Beyond the Center-Periphery Dichotomy

Lake Valencia as an Urban Research Project

Rodrigo Guerra (MAUD’17)

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Evolution of Lake Valencia, water consumption, and effects of sea level rise

 

Image Credit/ Bibliography

Trasvase de agua desde el Lago de Valencia, Venezuela | EJAtlas. (2016, May 8) Retrieved from https://ejatlas.org/conflict/el-trasvase-de-las-aguas-del-lago-de-valencia

Cities are differentiated from their hinterlands by their density and access to work, services, products, entertainment, and personal development opportunities. In Venezuela, cities like Caracas are understood through a center versus periphery relationship that privileges cities over the rest of the country. 

This disproportionate distribution of resources can be defined as uneven development. This is important, because a development plan for Venezuela that focuses only on the main cities will tend to exacerbate the center-periphery divide, unless the forms of territorial, economic, and social relationships are re-imagined.

The UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) has many studies that link urban and economic decentralization with higher levels of national development.That is why myself, Karen Mata (MAUD’18), and a group of students from the Simon Bolivar University are starting a research project on Lake Valencia, the second largest water body in Venezuela, to try to better understand the relationship between the city, environmental considerations, and economic activities.

After the expropriation of more than 24,000 acres of Sugar Cane fields and its later abandonment by the government, Lake Valencia has been expanding and encroaching on surrounding working-class neighborhoods, endangering many industrial and institutional activities located at its borders over the last decade. Moreover, high levels of pollution in the lake as a consequence of receiving industrial and city waste waters, the expansion is not only compromising the safety of the nearby residents but also the regional water system. .

To face this problem means to break the urban-rural cliché and re-imagine the system of relationships between different scales of populated centers, between agricultural and industrial activities, and between urban and environmental vulnerability.

The economic limitations that Venezuela will face during its reconstruction will inevitably limit the type of infrastructure that can be implemented. Nevertheless, it is  imperative that projects confront more than one issue at a time, integrating management of natural resources with economic productivity, housing, and public space.

It will be fundamental to focus urban projects in promoting economic and social development, while building the infrastructure and services needed to face the urban and environmental challenges that we will are experiencing. This will only be possible if we manage to cultivate the technical, economic, social, and institutional capacities at a local scale. By transforming the highly centralized governance model in Venezuela, we could enable new forms of institutional collaboration across the territory.  

 

This text was written for one of the modules of the session Taller Ciudad Venezuela (Venezuela City Workshop) about the urban situation in Venezuela for an event organized by Venezuelan undergraduate students called Plan País (Country Plan) held in Boston University on March 30th and 31st. The session was moderated by Ignacio Cardona (DDes 19), with Andreina Seijas (DDes 20) as note taker. This is the first time that a session about the role of cities in the reconstruction Venezuela was introduced. It is an event that has taken place for more than eight years where groups of undergraduate students meet to study the future of the country.

 

Trusting Autonomous Vehicles

A Public Affair

Gina Ciancone (MArch + MUP ‘19)

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Image by Gina Ciancone

On a clear spring morning in Taichung, Taiwan I rode with a team of researchers and
scientists in a 20-seat bus through the campus streets of the world-renowned Industrial
Technology Research Institute of Taiwan. As a gold sedan suddenly merged into our lane, the
bus came to a jolting stop to allow for a safe right-of-way passage, and I was reminded of the
myriad of people who had anticipated this exact moment. Urban planners, designers, sci-fi
enthusiasts, journalists, mechanics, and scientists have all awaited the era where a driverless
vehicle will successfully react, in real-time, to the seemingly unpredictable high-speed ballet of
cars, motorbikes, and pedestrians that all lay claim to the road.

Two days later and more than 11,000 km away, a driverless car fatally struck a pedestrian
in Phoenix, Arizona. And while the incident did not mark the first death in the world of
autonomous vehicles, the pedestrian became the initial casualty in the new frontier of “off-track”
driverless cars. When I learned of the event from an innocuous ping on my iPhone while
commuting from Hong Kong to Taipei, my response was similar to predictions made by the New
York Times less than six months prior. Was this “the one catastrophic accident that could imperil
the whole experiment?”[1]

Given the recent headlines, designing trust in autonomous vehicles has become all the
more salient. Riders will need to be reassured beyond statistical data, which reveals that human-controlled vehicles pose a much greater risk to the public than driverless cars. But the question remains, how does trust become automatic, especially in the aftermath of a tragedy? And how can the ownership models pursued by the automotive industry be of benefit?

The autonomous, mid-sized bus I rode in Taichung, Taiwan was not considered a Level 5
Automated Vehicle, which is defined as a “full-time performance by an Automated Driving
System for all aspects of the dynamic driving task under all roadway and environmental
conditions.” In other words, an automated vehicle with no human driver. The bus I rode in still had a nervous graduate student perched behind the wheel. Anticipating a manual override of any “mistakes” that the artificial intelligence system may have made, human feet were always within inches of the pedals, and other researchers were constantly monitoring the several screens positioned within the body of the bus. It felt like a beta-version of the future, hopefully with less cables.

