Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Little Help from Her Friends

So it turns out this weekends winter wonderland was a cooperative effort between Mother Nature and Mother China, as reported in the Guardian.

And in this Times Online article from February there is a video showing the rockets in action.

See Previous:
Strange Weather

Sunday, November 1, 2009

First Snow of the Season

snowman 2, originally uploaded by o d b.

First snow of the winter season here in Beijing. And I'm stuck at work. On a Sunday to boot. yay!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Edible Architecture 4 - Cantilever Cake Taste Verygood

Well…at least I hope they do…
From my friend and colleague Nozomi we are blessed with this picture of two incredible cake versions of the famous CCTV/TVCC buildings in Beijing. The buildings are designed by OMA of course but I don’t know who designed the cake versions. Surely it was a truly inspired baker. Possibly with a structural engineering background because that is quite some cantilever….or should we call it a cake-ilever?
Hmmm…maybe not.
I would love to see pictures of someone slicing this cake—I wonder if it comes complete with a demolition drawing package? Without some practice, or at least a little forethought, I can imagine a major wedding disaster: “Poor Suzie got smothered under her wedding cake when Bob didn’t follow protocol for dismantling the sucker. Took ‘em the rest of the night just to shovel her out! I guess they’ll never forget their wedding night…har har har….”

If you’re a sucker for all things food and architecture, please check these out as well:
Edible Architecture 3
Edible Architecture 2
Edible Architecture 1

p.s. Don’t call it a comeback. Not yet at least.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


Hi Everyone,

I have decided to take a break from blogging for a little while in order to regroup, reboot, and do some other things because I find blogging intensive and all-consuming, especially with a full-time job on the side...hehehe. In the meantime I hope you enjoy the archives and please feel free to leave comments, as I will be keeping up with them, or drop me a line from time to time.

I will not leave you with high and dry...here are some of my favorite pictures from a recent trip to Linyi, PRC for Chinese New Year:

p.s. I might look happy in that final pic but because of my actions at the time I paid a price later. I have learned a lot about my body and its dietary limits from being in China. Formerly I would have just accounted my (then) forthcoming discomfort to a bout of food poisoning (or the Chinese equivalent of Montezuma's revenge), but as every good Chinese person will tell you:
Never eat hot sweet potato in cold wind.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

URB-Links 01

Hi Everyone,

Shinian Kuai Le, or Happy Chinese New Year!
Sorry for the week long absence from posting but I have been on holiday for CNY since last Saturday. I hope to have some pics from the festivities on my Flickr page soon so all of you can take a gander. It's a very interesting holiday for me to witness as a foreigner and I really enjoy all of the traditions--the food, the firework, the family time, etc. It's truly wonderful.
With a new year also comes new traditions. This is the first in a new segment here on _URB_ - a weekly links update on things that I have found interesting in relation to the themes that we tend to explore here. So the links will be organized topically.
Without further adieu...

The big event in geo-mimicry this past week has to be BIG's new masterplan for Zira Island in Azerbaijan. Will it really be a zero-energy resort and a "sustainable model for urban development"? That remains to be seen...but what we do know for certain is that the project's form is derived from Azerbaijan's famous 'Seven Peaks.'

Although this is not exactly urban, the fact that the rainforests are regenerating themselves on abandoned farmland is pretty great news. But in the end tt actually does have something to do with urbanization however: "small holdings...and much larger swaths of farmland — are reverting to nature, as people abandon their land and move to the cities in search of better livings."

Io9 features a great gallery of megaSPACEstructures--apparently where we will all be living in a few decades. My favorite? Probably the first image apparently supplied by NASA--it's a great mix of 2001, Paolo Soleri, and an LA suburb.

The Architect's Newspaper's editorial by Julie Iovine encourages architects to expand their professional capacities and become "designers of options, instead of icons." She also mentions a forthcoming book called Architecture Depends which sounds really great.

Limewire creator Mark Gorton is looking to bring an open-source approach to urban planning through open source city models, increasing the capacity and complexity in online trip-planning, internet based planning forums for communities, and introducing para-transit and other smaller, more adaptive, and more responsive public transit systems. Sounds exciting!

