Thursday, June 26, 2008

Skycraper Quotes

Today while rummaging in the library I came across a very interesting book on skyscrapers called The Skyward Trend of Thought: The Metaphysics of the American Skyscraper, by Thomas AP van Leeuwen. In the book I found these amazing quotes about tall buildings from practitioners, theorists, and critics written towards the beginning of the skyscraper phenomenon (one even written before skyscrapers were really a possibility). I find them considerably poignant and relevant still today considering the continued exaltation of the skyscraper by architects and their patrons and the unquestioned building type of choice for the building boom in the Middle and Far Easts. While I am not a detractor of the skyscraper, these quotes do give us something to reflect upon. Here is a small sampling of the quotes I found:

On Philosophy

Psyche and the Pskyscraper.
If you are a philosopher you can do this thing: you can go to the top of a high building, look down upon your fellow men 300 feet below, and despise them as insects…The philosopher gazes into the infinite heavens above him, and allows his sold to expand in the influence of his new view. He feels that he is the heir to Eternity and the child of Time…And when the philosopher takes the elevator down, his mind is broader, his heart is at peace, and his conception of the cosmogony of creation is as wide as the buckle of Orion’s summer belt.

-John O’Henry, The Complete Works of O’Henry (1953)

On the Architect

‘Go to now. Let us build a tower whose top may reach unto heaven.’ From that day to this, whenever men have become skillful architects at all, there has been a tendency in them to build high; not in any religious feeling, but in mere exuberance of spirit and power – as they dance or sing – with a certain mingling of vanity – like a child builds tower of cards.

-John Ruskin, from a lecture in 1853

On Construction

Building skyscrapers is the nearest peace-time equivalent of war. In fact, the analogy is startling, even to the occasional grim reality of a building accident where maimed bodies, and even death, remind us that we are fighting a war of construction against the forces of nature.

-Col. William A. Starrett, Skyscrapers and the Men Who Build Them (1928)

On Spectacle

The Empire State Building – The Eighth Wonder of the World. The tallest and most famous of all time… as high as all the original Seven Wonders piled one on top of the other. A city in itself – virtually a city of marvels.

-Theodore James Jr.,
The Empire State Building (1975)

Partly as a realistic analogy to the destruction of the Temple, and partly as a reference to the discontinuation of the Tower of Babel…the complex was designed to temporarily eradicate itself: ‘It is intended to incorporate in the structure a system of pipes through which, when the building is empty of visitors, it will be possible to force volumes of gas which will envelope the structure to its full height presenting, in conjunction with other means, an impressive spectacle of the destruction of the Temple…when the clouds of gas drift away the structure will be found unharmed.’

- Eugene Clute ‘Dr. John Wesley Kelchner’s Restoration of King Solomon’s Temple and Citadel; Helmle and Corbett Architects’ published in
Pencil Points (1925). A description of Corbett and Helmle’s proposal to reproduce Solomon’s Temple in Manhattan.

On Preservation

The tearing down and building that is forever going on here, at the heart of things, give evidence of vigor and vitality that will continue to demolish and create.

Schultz and Simmons, Offices in the Sky (1959)

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Pic of the Day, 15 June 2008

sous les pave la plage, originally uploaded by o d b.

Dreaming of the beach in Beijing. A construction fence adds much needed blue sky and palm trees to a dreary summer day. Funnily enough, this picture was taken a day before they removed the paving stones, revealing the sand underneath.

I am leaving for the airport in a few moments to go on my summer holiday to the beach in Sanya and the rolling mountains along the River Li in Guilin. What was once just a dream embodied on a construction fence will soon become a reality.

Water Worlds (aka AquaURBanism)

Tomorrow (or, later today actually) I’m off on holiday to Yangshuo and Sanya for what will probably end up a rain-soaked vacation. Apparently it is already flooded in Yangshuo and frogs and snakes are taking over the streets! Rather than cancel our precariously planned trip we have decided to head straight into the murky waters. In anticipation of this predicament I have decided to write about something that seems to be a hot topic in today’s urban design avant-garde: aquaURBanismTM.

