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Paper Architecture, Emerging Urbanism

The current economic downturn has impacted the building industry and architecture profession more severely than many other market sectors. As Scott Van Voorhis commented in the November 9, 2009 issue of Banker and Tradesman : “Amid handwringing over a national unemployment rate that is nearing 10 percent, architects are living through their own equivalent of the Great Depression. Estimates of unemployment in the field range from 16 percent to as much as 40 percent.” This upheaval has generated some thoughtful soul-searching by academics and architecture critics about appropriate priorities for moving forward.

As early as November 2008, when many firms were first jolted by a sudden downturn, John McMorrough, an assistant professor and director of the graduate program in architecture at Ohio State, gave an informal lecture at Northeastern University that sought analogies between the current economic situation and the deep recession in the mid-1970s. McMorrough asked whether the shortage of commissions would spur a return to the theoretical speculation — the paper architecture — of the 1970s, albeit digitally produced and broadcast, given the discipline-altering advances in representational technology during the ensuing forty years. 2 In a recent issue of Architectural Record, James Murdock asked the question more directly: “Will we see a new generation of “paper architects” — the archetypal figure from the last recession?”

These are important questions: with the building boom over, and as both professional offices and academic programs seek to reframe their roles to adapt to our fast-changing culture, we have an opportunity to recalibrate the relationship between practice and education — and more, to realign progressive practice with academic inquiry. With fewer projects on the boards, firms with relevant agendas, media connections and the resources to negotiate the new economic order will increasingly create paper architecture, design projects that remain unbuilt — not as an end in itself but rather as a bully pulpit and tool for self-definition. So what should this paper architecture look like and what agendas should it raise?

Left: Archigram, Capsules Project. Right: Archigram, Walking City. [Credit: via www.archigram.net]

To answer these questions, it’s useful to recall a crucial distinction between the kinds of paper architecture created earlier. In his article James Murdock includes as precedent the work compiled in Five Architects, as well as the proposals of Archigram, Superstudio, Bernard Tschumi, and Lebbeus Woods. But Murdock does not differentiate between the theoretical work that was centered on discipline-specific concerns such as language and design methodology, and exemplified by unbuilt projects by Peter Eisenman and Aldo Rossi and championed by the journal Oppositions, and the speculative work which was a form of social critique, and exemplified by the utopian visions of Archigram, Superstudio, and Lebbeus Woods. For John McMorrough, the speculative opportunities for paper architecture predate the downturn and reside mostly within design research and thinking enabled by the computer. He identified certain projects — Toyo Ito’s Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in Hyde Park (2002), Asymptote’s Yas Hotel in Abu Dhabi (2009), and the proposal by MOS for Ordos 100 (2008) — as speculative architecture that was made real (or almost real) by the economic boom in places like Dubai and China, and by wealthy patrons of progressive architecture, whether in Abu Dhabi or Mongolia.

But despite the allure and influence of these projects, and many others made possible by digital modeling, the paper architecture that seems to be gaining traction during this downturn is focused less on architecture as a self-referential discipline and more on the imperatives of the deepening environmental crisis. Like the paper architecture of the 1970s that focused on alternative futures rather than disciplinary mechanics, recent proposals range from realistic to utopian — and yet so far they remain largely within the realm of provocation rather than practice. One of the most serious is Architecture Research Office’s vision of Manhattan after the predicted sea level rise caused by global warming, which is supported by analytical maps that demonstrate the vulnerability of New York to rising seas and future storm surges. ARO’s engagement with infrastructural issues and interdisciplinary approach are both laudable; yet one wishes the project renderings were more focused on the character of the new infrastructures that will need to be built rather than on the ethereal buildings that populate the future edges of Manhattan. 4 And despite its depth and thoroughness, ultimately the scheme seems unsure whether its intent is, on the one hand, to design a city that can co-exist and even benefit from a more direct connection with the water, or on the other, to provoke a call-to-arms by powerful real estate forces in New York (but to do what?). ARO’s renderings of a future Manhattan suggest that their project is more an illustration of the potential consequences of climate change than a disciplinary response to impending crisis.

The premiated proposals for the WPA 2.0, a competition organized by cityLab at UCLA, are another example of realistic-utopian visions centered more on the environmental mission of the program brief than on the architectural consequences. Like ARO’s proposal, the projects are architectural illustrations of non-architectural technologies, no matter how fascinating, virtuous or timely the ideas. In spirit and focus the proposals are remarkably similar to the kind of projects being designed in advanced studios at Harvard and Yale, with their amalgamation of statistics-heavy environmental research and whimsical form-making [see my earlier essay].

But is the realm of “what if?” technology and provocative illustration, like King’s turn-of-the-century visions of New York, the only or most productive role for progressive architecture within the current economic and social context? Is there a course of action that might be relevant to the exigencies of practice and to the aspirations to expand disciplinary knowledge and skill?