Become a WHEREblogger!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Rural Studio 2

Forrest just sent me a series of comic book inspired panels describing the design and construction process of the Glass Chapel and is graciously allowing me to post them here on _URB_. It is a great set of images giving us a glimpse into the multifarious collection of tasks required by Rural Studio participants--conflict negotiation and mitigation, junkyard pulls, laborious construction techniques, on-the-fly detail design, community immersion, and of course--having fun! Check out the flickr set to look at the images in more detail.
Forrest also sent me the following two pics--the first of me in SubRosa and the second, quite amusing pic of my father whispering sweet nothings to me via the pipe of confidentiality I referred to in my previous post on the Rural Studio.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

aqua.URB.anism || NY Moon WATER Issue

Interactive Map of the Water Systems of Manhattan, via New York Moon

The current edition of the New York Moon, “an internet-based publication adhered to the lunar phases of the real waxing, waning moon,” is dedicated to Water:

It billows in the lower atmosphere; it falls in drops or sheets or buckets or cats and dogs; it is drunk; it is sprayed over the breadbasket fields; it is peed; it slices down sluices, levels locks, tumbles through turbines in hydroelectric dams, courses through cataracts and rumbles over Mosi-oa-Tunya tunneling out its gorges; it vaporizes; it is cried; it fills the vast fields over which tankers and pirates zoom and under which manta rays skate; it gives and sustains Life (see, Fertile Crescent, primordial ooze); it also takes it away (see, Ophelia, Kursk); it is composed of three atoms — Hydrogen, Oxygen, Hydrogen; it envelops Dead Sea bathers, bears away bits of Venice and serves as boundaries to be crossed only if the intention is to helm the Ship of State past the treacherous waters of the shining Cyclades. It runs off.

Thus states the opening page of the issue. A few of the issue’s articles demonstrate the delicate balance between water and urban areas. “The Sick Waters of Voronezh” gives a first hand account of the intimate relationship between a Russian city and its water supply throughout history.

One of the amazing features of the issue is an interactive map of the “Water Systems of Manhattan” demonstrating Manhattan’s natural hydrology with overlaid maps from 1865 and today.

Beneath New York’s lattices of concrete, iron and landfill lie dozens of organic waterways. Using data from an 1865 sanitation map and contemporary satellite photographs, this projection depicts Manhattan as a vascular organ, whose obscure operation has had a powerful bearing on the fate of the city…Created for the department of sanitation, the map was a reminder that natural water systems, entombed beneath modern accumulations, hidden from view, could still have monumental effects on the functioning of city life. Indeed, structural engineers and city planners continue to consult the Viele map as the authoritative survey of Manhattan’s water systems.

Other interesting articles include a story which casts Wall Street as a waterlogged version of Pompeii and a proposal to extend IKEA’s flatpack/fabrication logic “beyond the limits of conventional architecture to the biological construction of fauna inhabiting the watery zones surrounding the city.”

note: found via BLDGBLOG.

See Previous: Water Worlds

Rural Studio || Road Trip

My father and I sat out early on a brisk Friday morning and headed west towards the neighboring state of Alabama. We would drive for a couple of hours before we reached our first destination, the sleepy college town of Auburn, where we waited in one of the only open coffee shops for my good friend Forrest. No, it is not a joke (as my mother initially thought)—I really went to Alabama to meet my friend Forrest (Fulton, not Gump). Ironically the place was called Cambridge Coffee House and I believe the intention, through its name and crimson interior, is that it would remind us of Cambridge, Mass. and the institutes of higher learning found there. Ironically, I say, because it was in Cambridge Mass that Forrest and I first met each other about five years ago where we would bond as fellow southerners. The bond continued to grow as we found ourselves strangely living in the same cities through the years—Cambridge first, then New York, and most recently in Beijing where we both found ourselves working in late 2007. In August 2008, just before the Olympics, Forrest left Beijing to pursue other ambitions which took him full circle back to Alabama.

Early on in our relationship I learned that Forrest was an alumnus of the renowned Rural Studio program of Auburn University. Not only that: he had constructed, along with three other classmates, the Glass Chapel that had long been my favorite project of the program! So for a long time I had been intending to make the pilgrimage from Georgia to Alabama to get a firsthand look at the RS projects. This was the day that dream was finally going to become realized. Forrest eventually arrived and after general greetings the three of us set out once again for Hale County, the epicenter of the Rural Studio program.