ISAR's HydroNet, winner of this year's History Channel City of the Future contest.

AquaURBanismTM is architecture and urban design that deal primarily with issues of water (duh!). Aqueducts, oil derricks, lily pads, etc, are among the inspiration for this branch of urbanism that has picked up steam in recent years due to predictions that global climate change will result in many of our coastal cities being flooded with at least 1m of water, forcing mass exodus and migration. As such aquaURBanist strategies place an inordinate emphasis on hydrology as a design-driver. We can think of Olmsted's Emerald Necklace as an early precedent for aquaURBanism, demonstrating the link between aquaURBanism and Landscape Urbanist strategies. Recently, AquaURBanismTM has been made famous again by the History Channel’s City of the Future contest (wait…the history channel is doing a city of the future contest?), with aquaURBanism featuring prominently in the both of the winning schemes of the last two years: Iwamoto Scott’s “Hydro-Net” and UrbanLab’s “Growing Water”.

Many of the aquaURBanist projects—but not all, of course—fall in a subcategory of ARCOLOGIES, the branch of design invented by Paolo Soleri and most successful in works of Science Fiction. I have recently become pretty fascinated with the arcology concept, part of the reason why I have picked up an addiction to the SF genre relatively late in life—as in, like, two months ago. Now I can’t get enough of the stuff. I will now refer to Wikipedia for the definition of arcology:

Arcology, from the words "ecology" and "architecture,"[1] is a set of architectural design principles aimed toward the design of enormous habitats (hyperstructures) of extremely high human population density. These largely hypothetical structures,y are often portrayed as self-contained or economically self-sufficient. called "arcologies," would contain a variety of residential and commercial facilities and minimize individual human environmental impact.

Today I am going to bring up three recent aquaURBanist projects that I have happened across. The first is LILYPAD: A Floating Ecopolis for Ecological Refugees, designed by super-young Belgian designer Vincent Callebaut, which was featured in an Archinect showcase feature today. Assuming that millions of people will be displaced by rising flood waters, Callebaut’s scheme is described as a “prototypical auto-sufficient amphibious city”.

LILYPAD, by Vincent Callebaut

In this bio-mimetic vision of the future people will live on gigantic lily pads that will house up to 50,000 people each. Each individual lily pad will have three mountains and three marinas dedicated to separate functions: work, shopping, and entertainment, respectfully, leading one to wonder—where has this guy been? Hasn’t he been filled in on our polyprogrammatic needs? Cross-pollination baby! I want a mountain with all three at once….nah, just kidding. Callebaut describes his project as an “Ecopolis”, updating the terminology of the arcology concept, but in a great moment of branding genius placed eco in front and describes it as a city rather than architecture. All kidding aside, the projects imagery is quite an enticing vision of the future—who would not want to live on a resort—although visually it reminds me more of icebergs and oil derricks than lilypads. Lilypads, to me, would suggest a more horizontal and dispersed aquaURBan conglomeration rather than a single aqualith. All in all it is a very interesting and thought-provoking project. I greatly appreciate his pro-active stance towards the problems we might face in the future and I hope some serious research begins to take place regarding these issues.

Urbanarbolismo: Maps of Spain's Alicante Region

Second, is another project I found on Archinect this week called Urbanarbolismo. As you might gather from its name it is as much about trees and forestation as it is about water. But again, one of it’s primary concerns is water. It should be duly noted that this project is not in any way, shape, or form an arcology project, but rather falls into regional planning territory. Here is the description of Urbanarbolismo from their website (please excuse the Google translation):

Urbanization housing second home in Alicante is one of the main engines of the province's economy, now this process creates a landscape that in the long run is undesirable: it destroys ecosystems, waterproofing the soil reduces water loss and therefore the amount rain… In urbanarbolismo we are working to create a housing development that compensates for the loss of evapotranspiration caused by asphalt, deforestation and wetland drainage. We created a map of the province of Alicante with the best areas to locate these estates that cause rain. We are developing types of housing to reforest the territory.

