Posted May 1st 2014 at 8:47 am by
in Featured Contributor

A Conversation with Dessen Hillman

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Why do you blog?

Initially I started blogging on my own at dessenhillman.tumblr.com as a way to keep track of my knowledge and references. I look back on some of my posts where I had a ton of conviction about what I was writing. Looking them over now I see that there are things I disagree with. So blogging, especially about urbanism, is a way for me to trace back where I used to be and how I used to think, and how I’ve evolved in my thinking. A couple weeks ago someone from Iran emailed me because he wanted to translate a blogpost I’d written that had been published in ArchDaily. I told him I’d give him an updated version because there were some parts of that post that I no longer agreed with.

I am an unapologetic terse writer so I come off as someone with strong opinions. I like writing that way because it generates equally strong opinions in comments and feedback and people raise valid questions and healthy debate ensues. If I can explicitly state what I believe at the point when I’m writing, in the future I’ll be able to look back and know precisely what I was thinking about and why and I’ll be able to criticize my way of thinking.

You curated a series on favorite public places. Why did you choose that as a topic?

 My background is in architecture, where we focus on buildings as objects, and sometimes ignore what buildings will do in terms of public space. We don’t focus as much on the space outside of the building—a fountain, benches, water features, semipublic plazas –but I think this is important for architects to consider. So curating a series on public spaces was a chance to critique my training by forcing myself to think about what happens outside of buildings.

Did you notice any commonalities across the favorite public places bloggers submitted? Where you surprised by anything?

I never actually specified what kind of public space people could submit. The only requirement was that it was public. But people only submitted places formally designated as public, like parks and plazas. No one submitted streets, alleyways, or bridges. I thought that was interesting and was a result of 1) me not explicitly asking people to think about unconventional spaces and 2) people not being particularly conscious about the fact that when they are walking around the city they are in public space.

I wouldn’t say there were other common threads in the types of favorite places bloggers submitted because the type of place really differed. To find more trends I think we’d need to consider more places so we could categorize the commonalities within particular types of spaces— similarities across urban parks versus similarities across waterfronts.

You are interested in looking at spaces from above through satellite imagery and even street and block diagramming. What do you think understanding a place from above can teach us about how places are experienced?

As an urban designer I look at cities from above and focus on things like street width, dimensions, curbs. I analyze spaces by asking questions like: How wide is this space? How long is this street? In studying these details about the public places people submitted, I am providing an objective point of view about that place. In essence, I am providing the recipe for why you might like this space.  For example you might describe a space positively as being very quiet and peaceful; through looking at the place from plan view, I can identify the physical elements that elicit that kind of feeling: details like the width of the space or its distance from the street.  Sometimes when you are drawing dimensions as a designer you can’t always imagine how that space is going to be but when you look at existing spaces and understand the feelings those spaces elicit for users you can investigate the elements that made it that way.

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