The Ideal Urbanity (Urbanism Rant)

What is the best form of urbanity?

 

If right now, you had to choose one type of setting to live in for the rest of your life, what would it be? I think that to anyone, choosing any one setting will have its ups and downs, but you have to decide. Would it be an open farmland? A bustling metropolitan center like Manhattan? A forest? A suburb?

Essentially, what is the ‘ideal’ form for humans to live in? The ‘ideal urbanity’? Of course, this question has been asked as long as cities have been around.  In truth, there is no correct answer to this question. No one wants to stay in one place for their entire life, and different settings offer different advantages. In this essay, I will be dealing with a specifically urban setting, medium density to high density areas, as these areas involve the most human input and planning, both on an individual building scale and on the larger scale of the city. And because these are the places that house most of humanity in today’s world.

Our urban form is on the cusp of great changes, brought about by our changing technology and society. This has been happening for as long as technology has been evolving. Our built environment always takes a long time to catch up to the changes in the world. Right now, we are living in the past, in relics of old urban spaces. It is time for us to make sweeping changes in our physical environment, because this is what our society necessitates in order to ensure its continued operation. I am going to give my own design ideas in this essay that will tackle three categories of change that I believe are essential to the future health of cities; three changes in our urban fabric:

  1. Creating closed loops of consumption in our everyday life.
  2. The radical new typologies that will come about because of computational construction techniques.
  3. A new functionalism in architecture, supplemented and evolved by our increasing connection to technology, that will once again put people at the center of planning considerations.

I will back up my points by showing how cities have been changing already as a response to technology, and how their forms have altered throughout history. Indeed, cities have always been the embodiment of the society that built them. It’s quite hard that they wouldn’t be.

Plan of the cave dwellings of Massafra, in Puglia, Italy. Dark line indicates the stone cliffs, with the dwelling carved into the cliff face.

Plan of the cave dwellings of Massafra, in Puglia, Italy. Dark line indicates the stone cliffs, with the dwelling carved into the cliff face.

 

The cave dwellings of Massafra ware an architectural project that takes its start entirely from nature, and the limitations of the natural setting in that area. The caves were dug with basic tools into loose clay along the cliffs of river valleys. Their location up on the cliffs was ideal for defensive purposes, and their location near the river allowed for quick, easy access to water, the lifeblood of any substantial habitation. They even carved their rooms radially outwards from the entrances, knowing that the doorway was the only point of entry of sunlight. Hard corners and orthogonal spaces would only cast unnecessary darkness over precious indoor space. It is a perfect example of circumstances of nature to dictate habitations.

In early Europe, when feudal warring societies dominated much of the land, cities took on the form of defense, for the expectation of attack was constantly looming. People needed a place to run to, to protect themselves from the enemy. And of course, the more of the city that you could contain within its walls, the better suited you were to maintain a fight again an enemy and protect resources in the city. Vienna’s Ringstrasse is the vestigial remnant of such a layout.

Plan of Vienna. The area around the former walled city is shown in green. The infill project of the Ringstrasse is shown in red.

Plan of Vienna. The area around the former walled city is shown in green. The infill project of the Ringstrasse is shown in red.

When Vienna was a medieval city, a large wall was built around a large swath of the city. However, the city continued to grow, and the defensive walls soon threatened to choke the growth of the city. So, building and roads were eventually constructed outside of the walls. However, they had to be space a certain distance away from the city wall. Why is this? The answer is that there needed to be an open space, in the event that an enemy would attack, for them to be unable to take cover while rushing the wall. Therefore, a flat, open space of several hundred feet in every direction out from the wall, with no obscuring objects whatsoever, had to be maintained. And so it was maintained, for several hundred years. As the city continued to grow, the area outside the wall soon became a great empty space in the middle of the city. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that people finally decided that it was long obsolete, and therefore it was filled in with many new civic institutions, and a grand boulevard, dubbed the Ringstrasse. It became a center of civic importance and the life of much of the city. As technology changed, so did the form of the city.

