From the A-School: What does urbanization mean for design?

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Photo: Matteus Frankovich/Skycladap Photo: Matteus Frankovich/Skycladap

Editor’s note: Beginning this month, each issue of Abode will include a column written by a graduate student at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, providing a glimpse into the considerations of the next generation of architects.

The world is entangled in complex sets of relationships and nothing is what it seems. Design disciplines are facing a tumultuous period in which the complexity and scale of global urbanization processes have moved beyond individual expertise. The period in which the designer was capable of giving a “full” truth is now over. New generations of designers are not just expected to collaborate among disciplines but also to synthesize multiple areas of expertise as agents of the design process. We are the orchestrators of a society that demands designers, politicians and government agencies take responsibility for their decisions in a transparent and equitable manner—our client is the public realm.

The A-School has a long history of interest in design for the public realm and the last few years have seen considerable focus by the school in a variety of urban issues society faces today. The built environment is increasingly created by the non-architect, one who reacts to short-term market trends or prescribes buildings based on outdated policy. Architecture is commoditized in the process. This narrow response has little regard for the long-term aspirations of societies or the new challenges of economic, social and ecological sustainability we face in the 21st century. If architecture continues its trend toward service provider and becomes irrelevant in questioning the development of built environments at the urban scale, society will lose the ability to define its conditions of living.

To regain agency and to solve problems, architecture can take on a critical territory that theory and practice has long ignored—the territory of sprawl, a “diffuse city” existing on the outer edges of urbanity. Urbanity no longer stops at the city limits—our planet is urbanizing at an extreme rate with a range of densities, both diffuse and concentrated. New materials as a result of industrial production, coincided with a period of land use and policy experimentation, lead to the growth of the suburb and acceleration of sprawl in the post-World War II era, following the natural tendency of most people to avoid dense living conditions. Decentralization and suburbanization are considered the quintessential American Dream; a social good manifest by the achievement of economic stability. Despite the best efforts of elites to dictate the pace of urban development and how people should live, efforts to control horizontal growth (sprawl) have often proven ineffective and do not directly address urgent issues of economy, society, ecology and human occupation across expansive territories. We should no longer fight this development pattern but fully embrace it.

Today, new materials and tools are presenting themselves to architecture as a result of the digital revolution. These tools allow one to process vast amounts of data across a territory: ecosystems, settlement patterns, economic viability, infrastructure systems, watersheds and food networks—the essential elements that have defined human living throughout time. We can begin to grasp the innerworkings of a large territory without losing focus on the people who inhabit it, the design potential is immense.

This is not a call for masterplans as typically understood but a new context that moves beyond the immediate physical aspects of the site. As orchestrators, architects traditionally bring together clients, construction managers, contractors and government agencies within a diverse political context to successfully propose a design and deliver a building. What occurs when architects apply their skills to a territorial scale? What happens when we bring together politicians, economists, ecologists, climatologists, anthropologists, architects, urban planners, landscape architects and historians to design a more sustainable and adaptable pattern of living for the long term? I for one can’t wait to find out.—Joseph Brookover

Joseph Brookover is an editor of Catalyst, the School of Architecture’s annual publication. He is pursuing a Master of Architecture.

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