Though I had previously ridden in a Level 5 autonomous car in Masdar City, Abu Dhabi,
the scale of vehicle currently in development in Taiwan (mid-sized buses used for public
transportation) re-frames the degrees to which vehicles should be considered autonomous. In
fact, accepting vehicles as a type of urban infrastructure positions autonomous public
transportation as a shared platform that could provide the same level of accessibility as a private
car.

Development in Taiwan encourages a shift in scale: no longer should the highest level of
autonomous vehicles be designated solely by the sophistication of the artificial intelligence
commanding the vehicle. The top benchmark of driverless vehicles should instead be classified
by type and not by degrees of autonomy. In other words, vehicles designated for public transit, which have the capacity to reduce the number of private cars on the road and increase urban densification, should be granted the highest accolades. Perhaps a Level 6 should now be designated for completely autonomous vehicles that can transport more than 10 people per trip. Designing trust in the technology will come from re-framing the types of autonomous vehicles developed, rather than the degree of autonomy it performs. As Marshall Brown, founder of the Driverless City Project forecasts, because “society is cultural, and political, and aesthetic, and about desires — [autonomous developers] are going to need more than just software engineers working on it.” [2]
 

 

Bibliography

  1. “The Rev-Up: Imagining a 20% Driverless World: How Will Sex, Death, and Liability Change the Road into a Driverless Revolution?” The New York Times. 8 November 2017.
  2. Weiner, Anna. “Picturing the Self-Driving City.” The New York Times. 8 November 2017.
 

Waiting Game

A Case for Productive Discomfort

Meaghan Pohl (M.Arch II '18)

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An imagined geography of waiting – the main spaces of contact between refugees and host community residents.  A scale of embedded stress based on time, density, and program guide the level of discomfort that will be tolerated.  (Image by Meaghan Pohl

What is the agency of designers in addressing complex and far-reaching social issues?

With over 65 million displaced individuals, global forced migration is at its highest levels since World War II.  In the face of this crisis, the United States is on track to admit just 22,000 refugees this fiscal year - about half of President Trump’s 45,000 cap and well below Obama’s 110,000 2017 target.[1]  It is important to note this is not a particularly unique response: [2] geographic separation has afforded the country with the luxury of primarily being able to opt in to conflicts instead of having them thrust upon its shores.  Presented with endless streams of statistics and stories in digital space, it becomes easy to lose sight of the actual people behind them. Our empathetic capacity has been dulled by sheer volume.

This is only one type of empathy we are capable of.  News stories tap into emotional empathy: an involuntary response to another’s situation, or something that happens to people.  Cognitive empathy is instead an active process of understanding another’s position – i.e. “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.”  Cognitive empathy does not require you to agree with someone, and it is a skill that can be trained through everyday actions like smiling, learning names, perspective taking, and reading.  While the stress of being around strangers shuts down our capacity for empathy, something as simple as a cooperative game can counteract this effect.[3]

Empathy relies heavily on in-person contact and there are actually very few spaces where resettled refugees come into contact with their host communities.  Many refugees work “invisible jobs” where they aren’t often seen working. In these environments, language and cultural barriers prevent daily social interactions.[4]  In many cases, the only common point of interaction are spaces of waiting.  From Walmart to the welfare office, these spaces have an embedded irony in that while they aim to make people as comfortable as possible, they instead set up adversarial social situations.  They reinforce perceptions of competition for scarce resources and the feeling of being on the losing end of a zero-sum game.

As designers, how do we begin to create positive connections between people in confrontational, stressful spaces, who don’t speak the same language, and only understand the “other” through remote news stories and embodied stereotypes?  I chose to engage this problem with a series of interventions that challenge the banal notion of comfort embodied in spaces of waiting, and instead use this “wasted space” as a vehicle to practice skills of cognitive empathy.  A bus stop equipped with a see-saw bench requires users to balance each other’s weight in order to sit down, and maybe share a smile in the process.  A giant game of Connect Four acts as a (physical) screen between waiting seats, encouraging people to start up a game if they want to avoid staring directly at each other. [5] 

Physical space is an underutilized asset in addressing the myriad of social issues we face today. Design may not be able to force people to care about each other, but it can provide a platform to foster, rather than hinder empathy.

 

Bibliography: 

  1. Yuhas, Alan. “Trump Administration Set to Admit Far Fewer Refugees than Plan Allows For.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 26 Jan. 2018, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jan/26/trump-administration-refugees-resettlement.
  2. DeSilver, Drew. “U.S. Public Seldom Has Welcomed Refugees into Country.” Pew Research Center, 19 Nov. 2015, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/19/u-s-public-seldom-has-welcomed-refugees-into-country/.
  3.  “Stress Is 'Barrier to Feeling Empathy for Strangers'.” BBC News, BBC, 16 Jan. 2015, www.bbc.com/news/health-30831145.
  4.  Galofaro, Claire. “Maine Community Has Refugees and Resentment.” U.S. News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report, www.usnews.com/news/us/articles/2017-04-19/how-a-maine-community-changed-by-refugees-came-to-embrace-donald-trump.
  5. Predicting your opponent’s next move is a classic form of perspective taking.

