A new urban politics III: #UPSTREAM

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A Day at the Creek
Photograph: IMAGE OF THOUGHTS @Imageofthoughts
 

This post the 3rd installment to: A new urban politics II: the urban paradox — how determines what, and A new urban politics.

 

“Stop thinking start doing: we need more experimenting on the ground”, is what Bert van Lamoen explained in response to someone’s question about the meaning of his preceding tweet that said “Enough is enough”.

Of course one can’t keep on doing without soon thinking. Try standing on one leg and raising the other, a simple enough exercise, and see how long it takes for your mind to be confronted with the burning pain in your supporting leg, and for that action to cease and another to take its place.

Actions not only follow thinking, they induce thinking. And the thinking generated from action is relative — to the action: “I can’t keep it up”; “This is killing my leg”; “I hate my physio”. The thinking leads to new actions (recovery) which in turn induce new thinking: “My legs are weak”; “I need to do this more” …

This recursive practice, this learning by doing is the essence of (experiential) learning and is, or at least once was, natural to us all. What is not natural is this type of learning in either education or professional practice today.

It is not simply that the breaking of learning into individual subjects of discrete disciplines reduces any given real-world experience to just one lens (a reductionist approach to complex reality), didactic methods of teaching, in the main, develop only the abstract, and only, I would argue, information, not vital knowledge. What’s more, professional practice, by definition, is just the accommodation of discipline theory. What of the development of that theory? What of the development of practice?

Unlike information, knowledge is knowing. It is relative, not static. How could we truly know something without experiencing it? How could we understand the pain of standing on one leg without really trying it? If we didn’t try it, how would we really know how we would react?

The generation of knowledge is vital to learning, and learning is vital to the generation of knowledge. Knowledge and learning are interdependent because there are two types of knowledge generated by, (and required of), learning (Fig 1): ‘finding out’ and the generation of theoretical knowledge in both the real (i) and conceptual (ii) worlds, and ‘taking action’ and the generation of practical knowledge in both the conceptual (iii) and real (iv) worlds.1

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Figure 1: Learning as the flux between ‘finding out’ and ‘taking action’ (adapted after Kolb)
Source: R. Bawden, ‘The Hawkesbury Experience: Tales from a road less traveled’
 

For a subject as complex as the city, knowledge is vital. Yet the disciplines that are supposedly about the city (i.e. urban design, urban planning, architecture and landscape architecture) remain defined by their own particular weltanschauung, one which has them firmly declaring themselves as disciplines of the ‘built environment’. What’s more, projects across these disciplines, in the main, remain outside the core of how cities exist. The urban question upon which all cities are founded (i.e. how broad forms of wealth can be generated through the exchange of commerce and culture) is not attended to through a ‘city’ focus. The ‘built environment’ is not something to be designed, at the outset. The built environment (city) follows the urban; ‘designing’ bricks and mortar, infrastructure, housing, and parks deals with urban effects over urban causes. In traditional built environment education, even ‘design’ projects that are based on ‘real’ sites for which ‘designs’ are proposed, sometimes presented, to ‘real’ audiences only constitute the abstract. This is because the project (and, therefore, any work) is abstracted from how reality, in these cases, the city, exists. And for practitioners, especially those of the built environment professions who, somehow, have hegemony of professional involvement in advising on anything to do with the city, practice has drifted far, far away from, yet at the same time increasingly reductive to, their respective theoretical foundations, however well defined.2

For students of the city (in this case I mean those formally enrolled in education about the city) learning — as a process — is vital to the explanation of a discipline and to its application. Perhaps this is why, for urban design in particular, there is, as Alexander Cuthbert points out, a glaring lack of theoretical rigour about the discipline, let alone any consistency in the shallow theories in urban design.3

Whilst the demands of neoliberal capitalism appear to be forcing our big tertiary university educational institutions in Australia into the education business (of attracting students), rather than assisting them to be in the business of education (of the student), the practice of the built environment professions appear to be similarly consumed by the market they are in. While all professions are defined universally by the provision of advice, the advice provided by the built environment professions is inextricably linked to, in fact consumed by, neoliberal capitalist ventures, namely property development. In our current market, property development trades off the speculative and for little collective value. In turn, these professional services could be said to consume the market: the very reliance on property development as a source of work and as a basis of commercial viability and professional prosperity and sense of legitimacy. Both education and practice have become products of consumption, and consumptive products. Both appear complicit with everything their discipline foundations (society and nature, essentially) are counter to. In an age where it is obvious the world’s social and environmental battles will be won or lost in cities, what are we to do about the education of designers for our urban futures? Just what are we to do about the definition and explanation of the urban as a discipline, and its teaching? What of its application in practice?4

For effective learning (read also practice!) one must be able to generate both conceptual and practical knowledge. This recursive process not only generates learning — about the discipline and about practice — but learning about learning: the discipline of the discipline and the ‘practice of practice’.5 Known as praxis this ‘emergent property’ was the foundation of my teaching of the #UPSTREAM studio I will now introduce as explanation and demonstration of that by which this the third installment in the series is known.