The Rural Studio was started in 1991 by Samuel Mockbee and D.K. Ruth, professors at Auburn University, to provide students an opportunity to get a unique educational experience combining construction experience through design/build projects and community activism. Mockbee, a well regarded regionalist with partner Coleman Coker in the 1980s, would give up private practice to found the program and “dedicated his life, as a teacher and as an architect, to the goal of providing 'shelter for the soul'. His inspirational and authentic architecture served to improve the lives of the most impoverished residents of rural Alabama” through the Rural Studio. RS is renowned for its activism and community building, and its progressive, empirical approach to materiality and fabrication. In the Rural Studio, innovation comes through extreme forms of experimentation and pragmatism. Materials are formed and reformed through techniques of recycling, reconstitution, unusual combinations, and atypical selection, the latter often due to availability. Walls are made up of carpet and cardboard; buildings are clad in license plates and windshields; apertures are created out of beer bottles. When normal materials are used, such as brick or CMU, they are exploited to create textures and patterns rarely seen before. But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is a story about a road trip.

Hale County is a three-hour trek from Auburn along long, flat stretches of highway that cross the southern portion of the southeastern states of the US. A highlight of the trip, besides noting minute variations in topography and foliage, was passing through Selma, AL, the tragic starting point of the Selma-to-Montgomery March (wikipedia). As we crossed over the Edmund Pettis Bridge, the site of the “Bloody Sunday” tragedy in which law “enforcers” attacked the marchers with tear gas and billy clubs on their first attempt to march to Montgomery, the car grew incredibly silent, and no one would say a word until we reached the other end of the historic town center. I can not speak for the others but I know I was overcome with the weight of history and the promise of a new future.

After another hour we reached the Super Shed in Newbern, AL, the home base of the Rural Studio program and the site of its endless explorations. The Super Shed is basically a giant roof, the likes of which you see on virtually every farm in the southeast, under which are built a series of small buildings for the students dormitory. According to Forrest the concept is based on Jefferson’s design for the UVA Lawn. The Super Shed also serves as the studio’s dormitory and workshop. Many of the program’s most extreme experiments are tested here first, in mockups and the students own housing. Highlights here include the cardboard wall house and the cylindrical brick shower building.

Then it was a short trip down the road to an abandoned house whose lot has been transfigured through a series of earthworks by the studio. Here we found one of the highlights of the entire trip. Subrosa is a subterranean cylindrical space made out of concrete and open to the sky which you reach through a long narrow concrete tunnel. It is one of Sam Mockbee’s last designs and it references the Greek and Roman myth of sub rosa and pledge to secrecy. The structure was constructed after Mockbee's death by his daughter. The oculus in the center of the space is filled with a sculpture made of steel rods and discs which resemble a field of reeds. In the floor is a small pond and on one side of the cylinder is a niche. In the niche is a bench where you can sit and converse indirectly to your neighbor through a tube that starts on one side of the niche, circles around the cylinder, and finishes on the other side of the niche. Sitting back to back my father and I whispered to each other through the tube feeling a little like two kids holding tin cans connected by a thread.

Moving on from there we arrived at the Newbern Fire Station, one of the more recent RS projects and a handsomely constructed building. It consists of a series of wood and steel structural modules clad in metal roofing on the north façade and translucent plastic and wood louvers on the south façade. A little farther down the road in Greensboro we found the Hale County Animal Shelter, a Shigeru Ban inspired barrel vaulted roof sheltering kennels below. In these two projects we clearly see one of RS’ consistent design tropes—the shed roof with dynamic profile.

