Paper Architecture, Emerging Urbanism

Realigning progressive practice with academic inquiry.

Left: Archigram, Auto Environments. [Credit: via] Right: UrbanLab, Eco-Boulevards. [Credit: UrbanLab/Martin Felsen and Sarah Dunn]

The current economic downturn has impacted the building industry and architecture profession more severely than many other market sectors. As Scott Van Voorhis commented in the November 9, 2009 issue of Banker and Tradesman: “Amid handwringing over a national unemployment rate that is nearing 10 percent, architects are living through their own equivalent of the Great Depression. Estimates of unemployment in the field range from 16 percent to as much as 40 percent.” 1 This upheaval has generated some thoughtful soul-searching by academics and architecture critics about appropriate priorities for moving forward.

As early as November 2008, when many firms were first jolted by a sudden downturn, John McMorrough, an assistant professor and director of the graduate program in architecture at Ohio State, gave an informal lecture at Northeastern University that sought analogies between the current economic situation and the deep recession in the mid-1970s. McMorrough asked whether the shortage of commissions would spur a return to the theoretical speculation — the paper architecture — of the 1970s, albeit digitally produced and broadcast, given the discipline-altering advances in representational technology during the ensuing forty years. 2 In a recent issue of Architectural Record, James Murdock asked the question more directly: “Will we see a new generation of “paper architects” — the archetypal figure from the last recession?” 3

These are important questions: with the building boom over, and as both professional offices and academic programs seek to reframe their roles to adapt to our fast-changing culture, we have an opportunity to recalibrate the relationship between practice and education — and more, to realign progressive practice with academic inquiry. With fewer projects on the boards, firms with relevant agendas, media connections and the resources to negotiate the new economic order will increasingly create paper architecture, design projects that remain unbuilt — not as an end in itself but rather as a bully pulpit and tool for self-definition. So what should this paper architecture look like and what agendas should it raise?

Left: Archigram, Capsules Project. Right: Archigram, Walking City. [Credit: via]

To answer these questions, it’s useful to recall a crucial distinction between the kinds of paper architecture created earlier. In his article James Murdock includes as precedent the work compiled in Five Architects, as well as the proposals of Archigram, Superstudio, Bernard Tschumi, and Lebbeus Woods. But Murdock does not differentiate between the theoretical work that was centered on discipline-specific concerns such as language and design methodology, and exemplified by unbuilt projects by Peter Eisenman and Aldo Rossi and championed by the journal Oppositions, and the speculative work which was a form of social critique, and exemplified by the utopian visions of Archigram, Superstudio, and Lebbeus Woods. For John McMorrough, the speculative opportunities for paper architecture predate the downturn and reside mostly within design research and thinking enabled by the computer. He identified certain projects — Toyo Ito’s Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in Hyde Park (2002), Asymptote’s Yas Hotel in Abu Dhabi (2009), and the proposal by MOS for Ordos 100 (2008) — as speculative architecture that was made real (or almost real) by the economic boom in places like Dubai and China, and by wealthy patrons of progressive architecture, whether in Abu Dhabi or Mongolia.

But despite the allure and influence of these projects, and many others made possible by digital modeling, the paper architecture that seems to be gaining traction during this downturn is focused less on architecture as a self-referential discipline and more on the imperatives of the deepening environmental crisis. Like the paper architecture of the 1970s that focused on alternative futures rather than disciplinary mechanics, recent proposals range from realistic to utopian — and yet so far they remain largely within the realm of provocation rather than practice. One of the most serious is Architecture Research Office’s vision of Manhattan after the predicted sea level rise caused by global warming, which is supported by analytical maps that demonstrate the vulnerability of New York to rising seas and future storm surges. ARO’s engagement with infrastructural issues and interdisciplinary approach are both laudable; yet one wishes the project renderings were more focused on the character of the new infrastructures that will need to be built rather than on the ethereal buildings that populate the future edges of Manhattan. 4 And despite its depth and thoroughness, ultimately the scheme seems unsure whether its intent is, on the one hand, to design a city that can co-exist and even benefit from a more direct connection with the water, or on the other, to provoke a call-to-arms by powerful real estate forces in New York (but to do what?). ARO’s renderings of a future Manhattan suggest that their project is more an illustration of the potential consequences of climate change than a disciplinary response to impending crisis.