Whereas Lilypad deals with an excess of water, Urbanarbolismo is confronting the opposite issue: the desertification of natural landscapes due to evapotranspiration, a term used to describe the total amount of water loss due to evaporation and plant transpiration. Urbanarbolism’s goal is to create a symbiotic relationship between urbanization and nature, creating a type of urbanization that produces rainfall and will allow the Alicante region of Spain to be re-forested with indigenous tree species.

One thing I really appreciate about this movement is that they have written an interesting urban manifesto. In Nicolai Ourousoff’s last article in the New York Times he closes with a quote from Rem Koolhaas which asks: “Do you have the right to do this much work on this scale if you don’t have an opinion about what the world should be like? We really feel that. But is there time for a manifesto? I don’t know.” Urbanarbolism has answered with a resounding yes, while making an argument for both better integration between the city and nature, and for a region-specific design movement at the same time. Check out the beautiful maps produced by the group here, which demonstrate a great understanding of the Alicante region. These maps and this approach seems to be influenced by Ian MacHarg's ideas about landscape ecology and a regional approach to urban planning with an emphasis on the integration of natural and man-made systems.

On a side note about desertification, check out this interesting post found on BLDGBLOG about the desertification of China west of Beijing. The photographs resemble what Beijing looks like during the many sandstorms that take place in the spring.
Image of China's Dustbowl, via BLDGBLOG

Finally, I have to put in a word for the grandfather of arcology, Paolo Soleri, and one of his latest projects, SOLARE: Lean Linear City (find the project link in the left hand side of the website). Soleri's design is not solely a work of AquaURBanismTM but I include it here because it's form is very inspired by aqueducts and bridges and the urban megaform straddles a river. According to Soleri:

SOLARE, by Paolo Soleri

Solare, the Lean Linear City, is proposed as a possible alternative to the developing technocracy now endorsed and pursued by China.
For us ignorant Westerners, it is almost like witnessing not the rebirth of a nation, but a brand new branch of the human genome falling from the heavens. The suddenness of the metamorphosis, the size of things, and the massive population involved is jolting. One fourth of the planet’s population is taking off! It’s breathtaking, for where it will land is pure guesswork. SOLARE proposes the development of a habitat that may respond to some of the critical situations now taking form in China.

Solare is pure megastructure: an infinitely extendable structure comprised of repetitive modules that house 1500 people each. Soleri's proposal is one long linear strip designed along the length of a river but it would be interesting to speculate how it might bifurcate, coil and self-intersect itself, or even close itself in a circle to provide a limit to its expansion. It would also be interesting to think about how, like the original aqueducts, water might be better integrated into the modular structure--infiltrating it, creating more of a sectional and spatial relationship between the inhabitation and the water serving it, and how it might take on additional roles of recreation, leisure, and pleasure, releasing it from the purely utilitarian role it seems to take in each of these projects.

To conclude, let's hope these projects continue to adapt, grow, and make water a larger part of normal urban discourse. Only time will tell if these projects really hold any water, to pardon the pun. One thing is for certain: whereas 20th Century settlements such as Las Vegas and Atlanta seemed to demonstrate that we were somehow liberated from developing cities adjacent to natural resources such as rivers or harbors, divorcing cities from what was once their lifeblood, the early 21st Century represents the recoupling of cities and water.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Oh Happy Day!

Today is the first day I can read my blog at home!!

I'm not sure if the PRC's Great Firewall of China has laxed a little and lifted their ban on Blogger, but until now I couldn't actually see my posts once they were out their in cyberspace.

Thank you, PRC, thank you!

Of course now I probably just lost my privileges.

AgroUrbanism Part II

This is a long overdue update on an earlier post I made on Urban Farming. In that post I introduced the concept of urban farming and discussed some (mostly conceptual) projects from architects, landscape architects, and urban designers that bring an interesting theoretical approach to the idea. This post takes a much more prosaic approach in response to one of the questions raised by a commentator: can urban farming work to bring food to areas that need it the most? The answer is of course: YES! And the good thing is that it is. Some of the best examples of urban farms in existence are in places like India and China: Mumbai, Bangkok, and Shenzhen to be exact.

