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.

Wednesday 8 May 2013

DENSIFY: report

The Fourth Annual Symposium organised by the students of the MA Architecture + Urbanism programme at the Manchester School of Architecture was held at CUBE Gallery in Manchester on May 2 2013.  Following on from three successful previous symposia Hive Minds 2010, Get Over It! 2011, and Consumed: 2012, this year's theme was DENSIFY and it explored responses to the issues around urban density in the twenty-first century city.
This year's chairman landscape architect Robert Camlin initiated the presentations by referring to Ruskin and evoking the idea of the 'book of the land', with the city as the epitome of human intervention in nature. Questioning the theme he asked whether, following the intensification bubble experienced in Ireland, the dense city might also be a fragile city. However with its value as a form of home the city is also a site of neighbourliness and culture and he concluded by asking if we are at a change point in how we make cities.
Patrick Arends of Mecanoo gave an example of the densification of a cultural programme by introducing the audience to the new Library of Birmingham, where the stacked forms visible on the exterior provide the foil to a great public interior space. Exploring the issue of context, a difficult subject given the city's varied urban form, he cited the history of Birmingham's metal trades as being the inspiration fore the gilded filigree of the new institution's facades.
Widening out the discussion to explore the cultural aspects of density, Rachel Cooper of the University of Lancaster remarked on the significance of design decision making and the life of cultural quarters over time. Her research had explored how people conceived of density, both as a positive factor and a negative one, and considered its effect on psychological well- being, remarking on the aspiration towards densification but the constant requirement for respite from its problems. The first scheduled debate then started with questions about the importance of volume, the centripetal pull of the cultural heart, issues surrounding the limits of proximity and the changing influence of new technology. Dependency on existing infrastructure was raised, as well as the lack of vision betrayed by the ubiquitous application of mixed use commercial development, and the role of the town as a space between city and country. Moving on to the consideration of formal and informal cultures, and the importance of a sympathetic relationship between the fabric of the environment and the drivers of procurement and development leading to the question 'how do we redefine the idea of profit? Rachel Cooper asserted that bats and underground tunnelling have their place in the managing of density.
After a convivial lunch David Height of Arup Associates talked about the constant movement of cities, changeful because, quoting from Geddes, their life is a drama. Talking about the research undertaken by Arup, in terms of energy resources and issues of human health, he questioned whether urban opportunities are a myth, a result of aspirations which cannot be met. Asserting that density is something human society needs, he asked what a flexible typology for density would be and 'how dense can we get?'
Cany Ash of Ash Sakula then discussed strategies to counteract the culture of waste, illustrating her practice's ideas with examples of design proposals for New Coventry Garden Market, Ovaltown 'zone of tolerance' (where anything was possible - in planning terms) and Plaistow high rise competition. These concepts were then further explored in projects for dense low- rise housing in Ouseburn (currently in the process of realisation), a provocative re-imagining of Leicester waterside and the Canning Town Caravanserai initiated in 2012.
The scene was then set for the final presentation by Marco Casagrande, whose work grew from his own despair with conventional practice. His strategy of 'urban acupuncture' was demonstrated by projects and realised work from Lapland, Venice, Yokohama, Montreal, and a floating sauna in Norway. In Taipei he redefined the illegal architecture through projects such as 'Treasure Hill' and praised the power of an 'army of anarchist grandmothers'. Since, in his view 'nature understands the city' his work reoccupied the relics of industrialisation and de- industrialisation to embrace the ruin with inhabitation, illegal communal gardens and farms, declaring that 'some architectural control must be given up'.
The concluding debate raised questions over mixed use and the scale at which it might be applied in relation to density, mining new value from existing contexts, and questions regarding the positive values of suburbanisation. A suggestion was made that a third generation city might be found in a densified suburb, performing an act of architecture with direct political engagement and anarchy as an architectural mechanism. Questions were asked as to what other cultural forms could provide a stimulating provocation towards densification and what are the limits of optimism in relation to education, environmental justice and equity. It was recognised that density is most a problem in the developing world, and it was proposed that architects were best used to create 'trojan horses' to achieve something covertly which would not otherwise be sanctioned. Finally it was agreed that research and design provide the potential to create the necessary new investment models and types of occupation that support a culture of whole life densification within the body of the city. * Reports on previous MA A+U symposia are available here, here and here


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