What does it mean to live in an urban area surrounded by miles of rural countryside? What is unique about the built environment of such a city? How does the experience of living in this kind of urban island affect the human-influenced landscape? These are some of questions posed by David Wang, associate professor of architecture at WSU Spokane, in Sounding Spokane: Perspectives on the Built Environment of a Regional City, just out from EWU Press. Wang wrote the introductory chapter, then gathered and edited essays from Spokane citizens - historians, designers, writers, and others - whose work intersects somehow with the urban fabric of this region.
The urban experience in the long-established cities of the East Coast and in the newer sprawling metropolises of the West Coast is widely documented, but little has been written about smaller interior cities like Boise, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque - and Spokane. Wang uses the term "regional city" to describe these mid-sized cities "having a significant radius of very limited population." Sounding Spokane became a way to explore how Spokane's history as a frontier town and status as the urban center for a large geographical region affect its communal identity.
"One of the reasons for the book is a certain sense of fascination with a youthful city like this," says Wang, who grew up in Ohio and spent many years in Philadelphia. "Coming from the East Coast, there's a sense of everything having already been done, whereas out here it seems there's still a horizon for opportunities. There's a certain pioneer spirit about it."
From the contributors' perspectives on Spokane's identity, Wang says some uncertainty emerged, a sense of the region being "in-between" a clear past identity and an unknown future.
"One thing that came out of doing this book is the realization that we've had stronger reasons to have an identity in the past," he says. "In the late 1800s, when we were truly a frontier town, Spokane had a reason for being. Even in the post-war years, Spokane had a reason for being because it was an active place for military people coming back from the war. But here at the turn of the century I don't think there is much of a coherent definition of what the identity of Spokane really is. You can choose to see that negatively, or you can look at that and see the excitement of potential."
Because of the disparate backgrounds of the contributors, the quality and tone of the writing is a bit uneven from chapter to chapter. But taken together, the essays offer just what the subtitle suggests: 12 perspectives on life in Spokane in the early 21st century, as reflected through our buildings, landscapes and civic structures. Among the highlights are chapters written by Ayad Rahmani, assistant professor of architecture at WSU's main campus in Pullman, and Matthew Melcher and Juliet Sinisterra, partners in the Spokane design firm iDR Studio.
Rahmani's essay, "Spokane as Carnival," takes a critical look at major public redevelopment efforts in downtown Spokane, including Expo '74 and River Park Square. Without dismissing the tremendous impact of these efforts, Rahmani argues that much of Spokane's public architecture was designed primarily for visual consumption rather emerging from the city's geography, history and lived experience. In the following chapter, "Authentic Urbanism in Spokane," Melcher and Sinisterra explore the vernacular architecture and authenticity of the East End district, a neighborhood they say "evokes a truthfulness about its place, its history and its users." They encourage planners, developers and city leaders to not write over the sense of place inherent in the East End with "an applied palette of plug-in architectural features."
In the last chapter, "Looking Forward: Spokane Falls' Built Environment in the Years to Come," architect Sue Lani Madsen concludes that the region's residents must step forward and demand built forms that serve the community's needs while providing aesthetic delight. To do this, she and Wang suggest we must learn to measure the benefits of a pleasing environment. "How do we quantify the value of delightful spaces?" they ask readers. "Do we ask for this kind of quality in new projects or settle for least cost with merely adequate function?"
All of us who live in the Spokane area must ask ourselves these provocative questions. What are we willing to contribute to the creation of a community we can view with pride? If we each took a "sounding" of our individual visions of Spokane, would we find depths and richness, or would be skimming the surface of superficiality? The essays in Sounding Spokane, taken collectively, prod us to such critical thinking, and invite a level of civic discourse that the city has not heard in a long time.