12/10/2014 05:47 pm ET Updated Feb 09, 2015

Contextualizing Approaches to Urbanization

Andy Brandl via Getty Images

As an architect, the urban condition has always been of particular interest to my work. I am endlessly fascinated by the city as a site of opportunity for innovation. The city forces its residents to engage with diverse groups, ideas and spaces. This process is sometimes explosive and sometimes gradual, but it is always transformative, producing new subjectivities and modes of interaction. The present moment is no different. The global population explosion, coupled with the most rapid urbanization in recorded history, has fundamentally altered urban life in every region of the world.

Currently, half of the world's population resides in urban areas, and this proportion is expected to rise to 70 percent in the next thirty years. One of the most pressing questions confronting architects and urban planners is how to enable cities to meet the new infrastructural and cultural demands at this critical juncture. To achieve this, I believe it is crucial to contextualize the present moment within a larger historical narrative about the city's enduring and dynamic relationship with density and change.

This is a story of incredible elasticity, one in which cities have adapted incredibly well to a long line of paradigmatic ruptures across time. The lessons inherent in this narrative demonstrate how architecture can serve as the technology of this adaptability, deftly redefining and re-crafting space to meet the needs of society at a given moment.

Evolving Urban Forms

Perhaps the first in this series of historical ruptures occurred around 8000 BCE with the invention of agriculture. Prior to this moment, which first appeared in the Fertile Crescent region of what is now the Middle East, humans were nomadic hunter-gathers never numbering more than six million globally. The domestication of plant and animal species thanks to new technologies for irrigation and soil tilling made food surpluses possible for the first time. It was only then that permanent settlement became advantageous and the city became conceivable. The high crop yield from relatively small plots of land enabled an unprecedented concentration of people, who were now free to undertake non-subsistence based practices such as craftwork and defense. This division of labor created a new cultural complexity organized through ruling elites and governing bodies, giving rise to the first hierarchical models of society.

The production of cities is in many ways, then, also the production of our modern form of civilization. This urban revolution also produced a population explosion: in the millennium following the emergence of the first cities in Mesopotamia around 3200 BCE, this global population doubled to 14 million. Fundamentally, it was technological advancement coupled with a shift in population density that allowed these new social possibilities to emerge.

Architecture consolidated and made physical these wide-sweeping changes, playing a key role in the way ancient cultures made sense of their new relationship to the environment. In the early appearance of monumental architecture, I see a celebration of permanence and a culture coming to terms with a new stationary lifestyle. The Ancient Egyptians, who numbered close to 2 million by 2000 BCE, were perhaps the earliest innovators. They produced pyramids and mastabas of stunningly epic scale through sophisticated building techniques that involved the coordination of numerous highly organized labor groups. These palaces for the dead featured elaborate subterranean constructions and formed the nucleus for many of their cities. Their scale and centrality provide insight into the primacy of the afterlife in Ancient Egypt, illustrating how, from its origins, powerful architecture has always been inextricably linked to the cultural context.

Importantly, urban contexts have been powerfully distinct from their inception. There is strong evidence that the emergence of agricultural techniques in Northern China, West Africa, along the Indus River, and in Mesoamerica were independent events, springing organically from diverse indigenous practices rather than as a result of their expansion from the Fertile Crescent. As a result, the cities that emerged in these regions had their own vernaculars that responded to the particulars of their varied geographies. Beyond the employment of local materials, fundamental elements of cities ranged considerably in priorities and organization: Harrapan cities in the Indus Valley featured sophisticated well systems, for instance, while the symmetrical form of ancient Chinese cities reflected the culture's prioritization of balance. From its earliest form then, urbanism has always been diverse and global.

Indeed, in many ways the history of architectural standardization only begins during the Greco-Roman period. Once again, these empires were tasked with addressing unprecedented urban growth. By the 1st Century AD, the global population had reached 200 million, 60 million of whom lived within the Roman Empire. Rome itself became the first city to reach 1 million inhabitants around 133 BC, compared to the approximately 200,000-300,000 who populated the cities of previous ancient civilizations. Due to this massive change in urban density, the need to organize space and cultivate infrastructural systems both within cities and across trade networks became pressing.

