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.

Thursday 26 April 2012

Kyoto Alleys

MA A+U student Wanxin Wu has returned from her field study in Kyoto where she made this film of the former capital's network of alleyways.

Friday 13 April 2012

Peter Wilson Lecture

MA Architecture + Urbanism are delighted to announce that Peter Wilson of Bolles + Wilson will be delivering an open lecture at 5.15 pm on Thursday 26 April at CUBE Manchester. All students and practitioners welcome.

The lecture will be followed by the opening of the 3rd Archaeology's Places and Contemporary Uses exhibition at RIBAhub

Wednesday 11 April 2012

Steven Holl: Urbanisms - Working with Doubt (2009)

A précis by Ochuko Edewor

Steven Holl, who is an American architect, stated that today working with doubt is unavoidable; the absolute is suspended by the relative and interactive and that instead of simple and clear programmes we must engage in contingent and diverse programmes.
He says we should aim for architecture that is integral: landscape/ architecture/ urbanism; architecture of deep connection to site, culture and climate, rather than an applied signature style. Working with openness and doubt at the outset of each project can yield works engaged on levels of both site and culture: many different urbanism, rather than a single urbanism. In the book, he states eleven (11) factors that he believes should be fundamental in the achieving a successful urban space.

He talks about Venus which is the Earth’s nearest planetary neighbour and close equivalent in size. Venus once had water but it’s now steam. It has no moon. “His theory is that it once had a moon just as it once had water, both victims of greenhouse heat (effect)”; and that every constructive mark on the Earth’s crust, in relation to natural landscape should be scrutinised.

Few planners speak of the important phenomenological characteristics determining the qualities of urban life - spatial energy and mystery, qualities of light, colour, sound, and smell. The subjectivity of urban experience must be held in equal importance to the objective and practical. Constructed in walls of glass, concrete or brick, the city is as much a subjective experience as it is an objective reality. This synthesis of subjective and objective ought to be central to urban design from the outset. Time, light, stone, history, and urban geometry intermesh to form a unique impression. The intermeshing of these phenomenal aspects yields a visceral, intellectual, and physical experience that demands descriptive words such as amazement, wonder, poetic revelation; words not found in planning documents.

Space is defined by the interrelationship of light, colour and atmospheric conditions. In a slight mist space is liquid. At the Pratt Institute School of Architecture in Brooklyn, shadows of students moving about in the drafting studio can be seen from the glowing light of the entrance court. The projection of light in this new courtyard is a soft wash rather than the regimented light of a streetlamp, a new urban courtyard with a golden penumbra. Urban space at night may have a veiled charm and mystery.
A rural spatiality of night requires restoring darkness. The suburban light pollution is rapidly erasing the stars from our night skies negatively affects animals and migrating birds.

Porosity is the inexhaustible law of the city, reappearing everywhere. The pedestrian can change direction in seconds; the pedestrian is not blocked by large urban constructions without entry or exit. This freedom of pedestrian movement can be envisioned in different ways for the 21st century.
For larger urban projects made up of several buildings, porosity becomes essential for the vitality of street life. Beijing Linked Hybrid, a project of eight towers ranging from twelve to twenty-one stories, linked by bridges with public functions, is an experiment in urban porosity. Passages from all sides leading into the central space are lined and activated with shops.

The 19th century has flat-footed-ground space; 21st century metropolitan space is more active in section (use of elevators/escalators).
Invigorated urbanism of the 21st century has moved beyond the usual ‘X’ and ‘Y’ dimensions. Today the ‘Z’ dimension of the development of buildings yields new experiences in space, light and perception. As urbanists and architects we must think first of the urban sections in our sections. The section can be 50 times more consequential than the plan, especially in metropolitan centres such as Manhattan, Shanghai, Tokyo and Hong Kong.


Our experience of a contemporary city is one of partial views, fragmented and incomplete. A fantastic spatial energy resides not in the building as object in itself, but in its relationship to the urban environment.  A revalued understanding of the experiential dimensions of urban design moves beyond the norms of individual architectural intention, toward the indefinite properties of urban assemblage. Enmeshed experiences merge foreground, middle ground, and distant view through partial views.

