February 10, 2003

Planning the Future of the Inner City

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The effects of architectural conception on areas designated “ghetto” was the topic of an event sponsored by the Cornell Center for the Study of Inequality and the Cornell Council for the Arts this past weekend.

The event was the first of what will be a multi-year series of public conversations on the future of the American inner-city — particularly those areas designated as “ghetto,” “inner city” and “troubled.”

It was conceived and organized by Milton S. F. Curry, a Professor of the Department of Architecture at Cornell. Opening on Friday evening with keynote speaker Camilo Jose Vergara, a New York based documentary photographer and ethnographer, the event continued with lectures and workshops on Saturday with speakers from around the country.

The lectures asked how cultural and economic institutions — invented or appropriated — function as spatial filters of class consciousness and urban identity.

Curry lectured on his role as a member of a project that aims to affect change in the inner city of Oakland, CA. In his lecture Curry described the state of “troubled” Oakland, CA, a city that is largely split but urban and suburban barriers of inclusion and exclusion, and showed slides of plans and models of the site.

“In inner city communities the city is thought of something that is around its inhabitants — that which is over there — because that’s where development happens. Investors like strip malls and franchises. We intervene at the level of private developer or architect,” Curry said.

The professor, who has received the support of cultural and faith based community groups in his endeavor, said, “we’re bringing in financial institutions and that means that we’re involved in wealth creation within the community.”

“There is a theme of enchantment here. You can enchant impoverished areas such as Beacon or Oakland. You can rediscover the history of a site. These are renewal projects. Part of a reaction against post-modernism is this idea of enchantment — its part of the Ghetto Fabulous idea,” said fellow panel member and director of the Cornell Center for Inequality David Grusky.

The lectures themselves were largely attended by members of the College of Architecture, Art and Planning community, including architecture and city planning majors.

The weekend’s symposium highlighted the ability of conceptual and brick and mortar architecture to effect change and save a community.

“The event was organized by members of the Architecture community and almost the entire audience was from the Architecture School. This is a subject that needs continual attention and it is wonderful to see that it was a broadening of the architecture field,” said Professor Bonnie MacDougal.

Professor Curry was pleased with how the weekend went over. “I thought it went well. It was something I wanted to do for a couple of years, both to raise awareness about the existing conditions and to create a forum with in an academic context that includes economic theory and the practice of architecture,” he said. “These are people who are working in different ways on strategies that are really highly conceptual in many ways and deserve to be incubated in academia.”

“It’s clear to me that this was a symposium where all three parts of architecture came together: form, sociology, and political or economic context, because the presenters use all three in their work, and usually you don’t get all three. In all of the presentations there was an openness to awareness that all three have their meaning,” said Terry Plater, associate dean for Academic Affairs in Cornell’s Graduate School and a moderator for the event.


Archived article by Logan Bromer