From there we progressed deeper into the rural areas to Masons Bend, a small dirt road which featured many of RS’ early projects, such as the Butterfly House, the Hay Bale House, and the Lucy House. It also featured Forrest’s creation, the Glass Chapel. The Glass Chapel features one of the most iconic images (for me) of the Rural Studio, a glass façade made out of “1980s GMC sedan car windows salvaged from a Chicago scrap yard.” Its other distinctive tectonic feature is a series of rammed earth walls “containing local clay, cement, and a small amount of water.” The rammed earth is a beautiful material, orangy-red from the local clay, and with a texture like velvet. The only disappointment is that it was a little derelict from lack of maintenance and its usefulness in target practice to the locals. Forrest looked wistfully at his creation and said “there are so many things I would do differently now.” But to me the ambition of four young college seniors—to use a rarefied, labor intensive construction method (rammed earth) and an innovative, never-seen-before material (windshields)—was remarkable and the finished product something to be proud of.

In the end it was a great day—we got to see some inspiring architecture and some beautiful countryside. Unfortunately there are so many projects we were not able to see, including some bathrooms at a park that Forrest said were really great but we could not seem to find despite my dad’s new GPS system and our best intentions. It’s so awesome to see people thinking and working in an original, resourceful, and ad-hoc manner, and doing so much good through design.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Via Archinect I discovered EcoMetropolitanism (EcoMet), and exciting and provocative proposal for a new form of urbanism by Mari Fujita and Matthew Soules of Vancouver. Obviously I find it exciting because it is a concept that is intimately connected to the PHREE_Urbanism concept I have been proposing in my last few posts.

Fujita and Soules proposition consists of seven points to make Vancouver a more wild and exciting place through an intensification of Vancouver’s already existing unique relationship between nature and urbanism. I really like this concept of the hyper-local—finding what is truly native to a place and exacerbating it.* This seems to be the Fujita and Soules’ MO for this and other projects. In Fujita’s blog I found an excerpt of a paper she submitted to the ACSA discussing the notion of several types of urbanity and needing to address places with more specificity, and going so far as to declare Vancouver as a verb and a new –ism. Fujitas declares that Vancouverism is the model of density and diversity within a livable framework. EcoMet, for Fujita and Soules, is a supped-up, accelerated, version of Vancouverism—a Vancouverism on anabolic steroids, if you will.

EcoMetropolitanism Vs. EcoDensity
Hyper-locality involves contending with not only the ecologic specificity of a place but also the regulatory specificity as well, and EcoMet seems to be a direct response to Vancouver’s EcoDensity zoning system which was just put into place last year. According to the Vancouver’s EcoDensity website claims that

Part of the City of Vancouver’s response to these challenges is a new initiative
called EcoDensity. The program will be designed to create greater density
throughout the city, and do it in a way that lowers our impact on the
environment; ensures the necessary physical and social amenities; and supports
new and different housing types as a way to promote more affordability. (
I personally do not know much about the EcoDensity initiative except that it sounds nice as an idea. But Fujita and Soules use EcoMet as a critique of the new program: "It's very much a critique of EcoDensity," says Soules. "There's many different ways in which density can occur, but EcoDensity makes no specific claims really about what form density will take. So EcoMet is an attempt to be more specific about what kind of density can occur." (2) Another way that they directly respond to Vancouver's regulations is by taking Vancouver's existing view cone regulations and invert them.

The following is a description of EcoMetropolitanism straight from the horses mouth, Mathew Soules’ website:

EcoMetropolitanism is a joint research project by MSA and FujitaWork that seeks
to understand, articulate, and visualize possibilities for the hyper dense,
super diverse, and radically optimized cities of the future. Cities in which the
vibrancy of the metropolis is amplified by ecologically designed architectural

The project takes its departure from Vancouver as a city
with a specific and provocative relationship between dense urbanism and natural
environment. The EcoMetropolis can be understood as an accelerated Vancouver. In
building the EcoMetropolis certain performative strategies are instrumental:
Expanding upon received ideas of density to account for broader systems and
populations, inverting and redeploying Vancouvers view cone system, intensifying
programmatic diversity, maximizing building envelopes and creating productive
ecologies inside building interiors.

The Seven Points (all text and images via The Tyee)

Point One: Make EcoMAX
Measure not just simple human density but also plant and animal life and diversity.
Point Two: Invert the View Cone
EcoMet proposes Urban Habitat Cones, Urban Agriculture Cones, Density Release Cones, and Mixer Cones to view our newly exciting city.

