Wednesday, December 31, 2008

PHREE Accolades

....Speaking of Jason King and his blog Landscape + Urbanism, I am delighted to find out that PHREE Urbanism made his year end top twelve for "New Idea for 2009". Thanks Jason!!

Now I'm feeling a little pressure...

Happy NYE and PHREE Update

Hi Everyone,

Just a quick note here to say:


I know I have been lazy the last couple of weeks in providing posts and updates. I'm going to have to blame that on (a) holiday down time and reconnecting with the fam, (b) playing with and researching my new toys, and (c) my parents who, upon my arrival in the US for the holiday, promptly put me to work installing wood floors and flat screen TVs and the like, an apparently endless task. It's been a lot of fun though--haven't done much manual labor in the last few years and it reminds me about the responsibilities of being a full-fledged adult, something it seems I've been avoiding.

A short update on PHRWEE: thanks to Jason King's response to the series and his knack for editing acronyms, we have dropped the W and changed the name to PHREE (pronounced FREE) which is a lot catchier and likely to become the IT buzzword of 2009. PHREE Urbanism baby--that's how we'll roll in Twenty-Oh-Nine. BTW, while I am attempting to provide a synoptic view of the PHREE Urbanism movement, you should follow King's prodigious blogging output in order to see it unfold in real time.

I will be continuing the series in the next day or two, although I might slip something else in first, just to keep up the sense of anticipation...a dramatic pause, if you will.

In the meantime, have a great 2009!

Saturday, December 27, 2008



Finally, here it is. The moment we've all been waiting for. Throughout the past few posts I am sure you have been asking yourself "Geez, this Post-Humanist_ReWilded_Eco_Ethical_Urbanism stuff sounds really neat. How can I become a PHRWEE_Urbanist?" Well, here you are: The Top Six PHRWEEU Design Strategies.

1. From “Towers in the park” to “Tower IS the park.”

2. Get a Pet.

3. Fill the Void
aka Green is the New BlaNk

4. Eat Your Home.

5. Start a flood.

6. If you can’t beat 'em, DESIGN 'em.

Over the next few days I will go through these strategies one-by-one, providing more in-depth descriptions, case studies and references for each.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


History + Theory 102

Bank of England, designed by John Soane, Aerial view by Joseph Gandy

Today we will be looking at Owen Hatherley’s “Living Facades – Green Urbanism and the Politics of Urban Offsetting,” in MONU’s Exotic Urbanism issue. It is a great article that takes a rather cynical viewpoint of the recent sustainable design efforts. His article is important for two reasons—to caution us of the appropriation of PHRWEEU imagery by governments and corporations to provide a positive public representation of their ‘eco-friendly’ actions (if they even exist in the first place), and to remind us that the history of “green” design goes back farther than most of our historical amnesia will allow us to remember.
Hatherley begins with an allegorical recount of the completely shocking and grotesque story of Josef Fritzel. It turns out that part of Fritzel’s positive public image was reinforced by the fact that he built and maintained his very own… roof garden!! In this introduction Hatherley succinctly summarizes the issue of using a green veneer as a political strategy (the Trojan 'Green' Horse of Strategic Engagement):
Although it is obviously crass to extrapolate from the life and inclinations of this inhuman character to the wider issues of ‘green’ urbanism, it does suggestively make a certain connection. On the surface we have a sign of civic-mindedness and environmentalism, and on the inside…we have an unimaginable barbarism.

Bank of England,designed by John Soane, rendering by Joseph Gandy

Hatherley then goes on to remind us that the concepts of green roofs, living facades, and vegitecture are not actually all that new. He points out that green roofs and living facades have actually been around since the days of Romanticism. He describes how architects during the Romantic period would design new buildings “as if they had always, already been overtaken by undergrowth, fronds, weeds cracking cement and stone. John Soane…commissioned the draughtsman Joseph Gandy to render his new Bank of England…as a crumbling, overgrown relic.” Hatherley then gives us an abridged history of how these concepts have infiltrated and evolved in architecture and literature over the last couple of centuries, including J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World, John Foxx’s The Quiet Man, and the exotic jungles of Brazilian LA Roberto Burle Marx, placed in direct contraposition to the hard-edged concrete edifices of early modernism.
From Hatherley’s article we can easily postulate a couple of questions Contemporary PHRWEEU practitioners will have to contend with as this burgeoning discipline defines itself. How is PHRWEEU different from these historical examples? How can it differentiate itself from the co-opted versions demonstrated in Hatherley’s argument of the political offsetting of sustainable design?
As for the questions about political offsetting, I think Hatherley makes a strong argument for rethinking the role of the ‘green’ in ‘green design.’ When speaking about the living facades now in vogue, Hatherley suggests that
this is a remarkable transparent semiotic strategy, wherein by sticking natural materials onto a building’s façade, the impression is given that it is somehow in tune with nature rather than a hugely expensive, unsustainable waste of energy and resources. It is by no means clear that renewable technology itself is so picturesque.

It reminds me of a recent comment on archinect which offered a critique of MVRDV’s latest competition winning entry regarding the weight of the soil and planting, the additional strain it will place on the buildings structure, and invoking Buckminster Fuller’s approach to highly efficient, materially minimal structures. These arguments bring up another question for PHRWEEUrbanists: in the end, which approach is more sustainable?
MVRDV - Gwangyo Power Center, via Bustler

For the question about history, I would argue that what is different with the new PHRWEEU compared to the architectural fantasies of the Romantics (which would later inspire Speer’s theory of the ruin-value of architecture) is that what is now sought are strategies of immediate nature, immediate wildness, and immediate ‘ruination’ (for the last point listen to Libeskind describe his latest skyscraper for New York). PHRWEEU is looking to coexist with the natural world and encourage positive productive benefits through increased diversity, instead of allowing ruination be a state that is returned to after we obtain our use-value from a structure and abandon it to entropic processes.

Tune in later this week for more from PHRWEEU. Until then, I look forward to hearing comments, criticisms, questions, and suggestions from all of you.

