There are at least two levels of invisibility in my town, two layers of its cross-section where you have to struggle to find signs of life. There is an upper layer-the anonymous and blank windows of the high rise office towers-and a lower layer-empty retail shops and lobbies reflecting the level of occupancy of the floors rising above them.
Colleagues are now in the midst of the periodic ritual of designing infills for empty storefronts in the CBD. The first of these that I remember occurred back in the early eighties. It was a joint venture sponsored by the local architectural professionals and the local artists market. Reasonable successful as a promotional event, artists filled up empty shop windows in the shadows of the GM headquarters, where Saks Fifth Avenue had long served the city and finally pulled up for the suburbs. Their works seemed delightfully in the right place, numbered for reference in the weeks-long auction that took place while they were on view.
In an interim attempt to clean up the city for some event that might draw visitors here from other places, the city commissioned decals for the upper windows of many of the downtown buildings to attempt to convey a sense of life and occupation in the ever declining city. Scenes of curtained windows and table top lamps to be viewed by the “people mover” that cruised the unpopulated city at the second and third floor levels, the program was met with more derision than appreciation, and caused more attention to the reality that it attempted to mask.
More recently, when the Superbowl came to town a couple of years ago, the local architects and contractors teamed up under the auspices of the downtown business association to fill up shopfronts with some form of creative construction. Some baldly promotional and off-purpose, and others only half-heartedly committed, they were left to decay shortly after the event and, as the earlier attempts, contributed to the sense of abandonment.
Another initiative is now in the works. As I watch colleagues prepare their submission, I have too much memory of the past to become enthusiastic and supportive of the present, already seeing the future.
But their work got me thinking. I propose an inversion of the city’s cross section, or at least a partial inversion. I want to make work-that is, working- visible. What is up should come down, what is down should become real.
The abandonment of storefronts in the city is caused by the fact that the offices above them are so lightly occupied that the market for the amount of retail space in the city is unsustainable. Preservation of these spaces as “storefronts” under a fantasy of retail restoration only perpetuates, maybe accelerates, decay.
Upstairs, invisible to the world, are the remnants of corporations, professional firms, and others who have maintained their place in the city. Who they are and what they do and how they contribute and why they are here-is invisible. These are lonely places. Nobody shares an elevator with you. Walking the halls stirs uneasiness, wondering who else might be there who should not be there and wondering why you are. We squeeze in under low ceilings and look out of small windows from ever-shrinking space.
I want to move downstairs. I want to be in expansive spaces with high ceilings. I want to be in light filled spaces where high windows bring sunlight deep into the interior. I want to have a reason to put what I do prominently on display. I want to look out and see people, maybe even greet people, rather than look across to an unoccupied building across the way, or down to the streams of people leaving the city.
So, I propose that landlords reconsider the use of their buildings, that brokers reconsider how they promote space and to whom, and I propose that everybody left upstairs goes downstairs. There just might be enough of us to fill up the ground level of all of our buildings. And if we did we’d have a city that is alive. We would see who is here. We would see the work we all do. We would get to know each other better and probably collaborate with each other more frequently. We’d build energy from our own activity and reinforced by the visible activity of others.
The upper floors of our buildings would remain anonymous and invisible and, for the moment, irrelevant. But the ground floors would be lighted, active, visible, productive, energizing, and more than sustainable.
3/24/9 This just in