The premiated proposals for the WPA 2.0, a competition organized by cityLab at UCLA, are another example of realistic-utopian visions centered more on the environmental mission of the program brief than on the architectural consequences. Like ARO’s proposal, the projects are architectural illustrations of non-architectural technologies, no matter how fascinating, virtuous or timely the ideas. In spirit and focus the proposals are remarkably similar to the kind of projects being designed in advanced studios at Harvard and Yale, with their amalgamation of statistics-heavy environmental research and whimsical form-making [see my earlier essay].

Left: Superstudio, Life without Objects. Right: Superstudio, Supersurface, 1972. [Credit: Arch One]

But is the realm of “what if?” technology and provocative illustration, like King’s turn-of-the-century visions of New York, the only or most productive role for progressive architecture within the current economic and social context? Is there a course of action that might be relevant to the exigencies of practice and to the aspirations to expand disciplinary knowledge and skill?

One especially promising approach will be to re-embed architecture, as a discipline, within important emerging ideas about the future of urbanism and the existing realities of the contemporary city. For the discipline of architecture, as articulated in the schools, has long had an ambivalent relationship to these realities. Most architecture curricula are untethered to relevant urban issues, and most do not integrate studio pedagogy within the broader intellectual framework of the city and do not include an urban design studio in the course sequence.

A telling consequence of this ambivalence is the typical treatment in studio projects of the relationship of buildings to site. For at least two decades the most prevalent framework for conceiving a building in design school studios has been a certain kind of contextualism, in which the specificities of site conspire to make each architectural opportunity a unique project, a one-off. A range of methodologies has evolved to privilege this one-of-a-kind-ness. Perhaps the most common of these is the result of mapping (in plan) the idiosyncratic aspects of a site in order to divine the “site forces” that might shape the project. Usually this technique results in a correspondingly idiosyncratic formal language, since every twitch and fidget of the surrounding geometries and grids are used as justification to generate complex three-dimensional forms. It’s curious: while the city itself and urbanistic ideas do not drive the logic of such architectural projects, the site geometry becomes a kind of alibi for highly elaborated formal speculation. In such a process the function of the building becomes almost irrelevant, or in some cases, is symbolically linked to the compositional connections made to the larger context through the mapping analysis. Not surprisingly, community centers and branch libraries were once popular vehicles for this approach; more recently, programs that both comment on the site and try to fix it, like recycling centers with landscape bio-remediation strategies, have been in vogue.

To begin to re-engage architecture with urban design, certain ideas are proving especially promising. In recent years landscape urbanism has emerged as the most persuasive model of urbanism in North American architecture schools. 5 James Corner at Penn and Charles Waldheim at Harvard have each been arguing, through writings and projects, for an urban design that is motivated by and that facilitates interrelated environmental processes and infrastructural systems. Significantly, the rise of landscape urbanism discourse is being fueled by both a growing body of theoretical texts and by still mostly unbuilt — paper — proposals that identify a territory for invention between the specific project and the larger ecological and urban forces acting upon the site.

Architecture Research Office, ‘City of the Future’ proposal.

