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_.


Jason King said...

Dave. Good post on the project and the follow-up discussion that was happening over at Landscape+Urbanism (read the post and comment stream here)

I just wanted to correct the attribution of comments that were referenced to 'Jason' as those given by 'Rob'... My comments were directed more towards the limitations of representation to explain the complexities of these projects (especially with a few images)... although I think Rob's critique of LU was worth reading and reflecting on.

Just want to make sure that the discussion was properly cited. The conversation and points were great all around - and definitely a testament to the quality of Jorge's project and the fact that it can illicit positive debate - for sure.


Dave Brown said...

Jason--my apologies for the misattributed quote, that has been updated in the text. Thanks for alerting me!

I didn't realize from Jorge's blog that the debate was happening on Landscape + Urbanism, thanks for clearing that up!


rob said...

Glad you found the critique substantive -- I'll reiterate what I said originally on Landscape+Urbanism, which is that (a) I appreciated Jorge putting his work out there, and none of what I've said should be taken as a personal slam on his work and (b) that my criticisms of LU (and AALU in particular) come from a belief that the critique LU develops of modernist urbanism is dead-on and a consequent desire to see LU evolve and prosper.

Since you highlighted it, the bit about "the return of the artists obsession with formalism" was referencing a divide in landscape architecture between 'artists' and 'instrumentalists', which was elucidated by a couple different authors in various places, but in particular by Elizabeth Mossop in The Landscape Urbanism Reader and (someone else, an Australian guy, name is escaping me at the moment) in the Kerb: Landscape Urbanism. The basic idea is that landscape architecture developed a schism somewhere between the 60's and the 80's between 'instrumentalists' (such as Ian McHarg) and 'artists' (Olin, Walker, Schwartz). While the artists emphasized developing form as an extension of human culture into the landscape, the instrumentalists tended to emphasize the need for conservation of the natural landscape and reject the growth of the contemporary city

What I worry happens a lot with landscape urbanism, particularly at AA, is that rather than informing design, diagrams replace design. Because the diagrams are beautiful, it is very tempting to think that the form of the diagram -- which makes apparent relationships between data, often in spectacular ways -- should become the form of the design. This is where I think LU can fall back into formalism. (Another, probably imperfect, way to get at this might be to use Charles Peirce's categories and say that this sort of design is more like an icon than index -- it is a semblance or likeness of patterns of data, lacking the "real connection to its object" than an index would have.)

Lastly, since you seemed to find what I had to say useful, I'll do a little self-promotion and mention a project a friend and I are working on, mammoth. We intend it to be a blend of our research for various projects, probably mostly having to do with the relationship between infrastructure and urbanism, and a public blog about landscape/architecture/urbanism. You can find our beta here (which we hadn't really intended to be public, but we never hid it and its getting visitors, so what the hell), but the 'real' site will be at m.ammoth.us. If you find what we're doing intriguing, grab the rss feed, either at betamammoth or m.ammoth.us (the betamammoth feed is here; there will be a link on the m.ammoth.us page when we get one up and waiting there), and keep an eye out.

jorge ayala said...

The australian guy is Richard Weller and here is one of his quotes:

Landscape architecture’s relative impotence in leading any reshaping of the world to date cannot just be blamed on the evil genius of capitalism and the traditional hegemony of engineering and architecture. Landscape architecture’s scope and influence, whilst in all likelihood increasing, is still weakened by its own inability to conceptually and practically synthesize landscape planning and landscape design, terms which stereotypically signify science and art, respectively.

Congrats Rob for mammoth, looks super interesting!