The MA Architecture + Urbanism course is the Manchester School of Architecture's taught postgraduate course which conducts research into how global cultural and economic forces influence contemporary cities. The design, functioning and future of urban situations is explored in written, drawn and modelled work which builds on the legacy of twentieth century urban theory and is directed towards the development of sustainable cities.

Monday 27 September 2010

An Analytical Overview and a Viable Design Approach: Brownsfield Mill, Manchester

This design project for Brownsfield Mill by Gaia Zamburlini, exploring its industrial archaeology and architectural conservation, was recently awarded a Distinction in the MA Architecture + Urbanism final examinations. Congratulations to Gaia and the other successful graduates. Further examples of student work will be posted soon.

Monday 13 September 2010

Manuel de Sola-Morales: A Matter of Things (2008)

A book review by Stephen Gingell

“Turning the city into a metaphor is a distraction at best, there are no theories beyond the city itself”

The book comprises some theoretical writings by de Sola-Morales and others, interspersed with a review of his work in practice between 1988 and 2005. The book is well illustrated but could benefit from a larger format/larger photographs. It traces the development of his ideas from a fairly conventional viewpoint to his own, individual and occasionally mischievous stance.

De Sola-Morales is a Catalan architect who came to prominence during Spain’s cultural and economic renaissance. This was fostered by the return to democracy, growing regional autonomy and culminated in the urban regeneration of Barcelona for the ’92 Olympics. Barcelona became the model for the urban revival all over Europe.

He identifies a “rupture” between architecture and urban design and traces this back to a CIAM conference in the 30s. Architecture and city planning diverged, one becoming primarily visual and aesthetic and the other, technical/geographical. He works this gap. Working seamlessly between the two now distinct and often-conflicting disciplines.

His approach is neither an abstract technical one or purely aesthetic. Instead he is interested in the tangible be they things of significance or insignificance, hence his title – “A Matter of Things” with all their rich complexity of buildings, roads, railings, signage and scaffolding.
He does not lament the passing of the traditional city with its visual order and hierarchy. He has an optimistic outlook:

“Cities are not becoming uglier, (but are) growing (visually) richer.
Though formal relationships are less common the City is not in retreat to cyberspace, there are more places and more contact.”

He does not avoid the metaphorical all together – but uses it advisedly when referring to the city as surface, as a skin. Every wrinkle is worthy of scrutiny and can be of equal importance when determining how a site should be treated. This is his “Urban acupuncture”: small interventions, which create a ripple, not comprehensive development. Embellishments like the sinuous canal side bench and installation in the Netherlands. Where does this surgical insertions begin and end?

He displays distaste for the cult of personality in city building and architecture, taking the view of the traditional city as the result of limited types, means and forms largely unconscious in their shaping:

“Architecture..(should be) anonymous…cities grain should be punctuated by key buildings”

“attracting attention with architecture is less and less interesting. In today’s city the work of the architect cannot stray into the illusion of his or her mirages”

This self -effacement becomes almost a fetish in his urban housing blocks squeezed into the cramped historical centre of Alcoi, Spain. There is no outward show – partly as this is an urban infill with little opportunity for display but where there is, the palette is limited. One window type punched into simple render lights all rooms regardless of their function.
As mentioned in my introduction the format of this book doesn’t allow for sumptuous photography but perhaps that does not matter? De Sola-Morales is more interested in the process, rather than the individual signature buildings and their display in journals. These views of Alcoi show this. They are what they are: highly serviceable, pragmatic and restrained. One gets the impression again from Alcoi that “fuzzy edges” and raw finishes (which work well in the Spanish sunshine) are what he is about. The story is incomplete and is open to future embellishment in the way that cities traditionally have been.

The Alcoi development shows De Sola-Morales’s confidence in allowing things to be prosaically what they are -“complication is the short sighted refuge of many urban projects.” In his Leuven station, Belgium, the program emerges from a rigorous analysis of movement of overlapping and competing circulation patterns: pedestrian, cyclist, train, bus and private vehicles.

Turning to roads in particular they are now the domains of the city engineer. We think of them as traffic management systems and have forgotten that they were once the edges of other things. They would have changed their nature and dimension along their length rather than what they now tend towards, a continuous and uniform conveyor.

