4/30/2012

Editor's Highlight: this week we read…

Today's Editor's Highlights: five essays and a proposal by Tingwei Xu a student of the University of Pennsylvania.
Five essays have particularly attracted my attention. Some of them have nothing to do with the others… though…
Pixelating the Genome by Christina Agapakis. A very interesting text on synthetic biology. Beyond its focus on biology — I am not at all a specialist. In consequence I will pass —, I found this text very instructive in particular for those who have a strong interest to fields such as building materials, biomimicry, computation, morphogenetics, materialecology. So for those who are involved in reengineering building materials:
Refactoring has played a role in synthetic biology for a few years, but I find this story especially interesting now in light of the recent discussion of the New Aesthetic, which describes art and design that celebrates the "eruption of the digital into the physical." Synthetic biology re-imagines and refactors living systems to be more like computers, with DNA functioning as code used to program living hardware according to logic diagrams and designed with the help of rigorous computational models and CAD software. Synthetic biology is the eruption of the digital into the living.
She continues as follows:
The New Aesthetic is an interesting lens through which to understand the way that synthetic biology translates living systems into computer models that are then retranslated back into engineered cells. This flip-flop between the living and digital world can generate biological insight and useful biotechnologies, but it also leaves behind interesting artifacts of the transition. The DNA code of the nitrogen fixation gene cluster was sequenced, the sequence was edited and modeled in a computer, redesigned according to engineering principles and put back into the cell, functioning in a clearer but less robust way.
According to Agapakis, "we gain control but lose function." More like this are featured in her essay. Those who read eVolo Magazine, follows architects and designers such as Neri Oxman, Achim Menges, Michael Weinstock and Rachel Armstrong may be familiar with those research.
And synthetic biology is regarded as a possible path towards more sustainable and evolvable buildings and urban patterns. This is at least one of the goals of this series of interventions on future cities curated by Dr Rachel Armstrong for Arup Thoughts, the think lab of this engineering firm Arup. This project entitled Sustainable to Evolvable features four essays from Peter Head to Koert van Mensvoort, each looking over the future of cities in the light of the connection between human technology and nature. I have selected only two texts, those of Peter Head and Koert van Mensvoort but I encourage to read the other texts: Rachel Armstrong's introduction and Arne Hendriks' text. Of course, more texts are needed.
What to say about Peter Head's text if not that everything has been already discussed about the importance of a serious engagement in a more sustainable city. Yet, if you clearly examine our politicians' visions regarding environmental crisis, sustainability as well as issues of water scarcity, energy, food production are underestimated. This is at least the global message behind these texts.
The common point here is the call for doing with, cooperating with nature as Peter Head states:
We also need to cooperate with nature. Natural systems are an essential part of the solution and reforestation in particular will be the key. Reforestation traps water in the ecosystem, lifts agricultural production and provides biomass.
Put simply: a new vision of cities that will be based on guided growth to quote Koert van Mensvoort. Still, a growth that won't be a inert, static as we conceive cities still today, cities incapable of adapting to pressures according to these authors, and countless others. In the coming years, cities and their components will be able to change along with us if we change our ways of building, as van Menswoort writes.
In a way, these texts highlights this shift into anthropocenic world. According to van Mensvoort:
We must no longer see ourselves as the anti-natural decision that threatens and eliminates nature, but rather as catalysts of evolution. With our urge to design our environment we create a 'next nature' that is as unpredictable as ever: wild software, genetic surprises, autonomous machinery and splendidly beautiful black flowers.
Put in another way:
If you understand that the technologies you create will ultimately grow beyond your control, then you set about designing them in new ways — rejecting the modernist idea that we can understand something and create a blueprint to master it.
Of course these ideas of next nature, guided growth, evolvable cities and buildings remain vague for many of us. However some architects and researchers are already involved in developing set of tools and studies not only in design, manufacturing and fabrication as well as materials.