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Figure 2: Praxis as an emergent property
Source: R. Bawden, ‘The Hawkesbury Experience: Tales from a road less traveled’

 

#UPSTREAM

#UPSTREAM is metaphor. It is the title of the design studio I ran at the RMIT School of Architecture and Design, centred on the improvement of Moonee Ponds Creek, a 28-km length (approx.) waterway, in Melbourne. The meaning of the title is especially rich; the words of the poster I used to promote the studio, for which a mix of Landscape Architecture final year undergraduate and 1st year Masters students selected through ballot, were:

Moonee Ponds Creek is a highly modified and disturbed regional waterway that crosses the boundaries of four separate local government agencies, has varied land status and multiple land owners and stakeholders. For the most part, it is essentially a trapezoidal drainage channel designed to convey water in the fastest way possible, but with very little function for, or value to, anything else. How ought a landscape architect to go about improving it?

Using the Moonee Ponds Creek in its entire catchment as the project platform, the studio will explore design as verb, as distinct from the noun. This orientation will force a questioning of just what it is that is being designed. Is the creek a formal condition and phenomenon that is in need of change, or is its condition a symptom of something else that may need to be changed? What could that something else be? And if design need not be formal in representation, what, then, is a designer?

The studio will promote the value of strategic design as a necessary and vital process of exploring how, by asking the right questions, we can work “upstream” of traditional design-object-to-defined-brief expectations, and be the Change Agents for influencing the conditions to create new “ecologies” for the change we need.

So ‘upstream’ is a waterway metaphor for a waterway. Just as one must search upstream of any point in a waterway in order to understand the dynamics of a whole-of-catchment phenomenon, so too must one search upstream, figuratively, of traditionally defined problems and project briefs.

It should be said that the literal hydro-eco upstream consideration, important as it is to an understanding the hydo-eco dynamics of a waterway, is subordinate to the metaphoric upstream enquiry, in the sense that the metaphor is a meta-design consideration where the technical is subordinate to the political economic context by which the city and its component waterway exists. This project adopted a political economic lens in order for students to explain the spatial and, especially, the hydro-eco technical. “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context” argued Eliel Saarinen, but in the complex world of cities (not objects) it is the context that needs (re)designing if objects are to be validated.6 Teach a man how to fish, for sure, but who says man must eat fish? What happens when all the fish are caught? And what of feeding women? The upstream metaphor forces enquiry into the source or cause of the varied factors that define the situation being investigated. The Moonee Ponds Creek exists as part of, and for, Melbourne. Ultimately, Moonee Ponds Creek is about Melbourne.

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All space is produced; Moonee Ponds Creek as the material evidence of individual, disparate capital works projects (with the proposed East West Link elevated roadway shown, left, in image)
Base photograph: Martin Rowland (martyr_67)
 

The nature of the project: Situation improvement

The project introduced the idea that design is a process not limited to ‘solving problems’, but a liberating notion relevant to ‘situations’ of interest, concern and unease. (The future, in this sense, is an ‘emergent property’ of concern, and rightly so, but the future is not some construct to be ‘designed’.) The frame for enquiry, therefore, recognised the true value of design in starting with desire, from a position of hope, and value creation, not an analysis of ‘issues’, or from a position of deficit. We referred to the overall project endeavour as ‘situation improvement’. This is distinct from defining projects through the provision of some predetermined ‘brief’ and its prescribed component ‘aims’, ‘objectives’, ‘methods’ and ‘products’, for which there was none provided in this studio. Importantly, for landscape architects, it discards the traditional sequence of arriving at situations after some level of (pre)determination —  either in aim or delivery method. It destroys the traditional sequence of analysis > issues > concept > formal depiction incremental linearity, and especially so applied to the literal ‘landscape’. It makes the design process strategic, rather than making the design process prioritise the ‘strategic plan’ as a leading ‘solution’ (e.g. the traditional grand, long-term, investment-dependent but politically naive ‘Master Plan’). In short, it forced the students to search upstream.

And so the #UPSTREAM studio project asked students to define 3 things:

1. The ‘creek’;  

2. Improvement, and 

3. Their role (as a landscape architect, not their landscape architect role). 

An additional requirement was for the students, upon defining the above, to demonstrate completion of the cycle(s) of learning. For this I charged the students with a 4th challenge:

4. Carry out real-world action(s).

Recognising that the tradition of landscape architecture education and practice (not to mention the plethora of project reviews found in contemporary journals) would limit students’ perception of the creek to a physical phenomenon — some technical spatiality in need of ‘design’— and their role as the author of that design, the studio, instead, commenced with an exercise to abruptly and radically shift this view. The first exercise was specifically undertaken before a visit to the creek and before the 4-point assignment as defined above was revealed.

1st Studio Exercise

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Local government authorities (4 no.) in the catchment of Moonee Ponds Creek
 

After a general introduction to the extent of the creek catchment, its multiple local authority boundaries, varied land status and ownership, flooding conditions, pollution, the nature of the local authorities as cultural organisations, and illumination of the many independent and disparate capital works projects that have ‘made’ Moonee Ponds Creek (using photomontage above), I asked a series of questions by referring to the same base image of the creek used in the photomontage (see below):

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Moonee Ponds Creek, looking upstream, within the City of Melbourne (Photograph per montage above.)
Photograph: Martin Rowland (martyr_67)

 

In direct reference to the photo, each student was asked the following:

