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Everyday Urbanist Charts New Course for the “Geography of Nowhere”

Everyday Urbanist Charts New Course for the “Geography of Nowhere”

Architect Stephen Luoni wants to change the world we live in—one strip mall at a time. He praises the unknown architects who built America’s silos and barns for the “poetic moments” they introduce into the landscape, but he spends his days focusing on considerably more prosaic forms of American vernacular architecture. As the new director of the University of Arkansas Community Design Center (UACDC), Luoni wants to create a sense of place in the car-ravaged suburban landscape that critic James Howard Kunstler described as a “geography of nowhere.” In just one year at the University, Luoni has addressed two structures that shape ex-urban America: the “big box” retail store and the arterial highway strip. From these ubiquitous elements of sprawl development, Luoni, with staff and students, has generated daring new design ideas, including retail towers with rooftop plazas and a “parking garden” that links retail, green space and housing.

While Luoni sees the importance of refurbishing aging downtowns, he focuses on what he calls the “middle American landscape” – the roads, housing subdivisions and office parks where Americans spend most of their time. Luoni has set an ambitious goal for the UACDC: “We want to develop new models for the public spaces that are forming in the ‘non-places’ of suburbia,” he said. “What we’re working with at the UACDC is very different from the downtown festival markets that a lot of urban design is focused on. We celebrate the unglamorous areas of our environment and find a kind of enchantment to living in those places.”

Effecting change in this no-man’s-land is a tall order for any designer, one most architects would run from. Luoni approaches the challenge with two strategies: creating new models and protocols for urban areas, and working with the ordinary resources at hand combined in new and unexpected ways. For example, take the arterial highway strip on the outskirts of Anytown, U.S.A., typically a sea of parking, billboards, fast food and stunted grass. The strip is saturated with businesses, but there are few sidewalks, parks and other civic amenities that make it possible, and pleasurable, to do errands on foot. Luoni envisions transforming the highway strip into something akin to the traditional boulevard. The change offers social and civic benefits, responds to the ecology of the area and encourages visitors to park and walk.

Last fall, UACDC staff and students began to craft a model that transforms the highway strip into an inviting landscape. They developed design proposals for the central Arkansas community of Morrilton, where recent growth has centered on the arterial highway strip adjacent to Interstate 40, dissipating energy from the downtown area. Churches, a high school and a community college are located in the two-mile stretch between the strip and downtown, but the area lacks a civic presence. Focusing on planned and existing roads between the strip and downtown, the UACDC team began by creating a series of analytic maps charting the cultural geography of Morrilton’s urban development. Pointing to the maps that paper the walls of UACDC, Luoni showed that the parking lots on the highway strip dwarf the entire surface area of downtown Morrilton.

“Since the parking lot is the biggest programmatic element out here, we decided to take it on,” he said.

UACDC staff and students rolled up their sleeves and came up with a multifunctional parking plaza that radically departs from the humdrum lots that scar suburbia. Shopping cart collectors, trashcans, newspaper stands and post office boxes are embedded in green hedges. Storm water retention gardens placed throughout parking areas treat parking lot run-off, while phones, ATMs, and pedestrian promenades further enhance the functionality of the space. Groves of trees provide shade and pedestrian linkages between shopping centers developed in isolation and surrounding housing subdivisions. To effect this shift from asphalt eyesore to well-integrated oasis, Luoni envisions the creation of a “green parking authority,” a kind of public/private development tool where cities could work with retailers to create a civic space that welcomes people as well as cars. The idea is edgy and completely new, and Luoni admits that it may not be realized in Morrilton.

“We will take it as a universal tool developed in this project, and bring it into future planning efforts, and let it mature and develop over time,” he said. The UACDC, in short, becomes a design lab for developing and incubating new ideas.

For Luoni, terminology plays a vital role in bringing a fresh perspective to design. His project title for the Morrilton studio, “highway ecology,” is not an oxymoron, but rather, suggests his aspirations for the project.

“The highway is an ecology. It is a web of relationships, and the ordinary things that are there and already budgeted into highway development become the resources that we work with,” he said. For example, the Morrilton plan uses familiar elements such as signs, lighting, wildflowers and landscape systems to establish the community college at Morrilton as a gateway to the town.

Located at the junction of highway 9B and I40, the college currently has the look and feel of big box retail development, with roads and parking dominating campus organization. The UACDC team proposed a welcoming campus landscape composed of wildflower meadows, walking paths, parking shaded by bands of trees, and light towers that announce the campus.

The team also developed the concept of creating a “thickened highway.” Using the boulevard and other multi-functional street types as models, their design introduces spatial cues that prompt cars to slow down and share street space with pedestrians. Sidewalks, hike and bike trails, parks, and other civic amenities signal that the road is a shared space, and a central median planted with storm water grasses and plants provides refuge for pedestrians crossing the highway. In UACDC’s scheme, Morrilton’s business highway corridor expands beyond transporting cars from point A to point B to embrace civic functions with potential to improve community health and enhance the environment – all at low cost.

“Steve Luoni is expanding our notion of what is incorporated in design,” said Bill Conway, a long-time colleague of Luoni’s who is head of the department of architecture at the University of Minnesota. “If parking is the issue, then he’s going to go beyond aesthetics to think about storm water runoff, recreational possibilities for the space and how to connect the parking lot with surrounding development. He also investigates the legal and administrative machinery that determines how projects take shape. His work is fundamentally collaborative, which is how one has to work in the public realm.”

