Sunday, February 22, 2009

Much or Nothing

Here at RISD we are all citizens of an archipelago of departments and buildings, each one being quite private and unrelated. Though some attempts are made at community building within our institution, we are often left feeling uninformed and un-united.

In her anthropological survey of American cities, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs makes many observations that may begin to elucidate the obstacles an institution such as RISD faces when attempts at community building are waged.

In her chapter of the importance of the city sidewalk, Jane Jacobs illustrates her point by comparing an old-city sidewalk with the public spaces of a planned community project.

”The houses here are grouped in colonies around shared interior lawns and play yards, and the whole development is equipped with other devices for close sharing, such as a residents’ club which holds parties, dances, reunions, has ladies’ activities like bridge and sewing parties, and holds dances and parties for the children. There is no public life here, in any city sense. There are differing degrees of extended private life.”1 In many ways, these sentences describe the functionality of the RISD community.

At RISD we certainly are not in lack of common shared spaces, but none of them cultivate the kind of everyday, casual encounters that Jacobs sites as being so indispensible in the cultivation of community trust. I can think of only a one or two RISD affiliated establishments that are poised to facilitate these kinds of interactions, one being the student-run Carr Haus. RISD social life is based primarily around formal events and behavior-specific locations. As Jacobs argues, these trust-building encounters cannot be institutionalized nor formalized. RISD, therefore, stands at a disadvantage in it’s current condition.

The greater RISD community also suffers from another problem, that of departmental insularity. Another Jacobs passage alludes to this as it may relate to RISD: “These projects are not lacking in natural leaders,” she says. “They contain people with real ability, wonderful people many of them, but the typical sequence is that in the course of the organization leaders have found each other, gotten all involved in each other’s social lives, and have ended up talking to nobody but each other. They have not found their followers. Everything tends to degenerate into ineffective cliques, as a natural course. There is no normal public life. Just the mechanics of people learning what I going on is so difficult. It all makes the simples social gain extra hard for these people.” 2

The points Jacobs makes, are certainly valid points of departure when exploring ways to develop community within RISD, and without. Perhaps what are needed are more non-RISD locations where casual social interactions can occur.

My question is this, “what exactly is the relevance of Jacobs’ claims today, over fifty years after they were conceived”. What are the implications of her claims in light of the added social barriers we have imposed on ourselves, i.e. online social networking?

1. Jacobs, Jane, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Modern Library, 1951, p 83.
2. Ibid, p 89.

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