Part of the Haussman demolition plan in Paris. The plan demolished many of the cities' old, medieval infrastructure. This renovation was in part a measure to control civilian uprisings against authorities in Paris.

Part of the Haussman demolition plan in Paris. The plan demolished many of the cities’ old, medieval infrastructure. This renovation was in part a measure to control civilian uprisings against authorities in Paris.

Today, many medieval fortifications in European cities have been re-purposed. New technologies emerged, and many older cities had to be re-adapted: The Haussmann plan of Paris, widening of streets, etc. I am not arguing for the destruction of the old in place of the new. I support the adaptation of old infrastructure as much as possible. Many European cities are envied for their charm because they have managed to hang on to their history so well, as opposed the terrible track record the US has of building preservation and just generally valuing the urban environment. Also, I used the word ‘charm’ on purpose in the above sentence. It is certainly not a word commonly found in academic writings on architecture, because the modern movement has scared us away from any words that refer to architecture as a nuanced emotional experience. And, even worse, to speak of historic buildings and neighborhoods as being more pleasant, humanistic, interesting and yes, charming, than newer areas of cities. It’s time to cast off this anti-historical coat and admit to ourselves: we love this stuff. And it would be an enormous shame to see these historical neighborhoods swept away in a tide of futurism, which many developers got away with in the 20th century, and are still getting away with.

I am coming out strongly in favor of adaptation of our spaces, wherever possible.

Of course, many European cities can be considered ‘retrofitted’. But what about cities that arose newly, and different times and states of technological advancement? New York, for instance, with its grid, shows that in the 19th century the need for clustered, winding streets and walled fortifications is no longer needed. Instead, a large, omnipresent  grid was ‘placed’ over the entire island of Manhattan, in order to better regulate the movement of goods and commerce throughout the island and to the ports on the Hudson river.

The plan of Manhattan of 1811. Imposing a grid over the island on Manhattan was done primarily to serve the interests of commerce and the movement of goods.

The plan of Manhattan of 1811. Imposing a grid over the island on Manhattan was done primarily to serve the interests of commerce and the movement of goods.

However, there are emotional elements to these places that arise apart from the pragmatic purposes for which they were built. To me, there is something sublime and whimsical about winding streets, about not seeing the end of the street you are walking on, something unexpectedly pleasant and antithetical to the ideas the builders had of better being able to launch an attack unexpectedly as the enemy rampages through the city.

As well, there is something inherently vapid, and homogeneous about the same thing, block after block, of the efficiency of New York’s grid. Indeed, the most attractive spaces in the whole city are formed when Broadway makes its diagonal cut across the grid, opening up triangular spaces in the city for people to enjoy. People are almost drawn to nooks and crannies of a city like insects are to crevasses and underground places, if you will.

This, my friends, is the reason why architecture exists. To counteract the purely pragmatic, economic forces at work behind buildings and construction.

Anyways, back to my suggestions here: What is the ideal urbanism? And what will our cities look like in the next 50, or 100 years?

Some trends I can see in the United States that will shape trends in many cities for a least the next  50 years:

-The re-population of the urban core by middle class to upper middle class people. This trend is already creating demographic shifts that are actually pushing poorer people out into the suburbs. This will lead to another trend:

-The demand for more green space in the inner city. The inner city has traditionally been the domain of young people and the poor. As these urban centers gain affluence, what will these demands bring? Greater access to safe and efficient public transportation is certainly one of them. But also, more personal space, and more of a sense of community. How can we make this happen?

-Denser living areas, but with more private or semi-private spaces. That is what we must demand. Too much of our inner cities consist of the extremes, either intensely private, guarded spaces for residents, or open spaces, which can be accessed by all of the public.