This deals with the exhilaration we find when we walk into the space between or inside certain buildings and it produces a kind of psychological space. The psychological effects of sound must be considered as well as other temporal fragmentations. In this regard, architecture produces desire.

The constant flux of information, materials and products dissolve and disperse. This readily influences the metropolis. Open architecture which can adapt to change- like a rock canyon in which material is eroded by the river flow- calls for an architecture of duration rather than one of throwaway space. For example currently most American universities construct 100 year-span buildings for their campuses.

The fact that explosive urban growth yields banalization without architectural quality is no surprise. What is surprising however is the attempt of the current generation of urban theorists to write apologetically for this flattening banality as if we could be immunized to its effects via charts and data.
Our aim is to realise at least some constructions of exemplary qualitative power. Constructed with a plurality of meanings, an intense urban architecture of quality can be an instrument of abstract thought: unforeseen, resistant to banalization, and capable of changing and shaping urban life with phenomenal experiences.

Negative capability is a positive capacity. Negative capability is to be able to take in all the problematic aspects of the surrounding world, to see and acknowledge, to entertain uncertainty and still be able to act. As an architect you go to a site to study every angle available; intuitively you create. Regardless of how unfortunate and difficult elements accumulate in our daily lives, as architects and urbanist it is important to aim with optimism at a long term view.

The fusion of architecture/ urbanism/ landscape can be realised in city fragments when all aspects are conceived integrally. This integration should carry over into texture, material, colour, translucency and reflection. Landscape design ordered as an afterthought cannot effectively fuse with architecture and urbanism.

Working with doubt on an urban scale can allow for action, construction, experimentation and enable all involved to think experience and rethink the new problems and challenges. Especially in rapidly urbanizing cultures such as China, whole city sectors containing everything needed for living, working, recreation and education can be realized at once. This multiple building construction is something beyond architecture but not quite urban planning; it is in between.
The 21st century metropolis shouldn’t aspire to be master planned; rather it should be a connected system of inspired fragments.


Thursday 5 April 2012

Michael Sorkin: All Over the Map (2011)

Reviewed by Lisa Kinch

Michael Sorkin was born 1948, in Washington, D.C. He is a Distinguished Professor of Architecture and has taught at numerous schools including the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, the Architectural Association, Yale and Harvard. He is currently Director of the Graduate Urban Design Program at the City College of New York, but still lectures around the world and has written several hundred articles in a wide range of both professional and general publications. Sorkin is also the Chair of the New York Institute for Urban Design, a non-profit organization that provides a forum for debate about contemporary urban planning, development and design. Moreover, he runs his own practice Michael Sorkin Studio.

Sorkin's latest publication 'All Over the Map' is a chronological collection of 76 medium length articles written between 2000 and 2009. The majority of articles were originally published either in Architectural Record, Sorkin's 2003 book 'Starting from Zero' or Harvard Design Magazine. Most chapters take the form of essays, but there are a few exceptions. One chapter provides a diagrammatical analysis of the Pritzker prize winners and juries. Another is a 62 point instruction on how to enter a building, Sorkin's satirical commentary on increased building security. There are hardly any images, and the few times Sorkin presents his own work it is always in the form of a drawing. The book presents no photographs of any finished projects.

Sorkin's style of writing is frank and to the point. He is strongly opinionated and things are either black or white. People are good or bad. He either hates or loves them, and he is not scared of making his opinion known. As he writes in his own introduction; 'I've bitten quite a few hands, many of which, it turned out, might otherwise have been feeding me. Nevertheless, architectural flesh always proved tasty to me, and the urge to chomp has continued.' A consequence of this subjective style of writing is the blurring of boundaries between objective fact and subjective opinion, demanding a critical approach to his work.

Although the content of the 76 chapters is very diverse, some overarching themes are identifiable. These include the importance of public realm and the social implications of architecture, mainly in relation to Ground Zero, security and the right to freely assemble, his dislike of Philip Johnson and Rem Koolhaas (who seems to be nothing but his arch enemy) and his love for Jane Jacobs.

