One tried and true practice for designing projects with a great deal of public interest - and public controversy - is to hold a design competition. Many important public memorials have been designed this way, including the Berlin Holocaust Memorial and the World Trade Center Memorial in lower Manhattan.
Such competitions serve several purposes. They open the often contentious process of designing important yet potentially divisive projects to public scrutiny, enabling the public to participate in the selection process (therefore making them more invested in the project itself, instead of as bombthrowers from the sidelines). They also help people see what is possible and what is desirable in a particular project by having architects imagine new and interesting ways to design the project. Instead of an abstract concept or a feared design, like the "Berlin Wall" on the Peninsula, people can see something that interests them, inspires them, and gets them to see the project not as a threat but as a possibility for welcome change, an opportunity to do something new, interesting, useful, but that meets their own goals and desires.
It is in that vein that calls for an HSR design contest on the Peninsula are such a welcome development:
Joseph Bellomo has a simple proposal for the California High-Speed Rail Authority: Leave the design of the proposed high-speed rail to the world's brightest designers.
Bellomo, a Palo Alto architect whose projects emphasize modular construction, energy efficiency and sustainable design, laments that the design of the controversial 800-mile rail line has so far been dominated by teams of engineers, each working on a separate segment of the line.
So while other local architects, urban planners and concerned residents are busy lobbying the state for underground tunnels, Bellomo advocates a different approach for selecting the design of the proposed line -- an international design competition.
Last month, Bellomo sent a letter to the rail authority, the state agency charged with building the $45 billion rail line, proposing a two-tiered international competition in which architects and designers from around the world would send in proposed designs for the entire line. The proposals would be narrowed to three finalists whose ideas would be further developed.
"The only way to get good design, holistic design, is through competition," Bellomo said.
I'm not as convinced that we need a design competition for the entire route, but a design competition for some elements of the project, including the Peninsula Corridor, makes quite a lot of sense. It would help make the CHSRA seem like less of an outside invader and more of a facilitator of modern designs for a modern urban landscape, allowing residents and architects and planners to come together to present innovative designs appropriate to the location.
This is especially valuable on the Peninsula because the objections to HSR there are almost entirely aesthetic (though they're rooted in deeper issues of economic opportunity and a desire of some to protect what they have at the expense of others). The desire for a tunnel is driven by the conviction that an elevated structure designed by CHSRA will merely resemble a giant freeway. As we've shown before, above-grade HSR tracks can be built elegantly, blending well with their surrounding urban environment. A design competition can show ways to build HSR that meet both the operational criteria of the CHSRA and the other criteria of local HSR supporters. Such a design competition will never silence the hardcore HSR deniers, but that isn't the purpose here.
Bellomo isn't just calling for a design competition in the abstract. He is also offering his own idea, which you can find at his site (scroll down about halfway to find the HSR section). His proposal is for what he's calling a "solar corridor", an elevated track with a steel enclosure that holds photovoltaic solar panels. His Peninsula design leaves two Caltrain tracks at-grade, allowing for its electrification, and a either a single or double track in the elevated viaduct. In some ways this resembles Rafael's La Vitrine concept from back in March, though with important differences.
I can't say I'm sold on the Bellomo concept. And it's unclear whether the visual impact of the "ribs" would be embraced by the locals. Also left unstated is what happens to the at-grade tracks at existing grade crossings. But I am glad to see him giving some thought to how to implement HSR along the Peninsula.
His idea of an HSR design competition for selected segments of the route is a very wise idea. It won't solve everything, but it is worth embracing.
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