1. Define what ‘improvement’ may mean relative to Moonee Ponds Creek?

2. What definition of Moonee Ponds Creek does this imply? (Define the creek.)

3. Outline what changes occur & what are the drivers of change?

4. What spatialities do you see — describe them?

5. How do these spatialities exist? (What produces these spatialities?)

2nd studio exercise

Undertaking the exercise prior to a visit to the creek enabled students to approach their first site visit the following week with a new frame. An additional exercise was given on completion of the site visit, for individual response via studio presentation the following week. Building on the earlier work, this second exercise re-captured the above 5 questions and added the following:

People

6. Who are the people in the situation improvement opportunity? Can you “categorize” them?

7. Is there an audience for situation improvement?

8. Is there a client?

9. Who are the benefactors?

Public space

10. What does public space mean to you?

Environment

11. What is sustainability?

12. What sustainability issues are at play in the MPC?

The #UPSTREAM project

The 18 students in the studio were directed to self-organise into 6 groups of 3. This enabled exposure of students to real-world practices of communication, politics, collaboration, and management, as well as reducing the otherwise potentially exhausting impact of both research and application activities on existing communities had the students worked on the same project individually. It also enabled me as studio leader/ teacher/ coach to have a far greater interaction with all students and their work through their group activities, than had I tried to interact with 18 students individually over limited studio contact time. (It should be noted that in assessment terms, a part overall score was defined for individual student contribution, in order to incentivise and moderate any under achieving or exceptional contribution of individuals.)

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#UPSTREAM students in studio
 

I will draw on the project work from across the student groups for illustration and discussion of each of the 4 project requirements, while enabling the ‘new urban politics’ narrative to remain ‘emergent’. I hope this to be a more useful reference to the student work than if I were merely to describe the work as independent project reviews. For reference to each respective student group, I will use their own group name which they determined through the process of their learning. (The purpose and meaning of their elected group names will become clearer as this post unfolds.) I have not included work from all 6 groups, due to the limitations of this post, but would encourage readers to go to the student-formed project website that contains work and social media links from all the 6 groups.

A new urban politics and the meaning of ‘new’

I referred to a new urban politics in the previous post as the preeminent consideration in cities and in making (any) change. I defined a new urban politics as ‘a reflective description, an explanation, a condition, a capacity, the determinate and the only measure, all in one’. But I withheld an explanation of what constituted the ‘new’. It was the work of the students in attending to the 4 requirements of the project that generated this concept for me, aided by the very astute and insightful input from Ingo Kumic, a guest I invited to mid and final semester ‘crits’ and who I have quoted in previous EnvisagedCity posts, as well as a lecture by Indy Johar, and many engaging discussions with my colleague Matthew Willcox at the City of Melbourne. The 4 requirements allude to the meaning of urban politics and define and demonstrate the meaning of the ‘new’, viz:

  1. Defining the creek: the existing urban politics
  2. Defining improvement: a new urban politics
  3. Defining the (designers’) role: the design challenge in bringing about a new urban politics
  4. Taking real-world action: orchestrating a new urban politics.

So a ‘new’ urban politics is an improved urban politics. Again, design is engaged not for identified problems, but to bring about ‘situation improvement’ — a condition that can only be determined by the politics in question.

1. Defining the creek: the existing urban politics

Landscape architecture and civil engineering are the two disciplines most responsible for the execution of changes made to waterways; the former profession only more recently having any agency in the determination of waterway function and appearance. Despite Landscape architecture’s contribution to a broader understanding of the potential multiple functions and values of waterways, especially in comparison to the mono-functional trapezoidal profiles created by reductionist engineering work prior, both professions have, essentially, dealt with waterways in their technical capacity only.

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Melbourne 1837
Map: Surveyed & drawn by Robert Russell
Source: State Library of Victoria

 

But the technical aspects of waterways have always been subordinate to, determined by, and dependent upon the political economy of urban development. In the case of Moonee Ponds Creek, specifically, the nomenclature applied to it is revealing. Moonee Ponds Creek is the colloquial name now commonly used in reference to what was reported to originally be an ephemeral series or chain of ponds that culminated in what was first known as West Melbourne Swamp. Yet a search on Google maps identifies the lower portions of the waterway (and the entire waterway within the City of Melbourne, and corresponding in location to the former swamp), in name as ‘Railway Canal’. In type, this now tributary of the equally disturbed Yarra River varies from a narrow carving in rapidly suburbanising open pasture paddocks in the upper catchment, to a narrow to wide open concrete stormwater drainage channel in the lower catchment. Where there was once bush, there became farmland; now there are suburban housing estates. Where there was swamp, there is now a channel. Where there was a nearby tidal river, there is now confluence with what is Docklands Harbour. Moonee Ponds Creek is anything but the creek by which it is most commonly known, and bears absolutely no resemblance to its original condition, function or values.

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Pile-driving for elevated roadway of mouth of Moonee Ponds Creek, looking north
Photograph: Ian Hill, 1962
Source: State Library of Victoria
 

Irrespective of what name we give this much altered waterway, there is no one waterway with which we can identify with, or by which it can be identified. This is because there is no such thing as one place. Place is relative — to the meaning derived by people. And ‘people’ are comprised of individuals. As beautifully captured by former colleague Marty Rowland, with me on his 1st inspection of the creek by bicycle, an over-shadowed, polluted, weed-infested drainage ditch beneath the thousands of passing motorists on the elevated CitiLink viaduct, above, has significant meaning to one fisherman (that we know of).

