Note: This is a summary of a talk given at Postopolis!, taken in real-time, with minimal editing. Reader beware! Postopolis! was organised by BLDDBLOG, City of Sound, Inhabitat, Subtopia, and the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, and ran from May 29th-June 2nd 2007. Flickr group for photos here. YouTube videos uploaded here. All Postopolis! posts here.
Sadly, Michael Sorkin – who was due to speak here too – couldn't make the session due to unforeseen circumstances. However, Mitchell Joachim gave us a great solo talk. Joachim runs TerReForm, which is a non-profit collaboration between his firm Archinode and Michael Sorkin Studio. (There's loads more at the Archinode blog.)
Their projects concern the city, ecology and mobility - and the combination of these three things; indeed how you can find all these things in one single profession. He starts by showing some great 1908 fantasies, by Harry Pettit, of King's Dream of New York. A now-familiar sky full of dirigibles, skyscrapers, walkway systems. He mentions futurists and imagineers, as precursors of this kind of thinking (interesting that it's this, rather than the visions of architects, engineers or planners: Le Corbusier, Woods, Bucky, say. Almost akin to production design being of greater import than architecture, though he doesn't say this.)
A perhaps bigger influence is clearly Motopia: A Study in the Evolution of Urban Landscape, from G. A. Jellicoe and Gordon Cullin, in 1961. A fabulous project that reverses the figure/ground of the city i.e. roads are buldings and vice versa; cars are on top, and people dwell underneath. We'll return to this project.
At MIT, under William J. Mitchell, their project was designing what became known as the Frank Gehry car; a redesign of the car from the ground up, based on how the city is influenced by the vehicle, and that maybe the vehicle should be designed around the city.
Before getting to the details of this, Joachim shows a framework for connecting disciplines here, dubbed 'ecotransology'. His map of actors and agents that operate when thinking about the city, from logistics and planners to architects and engineers. This is smart, as it indicates that the success of failure of a project is bound up in a holistic view of interconnecting principles and systems, as much as any of the individual components within it. And yet we're often organised into those components. If a planner's going to work with a car or train system, do they have permission to change the dynamics of a train, change the form of a train, frequency etc.? Architects don't certainly don't design cars or trains, but do design the buildings that they move around. And car or trains designers don't design skyscrapers and don't usually deal logistics. So could they combine all those? So, ecotransology tries to include all this. Again, this theme of multidisciplinary units that can think and act holistically gets stronger and stronger. (Or maybe that's just me wanting it to be so?)
So what are the primary principles of this 'ecotransology'? "Let's get smart", he says. A lot of issues around automobiles centre on 'circuity' i.e. cars not knowing where they're going, looking for parking, stuck in traffic. Apparently, 60% of the entire energy usage in the USA is to do with circuity (!) projected to 2050.
So a truly 'smart car' would take this on, and thus Joachim characterises a key principle as 'form follows frequency.' In a fairly brilliant conceptual move, they focus the entire car in the wheel. "The entire car is happening in the wheel – drivetrain, suspension, motoring". It's networked, distributed, so all cars, or wheels, are connected. The skin, therefore, becomes a place for passages. So the veneer of car is informatic, as is the veneer of city. In terms of how they move, congestion isn't done away with, but becomes gentle congestion, and something you desire - you move in flocks.
You have this soft car, which moves in herds, and you can whistle for it and it comes. You use it a certain amount of energy, has certain range, and then returns to its stack when you're done. (You can see they've almost intensified certain current solutions here, such as the car sharing schemes like Flexicar.)
He asks how the city changes as a result, but goes on to talk more about the properties of the cars, in terms of how can you share city space with this? He says these soft cars look for pedestrians; you change the rules so that the car can't go faster than 30mph; it can talk to parking meters etc. (and possibly barter prices in real time, based on demand); everything about the car avoids pedestrians; and the body itself is soft. They actually built one (shows a demo of this moving.) Cars currently have zero intelligence - even if you give it that of a PDA it would be an improvement.
He demonstrates some towers for these stackable cars (he also shows a design called an Omni Bub); as the cars can move in z-axis too – they stack, so they become part of the building. (This is a lovely idea, and would fit neatly into many other modular visions of the city. A difference with the likes of the Metabolists, Archigram, Price etc. is the contemporary 'distributed networked intelligence' built into these components. The 'city of bits' thinking that Mitchell's work has been pursuing.)