Best Wishes and Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 19, 2008


Theory 101

While you can find a plethora of treatises regarding sustainable design, the more extreme form of PHRWEEU is an emerging phenomenon. Still, Post Humanist Rewilded Eco Ethical Urbanism is exhibited in many recent articles, projects, and competitions, which I am sure that you are all familiar with--probably much more so than me. There are two articles that I particularly want to discuss to provide a background of PHRWEEU: Stefano Boeri’s “Down From the Stand: Arguments in Favor of a Non-Anthropocentric Urban Ethics,” published in the first issue of New Geographies, which discusses a lot of the ideas floating around and the issues involved; and Owen Hatherly’s “Living Facades – Green Urbanism and the Politics of Urban Offsetting,” published in MONU’s Exotic Urbanism issue. In this post I will discuss Boeri’s article.

Boeri writes:

The support for a non-anthropocentric ethical outlook implies the application of a new idea of urbanity, seen as humanity located within a spatial context where cohabitation with the kaleidoscope of life is sought not a preordained hegemony of power. This implies an equal distribution of conditions linked to social mobility, experimentation with the cohabitation of different species, and building a different relationship with the components of the natural world. We need to think about an urban politics based on inclusion, which protects principles and values that affect the future of the whole planet and its ecosystems.
Boeri then goes on to describe three potential strategies for this new urban politics: re-naturalization of urban spaces, cohabitation with various animal species, and finally, to develop a new understanding of human relations which learn from these ideas of bio-diversity and bio-politics and deal with issues of globalization and increased diversity and social mobility. The first two strategies sum up what a lot of the projects that have inspired the idea of PHRWEEU—projects like Farmadelphia by Front Studio and City Zoo by Liam Young (Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today).

A key concept of Boeri’s article and these recent projects is the idea of rewilding, from the field of conservational biology. Wikipedia defines rewilding as “passive and active activities intended to result in the reintroduction of extirpated or once-native species back into natural landscapes.” A more extreme version of rewilding is called Pleistocene rewilding, the subject of a recent WIRED article. According to WIRED, “Today, the idea that you can use those same animals, or modern analogs like elephants and Przewalski's horses, to restore an ancient ecosystem is called rewilding, and it goes far beyond conservation. In theory, we could re-create conditions that last existed when mammoths walked the earth and the environment was healthier and more diverse.” Many PHRWEEU designs are looking to do just that—restore urban environments to their natural states by re-introducing flora and fauna to those ‘blighted’ areas.

Boeri’s last strategy is important to keep in mind—let’s make sure that the new PHRWEEU does not distract us from working to reduce the inequalities and injustices that still exist within the human race.


What Humanism means to me is an expansion, not a contraction, of human life, an expansion in which nature and the science of nature are made the willing servants of human good.
John Dewey, What Humanism Means to Me
There is no denying the fact that we are entering a new design epoch. We have seen the zeitgeist, and it is green*. While just a couple of years ago you could still claim to not be interested in sustainable design these days those words would be considered blaspheme. Over the past several years a steady stream of design conjecture has given rise to a new design paradigm which attempts to recalibrate the (not so) delicate (im)balance between us (humans) and the rest of the world (everything that is not us or produced by us, but more than likely is probably consumed by us); an attempt to place us within the ecosystem rather than over it.
This demonstrates a much different attitude towards the world and our place in it than has previously been exhibited. According to John Dewey, the great American philosopher, humanism means bending nature to our will. This attitude prevailed during the last couple of centuries and has gotten us to the sorry state of affairs we have arrived at today. Global warming, peak oil, environmental degradation, mass extinction; the list goes on and on. Artists, architects, landscape architects, and urbanists have been rising to these challenges in a methodology that goes over and beyond mere sustainable design. Much like the radical shift in thought from a geocentric to a heliocentric model this means a displacement of humans from the center of the design and development ethos (or at least a sharing of the center?). Over the next few posts I will look at the theoretical underpinnings and various strategies of this new movement, which I am calling:


More catchy than “sustainable”, right?

*Why green? Why not blue, or white? Are vibrant blue skies and crisp white snow capped peaks also not important?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Mines || The Last Frontier?

Diavik Mine, Canada, via NPR
It's hard not to look at a photograph of a mine and get inspired. Well, maybe mortified as well, but, yes, somehow strangely inspired. Maybe it is the megastructuralist that lies within...I mean, look at these images of Diavik Mine in Canada, featured in an NPR article today. They look like a land_art-megastructuralists wet dream: a massive earthen superstructure just waiting to be infilled, modulated, and plugged-in. Actually, if you flip through Justus Dahinden's Urban Structures for the Future, many of the projects resemble the mine's not so subtle topographic deformations (both innies and outties). Take Chaneac's Crater City for example. It is basically a series of man-made mines served straight up.
Chaneac's Crater City (1968) via Athens 9

Of course the catastrophic transformation of the earth's surface that occurs as a result of mining's processes are awesome, surreal, and sublime. NPR's article says that to create the Diavik Mine they "had to drain a lake and then build a 2.5-mile dike in order to create an open-pit mine." I am reminded of John McPhee's passage in Assembling California which describes the rapid progression of mining technology in California, from pan handling to hydraulic sluice mining, and how drastically it transformed the landscape:
As the mine tailings travel in floods, they thicken stream beds and fill valleys with hundreds of feet of gravel. In their bleached whiteness these gravels will appear to be lithic glaciers for a length of time on the human scale that might as well last forever. In a year and a half, hydraulic mining washes enough material into the Yuba River to fill the Erie Canal...Broad moonscapes of unvegetate stream-rounded rubble conceal the original land.
The NPR article says that "The Canadian government has stringent environmental controls and required precise details about how the mining will affect the wildlife and the countryside. Diamond companies also have to show how they're going to close their mines safely even before they're open." (emphasis mine) That is an interesting fact for artists and architects interested in intervening on such a large scale. Land Artists such as Robert Smithson come to mind, as well as Landscape Architects such as Alan Berger's Drosscapes and Shlomo Aronson's Negev Phosphate Works. Smithson once said that
the world needs coal and highways, but we do not need the results of stip-mining or highway can become a resource, that mediates between the ecologist and the industrialist.
Mirny Diamond Mine, Serbia, via Reformers and Puritans
How else can we envision the use and renewal of the industrial process of mining? I'm interested in learning more about this, so if you know of any interesting examples please let me know. One thought that comes to mind relates to my earlier comments about megastructures. Since there is actually a lot of mining and quarrying takes place in urban and suburban areas, can we envision the possibility of creating new geographies of domestic occupation?
Herbert Bayer, drawing of Mill Creek Canyon
Herbert Bayers' drawings for his Mill Creek Canyon earthwork offer a poetic vision of the prosaic operation of cut-and-fill tht could offer a solution. How about taking the excavated earth and create new urban topographies? We could vastly increase our inhabitable surface with this technique. Take a look again at the Diavik mine photos--each step in that mine is 100 feet tall, tall enough for a 7-10 story building. Start by constructing a habitable mountain from the refuse as the mine is excavated and then once the mine is tapped, fill it in and create a light-filled subterranean city. In the end maybe it would look something like this.