Ildefons Cerdà, the Art and Science of City Design

The Founder of Modern Urbanism as a Source of Inspiration for a New Generation of City Designers

Ramon Gras (MDE '18)

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Image source: [https://cartografic.wordpress.com/2012/06/15/barcelona-5-1841-1860-neix-leixample/

Last Wednesday, April 4th, 2018 the Harvard Graduate School of Design hosted the presentation of the very first translation into English of Ildefons Cerdà’s fundamental theoretical writing, his monumental General Theory of Urbanization. Originally published in 1867, and now edited by the Institut d’Arquitectura Avançada de Catalunya and ACTAR, Cerdà’s foundational book constituted the very first attempt to systematically define Urbanism as a new science and professional discipline. In this article, I would like to succinctly highlight three reasons why his legacy stands out as a seminal reference of the highest quality, as well as a source of inspiration for new generations of urban designers, eager to provide appropriate responses to the needs and pressing challenges our cities face today.  

 

Design Thinking | Urban Design as a form of Art

Cerdà’s revolutionary vision led him to pursue highly idealistic goals by deploying extremely pragmatic and grounded design methodologies. His creative endeavor focused on responding to the urgent need, spurred by the emergence of the Industrial Revolution, for a systematic understanding of what modern cities were and could eventually become, by transforming a once unstructured and outdated set of minor disciplines into a cohesive, rigorous profession. He started by coining a set of concepts that would allow him to codify the fundamental elements and dynamic systems that constitute modern cities. Way before the words urbanism, Städtebau or City Planning started being used in city-related studies, he coined the word Urbanization (1). Cerdà was the very first City Designer to overcome the traditional planning routines inherited from pre-Industrial times, by proposing a set of rigorous methodologies to integrate all the techniques and design considerations that should be harmonized to successfully address the problems that modern cities necessarily face.  

 

Systems Engineering | Urban Design as a Science

Cerdà understood that modern cities require the juxtaposition of complex systems to effectively deploy the multiple services enhanced by the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution. His innovative vision allowed him to systematically address qualitative challenges by developing quantitative models. His ultimate goals addressed considerations such as eradicating early child and mother mortality, increasing the standard of living of working class families, merging social classes within the same neighborhoods and buildings to reduce social stratification, drawing specific street patterns to induce egalitarian power relationships, balancing the human need for isolation and privacy with the ability for people to socialize, prioritizing pedestrian mobility and sociability over alternative means, or establishing efficient mobility and energy systems able to adapt to further foreseen technological changes.  To address such challenges, he designed a series of probabilistic, non- deterministic heuristic models, based on extensive avant la lettre Big Data analysis. Cerdà iteratively refined and sophisticated such methods, allowing him to come up with ranges for optimal building height, footprint, and density; street and sidewalk width; integrating all urban services in the very same way we still do to this day. His envisioning of a grid system became a reference for all grid models that came after his Barcelona Expansion plan, including Manhattan in NYC.

 

Human-centered design | Urban Design as a Service

Ildefons Cerdà developed his main book whilst designing the Barcelona Expansion Plan, completed in 1859. Not only did his plan accomplish all the fundamental goals it pursued in a masterful way, but it also represented a benchmark for high quality urban design practice. Today we can empirically contrast not only the lasting achievements that his plan brought for the city of Barcelona, but also the benefits of well thought design methodologies. By way of example, recent studies comparing the cities of Atlanta and Barcelona (2) show how metropolitan areas with a comparable population can embody massive differences in terms of environmental footprint or transportation efficiency (3).  

 

For all these reasons, Cerdà is a source of inspiration for new generations of city designers who want to contribute to the enormous technical and social challenges that the discipline of Urban Design needs to respond to in this age of rapid and often abrupt technological changes with a human-centered and rigorous approach.

Bibliography

  1. The Guardian. Barcelona's unloved planner invents science of 'urbanisation'. https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/apr/01/story-cities-13-eixample-barcelona-ildefons-cerda-planner-urbanisation    
  2. Alain Bertaud  http://alainbertaud.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/AB_Transportation_and_Urban_Spatial_Structure_revised3.pdf.
  3. World Bank. Follow the moving carbon: A strategy to mitigate emissions from transport. https://blogs.worldbank.org/transport/follow-moving-carbon-strategy-mitigate-emissions-transport
 

We The Planners

Promoting Greater Collaboration Across the Harvard Graduate School of Design

The Harvard Urban Planning Organization

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Just 10 days ago, we released an Open Letter to the Harvard Graduate School of Design community with a simple message: that greater cross-disciplinary collaboration is desperately needed at the GSD if the designers and planners who study within its walls are to graduate with the skills and competencies necessary to truly make a difference in addressing the challenges of our built environments. We argued that the burden for achieving this goal falls on all parties - the administration, the faculty, and the students themselves - and that fundamental shifts in practice must take place in order to embed a culture of collaboration into an institution that is all too comfortable operating in disciplinary silos.

The outpouring of support from all corners of the GSD has been beyond heart-warming. Over the course of the week, more than 100 students from across nearly every discipline read our letter, attended our events, wore our pins (inscribed with our campaign’s motto: “Let’s Work Hand-in-Hand”), and voiced enthusiasm for our initiative in casual conversations. Members of the administration and faculty reached out with words of encouragement, affirming that our goals were indeed critical and long overdue. Ideas on how to increase real collaboration flowed forth in abundance, with suggestions ranging from the highly-ambitious (the administration should hire more professors who have interdisciplinary backgrounds; faculty should create new courses on soft skills tailored to negotiation and collaboration for those working in the design disciplines) to the seemingly-obvious (students should talk more to peers from other disciplines in the trays; faculty should publish mid-semester review schedules). The energy around our initiative was palpable.

