3/17/2011

Towards a new methodology for architecture and urban planning

This post "Towards a new methodology for architecture and urban planning" attempts to put the light of the transformation of architecture and urban planning facing increasingly urban demands and climate change. Understanding this transitioning of architecture and urban planning requires to go back to Ruth Marsden's review of the urban agenda conference which is highlighting the challenges the “urban dimension” presents to the EU. This will help to start the discussion. At a time of accelerated global urbanization and climate change, architecture and urban planning have an increasingly important role to play. This, nevertheless, raises a number of issues. I will be focusing on two aspects that will lead to the mutation of architecture and urban planning, mutation that is already noticeable. The first one: architecture as key factor in urban development. The second one: architecture needs new methodology for facing transformation caused by these challenges issues that I repeat — global warming, accelerated population growth.
The first point is architecture as a key factor in urban development. I have already but briefly mentioned this Jan Olbrycht’s remark: “[Architecture] will help to enhance the quality of living for European citizens.” I will not limit this post to Europe. We should not lose sight of the fact that architecture has always played an important role in urban development. Urbanization of the developed cities of the 20th Century was linked to economy, in particular, countries like Japan where urbanization helped the country to reconstruct, then, be one of the most powerful countries in terms of economy and finance. One can see here some reasons of Chinese efforts to embrace a rapid urbanization using architecture and urban planning as economic tools. The outcome: China is now the second important country just behind USA, in only one or two decades. Therefore, Chinese cities are now viewed as models for future urban developments, specifically eco-cities such as Tianjin, Huanbeiyu, and Dongtan-Shanghai which serve as laboratory for an energy-efficient city, a city with high ratios of green areas, a city that attempts to minimize spatial constraints and inequity. The objective is simple: Chinese cities must be attractive to both population and offices. This can explain the reason why here and there, in Europe and in the USA, as well as in Japan, reflection, and conferences draw new visions, accompanied with new urban policies, for cities of the West. Another region that follows China’s lead is the Middle-East — Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Arab United Emirates. Masdar City illustrates this region’s wishes for sustainable and attractive cities, cities which offer specific needs for users and businesses. As one can remark: ex-industrial cities are under pressure. I will not discuss the competition that is hidden behind this “becoming-sustainable” that concerns Western regions and Japan. I encourage the readers who has a strong interest on this debate to read (or read again, if already done) Saskia Sassen, Michael Redclift, the landscape architect James Corner, and the historian and theorist of landscape architecture Grahame Shane, but of course the list is to long to be summed up in two or four names.
The second aspect that I will shortly discuss but occupies a central place is the new orientations for architecture and urban planning. I will sum up these new orientations in one word: methodology. It is worth pausing to understand what methodology means here. According to dictionaries, a methodology defines the system of principles and procedures applied to a science or discipline. Another definition: The branch of logic dealing with the principles of the formation of knowledge. Here my idea of methodology is much more in the sense of a strategic instrument that is used in response to constraints. Concerning with global warm, rapid population growth that increased new demands on urbanization, it is essential to elaborate new instruments to construct or improve best living and working conditions not only for urban population but also for rural population as well as to minimize the impact of built environment, energy consumption, and carbon emission. One example is the Grand-Paris. Paris's urban renewal cannot be envisioned on its own. It can be with the participation of architects and urban planners who were invited to draw new visions for Paris. Paris cannot be treated as Chinese cities since it cannot afford it. Amelioration, adaptability, resilience, retrofitting are among tools that will allow Paris for adapting to challenge issues. Here architecture and urban planning are used as methodology to draw new directives, new urban principles for the current generation and the next generations. Rogers and Partners have pointed to the importance for architecture and urban planning as catalyst energy. If architecture and urban planning have been criticized to have been involved in the deterioration of the ecosystems, if cities’ high energy consumption and ecological footprint have been designed as responsible of increased natural disasters, to quote only one example, it is clear that architecture and urban planning cannot be dissociated with cities — this raises another question that of which city for the future, a question that will not be discussed here. Architecture and urban planning play and will continue playing essential role in cities and urbanization.
Yet architecture and urban planning themselves are facing mutation. Current practices appear to be not able to address challenge issues mentioned above. Concequently, architecture and urban planning are operating an internal transformation. These fields are now combined with other fields — biology, genetics, social sciences, mathematics, engineering, and economy. Hence these notions of ‘Advanced’ architecture, ‘advanced' urban planning.
We can take an example to illustrate this point. Adaptive architecture. Generally speaking, this term defines an architecture that negotiates and adapts to the existing fabric and different urban needs. Adaptive architecture adopts functions from the natural world. This field draws upon genetics, biology, as well as mathematics. A large number of litterature and research put the light on the relationships that architecture draws with biology and genetics. I have already spoken of Micheal Weinstock's research, but also on Neri Oxman's research. I will include that of Michael Hansel, and Achim Menges. Their research shows this facet of methodology for architecture and urban planning which assume shared responsibility for the environment, an architecture and an urban planning which "behave" with its environment — as plants do, schematically speaking. These researchers provide new understandings of architecture and urban planning putting the light on the possible linkages between architecture and urban planning and natural environment. The scales of architecture need to acknowledge that architecture is now a ‘genetically’ modified tool and increasingly viewed as such, an genetically modified tool which function and purpose are to respond to its spatial and environmental constraints. One can say, at the same time, architecture and urban planning are transitioning to "responsible" tools adapted to human needs as well as environmental limits. As we need to ‘down-size’, or shift our patterns of consumption, we need to transition to what we call “green” architecture and ecological urbanism. The sustainable city will then be a reality if architecture and urban planning are used as adaptive methodology.
In conclusion, architecture and urban planning will continue being central in cities and urbanization. Yet they will be facing with transformations that will give keys to adapt to increasingly environmental issues. In few words, the key to shaping an "ecological-friendly" shelter lies on the capacity for architecture and urban planning of today and of the future to adapt to increasingly environmental issues.


P.S.: I will go back to the question of adaptive architecture in a next post.

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