On the Origin of Cities: Adaptive Urbanism

Jul 6, 2009
  • Article by Online Editor
  • Architect Brian McGrath

Pressures unprecedented change on the natural and man-made systems of the world. At the scale of the city, renowned New York urbanist Brian McGrath flags this rupture in time as a moment for the emergence of new spatial practices. Reading the city as a dynamic urban ecology, McGrath advocates the need for a new kind of adaptive urbanism that is immersed, reiterative and collaborative to re-shape the city from within.

I’ve recently spent some time with McGrath teaching an urban analytics intensive with students in the Masters of Architecture degree at the University of Technology, Sydney. The idea of the intensive was for students to interrogate the inner city area of Ultimo through categorical, spatial and experiential analysis. This analysis phase was to establish a deeper understanding through which to strategise and then deploy architectural projections of an urban, and usually public nature for the area.

It was a hectic, at times chaotic, week of fieldwork, discussion forums and productive workshops. Working with the students through McGrath’s analysis techniques re-framed my perception of the urban practitioner operating in the city. The experience also clarified my thinking on a number of related fronts to do with architecture and design strategy in uncertain times.

McGrath has had a long association with the fields of urban design and the city through both academia and practice1. Academically, he moved from a longstanding position at Columbia University to the more recently formed Parsons, The New School for Design where he currently teaches Urban Theory under the Architecture and Social Practices banner. As a practitioner, his studio Urban-Interface explores the interrelationship between designed and emergent systems in cities by exploring links between ecology and media.

McGrath’s extensive list of publications includes The Transparent City, Rome Exposed and Towards a Unifying Principle in Architectural Education. His two most recent publications Cinemetrics: Architecture Drawing Today and Digital Modeling for Urban Design informed our intensive design studio at UTS.

For McGrath, the professions of urban planning and master planning are dominated by the design of cities, where the designer conceives of the city (or part there of) as an end state – an autonomous creative vision to be fulfilled. Contrary to this approach, McGrath is interested in pursuing urban design in cities that is a perpetually engaged and reiterative process.

The possible effects of this shift I find particularly interesting. An embedded, perpetually engaged and reiterative design process should, in time, lead to an increase in the “adaptive capacity”2 of the city. And if the city develops an in-built flexibility and capacity to respond then it will be far better positioned to deal with future economic, environmental or political crises.

This line of urban thinking has synergies with Darwin’s Natural Selection and Spencer’s Survival of the Fittest but overlaid with a genealogy of adaptive potentiality – in short, the city as an urban ecology of its constituents.
The concept of ecology is often understood as synonymous with an idea of nature outside of cities, or occasionally as natural pockets within cities, limiting the terms of reference to an understanding of complex biological systems within this ‘natural’ setting or context.

In using the term Urban Ecology McGrath extends the definition of ecology to encompass the complex system dynamics of the city. Though the morphology of the city is predominantly man-made he describes the system dynamics of the city as ‘social-natural’ and thus entirely consistent with the fundamental principles of ecologies. As an urban designer McGrath has a preference for design in the ecology of cities, rather than the design of cities as vessels for ecology.

*Adaptive Practice*
Normative architectural practice tends to be biased toward a single client, whether they be institutional, governmental, developer or private. When operating at the scale of a broader urban ecology an alternative, multi-stakeholder client offers greater opportunities for an adaptive, reiterative practice. Inevitably this alternative type of practice moves away from single user and object-only based outcomes.

McGrath refers to architectural practices foregrounding city dynamics in their work by re-circuiting and rewiring the city as adaptive practices. He believes these types of architects should play a major role in remaking our cities through new goals of adaptability and sustainability.

Through academic research McGrath has developed two methodoligies to inform adaptive practice, “cinemetrics” and “urban archaelogy”.

*Urban Archaeology*
In his book Digital Modeling for Urban Design3, McGrath adopts Foucault’s writing on the terms archaeology and genealogy and applies them to an urban reading of the city through space and time. Through these two terms the book case-studies three cities, Rome, New York and Bangkok, along time-lines of slow, medium and rapid change respectively.

Urban Archaeology, which he says is akin to Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge, traces ruptures in time – events in the history of a city, that open up new conditions for change. His research methods endeavour to “uncover the formation of new discursive, institutional and spatial practices unique to a place and time”.

Tracing this descent through archaeological research, and the interrogation of existing relationships also allows for the anticipation of an emergent, sometimes transformational genealogy of urban forms and relationships. McGrath links this concept of emergent genealogy to the work of David Graham Shane who describes, “the micro-role of urban actors in creating, altering and deviating fragmentary, self-organising, self-centring urban enclaves… as constituent of the DNA of the city”.

