Opinion: Ideas for recombining cities…? towards a more collaborative approach to re-engineer cities

Last week I tweeted and facebooked, not mentioned googled+, a series of texts and research by or on Rachel Armstrong. I therefore posted one or two videos of her conferences in order share Rachel Armstrong's research on which potential biology can bring to building materiality, literally. In few words: problem-addressing building materials that will help face these challenging issues and recombine urban and non-urban areas.
Carpal Skin © Neri Oxman. Photo: Mikey Siegel
> A prototype for a protective glove to protect against Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, a medical condition in
which the median nerve is compressed at the wrist, leading to numbness, muscle atrophy,
and weekness in the hand. Night-time wrist splinting is the recommended treatment for most patients before foing
into carpal tunnel release surgery. Carpal Skin is a provess by which to map the pain-profile of a particular patient
— its intensity and duration — and to distribute hard and soft materials to fit the patient's anatomical
and physiological requirements, limiting movement in a customized fashion.
The form-generation process is inspired by animal coating patterns in
the control of stiffness variation.

Rachel Armstrong calls for a cross-disciplinary, a dynamic collaboration between sciences and architecture/engineering/urban design to identify and building new materials that will help cities and countrysides over the next 50 years. Shifting into compact and polycentric cities is a good strategy but not the only sustainable form of development in the sense that making cities compact and polycentric will not be enough as combining urban environment and green areas this will not be enough. A long-term reflection is needed that will reconsider our way of rethinking and designing cities.
Needless to say contemporary materials and construction techniques are obsolete. Consequently, innovation and problem-addressing mechanisms are urgently needed. In this context, we must "outgrow architecture made of innert materials and (…) make architecture that grows itself." Namely we need to update building materials that will allow for self-repairing and sequestering carbon. But not only. Going beyond the simple idea of sequestering CO2 emission will provide key to self-repairing hazards and contamination in some areas. I will not enumerate these areas but you have famous examples in mind.
However this may be possible if and only if we associate all the task forces we have from architecture to biology. And as for all research, this has a cost, very high. This is why I agree with this: "real budgets are needed for open research and development" so that we will be able to implement measures and tactics to design evolvable cities. In few words, a more cross-disciplinary, collaborative approach of innovation coupled with real investment on research will open new doors to re-engineer cities. In this context, without a serious implication of manufactures that invest in time, forces and finance, recombining urban and non-urban areas will be impossible.
Fatemaps — Sculpture, 2006 © Neri Oxman. Museum of Science, Boston
> The physical features of natural tissues express the distribution and magnitude of the forces that
have brought them about. These forces embody the complex relations between physical matter in its given
environment and denote its multi-dimensional force field. The work explores the notion of material organization as it is informed by structural load and environmental conditions. Natural micro-structural 2-D tissues are visualized,
analyzed and reconstructed into 3-D macro-scale prototypes by computing hypothetical physical responses. An object-oriented finite element application is used to determine material behavior according to assigned properties and performance such as stress, strain, heat flow, stored energy and deformation due to
applied loads and temperature differences. The interaction between the directional morphology of the specimen and
the tensor direction produce physical effects that emphasize the tissues's spatial texture in different ways.
The resulting model is six dimensional and includes 2-D information (X, Y), out of plane deformation (Y),
elastic stress (S), strain (S) and temperature flux (T). The tissue is then reconstructed using a CNC mill nd metal/steel
wood composites. Anisotropic in nature, grain directionality and layering are informed by the analysis resulting in
laminated structural composites which respond to given ranges of energy and loading conditions.
Beyond promoting a new sensibility to material formation, tissue engineering in construction scales may facilitate
the emergence of a new materialism in architecture and design.

Technology "will […] transform our daily urban existence in a myriad number of small ways", as Philip Sheldrake, director of Intellect, which represents the UK technology industry. Yet limited to technology as the only instrument will not provide the best solutions, except if we want to live in "gadget" cities with all these technologies available to the luckiest among us. Hence, I cannot stop repeating, the importance of science over technology that may provide a better integration of technology in urban and non-urban areas, as Rahul Mehrotra said last year in a conference titled "Anticipate?" organised by GSD Harvard/Ecological Urbanism during the 2010 Venice Biennale. Technology is, as Rahul Mehrotra argued, an instrument within science to facilitate" the shift into ecologically-friendly cities. It is of course one among many instruments.
As known, science offers larger possibilities to architecture, engineering and urban design, as Hilary Sample showed in her essay titled BioMed City. Let me quote an example that offers a better understanding of the potential of this collaborative approach can bring: the idea of using science to create smart surfaces "that could perform a number of dual purposes such as trapping CO2, or act as an environmental warning indicator by changing colour if exposed to dangerous levels of toxins."Of course, once again Synthetic biology applications for the built environment is an example, among others. And we are in the beginning of a new era of research that will allow for a better adaptability to challenging issues.

This is why we should pose this crucial question, that I borrow to the same Mehrotra: how to organize sciences" "how to make sciences part of this discussion of sustainable cities" which, to a very large extent, will modify the borders of architecture, engineering and urban design.

Yet many of you will say — and I will agree — that success of collaboration of sciences and architecture/engineering/city design is unpredictable. This could even lead to a failure. Many scientists are sceptic to open scientific fields to other fields, to go to a collaborative approach of sciences. Whatever or not, using the only capacity of architecture/engineering/urban design will be rapidly limited and a cross-disciplinary approach, I repeat, is necessary if not urgent to overhaul obsolete materials and construction techniques, and in a larger scale, systems. Namely expanded architecture/engineering/urban design is no more adapted to re-engineer cities.

I like quoting Steven Johnson's Adjacent possible. What is it about?
The Adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.
Adjacent possible, as many specialists notice, is highly scalable and flexible, such as space. It is part of human progress. It allows failure; better: it uses failure as a catalyser. Adjacent possible is capable of adapting and responsive to constraints. In my view point we need to integrate this concept of Adjacent possible as tactical tool that will allow for a better adaptation, scalability of urban and non-urban space.

As can be seen, the path to a sustainable city is far to be tomorrow. We need to implement a serious strategy that will combine all the fields, all the disciplines to reconsider each part of the process: from design to building including reconsidering building materials and construction techniques.

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