His proposal for the Genoa Express Way, though not conforming to tradition is a formal abstract architectural composition. Inserted catheter like into the old fabric of Genoa – (an extension of the body, surgical analogy which we have seen earlier) - this would have been a radical insertion providing the relief of 21st century infrastructure to this historic core.
His intention was, that it would allow the continuing functioning of the port rather than a banal tourist conversion as he describes its alternative fate.
The earlier writings and projects in the book cover somewhat familiar territory. The idea that we should work with the city’s grain and be broadly contextual is now orthodoxy. At the time of writing (early 1980s) these ideas would have still been emerging and tested in the neglected cities such as Barcelona.
But follow the road out, away from the certainty of the historic core with its fine grain and incremental changes to the “territories without a model.” De Sola-Morales sees the city as spreading tentacles almost infinitely. He sees continuity from the centre to periphery- a hierarchy of roads, which extend out beyond the city limits. These connect to the next urban centre, and by doing so give everywhere an urban sensibility - even low density rural locations.
This is where I feel a step change in the book – a development of original ideas. He is marking out new insights as he travels out into these new territories. He describes it as a slick- but an interesting one. He argues that the city is conventionally seen geographically as a series of concentric rings with a diminution of form and interest at the periphery.
In recent decades there has been an emphasis on the centre at the expense of the periphery. But these new territories are important. Many people live here and never leave here. The centre is done, but the periphery is uncharted. It provides new opportunities for material things and new opportunities for expression. Up until now it has mostly been left to filmmakers to imagine and make visual sense of this new frontier.

He does identify one important ordering principle of this zone: namely the sprawl is an attempt to distance one self from another – development acts as magnets which repulse in their attempt at privacy- creating a coherence of the void – the opposite figure ground relationship to that of the traditional city core.

His views are refreshingly optimistic when balanced up against the conventional ideas of “sprawl.” However it is difficult to see how this view could be whole -heartedly embraced on a small island with deep attachments to the idea of a green and pleasant land. It has more of the flavour of the vast dusty and seemingly limitless interior of Spain or the Hispanic USA.
Interestingly the book does not feature any of his projects built or unbuilt within this “slick.” Perhaps as this is a region unvalued and unseen no one would commission an architect to build anything of merit here.

Before my summing up I would like to outline a few of the techniques in de Sola-Morales’s “toolkit.” Again we have the deployment of the scalpel. He is the surgeon who cuts and crops though city fabric to show continuity. He does not wish to encompass a site but will slice through the arteries and networks of the city almost perversely to imply their continuity. Remember for him the city, suburbs, exurbs and beyond are part of a continuum, a boundless mesh some times dense and tangled and sometimes-flung open.

“The choice of the working field in clipping the city is the most substantial act of all projects in the city”

The second technique is the drawing of a long section in an urban project. This allows you to think of the ground plan, elevation, topography and use all at the same time.

Thirdly, and finally a technique and an observation. Within the gridiron city such as Cerda’s grid of chamfered blocks in Barcelona the introduction of the diagonal (for example from the southwest corner to the northeast corner)“scans the grid” - revealing its extent by implying its planar form. This aids navigation and frees the diagonal desire line.

In conclusion de Sola-Morales’s standpoint is one of humility and pragmatism. Architects have the capacity to add and enrich but not to solve. Architecture should not be heroic, ideological or about engineering society - a dangerous ambition. His approach is not about comprehensive redevelopment but surgical insertions.

There is no fundamental difference between design and theory in his work. Theory does not exist above and beyond practice. His projects “do not believe in Leon Krier or David Gosling, in Christopher Alexander or in Colin Rowe.
Even though, of course, they take some few elements from each of these models, they are operative and pragmatic, an ethic that is more professional than ideological, for they are distrustful of principles and highly appreciative of results.”

Here is a short film about Manuel de Sola-Morales's Transparent Building in Porto made by Year 3 students at msa

Thursday 9 September 2010

Graduate presentation at The Architecture Foundation

Nandi Marshal Han who graduated from MA Architecture + Urbanism in 2009 will be presenting his award winning project for the 2010 Kohn Pedersen Fox / Architecture Foundation Student Travel Award at The Architecture Foundation, London on 15 September 7.00 - 8.30 PM.

The event is free but booking is essential. Booking details here

Monday 6 September 2010

Kevin Lynch: The Image of the City (1960)

Lynch's seminal book on the perceptual reading of the city reviewed by Gaia Zamburlini

“The image of the city” was written by American urban planner Kevin Andrew Lynch (1918 – 1984). After studying in various places, including Taliesin Studio under Frank Lloyd Wright, he received a Bachelor degree in city planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where, later on, he became full professor in 1963.