Point Three: Intensity Use
Fujita and Soules re-imagine Vancouver's downtown tower-on-podium template to serve much richer and more varied purposes: wildlife corridors slice through the commercial space at ground level; bridges and platforms host bird habitats and micro-agriculture.
Point Four: Exploit Co-Existence
Don't just make a "green roof" that no one can see or feed from; design it as a source of animal food and human entertainment.
Point Five: Broaden Structure
EcoMet augments structure and infrastructure's extant function of supporting humans by capitalizing on their potential to service the city's expanded population.
Point Six: Maximize Envelope
Take the dull, predictable condo tower envelope and fold it, warp it, substract and protrude until you come up with a visually exciting and highly interactive architecture: all those new ledges and crevicess will allow plant and animal integration.

Point Seven: Ecologize the Interior
Soules and Fujita suggest mainstreaming Vancouver's time-tested "interior agriculture" (a.k.a. grow-ops) into new crops--say, hydroponically-grown tomatoes-- that not only provide a source of fresh local food but could also generate a colourful "living wallaper" and other aesthetic qualities for the inhabitants.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Sleep Dealer

The images above are stills from Sleep Dealer, a film by Alex Rivera

Robotic construction workers in New York remotely controlled through outsourced operators in Mexico.

A renegade fighting wars in countries he has never been.

A migrant worker who sells her memories of growing up in an undeveloped country to wealthy thrill seekers who do not actually want to experience their adventures first hand.

These are the roles of the three main characters of Alex Rivera’s new film Sleep Dealer, which discusses important political issues like globalization, colonization, immigration, and outsourcing in a futuristic sci-fi setting. I just heard about the film today via an interview with Rivera on Wired. The movie looks amazing—and it has already won some big awards at film festivals such as Sundance.

The movie discusses the same issues that urbanists are also discussing these days—urban migration, network culture, connectivity, situated technologies, urban computing, globalization, etc. One interesting point is that to achieve the futuristic, dystopian look he wanted he had to look no further than places that already exist. The photographs of Edward Burtynsky, the border conditions between US and Mexico (depicted in a still from the film above, which Rivera and his team did nothing to alter for the film), and the markets of Mexico City offered visions and settings for the film.

River says that the film is about connectivity, virtual and real, and whether increased connectivity will bring with it more hope, more justice, or more alienation. As he says, it is up to us to decide which direction it will take.

Check out the interview below:

Tuesday, January 13, 2009



Well, here it is, long overdue--the expanded version of the Guidelines for PHREE_Urbanism. I hope you enjoy. Please feel free to leave any comments, complaints, and suggestions you have.

1. From “Towers in the park” to “Tower IS the park.”
Le Corbusier - Plan Voisin
MVRDV - Gwanggyo Centre, Korea
Daniel Libeskind
I think the title of this one pretty much says it all—in PHREE_Urbanism the modernist concept of towers hovering over and/or around a civilized park (best epitomized by Corb’s famous perspective view showing a luxurious terrace from which the ‘primitive’ nature is to be contemplated) has been superseded by an attempt to turn the tower into a wild, unkempt vegetal structure (that same luxurious terrace now becomes a place to inhabit that ‘primitive’ nature). This narrative excludes FLW’s Broadacre City, an agroUrban conception that is only now, 70 years later, becoming a seriously considered approach to urban design.
FLW's Broadacre City - Decentralized, Democratic (according to FLW), AgroUrban
Minsuk Cho/Mass Studies
Park Towers are now all the rage but I want to draw special attention to three pioneering figures whose vanguard designs introduced us to the idea long before it’s recent popularization: Emilio Ambasz, Edouard Francois, and of course, Ken Yeang.
Emilio AmbaszKen Yeang
We should also throw a nod towards Vertical Farming here as well.

2. Fill the Void aka Green is the New BlaNk

MAD proposes to fill one of the largest urban voids in the world, Tian'Man Square, Beijing
Patrick LeBlanc Vegetable Wall
Have a blank wall on your house? Do it Patrick LeBlanc style and grow some plants on it! Have a boring asphalt roof above your head? Grow a garden! Have an empty lot in the alley next to you? Throw some seeds in it! Through tactical maneuvers such as guerilla gardening (1, 2) and seed bombing today’s PHREE_Urbanists are taking back the streets and alleys and returning them to Mother Nature. Joni Mitchell would be proud.

