Concern for the Urban Experience

I have been fortunate enough to have studied architecture in the great city of Chicago. There are few places which could provide a better environment to study the subject. I’ve lived here for over five years, and I still walk around like a tourist, gawking at the buildings and urban snapshots you don’t experience anywhere else.

I’ve been getting worried lately about something I notice more and more. I first noticed it as a student leaving the classroom. The second everybody steps out of the room, at least 80% go straight to their phones or ipods, and only take a quick glance away to cross the street.  Then I began noticing it while walking around downtown Chicago: everybody walking around on their cell phones, staring at the tiny screen at their fingertips.

Don’t get me wrong, I love technology and have been known to drool over the latest and greatest technology, but I think we have a serious problem. We use our technology improperly (I’ll allow to take care of explaining that). What concerns me is the fact that I have spent thousands of hours of my life trying to improve the pedestrian experience. I lay awake at nights thinking about how to design something better, or keep refining a building elevation until the sun comes up.

What worries me is that I am starting to wonder if it’s pointless. Why bother spending millions of dollars and thousands of hours designing and building something when tourists are the only ones who notice? What is the point if people don’t even bother to look up once in a while and take in their environment? Architects often talk about the ‘experience’ and the ‘feeling’ of a place or room or street, but I’m not sure anybody is in on the conversation. Maybe us architects are being too secretive about it, but I don’t think that’s the issue here.

Look up from your phone once and a while! Enjoy a sunny day, and the tulips that Chicago flies in from Holland just to put in the avenue planters. Notice that new shop on the corner and take a walk around the block for no reason at all other than to enjoy the area. Look out the window on the train and try to spot something interesting. Please take notice of your environment. It benefits everybody, and it might just brighten your day.