The Exp Summer Daily

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The Experimentory Blog

Our year-round blog describes our program, values, and plans for next year.

The Exp Summer Daily

Our summer news consists of daily updates while we're in session -- giving a window into past years.

Grand Designs: Principles of Urban Design

Aug 1, 2018 2:31:42 PM

Most of us take urban design for granted. Individual buildings grab our attention--they are landmarks--tourist attractions--even wonders of the world! But we often only notice the space between those structures when it isn't working right, and even then we might not be able to say exactly why a skyline looks off, there is always a knot of traffic downtown, or the location of a store is inconvenient. But for our students, that's changing! Mr. Payne and Mr. Lawlor's "Design Where You Live" class examines the principles that can make our cities and towns help or hinder the people in them. Ian has been visiting--here's what what he found.

In the first days of the course, students began by looking at different examples of urban spaces from around the world. They examined cities like Boston and New York, Rome and Brasilia, and even our own Historic Deerfield. Most students could separate spaces they liked from spaces they didn’t, but only after discussion could they start to define exactly why some spaces were more pleasing, useful and practical than others. They learned that every space is different and has its own positive and negative aspects, and while it is impossible to make a space that is perfect for everyone, there are ways to maximize the potential of an architectural landscape.

To learn more about the principles they've been learning, I spoke with Arthur, Brennan, Lucy, Megan, and Vignan. All five are in the four-week urban design class. Each explained how they incorporated the ideas they had spoken about in class to make aesthetic and enjoyable urban areas. For most, it had been a very new experience. Although one student, Megan, had taken Mr. Payne’s architecture class last year at the Experimentory, and several students had experience designing with other types of design, creating a city’s landscape was a new prospect for everyone.

Our interview subjects: Arthur, Brennan, Vignan, Megan, and Lucy


One of the most basic design principles, according to Brennan and Lucy, is height to width ratio. “If you have a road between some buildings," explained Brennan, "you want to have the buildings not too high but not too short so that if you were to take a picture of it, it would look natural.” Lucy added that this was because “you don’t want to feel intimidated by the buildings, but you also don’t want it to feel too empty.”

Then there was establishing a focal point. "Your buildings should frame an area with a main focus in the center," Lucy said, "rather than random buildings scattered around. They should frame a regular area, most of the time, though sometimes you will have to frame an irregular area. In my recent design, I framed a diamond-shaped space. Mr. Payne showed me how to put trees inside the diamond to create a regular area within the irregular area.” 

Brennan working with Kristen and 
Mr. Lawlor in class.

An urban planner must also strike a balance between order and chaos.  Chaos sounds bad, but it makes a space more interesting and adds variety.  Lucy called the dynamic “order and variation.” Buildings should have variety, but be similar enough that they should be able to work together to frame the environment. Vignan offered a specific example. “We watched a video and one of the points was to have both order and chaos. We should have order, but chaos is still good. Alleyways are really good, because people like to get a little lost when they are walking around. Alleyways allow people to move around but also add some interesting chaos to a space”.

Besides balancing shapes, ratios, chaos, and order, the group stressed the many small details that improve spaces. Arthur described one trick they had learned. “[The spaces become more enjoyable] if you make buildings surrounding a space slanted horizontally so that the inner side is shorter, but outside is taller. The buildings ends up being a trapezoid. From outside the space you feel like the buildings are bigger, but on the inside of the space the buildings create it feels more spacious. You can feel more comfortable.”

Megan described how she combined the use of buildings in her design to make it more enjoyable and convenient. “I think that being close to shops and things to do is very important. Alan and I put shops on the first floors of buildings and residential spaces above. Then people can hang out on the ground level, and live upstairs.”

Vignan working on his piece of Boston.

She and her partner Alan also considered about how their designs should fit the style of the surrounding area. In Boston the houses and architecture fit a more traditional New England style, and so they designed their environment to fit that style. Arthur had a similar focus on the specific needs of the individuals that might be using the space. “I added pavilions, so if there is heavy rain, passersby can stay there and have shelter. Inside is a table with a map of the world and benches around it so that they can have a rest. I also agree with Vignan that sports can bring people together, so I added hoops for basketball, along with a mini-golf course, and a place for children to play.”

In the end Vignan explained that despite the many rules and methods for making the most of an environment, it is each student's creativity to make the space. There is no perfect space, and each has its own identity. Urban Design was not necessarily about the structures themselves, but the thought behind them. As Brennan put it: “In the end the main point Mr. Payne wants to teach us is that you have to put everything into perspective: how people enjoy things, how they think about architecture. You are putting everyone’s lifestyle into one space, and you are just trying to design something that people will enjoy.”

-- Ian, Program Proctor

Final project presentations take place on Friday! By next week at this time we'll have presentation videos and samples of work available online. Check back in then!

The Exp Summer Daily provides news and updates while we are in session in July and August. The rest of the year, check out the Experimentory Blog for posts feature our students, teachers, classes, values, goals, and plans for the coming year.