Last Thursday, David Smolker presented work from the Masters of Urban Planning thesis he will soon be completing. The event attracted interested parties from across campus, which came as no surprise given the interdisciplinary implications of the project.
The project’s site, the San Juan Island National Historic Park, commemorates the peaceful “Pig War” of 1859 between the U.S. and Great Britain. In terms of the American historical narrative, this moment stands for something much greater than a victorious military standoff: according to the U.S. Federal Government’s interpretation, it remains “the only NPS site that illustrates, in its dramatic and largely intact physical setting, how war can be averted and peace maintained through positive action by individuals and governments.” The site gained National Park status in 1966, and for David, the agency’s selection of war and peace as the site’s dominant narrative ought to be contextualized as historically parallel to the U.S. military’s involvement in Southeast Asia at the time. Thus, the site stands at the intersection of the broader issue of national, historical narrative and the place-based issue of interpretation and representation of meaning.
Having outlined the historical and theoretical implications, he posited several questions for the project: What is landscape interpretation (of the park) in the 21st Century? What messages are most appropriate, and what media is most effective? How can ‘interpretation’ connect to design and planning agendas? David then sketched out a new framework for user experience at the park using the National Park Service’s own goals as a benchmark. His proposal does not abandon the park’s founding vision but attempts to employ historical interpretation as a means for imagining more democratic futures: “The task of 21st century landscape interpretation is the curation of the broadcloth of historical complexity–the whole American story, or rather, the story that makes us whole”. In place of the limited notion of a ‘visitor center’, he proposes “a building that supports local community, national heritage, and global connectivity” or, as he deemed it, “Camp David West”.
In the ensuing discussion, David’s decision to focus his (re)interpretation almost exclusively on the theme of war, and to do so using graphic imagery raised several concerns. For one, the point was made that other appropriate lenses were embedded in the site, including ecological and indigenous interpretations, that demanded attention. Likewise, the choice to remain within the Park Service’s theme of war, while seemingly subverting the narrative by relating it to Vietnam, left several attendees concerned regarding the possible political and psychological ramifications of such an approach. So while the project can certainly be understood as being limited in its scope and critical potential, it is also a testament to the depth of David’s investigation and his polemical graphics that a powerful possibility emerges: by subverting the hegemonic narrative of the site, a new potential materializes that tears asunder the singular interpretation of place and history, potentially replacing it with a multi-layered interpretation of co-existing places and histories. Along these lines, the discussion ended on an exciting note of how David’s project can serve as a case study for how to democratize or subvert outdated and destructive narratives of nationalism and colonization by deploying crowd-sourcing technology and other means in which park users can actively engage in interpreting historical and cultural sites rather than merely being passive receptors.
Having focused on the project’s implications for planning and design opportunities,no time was left over for the ever-important meta-topics, such as: How might this project and its approach challenge the status quo of design and planning pedagogy and/or practice? In what ways is the project affected by both its academic and ‘real-world’ conditions? How should such a project be situated in terms of discipline, and how does this affect the potential methods and outcomes? In the future, we hope that Critical Design events act as settings for these questions to surrender their purely rhetorical character.