Saturday, November 8, 2008

Ecotransitional Urbanism

This project came to Landscape+Urbanism via new LU graduate Jorge Ayala, from the AALU in London. It's an interesting use of Landscape Urbanism principals in Chinese urban areas - balancing ecotourism with fragile natural systems in a rapidly growing region. [following images and text from Jorge - thanks!]


"The project, located on a 27 square kilometer island called Qi Ao located in the Pearl River Delta, has the potential to become a gateway for Hong Kong/Shenzhen due to its strategic location and the increasing passenger flows through it. The site is threatened to become another generic Chinese urbanization that spread across farmlands and rural life. Thus the signs of scarcity of water resources, deforestation, fish farming and industrial pollution are already present."

"Based on the Landscape Urbanism emergent discipline, the city proposal seeks to establish an eco-tourism strategy that embraces the existing site and its natural energies such as tidal variations, local mangroves and seasonal rainfall to assure the viability and sustainability of the island."

[editorial note] This project reminds me of the challenge of Landscape Urbanism in re-defining perpections of landscape illustration, perhaps transcending language and being able to bundle meaning, temporality, and materiality within the graphic milieu. In the meantime, it'd be interesting to get people's take on graphics and meaning as rendered with these 5 images and a short paragraph of text - to see what they say to you in terms of concept.

I have asked Jorge to elaborate on the illustrations with some explanatory text when he has available time, so look forward to hearing some of the substance behind the graphics. We shall see if our interpretations align with the designer's intention. That's what it's all about right?


  1. I am of two minds on this (and the project of landscape urbanism as conceived/implemented by AA). On the one hand, I appreciate very much where they are coming from in terms of a theoretical stance that seeks to conceive a (truly, rather than superficially) postmodern urbanism. I could elaborate a good bit more on what I think is valuable in this sort of work (a concern for the horizontality of the modern city, acknowledging the importance of processes over time, use of diagramming as a tool for ordering interventions, acknowledging the importance of ecological infrastructure in mediating between city and nature), but, for the sake of argument, I'm going to skip to what I find frustrating about landscape urbanism (and, as it is presented with just these images and brief description, this project in particular -- though I am aware that this may be unfair criticism since this is admittedly an incomplete presentation of Jorge's project).

    Much of the work of the landscape urbanists strikes me as essentially a formal game, which we designers play to amuse ourselves. That is, there is a set of rules (determined in part by the professional history of landscape/architecture and planning and in part by developments in contemporary European philosophy, particularly Derrida, Foucault, and Deleuze), a limited set of players, and a limited set of interested parties (those with sufficient training in the previously mentioned disciplines to appreciate the ways in which the actions of the players subvert the rules of the game). Most importantly, though, the game does not intersect reality (that is what a game is – an exercise which imitates but does not intersect reality). Typologies are generated, ecologies are analyzed, but cities are not changed, much less reorganized to accommodate ecological processes.

    The work of AALU typically strikes me as possessing only the formal characteristics of a diagram, data filtered through algorithms and passed off as innovative by virtue of its alien formal qualities. This is the return of the artist's obsession with form, robbed of their devotion to creating meaningful places. Meanwhile, the concern for ecology and process is reduced to a passing nod, a diagram that proclaims the designer concerned with ecology, without requiring the design to be altered in significant ways to accommodate that concern for ecology. Obviously, this concern could be allayed with further explanation of how "tidal variations, local mangroves, and seasonal rainfall" are embraced by the design. I worry, though, (based on previous impressions of AALU), that these (wonderful) concerns might only intersect the design when a set of data points is needed to generate a form, and fail to inform the design at a deeper level. While adapting form to data is an interesting exercise and, in the hands of skilled folks such as AALU, generates beautiful drawings and renderings, it merely exchanges one kind of formalism (the modernist variety) for another kind (the landscape urbanist variety). A better postmodern urbanism, I think, would be one that is concerned not just with adapting the forms of urbanism to data, but the processes -- a much, much more difficult task.

    I will certainly allow, though, that it is possible I am wrong and I just haven't paid enough attention to/look carefully enough at the AALU work to understand how it really does deal with process at a fundamental level.

  2. rob comment's is very interesting but I found more explanations on Jorge blog that shows his proposal is not really diagrams of datas.... I hope we'll have more from him here

  3. Howdy!
    First thanks to Jason King for starting this interesting debate through his blog, and also thank you Rob for the "sake of argument", which definitely will make us, or at least me (as a Landscape Urbanism practitioner) to leap forward!!

    As you already stated previously, and that is due to the nature of a blog, the few images are definitely not even an attempt to show neither the body of work of any AALU project, nor the fundamental questions done throughout a year (which is the period of time of the Masters program). By the way some of them remain unanswered due to the lack of time.

    In the case of the Ecotransitional Urbanism project it was nothing else but the analysis of the site, and the diagnosis of it that settled the rules to follow as a designer in order to be propositional. The "wonderful" concerns you highlighted were the questions that we spent almost half of the year sorting out. Thus once that was done I could (in a very confident way) dive into the design and formalistic approach.