What Buildings Make You Want to Jump?

Ever wish that buildings would just move a little more? Instead of picking up a gun why not just come at it with the parallax attack? Do like the traceurs and turn buildings into your own artful obstacle course and maybe that will do the trick. I know parkour has been around for a while so I'm not introducing anything new, but the video I just found on JDS' blog of people jumping all over PLOT's Mountain Dwellings in Copenhagen is pretty entertaining so I want to share it with all of you.

It also made me think that maybe architects should join other professions and come up with a new useless statistic, say an annual "Top Ten Buildings that make you want to Trace, Climb, or Jump."

So now I ask all of you: What buildings most inspire you to jump, crawl, climb, tace, run, walk, or dance on them?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

EcoCity Policy Study :: China - United States

From ecocity media I learned that the US and Chinese governments are teaming up to do a ten year study on EcoCity Policy, or Ten Year Energy and Environment Cooperation, as they call it.

Part of the agreement includes the creation of strategic EcoPartnerships between US and Chinese corporations and academic institutions:
  • Building upon the announcement made at SED IV, the United States and China signed the Framework for EcoPartnerships under the Ten Year Framework, aimed at developing new models for energy security, economic sustainability, and environmental sustainability in both countries. The following seven initial EcoPartnerships were announced:
    • Energy Future Holdings Corp. and China Huadian Corporation;
    • Denver, Colorado, USA, Ford Motor Company and Chongqing, China, Changan Auto Group Corporation;
    • Wichita, Kansas, USA and Wuxi, Jiangsu, China;
    • Floating Windfarms Corporation and Tangshan Caofeidian New Development Area, Hebei, China
    • Port of Seattle, Washington, USA and Dalian Port Corporation, Liaoning, China;
    • Greensburg, Kansas, USA and Mianzhu, Sichuan, China; and
    • Tulane University and East China Normal University (ECNU).
Specifically regarding EcoCities, the agreement states:
The United States, through the Department of Energy, and the People's Republic of China, through the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Construction, agreed to conduct an EcoCity policy study, strengthen capacity building, promote science and technology development, and design an EcoCity demonstration project under the Ten Year Framework;
(emphasis mine)

hmmm...I wonder how I can get on board to help design the EcoCity demonstration project...that sounds awesome!

Sunday, November 30, 2008


Jorn Utzon, designer of the Sydney Opera House and recipient of the Pritzker Prize, passed away over the weekend. One of the 20th Century's greatest architects, who unfortunately was not able to build as much as we would have liked, will surely be missed. But his grace, passion, experimental nature, and sensitivity will persevere through his wonderful masterpieces.

Bagsvaerd Church, Jorn Utzon. Photo by Ole Robin via Flickr

Thursday, November 27, 2008


What are/were/will you be doing at age 28?

Some people* were making one of the greatest albums in the history of ROCK, pushing their creativity to the limits, expanding their craft, impacting the lives of millions of people for 40+ years….

….and all I’m doing is writing this shoddy blog…humbling...

*actually, George was only 25…and he wrote ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’!!! That’s like…rock god status material!!!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Jorge Ayala, Aerial View
From Jorge Ayala, a student in the AA’s Landscape Urbanism Unit, comes a project exploring ecotourism in China’s Pearl River Delta. The project, like most work from the AALU, is beautifully illustrated, diagrammed, and modeled. The AALU has developed amazing techniques for representing the various complexities of a site’s urban and ecological phenomena, kind of like Ian McHarg on steroids.
It is great to see a studio focused on these issues for that region of China. One of the biggest issues confronting China is the process of 'rurbanization', due to the "New Socialist Village" mandate from Hu Jintao. There need to be more innovative scenarios for how this process can take place and be more beneficial to both the people and places that are effected by this transition. The LU's process of intense ecological analysis is imperative for creating a better understanding of how to intervene. The key will be how we come to understand the complexities uncovered and develop strategies for projection and intervention.

Here is Ayala’s project description:


The project, located on a 27 square kilometer island called Qi Ao located in the Pearl River Delta, has the potential to become a gateway for Hong Kong/Shenzhen due to its strategic location and the increasing passenger flows through it. The site is threatened to become another generic Chinese urbanization that spread across farmlands and rural life. Thus the signs of scarcity of water resources, deforestation, fish farming and industrial pollution are already present.
Based on the Landscape Urbanism emergent discipline, the city proposal seeks to establish an eco-tourism strategy that embraces the existing site and its natural energies such as tidal variations, local mangroves and seasonal rainfall to assure the viability and sustainability of the island.
On Ayala’s blog he publishes a fascinating discussion between two AA critics and himself, which simultaneously validates and questions the work of the AALU. I bring this up not to discuss the work of Ayala, which is obviously quite thought provoking and skillfully executed, but to further the discussion of LU and also some concerns that I have voiced previously here on _URB_. One critic, ‘Rob’, questions the special brand of formalism being developed in the AALU and his quote reminds Alexander Tzonis’ article “The Last Identity Crisis of Architecture,” (although one would wonder if he would still think it was the last 40 years later), when Tzonis states that “the misdirected central thrust of the academic community is responsible in the schools of architecture …for engaging students into a futile game of perpetuating and perfecting arbitrary…hows without questioning the whys of their discipline…
I am not trying to say that the LU does not have good whys to go along with their hows, but one thing I would question in the end is the typically diagrammatic level of the final designs and how they actually operate in relation to the incredible data sets uncovered in the initial process. The data itself is developed into such visually stunning diagrams that I wonder if there is a tendency to suffer from a form of what Tzonis calls “paralysis through over-analysis”, leading to an inability to transform the data into productive interventions. To close, here is ‘Rob’s’ side of the debate (more detailed images of Ayala's project after the quote):