Fisherman, Moonee Ponds Creek

No one place: a lone fisherman beside a forest of columns that support the CitiLink motorway over the Moonee Ponds Creek
Photograph: Martin Rowland (martyr_67)
 

For the purpose of this project and post, the waterway has and will be referred in name as Moonee Ponds Creek. But just how this waterway ought to be defined was the students’ first project requirement.

Unlike traditional built environment disciplines which adopt a site-based or physical place-based approach to enquiry, the students grew to understand the physical creek as a product of the political economic. Yet by commencing investigation through observation of the physical, e.g. the very obvious rubbish in the water, the group doing so was able to move upstream to the source or core of the rubbish symptom (not ‘problem’). In doing so, students were able to map human factors: values, relationships, power, and decisions that were responsible for what they saw. The creek was generally defined by the groups as a state by which the creek is perceived, valued, thought about, and, from which change is made: i.e. through urban politics. Space was understood as a product of the political economy of development.

 

TROJAN ART @Trojantrashart

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Moonee Ponds Creek as the separation, through levels of trust and power, between decision-makers and citizens
TROJAN ART @Trojantrashart
 

 

IMAGE OF THOUGHTS @Imageofthoughts

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Moonee Ponds Creek as product and symptom of social relations
IMAGE OF THOUGHTS @Imageofthoughts
 

 

DOMINO EFFECT @COACHMPC

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Moonee Ponds Creek as state government-dominated urban politics, with the development plan prioritised and ordained
DOMINO EFFECT @COACHMPC

 

2. Defining improvement: a new urban politics

Having defined the creek in its political economic context, the students were able to avoid the traditional process of prioritising the image (aesthetic — technical or illusionary) of the object (creek — physical), and how the object exists (technical), over that which produces it and why. Improvement was generally defined among the groups as a state by which the creek is mutually perceived, valued, thought about, and, from which change is made: i.e. a new urban politics. The difference between the current urban politics and the ‘new’ is in representation, forms and relations of power, trust, and the cultures of decision-making.

 

TROJAN ART @Trojantrashart

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An improved Moonee Ponds Creek as balanced representation in decision-making
TROJAN ART @Trojantrashart
 

 

IMAGE OF THOUGHTS @Imageofthoughts

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An improved Moonee Ponds Creek as a re-vamped decision-making platform
IMAGE OF THOUGHTS @Imageofthoughts

 

DOMINO EFFECT @COACHMPC
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An improved Moonee Ponds Creek as a balanced communal capacity to determine a Development Plan
DOMINO EFFECT @COACHMPC

 

3. Defining the (designers’) role: the design challenge in bringing about a new urban politics

Recognising that the creation of a new urban politics is a design challenge of process, not object, the students, generally, were able to see that the challenge for themselves and, therefore, for landscape architects and designers was in influencing these circumstances. The traditional definition of design as noun, and designer as author would not do. The demands of shifting the existing systems of power required a different type of designer, and with a different value base and proposition, and with a different focus, process and toolkit. The challenge of bringing about a new urban politics is itself a political one. The notion of designer as author is subordinated to the designer as Agent of Change; the ‘mastermind’ to the facilitator; the dictator to the influencer; the owner to the enabler; the instructor to the coach, and so on.

 

TROJAN ART @Trojantrashart

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Designer as mediator of trust and power in the relation between decision-makers and citizens
TROJAN ART @Trojantrashart

 

IMAGE OF THOUGHTS @Imageofthoughts

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Designer as mediator towards a new form of decision-making
IMAGE OF THOUGHTS @Imageofthoughts

 

DOMINO EFFECT @COACHMPC
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Designer as power coach
DOMINO EFFECT @COACHMPC
 
4. Taking real-world action(s): orchestrating a new urban politics

Of course all this is just theory, without real world action. But, as Kurt Lewin said, “there is nothing as practical as good theory”7. It must be noted that the process revealed thus far was largely developed through real-world observation (site), divergent reflection (questioning), abstract assimilation (mind mapping), and convergent conceptualisation (synthesis and propositional systems modelling). It required accommodation in the real-world to test theory and bring about a new situation from which to learn. For this there was no one grand action, but rather a series of progressive and iterative actions, generally small at first, and rapid and low-cost. Such action tested assumptions, as well as creating new conditions that altered the trajectory of approach and introduced new players of value.

In the entire student work there is a strong community activism through participatory design. Drawing, in particular, on the work of Natalie Jeremijenko and Usman Haque that I introduced, students were able to use the physical qualities of the creek as the very aesthetic with which to generate an awareness and education and learning among communities, not just of the creek as a hydro-eco system, but of the communities themselves.

 

TROJAN ART @Trojantrashart

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Establishing, strengthening and challenging relations to bring about a new urban politics
TROJAN ART @Trojantrashart
 
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Strategy as performative action
TROJAN ART @Trojantrashart

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Iterative interventions with specific intents
TROJAN ART @Trojantrashart
 

 

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Bike path survey
TROJAN ART @Trojantrashart

 

 

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Trojan Raft flyer
TROJAN ART @Trojantrashart
 

 

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Targeted communities
TROJAN ART @Trojantrashart

 

 

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 Participatory Design 
TROJAN ART @Trojantrashart

 

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A TrojanTrash Artwork returning the rubbish to the creek from whence it came
TROJAN ART @Trojantrashart

 

IMAGE OF THOUGHTS @Imageofthoughts
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DOMINO EFFECT @COACHMPC

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New cycle

In keeping with the praxial nature of the studio, the students were, finally, asked to reflect on the final action they took, in order to assess their own agency and learning. Were they ‘successful’? Were their assumptions validated? What would they do next time? What would they do next?

