Kazys Varnelis is the Director of the Network Architecture Lab at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. With Robert Sumrell, he runs the non-profit architectural collective AUDC.
Quilian Riano asked me to participate in the blogging revolving around the GSD event on Ecological Urbanism. Although Quilian is live blogging the event, like the live blogging for Postopolis going on simultaneously, I think it makes much more sense to the participants than to those of us listening in at a remove, observing highly compressed fragments of the conversation.
Even if I take my knowledge of the event second-hand, I thought I'd offer a response, prematurely broaching a topic that I've been engulfed in for the first part of this year. I'll begin with the event's statement of purpose, the core of which reads as follows:
The conference is organized around the premise that an ecological approach is urgently needed both as a remedial device for the contemporary city and an organizing principle for new cities. An ecological urbanism represents a more holistic approach than is generally the case with urbanism today, demanding alternative ways of thinking and designing.
In ecological urbanism, the informal seems to crop up repeatedly. Instead of "green architecture" and its outworn advocacy of LEED to design our way out of a global ecological crisis, the conference proposes an urbanism produced bottom-up, in a natural way, like an ecosystem.
Sanford Kwinter's keen observation that New York's culture has come to a crashing halt under the weight of capital, overdevelopment, and hipsterdom serves as a set-up to ecological urbanism. Instead of a vital urban realm, we have a stuffed animal (to use a phrase Peter Eisenman once applied to European cities…and let's just be clear that today cities anywhere in the developing world don't fare any better than Manhattan does). In the face of this collapsing formal urbanism, then, Quilian observes, informality is thriving:
[There is an]… anxiety around the failure of the formal structures in the West. Populations are dropping, immigration increasing, manufacturing and economic strength shifting to other nations. Western nations are facing a changing culture at home and a shifting power structure abroad. As formal structures fail informal systems take over.
We've heard this before, in the recent fascination with favelas and their capacity for self-organization. When Rem Koolhaas spoke he brought out Lagos, his exemplar of such a self-organizing city, a nightmare condition that nevertheless he feels somehow works. In doing so, he replays Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour's Learning from Las Vegas as well as Reyner Banham's Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, but in going to Africa, Koolhaas is not so much flipping the valence on a "low," pop phenomena as replaying the modernist obsession with the primitive (to be fair, on the East, the West is often seen in terms of the primitive). In the darkest places, the modern obsession with the primitive suggested, we would identify the next modernity. So Koolhaas hopes to do at Lagos...READ THE FULL ESSAY ON VARNELIS' BLOG