The resulting innovations constituted a significant rupture from previous ideas about spatial arrangement and set templates that continue to dominate architectural thought today. Classicism's architectural formality, reflected in both its typologies and urban plans, celebrated the period's fascination with studied organisation. Abstraction of space became refined and codified as a science, cultivating a marked distinction between the planned and organic city. The former became glorified as a civic ideal, a means to strengthen network connectivity and experiences of citizenship across its empire.

By and large, the forms and patterns established during this period remain of fundamental relevance today, thanks in large part to the legacy of colonization. The European Renaissance's renewed interest in classical urbanism became a convenient tool for the expansion of growing empires. Renaissance thinkers upheld classical urban features, such as orthogonal grids, central forums and architectural formality as superlative models, thereby justifying their imposition into nearly every region of world. These colonial projects imitated Roman development not only in form, but in function as well, employing classical inspiration to confer legitimacy onto themselves and enhance imperial unity. By and large, this is a period of singularity: a rejection of indigenous insights into regional geography and climate in favor of default standards of geometry and form, which bore little connection to what had come before.

Without ignoring colonial architecture's undeniably significant contributions to urbanism, it remains critical to recognize what the legacy of colonialism has managed for so long to obscure: namely, the achievements of complex and independent urban systems preceding colonial intervention. While Medieval Europe saw mass de-urbanization following the collapse of the Roman Empire, contemporaneous civilizations in disparate regions such as Middle Niger, Northern China, and Mesoamerica were thriving. Each constructed unique innovative adaptations to their respective environments. China, which housed approximately 60 million people by the second century CE, cultivated planning systems that oriented their cities around airflow. These highly organized urban layouts, which often featured a numerology-based system of gates and increasingly private areas towards the center, visibilized the society's relationship with order, stability and reverence.

Mayan cities, which experienced a classical period from 250 to 900 CE, were constructed at high elevations and featured stone platforms that elevated residences above flood levels to respond to their tropical forest climate. The centers of cities such as Becan and Tikal housed arrangements of religious temples, ceremonial roads and open plazas that were guided by both cosmological beliefs and advanced mathematical skills. Meanwhile, Djenné-Djeno, the most prominent city of the Middle Niger during the 9th and 10th Centuries CE, housed incredible mud architecture that spoke to the primacy of the relationship between that civilization and its ecology. The urban character and architectural styles of each of these regions were incredibly distinct, but united in their responsiveness to the specificities of their contexts. Each offers insights into how to create a specific architecture of place that is sustainable and promotes ecological balance - insights that are increasingly relevant today in the era of green living, sustainability and a return to the local scale.

The unfolding of urban changes prior to the 19th Century is slow and gradual compared to what followed. The wide-ranging changes instigated by the Industrial Revolution inaugurated the rapid urbanization that characterizes the state of the city today. Headway in medical technologies again led to a global population explosion: In the middle of the 18th Century, at the cusp of the Industrial Revolution, world population stood around 700 million. Just fifty years later, that number had swollen to one billion, and doubled from that by the 1920's. At the same time, the proportion of people living in cities dramatically increased, as mechanization of agriculture drove hordes of diverse individuals into urban environments in search of new employment. In Europe, the number of people living in urban areas grew by 100 million between 1800 and 1910, compared to an increase of just five million between 1300 and 1700.

Again, these new densities required adaptation from the modern city. Modernity ushered in nothing short of an architectural revolution, which came most visibly in the form of the skyscraper. Made possible through a confluence of inventions including fluorescent lighting, elevators, steel frame construction and electric arc welding, the skyscraper's verticality represented a new model for urban expansion that both maximized the efficiency of valuable land and monumentalized modern innovation. Coupled with the large scale implementation of the gridiron urban form and standardized housing projects and factory typologies, the modern city reflected the logic of Fordism in its repetition and ambition to supersede nature through technological innovation. American cities were the paradigmatic examples, with New York and Chicago competing for influence at the turn of the century through the construction of increasingly taller skyscrapers. Modernism's fetishization of replicability made it the ideal language of globalization, and still today cities across the world wishing to announce themselves as economic and cultural forces feel compelled to erect skyscrapers of incredible scale, whose impressiveness is one of the definitive technologies of urban identity.

