Extreme Cities: Building Megalopolis
Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation
Network Architecture Lab
Instructor: Kazys Varnelis, Ph.D.
Associate: Leigha Dennis
This studio is part of the Extreme Cities collaboration between the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation and Audi AG. Not merely content with the extra-large, our aims are the extreme future, the megalopolis, and the megaform.
Developed out of the Experiments in Motion program, Extreme Cities begins with the observation that cities will intensify considerably during the next fifty years. Instead of the usual mindset seeing the growth of global cities as an overwhelming set of seemingly unmanageable problems, this project sets out to take this intensification to an extreme. In doing so, we will interrogate both the past and the distant future, with the aim of having students envision unprecedented building types for the year 2063.
The studio’s site is the world’s first megalopolis, BOSWASH. In his 1961 book Megalopolis; the Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States, geographer Jean Gottmann identified this territory as an unending conurbation of cities, satellites, and suburbs stretching from Boston to Washington D.C., For Gottmann, the megalopolis is “the cradle of a new order in the organization of inhabited spaces,” a territory in which any distinction of city and country is gone, but also a territory that is dominantly suburban. Dubbing the area BOSWASH in his 1967 book the Year 2000: A Framework for Speculation on the Next Thirty-Three Years, scenario planner Herman Kahn predicted that the area would reach a population of 80 million by the year 2000, up from 37 million in 1960. Kahn’s term stuck but his prediction was mistaken, missing the massive migration of population to the South and West, and a warning sign to us that prediction is a dangerous business. Architecture studio, of course, is dangerous business.
Thus, if BOSWASH is our physical site, the studio’s temporal site is in both the past and the future. We aim to go back fifty years into the past, to the era of Gottmann and Kahn, as well as fifty years into the future, to a time when current GSAPP students will reach an age traditionally considered as elderly. Doing so will unsettle our conceptions about architecture and cities, allowing us to think beyond the atemporality of contemporary culture and the limitations of contemporary thought.
We will begin the semester with a historical research project into the development of BOSWASH.
Our premise is that the fifteen years between 1961 and 1976, traditionally seen as an era of decline were in fact a rich time in terms of thinking about the future of cities and particularly so in BOSWASH. In addition to Gottmann’s work, the research of BOSWASH-based scholars and designers such as Jane Jacobs, Herbert Gans, Kevin Lynch, Venturi-Scott-Brown, Stanley Milgram, William H. Whyte, Paul Rudolph, Kevin Roche, Robert Smithson, and Gordon-Matta Clark proved critical to establishing new thinking about the city. We start off with a survey of both, producing a timeline of the megalopolis and also a dictionary of urban qualities.
For our survey, we will take repeated forays into the nearby areas of BOSWASH, visiting the Empire State Plaza in Albany (one of America’s largest megastructures and an attempt to create a link to BOSWASH that is generally considered to have failed), Union Carbide Headquarters in Danbury, and take repeated forays into New York City. Our goal is to investigate architectural interventions that reflect specific qualities of the city, engage in the region, and anticipate a future, particularly those that Kenneth Frampton has identified as megaforms, an architectural genre of massive sprawling horizontality that he sees as native to the megalopolis.
During the first half of the semester, each student will examine one project in this region and timeframe in extreme depth and identify the governing urban quality in it. If the Ford Foundation exemplifies generosity, which projects demonstrate mobility, asymmetry, complexity, or cosmopolitanism?
Students will be required to produce two well-developed drawings of publication-level quality that address the architectural project through project-specific analyses. Some projects may have remarkable circulation and crowd patterns, space planning, environmental systems, etc. These drawings should be produced over time, developing throughout the first half of the semester, as more information is unearthed and will be simultaneously oversaturated with information and rigorous restrained (in other words, you will find out so much utterly amazing information that even though you will only add the information you cannot resist adding, there will be a lot of it). Students should look to the representational techniques that their projects’ architects and others produced for inspiration. Grand exterior axonometric drawings, intricate multi-layered plans and analog data visualizations will become common tools for representing projects of the megalopolis.