Sorkin dedicates the majority of his writing to the controversies surrounding 9/11 and the Ground Zero design process. Since he lives and works near Ground Zero, he was personally affected by the attacks and tells stories about how he took long detours around imagined threats. The chronological articles provide a constantly developing account of the design competitions. Controversies surrounding the decision makers are carefully analysed, leading Sorkin to ask who truly decides what is to be built; the competition jury, the general public or Larry Silverstein.  

Sorkin analyses a number of proposals for Ground Zero, but spends little time debating the actual designs of the buildings. Instead, he questions the very idea that new buildings must replace the lost ones. Furthermore, he observes a problematic lack of suitable space dedicated to assembly in New York and emphasises that the situation has worsened after the 9/11 attacks. His own proposal for Ground Zero, Liberty Square, is therefore simply an open public space encouraging peaceable assembly.

Philip Johnson is portrayed as an anti-hero, a committed Nazi sympathiser and cynical player of power games. The chapter entitled 'My Last Philipic' compares the life of Johnson with that of porn film maker Russ Meyer, claiming that both made 'enduring, seminal contributions to the ironic, vaguely pornographic, and deeply kitsch sensibility that has become one of the major markers of our contemporary creativity'. Johnson's contribution to American architecture is never acknowledged.

Sorkin goes on to include Johnson in an imaginary story prompted by Philip Roth's novel 'The Plot Against America'. Roth describes how Charles Lindbergh becomes a pro-Nazi president in 1940, and Sorkin subsequently imagines Johnson embracing the regime. In a plot including Henry Ford and Walt Disney, Johnson designs Disneyfied, remote identical towns for Jews and black people, all mass-produced on Ford's famous assembly line. This particular essay was originally published in Emmanuel Petit's 2009 book 'Philip Johnson: The Constancy of Change', considered the first in-depth study to follow Johnson's death. This publication potentially makes Sorkin’s essay an ironic tribute to Johnson, rather than an offensive critique.

If Philip Johnson is Sorkin's villain, Jane Jacob's is his hero. He argues that her success originated from knowing both what she was attacking and what she was defending. Jacobs' ability to understand and describe the interaction of the social and physical components vital for rich community life has deeply influenced Sorkin's writings. He references her book 'The Death and Life of Great American Cities' on a regular basis, especially in connection with the redevelopment of Ground Zero. He demonstrates how numerous redevelopment projects evoke Jane Jacobs’ principles; the importance of the street and its life, the advantages of short blocks, the need for density and a mix of uses. He describes how her principles are crudely simplified and distorted to suit the developers' own needs. The more genuine spirit of Jane Jacobs, he argues, is therefore found in the opposition to these projects.

The last chapter, entitled ‘Eutopia Now!’ was originally published in Harvard Design Magazine. It examines the development of utopia in city planning from Plato to contemporary Science Fiction via Joseph Stalin and Karl Mannheim. The latter describes planning as the “rational mastery of the irrational”, a description Sorkin believes also applies to psychoanalysis. Dreams, therefore, are similar to cities in that they are constructed from the concrete, but the familiar is constantly changing from our interaction with it.

Jane Jacobs’ version of utopia is introduced to this chapter through Patrick Geddes’s urbanisation of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s theory of evolution. Social heritage, Gedde claims, could be passed down through generations; envisioning the future cannot be done without accounting for its past-in-present. Jacob’s utopianism, builds on Gedde’s theory. She bases her argument on two components. The first component implies that the good city must be a self-organising system. The second, morphological, component is her prescriptive utopia of form, with origins from Greenwich Village. Sorkin does not consider this pre-existing element of Jacob’s utopian model as a problem, despite previous objections to realisation of utopian ideas. Instead, he says, her nostalgia is a kind of utopia in itself.

Concluding the chapter is Sorkin's own manifesto, a 12 point guide listing the qualities of Eutopian Cities. Heavily influenced by Jacobs and Ebenezer Howard, he argues for equitable, body-based, diverse cities where social interaction, accessibility and sustainability are in focus. Sorkin makes the important distinction between U-topia (ideal place) and EU-topia (better place) arguably due to the tainted history of utopian architectural ideas previously discussed in the chapter. The ethos of his manifesto is present throughout the entire book and ties its diverse content together to an organised whole.

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