Various factors account for the success of landscape urbanism. Chief among these is its strong engagement with ecological and environmental issues; this makes it a compelling alternative to New Urbanism, which since the early ’90s and until recently has been the only comprehensive practice-model for integrating architecture into the city. (While New Urbanism offers an impressively overarching framework, its proponents are openly hostile to contemporary modes of architectural expression, making the entire approach off-limits to serious discourse. The success and subsequent codification of New Urbanism, as much as the ascendance of sophisticated digital design methodologies, might explain why urban issues were dropped from most architecture curricula in the past couple of decades.) Another factor is the virtuosity of the representational graphics that illustrate both the landscape urbanist design proposals and the supporting technical data. The finalists’ proposals in the WPA 2.0 competition underscore how fully the design methodology of leading landscape urbanist offices such as Field Operations and Stoss are informing the preoccupations and illustrative techniques of progressive architects.

Yet despite the many strengths of landscape urbanism as new model for relevant practice, there is something missing: the fundamental role of the building as a city-making component. In a number of landscape urbanist proposals, buildings are often understood largely as contributors to the sets of statistics that account for such phenomena as stormwater flow, energy usage, heat island effect, etc. In Martin Felsen and Sara Dunn’s provocative Growing Water — a proposal for eco-boulevards in Chicago — existing buildings are rendered as luminescent-white ghost-like apparitions in order to frame and highlight a dynamic new open space network. 6 This is not an oversight. In fact, in landscape urbanism, this kind of fading-out of the buildings is not a simplistic rejection of the traditional city for a pastoral urbanism of community gardens and bike paths; rather it is a critique of the viability of architecture in the discourse of contemporary urbanism.

The landscape urbanist critique is all too justified. Yet ultimately this recessive role for architecture will be unproductive, at the very least for practical reasons: because the individual building and the assemblage of several buildings, as measurable units of real estate development, constitute the basic elements of contemporary city-making. For most clients, it is the functional need for built space that generates a project. For the various self-interested parties that populate the real estate and construction industries, it is the use-category of a building, e.g., office, hospital, housing, education, that then shapes the design of the project. And even before design begins in earnest, the business plan is developed and enriched through assumptions about initial capital costs, potential revenue and performance measured in predicted lifecycle costs — all of which are calculated with the goal of minimizing financial risk. The upshot, in the modern market economy, is that lending institutions and financial underwriters tend to favor proven building configurations and that these configurations— the so-called comparables, or “comps” — have come to persist as almost inevitable types. The center-core plan of the commercial high-rise and the double-loaded corridor of countless residential towers are only the most ubiquitous results of the feedback loop of the risk-averse real estate industry.

MOS Architects, Ordos 100. [Credit: via]

Rather than ignore these influences, urban design should engage the logic of market-driven buildings — not as an end in itself but instead as a way to imagine alternative and more innovative solutions for the design of buildings and cities. What if practitioners sought to align the goals of progressive building design with the promising new frameworks of landscape urbanism? To reestablish the role of the building, as a discrete but necessary urban artifact, into the systemic approach of the landscape urbanists? This would be a fertile field for design speculation — for the unbuilt projects being generated in this latest turn of the economic cycle. So instead of being rendered as passive poché, the buildings in landscape urbanist projects could be use to generate positive programmatic and spatial friction that could inform the site infrastructure and help shape the open space network. If the first forays into this cross-disciplinary approach are rigorous and successful, the result might be a rebalancing of urban discourse, the creation of a more comprehensive vision.

But can design academia and professional speculation engage real-world economic determinants without abandoning the discipline to overly professional concerns? For the schools, one tactic might be to privilege prototypical and paradigmatic problems in studios and re-engage the idea of type, which was mostly abandoned in the 1990s in favor of theoretical discourses that could accommodate the formal possibilities opened up by the computer. And for the today’s paper architects, an answer might be to explore not expressive and unique solutions but instead new prototypes for common building types. 7

Asymptote Architecture, Yas Hotel Dubai. [Credit: via]

Most market-driven building types are, of course, remarkably resistant to wholesale transformation. So I propose two tactics for attack. The first — the stealth approach — is to seek to change building types on the basis of their own internal market logic. Here the growing demand, both regulatory and cultural, for more sustainable design — for renewable energy, water conservation, et al. — will provide an impetus for invention. A second and more radical direction is to seek to develop wholly new paradigms for the basic programs that constitute the city. This will require searching analyses of the social, economic and cultural composition of our cities, and also more speculative thinking about sustainable models of city-making.

