Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The future of megaprojects

The megaprojects symposium at the Cooper Union last Saturday was a weird event. It was organized by the Institute for Urban Design but there weren't many designers there. I always think it's helpful to hear opinions from politicians, lawyers, and businessmen. But if the most mentioned terms were "incremental", "human scale", "suburban town center", it would be just a waste of time.

Fortunately my tolerance was high enough to stay until eventually Thom Mayne, our newly named representative in Obama's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, showed up and injected some interesting energy into the event. I was also glad that I could actually extract some interesting points from the limited number of interesting speakers, and at the same time quietly built up my own arguments against the majority of unbearable conservatives.

What's qualified as a megaproject?
Tony Vidler opened the symposium by mentioning the 1960s and 70s. But to my surprise, none of the rest seemed to think Archigram or Superstudio were relevant. With the help of my iPhone and Wikipedia, I found out the definition of megaproject has in fact more to do with investment than form. It's more an infrastructure-related concept. OK, I admit my assumption was wrong.

Some design-based speakers did talk about form. They presented their "nice" redevelopment projects for some suburban town centers. The proposals were to subdivide the site with the most boring "human scale" streets you can ever imagine, criticizing the massive form of the original shopping mall. I think the problems of malls were not about the size but the ignorance of the opportunities bigness could provide. Bigness creates intense activities. Megastructures such as the New Babylon and the Continuous Monument contain the entire city and its diverse urban life. There is freedom of navigation, open possibilities of impromptu interactions and misuse. What's in a mall? One thing - commerce. Look at the huge parking lot around it! And look at all those little houses beyond it! These segmented large pieces convey nothing mega to me, although I am sure they were truly mega-investments.
Villa Italia. Lakewood, CO. 1966

Mega = sprawl?
The problem of American suburbs, as Robert Fishman of UMich pointed out, is the paradox that they are megaprojects that were not meant to be big. There was tremendous ambition and courage involved in Levittown, but the image is just massive smallness. The whole "New Town" movement was an escape from density. But is density something we should be afraid of? Escape is always simple. But what about the complexity and richness of life in a dense community? It could be difficult sometimes, but it's always full of energy and excitement. Vishaan Chakrabarti of Columbia University used sustainability as an argument against sprawl: "What's the point of driving three hours to your super-green home?"
How much do we rely on our cars?

The "new towns" in Asia present a totally different image from the American ones. They are not satellite towns far from the city core, nor picturesque "paradise" in the woods. They are actually an extension of a dense metropolis urban form. Behind these images are visions to think big. Robert Fishman called them "grand manners." To answer the question of what we are seeking when we build big, Vishaan Chakrabarti compared how stimulus money were spent in different countries. In the US, the majority went to offsetting governmental deficits, while the Chinese package lays out an extensive list of large infrastructure projects. If we think big and see the opportunities for new infrastructure around high density, we will understand how megaprojects can bring along other megaprojects. We call this progress.

Is bold vision what we need?
After a boring description of large projects in Europe and the US, Susan Fainstein raised this question: "Is bold vision what we need?" Thom Mayne jumped. Of course we need boldness to rethink the issues we have!" The problem right now is precisely a lack of broad visionary thinking." Projects without visions are just soulless. I don't even think they can be called design. There's no content, no contribution to anything whatsoever.

This reminds me of the fight between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, although Fainstein is nothing compared to Jacobs. I do admire Robert Moses' contribution to the modern New York. You need boldness to get things done. What do you think is behind the efficient German railroad system, Copenhagen's finger plan, and the light rail system in Portland?

New Urbanism or Neo-suburbanism?
When someone from the audience asked about solutions to our current urban and suburban problems (what a lameo), Fainstein answered, "I think New Urbanism is a good antidote." Thom Mayne jumped again. "New Urbanism is the most irrelevant to urban sense. It's totally a nostalgic suburban idea. No complex issues involved. Nothing close to the metropolis we are talking about." Unfortunately, there were still quite some incrementalists in the room. Emily Talen of Arizona State University, supporter of New Urbanism as she herself claimed, condemned megaprojects as one person's visions, top down, controlled, incomplete and fake. I was amused. She actually thinks New Urbanist towns are not fake!

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