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Just inside the entrance to the MoMA exhibition, Uneven Growth: Tactical Urbanisms for Expanding Megacities, a video shows men yanking wooden frames out of brick walls and hammering materials into place, providing a glimpse into the ‘tool-houses’ of Mumbai’s urban settlements that mix live-work functions. A passing viewer commented to his companion while shaking his head, “Look at that, they have to build everything by hand. Can you imagine how much work that takes?” This visceral response—a mixture of marvel and estrangement—encapsulates the conundrum of an exhibit showcasing tactical urbanism scenarios in six global cities. Who exactly does the work of tactical urbanism? And what can the architect or designer accomplish in these constantly shifting urban milieus?
Uneven Growth is the third in a series of architectural shows at the MoMA that positions the museum as an incubator of new ideas rather than a reactive repository of culture. Like the two preceding shows in the series, Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront, and Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream, the exhibit is intended to address urgent contemporary issues while testing the boundaries of design thinking. In focusing on urban inequality in the face of ecological crisis and intense population pressure, this show is perhaps the most ambitious in its scale.
NLÉ + Zoohaus/Inteligencias Colectivas
However, rather than ask designers to propose complete solutions, the exhibit is framed by the parameters of tactical urbanism—a broad movement that relies on small-scale, low-cost interventions intended to catalyze long-term social change. Rather than projects, the exhibition presents design scenarios and speculative proposals that showcase an architecture that is always in-progress. Six teams were tasked with six cities: Hong Kong, Istanbul, Lagos, Mumbai, New York, and Rio de Janeiro. The interdisciplinary teams paired design practices with research institutes, as well as local practices with international ones. A 14-month process of research and design, which included public workshops and three face-to-face meetings in New York, Shenzhen, and Vienna, have resulted in the exhibition, book, and a Tumblr website collecting crowd submissions.
In the book that accompanies the exhibit, curator Pedro Gadanho takes care to emphasize tactical urbanisms in the plural, to move away from one particular interpretation of the concept and include a broader array of interventions by actors, including specialists like designers and even the state itself. Indeed, the exhibition is a compressed microcosm of scenarios that vary greatly in scale, time horizon, and feasibility. The experience is not unlike that of wandering down a chaotic urban street in an unspecified era, with the voice of Marxist geographer David Harvey making pronouncements in one corner while dance music from Brazil animates another, video kiosks planted against a backdrop of floor-to-ceiling images.
Courtesy Situ Studio
Startling projections of the future, such as that asserted in the New City Reader newspaper created by the Network Architecture Lab, are juxtaposed against more quotidian interventions that can be implemented tomorrow, such as the creation of a post-urban development agency in Istanbul’s outer-ring housing complexes that operates like many localized social networking apps in existence today, proposed by Superpool and Atelier d’Architecture Autogérée NLE in Paris. A few projects are multi-scalar in their approach, such as the work of URBZ in Mumbai and Ensamble Studio/MIT-POPlab, which proposed lightweight, flexible structures that can add on to existing homes and large “Supraextructures” which serve as “flying carpet” platforms for development of urban infrastructure.
Other projects veer into the territory of industrial design and rely more firmly on designing architectural objects. The proposal by Rua Arquitetos and MAS Urban Design for Rio de Janeiro is Varanda Products, a line of objects designed for easy installation on Rio’s puxadinhos, or add-on structures. This project envisions that the widespread use of such furniture and small-scale objects will enhance social interaction. The Lagos team, constituted by NLE in Lagos and Zoohaus/Inteligencias Colectivas from Madrid, takes a distinctly infrastructural approach, proposing a variety of urban prototypes that take as their starting point the city center located in water, with energy systems off the grid, connected by light rail and cable car systems.
Courtesy MAP OFFICE + Network Architecture Lab
If there is a theme that brings together many of the projects, it is the forwarding of more collective models of ownership, housing, and infrastructure. Many projects find opportunity for this in unused and vacant spaces, proposing rooftops, apartment landings, and unused air rights as avenues to expand the street and generate funds for community assets. Few projects are as comprehensive as the work proposed by Cohabitation Strategies (CohStra) and SITU Studio, both of which focused on New York’s affordable housing and homelessness crisis. Proposing Housing Cooperative Trusts and Community Growth Corporations, respectively, these projects integrate policy, political, and financial mechanisms to create housing and public resources in ways that seem very pragmatic, and in the case of the housing cooperative trust, are initiatives already set in motion by the housing justice community in New York City.
URBZ + Ensamble Studio/MIT-POPlab
While the exhibit succeeds in presenting an expanded realm of practice for architects far beyond the design of buildings and physical spaces, it is less clear whether these designs are innovative or catalytic. The wildly speculative series of artificial islands proposed by MAP office for Hong Kong make a number of claims about the kind of spaces needed to relieve Hong Kong’s population and ecological crises, but it is not clear how these islands move beyond the realm of legend, or differ from the much-criticized strategy of urban expansion in Dubai and other cities in the Gulf region.
It is also easy to lose sight of the central preoccupation with urban inequality that spurred this process of inquiry in the first place. The potentially insurgent spirit of tactical urbanism is flattened when, for example, the Eko Atlantic project in Lagos, a privatized urban district in development, is presented as an opportunity area and a model for inspiration. It is also possible to envision that some of the projects, like the work of the Mumbai and Rio teams, remains confined to the level of local improvements, enhancing people’s everyday lives but never building the potential to disrupt the status quo.
While opportunities have been unearthed in vacant and unused spaces, who or what groups will determine those new configurations of resources and infrastructure? Whose priorities and desires will be met? When a proposal relies on the entrepreneurial spirit of city residents, will it be the most disadvantaged residents who will farm, trade, and construct these new environments?
The paradox of tactical urbanism as a category of practice is that it recognizes a subset of people who are enacting strategies for urban intervention that millions of people make everyday around the world in pursuit of survival, livelihood, and community exchange without any recognition. With this exhibit, it appears the jury is still undecided on the potential of tactical urbanism to scale up to the urgent urban problems facing us today.
In a biennale that emphasized “research” and presented scores of graphs on the walls, beauty seemed nowhere to be seen. While many countries presented catalogues of buildings but forgot about the need to create compelling installations for the public, the Belgians made a pavilion that was a joy to enter and absorb. This pavilion managed to accomplish both thoughtful research and the most beautiful installation. The Belgians did not think of the pavilion as a research project, but they smartly put the research into a catalogue and created an abstract interior of string. The pavilion argues that the interior is fundamental in architectural design but has been little studied, and if it had it would become clear, “counter to the notion of modernity as an all-consuming phenomenon, interior research would reveal that vernacular architecture is instead absorbing and consuming modernity.”
The curators of the Finnish Pavilion (Ole Bouman and Julia Kauste) took the Koolhaas directive that it describe if and how national traditions and habits still matter in todays globalized world. In fact they presented a compelling argument that national traditions still do matter in architecture. Bouman, who curated the recent Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture (China and Hong Kong), presented a “primitive hut” by a Finnish architect in China, Anssi Lassila, and then re-presented it in Venice. In front of the Alvar Aalto–designed pavilion the curators placed one version of the Lassila piece constructed by a Finnish master carpenter for Venice and then in back the one designed for Shenzen. The one made for Venice was built of cedar logs while the Shenzen one was made for economic reasons of local bamboo. With the doors open in the pavilion, a large table displayed the drawings for each structure and clearly and concisely showed the variations in the two national constructions as they moved from Chinese bamboo to Finnish cedar.
