Friday, December 29, 2006

questions to be posed

What role does topography play in organizing urban fabric?

How do infrastructural components organize the surrounding urban fabric?

How do infrastructural components relate to each other?

What aspects of the built environment facilitate social activation?

What aspects of the built environment coordinate typical, mundane uses?

How can inhabitants use the same urban elements for different purposes?

How does the public-private gradient across an urban field affect urban character?

What are systemic infrastructural components beyond the patch and corridor and how do they perform?

In terms of local urban fabric, what is the effective difference between an initial infrastructural piece and an imposed infrastructural piece?

infra- and meta-

“Fundamental and fixed” conditions can occur on a physical level--in the form of tectonically specific infrastructural components--and on a conceptual level--as implicit guidelines with internal flexibility. Much of my study will focus on constructed support systems (infra-structure) but I will also delve into the conceptual realm via meta-structures.

Meta-structures are graphic abstractions that articulate rules operating among field conditions (meta meaning among, with, or after). Meta-structures institutionalize the built environment’s normative patterns. These patterns may be fixed (structure, direction, dimension, etc) or they may be recurrently ephemeral (daylighting, inhabitation, public-private gradient, etc.). As organizational representations, meta-structures can be descriptive (emerging through analyses of existing fabric) or they can be prescriptive (formulating directives for a project site). Meta-structural drawings are useful to the architect in that they inform design decisions and register criteria for assessment. For example, one can judge a project’s fidelity to its urban environment by gauging the architect’s pre-scriptive meta-structures against local and regional de-scriptive meta-structures.

fixed and free

According to Nietzsche, art is the interaction of two forces, the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The Apollonian condition is one in which a creative vision of form is fully realized; it is an impulse toward order, form, rationality, and control. The Dionysian condition is one of dissolution and release; it is an impulse toward irrationality and spontaneity. In true art (and architecture), the two conditions transform each other, so that a delicate mastery of irrationality is obtained. The encapsulated irrationality can emerge through tectonic variation or submerge in the building’s operational logic, surfacing only when the mundane gives way to the celebratory. Part of my methodological aim will be to chart these rhythms of movement and stasis and to register the interplay of ephemerality and permanence.

infrastructural attributes

Infrastrastructure’s potential lies in its capacity to modulate density, variation, and idiosyncrasy. By coordinating density, infrastructure moderates sprawl and counters urban disconnect. By incorporating variation, infrastructure maintains site-specific flexibility and evades monotony. Both density and variation feed into infrastructure’s third quality, idiosyncrasy, through which it connects to notions of place and counters normative junk-space tendencies, which to Rem Koolhaas, “represents a reverse typology of cumulative, approximative identity, less about kind than about quantity. But formlessness is still form, the formless also a typology . . .” (His definition continues for several pages.) It is important to note here that these three qualities--density, variation, and idiosyncrasy--can apply to infrastructural components as well as to the environments that they foster. In other words, infrastructure need not be conceptualized as an ossified system and can in fact behave dynamically in time and/or space.

infrastructural urbanism

The term “infrastructural urbanism” suggests a conceptual framework for the ways in which public works (utilities, roads, parks, etc.) can generate and impact the built urban environment.

Thursday, December 28, 2006


Masterplanning has its roots in early historical settlements. However, its modern incarnation can be traced to the 19th century, when the predominance of urban populations led to a number of proposed utopias – the Metropolitan City (Haussman and Nash), the Garden City (Howard and Wright); the Industrial City (Tony Garnier) – and finally to International Modernism (Le Corbusier) in the early part of the 20th Century. Each proposal conceptualized the city as a product of functionality, zoning, movement and traffic. While Haussman possessed the authority and power to reshape Paris, other pioneers were often unable to realize their schemes.

In the decades following World War II, masterplans became one of the main tools of reconstruction and planning. They were usually highly prescriptive with detailed land uses and an outlook much wider than the architecture of individual buildings or districts. Plans could include huge areas of cities or establish complete towns isolated into separate blocks or cells.

In the 1980’s, masterplans began to take the form of detailed, three-dimensional illustrations. Prepared for sites perceived as run down and dilapidated, the renderings’ attractive neighborhood visions helped generate funds by means of sales or leases on each of the proposed buildings. With this graphic tool, architects increasingly began to include “masterplanner” in their title and to compete with planners for claim to urban design. Yet, as their primary representational technique moved away from conventional architectural drawings and toward artistic impressionism, their design decisions continued to revolve around the plan as a two dimensional pattern.