In Mumbai, a certain Dr. Doshi has created an innovative array of farming techniques that allow productive gardens to be produced on small plots of lands, such as balconies and terraces. In fact, you could say these are some of the first urban farms in existence!! You can even start a farm on top of a retaining wall apparently. The results, according to Wikipedia, seem quite startling: a family can acquire self-sufficiency through his methods, producing 5kg of fruits and vegetables for 300 days/year in a 1200 sq ft. terrace.

Also, just today I read an article on Cuba’s urban farms in the International Herald Tribune. Since losing imports from the USSR in the early 90’s Cuba has been forced to gain agricultural self-sufficiency—no small feat for a country that is 80% urban! The results are quite astounding. Here are some quotes from the article:

On Miladis Bouza, early adopter of AgroUrbanism:

Neighbors are happy with cheap vegetables fresh from the field. Bouza never lacks for fresh produce, and she pulls in between 2,000 to 5,000 pesos (US$100-250) a month — many times the average government salary of 408 pesos (US$19).

On the economic and social benefits of AgroUrbanism:

Cuba's urban farming program has been a stunning, and surprising, success. The farms, many of them on tiny plots like Bouza's, now supply much of Cuba's vegetables. They also provide 350,000 jobs nationwide with relatively high pay and have transformed eating habits in a nation accustomed to a less-than-ideal diet of rice and beans and canned goods from Eastern Europe.

"It's a really interesting model looking at what's possible in a nation that's 80 percent urban," said Catherine Murphy, a California sociologist who spent a decade studying farms in Havana. "It shows that cities can produce huge amounts of their own food, and you get all kinds of social and ecological benefits."

And, in this article on AgroURBanism in Milwaukee, author Dave Steel describes two paradigms for urban farms that can be done in the US. First, a 10-acre farm that produces vegetables and other goods sold at low-cost to surrounding communities and also has programs to teach people how to farm. Second, a program to organize a series of smaller plots in an community unable to aggregate such a large area of available land, providing a much needed social and economic infrastructure to jumpstart small scale urban farms. Steel also brings up some additional arguments for urban farming, such as the disconnect between the farm and the city, etc, that are interesting to read.

What I find also fascinating about these articles is that it proves you do not necessarily need to use large-scale top down strategies in order to make urban farms work. Yes, the idea of vertical farms is interesting and I can not wait to see one in action. But the idea that someone can utilize the residual spaces of the city to empower themselves economically, socially, nutritionally, and at the same time help alleviate international food pressures is an amazingly powerful thing.

On a slightly related note:

I also came across this article today in the New York Times about marathon running shoes manufactured by Asics (Japanese shoe manufacturer) for the coming Olympics. Designed by master craftsmen Hitoshi Mimura the shoes feature soles made out of rice husks. Mimura has apparently been trying to find the best material for marathon shoe soles for years. According to the article “Mimura said he first experimented with river sand, plastics and even powdered iron in an attempt to improve traction in racing shoes.” But in the end he found rice to be lighter, cheaper, and have a better grip.

Now, normally I don’t find these stories to be all that interesting, but in his search for the perfect sole he may have inadvertently found a solution to some other global ailments (this is all conjecture on my part, of course). First, rice husk soles fits in perfectly with the cradle-to-cradle concept—no longer will the soles of our feet pollute the environment with pesky non-degradable rubber when it is rubbed off due to friction! As parts of our shoes fall off, they will immediately be absorbed back into the eco-system from which it began, and can become the food of small animals and insects (aahhh..what perfect harmony!)

Second, he may have solved the problem poised by the Boston Globe article I linked in the first AgroUrbanism post—the fact that Japan produces more rice than its nation’s expanded palate can handle. Let the extra rice go towards the fabrication of other goods—shoes, sake, etc. Of course, this may bring the UN down on them in a pretty major way.