Accompanying this, students will collect a dossier of information on the single urban quality embodied within their project. Using photography and film, they will capture evidence of this quality within the present day city. Students will situate this data in the form of a timeline that examines the temporal dimensions of their quality and its architectural, urban and social implications.
This historical research will act as the basis for the second half of the studio in which students will extrapolate a new building type. This time, projecting fifty years into the future, students will produce a new architecture typology that reflects and aids the changing characteristics of the radically intensified megalopolis of 2063. These future projects must have a timeline of their own, and should demonstrate a nonlinear intensification of multiple urban conditions while embracing one urban quality.
Students will be expected to maintain and post regularly to a shared course Tumblr blog of their research and design progress. All student work will be posted online tagged by student name (firstname-lastname).
Students will work with roving engineers from ARUP during the semester to address the structural and environmental systems in their designs. Even the most speculative of projects can benefit from the advice of these experts.
Ultra-realistic perspective and Photoshop-based montages are banned in this studio. We propose that this sort of representation is inappropriate, corresponding to what Mark Fischer has dubbed “capitalist realism,” a condition in which we are offered nothing but the present the eagerly wait for the next thrill the system has to offer. Evacuated of any critical intent, such work only cements the false notion that modern technology has made communication transparent.
But more than that, if all architects produce a form of science fiction, then to paraphrase William Gibson, we need to remember that as we construct futures, all we have at our disposal is the moment that we are currently living in. The moment we construct a future it starts to age rapidly. Since the crash, along with the development of technologies that were formerly consigned to an endlessly deferred proximate future such as near-universal wireless Internet, locative media, tablet computing, and touchscreen interfaces, it seems that we have exhausted the era of the next new thing, of rapid technological and cultural development and obsolescence.
Thus, envisioning the future through architecture forces us to follow Alex Galloway’s suggestion that “all media is dead media,” to understand that appropriate representational strategies that might resist capitalist realist representations might emerge out of a new understanding of what Gibson calls a “long now,” a temporally stretched condition out of which we can freely recombine material and representational motifs.
We will look at forms of representation immanent to our topic at hand, both the means of representation that architects and others working on these and similar projects would have used, but also the other means of representation of the day, e.g. schedules, traffic engineering plans, flowcharts, exploded axonometrics, and so on. Such diagrams not only offer rich territory to mine for representational strategies, their close study allows us to better understand how to think and represent visually.
Precise, unshaded hidden line drawings, plan, section, elevation, and axonometric form the basis for this studio.
20% Attendance and Participation
Students are expected to attend studio sessions, be on time, and ready to discuss their work at every session. By this we mean that students should be in studio at least from 2 to 6 on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays unless they have made other arrangements or are conducting research. Please let us know in advance. In no case will we meet with students who arrive after 4pm on that day unless they have prearranged the late arrival with us or there are mitigating circumstances.
Students are expected to participate in group discussions, to cooperate with other studio members by offering criticism, advice, and good spirit.
Students are expected to be at pin-ups and reviews on time with work ready to present. Students who are not ready at the beginning of the pin-up or review forfeit the right to receive criticism. Students are expected to contribute to pin-ups and reviews, both in terms of criticism and questions as well as by working in a team to ensure that rooms are ready to present in (adequate chairs, projectors, and so on).
Students will be graded on the originality and rigor of their concepts. All students need a coherent thesis in this studio.
Columbia teaches in English. There is help available for difficulties with the English language in the university, but lack of understanding is not an excuse.
40% Execution and Presentation
A good concept means little if it is poorly executed or presented. Presentation and execution are not trivial, nor are they mere “polish,” rather the choices made in presentation and execution should inform, and be informed by, the concept.
Students are expected to render and present their work clearly, succinctly, and elegantly.
Work should be thoroughly and completely represented.
A Brief Bibliography of Books regarding Design and Presentation
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 Jean Gottmann, Megalopolis the Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States, (New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1961), 9.
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