At the crossroads of design and development

by Artist Development Fellow

Zena Mariam Mengesha ’14, a resident of Quincy House concentrating in the Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) Studio Art Track, was awarded an Office for the Arts at Harvard (OFA)/Office of Postgraduate and National Fellowships Artist Development Fellowship to participate in the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Career Discovery Program. She is interested in exploring the intersections between urban design and media. Zena is an illustrator for the Harvard Crimson and is a WHRB radio jazz DJ. After graduation, her goals are to work in urban design and start a media company.

What is urban design? That question, or the promise of what the answer might be, led me to apply for and enter the Graduate School of Design’s Career Discovery Program, supported by the generous Artist Development Fellowship.

I’m a VES concentrator interested in design and international and domestic development, and I was hoping the phrase "urban design" might describe the exciting crossroads where architecture, political theory, art, culture, and urbanism meet. Six weeks later, I still only have a working definition for what urban design is, but I’ve answered some questions that are much more important for my own discovery.

Things I do know, part one: What is "Career Discovery"?

If it’s 11:51 pm one night in June and you’re in the Harvard Graduate School of Design studios frantically trying to pack up your engineering scale and the correct lead weights for a drawing due the next day before you’re kicked out of the building, you’re probably in the Career Discovery Program.

The program, known internally as "Career Disco" or just "Disco," is a six-week studio intensive focused on architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning, and urban design with no previous experience necessary. That means many people who have never touched a drawing pencil or thought too much about the dimensions of a window or any given plot of land become somewhat fluent in their field of choice by the end of six weeks. Getting there was a bit like being churned through a meat grinder, in the most inspiring way possible.

Seven days a week, I spent every hour I was awake working on projects in the studio, listening to lectures, visiting the offices of professional designers and project sites around Boston, being critiqued, and finishing work in my dorm room when we were kicked out of Gund Hall at the end of the day.

The project I worked on for the bulk of the program was a design that would transform an elevated highway in Somerville into a bike path/park with a totally permeable surface. The idea, good or not, came from weeks of site visits, research, and zillions of design concepts. My project partner and I had barely gotten to know each other when suddenly we were deciding how the city might re-route traffic considering residential and commercial development, designing a new plaza and boulevard, trying to factor in an extension of the Green Line train, etc.

I know my partner and I made a friendship that will last for a very long time, which is why I’m not afraid to say that working with her on this project was one of the hardest things I’ve done. The task to create a new vision for a space is intimidating in the first place. Having to reconcile your vision with another person every minute of every day for weeks is a whole other matter.

In the end, it’s an infatuation with the subject matter that makes this kind of work possible. The endless possibilities of a totally malleable world and the endless frustrations of real-life constraints are incredibly inspiring. Whether it’s a six-week program or a career that lasts a lifetime there is truly no design without passion, excitement, and maybe a few tears. For me, Career Discovery fulfilled its promise to be a taste of that excitement, and a window into a field that I couldn’t have otherwise imagined.

Things I do know, part two: What can urban design do?

Urban design concerns itself with the experiences of people as they live their lives. I’ve come to appreciate my experiences in urban spaces as pre-planned to some degree. I now see a spontaneous moment under a willow tree on a summer day as a gift to me by someone I’ll never meet; someone who took the time to consider the kind of tree, the distance from other trees and buildings, and the character of the entire block.

Urban design works at a large scale to create intimacy of place. By designing at the scale of the city, urban designers look at the space, the systems, and the urban context of a space to create a unique, multi-scaled design that fits place, people, and history. It’s an extremely intimate approach that I fell completely in love with.

Urban design harnesses the power of intuition. It’s been ingrained in me that "real" things of consequence in the "real" world are decided by facts and hard science. Urban design has helped me to realize that "hard facts" are mostly used to justify giant leaps of the imagination, like the reversal of the Chicago River’s flow: a feat of engineering, imagination, and definitely urban design.

With so many systems—social, economic, political—to consider in any urban space, the designer’s (or rather design team’s) job is to be aware of them and then, though the problem may seem unsolvable, move forward using good judgment and intuition.

What Career Discovery has done for me is something it promised from the beginning: I see things now that I can’t unsee. I walk into an urban space like a park or a housing development and I have questions that weren’t there before. Suddenly, everything has become a complex and vibrant picture book that is created and recreated over time. With this new way of seeing the world, I may have found an answer to my questions about how to combine art with my interest in development work—integrating beauty and function.

Click here to see larger versions of Zena's drawings (copyright Zena Mengesha 2013): Public Park Bike Path Addition | Somerville Ave. Plaza | Washington St. Intersection

[Caption: Zena Mariam Mengesha '14]

[Caption: Detail of the Public Park Bike Path Addition. PHOTO: copyright Zena Mengesha 2013. ]

[Caption: Detail of Somerville Ave. Plaza. PHOTO: copyright Zena Mengesha 2013. ]

[Caption: Detail of Washington St. Intersection drawing. PHOTO: copyright Zena Mengesha 2013. ]