TROJAN ART @Trojantrashart

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IMAGE OF THOUGHTS @Imageofthoughts
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DOMINO EFFECT @COACHMPC
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Postscript

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A different power source, intent and effect
DOMINO EFFECT @COACHMPC
 

By enabling new players to be engaged in new ways with the everyday, their communal involvement generated social capacity and political capital for change, not least in the students themselves. How to earn and respect this political capital, and then influence social relations from which representation and mediation of power are productive toward the collectives upon which society relies, is the delicate challenge to, and essential professional duty of, the designer/ change agent.

And I would say, that in our time of great environmental uncertainty, any notion of sustainability cannot be appreciated without first a biological empathy with the earth we are inextricably connected to and dependent upon, even the fragile natural qualities of an unloved stormwater drain. For love has no single, identifiable reason for being; it just is. It cannot be explained, but it cannot be out-argued or extinguished. I am sure that a deep concern for the environment can be awakened in all of us because of what we are. The challenge is how to awaken it. While new forms and public availability of data are enabling us to see and measure the world in ways we previously could never have imagined, we must remember that all data is but an abstraction of reality, not reality itself. I believe it is through contact with phenomena that our (re)connection to, and respect for, nature can be made.

Needless to say (and as I often said to the students during studio), the improvement of Moonee Ponds Creek is a long-term ambition, in scope and process. We didn’t have the luxury of a long-term time-frame with which to influence a new urban politics that is required to counter the very ugly, undemocratic (capital-P dominated) urban politics which continues to stifle the needs and voices of communities, and which denies the value of the ecological commons. (I refer, directly, to the Victorian state government’s East-West Link project that directly impacts the Moonee Ponds Creek that I mentioned in the first of this post series on a new urban politics. For a sad account of the current state of urban politics, read Andrew Kelly’s ‘Address to the Comprehensive Impact Statement (CIS)’, 10 April 2014.)

Yet, as Richard Bawden once said, “no time is ever wasted”, and I am grateful for the opportunity to work with such an incredibly eager, brave, courageous and appreciative class of students that made #UPSTREAM. For without the studio I may, today, still be pushing a line that says strategic purpose is the preeminent consideration in strengthening community futures, rather than accepting strategic purpose as a vital emergent property of those from whom a purpose may only be purposed and validated.

Change is happening off the sheet

Change is happening off this sheet
End of year Landscape Architecture exhibition: use of the prescribed 1 x A0-width sheet. #UPSTREAM panel (centre left), and adjacent digitally displayed images of student modelling and action (centre right)

 

1. Richard Bawden, The Hawkesbury Experience: Tales from a road less traveled, paper prepared for the “Workshop on New Directions in Agroecology Research and Education”, University of Wisconsin-Madison 29-31 May, 2002. Later published as: Bawden, R.J. (2005) “The Hawkesbury Experience: Tales from a road less traveled.” Chapter 14 in The Earthscan Reader in Sustainable Agriculture, J. Pretty (ed), Earthscan (London).

2. Despite the hegemony of the  ‘built environment’ professions in the making and re-making of the city over the last few decades, the current development of design in business schools, and the notion of the ‘smart city’ (read citizen), demonstrate encouraging signs of ‘strategy’ and citizen empowerment respectively, especially in ways which could never be imagined by focusing on form and the technical. 

3. Alexander Cuthbert, Understanding Cities: Method in urban design, Routledge, (Oxon), 2011.

4. In Understanding Cities, Method in urban design, Alexander Cuthbert makes the sustained case for the ‘field’ of urban design to be redirected toward the social and economic sciences as a way to better position it in relation to spatial political economy. I have questioned the legitimacy of ‘transdisciplinary’ design learning and practice as an apparent break-through in traditional silo-ed approaches to design education and practice (and I don’t suggest a breakthrough isn’t needed), in a previous post (2nd para.), simply on the grounds that if we are talking about design, then working across the fields is inherent, and especially so if the focus of the design in question is the urban. I would simply rather define the meaning of concepts, and perhaps revive original meanings of old terms, than to seek new terms that appear tautological.

5. Richard Bawden, The Hawkesbury Experience: Tales from a road less traveled, op cit.

6. Eliel Saarinen, Architect (1873-1950), as quoted in Future Practice – Conversations from the Edge of Architecture, by Rory Hyde, 2013, Routledge, New York.

7. Kurt Lewin, as quoted by Peter Checkland in a lecture at University of Western Sydney, circa 1986.

 

#UPSTREAM Studio details

University: RMIT

Faculty: School of Architecture and Design

Level: Upper Pool

Studio: Landscape Architecture Design Research

Duration: Spring Semester 2013

Time: Fridays 9:30am – 1:30pm

Room: 08.12.36

UPSTREAM student projects websitehttp://rmitstudio.wix.com/upstream

Students:

DOMINO EFFECT @COACHMPC

Gagani Warnakulasooriya

Yi Ren Sun

Jiayu Hu

IMAGE OF THOUGHTS @Imageofthoughts

Candice Qih Yu Teok

Mohamad Dzulfadzli Baharudin

Dong Woo Kwak

PICASSO’S IDEAL CREEK @Picasso_MPC

Hengwei Sun

Jin Wang

Yunlan Fan

SOWING @Sowing_Upstream

Hui Shuai

De Qiang Yu

Yuxuan Yang

SPONDGE @UpstreamSpondge

Chu Chu

Dimitri Russo

Ye Ma

TROJAN ART @Trojantrashart

Kyle Bush

Huangguan Lu

Rajiv Bhageerutty

Mid and end of semester ‘crit’ guests:

Dr Ingo Kumic, Knox City Council

Alastair Kilpatrick, RMIT

Studio learnings: Critical thinking, Strategy, Systems, Spatial political economy, Brand, Participatory design, Change management, Governance, Ecology, Hydrology, Social media, Communication.