Despite the overwhelmingly positive feedback, we can’t help but temper our optimism with a certain degree of caution. We know that this past week’s conversations are just the beginning and that a long road remains ahead before this work reaches a place where the true benefits of cross-disciplinary collaboration are realized. Culture shifts aren’t easy, and they certainly don’t happen overnight. They also don’t happen as the result of one week, one initiative, or one student group’s appeals. A culture of collaboration at the GSD will require nothing less than a sustained push for changes large and small - both inside and outside of the classroom - from all corners of the student body. To that end, we implore you to continue this effort in your classes, with your professors and department heads, and perhaps most importantly, with your peers. If you have ideas of your own on how to most effectively increase real collaboration at the GSD, we’d love to hear them (hupogsd@gmail.com). In a world with increasingly-complex, ever-evolving challenges, a culture of cross-disciplinary collaboration is critical for the continued success of our collective professions. That works starts here, with all of us, and we hope you’ll join us, hand-in-hand, as we strive for more a collaborative, understanding, and inclusive future.

 

Disaster as an Opportunity

Alternatives for Debris Management at the Los Perros Riverbank in Oaxaca, Mexico

Penny White Project Fund Awardee and David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies Research Grant Recipient

Deni Lopez (MDes Risk & Resilience/MAUD ’19)

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Image by Deni Lopez. 

The Tehuantepec Isthmus is a region in the states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, Tabasco and Veracruz in Mexico. It is the narrowest area between the two oceans (Pacific Ocean and Atlantic Ocean, in its section of the Gulf of Mexico).The center-right Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) controls the state of Oaxaca and the federal government. This facilitated a top-down takeover in the Tehuantepec Isthmus, in contrast with community-led responses in places like Morelos or Mexico City, governed by the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Army men and private developers took over reconstruction in Oaxaca, leaving local economies, knowledge, and workforces aside to demonstrate capacity to handle a crisis.

How can design generate alternate anticipatory strategies that integrate debris reuse and community-led recovery tactics in disaster-prone rural areas? 

Mexico, like many other geographies, currently struggles with the aftermath of natural disasters that areis inherently tied toenhanced by its social and political instability. Facing a lack of preemptive planning and a misunderstanding of risk, different stakeholders struggle to find holistic recovery actions that do not exacerbate the rural-urban divide. Countryside areas such as the earthquake-prone Tehuantepec Isthmus in Oaxaca, for example, received attention only after an exceptional inter-plate earthquake hit Mexico City last year (even though the Isthmus suffered from a higher-magnitude earthquake just days before). Recovery currently focuses on government-financed rapid housing production led mainly by private developers and the army, while neglecting local needs, lifestyles, and knowledge. Therefore, the question is: how can design be of service when creating integrative tactics that go beyond short-term reconstruction and volatile political cycles?

While essential for post-disaster or war recovery, the question of how to handle debris is usually not a primary concern. Dealing with debris is a complicated process that often results in unprotected landfill. Rubble composition varies from situation to situation, but typically contains a wide range of liquid and solid hazardous waste. Using such components as landfill or discarding them next to water sources creates serious environmental pollution concerns. Yet, due to their lack of planning for these issues, governments tend to make exceptions, opting for easy and quick fixes1.

In the case of the Los Perros river in Oaxaca, the 2017 earthquakes causedproduced more than 10,000 tons of rubble (the equivalent to 50 blue whales) to accumulate. The Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) was responsible for managing earthquake debris, and in Oaxaca, they made an exception to their no-discarding-next-to-a-waterbed rule2. This top-down impromptu plan received community backing because the area suffers from periodic floods - ranging from 0.20 to 2.70 meters3. Therefore, a complementary initiative (led by the federal government) hired workerslocals to remove rubble from their own houses for a one-time payment of nearly USD 1304. Locals hoped that rubble would act as a buffer for the next flood season and contain sewage ruptures caused by the 2017 (and future) earthquakes. Nonetheless, this action had little regard for the ultimate environmental impact at the riverside  dumping location, and it worsened the effects of six pre-existing dump sites along Los Perros5.

It is unacceptable to think that an earthquake-prone region like Tehuantepec still lacks an integrative plan to deal with natural disasters. Nonetheless, it is difficult to plan preemptively when collective information is insufficient. As a practical discipline able to synthesize other forms of knowledge and materialize it into tangible solutions, design brings a lesser-known alternative approach to the pressing issue of post-disaster recovery.

While environmental disasters are nowhere near a new phenomenon, their systematic study is a fairly recent science. With support from the Penny White Project Fund and the Summer Research Travel Grant of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Nadyeli Quiroz (MLA 1 AP), Betzabe Valdés (MDes Critical Conservation), and I will  conduct a site investigation over the summer to study the Los Perros riverbank. Following the devastating earthquakes of 2017, the riverbank became an improvised and unprotected rubble dumpsite to serve as a barrier against periodic floods. Our research will consist of a community needs survey, a thorough mapping and ecological study, and interviews with key actors within and outside the local population. In conjunction, these processes will help us find prospective rubble deposits, understand the towns on the riverbank along with their pre-and-post disaster underlying power structures, and synthesize a proposal that has the potential to strengthen itsthe local sense of place.

