What's Your Design Story?
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by Will Wright
Over the past eight years that I've worked for AIA|LA as a design advocate, I've often reflected on one very simple question: When did design become so damn important to me?
Was it as a grad student at the Art Center College of Design? Was it as a development executive at a Venice Beach film production company? Or was it during my early travels to places like Sumatra and Sri Lanka?
It's taken me several years to realize the answer. Design scratched the service of my subconscious when I was eight years old. In December of 1979 my Mema (what my brother and I called our paternal Grandmother) gave me a gigantic roll of blank newspaper stock for Christmas. It weighed a ton and was as tall as me and nearly as big around.
I'd pull the roll of paper out of the closet, unroll ten of twelve feet of it on the tile floor in the foyer and begin drawing an imaginary network of city streets, sidewalks and parkways - a make-believe subdivision map. Then, I'd trace the dotted lines for parcels and meticulously draw the floor plans of all the houses on the streets, adding landscaping and swimming pools and embankments for trees and hidden forts.
Since my Dad worked for a home builder in the late 70's (He used to drive a white El Camino with a car phone like the one used in the Six Million Dollar Man) he often had subdivision maps and floor plans in his office. Most of the floor plans that were being built in the Texas suburbs in the late '70's were rather uninspiring. Also, the subdivision maps always struck me as repetitive with nonsensical patterns. As a kid that explored daily the streets of our neighborhood, I knew that the street grid needed to provide something beyond the practicalities of flow, access and easement. The street grid needed to motivate, inspire and encourage exploration. The street pattern needed to be organized in such a way that enhanced the performance of the neighborhood.
Of course, I wasn't really aware of what was inspiring my sensibilities. All I cared about was drawing elaborate maps of imaginary suburban tracts, and then filling in those parcels with houses and floorplans that captured my imagination. I was a huge fan of large balconies and interior courtyards, and I loved hiding the garages as far behind the houses, as possible. Front porches and ambling walkways, tree swings and trails to ponds and creeks were on the forefront of my mind. In fact, for some of the homes, I'd instantly convert the garages into game rooms and dared to imagine what would happen if one was to let the lawn become wild and abandoned.
As an eight year old kid, design wasn't the buzz word that it is now. However, in retrospect, I can see the relevance design played in fueling my imagination and making my experience as a suburban explorer all that more adventurous. We had a sprawling network of blank streets unadorned with houses, that had yet to be built. We had access to the underground labyrinth of our neighborhood's stormwater system, where its tunnels let out on Willow Creek and were tall enough that you could stand up straight, as long as you ducked beneath the cobwebs. Ah, Willow Creek with its water moccasins and bottomless pits. You could hunt for crawdads in the mud, even. Or blackberries in the brambles!
The neighborhood grid pattern was my playground and its borders (the pine woods of suburban Houston, Texas) enabled easy access to unchartered territory. Urban exploration, guided by the design layout of a neighborhood's street pattern, allowed me to grow up in a world that was more about the what-if's of all the rough-edges and less about the predictable manipulations of the subdivision developer. However, as a thirty-nine year old, I am just now realizing that perhaps, just perhaps, it was designed that way on purpose!
It's been a while since I thought about that blank roll of newspaper stock. Perhaps it's time to search through the attic and re-examine what those neighborhoods would look like now thirty years later.
Director of Government & Public Affairs
AIA Los Angeles
That's my design story. What's yours?
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