I think that we need to reconsider the city block as a ‘unit’, where neighbors could, say, share backyards. In this way, the city block becomes a manor for each resident of that block, while families can still retain their privacy. Perhaps, if families still want to host a private event, they can easily construct a fence around their private lot, but the default mode would be a fence-less, open space.

I think that every block, or every few block, should have an indoor space devoted to the public in that area. It should be a place that everyone can walk to.

I believe that the structure of our cities can heavily influence the communities and sub-communities we form in our daily lives. However, in order to do this, the built environment itself will not bring about such a change entirely. Our social institution must be transformed, or tweaked, in conjunction with a change in our built environment.

The good news is, this change is already happening in our society: More people are working at jobs where, instead or commuting to an office or working alone at home, they are working in communal spaces alongside other independent workers. It is emergent social construct like these that can inform revolutions in our built environment, as long as we in the construction industry are quick enough to perceive and adapt these changes.

Grasshopper Scripts

This is week #4 of my grasshopper class. Our first big assignment is at hand, which is to design and build  a form that looks like this:

Grasshopper1

It’s a very strange form, but that’s what working in Grasshopper is all about! Creating forms that have no actual use or function, but look really cool!

Anyways, the purpose of the assignment is to make this shifting, triangular vault-like structure and break it down into its component parts so that you can put it together (see the top view below):

Grasshopper2

In this top view, you can see all of the component parts displayed on the left.

To the right of the parts is the original form. Once the tabs have been laid out, the only other thing we need to do is put it together. We can export the shapes from Rhinoceros and laser cut them out of paper or museum board. But after they are cut out, we’ll need a way of putting them together, and knowing which parts to line up. So….

Grasshopper3

We need to create a tab system! This is the part that I’m currently stuck at (the thing that’s pictured here is the example file). While working on this assignment, the shape kind of reminded me of Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests (pictured below), which are giant, wind-powered kinetic sculptures that can move completely on their own. They’re a very sublimely beautiful and inspirational example, and encourage me to learn more Grasshopper (although I doubt Grasshopper was used at all in the invention of Strandbeets). But still…it can do great things!

Strandbeest

Parametric Modeling

I’m trying to grasp Grasshopper in my new class…and it’s turning out to be more difficult than expected. One of our assignments was to make a ‘lampshade’ which basically means to design anything that look cool in Grasshopper. So here are some really shitty renderings of my ‘lampshade’. Maybe I should go back to drawing airships…

 

Lampshade_Render_1

Side view of the ‘lampshade’. How is it supposed to function?

 

Lampshade_Render_2

 

More to come from Grasshopper, and hopefully, more fruitful results.

That’s all for now!

 

Happy 2015!

 

NYE2014

Happy New Year! (I’m in the back of this photo with my arm in the air.) This post isn’t really going to have any content. Instead, it’s going to serve as a reminder that I will keep blogging in 2015, and that there are many exciting things afoot. I’m taking my second Digital Design and Fabrication class, which will hopefully be more fruitful than the first! I’ve also got my feet in many other projects right now. Will they all be failures? Will they be successful?? Stay tuned to find out!

The Culmination of 12 Weeks of Work

This fall I took a continuing education class at the University of Washington, called ‘Digital Design and Fabrication’. The fall quarter class is one of three classes that will make you eligible to be awarded a ‘certificate’ in Digital Design and Fabrication.

Unfortunately things got in the way of some of my work for this class, so what you see below is more or less the culmination of all of my work for the class:

A 3-D penguin.

IMG_3734

Front view of the Penguin.

 

IMG_3733

Back view of the penguin.

 

The next course, which will run January – March, focuses on Grasshopper, a modeling plugin for Rhino software. Hopefully that class will be more fruitful than this one was. However I’m not disappointed overall. The UW has a lot of good facilities that are on par with what I had at my own architecture school, The Cooper Union. In fact, they’ve got a very nice plastic 3-D printer that I’m excited to experiment with next year, hopefully with some interesting results.