"The elephant in the room here is that in the last thirty years we have lacked a theory of the city. The city has been mapped, discussed, debated, exhibited, and photographed, but not theorized. So now we finally understand why, as early as 1997, Albert Pope opened hos book with the notion that THE CONTEMPORARY CITY IS INVISIBLE. It is invisible simply because we lack a theory; we lack urban conceptions through which we can actively think the city." - Pier Vittorio Aureli
As I have gone through my process I started basing many of my original notions off of reading by Rem Koolhaas. Over the summer that research has progressed and I am starting to put the pieces together with a few architects and urban theorists that begin to overlap on the same types of ideas that I am beginning to have with this project. These writers, Rem Koolhaas, Lars Lerup, Pier Vittorio Aureli, Albert Pope, and Michael Sorkin (to some extent) all are asking questions of the city that have gone unasked. I think their approach is very unique (it goes back to the process that I keep questioning) because they are writing about the city with an awareness of the issues that came from the moment when architecture and urban design broke away from each other. This is important because it no long makes assumptions about architecture's place in the city. Generally they are all against this split, but others quickly assume architecture and the man made environment as the preeminent feature within the urban realm. For me, I am starting to believe that that is not the case either. While I do not know exactly why, I do believe that there is a reason that some of their most timeless writings on the city happened in the mid 90s and early 2000s. My guess is that they were beginning to understand the real consequences of postwar development and the beginning globalization had done and what it was about to do to the contemporary city. Pier Vittorio Aureli does not only say that the city is invisible, but he also says we lack urban conceptions though which we can actively think about the city (which seems like more of a severe indictment on architecture itself). In a simple way I have thought of my studies as "understanding architecture's position within the political and economical realm", but that is assuming that architecture exists there at all. Albert Pope's Ladders may have significantly changed the trajectory for me. The idea of architecture and design being an engine for social, economic, political, and cultural change still exists, but right now it comes from a superficial approach because we do not have a way to actually conceptualize and understand the city. Rem's What Ever Happened to Urbanism and The Generic City ring truer than ever. It is time to attempt to revisit these ideas 20 years later. There is a paragraph in Whatever Happened to Urbanism that still inspires me to chase these ideas.
"If there is to be a "new urbanism" it will not be based on the twin fantasies of order and omnipotence; it will be the staging of uncertainty; it will no longer be concerned with the arrangement of more or less permanent objects but with the irrigation of territories with potential; it will not longer aim for stable configurations but for the creation of enabling field that accommodates processes that refuse to be crystallized into definite form; it will no longer be about meticulous definition, the imposition of limits, but about expanding notions, denying boundaries, not about separating and identifying entities, but about discovering unnameable hybrids."
There is a lot there, but it is one of the most optimistic outlooks on what a city can be for people. The key to it became clear when reading Ladders, because it is not saying that better architecture is the key, actually it is more aligned with Albert Pope in asking architecture to take a secondary role in the environment. To me its no longer about asking questions about "how to better revitalize a neighborhood?" or "how to masterplan the perfect mix use development?" or even the environemntal sustainability issues of the time. Those are important, do not get me wrong, but for this project right now it is really asking about what the city has become and what it could be, the rest is just details.
0.3_How to Make a Project About Nothing?
"It is not built form which characterizes the city but the immense spaces over which form has no control."- Albert Pope
Albert Pope's main argument in Ladders is that postwar development of the city (centripetal and closed) has caused the contemporary city to disappear. He bases his argument off of the implosion of the grid structure that lead to closed and isolated development throughout the city and into the suburbs. This is a good place to start because the grid is foundational. Delirious New York is supposed to be organized and understood as a grid when reading it and the entire book can trace itself back to understanding architecture within the grid of Manhattan. As the grid disappears, the city does too. As the mass production of space within our environment grows (freeways, malls, atrium, etc), urban activity is censured. Inhibiting cultural and social activity has created a city of nothing. Koolhaas's "culture of congestion" and the spontaneous nature of the city begin to align with these same ideas of closed off cities.
I have begun to buy into the idea of the invisible city and control and censorship that the postwar city places on its people. I do not have the answer yet of where this goes, but I do think that it starts with the grid. It think it is time to attempt to conceptualize architecture as a more dynamic piece of our environment instead of slow and stagnant. It is time to throw away the preconceived notions of the separations of architecture and urbanism. It is time to question the process and do accept the outcome as the ultimate truth, but as piece to a larger puzzle of understanding. The canvas continues to become more and more blank when thinking about the city.