    I do understand that the lifelike models (as for the drawings) might look purely formal although as G wrote you may have more "burps" on what the Ecotransitional Urbanism project is through my own web blog. Even though it is not the totality of my work, as for that I am preparing a publishable version of my AA thesis.

    Looking forward to hearing from you again soon.


  4. Great discussion all. I'm going to supplement my initial statement by saying that I am not trying to minimize the quality or scope of Jorge's project through my very minimal snapshot of materials and my provocative commentary - just using this for a jumping off point to discuss some of these formal questions. From the notes - I think everyone agrees that a short blurb and/or a few images is not anywhere near a complete picture of the project and it's theoretical stance. Thanks rob for getting this and G for pointing out the wealth of additional process and imagery on Jorge's blog (my guess is that a years worth of process would take up many rooms - and get's short-shrift on a short blog post).

    Also thanks Jorge for chiming in to elucidate some of these themes and his process. It's an important discussion and I hope others will include comments as they see fit.

    My initial point, if I may elaborate, is the fact that we are confined often to these post-it notes of explanation... a few words of text, a couple of images, and this becomes the fodder for discussion and dialogue - for better or worse. I've been guilty of this often on this site - passing some form of judgement (for what that's worth :) on projects based on a photo or two.

    In this capacity - can Landscape Urbanism (or any design concept) be adequately expressed to a viewer, reader, client, peer within a small frame, or does the level of complexity require more space and time to fully elaborate on the theoretical underpinnings, processes, diagramming, and form that is both the generators of products - but the products themselves?

    I'm often blown away with complexity of these new graphic representations - although just as often they require work, in terms of time invested and thoughts processed. Can we pass judgement without this necessary work? Or does the LU 'product' for lack of a better word demand that we make this investment, or we cannot respond to the full breadth of the proposal?

    There has obviously been success in LU proposals in competition circles (which must be concise, informative, provocative) so we know that small-container presentation can work. So is there a method that would allow this to happen in absentia? Does this require not just new forms of representation - but the same measure of new communication?

  5. I apologize in advance to anyone who takes the time to read this absurdly meandering comment.


    Thanks for responding. I agree, dialogue is invaluable, and it makes our work stronger. I did take the time, per g's suggestion, to visit your blog and read through most of the work you posted. It's a commendable project (I wouldn't be spending so much time writing about your project if I didn't find it intriguing or smart) and its obvious from the work posted on your blog (in a way that it wasn't obvious from the pieces Jason posted -- I'll get to Jason's commentary about that in a bit) that you did a great deal of thinking about site and process. And, as you say, its impossible in a year to answer every question or objection that can or should be asked about a project -- so take all of this as an extension ("where this [landscape urbanism] could go") not as a static criticism ("where this should have gone").

    With that batch of qualifiers in mind, a couple expansions on my criticisms:

    1. This may be where my understanding of your work falls apart; I'm not sure I understand what the "bands" are. Are they inhabited structures? Are they some sort of infrastructure? Are they a combination?

    2. One of the things that I like about the theoretical stance of landscape urbanism (as I understand it) is that it takes a criticism of modernist urbanism's focus on the static object and inverts that into an intentional interest in engaging urban systems as systems, rather than as objects. Where I think LU has tended to fail, though, is in figuring out what it means to engage urban systems as systems. Instead, I think it has frequently fallen back into the same trap of focusing on the object and not the system -- and I wonder if your project hasn't as well. LU typically produces plans for cities that are not nearly as generic or thematized (a criticism you made of contemporary urbanism in China, and which I agree with wholeheartedly), but they remain static plans: insert these buildings here, these plazas here, set aside these spaces as wetlands or forests. If we really think the city is best understood as the ever-shifting results of the interactions of myriads of processes and systems (and I do), then shouldn't we find a way of engaging it that doesn't rely on what is, in effect, a master plan (a much nicer master plan than the average master plan, of course -- and that achievement is nothing to laugh at)?

    Maybe you agree with this description of LU (that it aims to engage urban systems and processes rather than objects), and maybe you don't; if you do, how do you think your project does so?


    I suppose what you're getting at regarding questions of communication, presentation, and representation gets at another dimension of my criticism of LU as a "game" (I'll interrupt myself here to note that, when I said I was "of two minds" in my first post, what I meant was not just that I could see more than one side to the issue, but that I'm genuinely not sure what I think, and these comments are as much me thinking out loud (typing out loud?) as anything else).

    If it is the case that its not possible to understand the significance of LU work without training not only in landscape/architecture/urbanism, but in a small subset of those disciplines, does that mean that the work must eventually be made more accessible in order to have the impact it claims it can have? I'll go to my grave defending the value of speculative work, but I think that for landscape urbanism to be the revolutionary shift away from modernist urbanism it claims to be, it must find expression in the world of developers and Wal-Marts, as well.

    However, it'd be totally unfair to ask Jorge to do that with his student project. So what might this mean in the context of presenting a student project? I think part of it probably has to do with what images we choose to use to represent a project -- while, for instance, the two images of the model (I think of an aspect of the bands?) are intriguing visually and surely Jorge could explain the meaning of the exercise of making them, when he's not there to do so (such as in the case of my first reading of this post yesterday), maybe one of his images which deal with the analysis of the existing site would do more to spark understanding in the reader?