There are inherent risks in a pedagogical program built upon an empirical and pragmatic foundation. For this framework to flourish, design speculation will need to focus on the cultural and social implications of re-imagined building types and potential urbanisms rather than on their economic and functional performance. Projects dependent on the authority of scientific data can never have the productive thickness of design inquiries that are driven by deeper cultural analyses and speculation. As we architects struggle not just to survive the recession but also to expand our disciplinary range — as we create our own paper architecture — we would do well to concentrate on creating a complementary urban vision that would match that of the landscape urbanists in realism and intensity.

  1. Scott Van Voorhis, “Drawing Blanks: Architects Hit Hub For Build Boston Convention,” Banker and Tradesman, November 9, 2009.
  2. This speculative or paper architecture, identified with the work of Aldo Rossi and the New York Five, has often been termed a “return to autonomy.” As such it was characterized by a retreat from the social engagement promoted by CIAM or even the more communitarian project of Christopher Alexander and other Berkeley-based thinkers and architects, perhaps best exemplified by MLTW’s Sea Ranch, a built manifestation of a haptic-utopian future that borrowed some of its design language and social leanings from Scandinavian architecture. The return to autonomy was most aggressively championed by Peter Eisenman through the design of his Cardboard Houses of the 1970s (included in MoMA’s publication, Five Architects) and his support and leadership at the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies in New York. The return to autonomy, as championed by the Institute and promoted through Oppositions, meant mostly an exploration of the compositional strategies of Le Corbusier and Guiseppe Terragni, on the one hand, and the systematic development of a theory of typology, which was articulated in essays by Alan Colquhoun, Rafael Moneo and Anthony Vidler, on the other.
  3. James Murdock, “Drawing, Thinking, and Digitizing: Recession’s Modus Operandi,” Architectural Record, December 2009, 37-38.
  4. ARO’s vision of New York City after significant sea level rise has been produced in phases. The first version was prepared for the History Channel’s November 2006 “City of the Future” competition. A second phase, entitled “On the Water,” was funded by the Latrobe Prize (the AIA College of Fellows’ biannual research grant). Guy Nordenson led the team that included ARO and Catherine Seavitt, among other consultants. “On the Water” was published in Places and in a book from Hatje Cantz. The project has been further developed as part of Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront, an exhibition organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
  5. OMA, MVRDV, BIG, and other Rem Koolhaas-influenced firms represent another influential strain of urban design thinking in American architecture schools. These practitioners view the relative unpredictability of market-driven and regulatory frameworks as fertile territory for design innovation. Many of their urban projects channel this relative instability in an effort to promote the kind of urban variety that usually happens only over time — an approach analogous to the channeling of natural processes in the work of contemporary landscape architects such as SToSS and Field Operations.
  6. The design of innovative building prototypes, generated by a detailed understanding of conventional market-driven types, is the new focus of the housing studio and graduate studio sequence at the Northeastern University School of Architecture
  7. Even in other manifestations of urbanism such as New Urbanism and mainstream practice (e.g., Cooper Robertson; Sasaki), buildings are conceived primarily as poché, contributing both the wall surface for the spatial definition of the public realm and the program to “activate the ground plane.”
Tim Love, “Paper Architecture, Emerging Urbanism,” Places Journal, April 2010. Accessed 01 Jun 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • Canada Flowers

    04.18.2010 at 02:24

    I still believe that the emphasis given to eco-friendly solutions in this article should be appropriately endorsed in most developed countries.

  • Emily Talen

    04.21.2010 at 15:02

    What exactly is meant by "progressive"? In an article that steers clear of social concerns - like diversity, inclusiveness, justice, access, engagement, community, equity - isn't the co-opting of terms like "progressive" rather hostile?

