Mind & Matter


New Perspectives on Public Space

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Open Space film by Yosuke Akiyama, Mio Sato, and Emerson Stepp.


Before we began our fall semester at the University of Minnesota, I had the pleasure of hosting colleague and friend Kaori Ito and 10 of her architecture students from Japan for one week. Dr. Ito—who focuses primarily on urban design-related research and has her own laboratory at the Tokyo University of Science—led a seven-day international workshop at the University of Minnesota’s School of Architecture. Five teams with students from both universities created short films investigating the nature of public space in the Twin Cities. The students assessed the current condition of public space and offered design proposals for its potential transformation, generating some thought-provoking results.

As someone who has escorted American students to Japan on two occasions, I know the profound influence that exposure to other places and cultures can have on a student’s education. My students and I have collaborated with Dr. Ito and her laboratory on projects that analyze various material and cultural dimensions of Tokyo—a city that never ceases to impress. This time, it was our turn to host our international friends, many of whom had not visited the United States before. As I observed the students’ film projects, I realized that an outsider’s view of our culture can be as enlightening as our experience in a foreign land.

For example, the Japanese students immediately gravitated towards the extensive, interconnected chain of parks known as the “Grand Rounds,” a favorite of runners and bicyclists—yet they questioned the prioritization of exercise-based activities and proposed spaces for views, live music and festivals to punctuate this predominantly linear experience. Other students took to the famed skyway system used by office workers during winter months, suggesting way-finding improvements, the insertion of cafes above the street, and the creation of illuminated, interactive surfaces to enliven dead spaces. The Mississippi River and lakes also attracted proposals for enlivening waterfront areas: Why not locate a farmer’s market or football tailgate party within these scenic zones, for example?

Our insightful visitors challenged the American emphasis on spacial quantity as well as the convention of one space for one activity. At every turn, they proposed ways in which to increase the density and multi-functionality of our public spaces. At the same time, the students encouraged us to see many beneficial qualities in places we take for granted—qualities such as the predominance of trees, undeveloped waterfront, and expansive, uncluttered spaces for relaxation and rejuvenation—all valuable assets that are rare in cities like Tokyo.

More information about the workshop, including the students’ films, may be seen here.




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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.