    In the interest of (a) getting to the point and (b) making myself look like a pompous ass, I'm going to quote and quickly answer some of your questions:

    In this capacity - can Landscape Urbanism (or any design concept) be adequately expressed to a viewer, reader, client, peer within a small frame, or does the level of complexity require more space and time to fully elaborate on the theoretical underpinnings, processes, diagramming, and form that is both the generators of products - but the products themselves?

    No and yes. I think this is fine. Just because I can't fully understand Jorge's year of work in thirty minutes doesn't mean there's something wrong with Jorge's work, though, conversely, it doesn't mean that Jorge couldn't make a thirty minute or five image presentation of his work that would get the essential ideas across quickly. But it might never be possible to get at the subtlies of his work without much more time and space.

    Can we pass judgement without this necessary work? Or does the LU 'product' for lack of a better word demand that we make this investment, or we cannot respond to the full breadth of the proposal?

    We can, particularly if we are already familiar with similar projects and so have a frame of reference from which to begin criticism. Which is why I think that my initial criticism stands up, more or less (as explained above) -- because I was reacting to a school of work that Jorge is operating within as much as to Jorge's project in particular.

    So is there a method that would allow this to happen in absentia? Does this require not just new forms of representation - but the same measure of new communication?

    Well, various media might allow words and images to collide in new ways, but I think the trick is more in figuring out how to align the aims of LU with the work being done (the objects and processes being set in place) than it is in figuring out representation. Or maybe a better way to put it would be that I think the more fundamental issue is a conflict between what LU says it is doing and what it actually does, not being what it is doing and how it is represented. That's probably a better way to put it because representation will remain an important issue even if the desired work and the actual work are perfectly aligned.

    So maybe this is a good way of expressing my fundamental disappointment with LU (a disappointment that exists because I want to see LU achieve the potential it promises): LU promises to deliver us from object-and-master-plan obsessed, static modernist urbanism, but, because what landscape/architects/urbanists do is make things, it gets stuck trying to figure out what kind of things would not be static. So what I see in AALU is an abandonment of the project of rethinking how to intervene in the flow and flux of the urban system in favor of a project of using processes and dynamic systems, filtered through both algorithms and the hand of designer, as inspiration for better object-and-master-plan design. That's not a bad thing in comparison to what we have now -- its aesthetically exciting; but its not revolutionary, either.

  6. thanks rob for the great commentary. I think you've definitely addressed the crux of the ways I struggle with the representation issue often. The idea of complexity of information can fold two direction. On one hand, it can be a disguise for lack of content (not that I am implying this in Jorge's case). On the other, it can have a level of density that comes from the generation of ideas, that as you mentioned, can't be reduced beyond a certain point. I think we have a very interesting future exploration of not just the theoretical and applicable ideas of LU, but the graphic and representational potential as well.

  7. Sorry for my late reply! I’ve been flying back and forth from the US and Mexico, and will soon be flying back to Europe.
    Just for the record, I still can’t believe that the project’s tiny “post-it note of explanation” (how Jason called it) and those few images has raised such fundamental questions. Jason can be sure that in this case it worked out! I will be including this interesting debate on the publishable version of my AA thesis under the form of discussion-like debate.

    Let’s go back to a few judgements done previously:

    Rob, from what I understood at the end of the second paragraph of your first post the intelligence input of the AALU rules aren’t good enough or believable enough to make changes happen in a city? And if so, what part of the city does not change then?

    In the case of my project; as a matter of fact the design could not have been proclaimed without taking in consideration the mentioned data of concern for ecology or natural systems, etc. etc. etc.
    That data framed the urbanism proposal, and not the urbanism proposal (or architectural preconceived design) framed the data. In other words, there wasn’t a formal idea whatsoever during the project development until it got to a point of mastering the different elements and sets of the site (via the strong analysis and diagnosis of it).
    It is true there were two scales to look at. The one of the 27 sq. km island, and the one that one might call “the architectural one”.

    Therefore, what are the bands then?
    -Are they the mentioned “architectural” scale?
    -Are the bands an attempt to move away the static factor from the LU typical plans, formally? I’ll say yes.
    -Are the bands embedded on the description of LU that aims to engage urban systems and processes rather than objects? I’ll say no.

    Well, the bands are a combination of different goals.
    -They are grouped inhabited structures allowing several spatial uses (and that links to the AALU cliché you pointed out: assigning spaces for housing, public realm, services, etc.).
    -They are also the infrastructure required on a “prompt to be flooded” site, harvesting and channelling the water on a seasonal basis.
    But among all, the bands are an answer to the mesh testing done prior to them. The mesh structured the space in a way that it did obvious the location of such bands.

    Jason, I was wondering that an “Ecotransitional Urbanism. Second part” article on your blog is soon going to be needed. Especially when Rob proposes that some drawings dealing with the analysis of the existing site would do more to spark understanding in the reader.

    Just before I finish I do like you guys questioning what a master plan should be. But also the expression this master plan must find in order to be accessible to the masses.

    Those, I think are two exciting challenges/JA


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