Saturday, December 27, 2008

PHRWEE Urbanism

Coming from a childhood of tiptoeing through Air Force Bases around the world, I'm actually a big fan of random and overwrought acronyms (which I believe may have switched in my adult years to a new found love of clever portmanteau). In this regard, I am impressed with urb - and the fantastic and thought-provoking recent three part series (and counting?) related to POST HUMANIST REWILDED ECO ETHICAL URBANISM or, yes, PHRWEE. Getting past the acronymic acrobatics - the series works through one of those questions that always keeps me coming back - our relationship with nature.

The big picture is posed from Dave Brown at urb comes early in Part I: "Over the past several years a steady stream of design conjecture has given rise to a new design paradigm which attempts to recalibrate the (not so) delicate (im)balance between us (humans) and the rest of the world (everything that is not us or produced by us, but more than likely is probably consumed by us); an attempt to place us within the ecosystem rather than over it."

Much like the realignment of ecology to include humans in the bookkeeping of systems thinking, this phenomenon involves turning an immense corner in our tendency to rationalize the humanist tendency that involves domination of nature. "This attitude prevailed during the last couple of centuries and has gotten us to the sorry state of affairs we have arrived at today. Global warming, peak oil, environmental degradation, mass extinction; the list goes on and on."

Brown continues with some recent literature on the subject that I must acquire - "Stefano Boeri’s “Down From the Stand: Arguments in Favor of a Non-Anthropocentric Urban Ethics,” published in the first issue of New Geographies, which discusses a lot of the ideas floating around and the issues involved; and Owen Hatherly’s “Living Facades – Green Urbanism and the Politics of Urban Offsetting,” published in MONU’s Exotic Urbanism issue."

To start, post #2 discusses Boeri's article, particularly focusing on three key elements: " of urban spaces, cohabitation with various animal species, and finally, to develop a new understanding of human relations which learn from these ideas of bio-diversity and bio-politics and deal with issues of globalization and increased diversity and social mobility."

:: Farmadelphia - image via BLDGBLOG

Brown evokes Farmadelphia and City Zoo as some vibrant material that is starting to reconnect us with nature and continues to the fascinating topic of rewilding, which offers a 'return to the commons' approach that offers opportunities for this in action. Rewilding is defined as "...passive and active activities intended to result in the reintroduction of extirpated or once-native species back into natural landscapes. ...Many PHRWEEU designs are looking to do just that—restore urban environments to their natural states by re-introducing flora and fauna to those ‘blighted’ areas."

:: City Zoo - image via Tomorrow's Thoughts Today

Part 3 involves a look at the article “Living Facades – Green Urbanism and the Politics of Urban Offsetting,” in MONU’s Exotic Urbanism issue by Owen Hatherley... which as Brown aptly summarizes, is: "...a great article that takes a rather cynical viewpoint of the recent sustainable design efforts. His article is important for two reasons—to caution us of the appropriation of PHRWEEU imagery by governments and corporations to provide a positive public representation of their ‘eco-friendly’ actions (if they even exist in the first place), and to remind us that the history of “green” design goes back farther than most of our historical amnesia will allow us to remember."

:: image via MONU Magazine

I'm not sure I'm entirely convinced that we've forgotten the historical roots of green facadism to the degree that Hatherley suggests - at least from the landscape architectural side of things - but some more historical context is always helpful and the example cited is a new one for me. "Hatherley then goes on to remind us that the concepts of green roofs, living facades, and vegitecture are not actually all that new. He points out that green roofs and living facades have actually been around since the days of Romanticism. He describes how architects during the Romantic period would design new buildings “as if they had always, already been overtaken by undergrowth, fronds, weeds cracking cement and stone. John Soane…commissioned the draughtsman Joseph Gandy to render his new Bank of England…as a crumbling, overgrown relic."