The second project Joachim shows looks at lifecycle of a building, in the context of a form of genuine 'treehouse', called FabTreeHab. Here they look at biological structures, in this case based around the Ficus plant. He shows how such trees can grow out walls, how they hang on to something; are in a sense parasitic. But, he suggests, if you give them a geometry – build a plywood variation on the old trellis idea – organic structures could be incredibly powerful building components.
However, the problem with such an approach is that you have to redesign the regulations. How can you pass it through a planning board? Building with trees is tricky here i.e. if there's a regulation on height of 40-foot, the tree's going to grow beyond 50-feet at some point! Also, how do you even submit it? You can't find a spec-writer that's half botanist, half architect.
(The renderings here are a bit Chris Foss, I must say. I'm finding an excess of overly CGI imagery, which does little to help avoid some issues to do with this kind of futurology but he's rescued by a few hand-drawn sketches every now and then.)
Another project: Rethinking NYC. What if NYC was self-sufficient, within its own political boundaries? With no inputs and no outputs. So here comes the reversal of figure ground again. A reversal of the 1950 city, in a way. Buildings become streets, to make it into productive space, amidst a climactically altered Manhattan. Water. (There's a canal going through Canal Street, oh ho.). "An Emerald necklace just like Boston." "Some of it is claivoyance, some of it's analysis." (More here, and short video here.)
Another related project centred on mobility. The explored an exaggeration of the current "semiotic pulse" and envisioned some pretty odd looking "soft fat comfortable cars". But what if they were really ecological, organic? Again, moving in flocks, and ending the precious metal box. This soft Car notion extends into a form of 'river gym', in which people running on treadmills, this floating gym, produce energy that trickles down a drive chain, and powers itself, effectively running around this watery Manhattan. The soft car is OK to scuff here – as the wheel is the car, the exterior can be far more malleable – just like sneakers.
Joachim closes by briefly discussing their peristaltic city project, a form of breathing city. They state that projects should contribute, in terms of being accountable. Whatever technology we're using should be a contributor. Not something at zero emissions level, but an contribution.
Geoff asks one of my favourite questions of his, centred around this idea that if we take this imagineering out of the context of architecture and put it into that of science fiction, say, it seems no longer quite as radical. Joachim replies that rethinking the future, under a large umbrella such as that of ecology, deals with things like politics and values and things which are out of control, and "our job is to assemble our principles and give them a view". He seems to be suggesting that these works are intended as practical solutions, aimed at exploring all the interdisciplinary connections that need to be made. Indeed, when asked about this, he says all the materials exist for these cars. "Basically everything is there." The wheel idea is on its fourth iteration, and really does work. The fuel cells really do work. The problem is that the infrastructure wouldn't be ready. He says it takes 100 years for a city to change. It takes 40 years for building materials to change. It takes 5 years for even telecommunications to flip over (holding up his mobile.) I like this holistic approach Joachim and team are taking, designing solutions which appear futuristic but are actually grounded, and in order to show infrastructural issues as much as technical ones (despite the preponderance of CGI images.)
When asked how to make these visions reality, in a climate of risk, Joachim notes the "obdurate" things that exist in cities, such as planning, zoning laws, insurance - which appear to kill innovation. But again, he reacts against an undercurrent from the question, or a possible implication. He says that it is our job to understand all the things which act on the city, as a matrix. That in the case of the treehouse, architects should spend some time in a planner's office, or studying planners for a year. They con't come to it as a singular specialist. In an interesting echo of the earlier talks today (Clark, Marble, Aranda/Lasch, Seletsky) he suggests that computing seems to be the glue between professions. That this form of calculating – and therefore designing – provides the connections. If Turing had been a poet rather than a mathematician, and made computation based on poetry, it would change the way we perceive these connections. (I hear echoes of Junichiro Tanizaki's notion about an alternative oriental view of science.) Sadly, Joachim's poetry fails him somewhat at this point, as he tries to illustrate the point, but the fact that YouTube only has the first ten minutes of Joachim's talk (below) spares any blushes.