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After Empirical Urbanism

Fri, Feb 27/15 – 1:30pm to Sun, Mar 1/15 – 7:00pm

Room 103, 230 College Street
This symposium is free and open to the public, no registration is required.

A new empirical urbanism has emerged over the past two generations, drawing habits of mind and methods of observation from the natural and social sciences, and making use of emerging forms of statistical and visual analysis. Such practices take observation, systematic documentation, and artful analysis of the city, as given, as a precondition to any designed intervention. For our purposes Empirical Urbanism is a framework for revealing the sometimes hidden philosophical assumptions, and design alibis among a diverse group of urban theories and practices that, while often thought to represent opposing ideologies, share an empirical approach.

This symposium will interrogate this trend, asking how urbanism as an art and a set of practices may gain from more explicitly deciphering the relationship between the ways we characterize the past and present city, and how we go about projecting alternate futures for it. Our title notwithstanding, we do not imagine an end to empirical urban research. Rather, the discussion and debates we hope to sponsor have the aim of repositioning observation-based practice, and airing new approaches to seeing and designing the city.

Visit the After Empirical Urbanism symposium website.



Friday, February 27

2:00 PM: Carto Graphics
Jill Desimini, Harvard Graduate School of Design
Jesse LeCavalier, New Jersey Institute of Technology
Sarah Williams, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Moderator: Mason White, Daniels Faculty

Ian McHarg’s Design With Nature broadened the scope of the design disciplines to address the regional scale and exerted great influence in the development and application of Geographic Information Systems (GIS). McHarg developed a mapping technique that represented different, and competing urban and environmental forces with a series of separate drawings, and then layered these readings to create a synthetic view. The composite overlay, it was argued, provided an objective reading of a combined built and natural environment and the necessary evidence to support unbiased decision-making processes, including design.

Most maps are a register of data, and as such, give the appearance of representing fact. However, mapping is in part a process of filtering and selection that can shape information. As Mark Monmonier notes, maps can become ideological symbols and powerful tools for effecting public opinion. Seemingly banal decisions about how to crop, orient or color a map can conceal intentions and effect how information is perceived. In this way maps perform as rhetorical devices where aesthetic license can matter as much as the data and facts used to make them.

These seemingly conflicting qualities of maps – performing as both objective and subjective representations – have led historians to study their power as political tools for affecting debate. Following this trend, scholars explore the ‘fictional status’ of maps and their potential to construct new realities. Practitioners are increasingly using mapping techniques not only to portray existing conditions but also to project - and convince a public - of possible outcomes. This panel will explore the selective methods and persuasive techniques of visualizing urban information, and question the value and shortcoming of an artful medium that carries the force of numeric fact.

3:45 - 4:00 PM: Break

4:00 PM: The Bias of Data
Mona El Khafif, University of Waterloo
Dietmar Offenhuber, Northeastern University
Mark Shepard, University at Buffalo
Moderator: Ultan Byrne, Daniels Faculty

With The Social Logic of Space (1984), Bill Hillier and Julienne Hanson began developing "space syntax" as one means of mathematically describing urban conditions. Carlo Ratti and others have recently drawn attention to the limitations and biases of this method – focusing specifically on the reductive character of the model relative to the actual complexity of the built form and social geography of cities. This has led some practitioners to develop alternative, more comprehensive models which are driven by combinations of static and real-time "big data" sources. Others have sought to supplement such empirical data with interfaces for participation, establishing new models of civic engagement in urban design processes.

Meanwhile, historians have contributed broader critiques to this whole field of study, by positioning concepts such as “data” and “interface” within a much longer historical arc of intellectual and technological developments. Theorists, for their part, have begun to question the political and legal implications of these data sets, interfaces, and algorithms. Such critiques have raised questions about the subjectivity involved in curating data, the implications of algorithmically-based modes of parsing and interpreting information, and the effect that chosen representational techniques have on the translation of data. This panel brings together practitioners (programmers, urbanists, media artists) with theorists and historians to debate the status of data – in its various forms and sources – in urban analysis and design.​


Saturday, February 28

10:30 AM: Leveraging the Marketplace
Robert Bruegmann, University of Illinois at Chicago
McLain Clutter, University of Michigan
Tim Love, Northeastern University
Roger Sherman, University of California
Moderator: Robert Levit, Daniels Faculty

Robert Moses' projects in New York City - an expansive network of roads and "urban renewal" - were an exercise in highly controlled centralized planning. In this context, Jane Jacobs' role in defeating the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, and thwarting Moses, was as much an indication of the rise of libertarian politics as it was an expression of community activism. In Death and Life of the Great American City, Jacobs elevates the seemingly unplanned, accretive, transactional spaces of the 19th century mercantile city as an ideal.

