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Dirty Window Theory

November 27, 2007 - Dirty Window Theory
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Camera: Pentax Spotmatic. Bank and Gloucester, Ottawa, ON.

Today as I was walking along Bank Street to the gym, I got to thinking a bit about the appearance of buildings. Ottawa is a pretty bland city architecturally, and while it has retained a lot of pre-war traditional urban design in its older areas, they are often scarred by 1950s-era developments that have parking in front or side. Some of these buildings are now being replaced by more urbane developments that sometimes actually make the effort to fit in with their surroundings. However, they always seem to stand apart from their setting, and I don't believe it is by virtue of their age.

The gut instinct of many urban designers, planners, politicans and community activists is that a successful neighbourhood or district should be elegantly laid out and orderly. On the surface, this makes sense. Humans do tend to like orderly habitats that are transparent and logical. However, if you think about some of the most vibrant cities in the world, they have often been anything but orderly and clean. Think of New York City. Even though it is not down and out like it was in the 1960s, it's still a city where traffic is chaotic, the buildings are tightly packed in, and the streets are dominated by throngs of people going from one place to the other. You won't find streets with flower planters or decorative arches signalling the entry into some neighbourhood. It is functional. One can read the accounts Bertolt Brecht gave of Berlin in the 1920s and come away with the sense of it as a dingy, dark city that had an oppressive air to it. London in the 19th Century was a fiasco by modern planning standards.

Nevertheless, these citiesare places people flock to, and not just because that's where the work is. I think that in some small way, that people often seek these areas out. I think that they do so because there are signs of life there. I also think cities need to have this slightly chaotic bent in order to be successful. Is it possible that it is this very chaos that lends itself to being creative? If your daily life involves navigating a world that can quite often be chaotic, wouldn't this teach you how to think creatively in response to this? I don't know the answer for sure, but I suspect this might be the case.