Another vision concerning cities and sustainability is that of Kaid Benfield, an urban planner and theorist that I've followed for months, and I will keep on following as I found his research very patent. This week the very productive Kaid Benfield once again posted an essay that looks back to smart growth. Benfield, of course, subscribes with the importance of smart growth as one of possible ways of building sustainable cities allowing for better living conditions and quality of life to dwellers. But, for Benfield, taking smart growth as the only key is not enough. He puts the questions of smart growth into another perspective in comparison with current debates on this topic of smart growth. According to Benfield, we have become slaves to measurable outcomes, which, as a result, leads urbanization to a failure. In this context, he calls for both smart growth and better (if not great) placemaking.
Our communities of the future must not only reduce carbon emissions, save land, and encourage use of transit, walking and bicycling. They must be significantly more dense than sprawl, but also sometimes forego additional increments of density in order to maintain light, limit noise, provide privacy, and respect a human scale. They must be conductive to engaging the intellect and the spirit. When we pursue these things, we are out of the realm of smart growth per se, and into the realm of placemaking. I have become convinced that the tow overlap but should not be mistaken for the same thing. In other words, sustainability in our built environment requires both smart growth and great placemaking.
 I go along with Benfield's point of view concerning building better placemaking as central to a sustainable city.
As he points out:
We need to stop thinking of smart growth as a goal but instead as a tool to achieving the more demanding goal of creating better, greener, more sustainable people habitat. If we want to win heats as well as minds, we need to start paying much more attention to placemaking, to the quality of what we advocate. In fact (…) if we want to deserve to win, we need to pay a lot more attention to making great places.
Yet designing placemaking, better quality of life, living conditions, self-sustained cities, etc is as important as designing cities more attractive… according to many dwellers. These dwellers can be local or native; as they can be migrants. Nina Glick Schiller examines what she calls "urban scalers"' viewpoint concerning attractive cities for migrant candidates. Some cities are attractive or desirable as they provides informal works while other too much 'clinical' do not allow for informal works and are, in a consequence, seen as non-attractive or undesirable.
As Glick Schiller points out: "as scaler makers, migrants relate to cities not only as workers but as business people, transnational capitalists, cultural producers, gentrifiers, makers of sacred space, and participants in transnational activism." More:
Inspired by what I learned from African migrants in Halle, who recognized hierarchies of economic, political, cultural power in their ranking of cities I argue for a relative comparative approach to the study of cities. Such an approach, builds on and develops Kevin Ward's work on a 'relational comparative' urban studies. I add a concern for the ways in which residents of cities including migrant populations experience, understand, and evaluate the relative merits of cities. It is important in such comparative work to actively engage in an analysis of city rescaling processes and acknowledge active agency of migrants as what Ayse Caglar and I have called 'scake makers'."
This text is warmly recommended for those who explore relational comparative urban studies in a global era using urban scalers, here migrants in Europe, Canada and USA.
A project to conclude this week of editor's highlight: A structural membrane for skyscraper proposed by Tingwei Xu from the University of Pennsylvania. This proposal consists of a membrane structural component for a skyscraper. Here synthetic biology and computation are the main influence of field of research to generate this membrane structure. This project is described as follows:
Each component contains a continuous surface which has structural properties and it is made of plastic that can resist deformation in different configurations and directions. The structural units grow from the surface and melt into each other like biological cellular membranes — each unit squeeze into each other with great strength. The secondary component contains a inhabitable space unit and antenna.
I am, however, surprised in regard with new generation of architects' approach: an architecture fed by science fiction, dramatic in many ways, much more like organic than a typical building.
Source: eVolo.
Structural Membrane for Skyscrapers © Tingwei Xu.
Originally appeared on eVolo.
Structural Membrane for Skyscrapers © Tingwei Wu.
Originally appeared on eVolo.
Structural Membrane for Skyscraper © Tingwei Xu.
Originally appeared on eVolo.

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