Jackie and I rode the yellow bus into campus yesterday evening and attended a reception for and talk by Rick Bell about Active Design—using architecture to encourage people to move more, to eat better, etc.

We enjoyed it, and found the ideas very interesting, even though the talk itself was only fair—a long series of slides with pictures of places that exemplified one or another aspect of what he’s talking about, arranged geographically rather than according to the principles he’s suggesting. (The talk would have been more interesting for me if it had been organized by idea, rather than by place.)

One focus throughout the talk was on staircases. Of course any multilevel public space needs to have elevators (to make the space available to people who can’t climb stairs) and perhaps other things as well—ramps, escalators, and so on. But stairs are required too (for fire safety, if nothing else) and Bell points out that staircases can be done well or badly. In a bare concrete box closed in behind fire doors, they’re pretty uninviting. Brought out front and center, they can be wonderful. They can be beautiful design elements—glass stairs can float in the space, mirrored risers can reflect the space, etc. Staircases—if they’re broad enough—can also be places where people gather in small groups to stand or sit together. He had a photo of what I guess is a famous red staircase being used that way. (The talk was for architecture students, and was full of references to famous architecture and architects that mostly meant very little to me.)

He also had some photos of places where these things had been done badly, such as a second-floor fitness center with escalators to the entrance, and no sign of where the stairs might be, even if you wanted to use them.

There’s a lot to Active Design besides staircases—walkable spaces, bicycling infrastructure, creating (often re-creating) multimodal transportation infrastructure (like having bike paths and foot paths lead to and from the bus station, and having the bus station co-located with the train station and a bicycle rental place), seasonally appropriate spaces (like skating rinks), bringing food production into the city center, etc.

I’m glad we went. I’m glad we went by bus, rather than driving.

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2 thoughts on “Rick Bell talk on Active Design

  1. I’d like to think that the absurd conclusion of Active Design would be mazes everywhere to increase walking distances, and of stairs that go too far up, and back down again.

    That said, you’re especially right about how staircases can be beautiful things. Case in point, the glass staircase in Siebel. It’s absolutely gorgeous and ties the building together like a cinched belt ties an outfit together. Unfortunately, walking up more than one flight on it takes twice as long as any of the other staircases in the building, so it is perhaps less used than it could be.

    I think it’s also interesting to think how Active Design ought to become more important as population density increases, while at the same time perhaps making it more difficult to implement (how do you do active design in the sort of tall building where one must use elevators?).

  2. There’s so much more you could do, if you wanted to take Active Design to its most absurd conclusion! (For example, you could lock doors with huge decorative keys that weighed many pounds each, so unlocking them would be a weight-lifting exercise.)

    But we had moved so far in the opposite direction, with locations that are literally unwalkable—neighborhoods separated from grocery stores by freeways, overpasses with no sidewalks—and many others that are so unwelcoming as to be unwalkable as a practical matter, where the buildings turn a blank wall to one side of the sidewalk while high-speed traffic zips past on the other side.

    We can go a long way before we reach the absurd conclusion.

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