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In a nutshell Shane’s Armatures, Enclaves and Heterotopias4, through various recombinations and constant reconfiguration by urban actors, comprise a simple and flexible theory of city composition. While teaching with Shane at Columbia, McGrath saw the immense flexibility of these three city elements and adapted them in the development of his digital modelling techniques and tools. Students have subsequently used his tools to investigate relationships between elemental and interactive components in cities and their emergent conditions around the world.

McGrath’s 2001 project Manhattan Time Formations5 exemplifies these techniques by modelling the evolution of New York business districts in space and time. The end product is a four-dimensional model with time mapped along the Z axis that traces the effects of economic boom and bust cycles in Manhattan and makes explicit the self-reorganisation undertaken by the city during calmer times.

The relationship between architecture and film is longstanding and well documented yet instances where filmic techniques are successfully applied to architecture in an analytic or generative manner are few. Working with video cameras the architect can immerse themselves in the urban environment, an environment that they are accustomed to understanding and designing in plan, from above. Suddenly the architect is located within the city as an actor-observer and bound to the specific matter-flux of that particular moment.

In his book Cinemetrics: Architectural Drawing Today6 McGrath uses this more subjective, narrative-based ‘eye of the camera’ as a way of reading and understanding the city. “The camera most accurately depicts the parallax points of view of individual actors within the city and by extension the coincident flows and interactions between social dynamics, built and natural environments.”

In Cinemetrics McGrath has developed a set of tools that allow architects and designers to move freely between operation at the camera-eye view and the more normative, orthographic projections of plan, section and elevation. McGrath’s tools comprise a series of diagrammatic exercises leading the architect through studies of morphological, spatial and temporal content. The process ultimately frames a viewpoint that “embeds architecture in relationships within the world at large”. In doing so the architect is rendered ‘participant observer’ and detached ‘designer from above’ simultaneously.

The first exercise in the UTS intensive analytics studio was a 24-hour video study of Ultimo, Sydney that was then folded in to related analytic drawing exercises. Groups of students were asked to document the city through a strict set of rules based on the cinematic techniques of three film directors – Yasujiro Ozu7, Jean-Luc Godard8 and John Cassavetes9. These techniques varied from the still, orthographic camera viewpoints of Ozu to the wild, hand-held tracking, zooming and panning camera of Cassavetes.

McGrath emphasises the use of these filmic techniques as sensing, information gathering devices rather than pictorial devices. The mapping and diagramming exercises that followed encourage the students to abstractly explore Ultimo’s existing armatures, enclaves and heterotopias not from the traditional birds-eye master plan view but from within this four-dimensional, cinematic ‘space’10.

Immediately, the students (me included) observe a radically different composition of the urban realm. The first and most striking – a somewhat objective observation of the rapid moving yet delicately composed, coincident flows of the city. Through the camera’s eye dynamic flows of pedestrians, goods, vehicles, energy and the like are made explicit. The urban realm becomes a location or series of locations within which the pressure and release of these apparently self-regulating flows plays out over the 24-hour period. By the end of the
24-hour period it became clear that the urban realm serves to promote, shape and restrict these flows but does not create them on its own.

The studies produced by the students captured moments of blockage and porosity between institutions and city fabric. The assemblage of urban form (morphology), flows (temporal), spaces and program (temporary and permanent) was framed by the camera as a dynamic interplay in a constant state of flux.

The video derived processes outlined above revealed a finer grained milieu of intertwined urban elements and relationships than those portrayed in the language of traditional urban design practice. Spatial divisions of boundaries, precincts, areas and the like – the organising lines of the conventional urban ‘plan’ – were rendered blurred and elusive by the dynamic flux portrayed by the camera. In fact, with these techniques it was often the path of the camera itself, the inscription of the ‘urban actors’ individual space, that structured the broader urban space. For McGrath, this observation exemplifies the need for urban designers to engage the city in a dynamic way from within rather than as master planner from above.I close the conversation by asking him: “Are architects uniquely placed to grapple with these concepts?” He replies, “Yes and no. Architects have an incredible spatial imagination, can handle complexity and are used to working with different fields. But every time they try to face it alone they fail miserably. To practice in this manner [adaptive urbanism] architects need to be engaged with a network of other experts. In architectural education we also need to prepare ourselves for these complex realms of operation.”

In the present day it seems the city is experiencing a significant rupture in its time-line (think the decline of Dubai and the rapid recession experienced in cities such as New York and London). The Global Financial Crisis is seriously modifying social behaviours and political ideologies around the world. A phase change in values has occurred which questions the fundamentals of capitalism and reprioritises an environmental agenda.

As a result, unparalleled pressures are affecting the urban environment. While these pressures are predominantly unsettling they present countless opportunities for rapid change. What new spatial practices might emerge under these conditions? And perhaps, of more pressing concern, will architects be able to adapt their modes of practice to meet these unprecedented challenges?

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