20140721

inaugurating a future projected a half-century ago

Le Corbusier, Unité d'habitation, Berlin, Spandau, 1959.

We tend to think that sticking with something is a calmer and steadier way to go than jettisoning it, even though that rule obviously doesn't apply to sinking ships. Sometimes, after the iceberg or the explosion, the lifeboat is safer than the luxury liner, though getting on it requires an urgent rearrangement of your body and your expectations. - Rebecca Solnit

Today's climate crisis inaugurates a future projected over a half-century ago, yet still legible today in the spalled concrete and yellowed pages which document the dream of a Radiant City. This recent photograph of the Unité d'habitation in Berlin enhances Le Corbusier's portrayal of the basic unit of urban inhabitation as an analogous ocean liner. With all the astonishment of a long lost ship suddenly, miraculously, pulling into port, the Unité is seen here arriving at the site of a climate disaster—arriving in time as much as in place—to fulfill its intended purpose. Finally redeemed from a brutal misunderstanding, modern urbanism comes into its own as an “explication” of contemporary dwelling in a moment of technical crisis.

20140402

life in a low resolution world

Alexander Gronsky PASTORAL

MOSCOW SUBURBS. The recent photos of Alexander Gronsky address one of the principal challenges of contemporary urbanism — scale. The images arguably recuperate the crude scale of the housing estate at its natural edges, even if those edges possess the same large scale as the estates.  Are there legitimate subject positions here? Can these resilient, mega-density "houses" be defended on the basis of their landscape relationships? Who would say that living among the effects of the crane and the bulldozer is less valid than living among the effects of the hammer and the hoe?









20131127

the indignity of speaking for others


Zaha Hadid, Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center, Baku, Azerbaijan, 2012.


As a "modernistic" monument in the traditional center of Baku, Azerbaijan,  Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center attempts to rehabilitate Baku's outmoded urbanism of blocks and streets through the insertion of a biomorphic, hyper-modern architectural figure.  While Hadid’s architecture may appear hyper-modern, it is anything but. The project instead subscribes to an urbanism that is Neo-Traditional if not outright reactionary. 

No matter how technically advanced they may seem to be, monumental interventions trade on an ancient hierarchy which reproduces the dominance of an architectural figure over a secondary or subordinate urban field. Hadid's postmodern rehabilitation of this ancient paradigm in Baku supports an atavistic urban strategy that produces the subject of Azerbaijan’s oligarchic rule. (Hadid's monument commemorates Heydar Aliyev who effectively ruled Azerbaijan through the Soviet Era up to his death in 2003. It was commissioned by his son who has succeeded him.) While the project exploits an understandable desire of Baku's citizens for traditional urbanism, it completely ignores their actual urban interests. These interests lie with the suburb or "subclass" city that those citizens have been constructing and inhabiting for the past half century — a city that is decidedly not built on a hierarchical arrangement of monuments and streets. 

With all eyes on Hadid's spectacle, this sub urban city is all but forgotten. The unambiguous praise that the building has received indicates the prevalence of a stylish mode of urban, if not political, oblivion. This oblivion will shortly run its course and give way to a unified project comprised of both a modern architecture and a modern urbanism that is capable of taking on the prevailing forms of the contemporary city, forms that exceed monumental expression. Going beyond symbolic concerns, these forms directly engage the material culture (life-world) of the city that actually defines, and is defined by, the majority population of Baku — a population that doubtlessly aspires to being more than the subjects of an atavistic regime. 


20131026

an airquake in China



the following photos were taken in the city of Haerbin in the Heilongjiang Province of China on 21 October, 2013.

AFP-Getty photo


Airquake: the explication of air, climate, and atmospheric situations calls into question the basic presumption of beings concerning their primary media of existence, and convicts it of naïveté. If, in their history to date, humans could step out at will under any given stretch of sky, in or out of doors, and take for granted the unquestioned idea of the the possibility of breathing in the surrounding atmosphere, then, as we see in retrospect, they enjoy a privilege of naïveté which was withdrawn with the caesura of the 20th century. Anyone who lives after this caesura and moves within a culture zone in step with modernity is already bound, whether in rudimentary or elaborated forms, to a formal concern for climate and atmosphere design. To show one's willingness to participate in modernity one is compelled to let oneself be seized by its power of explication over what once discretely underlay everything, that which encompassed and enveloped to form an environment. - Peter Sloterdijk, Terror From the Air.