The Urban Condition Today

By the middle of the 20th Century, the world began to confront the full implications of modernity's ruthless pursuit of efficiency. Strict zoning had segmented cities so thoroughly that sector atrophy left many industrial cities in decay or abandoned. A new generation of urban activists such as Jane Jacobs alerted the world to the ways in which modernist developments had stretched the classical model far beyond the human scale, disconnecting urban residents from their own habitat and working against its own ideals. The verticality that skyscrapers inaugurated, once considered utopian in its ability to literally elevate the masses, became politically questionable as high-rise developments increasingly allowed an elite class to escape unsustainable and unlivable conditions on the ground. This is perhaps most evident today in the urban areas of the developing world, such as Lagos or Mumbai, where regimentally planned districts of glittering towers stand in stark contrast to ground-level chaotic slums that lack the most basic infrastructure.

The limitations of the modern impulse to conceive a universal urban ideal has in some instances given way to a postmodern impulse to abandon those goals in favor of a purely aesthetic or economic vision of architecture. This is facilitated by a context of increased corporatisation, where independent and often international developers buying up land to maximize their financial returns without considering the implications for urban planning. Meanwhile, rapid industrialization's unchecked exploitation of land and resources has led to an unmanageable degree of urban energy consumption and waste production. Cities today guzzle three-quarters of the world's energy and produce the same proportion of the world's pollution.

Cities are thus now left with the urgent need to develop new strategies that can address this problematic legacy while simultaneously accommodating its rapidly increasing number of new residents. One approach in recent years has been the renewal of inner city areas that were left impoverished or in disuse due to industry shifts. The role of architecture in this approach, which is particularly common in Western Europe and North America, is well documented: London's Tate Modern, Madrid's Matedaro and Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum have been the cornerstones of urban regeneration efforts.

Even more ambitious, Stockholm's redevelopment of its Royal Seaport works to integrate innovative smart technologies with mixed-use cultural buildings and increased green spaces to improve quality of life through effective energy monitoring and waste management and increased civic engagement. Still, these projects must contend with their implications of gentrification, and possibility of creating stratified cities where the urban elite reside in sustainable enclaves while those lacking economic resources are priced out.

Similarly, the recent proliferation of new-built eco-cities must also be intentional in their provisions for diversity and livability. These new cities, including the well-publicized Tianjin Eco-City and Masdar City, occupy various spaces between the competing forces of, on the one hand, the freedom to create idealized cities that can serve as models for sustainable development and, on the other hand, privatized gated sanctuaries for the rich and mobile. This model, which China especially has embraced to address its unprecedented demand for urban space, bears much in common with older modernist urban strategies, and thus needs to be particularly careful not just to confront environmental considerations with green technologies, but also to deploy urban planning insights into scale and livability. These eco-cities also face challenges due to the substantial upfront financial investment they necessitate, which often results in the siphoning off of resources and funding to address issues in existing cities.

Other contemporary approaches are of considerably smaller scale than these eco-cities but offer alternative paths forward. In Latin America, the most industrialized region in the world, rapid urban population growth has overwhelmed transportation infrastructure in a way that disproportionally affects the poorest residents. Medellin, where many residential slums had been pushed into the unconnected mountains surrounding the city, has been substantial success with innovative new transport options like large-scale escalators and gondolas. Meanwhile, in the coastal cities of West Africa, the rising sea levels and land erosion that has resulted from climate change has made flooding a constant concern, which threatens the informal housing developments that have extended into the water itself. Research into waterfront lagoon architecture has deepened our understanding of the ecology of these fragile coastal cities. New adaptive solutions such as floating communities offer a way to prepare for continued environmental change while also providing the infrastructure necessary to improve existing conditions. Open source data has also offered new opportunities to improve civic engagement. Several North American cities are exploring ways to utilise this resource to improve urban systems, increase service dependability and address lapses.