This intensely research-based installation, Instant Past, was not the easiest to absorb, as it featured multiple small tear sheets on the wall and photographic snap shots inside glass vitrines, but it was worth the extra effort. Modestly curated by Seyed Reza Hashemi and Azadeh Mashayekhi, it is an example of how to do a Venice installation on a minuscule budget. Rather than focus first on national identity, this exhibit showed how architecture itself can help form national identity. It argues that “if modernization is viewed as a force where ‘all that is solid melts into air,’ history presents itself as a tactic to find meaning and solace within these changes.” It wants to argue that the past is closely tied to visionary ideas of the future. Finally, a video highlights the dialogue between the two formal languages: Persian and modern. It starts from the biennale’s premise, Absorbing Modernity, but turns this notion on its head.
This was a very modest installation befitting an emerging country like Mozambique. Further it was at the very end of the exhibition in a room with two other small installations, so many biennale goers may have overlooked it and missed one of the most well meaning and powerful attempts to come to terms with Absorbing Modernity. The exhibit, Architecture Between Two Worlds, curated by Jose Forjaz, Vincent, Joaquim, and Joel Mathias Limbombo, focused on the building projects and legacy of the colonial Portuguese building program. It took the research mandate seriously and featured iconic modern buildings from around the world and then showed how they were influential in Portuguese-designed buildings in the their country. A three level display on a wooden wall featured various historical realities of the country: The first section displayed a series of images and audio-visual media giving the visitor an idea of the country’s reality—natural systems, the people, infrastructure, human settlements and economic activities, illustrating the human, geographical, and cultural context of a young country, little known due to its recent history and geopolitical importance. It also highlighted contemporary gaps in urban development, making the point that they “should be understood, in themselves, as unavoidable steps in the creation of an endogenous architectural culture.” Like other developing countries, they took the theme of modernism and its cultural, social, and political baggage seriously and without anger into a future they are still creating.
Three of the last four British pavilions in the Venice Architecture Biennale have featured public housing, as if the country has nothing else to celebrate on an intentional level. For this year’s biennale, the British curatorial team of A Clockwork Jerusalem (taken from William Blake), Sam Jacob and Wouter Vanstiphout, did not focus exclusively on public housing but used it as examples of how the “British form of modernity emerged from the aftermath of the industrial revolution.” We heard from several national pavilion curators in Venice that uber-curator Rem Koolhaas contacted them about staying on point with their research approach to presenting material on their country. But the British curators seemed to not focus on encyclopedic research and instead created a thoroughly idiosyncratic and unique view of regionalism in architecture. In the end it made a convincing and really brilliant installation (though I did not understand the totemic dirt mound in the entry space) on how responses to the industrial city combined “with traditions of the romantic, sublime, and pastoral to create new visions of British society. It was one of the most thoroughly enjoyable installations in the biennale, particularly when it focused on images of past utopian (and dystopian) visions of the future city ranging from Stonehenge to council estates, Ebenezer Howard to Cliff Richards, ruins and destruction to back to the land rural fantasies.
The economics of curating a national pavilion at the Venice Biennale are daunting with the costs approaching a million dollars for the temporary installations. The traditional western European pavilions get huge financial support or subsidies from their central governments and this can truly be seen in this year’s German pavilion. The curators created a 1:1 partial replica of the Kanzlerbungalow, which was built for the German chancellor in Bonn in 1964 by the architect Sep Ruf. The bungalow was a pure representation of a type of Southern California case study project that was widely featured in the German media as a symbol of progress for the country and served as the nation’s “living room.” When the capital moved to Berlin in 1999, the Kanzlerbungalow lost its usefulness and apparently “vanished into oblivion.” The curators claim this wonderful scale model is supposed to be in dialogue with the German Pavilion, which I don’t really get as meaningful, but as an image the model powerfully sums up how architecture can represent the wishes and political goals of a country. When it was finished, the German chancellor said, “You will find out more about me if you look at this house than if you watch me deliver a political speech.” The chancellor’s Grand Mercedes Benz was brought to Venice and parked in front of the German pavilion, adding an exclamation point to this built symbol of German democratic hopes for the future.