His main contribution was to provide empirical research on city planning, studying how individuals perceive and navigate the urban landscape. This book, published in 1960, also explores the presence of time and history in the urban environment, and therefore how these external factors affect people. The first, straightforward approach to the city, taken by every individual, is looking at it, which constitutes a 5-sense aesthetical experience through space and time. A urban system can therefore be either perceived as stable or in constant change, which is the most noticeable effect of external factors affecting any environment.

On this concern, Lynch states that, unlike Architecture, Urbanism is in constant change: today, fifty years later, this issue could be regarded and discussed with further attention, as architecture, too, is subject to external factors and different perceptions, scale, but mostly a cultural aspect, involving the fact that In the 1960s the life-cycle of a building was still not wholly taken into account, as it came up about twenty years later with sustainability issues.

Lynch focuses on four main concepts, correlated to a wise urban planning:

a urban system has to be held legible, through definite sensory cues
its image has to be perceived by the observer, arbitrarily selected by the community and finally manipulated by city planners.
legibility and imageability would then lead to the identification of a structure, and therefore a precise identity, which are both parameters through which it is possible to analyse an urban system and its own elements.
Lynch reckons that there might be different relations of complexity within every structure: these consist in the relations between definite elements, which are identified in:

Lynch’s aim is to understand the relation between environmental images and urban life, at the basis of urban design principles; he therefore brings up an analysis of three different towns, putting into practice a research method whose successfulness is assessed and tested through the results of the analysis itself.

The research focused on Boston, Jersey City and L.os Angeles. As explained, the method undertaken concentrated on two phases, consisting firstly in office-based interviews, where the sample citizens were also required to draw up a map in order to make a rapid description of the city. The second phase consisted in a systematic examination of the environmental image evoked by trained observers in the field.

This is how, through surveys and research, Boston appears to be perceived only as one-sided, Jersey City is described as a formless place “on the edge of something else” and Los Angeles, despite being well structured, seems as faceless as Jersey City, delivering a sense of bewilderment.

On the basis of this in-depth analysis, Lynch summarises the common themes that have arisen, among which we should remember : a common interest for panoramas, and smaller landscape features, noted with care and attention; shapeless places which, although not pleasant, seem to be remarkable and striking, as Dewey Square excavations in Boston around the ‘60s economic boom; identification of places with the social-classes that occupy or use them; the presence or lack of historical marks.
It is interesting to realise how the whole interview and in-field approach has been the one aimed at discovering the social experience of a town, which does not just outline how a urban system works but also how it is perceived by people. This approach reveals a particular compatibility with the rising experimental psychology of the ‘60s, aimed at constituting methods and theories according to the action and reaction of people.

From the field-research, what evidently arises is that each individual image constitutes a connection between urban forms and what is, on a more global extent, the public image. Each of those images is constructed and relying on the 5 elements already mentioned, which are:

-paths: the channel of the observer

-edges: breaking in continuity with the surrounding areas

-districts: 2-dimensional elements within which we spot a common character

-nodes: strategic points

-landmarks: external references

As we previously said, it is possible to draw out thousands of interrelations between the elements, which Kevin Lynch thoroughly describes in Chapter 3 and 4.

On one side, we could therefore say that his method follows a coherent bottom-up route, starting from the individual elements to reach gradually the whole; This strategy would be set to aim at continuity, regularity, measurability and kinesthetic quality, which is the first to provide identity over a continuous experience through time. Nevertheless, although the bottom-up method has a point, as far as order and clarity is concerned, it sticks to the mid-century tendency to cathegorisation, which today might turn out to be too constraining when facing different and multiple realities.

In conclusion, we could say that in the image development process, visual education is the basis for reshaping what surrounds us, and viceversa. This is in fact the main condition for which a critical audience can be formed and therefore for which a urban system can be analysed, manipulated and developed. Despite what previously was said about Kevin Lynch’s ‘schematism’, we reckon his contribution has been of relevant importance: first of all, he has fully put into practice what had just lingered among architects and planners for years: an attention and complete recognition of the citizen’s role, that not only lives a town –stating his own needs-, but also perceives it –providing useful images for planners to work on. Secondly, the importance of visual communication in the urban space, which brings together individuals, experience and planners in order for them to communicate on a common thread.

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