Much of the work of the landscape urbanists strikes me as essentially a formal game, which we designers play to amuse ourselves. That is, there is a set of rules (determined in part by the professional history of landscape/architecture and planning and in part by developments in contemporary European philosophy, particularly Derrida, Foucault, and Deleuze), a limited set of players, and a limited set of interested parties (those with sufficient training in the previously mentioned disciplines to appreciate the ways in which the actions of the players subvert the rules of the game). Most importantly, though, the game does not intersect reality (that is what a game is – an exercise which imitates but does not intersect reality). Typologies are generated, ecologies are analyzed, but cities are not changed, much less reorganized to accommodate ecological processes. The work of AALU typically strikes me as possessing only the formal characteristics of a diagram; data filtered through algorithms and passed off as innovative by virtue of its alien formal qualities. This is the return of the artist's obsession with form, robbed of their devotion to creating meaningful places. Meanwhile, the concern for ecology and process is reduced to a passing nod, a diagram that proclaims the designer concerned with ecology, without requiring the design to be altered in significant ways to accommodate that concern for ecology. Obviously, this concern could be allayed with further explanation of how "tidal variations, local mangroves, and seasonal rainfall" are embraced by the design. I worry, though, (based on previous impressions of AALU), that these (wonderful) concerns might only intersect the design when a set of data points is needed to generate a form, and fail to inform the design at a deeper level. While adapting form to data is an interesting exercise and, in the hands of skilled folks such as AALU, generates beautiful drawings and renderings, it merely exchanges one kind of formalism (the modernist variety) for another kind (the landscape urbanist variety). A better post-modern urbanism, I think, would be one that is concerned not just with adapting the forms of urbanism to data, but the processes - a much, much more difficult task...
(emphasis mine)
Material Formations
note: all images are the work of Jorge Ayala. A very special thank you to him for notifying me about the project and for allowing me to publish it here on _URB_.

Friday, November 21, 2008

_urb_ Updates :: 21 November

Some of my photos of Wang Shu’s Central Academy of Art project in Hangzhou are featured in archidose’s A Weekly Dose of Architecture.


I also want to point out that the excellent post Iteration City was written by Mark Collins of Proxy, who is working with Urban Think Tank and the Columbia GSAPP Slum Lab.  If you are interested in the issues brought up in the discussion you should check out more of their work and the publication Informal Toolbox about the work they are doing in Sao Paolo.  Let’s hope Mark contributes more in the future!!


I wrote a piece recently discussing similar issues but from a different viewpoint called Architecture of Mediation for an upcoming issue of Urban China which I will post here once the magazine is published.  For me mediatory architecture is a form of practice that seeks to negotiate the transitional space between diametrically opposed issues of globalization and regionalism, progress and resistance, first and third worlds, and avant-garde and arriere-garde positions.  I hope to expand upon this line of thought in the future.  What I find interesting about Proxy’s work in ‘critical urban areas’ is their use of advanced computational design and information management to innovate in this unchartered territory of practice and helping bridge the gap between spiked and flat descriptions of the global economy.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Iteration City, more on bottom-up

[This post is in response to Elemental and Are we ready for bottom up?]

Can we, as architects, sitting on a peak of professionalism and 'expertise', meaningfully inject ourselves into bottom-up processes?

Our own vantage point suggests that we can, but the negotiation is fraught with contradictions and assumptions. Bottom up means complexity, diverse conceptions of space and use, contradictory motives, opportunism that can verge on the self destructive. To be bottom up is to forgoe the sense of morality and 'consensus' that architecture depends on - instead one must act opportunistically, to make alliances with other opportunists.
Surveying Paraisopolis, a hillside slum in Sao Paulo

Take the circumstance of the Brazilian favela, typical of the majority of unplanned urbanism in its dense, ad-hoc construction and lack of infrastructure. These are 'critical urban areas' - so named by the Sao Paulo architect Hector Vigliecca, who believes the stigma of the word 'slum' is one of the means in which these zones are marginalized. The favela of Paraisopolis, embedded within the fashionable Morumbi district of Sao Paulo,  developed rapidly in the 90's, both because of its resilience to massive influxes of population as well as its ability to create a *credible* and even attractive lifestyle to many upwardly mobile citizens. Far from being a monoculture of poverty, the favela's of Sao Paulo are economically diverse - alongside the expected swell of the rural immigrants you can find bussinessmen and students, even the owner of Brazil's largest appliance producer. The favela is most striking in its phsyical characteristics more-so than its demographics - as all construction takes place in a legal void, ad-hoc construction, DIY engineering and chaotic spatial planning govern. The farbic, in its unceasing invention and novelty, can create flexibility and ineffiency in equal parts,  unmitigated beauty as well as saddening neglect.

Scheme for Paraisopolis, Hector Vigliecca

Paraisopolis through time, satellite images. From 'Informal Toolbox'

Most bottom up processes are resilient - they self-heal, self-regulate. This is true from physiology up to eco-systems. Self-built slums have their own cycle of catastrophe and healing, usually brought on by over-building or land-slides. The wreckage of older homes becomes the foundation for the new - subsequent clearing and excavation can reveal several meters of construction debris creating a kind of artificial mound. Overbuilding can result in distaster, as foundations are not implemented to support it. The city is constantly being built up and falling down. Despite the density the hillside suggests, the slum sprawls - there is redudancy everywhere. A thin encrustation of building envelops the hill, implicitly hardscaping the terrain. Water runoff is an issue everywhere; sewers, if present, overflow into the streets and ground floors. Residents cope through a variety of mechanisms, including their own ingenuity. Networks of PVC pipes interconnect roofscapes, re-directing problematic flows to the next patch of land.
Statistical view of Paraisopolis, from 'Informal Toolbox'

Our colleagues Urban Think Tank like to think of the hill-side settlements as a hill of houses, a literal interconnected mound of construction. This mental slight-of-hand can be helpful when imagining this complex urbanism as an integrated whole - its articulation, as highly individual 'shacks', is misleading. Some slum dwellers live between several houses, moving through sliver courtyards between small homes, sometimes living in the inbetween spaces - one finds hanging laundry, children playing. Alternately, a grouping of houses can be knit together - an articulated exterior hides a highly integrated interior. These homes are most readily identified not by their morphology, but rather the gates that embelish their entrances.