Hellboy II - Forest Elemental
This strategy reminds me of one of the most striking scenes in Hellboy II: when the giant forest elemental is shot by Hellboy and transmogrifies into a spectacular verdant knoll in the middle of Brooklyn.

3. If you can’t beat them, DESIGN them.

Vicente Guallart - Shanghai Expo pavilion
Greg Lynn - Intricacy
I’m not sure if it is floral inspiration or some sort of flower envy, but architects and designers are more and more often using plants and animals as their muse. Of course we have a soft spot for mimetic design (1, 2, 3, 4) here on _URB_, so we don't mind that architects are designing structures that mimic daisies (see Public Farm post), trees (Guallart), or even venus fly traps (Lynn). In fact, we encourage it. Below is one of my recent faves, a hexi-sexy geometrical riff on a flower by Plan B Architects.
Orquideorama / Plan B Architects + JPRCR Architects

4. Eat Your Home.

Fab Tree Hab - Mitchell Joachim, Javier Aborna, Lara Greden
Planting roots takes on a whole new meaning as homes of the future must be grow themselves. Fixity and stability, characteristics we looked for in a house during the humanist era, are things of the past—now it is all about dynamic flexibility and emergence. To those European architects who used to make fun of our stick-built American homes I can now say “Hey, it was just a part of the evolution baby…that’s how we rolled. And now we’re going to roll hobbit style.” The best part about it? If you get hungry you no longer need to run to the market, just grab some fruit from the ceiling.
“But I’m not really into fruits and veggies” you say. I know. Me too! That’s why I built my guest house out of ginger bread. It tastes great AND it’s biodegradable!

For those carnivores out there, if we can grow ears on the back of a mouse I’m sure it will be no time before scientists create a self-generating, self-replicating bovine protein that can become building blocks for a ‘carne a casa’. Just look at this In Vitro Meat Habitat found on Mitchell Joachim’s blog. A ‘slab of beef’ takes on a whole new meaning.
In-Vitro-Meat Habitat (Damien Hirst, anyone?)
Note: I actually wrote this last part before I wrote last week’s piece on bioengineering, but now I can think of at least one more thing for bioengineers and architects to explore together.

5. Start a Flood.

Micah Morgan - Park Space
Water has been reenergized as a performative design element in PHREEU. Rethinking the role of hydrological infrastructure as a civic space, such as the concrete creeks in LA and Houston, the increased use natural wetlands in landscape design, and the water-logged parking lots of Micah Morgan’s thesis at Rice University are further examples and opportunities for what I have previously termed aquaUrbanism.

6. Get a Pet.

Soon to be seen in classifieds:
WANTED: SWF in search of PUS* for protection against free-ranging zoo animals in adjacent superblock. MUST be big, strong, and ferocious, but cuddly and pettable. Grizzly Bears and Lions preferred. Cats and Dogs need not apply.
*PUS, now unheard of in the classified section, will soon be a commonly seen acronym of the classifieds section meaning “Pets of Unusual Size”
All jokes aside, as Stefano Boeri wrote in “Down from the Stand,” increasing the biodiversity of our cities means experimentation with the cohabitation of different animal species. How this cohabitation occurs is still in question.
Is it through a Jumanji style rewilding of our cities? Perhaps abandoned areas of shrinking cities are turned into experimental zoos: Can you imagine performing a Matt-Clark inspired deconstruction on parts of Detroit to create interesting spaces for wild animals throughout abandoned pancake slab structures and then constructing a Team X/Archigram inspired elevated walkway (surrounded in glass like those used in aquariums to be sure) winding through this forgotten quarter to produce one of the most amazing psycho-geographic-zoological experiences ever??!? The aforementioned City Zoo project by Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today is an example of this kind of proposal.
Or is it through an increase of agrarian livestock in our cities? This is the more likely scenario as it is actually happening. According to a recent NPR segment the American Planning Association has fielded more questions about changing zoning codes to allow chickens than any other issue over the last six months. City life resembles Front Studio’s Farmadelphia proposal more and more every day. We no longer have to move out of town to Green Acres, we can bring Green Acres to us.
Front Studio - Farmadelphia