  • Sandy Sorlien

    04.21.2010 at 15:57

    The author is strongly implying that New Urbanism does not engage ecological and environmental issues. This is simply not the case. Just as NU is a "comprehensive practice-model" for integrating architecture into the city, it is equally a practice-model for integrating landscape into the city (not to mention the region). The organizing framework of New Urbanist zoning/design codes is the (locally calibrated) rural-to-urban transect, a context-based approach that protects urban character from the threat of one-size-fits-all ruralization of the city arising from conventional stormwater regulations and random acts of biophilia. The non-profit Center for Transect Studies provides open source downloads of numerous transect-based modules from Landscape to Riparian Buffers to Natural Drainage to Light Imprint. These techniques allow us to bring nature into the city and manage stormwater in ways that do not (1) create suburban setbacks that would cause a creeping sprawl effect, compromise retail, interrupt street connectivity, and dissolve the spatial enclosure of the "outdoor room"; (2) require stormwater to be managed onsite which again creates anti-urban setbacks or (3) remove people from the activity centers of the street and square by luring them to rooftop gardens and meandering creekbeds. The latter have their place, to be sure, but if they degrade the very walkability that already makes compact development so environmentally responsible, then they will have done more harm than good.

  • Steve Coyle, AIA LEED

    04.21.2010 at 17:43

    "Yet despite the many strengths of landscape urbanism as new model for relevant practice, there is something missing: the fundamental role of the building as a city-making component." Between the building and the landscape, from hamlet to city, looms urbanism, the forms and patterns created by and between buildings, and their spatial relationship to the adjoining thoroughfares, plazas, parks and other landscape-able space. The compact medina, lacking street trees or swales and surrounded by fields, is no less resilient because of it's intense urbanism.

    PS: anyone who thinks of the New Urbanism as limited to traditional architecture misunderstands both the principles and the practice that draw from a diversity of styles and forms, but always respectful of the context.

  • John Hooker

    04.21.2010 at 18:37

    I respect the historical intellectual and aesthetic arrogance of the proud professionals of New England, but Mr. Love's love of language and his interpretation of the history of architectural education leave me confused.

    From my experience, physical urban design started dropping from the curriculum 50 years ago, not 20, when land use zoning and policy planning rose to promenance to address social and economic issues. Planning became more public administration than design - except for the success of civil engineers in creating inhumane open space.

    Mr. Love has an unfortunate habit of referring to all spaces between urban and perhaps suburban buildings as simply "open space'. Once upon a time, civic spaces were actual places like farms, gardens, parks, plazas, courts, playgrounds, avenues, boulevards and the other 90% of vacant land popularly known for the past 80 years as arterials and parking lots devoted to solely cars.

    Finally, his contempt for "New Urbanism" repeats history.

    He writes parenthetically, "While New Urbanism offers an impressively overarching framework, its proponents are openly hostile to contemporary modes of architectural expression, making the entire approach off-limits to serious discourse."

    I imagine I could find this criticism of Modernism from an critical essay in the 1920s:

    "While the International Style offers an impressively overarching framework, its proponents are openly hostile to traditional and classical modes of architectural expression and civic art, making the entire approach off-limits to serious discourse."

  • Thomas E. low

    04.22.2010 at 11:02

    Landscape Urbanism (and Light Imprint New Urbanism) may be really two cultures converging at the right time – Design with Nature and New Urbanism in the 21st Century - i.e. Ian McHarg and Andres Duany timed for climate change, the new economy, and crave for community - equals LU (LINU).
    I hope more of us will be proactively writing about it, presenting case studies, inviting speakers on the subject, challenging LU to do it well, ultimately framing it in the reality of what we do want/like? The writing right now reminds me of the early academic writers of New Urbanism a quarter century ago. I think this is more exciting than problematic. I bet many others do too.