So what is an architect to do in the face of this plurality and dynamism?

Slum 'upgrading', as it is understood by municipalities across the world, is about infrastructure. Sao Paulo has been extremely aggresive in introducing electrical metering, road construction, sewage channeling and other infrastructural efforts to alleviate the ill-effects of overcrowding and unplanned growth. These efforts were highlighted in a recent 'Global Dialogue', which brought together representatives from governments in China, India (Mumbai), Egypt (Cairo), Kenya (Nairobi). Sao Paulo's methodologies were hailed as the standard bearer for slum upgrading and each delegate seemed to suggest that it could serve as a template for urban remediation  in their own locality.

But what about the space? Infrastructure upgrades invariably mean demolition, wich means relocation. Sao Paulo's response has been zero-degree public housing. Its unforunate, since it is the last stage in a herculian effort of social work which has produced the richest archive of information related to large scale slum inhabitation (for those interested, the city's online GIS system can be accessed at

At the Slum Lab, we have identified three modalities of approaching the slum, each of which can be engaged in in parallel, continuing within the framework of opportunism. One can sense the need for preservation, albeit frustrated by the slum's insistence on continual self-transformance. We have engaged in attempts to record the spatial characteristics of the favela, through photo, video, 3d models and data sets. You can approach the slum as a researcher and look to formulate hypothesis and construct models. That is our preferred modality at Proxy - we are foremost interested in architecture as an informational medium. Finding connections between emergent morphology and the myriad variables of sociability, financing, politics and physical circumstance is a deep project, which is made more substantial by the availability of new data and more capable software (software that speeks specifically to the 'bottom-up'). Lastly, the slum is a place of architectural intervention and invention. It must not only act in unconventional ways, but it must do unconventional things. By necessity, infrastructure, community and sustainability invest projects with a moral compass while the challenges of geography frustrate normative designs. These are interesting places for creative minds to work and experiment - especially given the void of conventional practices - but it means coming to terms with 'bottom up', whether through grudging co-existance or synergistic opportunism.

Slum Growth Models, from 'Informal Toolbox'

The 'Informal Toolbox' is edited by Proxy and Urban Thank Tank, presenting strategies for slum upgrading and the discourse that accompanies these tactics. It is published by the Cidade de São Paulo. For availability, contact Mark, email: mark at

Monday, November 17, 2008

Unremitting Gloom = Major Bummer

Here I am, enjoying my Monday, getting my week off to a good start when I open up the China Daily website and discover:


Damn!  That sucks!  Well, here’s to looking forward to next week then…let’s just hope there’s something to be thankful for.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


In a recent post I mentioned Alejandro Aravena’s group ELEMENTAL and their project for social housing in Chile.  Dezeen just posted a series of images of the project on their website.


Along with the images is a nice short text, outlining Aravena’s concept of ELEMENTAL as a “DO-TANK”, rather than the typical “think-tank” that has become so popular in recent years (also known as LABs in some architecture schools).  Of course architecture will needs more of both do-tanks and think-tanks and I think we will see a growing interest in self-initiated design and research projects in the coming years.


Here are Elemental’s three points (quoted from Dezeen):

  1. To think, design and build better neighborhoods, housing and the necessary urban infrastructure to promote social development and overcome the circle of poverty and inequity of our cities;
  2. In order to trigger a relevant qualitative leap-forward, our projects must be built under the same market and policy conditions than any other, working to achieve “more with the same”.
  3. By quality we understand projects whose design guarantees incremental value and returns on investment over time, in order to stop considering it a mere “social expense”.


I think I mentioned before, but just in case I left it out, what I find fascinating about this project is the combination of top-down and bottom-up design systems.  The Elemental housing initially builds a kind of existenz minimum series of row houses which create a framework that can be filled in as the inhabitants obtain the material and financial means to do so.  The initial construction sets up an urban spatial framework as well as a solid material foundation for the expansion of the homes.  This strategy seeks to counteract two of the main problems of traditional slum settlements—problems of super high density and over crowding, and faulty construction which leads to unsafe structures (easily collapsible and flammable).

Monday, November 10, 2008

Al Gore's OP-ED

Al Gore's op-ed in the New York Times echoes a lot of my recent feelings regarding the economic and looming ecological crises we are facing today, albeit wrapped up in a much more eloquent and succint package than I could ever hope to achieve.

Opening with a great argument for change (word of the year!) and plea for a strategic investment in sustainable infrastructure, he follows with a five point plan (the packages pretty bow that wraps it up nice and neat) outlining his agenda.

Here are some of the juicy tidbits:

THE inspiring and transformative choice by the American people to elect Barack Obama as our 44th president lays the foundation for another fateful choice that he — and we — must make this January to begin an emergency rescue of human civilization from the imminent and rapidly growing threat posed by the climate crisis.
Here is the good news: the bold steps that are needed to solve the climate crisis are exactly the same steps that ought to be taken in order to solve the economic crisis and the energy security crisis.
Here’s what we can do — now: we can make an immediate and large strategic investment to put people to work replacing 19th-century energy technologies that depend on dangerous and expensive carbon-based fuels with 21st-century technologies that use fuel that is free forever: the sun, the wind and the natural heat of the earth.
I encourage you to read the rest for his 5 point plan and more great rhetorical skills.

Towards a GeoURBanism

”The highways crisscross through the towns and become man-made geological networks of concrete. In fact, the entire landscape has a mineral presence. From the shiny chrome diners to glass windows of shopping centers, a sense of the crystalline prevails.”
Robert Smithson, The Crystal Land

Since my posts on Geo-mimicry a while back I’ve been thinking that the concepts of geo-mimicry and the “new geographies” could be combined into a full-fledged geoURBanism. I have been thinking that because geo-mimicry, at least in the formalist incarnation adopted by most designers, is too limited an approach to apply to every design problem. The combination of the two would open up designers to a more fulfilling repertoire of techniques and devices for researching, understanding, and designing buildings and cities.

GeoURBanism, in this nascent stage, has four basic tenets:

Design as geology :: imitation of the processes and forms of geological systems and geological formations, such as geomorphology.