Primary Working Research
Ladders- Albert Pope
Delerious New York- Rem Koolhaas
S, M, L, XL- Rem Koolhaas
The City as a Project- Pier Vittorio Aureli
After the City- Lars Lerup
All Over the Map- Michael Sorkin
Exquisite Corpse- Michael Sorkin
Learning from Las Vegas- Robert Venturi+Denise Scott Brown
Omaha will provide a great opportunity to experiment with these ideas, and I think the direction of the current thought continue to fit the city as a site perfectly. The main reason is the distinct difference between the pre and postwar city. Also, current downtown design discussions, the Conagra campus site, Crossroads Mall, the endless suburbs, and more will provide a wide range of opportunity for experimentation and speculation.
I came across this recent video from Vox about the highway system and its history within our cities. It quickly reminded me of a project that I did last fall about recognizing some of these patterns of inequality within Omaha, Nebraska. For that project I overlaid a 1937 redline map of Omaha with today’s demographic information to show that 80 years later those lines that were drawn still have a real effect on mobility and demographics in the city. This gets more interesting when you then overlay the highways that were built in the 50s, 60s, and 70s in Omaha, and you get a clear picture of how isolated some of these areas of Omaha became. This is highlighting a specific issue, but it is also a broader call to continue to reevaluate how issues are processed and solved within cities.
Before I go further, I want to recognize that the history of redlining has racial and political roots that are major issues. Redlining was used to deem neighborhoods poor and blighted and it was used by banks to refuse loans and home ownership opportunities. This allowed for racial and economic minorities to be taken advantage of and isolated. It is clear by this map that those patterns of isolation are still prevalent and have an impact on social and economic issues within cities. While you cannot discuss these issues without understanding the history behind it, I really want this to be about exploring the future of how we reconnect cities. It is very easy to overwhelm a discussion like this one with negative history and social issues that it has created. I think current planning discourse struggles to disconnect from these aspects of the conversation and look forward to solution based conversations. This is where I believe that architecture’s empathy and process is better prepared to handle the new and future urban issues.
Something that has become clear to me throughout my studies is that Omaha is not this humble Midwest city, rather it has been shaped by the same social, economic, racial, and historical issues of all major US cities. The interstates and highways are one of the more visible within the city. Its westward sprawl would not have been possible without the dominance of Interstate 80, which runs right down the center of the city on an east west axis. Like most cities, Omaha is very spatially categorized into North, South, and West, and all of those carry strong stereotypes and connotations (mostly negative and misunderstood within the public). These lines are reflected as clear within the major highways that cut up the city. While working on my project in the fall I drove around south Omaha neighborhoods with Ed Leahy, Director of Omaha EITC Coalition, and it is impossible not to feel the disconnect that Highway 75 creates within the area. The description of “food desert” and lack of transportation continually came up. Access is a key for mobility for these areas and these highways cut off access and turn community into isolation. South 24th Street is lively and vibrant district within Omaha, but its tightly constrained by Highway 75 on the west which makes it a community asset for very few compared to what it could be. Neighborhoods like South Side Terrace and Indian Hills have no walking or biking access to those amenities, and the through roads that do connect are 4+ lane roads that make it even hard to maneuver if you do not have a car.
Many cities are grappling with hows to reconnect these neighborhoods that were divided by highways. Los Angles with Park 101 (http://www.park101.org/) and Dallas with Klyde Warren Park (https://www.klydewarrenpark.org/) are just a couple of examples. These are massive infrastructural undertakings by these cities. I think it is important to explore all scales of reconnection. A policy change is not going to solve the physical boundaries of this issue. There is at times a grey area where design can intervene in cities, but being creative on how to reconnect neighborhoods is one of the clearest examples of where design can create a better city. Design can be forward thinking and not reactionary. It does not have to be constrained by the negative aspects of the past. The issue is clear and it does not have to continue that way. To rethink our cities will first take a rethinking of the process with which we problem solve within them. Whether Omaha or New York, it is time to allow design more freedom to attempt to improve the situation within our cities.
Christian de Portzamparc: “No One But an Architect Can Solve the Problems of the Contemporary City”
I want to thank and cite a few people for the map and the resources.
-Palma Joy Strand- Creighton Law School
Director, Creighton's 2040 Initiative
Co-Founder and Research Director, Civity
- Edward W Leahy
Director, Omaha EITC Coalition
University of Virginia- Demographics Research Group