City in a City: A Decade of Urban Thinking by Steven Holl Architects opened at LA’s MAK Center for Art + Architecture in late January. Do not be fooled by the title. The exhibition is not about any particular city. Instead, it profiles a suite of projects by Holl’s office across China. The urban thinking in question, then, plays out in the scale of these built works and proposals, which express themselves over huge swaths of landscape and dazzle with their square footage. Consider the numbers:
In order, they correspond to the square footage of the following projects: Linked Hybrid, Beijing (2009); Porosity Plan for Dongguan (2013); Tianjin Ecocity Ecology Museum (2012); Horizontal Skyscraper–Vanke Center, Shenzhen (2009); and, finally, the Schindler Chase House (1922) on Kings Road in Los Angeles, home of the MAK Center. And just to put those numbers in comparison, the 104-story One World Trade Center in New York City clocks in at 3.5 million square feet.
The Porosity Plan for Dongguan is two thousand times larger than Schindler’s residence. I mention the figures not necessarily to underscore bigness, but rather to emphasize the almost tactile intimacy, the lingering domesticity that comes with mounting a show in the space. Nothing is neutral in this context. Visitors coming to see City in a City must first reckon with the question of Why? Why is a New York City–based architect showing artifacts from the design of supersized Chinese cultural commissions in a house in West Hollywood? Still, the question is as cloying as the answer is elusive.
In Urban Hopes: Made in China by Steven Holl, edited by Christoph A. Kumpusch, which covers similar terrain as the exhibition and was launched at the opening, Holl lays out five points of a manifesto. The first is “Hybrid Buildings,” structures that bring together living, working, recreation, and cultural amenities. On this point he writes, “Each project is like a city within a city.” The phrase, shortened and edited for the exhibition title, suggests internal connections rather than context-based urbanisms. As such, there is a case to be made for a domestic setting.
Six SHA projects fill four Schindler rooms in reverse chronology from 2013–2002. In each room, Holl’s concept watercolors line the walls and beautiful handcrafted models, some milled out of walnut or mahogany, perch on tables in the middle of the room—toy-like wooden sculptures. Some projects are accompanied by bound construction drawing sets in various stages of development. Absent is any overtly didactic material. (In each room, info sheets are discretely tucked into a tray below the model). Without wall texts or labels to identify each building and site, visitors must contend with each watercolor sketch as cryptic gestures: modest aquarelle pages washed with diagrams and vignettes. The paintings suggest dynamic form, but not scale.
MAK Center director Kimberli Meyer commented that the decision to hang the architect’s watercolors, over photographs or larger drawings, was in response to the homey galleries. The choice, however, frames Holl’s work in China as quixotic. A video monitor set up in the sunroom plays a loop of the architect describing his projects. Of the winning design for Qingdao Culture and Art Center and the long, twisting galleries of the Light Loop he remarks that the horizontal galleries “tell stories like those found in Chinese scroll paintings and create a line along time and space.” We are asked to understand SHA not as a robust global architecture firm, but as an aesthetic endeavor tied to the conceit of a single author.
The accompanying video montage, slow pans across mammoth facades, glinting pools of water, and impressive plazas filled with people, offers a viewer a tightly-curated peek into the reality of Holl’s designs, albeit one devoid of the socio-political and economic context that comes with building in China today. These glimpses confirm that Holl is working at the top of his game on large, complex structures. Indeed, SHA’s buildings, such as the mega mixed-use Linked Hybrid or super-eco Horizontal Skyscraper–Vanke Center, have been published and publicized extensively in endless digital outlets. The exhibition, in its reliance on watercolors and object-like models, confines the firm’s work to concepts and diagrams that border on platitudes. In a sketch dated 10/15/12 of the Ecology Museum in Tanjin, Holl dashes off a wash of green paint and three ecologies: “1. Earth to Earth, 2. Human to Earth, 3. Earth to Cosmos.”
City in a City frustrates because it holds its representational cards so close. Over a decade of urban thinking, Holl’s office has created a refined, even domesticated, narrative around creative gestures and ideas, even as SHA produces millions of square feet of enviable architecture.