Currently, conventional master plans operate as top down urban management and as property-guided urban regeneration. They derive public space from interstices of the private sector. This defining characteristic can erase fine-grained structures and interconnected activities, replacing them with a coarse grain of static disposition. Such schemes tend to be deterministic, inflexible, and conceived as products rather than processes. As products, they require completion to be effective and the more detail they include, the more rigid they become.

focal length

Infrastructure’s seductive irreducibility derives from the term’s inherently prepositional condition. Call something a “structure” and peak under its skirt to find its infra-structure. Which is to say that the world is as full of infrastructure as it is of wild women and a man can cavort for only so long before he needs to settle down for a serious and meaningful relationship.

With this in mind, I will use my tentative thesis proposal—a world’s fair--to bound the scope of my inquiry. The project will be an architectural-scale intervention that resonates within a larger urban environment. It is helpful to understand the regional dynamics into which a project can key, but I do not look to comprehensively revamp those broader logics.

initial fieldwork

Initial fieldwork can be the most exhilarating and entertaining stretch of an investigation. Dodging pedestrians, ducking through doorways, and struggling to keep all the dimensions straight in a gusty wind is the only way to haptically absorb the built environment. But more than fieldwork’s physical and mental acrobatics, it is the excuse to interact with inhabitants that I find the most profoundly rewarding. A friendly smile and a shoddily translated “architecture student” rarely fails to garner bemusement and after a few self-effacing hand signals one can find oneself on a tour of the roof or settling down at the dinner table. Curiosity is a reciprocal sentiment and a dynamite conversation starter.

However, the revelry of experience must be balanced in a deliberate dialectic of intense interaction and reflective disengagement. An atmospheric perspective sketch is useless without a careful cross-section, and a day’s hike doesn’t reach its potential until it is traced on a map. GoogleEarth and a visit to the nearest library or archive can mean as much to fieldwork as days’ worth of pacing and tape-measuring. It is essential that a variety of strategies utilizing available techniques (and improvising when they’re not available) be applied to the subject of study as systemically and systematically as possible.

fundamental inquiries

(A) How can a thicker understanding of “public works” (communal utilities, spaces, thoroughfares, etc) help architects orchestrate solutions to such contemporary dilemmas as rapid urbanization, suburban sprawl, urban flight, adaptation of industrial landscapes, and over-development of agricultural environments?

(B) What lessons can architects take from the (un)intentional ramifications of past infrastructural models, such as Rome’s Aquae Urbis; and those of the present, such as Dubai’s Palm Island?

project overview

At its most basic level, urban design theory divides into utopian and natural models. The former relies on comprehensive vision and revision while the latter promotes incremental growth and gradual change. This study posits infrastructure as a means to regulate the two extremes. Infrastructure evades pro- and anti- rhetoric, suspends judgment, and tunes itself to forces at work in the urban environment. By harnessing infrastructure’s design potential, architects can assume a more active and effective position among planners, developers, and other agents of urban change.

My study analyzes infrastructure’s capacity as a design tool by assessing discrete architectural projects, such as Yokohama’s International Ferry Terminal and Stuttgart’s Galerie der Stadt; and by isolating complex urban conditions in cities such as New York, Paris, and Bogota. Not limiting my research to a conventional type (“subway” or “shopping mall”) and extending my analysis beyond the strictly architectural allows me to articulate intentional and incidental relationships on a range of scales.

In each locale, I will track contemporary infrastructural practices and trace historical infrastructural phenomena. My methods range from data collection (through visits to archives, foundations, libraries, etc.; and on-site via photography, video, and drawing) to ethnography (observations based on interviews and direct participation) to mapping (diagrams, notations, scores, scripts, and overlays). Although a base analysis will be applied consistently across all case studies, I will tailor more extensive strategies as appropriate.

In my analyses, infrastructural elements belong to—or can be broken up into—two generic components, termed corridor and patch by Stan Allen and armature and enclave by David Grahame Shane. Corridor/Armature refers to a linear configuration, ranging in scale from The High Line to the Panama Canal. Patch/Enclave denotes its nonlinear counterpart, manifesting in forms as diverse as Parisplace and Tokyo’s depato.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

elements of urbanity

en route to NC, somewhere over Utah