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The difference between architecture and urban design (and their pursuit of truth)

 
“No, he’s not [a musician] like Williamson; Callahan’s coming from a different place.”1 
 

The pairing of urban design and architecture, in a blog entitled EnvisagedCity, would almost certainly suggest that the architecture in question is that of…what, exactly? And here is the dilemma. How do you define something that in its traditional meaning refers to the design of buildings, and by another definition — the one prevalent in contemporary usage by other disciplines and the media — refers to the structure, or to the arrangement of something, anything: the ‘architecture’ of the carbon pricing scheme, the ‘architecture of problems’,2 the ‘architecture’ of the web? And if we were to acknowledge the growing concern to broaden the meaning of architecture — the discipline — beyond the design of buildings, to entail, in fact, the essence of the abstract meaning of the word (i.e. structure) and its application to cities, then what structure of the city are we referring — political, economic, spatial, or all three? Moreover, to what degree does architecture, of anything, penetrate beyond structure, or address the meta-structure? Did the architect of the carbon pricing scheme devise the idea of a scheme, or just devise the workings of the scheme? And if the architecture of problems gets to the essence of problems through an understanding of the structure and context of the problem, suggesting architecture is strategic, what then for ill-defined areas of concern that cannot be defined as ‘problems’, such as community futures? Can architecture — the discipline — cope with this or is it outside its scope?

Regardless of which meaning of architecture is adopted for the discipline, there is an apparent conflation of architecture and urban design today. The distinction made between them in academia and practice — usually within the one school or practice — and the adoption of the two disciplines by individual architects who are either ‘architects’ or ‘urban designers’, or both, is confusing and certainly limiting to the advancement and application of design expertise in the making of our cities. And if ‘transdisciplinary’ practice is apparently a breakthrough in traditional ‘siloed’ forms of education for ‘designers’ of the ‘built environment’, what is the discipline, exactly? Why not just ‘design’, or ‘urban design’, or, if architecture is to be more than buildings, then ‘architecture’?

Defining urban design

In a recent post, I defined through the comparison of planning and design, the meaning of urban design as essentially what the term attests to, i.e. the design of the urban. I defined design as an activity that begins with desire, and transforms or re-imagines existing conditions and circumstances toward an intention; and the urban as the basis of why cities exist and how they do so, which is through the exchange of culture and commerce for the generation and sharing of broad forms of wealth. So there isn’t a need to say too much more about urban design, except for the purpose of outlining how it differs to architecture — the discipline — which, in itself, first requires some exploration (and for the first time, specifically, on this blog).

Defining architecture — the discipline

Despite the generic nature of the term with which the discipline architecture now shares, architecture has been practiced for centuries, and has been synonymous with the design of buildings. In fact, architecture is considered to be a discipline of the ‘built environment’. But is it the ‘buildings’ and the ‘built environment’ that is to be designed?

Recently, an Architect friend ‘tweeted’ a photo of a large ocean liner moored in Circular Quay, in Sydney. He remarked that it would be fun to design one of those “buildings”.3 Having already begun to sketch this post at the time of receiving his tweet, and knowing my colleague’s keen interest in society and culture, I replied, via twitter: “If naval architects design boats, what do architects design?”

Unlike naval architecture or landscape architecture, architecture — the discipline — remains as just ‘architecture’. This raises questions to do with the discipline as well as those other disciplines which adopt the term architecture within their title. Is naval architecture termed as such simply to differentiate boats from buildings? Or is it so termed to capture the design of maritime infrastructure, and not just boats? Is landscape architecture the ‘architecture’ of landscape, or is ‘landscape’ a component of architecture? What if the ‘landscape’ in landscape architecture were to mean the abstract sense of the term? What ‘architecture’ would that imply: extensive? And would this ‘landscape’ be green? Where does this leave the architecture and landscape architecture disciplines?

Conflation of architecture and art

Despite architecture being linked so interdependently with buildings, there is a common understanding, founded by the Greeks, that Architecture is the master art, the ruling art: archi (ruling or principal) and technê (art or craft).4 But this is both ambiguous and inconsistent. For instance, did the Greeks refer to architecture as the principal or ruling art because the Greeks considered architecture itself to be art, and the preeminent one no less? Or did they consider it the principal or ruling art as in the principal housing structure within which art is displayed or performed; that architecture itself was not art, but above it — in the same way that the ‘creator’ made the earth and made the Greeks but the creator isn’t Greek nor the Greeks the creator? And in the context of the buildings for which the Greek architecon was responsible for delivering, it isn’t clear, at least lexically, whether the Greeks referred to the art or craft of the physical making of the building, or to the conception of the building, or both? Regardless, a builder/mason isn’t necessarily an artist, so the chief builder is hardly the greatest of all artists. And even if he were, art is not architecture, and architecture is not art.