We intend to develop an environmentally conscious project-based plan for incremental action that serves as a foundation to deal with inevitable upcoming disasters and one that has the ability to negotiate between the local community, institutions, and other development experts. In other words, we view this as the first step to create a comprehensive flood-control project and community-led public space along the river. We also aim to advance emerging expertise about urban, social, and geophysical conditions in similar global settings. The project will initiate our year-long thesis, set a precedent for a different kind of preemptive intervention in rural areas, and hopefully contribute to a community-led design project. We promise to get back to you with the results!

Bibliography:

  1. Lucy, Rodgers. 2017. "Who Cleans Up After Hurricanes, Earthquakes and War?" BBC News, October 20, 2017. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-d7bc8641-9c98-46e7-9154-9dd6c5fe925e.
  2. Briseño, Patricia, Con escombros por sismo, refuerzan bordo de río en el Istmo.Excelsior, October 10, 2017.
  3. Gobierno Federal SEDESOL, Atlas de Riesgos Naturales del Municipio de Heroica Ciudad de Juchitán de Zaragoza, Oaxaca 2011. SEDESOL. 31 de Enero de 2012.
  4. Jorge Morales, Damnificados en Juchitán, Oaxaca, se inscriben para obtener empleo temporal. October, 2017.
  5. Diario Despertar de Oaxaca. Juchitán, Pueblo que se hunde en la basura. Despertar de Oaxaca. June 9, 2014.

Additional Sources:

  1. Brown, C., M. Milke, E. Seville, and S. Giovinazzi. 2010. "Disaster Waste Management on the Road to Recovery: L’Aquila Earthquake Case Study."University of Canterbury. Civil and Natural Resources Engineering, . http://hdl.handle.net.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/10092/4160.
  2. Brown, Charlotte and Mark Milke. 2016."Recycling Disaster Waste: Feasibility, Method and Effectiveness." Resources, Conservation and Recycling 106: 21-32. doi:10.1016/j.resconrec.2015.10.021.
  3. Brown, Charlotte, Mark Milke, and Erica Seville. 2011. "Disaster Waste Management: A Review Article." Waste Management 31 (6): 1085-1098. doi:10.1016/j.wasman.2011.01.027. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0956053X11000596.
  4. Faleschini, Flora, Mariano Angelo Zanini, Lorenzo Hofer, Paolo Zampieri, and Carlo Pellegrino. 2017. "Sustainable Management of Demolition Waste in Post-Quake Recovery Processes: The Italian Experience." International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction 24: 172-182.
  5. Karunasena, Gayani and Dilanthi Amaratunga. 2016. "Capacity Building for Post-Disaster Construction and Demolition Waste Management." Disaster Prevention and Management 25 (2): 137-153.
  6. Kawamoto, Kiyomi and Karl Kim. 2016. "Social Capital and Efficiency of Earthquake Waste Management in Japan." International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction 18: 256-266. doi:10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.10.003.
  7. Medrano Rivera, Victor Hugo. 2012. "Análisis Del Comportamiento Sísmico En Una Zona De Suelos Blandos Del Valle De Oaxaca."Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.
  8. Villegas, Paulina, Elisabeth Malkin, and Kirk Semple. 2017. "Mexico Earthquake, Strongest in a Century, Kills Dozens." New York Times (Online), Sep 8,. https://search-proquest-com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/1936406189.

 

 

Re-contextualizing Bigness

What is the role of Koolhaas's concept in the current narrative canon?

Claudia Tomateo (MAUD '17)

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Image by Claudia Tomateo

Bigness does not have history

Bigness does not have theory

Bigness operates without context

Bigness competes with context

Bigness aims to eliminate context

In “Bigness, or the problem of the large”[1] Koolhaas (1995) foresees what would be an important discussion of contemporary architecture. Whether it is a feature evident to the observer or not, somehow it managed to hide from practitioners and historians in order to theorize and understand its origin and possibilities. Was Bigness a natural outcome for architecture? In the absence of a clear social mission for contemporary designers, does Bigness represent an experiment to see how far we can get?

Here I aim to analyze what triggered Koolhaas to have such a radical view and also point out its weaknesses and inconsistencies. Understanding that the current narrative canon is oscillating between liquid and iconic architecture, what is the role of bigness and where is it positioned under this spectrum?[2]

 

Bigness does not have history

“Beyond a certain scale, architecture acquires the properties of Bigness. The best reason to broach Bigness is the one given by climbers of Mount Everest; “because it is there”. Bigness is the ultimate architecture.”

In the first explanation of Bigness, a simple analogy is made to understand the feeling of something that is big, yet passes unnoticed. Mount Everest is used as a natural example for Bigness which is later introduced as the “ultimate architecture”. It is in a sense funny that after all the pre-Columbian history of incredibly large-scale interventions on the landscape, bigness is presented as something “ultimate” for the discipline.

The effort to bring the discipline to the limits of one of its most important elements (scale) is valuable. However, this definition fails to recognize its historic references, even if they were not intended for the same purpose.[3]

 

Bigness does not have theory

“Such a mass can no longer be controlled by a singular architectural gesture, or even by any combination of architectural gestures. The impossibility triggers the autonomy of its parts which is different from fragmentation: the parts committed to the whole…. Issues of composition, scale, proportion, detail are now moot. The art of architecture is useless in Bigness.”

