Just a collection of my thoughts or links to other thoughts on architecture and design.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Student Works: Putting Utopia Back To Work

From Archinect:

Editor's note: It's a familiar claim by now: A lush new city will rise from the super-heated sands of the Gulf, in perfect zero-carbon equilibium. The enticingly difficult technological problem of conquering the uninhabitable desert and the peculiar opportunity to social-engineer new communities has put the Gulf in architectural headlines again and again. Starting with an adaptation of Jorg Schlaichs solar chimney power generators, Behin's project employs the stack effect to moderate the temperature of the city, and to provide for some of its energy needs. Already a successful engineer-entrepreneur when he decided to study architecture, Behin uses his strong understanding of technology to enter the problem of the zero carbon city from a pragmatic point of view, but ends up asking us whether we're ready to re-engage utopia. - Bryan Boyer, Senior Editor - Archinect


Stack City is situated between the Gulf coast and mountains of the Emirate Ras Al Khaimah. Click on this and all of the images to get a detailed view.

Boyer: Is the "machinistic" in your project entirely cynical? If we built it, what role would the machinistic play? Behin: Here I would refer to Melvin Kranzberg's first law of technology: "Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral." My intent in this project is neither to celebrate technology, nor to demonize it, but merely to point out that it underlies an emerging form of urbanism, and that it will ultimately be only what we make of it. Technology presents us with a series of choices, with both pitfalls and opportunities. To address them, we require not additional technology, but rather its integration with culture and politics. It is precisely here that I think architecture has a role to play; it can provoke discourse about the ethics which will shape the nature of technology in our future environments. The "machinistic" in Stack City is intended to provide such a provocation.


Adopting the Gulfs tendency towards exuberant iconography, the citys form isnt just a representation of sustainable technology it is sustainable technology.

Boyer: In recent debates about the relationship of contemporary culture and the market there is a persistent thread of suspicion towards earnestness. How do you feel about being earnest in this climate? Behin: This is a loaded question because terms like "earnest" conjure associations with very specific periods in architectural thought. I think there are many different ways in which to be earnest. Certainly, an outright rehashing of the well-intentioned but doomed utopian projects of the sixties and seventies would be blind to the last few decades of history. On the other hand, faced with the futility of a positive social/cultural/ecological project for architecture, giving up and regressing to an empty cynicism or retreating into formal and stylistic navel-gazing seems to get us nowhere. I think the answer is to find new ways of being earnest which are, perhaps, more nuanced, and difficult to pin down. One luxury of an academic project is that the constraints that ground practice in reality can be opportunistically "cherry-picked" and instrumentalized as departure points for speculation. The intent in Stack City is to have a footing in reality by fully embracing, for good or for bad, the phenomenon of new cities in the UAE. With this as the context, once you accept the integration of technology on an urban scale in projects like Norman Foster's Masdar, you can ask what would happen if you take this model to an extreme, and then find an alternative architecture and urbanism within this condition. image

A sectional perspective reveals the different layers of inhabitation that occur within the urban fabric: a top zone supporting air flow associated with the solar chimney along with transportation and energy infrastructure (including photovoltaics), a middle zone containing cellular spaces such as homes and offices, and a bottom zone comprising a continuous ground which is thickened to support large-scale and communal programs.

Boyer: This reminds me of a point that Bruno Latour makes often: that a world of facts has been replaced by one of concerns, where "simple" objects are enmeshed in long chains of decisions that are not immediately obvious. No building without its ideology, no ideology without its material manifestation. You've mentioned No-Stop City as an analogous example but I'm curious to hear more about your observations of the relationship between humankind and nature in this post "pave the earth" world. Parts of North America are strategically dotted with Home Depots never more than 30 miles apart, so in a way we've achieved a no-stop-home-depot. Not to mention the parallel no-stop-Walmart, no-stop-Best Buy, etc. What is the role of the 'plenum of nature' that sits at the bottom of Stack City? I don't know if it makes sense to talk about nature as distinct from the man-made any more.Behin: I don't know if it makes sense to talk about nature as distinct from the man-made any more. In fact, the bottom layer of Stack City is anything but natural, in the conventional sense, since its temperature is moderated in relation to the actual desert outside. It is a synthetic environment that relies on the technology overhead (the stack-effect updraft system) for climatic tempering. So I don't see the bottom layer as an attempt to preserve a pristine "natural landscape", but rather a hybrid zone that highlights the interdependent relationship between the "natural" and the "man-made". image

The top layer supports air flow associated with the solar chimney along with transportation and energy infrastructure (including photovoltaics).