Architecture Moving Forward

Taken together, these approaches offer insight into the role architecture can play in crafting the urbanism of the future. It has become clear that modern singularity must be refashioned into nuanced dialogues between geography, technology and culture. Doing so requires fundamental changes in the way architecture and urban planning are approached. Zoning practices, rather than encouraging experimentation, by and large are engaged with a romance with an outdated past. Current conditions require a more dynamic model that allows for mutable conditions and that rejects simplicity in favor of granular mutation of different types of uses from which a richness can erupt in the city. Architecture is the tool with which we test these new mutable conditions; hybridizing types is a means of forcing new conversations, releasing ourselves from singularity and presenting individuals with the opportunity to learn about an urbanism of the future.

The unprecedented densities of cities today demands new solutions that go beyond planar architecture, and which can prepare the ground for the future city through innovations in vertical typologies. These typologies must become more complex, must move beyond spectacle of scale to become something that empowers people, that enriches its surroundings and which promises a more egalitarian future. Inherent in an effective execution of this is a meaningful examination of the nature of the civic project today. As we move away from the singular narratives of formality and away from projects that speak to some far off ideal, how can public architecture speak to the multiplicity of a diverse public?

I believe in finding ways to move existing narratives of place forward, whether by emerging a forgotten or undiscovered story or by adding nuance and complexity to that which is already present. Innovating typologies must be about pushing to ask what is needed from public space today. It must be a process of distilling the essential components of the urban experience and exploring ways to meaningfully recombine these elements in a way that enhances livability in a world of increased density. This means, for instance, approaching affordable housing as a place of lifelong learning and of sustainable community building in addition to a residence; or approaching a library as a place of cultural celebration and skill development. Doing so organically leads to hybridized typologies that can foster these multiple experiences of place and which offer new ideas about what well-being can look like. As modernism has shown, singularity produces a ghettoization that we must move beyond for urban life to improve.

This requires rigorous examinations of geography, culture and their intersections. Each culture has its own unique ambiguities, challenges and potentials, and it's my belief that architecture has the capacity to move narratives forward by adding richness and offering new possibilities. Learning from and building on what has come before is the critical way to bring the kind of legibility into the work that I consider crucial. It is only through this process of critical investigation that emerging dormant narratives and adding meaningful complexity becomes possible. From this investigation, a nuanced layering of form, function or materiality can emerge, which will in turn offers multiple access points for engagement.

These engagement points come from the recognition of narratives of place as holistic and un-erasable. Finding ways to re-emerge traditional insights into place and integrating them with modernist approaches is crucial in this process. Resisting the urge to refit the geography of a place to suit the needs of a project, but instead allowing that geography and the culture to complicate and shape the project, to guide the systems and functions needed, produces an architecture that is truly distinctive and responsive. Moving beyond dichotomies of rural and urban, the present moment is one in which sustainability will be defined by the capacity to cultivate urban systems that integrate and enhance the ecology of place, whether through materiality that works with, rather than against, climate or through designs that seek to celebrate, rather than close off from, the nature and landscape that surrounds it. This process is the means to an architecture of place, one which points not to an idealized elsewhere but instead engages directly in the possibilities of a specific place in time. It is in this way that architecture can serve as a celebration of its context, and by extension, its people.

The city is a perpetually incomplete project; it is constantly being remade and reshaped by the changing state of our world, whether by the interventions of its governing bodies or the powerful actions of its residents. Architecture can and must speak to this adaptability, as both a technology and reflection of social change. The undoing of the master narratives of modernism should not be taken as an opportunity for an architecture of spectacle and fantasy, but instead one that, utilizing the lessons of the past, speaks to the complexities of the present and the forces that shape us. It is crucial to deconstruct the idea that design can be universal and instead, to think in terms of an architecture that derives inspiration from the specificity of geography, culture and place.