This is critical for the theory of buildings and cities, because there is a definition of the form of bigness as something diffuse but that is composed by parts.[4] Koolhaas makes a distinction between what he calls “Frankenstein buildings” and Bigness. Bigness is an aggregation of architectural gestures that are independent, but at the same time part of the whole (i.e. Hagia Sofia). Frankenstein buildings are neither one nor the other, and therefore only half successful (i.e. Steven Holl MIT dorms).

 

Bigness operates without context

Bigness is not about program, it is about complexity. In “S,M,L,XL” the authors argue for the birth of Bigness as a consequence of current technologies that allow the buildings to be thicker and taller, resulting in artificial interiors, electricity, air conditioning, elevators, among others. Under these circumstances, the interior and exterior become detached.

It could be possible that to a certain extent the building does not need a specific context to function, because Bigness is a concept that can be deployed all over the world, even outside cities. The façade does not have to reveal what is happening inside in order to have a conversation with the city, and I find it simplistic to argue that buildings and cities must have direct physical connections. Yes, the building is enclosed, but that doesn’t mean that an attitude towards the exterior is absent.

 

Bigness competes with context

There is no global intention for architecture, and that is why we have returned to Bigness; it is the exit door to escape artistic movements and modernism. Koolhaas makes a clear distinction between modernism and modernization. He refers to modernism as the formal language, the style, while modernization is the pioneer attitude. We need modernization, not modernism.

Consequently, I will argue that for Koolhaas, the idea of Bigness competing with the context is less a race for the prize, but instead is an agent of change, an “urban condenser”.[5] Bigness regulates the intensities of programmatic coexistence, an unexpected programmatic alchemy.

 

Bigness aims to eliminate context

I will use this last statement as a way to understand Bigness in context; historically, theoretically and physically. Many reflections have been made on Bigness as an artifact. But I find it crucial to identify its vision for the city and its influence in the world to reflect about its canon under the contemporary spectrum.

“In such a model of urban solid and metropolitan void, the desire for stability and the need of instability are no longer incompatible. They can be pursued as two separate enterprises with invisible connections. Through the parallel actions of reconstruction and destruction, such a city becomes an archipelago of architectural islands floating in a post-architectural landscape of erasure where once was a city is now a highly charged nothingness” (Koolhaas 1995, 201)

In this statement, context is reduced to “nothingness”, a figurative argument for the devouring of urban tissue. We can see this sort of dystopian attitude throughout Koolhaas’ life. One of his most famous manifestos “The Green Archipelago” argues for the recovery of strategic urban fragments while Berlin is consumed by a big forest as the ocean of this archipelago of iconic buildings. It was a resilient strategy both in planning and socially. A strategy to recover and to erase the trace of the bombing after World War II.

 

I appreciate Bigness as a space for the minds to float above reality and to free themselves to imagination. And that is precisely where I think Bigness belongs in the contemporary canon of narratives. Today’s architecture is partially about materials, iconicity, liquidity… But it is mainly about the story that the building wants to tell. No problem to be solved, no revolutionary vision of life (in comparison with World War II). That is why architects should narrate their own stories; the issues are plural and we do not share any overarching narrative. There is a need to create our own alternative universes and test our ideas there.

During modernism, the future was the goal. Today we accept the future as it is, it escapes us. The intentions of Bigness as buildings to resurrect the city and as laboratories for new theories and new architectural thinking is valuable. Yes, Bigness can build up a city, yet many other elements can do so as well.

Context is inevitable, by denying it we accept its existence.

Bibliography

  1. Alejandro Zaera Polo “Finding Freedoms: Conversations with Rem Koolhaas,” in El Croquis, n. 53, (1992)
  2. Alejandro Zaera Polo “The Day After: A Conversation With Rem Koolhaas,” El Croquis, n 79, (1996)
  3. Rem Koolhaas, “Bigness, or the Problem of the Large”, OMA, Rem Koolhaas, and Burce Man, S ,M ,L , XL (New York: Monacelli Press, 1995)
  4. Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York (1978; New York: Monacelly press, 1994)
  5. Rem Koolhaas, “Exodus, or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture,” in S, M, L, XL (New York: Monacelli Press, 1995)
  6. Rem Koolhaas “Imagining Nothingness”, in S, M, L, XL (New York: Monacelli Press, 1995)

 

 

 

On Balkrishna Doshi's recent award

Pritzker Prize and Urban Consciousness

Maxime Faure (MAUD '18)

Balkrishna_Doshi_courtesy-of-VSF.jpg

About ten days ago, for our studio, we were driving toward MassMoca. With research focused on museum campuses, the purpose of the trip was to visit this one-of-a-kind museum typology. While on the drive up, we were playing the very timely Pritzker Game where we rated Pritzker’s recipients from A to C (let's see where we are in sixty years) and speculating on the imminent question: which architect would receive the honorary 2018 crown?

A few days later, on Wednesday March 7th,  Indian architect Balkrishna Doshi was bestowed the laureate of architecture’s highest honor. None of us in the car had brought up his candidacy as a possibility to the discussion.

