Sunday, November 30, 2008
Thursday, November 27, 2008
….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
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:
ECOTRANSITIONAL URBANISM, Pearl River Delta, China
JORGE AYALAOn 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…”
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.
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...
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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 http://www.habisp.inf.br/gethtml/inicial/inicial.htm).
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.
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 proxyarch.com
Monday, November 17, 2008
Here I am, enjoying my Monday, getting my week off to a good start when I open up the China Daily website and discover:
UNREMITTING GLOOM AND CAPITAL FLIGHT AWAIT NEW WEEK.
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
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):
- 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;
- 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”.
- 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
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.I encourage you to read the rest for his 5 point plan and more great rhetorical skills.
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.
”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
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.
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
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.
Edible Architecture 2
Edible Architecture 1
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
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
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.