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College of Architecture, Art and Planning

Adapting to the Urban Variability – Nicholas de Monchaux Lecture

"Local Codes : Real Estates" Screenshot, Nicholas de Monchaux
“Local Codes : Real Estates” Screenshot, Nicholas de Monchaux

In architecture, it is common to set rules to describe built spaces. Le Corbusier and Palladio employed golden means to design villa facades. Buildings everywhere must abide by fire codes. Cities like Paris follow grand development plans, like the Hausmann Plan, to chart urban futures. But what happens when real-time events become unpredictable, and existing rules no longer apply? For Nicholas de Monchaux, last week’s Cornell in Rome lecturer, these are the big questions for planners and architects—and the best solutions will come from embracing a complex and variable world.

In a palimpsest (idea-filled) lecture titled “Used Current Location,” Rome Prize recipient and UC Berkeley professor Nicholas de Monchaux spoke about architecture’s relationship with systems and data. Confronted by two unprecedented forces – climate change and mass urbanization – de Monchaux argues that information alone cannot solve global problems. Instead, “Big Data”, or the emergent phenomenon of amassing information about everything everywhere, should harness only useful data and adapt it to local circumstances. Computational thinking, the professor contends, should be less rational and convergent and more creative and divergent.

This anathema towards technological “optimization”, as it turns out, has been a fairly contemporary development. In the 1960’s, de Monchaux explains, when data was expensive and the Cold War raged on, systems analysis seemed like the wave of the future. If a scientific, rational approach to problem solving could 1) send a nuclear warhead to the USSR and 2) send a man to the Moon, the thinking went, it could surely solve the problems of the city: infrastructure, social housing, et cetera.

Conceptual Space Colony Art, 1970’s. Ideal Systems Planning. Photo by Google Images.

Unfortunately, this top-down method only worked in the vacuum of urban models, like the fantastic 1970’s NASA proposals for space colonies. As utopian projects like Pruitt-Igoe collapsed and American downtowns hollowed out, de Monchaux continues, systems design began to amass critics. One of the most vocal of them, Cornell-alumni Gordon Matta-Clark, highlighted the failures of this approach through his art. Operating on abandoned buildings in New York—breaking, cutting, splitting—Matta-Clark demonstrated the allure of neglected urban infrastructure. In his last project, “Fake Estates”, the controversial artist even mapped out vacant city lots around Brooklyn, critiquing their peril and potential.

“Local Codes” Screenshot, Photo from Google Images

This is where de Monchaux’s own work comes in. Continuing Matta-Clark’s work, the Rome prize recipient has been mapping out marginalized urban spaces in American cities. Called “Local Codes,” de Monchaux and his students use geospatial data to locate and transform thousands of abandoned, public-owned sites. In San Francisco, for instance, the professor is proposing hundreds of green spaces in abandoned paved areas to create a “network of urban greenways.” Thermal and water performance would improve urban ecology, mitigate the effects of climate change, and improve community life around the neglected lots.

Jane Jacobs, Author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” Photo from Google Images

To end his lecture, de Monchaux cites famed urban theorist Jane Jacobs. In the last chapter of her seminal work, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” Jacobs compared systems-based planners with biologists in the 1960’s. Whereas planners in her times still saw cities as “messy organic conditions,” life scientists saw organisms as “organized complexity”, where networks and processes exist despite a seemingly chaotic framework. While computers in her time could not handle complex volumes of urban data, contemporary technology can. De Monchaux advocates that it is finally time to treat cities as organisms, with its necessary real-time structures juxtaposed against its inherent “messiness” and changing equilibria. Only then can cities properly prepare for the climate and population calamities of the near future and beyond.


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