Sunday, June 15, 2008

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.

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