Garden City – Anna Yudina – France

Garden City: Supergreen Buildings, Urban Skyscapes and the New Planted Space, A10’s French correspondent Anna Yudina‘s new book, looks at new design solutions, architectural forms and spatial practices that result from architects and urban designers making nature’s intelligence, beauty and generosity their ally. A selection of built and ongoing projects, as well as a number of conceptual designs (many of them backed up by feasibility studies), highlights various facets of this immense topic. Here’s a sneak-preview.

If ‘Garden City’ sends your thoughts towards the green-belt towns associated with the garden city movement of 1890s Britain, make a U-turn. Inventor, futurist and Google’s director of engineering Ray Kurzweil’s prediction about ‘the hybrid of biological and non-biological thinking’ as a distinguishing trait of our not-so-distant future is the correct road sign here. So, head straight for the Big City. And then think of gardeners.

 

When Coloco, a team of progressive landscape architects, explain how they take their cues from the gardener as someone who respectfully observes the existing dynamics of nature and harvests its energies while trying to interfere with the natural processes as little as possible, I find that my interest has been piqued. When ‘the gardener’ emerges as one of the key themes in a conversation with Marco Casagrande, an architect whose work borders on environmental art and is largely inspired by guerilla urbanism, I listen carefully because our topic is the ‘bio-urban city’ that lives ‘in tune with the life-providing systems of nature’. And when Luis Bettencourt, a theoretical physicist and expert in complex systems, currently involved in developing a mathematical theory of the city, brings up the gardener’s attitude as the most relevant and life-friendly approach to city-making, the new meaning of the garden city starts to take shape.

The garden city is a unique organism in which the natural and the man-made, construction and cultivation, the ‘bio’ and the ‘digital’, form one living and breathing whole. Just like any other garden, it is a combination of the designed and the spontaneous, while those who participate in city-making take on the role of a gardener who, rather than design a machine, has to enable a complex, ever-changing ‘ecosystem’.

Humans have invented cities, and built transportation, utility and communications networks. We have been through two industrial revolutions and are now entering a third, based on global connectivity and the decentralized generation of renewable energy. Along the way we have become progressively disconnected from nature, and yet, by definition, have never ceased to be part of it. Today, we recognize the urgency of re-establishing this connection. The challenge is to not fall into the trap of superficial ‘greening’, but to connect in earnest – without, however, losing the advantages of living in the contemporary city.

In addition to other benefits, the presence of nature acts as a powerful fuel for our creative thinking – and therefore for our continued evolution. At the same time, the essence of the city consists in maximizing interactions between people in order to generate new ideas, products, activities and values. Imagine what a breeding ground for innovation will be the city that – in the words of Peter Cook, co-founder of the radical architectural collective Archigram – pulls ‘the vegetal towards the artificial and the fertile towards the urban’.

Garden City looks at new design solutions, architectural forms and spatial practices that result from architects and urban designers making nature’s intelligence, beauty and generosity their ally. A selection of built and ongoing projects, as well as a number of conceptual designs (many of them backed up by feasibility studies), highlights various facets of this immense topic.

What will it be like, functionally as well as aesthetically, if vegetation gets, once again quoting Peter Cook, ‘knitted into the very substance of a building’? What can be done about the skyscraper, which is the most un-ecological building type, but which, at least for now, cannot be banned from our cities with their continuously growing populations? What are the design challenges for ‘productive buildings’ – for instance, the ones that will house industrial-scale urban farms or operate as building-sized air purifiers? Can concrete be growth-friendly? In densely built areas with no space for traditional parks, what are the alternative locations for nature, and how will these alter our experience of a park? Having already conquered urban façades and rooftops, where shall greenery go next? Can it become mobile? We may recall the floating park that cruised around Manhattan on a barge – an idea proposed by land-art pioneer Robert Smithson in 1970 and realized by the Whitney Museum of American Art with landscape designers Balmori Associates in 2005 – and why not imagine other, previously unthinkable kinds of mobility?

Some designers have created urban reserves that humans can admire but not enter, like Alan Sonfist’s Time Landscape in New York or Gilles Clément’s L’île Derborence in Lilles, France, a small forest perched on a 7-metre-high (23 feet) plinth. Others have encouraged urbanites to share their homes and offices with plant life, as in the ‘biospheres’ that form part of Amazon’s new headquarters in Seattle, Washington, and which require a finely tuned balance of temperature and humidity to be fit for plants, people and laptops. Some designers have approached vegetation as a building material that should need as little maintenance as possible. Others have treated plants as the residents’ companions – the living beings one finds pleasure in taking care of. Still others have developed hybrid designs in which biological organisms and digital technologies cooperate within a single system; envisioned architecture as an interface between people and nature; and conceived of buildings that incorporate change – the quality inherent to natural processes – as part of the design agenda.

How far can we expand the concept of ‘urban nature’? How would it make us feel? And how is it going to transform our cities – and, eventually, ourselves? Some of the answers can be found in the pages of the Garden City; others, gained from experience, in the years to come.

extract from Garden City: Supergreen Buildings, Urban Skyscapes and the New Planted Space by Anna Yudina, published by Thames & Hudson and released on September 2017. Garden City page on the publisher’s website: https://thamesandhudson.com/garden-city-9780500343265. Garden City on Amazon (where pages from the book can be seen): https://www.amazon.co.uk/GARDEN-CITY-Anna-Yudina/dp/0500343268