Role of an architect essay
We met at the Metropolis Congress in Sydney , where Signor Ratti had just given a presentation on his work at the MIT SENSEable City Lab , an outfit whose work I admire hugely, working as they do across many of my interests: interactive architecture, urban informatics, responsive envronments, multidisciplinary design and other implications of real-time networked pervasive information systems for the city. Incidentally, the interview was also recently published on the new-ish Australian Design Review website - which amalgamates AR with its sister publication Inside - and which is rather nice and proving more than a little useful.
Kudos to Andrew Mackenzie and Mat Ward for steering that through so well. Ratti and I meet up at the Metropolis Congress in Sydney , where he has delivered a keynote on his projects, sandwiched between Saskia Sassen and Kathy Pain. The work of his team was, in contrast, suffused with data emerging from the aggregate of millions of tiny signals. Yet it was often realised in lustrous visualisations that attempted the alchemy of transmuting data into information into knowledge, while shifting effortlessly from physical to digital to physical.
Ratti, an architect and civil engineer by training, has ended up creating new urban forms from mobile phone signals, the movement of bikes and digitally-controlled jets of water.
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Yet we, and many others worldwide now, are all wrestling with the promise of digital activity thoroughly permeating urban fabric. Ratti is a tall, slender and slightly gangling arc of good-natured exuberance. He in no way belies Italian caricatures by gesticulating with a flourish as he talks, carving the air around him into sinuous forms, sweeping his hands to indicate progressive movements.
Sitting in the culturally arid hub of Darling Harbour, we talk for a couple of hours, exploring the implications of this emerging field of design work, and how it may change the nature of both architecture, and also cities and buildings themselves. Just as with Ratti, his projects emerge from an intrinsically multidisciplinary environment. The Water Pavilion, for the Zaragoza Expo, was produced by a team of engineers, architects, sociologists and physicists, and built by Siemens. The presence of the social science disciplines is particularly interesting, enabling a focus on user behaviour in far more detail than is often the case with the built environment.
Now, because of all the new technology in the city, you might require this new type of responsive city — and building that comes from other disciplines too, including industrial design. Whereas the world of consumer electronics, product design or, more obviously, online social software, can change radically almost week to week. Ratti notes that behaviour around these products flexes accordingly too, in a symbiotic relationship, and this must be understood in detail. At MIT, he benefits from a highly multidisciplinary environment, despite the silos universities can sometimes wrangle themselves into.
With the SmartBiking project — in the context of a Copenhagen where 30 to 40 percent of all trips are already undertaken by bicycle — attempts to further promote the use of bikes need to genuinely develop new thinking over and above the pervasive provision of bike lanes. Their sensor-enabled bikes connect briefly to other cyclists as they ride by, and then enable Facebook to play back the patterns of who passed who in the street that day.
This is hardly the traditional work of the architect, yet this sense of working with a layer of soft infrastructure, overlaid onto the hard infrastructure of the city, is a theme common to this work. How will the cities look different? Aside from hubs for the bikes, there are very few physical changes to the cities. Yet these systems have radically changed the sense of mobility in their cities, utterly changing the way the city feels. Ratti agrees, seeing that digital activity is a layer in interface with the city. The Water Pavilion suggests a newly fluid, reconfigurable architecture, although with exterior walls comprising jets of water.
The latter was to advise the project on the content contained within the data, almost to avoid the team becoming seduced by the visualisation possibilities. Thoreau used hyperbole to make a point; I am inclined to do the same in order to argue that landscape architecture will soon become the most consequential of the design arts. Admittedly, the profession has been beset by various problems.
Relatively young, it lacks the rich theoretical and critical traditions of architecture. It has long been constrained by an attachment to the picturesque. In recent years it has been at war within itself, diverse factions pitting ecology against art—as if the two could not coexist. And so far it has failed to attain the public profile of architecture or the fine arts: built works of landscape architecture are not as readily identified and evaluated as paintings, sculptures, or buildings.
Much in the history of the discipline substantiates this large claim: the 19th-century parks that enhance so many American cities; the national and state park systems; the rise of urban planning in the s, which was an outgrowth of landscape architecture; the development of prototypical garden cities; the stunning Modernist works of such designers as Daniel Urban Kiley, James C. Rose, and Lawrence Halprin; and the embrace of ecology in recent years as a moral compass for the profession.
Combining elements of architecture and sculpture with knowledge from the natural sciences, landscape architecture today is struggling to meet profound environmental, social, technological, and artistic challenges. Landscape architecture aims to do more than to produce places for safe, healthful, and pleasant use; it has become a forum for the articulation and enactment of individual and societal attitudes toward nature.
Complexity alone cannot engender consequential works of art. Significant cultural expressions often result from the convergence of a compelling artistic language with an urgent external stimulus. The rise of Cubism, for instance, can be viewed as a register of the radical social and technological transformations of early 20th-century modernization, just as the emergence of Surrealism can be seen as an expression of the influence of Freudian theory.
The consequences of such convergences are discernable in design as well as in art. Urgent external stimuli have lately been much in evidence in landscape architecture. Demands for the restoration of derelict and often toxic industrial sites pose artistic, social, and technical difficulties; so does the need to reuse abandoned sites in declining urban centers.
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Intensifying suburban and exurban sprawl requires new strategies for landscape management and open space preservation. Continued population growth, especially in the Third World, is heightening the need to develop minimum standards for the provision of urban green space, while increased leisure time in the developed world is placing unprecedented burdens on parks and other natural places of recreation.
Landscape practitioners today are grappling as well with the dilemma of designing at radically different scales—from that of the small urban space to that of the entire ecosystem. These phenomena raise an important question. Are these urgent social and environmental demands being met by the development of a compelling design language—a language particular to landscape architecture? Landscape architect Diana Balmori has articulated widespread anxieties within the profession that landscape architecture has yet to find a contemporary idiom. The center has not been defined and held.
In my view, the situation is not nearly so dire. I would argue that external pressures and contemporary expressive means are indeed working together in recent landscape architecture. I would argue too that this convergence is providing the profession with compelling narratives that might restore the sense of a vital center and help it achieve the visibility so lacking in recent decades. One such narrative is sustainability—an idea that increasingly informs the design of buildings and landscapes. This ambitious scheme features rooftop gardens that capture and filter rainwater, which is then directed to cisterns and used in the building.
The cisterns also feed a large lagoon, where reeds provide physical and bio-chemical cleansing; mechanical filters furnish backup purification. The benefits of this scheme are not only technical but also aesthetic, even educational; not simply an element of infrastructure, the lagoon is an attractive public amenity that offers lessons in and demonstrations of urban hydrology.
More generally, such collaborations suggest that the knowledge provided by landscape architects is increasingly essential to the responsible practice of architecture. Landscape remediation is another narrative resulting from the convergence of contemporary subject and idiom. The facility, abandoned by Thyssen Steel in , included blast furnaces, ore bunkers, and a sintering plant; it was criss-crossed by roads, rail lines, and a canal.
The soil of the site was contaminated with heavy metals, the canal polluted. A sewer line and treatment plant were built to clean the old canal; a new storm water collection system filled the former cooling and settling tanks—once contaminated with arsenic—with fresh water. At the heart of the project are the preserved blast furnaces.
Like other relics of heavy industry, these structures seem at once terrible and awe-inspiring. There is a precedent for such industrial archaeology—I am thinking chiefly of Gasworks Park in Seattle. Near the blast furnaces are the remains of ore bunkers that have been transformed into enclosed gardens.
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Deep within thick concrete walls, these gardens produce a kind of uncanny juxtaposition: they are cloistered, almost monastic spaces, yet set in a menacing industrial frame. Several remediation techniques have been employed at Duisburg, depending on site conditions. The most toxic remnants, including the old sintering plant, were dynamited and buried. Elsewhere contaminated materials were left in place.
Several large slag heaps with low-level hydrocarbon pollution, already in stable condition and colonized by plants, were left undisturbed. They are available for limited access and use while they are gradually decontaminated through bioremediation. Retaining the piles has two advantages: it prevents further dispersal of the pollutants, and it creates compelling memorials to site disturbance.
Just as important, although less obvious, Landscape Park Duisburg North is an example of social as well as environmental restoration. A place that no longer had any real value to society and that otherwise would have been an eyesore has been given an entirely new life, one that few might have imagined it could have.
In a region with little open space, the park offers significant and unusual opportunities for recreation: the blast furnace can be climbed to height of about fifty meters; the cooling tanks are used for swimming, the concrete chimneys for climbing. At a more speculative level, the park offers a lesson in the environmental costs of modern industrial policies and an occasion to wonder about future appropriate choices.
Disharmony produces a different statement, a different harmony, a different reconciliation…. The seemingly chance results of human interference, which are generally judged to be negative, also have immensely exciting, positive aspects. In such circumstances the role of the designer is to decide what to retain, what to transform, and what to replace.
Disharmony, discontinuity, contradiction: these are the conditions driving the development of a contemporary language of landscape architecture. Not only does this project articulate the commanding narratives that undergird recent practice, such as remediation and sustainability, it also addresses the challenges of urbanization in one of the most populous cities in the developing world, providing both open space for recreation and productive land for economic development.
And it does all this on multiple scales, from the circulation in a flower market to the workings of an extensive ecosystem. Even more than Landscape Park Duisburg North, Xochimilco suggests the large role that landscape architecture can now play in social and environmental remediation. Dating to the 10th century, this landscape of canals and rectangular islands was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in ; the designation prompted a large-scale environmental restoration project undertaken by Mexico City and the borough of Xochimilco.
The site presented extraordinary challenges. Many of the islands were sinking due to the many wells that fed upon aquifers. Urban development was increasing storm water runoff and subjecting the area to increased flooding. Surface water was contaminated; canals were choked with aquatic plants. Those islands deep in the canal system were hard to reach and thus unavailable for agriculture; those nearer the edges of the site were being encroached on by unauthorized residential buildings.
The design was guided by hydraulic strategies: water was pumped back into the aquifer to stabilize the site; large reservoirs were created to retain storm water; polluted water was processed at treatment plants, and the treated water was discharged back into the lake to regulate the water levels in the canals. Eroded islands were recreated using meshes of logs filled with dredge and stabilized by salix trees. More than 1 million trees were planted on the site.
Agriculture was reintroduced: some islands have pastures for grazing; others are planted with flowers and vegetables. A tree nursery was also located on the site; every year it produces 30 million trees that are then planted throughout Mexico City. Canals were cleared of harmful vegetation and rehabilitated for recreation as well as agriculture.
Today, pole barges ply the canals of Xochimilco, especially on weekends; gondolas and gondoliers are available for hire at embarcaderos built along the edge of the site.
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