Design as geography :: the setting up of relationships that enable a deeper understanding of a particular location or the world.

Designers* as geologists :: Develop an understanding of a given situation through its dynamic processes of formation; its microscopic structure; and its stratification.

Designers* as geographers :: Develop an understanding of a given situation through its territorial relationships; its topography; the precise dimensions of things as they exist.

The last two points are hard for me to define in a bullet point and as I have been thinking about them the only way to distinguish them from one another is through a kind of dialectical approach, meaning that my understanding of one primarily came about through contrasting it with the other. Here are some of my initial thoughts:

A geographical approach is concerned with the present condition as it currently exists on the ground. It uses techniques of cartography and aerial photography to describe a context from the top down. It is concerned with surface, topography, relationships between objects and themselves and the landscape, and precise dimensions.
A geological approach will want to explain how a condition came to its present state: where do phenomena come from, what forces (global and local) caused it to come about. It examines dynamic forces, processes, tensions, movement, time and history from the bottom up—it begins with the micro structure (i.e. crystals/minerals) and works out. I think it would be more topological than topographic, more dynamic (i.e. fluvial systems) than static.

Questions I still have are how does a geological understanding of a place differ from a geographical understanding? How does a geological project differ from a geographical project? If you have any thoughts please leave some comments!!
Obviously the difficulty in differentiating the two come from the intense overlap in the two fields, at least as they relate to architecture and urbanism, creating a Venn diagram where the overlap is the most substantial portion. Perhaps actual geologists and geographers would be appalled at the idea of overlap—not knowing either a geographer or a geologist I’m not sure how much turf-ism there is in the two fields. I also think that designers and researchers, as I mentioned in the opening paragraph, need to utilize the techniques implied from each field to gain a more rich and nuanced understanding of the condition that is being intervened upon.
Ok…more to come.
Note: All images above from The Collected Writings of Robert Smithson, and are the work of Smithson. Smithson's SITES and NON-SITES are inspiration for geoURBanism and examples of potential techniques for new forms of research, analysis, and design.
*I have a hard time defining myself as you may have noticed, and sometimes use architect, other times use urban designer, and other times urbanist. For this piece, and probably from now on, I have substituted designer as a catchall for all design disciplines: architecture, urban design/planning, landscape architecture, etc.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Image Impotency

The op-ed that I published on archinect is a condensed version of the original essay which went into more details about why I think architectural imagery has reached a low point in recent years. I wanted to keep the editorial short and positive. Here is the part that I cut out on the recent impotent imagery of architecture:

Architecture is currently experiencing an unprecedented exposure in mass media. Television, newspapers, and particularly the internet inundate us with a continuous onslaught of architectural imagery. At the moment that the production and consumption of architectural images has reached its most prolific point in history it has simultaneously achieved its maximum impotency. To me this has occurred for three primary reasons. First, the desire for increased shock and spectacle and the focus on icons has lead to the creation of architectural caricatures, which, while we can sit and pray for the icon endgame there appears to be none in sight. This is a discussion that has existed for decades, if not longer, and was probably most poetically debated by Walter Benjamin and Theodore Adorno in their correspondences of the 1930s so I will refer you to them for further reading. This point is more related to a discussion on the symbolic and representational nature of the architectural object itself, and I prefer in this text to discuss the images themselves.

On that note, the first reason for architectural imagery’s increased impotence is the architect’s loss of control over image quality and content to clients and marketing groups who want to insure the marketability, 'originality', and inoffensive nature of their architectural products, with many projects remaining confidential until their official ‘launch date’. The second, in my opinion, is the giving up of the image production itself to rendering companies, such as dbox, Auralab, and Crystal CG, which has lead to the corporatization and homogenization of architectural images. In my opinion we as a profession our misusing this unprecedented access to the media and it is time to reconsider the role of the image and its potential efficacy.

Public Images of Architecture (Archinect OP-ED)

I was recently asked by archinect editor Nam Handerson to write an op-ed piece. The op-ed, titled The Public Image(s) of Architecture, is now published on their website.

The argument is that one of the key ways for architects to become involved in politics is to create images that communicate potential scenarios for particular political, social, cultural, and/or environmental issues. It also argues that now is a great moment for designers to become involved in politics and help steer conversations regarding potential public works agendas that may come about as part of the economic recovery. How can we argue that economic recovery be more than just a bailout for those companies that are failing and that it can be an opportunity to re-invest in public needs such as infrastructure, affordable housing, education, sustainable practices, etc.?

Since people are looking for change, let's provide the images that can provoke the spirit of how that change can manifest itself in the physical environment.

The op-ed is purposely ambiguous on the nature of what the images can be, in content and form, because I think that they can be almost anything--utopian, dystopian (as a way of demonstrating what could happen if the status quo continues), and can operate at any scale--be it your street, your neighborhood, your city, your nation, or our world.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Edible Architecture 3

Pizza Hut with Chinese Characteristics

Ok…truth be told, I’m one of those people that eat when I get nervous…not that there’s much to be nervous about right now…but anyways, yeah, I love to eat food, look at food, talk about food, or even just blog about food.*

And when I can discuss food together with my second favorite subject, architecture, well…man, that’s even better! Which explains the abundance of food commentary in this and the last post.

One of the things that I love about living in a new country is watching the translation of culture from one country to another. Thankfully China has provided plenty of this during the past year that I have lived here. Sadly, the majority of this is observing the transformation of America’s fast food culture as it gets repackaged for Chinese consumers. Imagine my pleasant surprise to show up at Pizza Hut and find that people have subversively transformed that great American tradition, the salad bar, into a performance art piece of epic architectural proportions.

There exist two primary reasons for this succulent mutation. First, when Pizza Hut first opened in China it was quite expensive compared to traditional Chinese restaurants. Therefore entire extended families would show up to Pizza Hut and order just one bowl of salad which required that some member of the family go up and chock that bowl as full of yummy goodness as possible. From then it turned into a mini-competition, which is the second reason for the mutation—the competition became popular, especially among young friends and couples. How tall, how beautiful, how diverse, and how tasty can you make your Pizza Hut salad?

