Sunday, August 06, 2006

Using "Information Architecture" to Design Learning Communities

As often happens in life, a number of events have come together to get me thinking -- in this case about the role of history in a "learning community."

Friday (August 4) I suggested to my wife that our bicycle ride take us to the new bridge across the Coralville dam. I had visited it before, but it's worth a return trip. It's not just the biking, and the delightful design of the bridge with overlooks that enable one to watch the local heron hunting fish. On the Coralville side there are plaques with pictures and text regarding the early leading settlers of Coralville and uses of the Iowa River and dam at this location 150 or more years ago. (This was, at least in part, a project of the Johnson County Historical Society.)

What Mason Williams ("Classical Gas," "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour") has called "hysterical markers" are not a new idea, of course. And when driving it's all too easy to pass them by. But walking or biking are another matter.

Over 30 years ago I spoke at, and was otherwise involved -- may even have been on the board -- of something called the "Aspen Design Conference." At the time, I thought of design as graphic design (indeed, the successor organization is the Aspen Institute of Graphic Arts, which sponsors the "Aspen Design Summit"). At its most inclusive, I thought, perhaps "design" might include architecture and urban planning. But why me, I asked -- since I was none of the above -- anticipating Howard Beale's line from the 1976 movie, "Network." The organizers answered with the assertion that one could design anything, not just graphics, and that my efforts to redesign the whole of our society (with emphasis on media reform while an FCC Commissioner) was my qualification.

There was usually one person with overall responsibility for picking the theme for these annual conferences, and one year in the early '70s the organizer was an architect named Richard Saul Wurman. The theme he picked was "making the city visible" -- "
International Design Conference in Aspen The Invisible City 1972." Now internationally heralded, he subsequently went on to design some very creative city guide books, and invent -- and become -- what he dubbed "an information architect."

What I remember from his presentation in 1972, in addition to suggestions of historical plaques and posters of bus schedules at bus stops, were things like encouraging newspaper companies to use a wall of glass (rather than brick) between the street and sidewalk and the printing press. The point was that, with a slight change in attitude and focus, the entire community could become a learning environment, that "information content" can be found outside of libraries and the pages of local newspapers.

With this in mind I once urged that the University of Iowa consider some kind of identifying plaques outside of its buildings. The academic tradition used to be to name them for professors, scholars and scientists. However, most were dead and unknown to the current crop even of faculty -- not to mention students.
A few months ago I noticed that the University has now done at least a little toward identifying some of these early academics.(Today, of course, with the corporatization of the academy the buildings -- even colleges -- are named for wealthy donors.)

Growing up (1941-1952) as a neighbor of Iowa City's beloved volunteer historian, Irving Weber, I could not help but pick up from him while a boy at least a fraction of his curiosity about Iowa City's history; its origin, early settlers, businesses, and buildings. And in that connection I've often wondered why Iowa City's downtown merchants would not buy into the notion of plaques on their buildings identifying their predecessors. So far as I know no one has yet made a move in that direction.

Then last evening, while having dinner with family at the Atlas restaurant in Iowa City (Dubuque and Iowa Avenue), some classmates of my sister's at another table (who were also in town for their forthcoming reunion) were trying to remember what businesses had been located at that spot during the 1940s and 1950s. Unsuccessful, one of them finally came over to our table to inquire. No, we didn't know either. Not a big deal, of course, but it would have been nice to have been able to say, "Just a minute, I'll go outside and see what the plaque says."

Finally, in yesterday morning's (August 5) Iowa City Press-Citizen, I read Kay Thistlethwaite's column, "That Was Then, This is Now: How Are We Keeping Up?" She notes "plaques in the handsome entry plaza" of the 350 million-year-old "Devonian Fossil Gorge" at the neighboring Coralville Reservoir, the refurbished "Old Capitol" building in downtown Iowa City (from the days when Iowa City was the State's territorial capitol), the "Plum Grove" home of Iowa's first territorial governor, Robert Lucas (on the east side of town), and the Mormon handcart site (off Mormon Trek, on the west side), where Mormons who had arrived at the end of the railroad line in Iowa City paused to make the carts they would pull to Utah during 1856-1857.

So we've made some progress.

Iowa City is home to a great university, the University of Iowa, the state's largest employer and one of the reasons the population of Johnson County has one of the highest average educational levels in the nation. The community is rightfully proud of its K-12 school district.

But all of these recent thoughts and experiences with local history have me wondering what more we could do by way of "information architecture," "making our city visible," and providing a community that is, throughout, a learning environment.

No comments: