Sherman tackles “empty density” with Hypo-Park

Roger Sherman, GenslerThe multi-award winning architect, academic and author, Roger Sherman, AIA, recently joined Gensler‘s Los Angeles office as Senior Project Director of Urban Planning & Design. We spoke with the architect to find out about his new role and how technology impacts urban life.

What drew you to the opportunity at Gensler?
The answer lies in your question: opportunity itself. Access to a range of projects of a size and complexity that matches well my interest in working at an urban scale—work that is, I have found, increasingly difficult to win as  a small design practice (such as I had before), even if teamed with others. But beyond that, Gensler represents an opportunity to capitalize upon a multi-disciplinary practice that is not simply advantageous, but necessary today to address the breadth of technical expertise and intellectual resources that urban work today requires in a truly global economy—ones that very few other firms offer. It is interesting that even amongst so-called “boutique” practices, the most successful, such as Zaha, Foster, Herzon deMeuron, all have offices in excess of 400 people, in multiple locations.

How do you see your new role?
My home base here, as it were, is in the Urban Strategies studio, which lies at the intersection of the many diverse but otherwise specialized practice areas of Gensler, which are generally organized by building type. As such, my greatest value here is my ability to work across platforms, and incubate project-specific design strategies which call for collaborations between them. [Regional Managing Principal] Rob Jernigan has referred to me, intuitively but I think correctly, as a “glue guy”. As mentioned earlier, most urban problems today cannot be easily or well-solved through the lens of a single discipline. Urban design in particular has dissolved or expanded to encompass everything from branding to data visualization to app design. Attaining the real and true synergies between fields can of course be accomplished through close collaboration between consultants, but where better to start than in a firm where such varied expertise can be found in the same location?

Toward that end, I have initiated a small but very well-attended lunchtalk series here, whose aim is amongst other things to promote the idea that innovation is often to be found in the gaps between areas of expertise. The rapid rate of cultural change today is, whether we like it or not, exerting a certain gravitational pull on existing conventions/divisions of practice, and the more comfortable we are in working in the margins, the more successful we will be in addressing those shifts. In many respects, I have come to realize that the success of Gensler itself is due amongst other things to the realization and embrace of the need to continually adapt the firm’s own design to changes in the world outside of it. I’m not sure that another firm would have seen the unlikely virtue in bringing in someone like me, incubated in an entirely different culture, and the potential synergies that could come from it.

The impact of technology on urban life is an important part of our world today. How do you approach the subject? Where do your interests lie?
For all that it has dominated discussion in design circles over the past 20 years, the question of the relation between technology and design insofar as urban life is concerned, is far more complex, subtle and indirect than is often acknowledged. I’m not at all convinced that simply making cities “smarter”, as many tech companies are promoting, is the answer; I’ve never felt that efficiency and optimization can alone drive cities, absent the attraction of qualitative experience. By the former measure, many of the world’s most visited cities such as Venice or Rome would undoubtedly score very low. Rather, I am more interested in the surprising disruptive cultural changes technology has effected, and the design opportunities those are posing, than in the direct expression/visualization of technology per se through form. This is no more so the case than how the Internet of things has affected lifestyle. For instance the notion of proximity, which underlies the  very impulse to urbanize, is undergoing fundamental change right now, given the ease with which access to information, services, goods etc can be gained without resorting to physical systems of way finding or advertising.  That the conveniences of the city can now be found on one’s phone begs serious challenges regarding the motives for public appearance and its spaces. Related to this is also the question of what constitutes community today at a moment in which identity has, with the aid of social media, exploded into so many subcultures. This bears directly in turn on design questions having to do with imageability.

Another of the most interesting internet-related cultural shifts affecting design has been its challenge to the inherited algebra of zoning and land use. Given the universal access afforded online, liberated from logics of foot traffic, we are starting to see unusual and exotic combinations of use, such as manufacturing and retail, art and storage, and the like. This is facilitated by additional technological changes permitting clean manufacturing and non- emissions vehicles, which allow for the breakdown of traditional boundaries between parking and interior space, permitting unprecedented fluidity. Just as we have seen a wholesale shift in television content delivery from a few indistinguishable network channels to now hundreds of differentiated niche-market cable stations, each with an audience no one could have earlier identified or predicted, the city is in the process of being reinvented according to new rules that indicate that anything can happen (almost) anywhere.

