Urbanism and Buildings

2/10/2009 Uncategorized



Array of building forms from Siteless: 1001 Building Forms, by Francois Blanciak (2008); Laboratory building diagram from Urbanism Starter Kit, developed by Utile for Yale Urbanism Studio (2009)

Contemporary urban design discourse is focused primarily on the larger environmental and market economy processes that shape the urban environment. The chief proponents of a design framework catalyzed by environmental processes include James Corner and Charles Waldheim (among many others), and while many will claim that they have been given too much credit and have too simplistic of a message, they have fundamentally revitalized the practice of landscape architecture and have made their discourse the central discourse of urbanism in North American architecture schools today.

OMA, MVRDV, and a larger group of Netherlands-based firms represent another influential strain of urban design thinking in American architecture schools.  They see the relative unpredictability of market-driven and regulatory frameworks as fertile territories for design innovation.  Because many of their urban projects channel the relative unpredictability of the market to achieve urban variety of the kind that roughly approximates the character of cities that have grown over protracted time periods, their approach is analogous to the channeling of natural processes in the work of contemporary landscape architects such as SToSS and Field Operations.   

The influence of Landscape Urbanism and Dutch market-focused strategies is not only a consequence of the compelling arguments of its chief proponents but also the vacuum that exists in American architecture programs, since curriculums no longer embed their design studio pedagogy within a broader urban design framework nor include an urban design studio in the studio sequence.  The reasons for this include the overwhelming emphasis on building problems that invite highly expressive and individualistic solutions, no doubt fueled by the media’s obsession with signature buildings and their charismatic authors. 

Part of the success of Landscape Urbanism, beyond its inherent virtues, is that it is also a more environmentally-focused alternative to the equally persuasive discourse of New Urbanism.  While New Urbanism is a laudable framework for integrating architectural design within a larger urban design strategy, it is an approach that has been almost universally rejected in architecture schools because most of the proponents of New Urbanism are openly hostile to contemporary modes of architectural expression and most academics are openly hostile to the traditional architectural styles championed by New Urbanists.

Against this broad discursive context, the role of the building as the building block of city making has been lost.  In Landscape Urbanism, buildings are mostly contributors to the larger set of statistics that account for stormwater flow, energy useage, and the heat island effect.  And even in other manifestations of urbanism such as New Urbanism and mainstream urban design practice (as exemplified by Cooper Robertson and Sasaki), buildings are conceived primarily as edges to spaces, contributing both the wall surface for the spatial definition of the public realm and the ground level program to “activate the ground plane.”  In this conception, buildings are the background poché against which an open space network can be shaped and programmed. 

But this recessive role for buildings within a conception of urbanism is nonsensical when one considers that the individual building or assemblages of several buildings, as a measurable unit of economic development, constitute the fundamental logic of contemporary city-making.  The question for urban design discourse should be how to reintregrate the idea of the building, as a discreet urban artifact, into the systematic approaches of both the Landscape Urbanists and the market-attuned strategies of the Dutch. One approach is to consider market-driven buildings as prototypes, as we have explored through studios at Yale and Northeastern.  The value of starting a master planning process by inserting market-proven building types is that the robust logics of the real estate market are captured in architectonic terms.  With the types established as a base line for design speculation, innovation resulting from transformation of the pre-existing types or through typological invention can be measured against the logics of the prototypes. 

The other virtue of this strategy is that architectural issues can be addressed earlier in a planning process than is typical with a ground up process. The truth is that most contemporary market-driven building types are remarkably resistant to wholesale transformation given the embedded logics of the building types as informed by the real estate industry and office furniture manufacturers, among many other influences. Given the situation, perhaps there are productive parallel strategies:  tinker with the types but within the their own internal logics and/or find opportunities for enrichment at the points were the buildings meet the public realm.. Rather than conceived as poché, the buildings themselves create some friction back to the site infrastructure and shaping of the open space network. 

The building is back, not just as a one-off signature buildings, but as an assemblage of buildings that make up new city districts.