  • Bruce F. Donnelly

    04.22.2010 at 11:17

    You bring up an interesting point. We need some form of order, but which urbanism? Don’t discount the New Urbanism.

    The experience of chaos discredits Everyday Urbanism. The conceptually hoary, expensive and dysfunctional megastructure almost never survives contact with reality. (Architecture Research Office’s_ City of the Future_ is Yona Friedman’s _La Ville Spatiale,_ wetted and pre-discredited by Harvard’s One Western Avenue.) Landscape Urbanism’s overarching green order offers exciting possibilities for multilevel, fluid spaces. Unfortunately, each of the infrastructural surfaces of Landscape Urbanism is idiosyncratic, and usually unjustified even by transitory excitement. And probably only Dubai can afford gratuitous carapaces, screens, wraps, and manipulated ground surfaces.

    We need an urbanism that balances architects’ creativity with order—and that offers vibrancy, privacy, and Sunday strolls unmolested by flying ground planes. The search immediately turns up New Urbanism. While most other “isms” die by the post-occupancy evaluation, _omnivorous_ New Urbanism lives by it. Don’t worry that it will not absorb good ideas. Worry that it will.

    That is why I am a card-carrying (when I can find it) New Urbanist.

  • faslanyc

    04.22.2010 at 20:23

    interesting article. thank you. i appreciate the critique of all the speculative crap going on.

    only two points, one of which is perhaps only semantic. It seems instead of "paper architecture" you could have referred to the trend of the last decade as "digital architecture". The connection is clear in your essay, just is bit of word play that would drive home the difference in the production and subsequent publication between the speculative architecture of two eras.

    second, i don't landscape urbanists ignore the fundamental role of the building. They tend to ignore the fundamental role of space, of which buildings are only one type. Landscape spaces also do not figure prominently in their proposals, but rather vectors, patterns, forces, etc. I imagine that will change as they actually win commissions (which the prominent ones have begun doing in the last 5 years) and start figuring that part out. And just for the record, i like what the LU's bring to the table, it's just not the apex of human thought, as some might have you believe.

    Nor is new urbanism (zing!). kidding. they have great points also.

  • Tim Love

    04.29.2010 at 12:32

    Thomas Low's comment captures both the intent and goal of my essay: to bring together the best techniques (and intentions) of both Landscape Urbanism and New Urbanism to create a productive synthesis for both practice and pedagogy - an approach that we might just call urbanism.

    Also in response to the saber rattling of the proponents of New Urbanism above: I agree that questions of urbanism need to be disentangled from architectural language. John Hooker will be interested to know that my firm designs both "contemporary" and "traditional-looking" multifamily housing depending on the specific neighborhood context and target market. Our loft-style projects tend to be in former industrial areas, for example. Our infill projects in existing residential neighborhoods are designed to look retroactively inevitable.

    Our real point of difference may be our respective opinions about the variety of buildings that make up the existing city. I strongly believe that any building constructed of quality materials is worth preserving and rehabilitating - even the mid-century modernist buildings that populate the cities of the Northeast. I suspect that many proponents of New Urbanism would prefer to wish away the messy heterogeneity of the contemporary city for a more consistent model of urbanism. Your paradigms and techniques are spot-on but your absolutism is a bore (with apologies to Venturi) and tends toward an inflexible strategy of engagement with the diverse voices of existing urban neighborhoods.

  • Ralph Muldrow

    07.02.2011 at 15:49

    I enjoyed Tim's bringing together previous and current visionary ideas -- indeed this 'down time' in the profession can have at least this one good aspect in its creation of time for envisioning and contemplation. My take on the article, as Tom Low said, is that these design approaches (heterogenous in a good way) exemplified interestingly enough by two Penn landscape professors (Ian McHarg and Jim Corner) may function as a more unified left brain and right brain approach to the vital concerns for urbanism in the following decade.