:: Bank of England by John Soane - images via urb

These actually remind me a lot of Jame's Wines big-box ruins for BEST stores, purposely eroding the building facades for some sort of metaphorical ends. It's obvious that the new trend towards literally greening of buildings has become vogue, and that has created perhaps some impossible and definitely unsustainable versions of this application. The article mentions the 'political offsetting' - which to me is akin to forgetting the real point and applying greenery just because it is literally and metaphorically green. Or perhaps it is the ultimate in greenwashing. "As for the questions about political offsetting, I think Hatherley makes a strong argument for rethinking the role of the ‘green’ in ‘green design.’ "When speaking about the living facades now in vogue, Hatherley suggests that this is a remarkable transparent semiotic strategy, wherein by sticking natural materials onto a building’s façade, the impression is given that it is somehow in tune with nature rather than a hugely expensive, unsustainable waste of energy and resources. It is by no means clear that renewable technology itself is so picturesque."

As this points to the very nature and view of Veg.itecture, it's definitely worthy of response and dialogue. There is an exhaustive list of benefits to using these strategies - both for the specific building and society as a whole. We've also mentioned all of these elements and more on L+U (green fakery, application of greenery as an inert material, issues with maintenance, how to actually build these visions, etc.) and all of them are vital to the expanding the ongoing discussion. To use this as a way to undermine the strategy of veg.itecture is an interesting turn of events - and I expect more of this in the future... thus Brown's response that PHRWEE-practitioners must rise to answer these questions.

The critique of MVDRV's latest 'project' is perhaps the weakest argument, based on a comment in the Archinect forum... While I'm not a fan of the termite-mound with 'boxwood' hedgery ringing the forms as the most positive solution, to attack the pragmatics is just silly. We don't skip a beat to discuss smart skin, technological wizardry, and the newest architectural solution - but get up in arms when vegetation is involved. It's a tacit response to negate any of the benefits of true urban facade greening under the microscope of expense, structure, maintenance, or any other pragmatics... while not coming through with an accurate accounting of the cost-benefit ratio. Perhaps this is coming squarely from architecture that feels threatened by landscape impinging on their sacred territory and most definitely from a total lack of understanding as to how vegetation is integrated into buildings...

:: MVRDV - Gwangyo Power Center - image via urb

I posit that using this dialogue to improve, not negate, the question of vegetated architecture is the proper response. This is perhaps how we tap into the historical precedents and use them to investigate some of the evolution and use of ruin - both literally and figuratively - and how this can become a powerful tool, not another pomo form of architectural gadgetry both stylistically and technologically. Brown concludes: "...what is now sought are strategies of immediate nature, immediate wildness, and immediate ‘ruination’ (for the last point listen to Libeskind describe his latest skyscraper for New York). PHRWEEU is looking to coexist with the natural world and encourage positive productive benefits through increased diversity, instead of allowing ruination be a state that is returned to after we obtain our use-value from a structure and abandon it to entropic processes."

This is the true form of PHRWEEU at least in my mind - the idea of time, evolution, movement, erosion - and how architecture and landscape architecture will be able to respond to this in postive ways. To acknowledge the human in ecosystems is to acknowledge a powerful agent of change. In order to become post-humanist, allow for rewilding, still maintain the eco- and the ethics - we have to become more open to idea - not immediately shut them down due to lack of understanding. That's the old model. It is also to acknowledge that there is no end-point to anything - but a series of fluctuating lines of potential fields, modes of adaptability, and methods of intervention that allow us to maintain these dynamic systems.

So Dave, I'm on board wholeheartedly - but think the idea need perhaps a little sexier acronym... if we adjust the letters, and give the 'f' sound from the ph... and make re-wilded a mere R - makes is PHREE (free) Urbanism... what do you think? Or maybe a clever portmanteau is in order :)


  1. Jason, thanks for the post and the thoughts. Just a quick note here to say that...
    ...PHREE is perfect! It's catchy and fun and provocative, and will sound better in conversations than PHRWEE which just sounds like 'free' with a speech impediment anyways. I feel like an idiot for not thinking of it myself. With your permission I think I'll start using that for future posts.


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