Jacobs' writing and activism popularized the idea of self-organization within the discipline. Urbanists, in turn, have studied unplanned settlements in places such as Africa or South America, and the dispersed spaces of apparently unregulated, market-based North American cities like Atlanta and Houston. From these studies, practitioners have sought to extract lessons or mimic conditions. Rem Koolhaas, for example, draws his theory of bigness from the airports and malls he observes proliferating in the liberalized global economy. Critics have described projects akin to OMA’s “extra" large buildings as an effort to engage the unregulated context of market driven urbanization, but seem to be uncertain, or unwilling to speculate on the broader implications of such an approach to architecture and city-building.

Over the past decade a group of scholars have advocated for an architectural practice that engages market forces without "giving in" to them. Some practitioners have taken this argument as a call to openly embrace development in order to actively participate in the production of cities. Others see the potential for leveraging such engagement as a means to achieve some form of public good. With this panel we hope to gather critiques and stories about working with or within the marketplace, and to debate the role design plays in imagining, and changing the course of market-driven urbanization.

12:30 - 1:30 PM: Break

1:30 PM: Fictions of the Ordinary
Tobias Armborst, Vassar College
Marshall Brown, Illinois Institute of Technology
Alex Lehnerer, Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule
Moderator: Michael Piper, Daniels Faculty

Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown presented their studies of Las Vegas and Levittown as an effort to “withhold judgement” of the commercially produced American city to identify new potential in a very particular, ordinary, everyday urbanism. Through both their analysis and design proposals, they sought to demonstrate how the architecture of the strip and subdivision could perform as a system of communication: engaging popular sentiment and the new subjectivities produced by the widespread use of the automobile. Proponents of ‘Everyday Urbanism’ have continued to “look at the city”, finding – for example – expressions of public life within the quotidian commercial space of garage sales and street vending in Los Angeles. Incorporating technics from ethnography and other fields of research, these urbanists have opened up a broad spectrum of the built environment to study. Yet, the very choice of which particular as-found conditions to focus on – and their curation for analysis – constitutes a mode of judgment, or a critical lens.

Recently scholars have developed analytical techniques that more explicitly reframe the ordinary through the subjectivity of such lenses. Some urbanists create fictional narratives of existing everyday space, while others locate alternative urban visions within popular media. Amongst practitioners, some have developed design methods that exaggerate the ordinary as a method of invention. For this Panel, we are seeking to present work in this field and to turn a critical eye toward the problems and potentials of accepting fiction as an operative aspect of analysis and story telling as a mode of design.

3:30 - 3:45 PM: Break

3:45 PM: The Use and Misuse of History
George Baird, Daniels Faculty
Eve Blau, Harvard Graduate School of Design
Margaret Crawford, University of California
Kazys Varnelis, Columbia University
Moderator: Richard Sommer, Daniels Faculty

In the latter half of the twentieth century, a number of influential urbanists and architects used historical models, and the idea of precedent, to challenge the utilitarian basis of functionalist planning. Influenced by a European debate in the 1960’s between advocates of structuralism and phenomenology, Aldo Rossi introduced the idea of the “urban artifact”, recasting the city as a cultural product. In North America, theorists and practitioners investigated historical precedents of various urban fabrics, posing them as an alternative to the putatively a-contextual, object qualities of Modern Architecture. J.L. Sert’s humanism and Colin Rowe’s contextual formalism, both appropriated the spatial and civic qualities of the preindustrial city as a basis for the emergent practice of urban design.