I have never subscribed to the notion that architecture is art, because I maintain that architecture is design. Art and design are two very different subjects and processes. How is this important? In comparing architecture to art, we can eradicate common erroneous interpretations of what architecture is and get a little closer to comparing it with urban design.

Just as architecture is a generic term, applying to an abstract construct, not a specific application, there are many forms of art: visual art, fine art, performing art, to name a few. And we refer to many practices as ‘art’: the ‘art of writing’; the ‘art of bicycle maintenance’, the ‘art of public speaking’. We also use the term to describe cunning ways: the ‘Artful Dodger’, or peculiar difference: ‘arty’, even beauty in the human execution of a skill: the ‘artistry’ of Roger Federer.

Essentially architecture is not art because architecture is required to be something — related to human need. Art can be any thing — for anybody. That’s the fundamental difference between art and design. But they do share common characteristics. Both pursue truth, and both rely on spatiality to do so. The difference is in how they go about it.

If, as Picasso said, “art is a lie that makes us realise the truth”5 (think the cubist space-realism stemming from the distorted face of the Weeping Woman), architecture is, or should be, proof to truth. Where the artist works with a spatiality, e.g. visual (images and objects) and performance (dancer, sound, stage), to declare a truth that they have found, the architect’s very work — their responsibility — is to perceive from others their truth, and to enable, through a spatiality, that truth to become a lived reality.

The architect Timothy Hill refers to the process of architecture as being deductive, and not creative;6 design, not art. We could say that the process of architecture manifests as a spatiality of and for a truth deduced from what is observed and told — most of the time as a ‘lie’: the architect seeks to deduce the truth from the ‘lies’ that keep us beholden to the very realities that cause us to be in need of design: that which as people we all inherently know, even understand, but cannot identify or express. In architecture, the process of determining space, therefore, is not creative; the spatiality only exists by and for a truth that is deduced; we could say the spatiality is true to the truth. Art, on the other hand, manifests as a spatiality created — as a lie — in response to a truth that has been found; the lie made-up is essential to illicit the truth, just as darkness is necessary for the pureness of light to be perceived. The defining quality in each, therefore, is not defined by spatiality per se, but where that spatiality comes from. For where the spatiality is derived determines the meaning afforded. In architecture, the spatiality is derived from the deduction of truth from lie; in art it is derived through the creation of lie to reveal truth. No wonder artists Brian Eno (musician) and Peter Schmidt (painter) advocate the idea of “[g]ardening, not architecture” as a way to overcome blockages in creative work.7

Application

What, then, of application, for architecture?  What is the nature and scope of the truth to be deduced and lived? Herein is the defining question for architecture.

If architecture’s focus is on people and living, as is urban design’s, the critical question for architecture is not what scale or scope of spatiality it should address (building, neighbourhood, district), but to what truth, in people and in living, does it seek to address, and to what degree? This is, ultimately, what would distinguish architecture from urban design.

To illustrate, I’ll refer to the renown, Pritzker Architecture Prize-winning Japanese architect, Fumihiko Maki, who said a house should be designed like a city, and a city like a house.8 After hearing the architect speak these words at a conference, and watching him break down with humility as he spoke of the responsibility of being charged with designing a school for children displaced and suffering from the horrific 2011 Tohoku earthquake, it seems almost sacrilegious to counter the respected man. But alas, I only offer this in critical review.

I do not concur with Maki on this idea, not only because, as Alexander Cuthbert said, buildings enclose and cities are open,9 or, as Richard Sennett reveals, because of the distinction between private and public life,10 but because a house, indeed any building, is part of the evidence of what makes the city — what Henri Lefebvre said was the “projection of society on the ground”.11 Any design for the city needs to deal with the decisions made by people who determine the building forms, not the other way round.

Cedric Price may have been close to this when he told his client that maybe they needed a divorce, not a new house.12 Architects can assist the lives of their clients, but architects for the building-client take-as-given their client’s physical and socio-economic conditions because they are operating within a component of the city. The service of this client’s architect is to the client, principally, with implication to a broader public; their service is not to or for a populous.

The essential difference, then, between this architecture and urban design, is that the former seeks to enable improvement in a client’s living, or in the lives of people for whom their client represents, through the client’s or the people represented by the client’s established means, whereas the latter seeks to establish the means of living, for a community.

Returning to my Sydney friend who tweeted the image of the boat he thought would be a fun building to design, he replied to my question that asked what architects designed, by saying “[w]as buildings then built environment. Now systems? Reshaping the flow of matter, energy and ideas to a more productive state.”13

My answer was that that was a “nice” response. But still, it seems a long, long way from the design of buildings derived from a client’s established means of living. The answer penetrates beyond appearances and forms, and deals with simple truths, although if I were to take the answer definitively, and ignore the limitations of writing within the maximum 140-characters required of tweets, then the response would seem to leave out people from the core of the definition, somewhat.14 After all, systems are a human construct devised to make sense of what humans’ sense. As such, they aren’t the focus of design; they are not themselves something to be designed. They are a tool or method used in the process of design; the process of enabling transformation of the human state, ultimately. And this is precisely why I refer to urban design as process, not product, and the urban designer as change agent, not producer of ‘designs’.