One especially promising approach will be to re-embed architecture, as a discipline, within important emerging ideas about the future of urbanism and the existing realities of the contemporary city. For the discipline of architecture, as articulated in the schools, has long had an ambivalent relationship to these realities. Most architecture curricula are untethered to relevant urban issues, and most do not integrate studio pedagogy within the broader intellectual framework of the city and do not include an urban design studio in the course sequence.

A telling consequence of this ambivalence is the typical treatment in studio projects of the relationship of buildings to site. For at least two decades the most prevalent framework for conceiving a building in design school studios has been a certain kind of contextualism, in which the specificities of site conspire to make each architectural opportunity a unique project, a one-off. A range of methodologies has evolved to privilege this one-of-a-kind-ness. Perhaps the most common of these is the result of mapping (in plan) the idiosyncratic aspects of a site in order to divine the “site forces” that might shape the project. Usually this technique results in a correspondingly idiosyncratic formal language, since every twitch and fidget of the surrounding geometries and grids are used as justification to generate complex three-dimensional forms. It’s curious: while the city itself and urbanistic ideas do not drive the logic of such architectural projects, the site geometry becomes a kind of alibi for highly elaborated formal speculation. In such a process the function of the building becomes almost irrelevant, or in some cases, is symbolically linked to the compositional connections made to the larger context through the mapping analysis. Not surprisingly, community centers and branch libraries were once popular vehicles for this approach; more recently, programs that both comment on the site and try to fix it, like recycling centers with landscape bio-remediation strategies, have been in vogue.

To begin to re-engage architecture with urban design, certain ideas are proving especially promising. In recent years landscape urbanism has emerged as the most persuasive model of urbanism in North American architecture schools. 5 James Corner at Penn and Charles Waldheim at Harvard have each been arguing, through writings and projects, for an urban design that is motivated by and that facilitates interrelated environmental processes and infrastructural systems. Significantly, the rise of landscape urbanism discourse is being fueled by both a growing body of theoretical texts and by still mostly unbuilt — paper — proposals that identify a territory for invention between the specific project and the larger ecological and urban forces acting upon the site.

Architecture Research Office, ‘City of the Future’ proposal.

Various factors account for the success of landscape urbanism. Chief among these is its strong engagement with ecological and environmental issues; this makes it a compelling alternative to New Urbanism, which since the early ’90s and until recently has been the only comprehensive practice-model for integrating architecture into the city. (While New Urbanism offers an impressively overarching framework, its proponents are openly hostile to contemporary modes of architectural expression, making the entire approach off-limits to serious discourse. The success and subsequent codification of New Urbanism, as much as the ascendance of sophisticated digital design methodologies, might explain why urban issues were dropped from most architecture curricula in the past couple of decades.) Another factor is the virtuosity of the representational graphics that illustrate both the landscape urbanist design proposals and the supporting technical data. The finalists’ proposals in the WPA 2.0 competition underscore how fully the design methodology of leading landscape urbanist offices such as Field Operations and Stoss are informing the preoccupations and illustrative techniques of progressive architects.

Yet despite the many strengths of landscape urbanism as new model for relevant practice, there is something missing: the fundamental role of the building as a city-making component. In a number of landscape urbanist proposals, buildings are often understood largely as contributors to the sets of statistics that account for such phenomena as stormwater flow, energy usage, heat island effect, etc. In Martin Felsen and Sara Dunn’s provocative Growing Water — a proposal for eco-boulevards in Chicago — existing buildings are rendered as luminescent-white ghost-like apparitions in order to frame and highlight a dynamic new open space network. This is not an oversight. In fact, in landscape urbanism, this kind of fading-out of the buildings is not a simplistic rejection of the traditional city for a pastoral urbanism of community gardens and bike paths; rather it is a critique of the viability of architecture in the discourse of contemporary urbanism.

The landscape urbanist critique is all too justified. Yet ultimately this recessive role for architecture will be unproductive, at the very least for practical reasons: because the individual building and the assemblage of several buildings, as measurable units of real estate development, constitute the basic elements of contemporary city-making. For most clients, it is the functional need for built space that generates a project. For the various self-interested parties that populate the real estate and construction industries, it is the use-category of a building, e.g., office, hospital, housing, education, that then shapes the design of the project. And even before design begins in earnest, the business plan is developed and enriched through assumptions about initial capital costs, potential revenue and performance measured in predicted lifecycle costs — all of which are calculated with the goal of minimizing financial risk. The upshot, in the modern market economy, is that lending institutions and financial underwriters tend to favor proven building configurations and that these configurations— the so-called comparables, or “comps” — have come to persist as almost inevitable types. The center-core plan of the commercial high-rise and the double-loaded corridor of countless residential towers are only the most ubiquitous results of the feedback loop of the risk-averse real estate industry.