in these locations can help waterways, food production and habitat recover from over development in other locations.

2. We must demand better architecture. New buildings must have a timeless quality that is flexible enough to change over time. The architecture must also be beautiful so people will love it, manage it and care for it as the building ages.

3. Everyone needs to demand more dynamic and sustainable places. Support the projects that are in you community, and “let the suburbs grow up” by voting yes on zoning, land use or planning bylaws that will allow retrofitting to be possible.

We are trying our best in Mashpee on all three of these, but there is still much more work to be done. Thank you Ellen for pushing this important innovation forward.

If you are interested in more details I recommend ordering Ellen’s new book, Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs

How to Draw Well

How many of you have a sketchbook? How many have it within 5 feet of you right now? I carry a sketchbook with me at all times. Ideas, images and nice buildings pop up around every street corner and, seemingly, at every café I find myself spending any time. Some friends over at the RISD Graduate School of Architecture invited me to give a talk about how to draw. I normally don’t think about how to draw, I just draw. But, this exercise in self-understanding was informative, and made me realize that I had not thought in detail about artistic technique since teaching drawing class at the University of Miami with Rocco Ceo. Thanks again to Emily and the RISD Graduate Architecture Program for making be ask myself how I draw. It starts with the sketchbook.

Lesson One: Strengthening Your Mind’s Eye

 

As a kid I had a large, almost cartoon like, art teacher who talked about your mind’s eye. This was an abstract idea at the time, but I have carried the concept along with me throughout my education and into professional practice. To draw well you need to be able to see well. Your visual reference library must be extensive, and your powers of observation finely tuned.

Here’s a little test. Pick an object in view. Give yourself a few moments to really look at it, don’t worry I’ll wait. Study its shape, color, details, ornament and all the other unique features that make it memorable. Now, close your eyes and reconstruct the object in your mind. Keep them closed for 30 seconds. Open and without looking at the object again draw it… How did you do? Now try it again, but this time instead of just looking at the object make a quick sketch of it in your trusty sketchbook. The simple act of observing and documenting helps upload the object into your minds reference library.

Building these reference images is a vital part of being able to draw well. However, the simple practice of trying to copy something with pad and pencil is just as important. As a designer and urbanist I have come to enjoy not only observing our built and natural environment, but also sifting through the city or university libraries for volumes of plans and images. If one strikes my fancy I make a quick sketch of it. With careful observation, I copy the details, proportions and signature elements of a design. Hopefully, through the process learning not only what makes the design remarkable, but also committing those elements to memory so that one day in the future I might come to reference them again.

There is only so much you can learn from sitting in a library sketching from books. One needs to travel to further enhance the mind’s library. The images associated with this post are from several of my travel sketchbooks. Over the years, I have come to find that there is valuable urban and architectural design lessons to be learn all around us. Documenting these lessons with watercolor, pen or pencil has been essential to strengthening my mind’s eye. I have found that the best sketchbooks for the field are Moleskins. This is no surprise to those who have used these books before. They are sturdy, well sized and have good paper options.

Too often today the digital photo is taken in exchange for the field sketch. Photographs will not improve your drawing abilities, and most certainly will not strengthen you mind’s eye as much as a field sketch. Now, I am not saying don’t take photos. I have built up a photo library of thousands of images. Buildings, streets, squares, retail, homes and everything else that I find both inspiring, and regrettable, has been photographed and archived in a digital library. As this database has grown it has become a great addition to the travel sketches. However, make sure your digital library is well organized with tags and a smart folder structure. Having had to rebuild my library a few times, I cannot stress enough the importance of having a smart way to organize your photos that allows for quick searching. Building a great digital library in addition to your mind’s library is great, but only if you can find what you are looking for with minimal effort. I’ll post more info on the details of my Aperture digital library in later posts under this topic.

There are a lot of other great exercise you can do to strengthen your mind’s eye. If you are interested in some of the theory behind this you can check out Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain: A Course in Enhancing Creativity and Artistic Confidence.

To review: carry a sketchbook, draw everything, travel and document what you find inspiring, and set up a well organized digital library to supplement the one between your ears.

Stay tuned for “How to Draw Well Part 2: The Power Sketch” and “How to Draw Well Part 3: Draw Stories, Not Lines”. Here are a few more travel sketches for your enjoyment… let me know what you think.

The 18th Congress for the New Urbanism

This year’s Congress for the New Urbanism started on Wednesday. The focus is on Health and the built environment. I find it quite difficult to explain the varying connection between health and the built environment to those less informed about the complexities of urbanism. However, I think it comes down to a simple idea. Walking more is simply better for you. This can be easily illustrated by the condition at our office building in Providence. We have a great historic stair right there when you walk into the foyer. The elevator is behind the stair, out of sight and less convenient then the stair. Most everyone in our office heads right up this stair and climbs the four floors to the office. When I’m bring people to the office who are not accustom to climbing four flights you can really note the differences in fitness by the time it takes a visitor to catch their breadth. We are lucky in our office because the stair is more convenient, and, frankly, more fun to take then the clunky elevator. Our health is a unintended benefit to the way our office’s built environment function. Walkable, beautiful places are more fun to be in and therefor us humans will actually exert ourselves more to enjoy being in them. Urbanism is just like the stair in my office. More fun to be in, and improves your health.

I hope to post some more health and urbanism connection soon. If you have a health and urbanism connection of your own please comment below.