Luoni is reluctant to name influences for his innovative approach – “I look at everybody” – but he’s gathered inspiration from key opportunities in his career. A native of Charleston, W.Va., Luoni earned his bachelor’s degree in architecture from Ohio State University, followed by a master’s degree in architecture from Yale University. The years at Yale, where Luoni supplemented architecture studies with courses in philosophy, sociology, art history and literary criticism, were influential in shaping his cross-disciplinary approach to design.

“Even at the graduate level, the humanities were important. Architecture school was, at the most, 50 percent of one’s education there,” he said. At the time Luoni attended, in the late ’80s, Yale’s School of Architecture also was pioneering a multidisciplinary approach that brought together planning, landscape architecture and architecture students in a single studio, a common practice today.

Luoni credits his years in Florida, where urban development has adversely affected fragile ecosystems, for his interest in environmental design. He taught for 13 years at the University of Florida in Gainesville, one of the schools that has led the way in environmental studies, and during that time developed a specialty in what he calls “recombinant design” – projects, like Morrilton, that combine civic infrastructure with ecological and social systems. Luoni’s plans for the UACDC’s future were influenced in part by his fall 2000 appointment as the Cass Gilbert Visiting Professor of Architecture at the University of Minnesota, where he was exposed to the work of Bill Morrish, then the director of the university’s Design Center for the American Urban Landscape.

“Bill was really constructing discourse in Minneapolis. He would bring together the people that make decisions in both public and private realms, and he would facilitate cross-disciplinary conversations over major planning issues, the same issues that we want to look at here: environment, transportation, connectivity, neighborhood design, highway culture,” Luoni said.

Luoni looks forward to initiating this type of dialogue across Arkansas. In addition to developing design projects like Morrilton, which become labs for innovation, he is developing a research arm for the center. A class titled “Mapping the Arkansas Landscape,” which he plans to offer each semester, will explore the geography of the state and the political and economic organizations that shape and are shaped by the landscape. This spring students are focusing on water usage and agricultural patterns in the Delta; other potential topics include transportation corridor development, tourism and the heritage industry, and musical traditions in the Delta. Eventually, Luoni plans to develop an exhibition and book about the Arkansas landscape based on the course. This research, coupled with hands-on projects, will yield new models and protocols for other designers.

“The design profession needs research organizations,” Luoni said. “When a doctor sets out to treat a patient for cancer, he doesn’t have to take on cancer research. There is a wealth of disciplinary knowledge to guide him in treating the patient. With our research, we will hopefully expand design’s capabilities and develop an urbanism that positively impacts people’s lives on the ground.” Stay tuned. Under Luoni’s leadership, UACDC may bring a bit of poetry to a parking lot, mall or subdivision near you.

University of Arkansas architecture students are exploring ways to bring the “big box” to the big city and winning recognition for their efforts. Under the direction of Stephen Luoni, the students spent last spring studying the idea of stacking big box retail buildings such as Wal-Mart, Sports Authority, and Best Buy into a “vertical power center” with architectural presence and unexpected amenities. Their designs recently won a prestigious Unbuilt Design Award from the Boston Society of Architects.

“This is a gutsy and imaginative study of a building typology that architects shy away from and are certainly never encouraged to explore with this combination of focus and abandon,” noted the jury.

The students’ proposals were distilled into a single 30 inch by 30 inch poster that was one of six chosen out of a field of 131 international entries. Their project is one of very few submitted by a university studio that has been so recognized.

“With land costs rising in congested metropolitan areas, the idea of stacking large retailers has been around for a while,” Luoni said, adding that the concept is complicated by the detailed store templates that individual retailers adopt to streamline their operations and introduce economies of scale. The conveyance systems, lift equipment and shelves in a Home Depot store are precisely calibrated to work smoothly together, for example.

Luoni worked with consultants to map the development protocols of major retailers and then charged his students with developing a high rise building with five stores that conform to these varied, and often conflicting, design templates. Each store would be completely autonomous, with separate parking, entrances, heating and air conditioning systems, and loading and waste systems. Developing a new building type challenged the students.

“We struggled with it,” said Trinity Simons. “There were so many issues to research, digest and sort through. We had to figure out how you can support a Wal-Mart seven stories up and how to move people and cars into and out of an enormous building.” The project also opened opportunities to take familiar elements from big box retail and make them more functional. Tran Le’s design, for example, replaced the gutters and curbs that typically channel parking lot runoff with a storm water retention garden that uses cattails, loblolly bays, and bulrushes to break down hydrocarbon contaminants and render them inert. Shizu Takami also introduced green space in an unlikely place. Her “Sky Room” design called for a roof lawn punctuated by large openings that admit fresh air and light into the retail space and allow for mature trees to grow indoors. Trinity Simons’ design quite literally capitalized on the large structure by cladding it with giant colored polycarbonate walls advertising the stores within. Möbius bands, bridge trusses and woven baskets were among the design inspirations for projects that would become architectural landmarks if built.

“I was attracted to the sheer scale of the project and the opportunity to work in the mainstream,” said Sam McGuire. “It was fulfilling to address a concrete, real-world problem and create good architecture that will be experienced by many people.”

Luoni is proud of the students’ response to a difficult and unprecedented project. “The student projects in total were very impressive, with each one offering something very insightful in terms of organizational strategy,” he said. “Their work shows that studios and universities can be influential in the profession.”

Current architecture students who participated in the project include Candi Lynn Adams, Ryan Biles, Carrie Blevins, Dusty Graham, Sam McGuire, Trinity Simons, Christopher Sullivan and Shizu Takami. Jennifer Caperton, Tran Le, Maury Mitchell and Justin Staley graduated from the School of Architecture last spring.

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