AFP-Getty photo


Can "explication," as defined above by Peter Sloterdijk, ever become a force sufficient to overcome political inertia? Can a set of ontological rights — such as breathing — actually challenge or even displace economic hegemony? Looking at recent photos of air pollution taken in Haerbin, one might well ask at what point does brute survival overtake "the price of doing business." 

Our individual and collective existence depends on functions that largely occur in the background of our routine awareness. The background status of these functions do not suggest their unimportance, indeed, the opposite is more likely to be true. These background functions constitute our life-world — the "primary media of our existence." They exist in the background not because they are unimportant but because, historically, they have simply taken care of themselves. In the modern world, however, Sloterdijk suggests that such assumptions are naive, if not lethal. Throughout the twentieth century, these functions have come under attack by the development of increasingly potent technologies, threatening human existence at the most fundamental level. To use Sloterdijk's celebrated example,  the mustard gas attacks of the First World War first brought "air" out of the background becoming the object of an explicit (environmental) discourse. This wholly new, wholly modernist discourse ultimately gave rise to both the science and the industry of "air conditioning." 



AFP-Getty photo


For Sloterdijk, this movement from background to foreground is not limited to the explication of the air, toxic or otherwise, but is wholly characteristic of the modern project. He repositions or revalues the modern project as the explication of modern techniques, accepting their existence while revealing their threats to the life-world. In this light, the function of modernism is not to propagate, but to mitigate the effects of modernization upon the life-world. Explication, like the unbreathable air of Haerbin, brings the elements of our life-world out of a background of neglect and foregrounds them as the ontological preconditions of human existence. 

Central to these elements of the life-world are, of course, the objects of the built environment. Their present uncertainty, as well as the prospects of the newly foregrounded objects of explication, force us to redirect the discourse of architecture and urbanism. The spectacular objects that drive discourse today — extravagant museums, opera houses, stadia — exist in Haerbin and other major Chinese cities. They do so, however, to little effect — little at least in regards to the legacy of modern architecture and urbanism. As reformulated by Sloterdijk, explication grants to modernism the capacity to disrupt the imperatives of the neo-liberal economy and, in their place, foreground the objects of the life world as inalienable rights. The recent Chinese airquakes (along with other atmospheric disturbances such as climate change) remind us that modernism has always been an ontological project. Modernism is not about the invention of spectacular forms or the uncritical promotion of advanced technique; it is instead about the construction of a viable if not vibrant life-world in the face of unprecedented challenges including those to the air that we breathe. 


AFP-Getty photo


  

20131019

redistribution of the Fifth Ward

 redistribution of equal square footage in the Fifth Ward (click to enlarge)

The GIF above plays a game of whack-a-mole with existing square footages in a small section of the Fifth Ward of Houston, Texas. Using a simple vocabulary consisting of three multi-family building types, a script was written that redistributes the existing density (5 DUPA) within drastically shrunken environmental footprints projected for the year 2050. The resulting voids contribute to a Ward-wide, open space network that "glues" new construction together in a distributed whole. The Fifth Ward 2050 Project is funded by the Shell Center for Sustainability. (Drawing by Tsvetelina Zdraveva.)

20131005

megalopolis and climate change


Can a subclass urbanism serve as the foundation of a New City?


Climate change demands that architectural design expand its scope and think about the very large again. Not large in the sense of an architectural superblock (hundreds of people) but large in the sense of a city (thousands of people). Climate scientists agree that in order to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees centigrade, an 80% per capita reduction in energy expenditure is required. To say the least, this requirement will cut deeply into all aspects of our routine existence, profoundly altering our way of life. The only way to approach such drastic reduction in energy expenditure is through a reform of the physical environment in which our habitual patterns of energy use are deeply embedded. In short, climate change requires speculation on a new City.