Left: The middle layer of the city contains cellular spaces such as homes and offices. Right: The bottom zone of the city provides a continuous ground which is thickened to support large-scale and communal programs.

Boyer: It almost seems as though the strata of Stack City are to be read as a metaphor of society: not for the organization of individuals, but for the way that we as a culture think about technology. Let's say, it's a gradient of technological acceptance. Is Stack City also stacked (is there a hierarchy real or implied) in your sectional zoning? Behin: Yes, certainly the "stack" in which I'm interested is not just the solar updraft system (i.e. stack effect) but the sectional stratification that occurs in the city itself. The different strata are meant to articulate a reality which exists in all cities, but is perhaps hidden just underneath the surface of daily experience. Specifically, as you pointed out in a previous discussion, cities are an accumulation of technological infrastructure which enables all the experiences we have in them. I think this is especially true in the "zero-carbon" urban developments that are being proposed today. By articulating this infrastructure as a zone that can itself be occupied, I hope to bring it into the open, and to exploit it architecturally and urbanistically through its relation with the other strata. The experience of daily life in Stack City would involve a series of transitions between these stacked zones.


Overall section


Model with top layer removed to show urban fabric beneath

Boyer: What is "the future?" Is it a utopia, a dream, a call to action? I'm especially curious given that you use "the future" to motivate problem solving that is explicitly aimed towards current-day issues, whereas modernist utopias typically worked more as explicit provocations. An "ethics of the future" has been replaced by a tendency towards atomization and instant gratification.Behin: For me, it is almost more important that we invoke the future rather than how we do it. The act itself of thinking about the future, whether it is as a utopia, a dystopia, a receptacle for our hopes and fears, or merely a bureaucratic implement of planning, implies that we have a collective responsibility towards a common destiny. Jérôme Bindé of UNESCO writes about this in the context of sustainable development. An "ethics of the future," Bindé warns, has been replaced by a tendency towards atomization and instant gratification. The prevalent economic and political ideology of our time, that of the free market, seems to be partially responsible for the neglect of the future. The future, in this way of looking at the world, is no longer the object of human deliberation and action, but has a way of working itself out as the sum of autonomous self-serving impulses, or as more commonly phrased, through the 'invisible hand' of the market. But markets have a notoriously short-term view, and the problems we face, be they social or ecological, can operate over very long timeframes. More importantly, abandoning the future as a cultural construct deprives us of a valuable instrument for defining ourselves in the present. You can learn a lot about the ethos of a society by looking at their science fiction. In that sense, the future is a place in our collective imagination, a terrain on which we fight our ideological battles and air out our common neuroses. This is precisely where architecture must play a role. Sustainable architecture shouldn't just be concerned with the tactical level of engineering efficiency and the preservation of resources, but should also participate in the invention of alternative futures in cultural imagination. That said, I think architecture is in a unique position to be very practical, addressing current-day issues, but to simultaneously work as a provocation (the way, as you point out, modernist utopias operated). In a sense, architecture can be provocative by engaging the banality of current concerns as the reference point for speculation, because by doing so, it can point out that alternatives exist as latent possibilities within today's realities. image

An adaptation of Jorg Schlaichs solar chimney power generators, Stack City employs the stack effect to moderate the temperature of the city, and to provide for some of its energy needs.


Stack City won the James Templeton Kelley Prize for best thesis or final design project at the Harvard Graduate School of Design this Spring. The project was advised by Professor Hashim Sarkis with technical advice from Professor Matthias Schuler. Previous to receiving a Master of Architecture from the GSD, Behrang Behin earned a Master of Science from UC Berkeley and a Bachelor of Science from Yale University. He is currently continuing his research on Stack City as an Aga Khan Visiting Fellow at the GSD.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

No comments: