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  • Ambient Urbanism : Material Strategies in Urban Design

    CORTEZ, DAMRON, FENTON, MILLER, & VEGA, Bi-Polar. Photo: Emau VEGA.
    philadelphia PENNSYLVANIA

    Technically, chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change. — Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in Breaking Bad

    While ever more sophisticated digital techniques have become the norm in many advanced design-research studios, the application of the digital in urban design is still somewhat untested ground. “Parametric” concepts, of course, have been postulated in large correlative networks, where all things matter to all other things and where behavioral input is both traceable from and dependent on this abstract and invisible scaffold.

    *image: Daniela MERCADO. Material studies investigating synthetic landscaping and geo-forming. Pratt Institute GAUD. Ferda KOLATAN, instructor.

    [EXCERPTED FROM FRESH PUNCHES ]

    images, clockwise from top left: Daniela MERCADO, material studies investigating synthetic landscaping and geo-forming; plan of new topographical landform at Randall’s Island; Alfonso PATARROYO, composite drawing showing land-forming strategies along the edges of NYC’s East River; accretion model. Pratt Institute GAUD. Ferda KOLATAN, instructor.

    Technically, chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change.
    — Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in Breaking Bad

    While ever more sophisticated digital techniques have become the norm in many advanced design-research studios, the application of the digital in urban design is still somewhat untested ground. “Parametric” concepts, of course, have been postulated in large correlative networks, where all things matter to all other things and where behavioral input is both traceable from and dependent on this abstract and invisible scaffold. There are also various scripted cousins to this approach based on so-called “intelligent systems”—ranging from linear to nonlinear, agent-based, cellular, algorithmic, and so on—that use different levels of variability and adaptation as a key argument for universal applicability free of scalar, geographical, and local constraints.

    These systems, if driven masterfully, often produce compelling results with beautiful organizational structures, growth patterns, and formal logics. And yet, particularly on an urban scale, systems-driven projects have an inherent and binding tendency to deliver homogeneous fields in which any difference is entirely internalized. Adaptation, then, usually describes the scaling up and down of components to meet other adjacent components, or the slight change in component geometry that allows for a better linking up with neighbors to form clusters. The claim often associated with this approach is that, as long as the system is smart and the componentry flexible enough, all possible or desirable scenarios and conditions can be satisfactorily achieved. Even if that were to be an actual possibility, the totalizing character of this claim, particularly in reference to urban questions, becomes problematic.

    If one wants to resist the totalizing effects of closed systems and not fall back on compositional strategies or planning, new alternatives need to be investigated, alternatives that maintain complexity without uniformity but also add real qualitative difference rather than mere quantitative or sequential difference. With these questions in mind, the urban design studio “Ambient Urbanism” looked at the New York estuary as a testing ground to develop models that combine the use of both analog and digital means.

    The studio title, “Ambient Urbanism,” is indebted to two contemporary thinkers: Timothy Morton and his definition of ambience as a material and physical quality of space,1 and Iain Hamilton Grant’s notion of the chemical paradigm.2 Morton seeks to undermine the difference between foreground and background (and subject and object) by thinking of ambience as simultaneously bound to surrounding space and to our senses. By doing so, he defines ambience as an immediate and somewhat autonomous condition rather than as a purely translational phenomenon from object to subject. Morton also breaks down an important nature-culture divide by stringing together the intangible qualities of affect (culture) with the concrete properties of matter (nature), and thus hands we designers an effective tool to investigate.

    Grant, on the other hand, differentiates the chemical paradigm from that of physics. The latter, which he feels must be overcome, relies heavily on analysis as a principle of understanding nature, while the former integrates synthesis and thus the (re)making of the world as its fundamental component. The chemical paradigm rejects models of translation (data and observation into theories) as incomplete and instead favors a “visceral,” hands-on (al)chemical approach.

    Guided by these two trains of thought, the students examined the New York estuary as a preexisting amalgam of nature, culture, technology, and atmosphere, where any meaningful distinction between the realms of the natural and the synthetic have long been blurred. Rock, sand, earth, water, and vegetation have over millennia generated distinct formations, some purely by force of nature, others purely by force of man, and yet others by a combination of both.

    In order to envision a new “sixth borough” for New York City generated along the estuary, a series of images were created combining material, digital, and topographical information into varied ambient morphologies. A particular emphasis was placed on maintaining a level of ambiguity between these different methods and on finding ways of merging the benefits of analog processes with those of the digital realm. The “chemically” produced parts of the projects display high levels of qualitative differentiation without jeopardizing the overall cohesion and character of the whole. The projects at this stage do not have a particular programmatic or infrastructural objective. Rather, they speculate about a future “city” not as segmented into categorical differences grown over time (or implemented by planning) or as a homogenized field condition, but as an environment with novel atmospheric and material effects generated by the deliberate merging of the digital with the analog, the natural with the synthetic.


    image: Luana Faco REIS, urban delta formation along Newtown Creek. Pratt Institute GAUD. Ferda KOLATAN, instructor.

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    1. 1. Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007). 

    2. 2. “The Chemical Paradigm,” interview with Iain Hamilton Grant, Collapse VII (July 2011): 39–82. 

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