This new environmental imperative begs one urgent question: what would a New City responsive to climate change be made of? What is our point of departure? This most basic question is one of urban Form. Is the New City to be made up of the continuous gridded fabric that we built up to the mid-point of the twentieth century or is it to be made up of the discontinuous and dispersed cul-de-sac fabric that we have built ever since? It is important to know that these are not the same thing.

The most immediate and obvious answer to this question is that we must build a New City upon our contemporary political, economic and cultural dispensation. The New City must spring, not from some contrived vision of the past or future — no urban village, no Manhattanville, no eco-topia — but from socially relevant criteria which reflect who we are individually and who we are collectively. As it is for all societies, this identity is encoded in the things that we make, not the least of which are urban things. The urbanism that we have been actively producing over the past fifty years — the discontinuous and dispersed urbanism of Megalopolis — must serve as our point of departure. And herein lies the challenge of new urban speculation based on the mandates of climate science.


flooded taxis, New York City


20130803

a footnote to archipelago theory...


SS Ayrfield in Homebush Bay, Sydney, Australia.


The archipelago is a compelling metaphor for a distributed network of isolated urban nuclei that have been built across the globe over the past half-century. Since the demise of gridiron construction in the years following the Second World War, the enclave network — technically known as a “polynuclear conurbation" and popularly known as the Megalopolis — has come to fully characterize contemporary urban production. The spine based “islands” of contemporary urbanism — subdivisions, office parks, shopping malls, megachurches, airports and housing estates — constitute an ad-hoc flotilla scattered in an uninhabitable, scaleless, windswept banality otherwise known as contemporary urban space. Whether such closed urban nodes are high density or low, composed of high-rise towers, tilt-up sheds or mass-produced tract houses, the archipelago metaphor allows us to both grasp the closed nuclei of contemporary urban development and to seek their validation in the world of natural phenomenon.

Such validation is commonplace in urban and architectural history. Designers have always looked to natural forms in order to make arbitrary human constructions seem as obvious and as inevitable as the natural world itself. Given this legacy of natural association, the metaphor of the island archipelago appeals because it renders the vagaries of Megalopolis as ancient and as enduring as the geology of the earth. Yet the link between the urban and the natural never transcends the most literal of metaphoric association. Modern organicism — the "organic" architecture of Wright, Mies and Le Corbusier — offers a far more plausible and sophisticated sublimation of the natural world than we see employed today in the tract house and office park. While the archipelago may reproduce the image of an island settlement, the single use zoning of Megalopolos produces anything but. What single-use zoning produces are urban monocultures — segregated bedroom communities and office parks —  that do not approach the self sufficiency of an integrated ecosystem capable of supporting itself. For the island/archipelago to become more than a convenient urban metaphor, its relation to the urban world must be taken more seriously. Modern organiscism teaches us that buildings and cities do not need to look like nature (as is the case in the ancient mimetic tradition) but it must begin to function like nature. More specifically, it needs to begin to function like an organism, whether that organism be manifest at the scale of a tree, a forrest or an entire ecosystem. 



"When everything could be latently contaminated and poisoned, when everything is potentially deceitful and suspicious, wholeness and being able to be whole can no longer be derived from external contexts. Now, integrity is no longer thought of as something won-by putting faith in a beneficial enclosure; instead it comes from the personal contribution of an organism actively tending to delimiting itself from an environment. Thus the thought emerges that life is not so much determined by openness and participation in a whole, but by self-enclosure and selective refusal to participate. The greater part of the surrounding world is a toxic or meaningless background for the organism — thus it arranges itself in a zone of strictly chosen things and signals, which become one's own circle of relevance: in other words, to come into language as an “environment." One could go so far as to call this the fundamental thinking of a post-metaphysical or other metaphysical civilization. Its psycho-social trace is manifested in the shock of naturalism, through which biologically enlightened cultures learned to convert from a phantasmic ethic of universal peaceful coexistence to an ethic of antagonistic protection of interests of finite units" 
— Peter Sloterdijk