Amidst political and economic transitions in the 1970s, urbanists would also freight history with an ideological purpose. Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter’s Collage City (1978) and Rob Krier’s Urban Space (1977) legitimized the use of older models of compact urban form as the counter to a “sprawling” condition they attributed to capitalist urbanization. With a less explicitly political motivation, New Urbanists adopted the gridiron American city of early industrialization, as empirical evidence of good city form that could be transformed and re-applied to reform a dispersed suburbia.

After a lag among the most recent generation, a perhaps new use of history seems to have emerged. The work of architect-educators such as Pier Vittorio Aureli at the AA in London, and Christ and Gantembein at the ETH in Zurich, have reasserted history as field to establish an urban architecture in between political engagement and disciplinary autonomy. In the light of these more recent experiences, this panel will explore history and precedent as source of inspiration and legitimacy to engage, or escape from, the complexity of the contemporary city.

5:45 PM: Closing Remarks

6:30 PM: Reception in front lobby


Sunday, March 1

10:30 AM: Graeme Stewart, ERA Architects, Toronto

Tower Blocks, Mid-Century Regional Form and Toronto's 21st Century Potential
Graeme Stewart M.Arch OAA MRAIC CAHP is an Associate with ERA Architects. Graeme has been involved in numerous urban design, cultural planning, conservation and architecture projects with particular focus on neighbourhood design and regional sustainability. Graeme was a key initiator of the Tower Renewal Project. This initiative in modern heritage and community reinvestment examines the future of Toronto’s remarkable stock of modern tower neighbourhoods in collaboration with the United Way, City of Toronto, Province of Ontario, University of Toronto, and other partners.

Graeme is also the co-editor of Concrete Toronto: A Guidebook to Concrete Architecture from the Fifties to the Seventies. Graeme is a founding director of the Centre for Urban Growth and Renewal (CUG+R), an urban research organization formed in 2009. In 2010, he was recipient of an RAIC National Urban Design Award for his ongoing research and design work related to Tower Renewal, and in 2014 received the Jane Jacobs Prize.

11:00 AM: Student presentations

Session 1
Elizabeth Krasner, Sheraz Khan, Residual City: Picturing Etobicoke
Vanessa Abram, Public Residuals
Rachel Heighway, The Peachoid and the Palm Tree: an Investigaion  of Disguised Infrastructure

Session 2
Suzy Harris-Brandts, Urbanism and Internal Displacement in the Republic of Georgia
Jason DeLine, Arrival Community Infrastructure
Emma Dunn, Utopia Deferred Unrevealing a Myth of the Everyday

11:45 AM: Round table discussion

12:30 PM: Break

1:30 PM: Alexander Eisenschmidt, University of Illinois at Chicago

Chicagoisms: a City to Speculate?
Alexander Eisenschmidt is a designer, theorist, and Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Architecture, where he teaches graduate studios and courses in history and theory. Before joining UIC, Eisenschmidt taught at Syracuse University and Pratt Institute in New York, and held a visiting position at the University of Pennsylvania. His work investigates the productive tension between the modern city and architectural form. He is author and editor of City Catalyst (Architectural Design, 2012), contributing lead-editor of Chicagoisms (Scheidegger & Spiess / Park Books, 2013). In addition, Eisenschmidt is the designer and curator of City Works, a collaborative exhibition at the 13th International Architecture Biennale in Venice (2012) to which he also contributed a 100 ft. long drawing and the co-curator and designer of the exhibition Chicagoisms at the Art Institute of Chicago (2014). As founding partner in the design practice Studio Offshore, Eisenschmidt understands the challenges of the contemporary environment as opportunities, the contemporary city as a resource, and architectural design as a strategic device.

2:00 PM: Student Presentations

Session 3
Zoé Renaud-Drouin, Walking through Machines and Monuments: Exploring the Actual Urban Performance of Moscow's Ideological Planning
Kiarash Kiai Soodkolai, Transparency and Appearance: Questioning the Publicness in Commercial Space
Kevin Murray, The Everyday Experience of Mass Transit: an Analysis and Design for two Monuments

2:45 PM: Round Table Discussion

3:30 PM: Closing Remarks