The parameters are clear: in all of China only one size and shape of salad bowl is served at Pizza Hut. Therefore the site constraints are regulated at a national level. From there the only laws governing the procedure are the laws of physics: How tall can you make your salad tower without it falling over? How heavy can you make it and still safely transport it back to your table? I have seen people bring multiple friends to the salad bar to help mobilize their formerly static salad skyscrapers.

The architectural comparisons are pretty straightforward. Economic, structural, and aesthetic concerns drive the design and critique of these culinary creations. Only this time aesthetics do not appeal only to the sense of sight but are expanded to the senses of taste and smell as well.

One day I hope to have an skyscraper salad challenge between some of the architecture offices in Beijing...if that happens, I’ll be sure to post some images here on _URB_

*I don’t really need to get nervous to have an excuse to eat, I just through that in for literary effect.

See Previous:
Edible Architecture 2
Edible Architecture 1

Edible Architecture 2

Top :: The model cake being completed

Middle :: The cake compared to the model.  Exactly 1:1000!!

Bottom :: The best part…eating the cake!


Since there is not much going on today I thought I would fill the void with a little story of human interest.

Last Friday was my project manager’s last day in the office.  To celebrate his departure he bought himself a cake…in the shape of our project.  Solid bars of chocolate stacked in a hexagonal pattern floating over a landscape of rich butter icing.  Ever the minimalist, the icing bore no words, no salutations or celebratory remarks, but rather was engraved with the regulating geometry of our project: the hexagonal grid.


See previous: Edible Architecture

See also: Project info

National Mobility

David Brooks has written an article for the International Herald Tribune advocating a "national mobility project", which, although poorly defined in his article, seems to be based on updating and increasing the United States' highway infrastructure, particularly when he says "Major highway projects take about 13 years from initiation to completion - too long to counteract any recession. But at least they create a legacy that can improve the economic environment for decades to come."

While I am sympathetic to Brooks' idea for an 'mobility project' it is hard for me to agree with his suggestion that the investment be in highway infrastructure and not on public transit or some other eco-friendly infrastructures.

Brooks writes that:

Moreover, an infrastructure resurgence is desperately needed. Americans now spend 3.5 billion hours a year stuck in traffic, a figure expected to double by 2020. The U.S. population is projected to increase by 50 percent over the next 42 years. American residential patterns have radically changed. Workplaces have decentralized.

Commuting patterns are no longer radial, from suburban residences to central cities. Now they are complex weaves across broad megaregions. Yet the infrastructure system hasn't adapted.

What Brooks' fails to mention is that the creation of highway infrastructure, along with post-WWII efforts to decentralize our cities (as much a defense measure as an opportunity to build up the fledgling tract housing and automobile industries), are not merely a symptom of the mutation of commuting patterns but one of the major causes of this mutation.

In Europe many countries, the Netherlands being a prime example, have been able to better control the expansion of cities through the planning of excellent national rail systems. While a system like that in the Netherlands would be difficult to implement in a country the size of the US a series of regional rail systems (maybe those same megaregions mentioned above) might be possible with the type of investment that Mr. Brooks suggests. At least we could invest more in intensifying rail and bus systems in those cities that sorely lack it and decrease the gulf of inequality that mobility, or the lack thereof, creates.

The creation of these regional rail systems could potentially change our current patterns of conurbation as much as the creation of the automobile networks did 50 years ago. This is perhaps overly naive, but it never hurts to dream. And if given the opportunity to dream such dreams this time we can try to learn from our mistakes, make better predictions through increasingly accurate models and simulations, and create a mobility infrastructure that is both more socially and ecologically sustainable than our present one.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Design Sheets

I recently put together some 'design sheets', kind of a mini-portfolio, which I thought I would share with you. This is only a small sampling of the work so it is difficult to get a full picture of each project, but here it goes. Click on each image for an enlarged view.PAGE 1 :: This is from my thesis project which explored strategies for intensifying intermodal exchange points of the public transit system in Atlanta, GA. The project looked at three typical conditions in the transit network, which I called primary, secondary, and tertiary node types depending on the sites geographic location in the metropolis, the transit intensity and territorial scale, and the context's density and programmatic mix. The specific sites were chosen based on current proposals for Atlanta's transit system, including a new downtown multi-modal transit hub, the Beltway light-rail proposal, and a series of BRT suburban shuttles. These images are from the proposal for the downtown site, one of the few primary nodes in the city.

PAGE 2 :: The project at the top is a housing project which developed a series of vertical strata which reacted to the contextual and programmatic contingencies: a landscape/parking/townhouse layer that dealt with the sites extreme topography and housing's need for a layered sequence of private, semi-private, and public spaces; a slab condition which creates the required density and a complex assortment of apartment types; and a series of twisted towers that creates an iconic 'skyline' for the project's lakefront site.
The middle project is a group project with my boys Penn and JJ for a bus station in Zacatecas Mexico. The project explored fabric formed concrete, new forms that could be made with this process and fabrication techniques. For the form we developed a series of hollow-core column types that would perform as both structure and as a sustainable infrastructure support system for the project, such as cisterns, gray water filtration, planters, solar energy collection, lightwells, ventilation etc.
The bottom project is series of ceilings that explore digital fabrication and design.

PAGE 3 :: The top project is a courthouse in Allston, MA.
The middle project is at Sirkeci Station in Istanbul where the new tunnel going under the Bosphorous Strait would connect the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. The design begins by redesigning the highway, creating a roundabout that connects the various transit types (water ferry, train, and car) by taxi for fast connections that forms a large public square in the center of the roundabout. A variety of programs were added to further intensify the site such as theatres, a hotel, restaurants, and a market under the raised highway to mitigate the effects of the road.
The bottom project is for a satellite campus of a junior college in the greater Boston area. The site is a big box retail parking lot and the design again involves redesigning the road network to break down the nebulous site structure into a more manageable geography. A series of hybrid buildings were designed to engage the new road system and develop symbiotic relationships between the academic institution and more public and/or commercial institutions to engage the community and leverage financial investments.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Megastructure Definitions

As an appendix to the previous post I thought it would be interesting to add the remaining points of Wilcoxon's definition:

...not only a structure of great size by...also a structure which is frequently:
1 :: constructed of modular units;
2 :: capable of great or even 'unlimited' extension;
3 :: a structural framework into which smaller structural units (for example, rooms, houses, or small buildings of other sorts) can be built – or even plugged-in or clipped-on, having been prefabricated elsewhere;
4 :: a structural framework expected to have a useful life much longer than that of the smaller units which it might support.

