Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Livability Indicator #16: Fire Escapes

Fire escapes are a funny thing. Intended for safety, often proving to be anything but, are now little more than a vestige of a bygone era. They have been phased out of existence through increased fire safety and construction standards. Essentially, they were a cheap tack-on quick-fix. In other words, exactly the kind of thing you want in something intended to save your life, like a parachute stitched together out of tube socks.

A construction boom triggered by what Richard Florida has taken to calling the 1st reset of American cities adapting to the new economy of the time, industrialization, responded to the influx of workers from the agrarian economy of the 18th and 19th centuries to the promise cities provided. However, this is not to say that the buildings or cities of the time were terribly livable. As we know livability is reached only after viability. And industrialization was about jobs and roofs over the heads of the workers. We'll figure out livability later.

Product was delivered so quickly that only after numerous disasters was a fire safety mechanism invented. That being the exterior, wrought iron stair case, aka fire escape. Many (buildings) were constructed with the kind of logic you would expect given that context. Most often there were no doors, only windows accessible to the escape. So, in a time sensitive moment of extreme panic, it was as difficult as possible to escape.

This was done because they were, well tacked-on; constructed so poorly that it was unsafe to have more than a handful of people on at a time. By their very nature, they weren't intended to communicate well with the architecture, to be one with the building.

You know like when an entire building's occupants might want to escape a raging inferno, things like this happened, and a pulitzer prize for photographic journalism was awarded. Miraculously, the little girl survived having grabbed onto the swinging scaffolding of the collapsing fire escape. The woman sadly, did not.

On the other hand, merits of safety and sturdiness aside, they are not without their merits. Their nature was also intended to not avail themselves as accomplices to would be burglars. The main point of all of this is that they are a study in contrasts, in competing goals, purposes, flaws, and weaknesses.

The primary reason I am attracted to the nostalgic presence of fire escapes is the rhythm of shadows and details they give to buildings, something that Hitchcock first played with in Rear Window. Some architects even skillfully incorporated them into the overall design and aesthetic of the building, utilizing their asymmetrical but rhythmic nature to balance a building yet provide texture that otherwise might not be apparent. See many residential buildings today, that either appear too flat or overly "dolled" up with planes as a reaction in the opposite extreme.


So if we're not evading the fuzz (click the link for an amazing story, btw) or fleeing from fiery infernos, how could they possibly be a livability indicator?

Today, they are primarily used as evidence of expression, of dueling human emotions. The desire to live in urban locations, amongst others, benefiting from the efficiency of shared resources of the many while maintaining a connection to the outdoors, to fresh air, and in some cases a platform for individual expression.

They represent something adapted. Like many things urban, intended for one thing that they are not even well suited for any longer. Perfectly willing to risk life and limb on potentially poor craftsmanship, people have found a use for them that responds to changing individual needs and emotions, providing the worn patina of a placed lived in, of desirability.

What were once fire escapes now exist as gardens, as balconies, as billboards of expression, as party platforms, , as smoke breaks, as roommate breaks (because in desirable cities people are more willing to take on roommates and put up with their sh!t to counter higher prices due to the demand of livable places), and most importantly, as a place to get away from the daily stresses of your daily city life but be relaxed by the machine-like processes of daily city life of others as viewed from the outside.

Are they cared for? Do they still have life, albeit in a transformed, repurposed manner? Or do they hang idly by rusting the days away loosely attached to a vacant building that cares not for its presence?