Thomas Guide page 671 H-1
The narrative of lost public life and public space is prevalent throughout Los Angeles. It may be valid to say that public space has largely been commodified and rarely becomes truly public in that some type of exclusion must occur for these spaces to be inhabited. Within the city proper, however, parkland is more limited and public landscapes are programmatically and ideologically loaded. In certain cases, public parks become more than areas of recreation. The community park becomes the public center, the meeting place, or the town hall.
Virginia Avenue Park, in the Pico Neighborhood of Santa Monica, is a place that has become a center of its community. While Santa Monica is widely regarded as an affluent beach community, the residents of the Pico Neighborhood talk openly about struggling to make ends meet and the challenges of youth violence. It was during the process of redesigning and expanding the park that these challenges crossed from individual concerns to community reality.
As part of the overall park project coordinated by Koning Eizenberg Architecture, I led a youth-involvement workshop for the design of a youth center. In the workshop the youths actively participated in the transformation of a former plastics warehouse into their own vision for the new facility. The workshop taught the teens modeling techniques, presentation strategies; collected information from other teens through surveys, internet research, and public forums; and studied other youth-targeted design (buildings as well as Nike sneakers and hip hop culture). Working with the youth, a strategy was developed to use simple building techniques, re-use found or off-the-shelf building components, foster both privacy and safety, and allow them to display a portion of the activity at the center.
During this process, the community was struck by a violent act. A teenage girl committed suicide. Her house was across from the park. She was an active member of the park community, and despite her age, was a strong advocate for the Pico Neighborhood.
On most Wednesday afternoons when I would show up, I would instantly see Julio. Julio was always around the park. He would typically wave and talk about what he was up to. I never had to ask. Simon was always in the lobby waiting for a program to start. He would often scold me for being late. There were others – a few that often played soccer, another group of basketballers, some mothers with young children, and some others just hanging out.
This day was different. A certain routine was disrupted. There were more people and different people there. There were psychologists from a local hospital, clergy from local churches, teachers, youth leaders, parents and youth. For a little while a community had a collective agenda, collective concerns and a collective voice. Virginia Avenue Park was instantly transformed into a crisis management facility and became the place where the public turned for support. The invisible dependence on the park was now showing itself. The park was completely different although it wasn’t because of the physical structures or landscapes. The people were different.
We contemplated canceling our session that day. However, the kids depend on the park, depend on the staff, and depend on the programs as a structure in their lives. It was decided to still meet, although as an architect, I thought it would not feel right to discuss a building. Despite the unusual atmosphere at the park, the teens arrived for the architecture workshop anyway. Some wanted to talk about design. It seemed that architecture was a way to avoid the very present issue of their lost friend and neighbor. Some were annoyed that people weren’t talking about her. Some thought it was “stupid” to talk about her.
We found a middle ground.
We started discussing how the future youth center would function on a day like today. We invited the counselors to participate. They talked about the kind of role they could play and the kinds of discussions they could facilitate. As we talked about a hypothetical situation, which was in reality the very present situation, conversation began to flow quickly to the things that they were going through emotionally.
For me, the architect, it was good to see the other side of the adolescence paradox. A week before they were shunning supervision, independent, confident to an extreme degree. A week before adults didn’t understand them and would reject out of hand assistance offered by adults. This week the fragility was apparent. For our youth center this was the architectural challenge. How can a place, or landscape, or building foster an environment of security and safety while also cultivating an atmosphere of freedom? On this day, the park was that place.
The park functions largely in the context of an understood system of equipment, surfaces, and lines. Basketball works with stripes, pavement, and hoops on sticks. Soccer operates on turf and perhaps garbage cans to shoot at. Swings and slides and monkey bars dictate a very specific and visible use. Architects often talk about space in the context of the underlying, unseen patterns of movement. In design, it is difficult sometimes to communicate the presence of these patterns. Recently, while at Schouwburg Plein, I was sitting on one of the benches watching some kids play Frisbee. On one throw, the guy on the receiving end ran to his left to make a catch. He stopped short with both feet together and reached out to grab the Frisbee as his body lunged diagonally. He made the catch looking like an NFL wide receiver at the sideline. The line that had meaning to this game was a linear shift in the patterned wood decking of the plaza. These patterns suggested a set of specific rules; any system will be appropriated in unforeseen ways by a creative public.
In the event of a community crisis, an unseen layer of this public park revealed itself like an overlooked line separating patterns of wood. There were many lines present and only some of them were on display at that moment. The youth center hopes to be a little bit like this park in that it was meant to house a set of articulated functions as well as a set of discreet needs. Some of those needs might not be predictable. Maybe it’s a little less like a building per se and more of an apparatus of sorts, a spot that can be appropriated by the public.