A third promising byproduct of technological change is in the opening up of excess capacity in existing infrastructure, such as parking structures that are now larger than necessary to hold the same number of soon-to-be downsized compact vehicles, opening up space able to be dedicated to other uses. In general, the Internet has catalyzed a shift from a centralized system of resource collection and distribution in the city to a multitude of sharing economies that are more localized and self-organized. This presents many exciting and unprecedented opportunities for designers to rethink the new urban typologies that might arise in response, and the new class and model of patronage associated with it.

ext01-crosswalkGensler stresses your creative ability to problem solve. Can you give us an example of a project where this aspect of your experience is evident? 

I have brought into the office a pilot project for a new type of urban open space that I had developed over the past year in my own practice, and which I am now working to implement with Gensler and the benefit of its technical expertise and wide network of client and consultant contacts. Titled Hypo-Park, it is conceived in response to a conundrum that I had taken notice of over man years in Los Angeles and many other American cities–also a blindspot in contemporary landscape practice. Namely that the paradigm of urban recreation space today, which is still synonymous with the Olmsted-ian idea of park-as-nature, is very much out of sync with the urban “nature” of sports and recreation today that began in Dogtown and Muscle Beach (Venice) and has expanded to become a global industry. Parks and Rec have to a large extent diverged, with one being more about nature and the other culture. There are many today for whom a lawn with paths, trees, pond and benches do not go nearly far enough toward providing the more active, small-format kinds of venues–trapeze, trampoline, batting cages, driving ranges, shuffleboard, etc—that would attract a great number and range of urban denizens. As can be seen both at Chelsea Piers and Venice, those sports are nothing short of a form of performance that itself becomes a draw for others to spectate.

int02-courtThe significance of this change carries great import for urban areas, where land (and water) is scarce, and obesity rates high. Working with HR & A Advisors, planner Jane Blumenfeld, land use attorney David Waite (Cox Castle), and Dick Jackson of the UCLA School of Public Health, we have reimagined the idea of park to meet and reflect these contemporary realities. Hypo-Park is twice the density of a typical park (2.0  FAR); requires no irrigation; closable at night; is filled with 27 programmed venues (versus the usual set of five) whose calorie-burning rate averages four times that of the others; and is mixed with other complementary retail concessions (beer garden, bike rental, juice bar, newsstand) that will accommodate the desire of many to spectate as well as provide revenue streams that will permit the park’s public facilities to remain free and well-maintained—something that is insurmountable for most cities in a time of shrinking budgets. From a design standpoint, the challenge was to imagine how one could conflate seemingly irreconcilable ideas of open space and infill—can a park actually be something other than a hole in the urban fabric? What we came up with was something I refer to as “empty density”—a virtual building made largely of chain link fencing, mesh and other materials that is half building, half open space that puts forth the possibility that properly-conceived, that recreation space can actually be a new type of catalyst for urban development, rather than simply a respite from it.
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Why do you feel it’s important to continue teaching alongside your practice?

My approach to practice is and has always been one that links design with research—experimentation that is somehow sourced in the real. My “hypothesis” in joining Gensler was and is that a more productive synergy can actually be “designed” between the academic and professional spheres, not merely in concept but in format: namely, the forging of unprecedented strategic partnerships between the two, wherein real research, conducted in a proper academic setting, can incubate experimentation in the arena of practice. There is no reason to believe that this cannot lead to the development of real innovation in areas such as the role of new technologies for the space and organization of the city; the definition of what constitutes identity and community today; excess capacity; and the privatization of infrastructure, to name a few. The extraordinary range of problems that Gensler is approached to work on, coupled with its demonstrated interest in the R&D model, leads me to believe that it is an ideal vehicle by which to expand the above model, partnering in open source relationships with academic and other research institutions who are often seeking the resources that only we can offer in return.

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