Wednesday, March 6, 2013


By: Jaime Correa

Design must permeate every corner of the planet without focused discrimination. This lack of ideological favoritism will generate a new breed of urban design professionals confronted with the spatial representation of situations which did not exist one generation ago. Projects must become instruments for the enfoldment of new urban realities; projects must act as ecological agents for the transformation of social, cultural, economic, and political conditions. Urban design projects may even become a metaphysical expression of ulterior realities and difficult iconography.  Projects must acquire a less pragmatic vision of the world and must engage the mytho-poetic dimension in a more direct manner. 

Within such a strategy of project innovation, sites need to be re-invented, reclaimed from obsolescence and degradation, colonized, re-evaluated, re-programmed, artificially constructed, re-scaled, thickened, folded, changed, warped, rotated, multiplied, moved and, simultaneously, reconstituted within the particular culture of its location; a condition described by Alex Wall as, “a spatial inclination to the understanding of the urban surface as a dynamic agricultural field … assuming different functions, geometries, distributive arrangements, and appearances as changing circumstances demand”. [1]

Once again, the scale of urban design projects will either recover its colossal dimension or involve society at the everyday level (at the level of public place). This article will dismiss the everyday dimension for a moment while focusing on the colossal, formal, and top-down strategies of three design projects: the construction and design of the Pyramid of Giza in Egypt, the planning of Central Park in New York, and the proposal of a world-wide architectural Viaduct by the Italian firm Superstudio. 

Spatial metaphysics:

Until c.1300, the largest of the three pyramids in the Giza necropolis was the tallest building on the face of the earth -a monumental structure which was meant to have iconographic values beyond those of its local culture or setting. 

Its square base was carefully aligned with the four cardinal points on its true north (not its magnetic north); the ratio of its perimeter to its height (1760/280 cubits) is approximately equivalent to 2π to an accuracy of better than 0.05% (corresponding to the well-known approximation of π as 22/7). On both its vertical and horizontal axis, it presents proportions that are similar to those of the entire planet; its total number of stones describes, with the highest precision, the perimeter of the earth; its King’s chamber is still a matter of metaphysical speculation due to the accuracy of its construction –from one single piece of granite and in the absence of laser cutters. From its magnificent sitting one can deduct that, the Pyramid of Giza lies in the center of gravity of the continents. It also lies in the exact center of all the land area of the world, dividing the earth’s mass into approximately equal quarters. The north-south axis (31 degrees east of Greenwich) is the longest land meridian, and the east-west axis (30 degrees north) is the longest land parallel on the globe. 

The project of the great Pyramid of Giza is a repository of universal standards; it is a model of the earth against which any measurement could be confirmed and corrected, if necessary. It is exactly the imperishable standard, which the French had sought, but infinitely more practical and intelligent.  From classical times, the Great pyramid has been acknowledged as having mathematical, meteorologic and geodetic functions. Yet, the Pyramid of Giza is not only about the representation of ulterior realities but also about beauty and functionality; at the end of the day, the Pyramid of Giza is nothing but the pharaoh’s tomb in the Egyptian version of an existing necropolis. 

In the middle of nowhere: 

The City of New York’s Central Park project may serve to illuminate the overarching values of the ideas here proposed. It also demonstrates the potential political milieu necessary for implementation as well as the metaphysical consciousness required for the assessment of their real estate significance. 

As the first landscaped public park in the United States, its construction was not the result of political motivation or administrative requests but, the result of the free-will and imagination of a group of wealthy merchants and landowners –who admired the park grounds of London, Paris, and Berlin and who pressed themselves to attain comparable internationally known facilities within the urban territory of New York City: “A public park, they argued, would offer their own families an attractive setting for carriage rides and provide working-class New Yorkers with a healthy alternative to the saloon”.[2] It took more than three years of debate over the park site and its cost but, in 1853, the State Legislature passed a resolution authorizing the City of New York to use its power of eminent domain to acquire about 700 acres of land in a remote area of Manhattan –area which was expanded, in 1863, to its current 843 acres. 