The difference between the discipline architecture, and urban design

So the difference between architecture — the discipline — and urban design is really a question relating to the application of architecture. If architecture refers root causes for living, core truths relating to life, to community, and to society, then it really refers the architecture of the urban. If it doesn’t, then it’s the architecture of something else.

Regardless of terminology, we can say that the vital urban project of generating broad forms of wealth that can be shared, is one that has to be enabled through spatial political economy — the very basis of society and, therefore, cities. This is both structure and phenomenon through, and by which, cities exist. And it is the means by which transformation of the human state — for many — may occur. Of critical importance is addressing how decisions are made, and the transformation that is needed in the values of the individuals who control politics, economy, and spatiality, and in the emergent cultures of the organisations of those individuals. This is an ‘honest’ meaning of the urban, and the vital challenge for an urban designer.

The critical issue facing cities, of course, is not one that is to do with distinguishing architects from urban designers, so much, but one concerning what architects and urban designers are doing — and can be doing — about cities. Importantly, understanding the difference between architecture and urban design may help us understand how a meaningful lived reality is an urban project that is multivalent, and one of great complexity that is in need of the transformational process of design — and the agents for this transformation. This is a challenge that is cultural. It is enacted through politics, enabled through economy, and is manifested spatially. It requires so much more than the design of buildings made with hands.

1. Stephen Scott, pers comm. Comment made whilst listening to Bill Callahan, in reply to a statement that Callahan sounded a lot like John Williamson (“True Blue”).

2. The Helsinki Design Lab refer to this as ‘strategic design’; refer HDL Blog: http://helsinkidesignlab.org/ Note: the HDL’s strategic design capability is to be closed in June 2013, as explained on the blog.

3. John Choi, tweet via @johnwchoi, 2013.

4. Robert Nelson, “Nightmare on Main Street”, Visual Arts in The Age, 2011.

5. Pablo Picasso, http://www.pablopicasso.org/index.jsp

6. Timothy Hill, “Side project with Timothy Hill”, State Library of Queensland, APDL lecture series, (Brisbane), 2012.

7. Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, Obliques Strategies.

8. Fumihiko Maki, presentation at the RAIA’s National Conference, Natural Artifice, (Melbourne), 2011.

9. Alexander Cuthbert, The Form of Cities: Political Economy and Urban Design, Blackwell Publishing (Carlton, Victoria), 2006.

10. Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man, Faber, 1977.

11. Henri Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution, University of Minnesota Press, (Minneapolis), 2003[1970], as quoted by Martin Kornberger in “Governing the City: From Planning to Urban Strategy”, Theory, Culture & Society 2012 (SAGE, Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, and Singapore), Vol. 0(0): 1-23.

12. Cedric Price, unsourced.

13. John Choi, tweet via @johnwchoi, op cit.

14. John subsequently kindly provided me with a copy of a lecture he gives, which provided context to his tweet. The lecture material provides provocative thought and historical context, and certainly is founded on a ‘productive state’ being about the ‘needs and desires of people’ within earth’s ‘closed loop system’.

Housing is just part of great city*

(Title matches that assigned to a letter to The Age, by the editor.)

Only five weeks ago I wrote that the debate about tall buildings in Melbourne usually surfaces every six months or so, but since then The Age has published at least two more articles dealing with this subject —“High Drama” (18/11), where the subtitle reads: “Tall buildings do a city a tower of good, some say, but do we really need to reach for the sky?”, and, “Fear of a second Docklands” (19/11).

The former article continues to discuss the same old obsession with what Alexander Cuthbert would call ‘physical determinism’ — dealing with the city as if it were sculpture, unrelated to the city’s production from social processes, political strategy and economic policy; the very real conditions by which the city exists.1 The latter article revealed how the Victorian State Government has been seeking foreign investors to realise what is being labelled “Australia’s largest ever urban renewal project” at Fishermans Bend. Again, concerns with this particular strategy of seeking foreign interest focused on what the development will look like, and, refreshingly, the social consequences of the specific commercial production arrangements being pursued, which is more critical.

My main concern with all this relates to the lack of any sense in our city planning as to what the city is, and what it is for. And so I sent a letter to the editor of The Age, in response to the Fishermans Bend article, which was published today, gratefully. (It’s the top letter, of the same name as this post, and unfortunately with an incorrect reference to the article I was referring to.) It has been edited, so below is my original “uncut” submission, all within the maximum 200 word count required of letters to the editor.

I wonder what’s “compromised” in chasing foreign investors for the redevelopment of Fishermans Bend. Was there ever a shared vision? A 90,000-resident suburb is a description of what the area is, not who it is for, exactly, or how it is to function and perform. And just what Melbourne are the big six “serious” about investing in?: Melbourne the place conceived to enable citizens to live together and generate a broad range of wealth for themselves, or Melbourne the piece of easy dirt to realise exclusive real estate?

Whether the housing delivered by overseas “investment” is expensive, high-rise, or “massed glass and concrete” doesn’t matter; housing is a component of cities. We don’t make cities to make housing. What matters is who the community are, what they seek, and how they are to deliver on what can be shared.

The strategic error of Fishermans Bend planning is in seeking the “broadest range of investment partners available” — in real estate — rather than seeking the broad range of investments required to deliver on a shared vision, and who is best to provide them. Real estate and property development should not be lead drivers of development, rather supportive components of something else.

1. Alexander Cuthbert, The Form of Cities: Political Economy and Urban Design, Blackwell Publishing (Carlton, Victoria), 2006.

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