Banham's introduction also features other definitions:
Kenzo Tange (1964)
"Mega-structure is a large frame in which all the functions of a city or part of a city are housed. It has been made possible by present day technology. In a sense it is a man-made feature of a landscape. It is like the great hill on which Italian towns were built."
Justus Dahindian
"Urban Structures for the future"

Archigram's Plug-In City, prototypical Megastructure, via archinect

Are we really ready for the "Bottom Up"?

On Bottom Up Design, Megastructures, and City Regeneration

A few weeks ago I was at a client meeting for the residential project I am currently working on and the conversation aimlessly wandered over to discuss the possibility that future residents might desire to construct various appendages and outcroppings on the exterior of our yet-to-be-realized building. The topic was generally met with a large amount of eye-rolling and grumbling and a discussion on whether or not we can avoid it and if not what strategies we can take to mitigate the potential damage this uncouth display of individuality and customization might reek upon our great edifice. The landscape architect wanted to make an equally damaging comparison so he said something to the effect of “if you let them do whatever you want it will end up looking like the Golden Mile complex—this slanting 60s behemoth where everyone built their own structure on the outside—it looks like a shanty town!” At this everyone simultaneously shuddered and silently exclaimed “NO! Not the Golden Mile!” Everyone that is, except me. I thought it sounded cool and I couldn’t wait to get to my desk and do a flickr search.
Golden Mile Complex - Singapore - via Jonolist on flickr
What I found, well, did not exactly live up to my expectation. I had expected something truly amazing from the description and everyone’s reaction. Something more akin to the favela’s of Sao Paolo. But it wasn’t so bad. Maybe this has something to do with Singapore and their low tolerance for unruliness. More than anything, it revealed to me that maybe architects aren’t as ready for bottom up design as I had thought.
Golden Mile Complex - Singapore - via Jonolist on flickr
Golden Mile is representative of that class of building demonized a few decades ago but quickly gaining wide acceptance once again—the Megastructure. Few megastructures were ever actually built. Singapore might be home to half of all the specimens we can still examine. Safdie built a megastructure in Singapore. Paul Rudolph did too. Even today we can think of Singapore as a safe haven for the megastructural thinkers of the world.

Moshe Safdie - Ardmore Habitat Condominimums - Singapore

Paul Rudolph - Colonnade - Singapore
Megastructures went so quickly out of fashion that as early as 1976 Banham was able to subtitle his historical opus on the subject “Urban Futures of the Recent Past” and refer to them throughout the book in the past tense. The Golden Mile complex was finished in 1973 so it barely made it in time. But its existence is currently under threat. It is slated to be demolished and redeveloped, and a Singaporean politician recently claimed that it is a ‘vertical slum’, a ‘terrible eyesore’, and a ‘national disgrace.’ Who knew that a perfect example of self-expression and democratic freedom epitomized in built form would be so vilified?

Megastructures paradoxically exhibit the limits of top-down and bottom-up design sensibilities simultaneously, represented by Banham’s introduction in which he includes the four-part definition of megastructure as laid-out by Ralph Wilcoxon:
Point 3 :: a structural framework into which smaller structural units (for example, rooms, houses, or small buildings of other sorts) can be built – or even plugged-in or clipped-on, having been prefabricated elsewhere;
Point 4 :: a structural framework expected to have a useful life much longer than that of the smaller units which it might support.
The structural framework can be seen as the top-down approach where as the infill can be thought of as the bottom-up approach—something that can change over time, take on a will of its own, and transcend the designer’s original conceptions.

Example of super structure - Golden Mile Complex - Singapore
Today designers love to talk about ideas such as bottom up, self-organized, open source, etc. But are we really ready for that? It seems that we are only willing to accept these ideas if they are set into motion by evolutionary algorithms composed by ourselves that we can willfully manipulate to generate an acceptable outcome it the computer. But we might not be so keen to allow an evolutionary process to take place on its own, in real time, completely out of our control. I think many of us are worried that the buildings we design will take on a life of their own and lose that picture perfect image that we see in our minds.

This conflicting view is portrayed very vividly in an interview with Siza in the recent Croquis (I should preface this by saying I’m a big fan of his). At one point in the interview Siza claims that he prefers for his buildings to transform over time, that “things are really always unfinished. There is never anything that you can say is really concluded…I regard every completed building as a first stone: the rest has to be done by history…starting with the first inhabitant.” Later he (perhaps unwittingly) contradicts himself when discussing the restoration of his social housing in Bouca: “…the cooperative members did not want to negotiate the restoration of certain elements to their original state, like the open terraces which were completely changed with new colours that detracted from the original project. I tried, but it was impossible, so I had to design new glazed enclosures to cover the terraces.” His respectful approach to the restoration of historical buildings (he says that “‘nothing is more beautiful than the ruins of beauty.’ That is why the scar of history is to a certain extent enriching”) he has trouble extending to the restoration of his own buildings.
Alvaro Siza - Bouca Social Housing - Bouca, Portugal via El Croquis
There are some designers who are accepting of change. Some friends of mine reminded me over the weekend of Alejandro Aravena’s Elemental project which has a few resonances with the concepts of megastructures ( structure + infill) but implemented on a much more modest, and some would claim humane, scale. His housing project not only permits change but encourages and enables it. Knowing that typically people who live in squatter settlements tend to build their homes opportunistically—upgrading and expanding the structure as their income allows it—Aravena’s project anticipates the future alterations by designing a flexible spatial and structural framework that accommodates expansion.

3 Images above: Elemental Chile Housing Project - Alejandro Aravena, via ArchRecord

To end I will quote Ma Qinyun from a speech he gave last year at the Shenzhen Biennale on the idea of urban regeneration:
How can we inherit perennially the judgment of the city? That is, how can we predict today, now many generations in the future will be happily living in this situation as we are today?...I don’t think the architect should create permanent memorials, whether for himself or for history. The architects should always think wisely…Here I think we should apply our agricultural wisdom to our high-rises buildings; they can be harvested time and again like wheat.