A dangerous terrain of bluffs and swamps served to manifest, what at the time was considered to be, a most irrational idea. Building the park required the displacement of more than 1600 poor residents living in small shanties as well as the destruction of one of the most stable African-American neighborhoods in the city. The extents of the park covered three city blocks from east to west and about fifty blocks in length from north to south. By 1857, the newly independently appointed Central Park Commission held the country’s first landscape design competition and selected the so-called “Greensward Plan” by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Their proposal was basically a pastoral landscape in the English romantic tradition: open Rolling Meadows contrasting with the picturesque effects of the Rambla and the more formal areas of the Mall Promenade and the grounds of the Bethesda Terrace. As part of their imaginative approach, Olmsted and Vaux sank four roads about eight feet below the park’s surface to carry cross-town traffic –which did not even exist at the time of their proposal, and separated carriage drives, pedestrian walks, and equestrian paths with the help of Jacob Mould – an engineer who designed more than forty bridges to eliminate grade crossings between the different routes. 

The building of Central Park was the most important work of infrastructure at the end of the nineteenth century. By 1859, the park opened its doors to recognize the involvement of more than 20,000 workers, the removal and movement of about 3 million cubic yards of soil, the planting of 270,000 trees and shrubs, and the creation of artificial lakes and giant water reservoirs.

By 1865 those wealthy citizens, who captured the initial idea in their minds, joined more than seven million people on their daily late-afternoon carriage and bicycle rides, their winter skating and summer concerts, their meadow picnics, and their experience of a space like no other in the world. The Central Park idea was severely opposed by pragmatists and unimaginative politicians who, under the existing conditions, could only see its negative aspects and implementation difficulties. Had the original idea, its colossal dimensions, its location in the middle of nowhere, or its ambiguous programming be compromised, the park as we know it would have never existed. More importantly, Central Park proves that an imaginative, yet clear and concise infrastructural idea, can generate millions of dollars in tax revenue, produce thousands of jobs, breed unexpected design solutions, and engender amenities which result in increased real estate values within and without. 

The iconography of colossal interventions: 

A third project by the Italian group Superstudio can attest to the power of ambitious ideas.[3] As a result of a competition dedicated to “Architettura e Liberta”, promoted in 1969 at the Graz Biennale, a proposal for a large-scale project captured the public’s imagination with its powerful images of some sort of metaphysical landscape. 

Their viaduct of architecture (Viadotto d’Architettura) was a linear monumental structure which would traverse the earth’s diameter in the form of a tri-dimensional gridded edifice. As a continuous monument (Monumento Continuo), this building line would cross over some of the most important global landmarks and would leave its minimalist imprints on every site on its path. Their carefully crafted photo montages of a simple grid building can be seen along the California expressways, in Wall Street, covering the surface of New York’s Central Park, at the Palazzo Chiericati in Vicenza, wrapping the caryatids in Athens, surrounding Piazza Navona, at the Grand Canyon, in Positano, the Taj Mahal, or Mecca. A relentless line with many iconographic values: part architecture, part urban design, part landscape, part art in public spaces, part dream, part real; but, most importantly, a full commentary on the spirit of networking, the similarities of the new global culture, and the necessity for local sustainable strategies. 

As a result of its success, Superstudio engages yet again in another project involving the interpretation of literary texts –Jose Luis Borges’ Fictions, the formalization of minimalist and land art, and the production of a fictitious neo-pragmatism. The images on their “Reflected Architecture” project are no longer utopian yet they are not completely real; in order to entrench their projects with implementation potential, the Italian group provides precise measurements and geometries, propose a great variety of materials, and act locally depending on the conditions of the site. The projects include a forested cubic island in the middle of the Golden Bridge, a rectangular pool serving as a water receptacle for the Niagara Falls, an agricultural field planted as a mosaic of world flags, a series of ideal cities forming perfect geometric figures, and a group of images of salvaged Florentine monuments after the forthcoming great flood –climate change.[4]

Although unrealized, the so-called Continuous Monument and Reflected Architecture projects mark the beginning of a new conception of the city and its domestic spaces; a provocative approach to cartography and representation; an imaginative position to bring attention to urbanism, architecture, and landscape. These exemplary projects represent the apogee of a superlative quality. Colossal conceptual projects make us aware of the poor state of our everyday life and bring awareness into the realm of our own human possibilities. Their time has come again. 

[1] Wall, Alex. Programming the urban surface (1999). CENTER, Volume14: On Landscape Urbanism. Center for American Architecture and Design, 2007. [2] For a detailed historic description see: Jackson, Kenneth T. Encyclopedia of New York City. Yale University Press, 1995. or Blackmar Elizabeth and Roy Rosenzweig. The park and the people: a history of Central Park. Cornell University Press, 1992. [3] See: Gargiani Roberto and Beatrice Lampariello. Superstudio. Editori Laterza, 2010. [4] Gargiani Roberto and Beatrice Lampariello, Ibid, 2010.

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