Upon hearing the news, both his proponents and critics have proliferated all forms of media, from the most general to the most specific. It is particularly relevant to examine this year’s announcement through the lens of our field, urban design. In the past ten years, we have seen the word « urban » only once in a Pritzker announcement: in 2011, when Eduardo Souto de Moura received the award. We read that the Burgo Tower was creating a dialogue with « the urban landscape. » Before that, the word urban appeared in 2007 for Richard Rogers’ announcement. With this year’s award, many declensions are aligned in Doshi’s announcement: urban planner, urbanization and urban design. Should we understand here a shift in the role and discourse of the prize? Are we witnessing the rise of a celebrated urban consciousness?

We will be able to answer those questions more clearly in the coming years, but it is evident that through Doshi’s projects, such as the Co-Operative Middle Income Housing in Ahmedabad (1982) or the Aranya Low-Cost Housing (1989), a few kilometers away from Indore, that we see a pressing interest towards issues of the contemporary metropolis. Selecting Balkrishna Doshi as recipient of the Pritzker Prize not only recognizes an accomplished figure of both the 20th and 21th centuries in the field of architecture (and honors the legacy of Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn), but it also showcases to the public sphere design solutions which address critical concerns of affordability, culture, and integrity, all of which promote the universal right to public enjoyment of a place.  

When Alejandro Aravena received the Hyatt Foundation’s prestigious medal, there was already speculation on the Pritzker’s ideological agenda at the time. In 2016, with the awarding of the work of his firm ELEMENTAL, the Pritzker highlighted the pressing challenges of the 21st century city: resilience, sustainability and collective space as a key element of the built environment. Therefore, the move to give exposure to those questions today with Doshi seems to confirm an objective for the Pritzker Prize, that being to reveal the role design has in serving the city and its larger society.

Image Bibliography (Courtesy of VSF)

  1. https://archpaper.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Balkrishna-Doshi-2_-courtesy-of-VSF-1024x0-c-default.jpg
 

Towards Urban Land Justice

Design Agency in a Neoliberal Era

Loyiso Qaqane (MAUD '19)

helicopter-1218974_1920_1140_760_85_s.jpg

Unknown (2017) Cape Town Aerial View. Available at:https://www.citysightseeing.co.za/cape-town/news/entry/explore-the-mother-citys-top-attractions-and-save-with-the-cape-town-city-p

Within the capitalist milieu that has come to define the 21st century, what agency do young designers have, if any, to affect change towards greater urban social justice? In an era of globalization and multi-national corporations, national and city governments have abandoned their mandate of placing the needs of citizens as a top priority. The race to become a desirable investment destination for global capital has had a profound impact on how our cities prioritize their development. Nowhere is this disturbing phenomenon more pronounced than in the Global South, where colonialism and oppressive regimes have already negatively affected urban environments.

Within such a context, what role can young design professionals play in challenging the status quo? One important emerging arena would be the design competition, which not only gives a platform that would otherwise be unavailable to young designers, but also acts as a laboratory to test out ideas and solutions to issues that affect our urban environment. Competitions pose unique opportunities for grassroots activism by communities in collaboration with designers to challenge powerful groups and organizations.

An example of this was the Tafelberg Challenge in Cape Town, South Africa. The competition was an open call to architects, urban designers and planners to submit alternative proposals to the sale of well-located state-owned land by the provincial government to the private sector to generate revenue for affordable housing on the periphery of the city. Cape Town, current water crisis notwithstanding, has been experiencing a property boom, with some of the highest property price increases in the world. The city and provincial government has seen this trend as an opportunity to sell off valuable, under-utilized state land to developers and private organizations, rather than use it for affordable housing and additional public amenities. In a city that is extremely segregated, both racially and economically, such a move would be a positive step towards a much more just city and could be used as a tool for racial reconciliation within a deeply divided city.

Many of the design teams proposed a mixed-use scheme , where a smaller number of market-rate housing units and commercial spaces would help subsidize affordable housing, which would make up the majority of the development, made possible by the extremely high value of the land. This extra revenue would be used to supplement the subsidy from national government, resulting in higher quality affordable housing than what is typically built. The rationale was that this model could be applied to similar sites across the city. Unfortunately, after a lengthy court case the sale of the land went through, which resulted in major protest action and national news coverage. The resistance to the sale coincided with the political party running the City of Cape Town having a greater influence within national politics and threatening the power of the county’s ruling party. They realized that such negative coverage would severely hurt their national political ambitions. In 2017, the city’s Transport and Urban Development Authority was formed to facilitate transit-oriented development. The idea that public transportation and social housing should feed off each other is not new in the city; what was new is that this type of development happened in the highly valuable inner city and adjacent neighborhoods. Such a move would result in a much more integrated city, where working class citizens, who are mostly black, are not all relegated to the peripheries of our cities.

It is clear that the Tafelberg Challenge alone did not bring about this change in housing policy within the City of Cape Town, but it does highlight the power of design competitions as a form of grassroots activism against powerful forces within our cities. Additionally, they give design professionals agency to engage with local communities and other experts within a time where there has been an increasing realization of the limits of design as a tool for change. The case study highlights the need for design to align itself with other forces, in order to have any influence within society and its urban environments.

  1. Bosworth, B. (2017) Cape Town undertakes controversial experiment to bring affordable housing to the city centre [Online] Available at: http://citiscope.org/story/2017/cape-town-undertakes-controversial-experiment-bring-affordable-housing-city-centre
  2. Brenner, N (2015) Is Tactical Urbanism an alternative to neo-liberalism [Online] Availabe at: http://post.at.moma.org/content_items/587-is-tactical-urbanism-an-alternative-to-neoliberal-urbanism
  3. City of Cape Town (2017) Catalytic Projects [Online] Available at: https://www.tda.gov.za/en/projects/investment-opportunities/catalytic-projects/

  4. Fainstein, S. (2009) Planning and the Just City, in Marcuse, P. Connelly, J., Novy J., Olia, I., Potter, C., and Steil, J. (eds) Searching for the Just City: Debates in Urban Theory and Practice. London and New York: Routlege pp 19-39

  5. Meiring, T (2017) Future plans for Cape Town’s unfinished highways [Online] Available at: http://www.capetownmagazine.com/cape-town-bridge

  6. Philander, R (2017) Six new affordable housing sites announced for Cape Town [Online] Available at: https://www.iol.co.za/capeargus/six-new-affordable-housing-sites-announced-for-cape-town-11453791

  7. Pather, R. & Whittles, G, (2017) No low cost housing for Sea Point [Online] Available at https://mg.co.za/article/2017-03-24-00-no-low-cost-housing-for-sea-

  8. Sibeko, S. (2017). Controversial Sea Point Land Sale Headed For Court. Available at:

  9. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.za/2017/05/12/tafelb

 

 

 

What is Sustainable Olympic-led development?

Learning from Pyeongchang Olympic

Hyeji Sheen (MAUD '18)

pyeongchang_main.jpg

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/0/winter-olympics-2018-best-pictures-south-koreas-pyeongchang/aerial-view-pyeongchang-olympic-stadium-venue-opening-closing/

As the 2018 Winter Olympics come to a close, the watching world will quickly retreat to more routine affairs both at home and abroad, and Pyeongchang will likely fade in our collective memory. However, as urban designers, perhaps now is precisely when we should start paying attention to what is happening there. The sustainability of purpose-built sporting facilities and their associated infrastructures after the Olympics have ended has been a major topic of debate for host countries trying to justify the immense expense of their initial construction. These Olympic facilities have historically been extremely vulnerable to underuse in a city’s post-Olympic period. With their original functions vanished, many of these facilities remain today only as faded monuments to bygone glory.

However, successful examples of post-Olympic integration of facilities can be found in cities like Barcelona, which hosted the Olympics in 1992. Barcelona’s strategy was the first attempt to consider the Olympics as ‘a catalyst for the redevelopment of its waterfront’ and subsequently designed a series of public spaces including parks, fountains and public arts in order to give something more permanent for the Barcelona residents, as well as retain tourist interest after the ending of the Games. 4 years later, the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 transformed athletes’ housing into dormitories for Georgia Tech University students, reflecting the Olympic event’s role as an impetus for civic improvements of the city. However, unlike cities that had to construct new facilities from scratch, Paris and Los Angeles won bids for the 2024 and 2028 Games respectively by planning to use their extensive network of existing facilities. This myriad of examples show us the varying needs and approaches that face Olympic host cities with respect to scale and status.

Learning from both the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul and the 2002 FIFA World Cup, the Korean government anticipated the burdens associated with hosting such major events, and therefore examined Pyeongchang critically. Since the city is located in a relatively remote area, the needs of its infrastructure needed to be resolved first in order to become a successful sustainable city beyond the Winter Games. Therefore, facilities other than major infrastructure or facilities with explicit future demands will be demolished. Furthermore, the Olympic Village will be transformed into condos, and the express train line will remain to increase Pyeongchang’s proximity to Seoul. Distinct from many previous host countries, the Korean government intends to use the Olympics in Pyeongchang to catalyze infrastructure development between Seoul, the capital city, and Kangwon-do province located on the east side of Korea, which has historically not been considered a major development region.

Venues that will only exist temporarily include the “roofless” Olympic Stadium, the Gangneung Hockey Center, the Olympic speed skating venue, and the downhill ski course in Jeongseon. In these cases, I’d like to ask what kind of architecture & aesthetics these ‘temporal ‘Olympic-related facilities should take the form of? Some articles say that the roofless Olympic Stadium embodies an extreme case of pop-up architecture in the contemporary context of the Olympic era. However, there are other more critical voices that claim that these facilities have not considered “the disappearance of the project” along with their physical characteristics. Certainly, it opens up new conversations regarding the ephemeral nature of architecture and its increasingly controversial role in event-oriented urban design & city-building.

  1. Paul Goldberger, “Out of The Blocks, Beijing’s Olympic architecture is spectacular, but what message does it send?”, The Sky Line, 2008
  2. https://www.archdaily.com/888383/the-2018-winter-olympics-stadium-that-cost-100-dollars-million-to-build-will-only-be-used-4-times-and-is-roofless
  3. https://www.curbed.com/2016/3/9/11180920/architecture-history-temporary-banksy
  4. https://www.citylab.com/life/2018/02/its-time-for-the-pop-up-olympics/552896/