Thursday, April 25, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Paolo Soleri’s Proposal for Urbanizing China by Lissa Mccullough

Paolo Soleri’s Proposal for Urbanizing China 
Lissa Mccullough

Beijing City Planning Commission Model
PHOTO: Ivan Walsh

Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Empirical

City planning in China, as in the rest of the developing world, is coping with rapid urbanization while at the same time facing limited natural and energy resources, pressures on agricultural production, and concern about environmental degradation. Currently about 40 percent of China’s population lives in cities. By 2025, an additional 350 million Chinese will become urban, raising China’s urban numbers to one billion. Because China’s cities are growing outward as well as upward, urbanization has consumed a massive amount of rural countryside. The “spreading pancake” (tan da bing) of urban growth in China has devoured some 45,000 square miles of productive farmland in the last thirty years. This sprawl has also generated demand for the automobile. China’s domestic automobile market now exceeds that of America. If China were to match car ownership in the United States per capita, it would mean more than one billion cars.

These realities raise a natural question for China: How can China urbanize intensively and rapidly in ways that are high-density and logistically smart–minimizing consumption of agricultural land, energy, and other essential resources–while also creating cities that are socially and culturally enriching places to live? There is need for cities that are “sustainable” in a double sense: minimizing waste of resources as much as possible, while also maximizing the attractive qualities that make cities vibrant places to live a good life. These include economic opportunity, cultural enrichment, and stimulating conviviality.

A Shanghai Freeway
PHOTO: Thierry
Since the 1960s, Italian architect Paolo Soleri has focused on designing sustainable, high-density, three-dimensional cities to accommodate massive numbers of people–hundreds of thousands to millions of people–while minimizing waste and sprawl. Fortunately, indeed, sprawl and waste go together, so minimizing the one tends to minimize the other. Soleri names his urban concept “arcology,” which articulates a fusion of architecture and ecology, and he is well known for his groundbreaking book, Arcology: The City in the Image of Man (MIT Press, 1969). In his recent writings, Soleri explains what he means by the concept of arcology:

The arcology concept proposes a highly integrated and compact threedimensional urban form that pursues the opposite of urban sprawl, with its inherently wasteful consumption of land, energy, and time, tending to isolate people from each other and community life. In an arcology, the built environment and the living processes of the inhabitants interact as organs, tissues, and cells do in a highly evolved organism. This means that multiple systems work together, coordinated and integrated to minimize waste while maximizing efficient circulation of people and resources, employing multi-use structures, and exploiting solar orientation for lighting, heating, cooling, food production, and esthetic impact.The essential problem I am confronting is the present design of cities only a few stories high, stretching outward in unwieldy sprawl for kilometers. As a result, they literally transform the earth, turning farmland into parking lots and wasting enormous amounts of time and energy transporting people, goods, and services over their expanses. My proposition is urban implosion rather than explosion. The city must cohere with the guidelines of the evolution of life. These are self-containment, sophisticated logistics, reduction of waste (the lean process), interaction with the “outer” world, richness of processes, self-reliance, and the generation of an inner light, the urban persona.

Since 2004, Soleri’s focus has been on developing the Lean Linear City project, an urban proposal that he first formulated with China in mind. The project was initiated when he was invited to present an urban concept in Macau (China) in 2004. Then a few years later, in 2009, the Beijing Center for the Arts commissioned Soleri to develop a proposal for a city that can accommodate rapid expansion–a city like Beijing, for instance. Soleri’s proposal, Lean Linear City, was displayed in the Center’s exhibition, “3-D City: Future China,” which opened in November 2009; it advocates tightly contained, dense, three-dimensional development along corridors of networked logistical systems.

Lean Linear City takes the concept of arcology and elongates it into a “traveling” city, a three-dimensional urban continuum that crisscrosses continents, interlinking major urban centers. This linear urban proposal aspires, at least potentially, to become a transcontinental urban network connecting people across hundreds of kilometers, creating bi-directionally flowing bridges that facilitate personal, professional, and cultural interaction.

Jin Mao Tower Shanghai
PHOTO: Thierry

Soleri characterizes the project as an “arterial” arcology, evoking the way arteries and veins in the circulation system of an organism almost miraculously feed, cleanse, and support the body, bringing vital materials in, recycling or removing waste, and supporting new growth, regeneration, and creativity. Just as arteries and veins support the life functions of organisms, so the logistical transportation systems and walkways of Lean Linear facilitate the physical-cultural life of the city’s inhabitants. By comparison to the bodily organism, our urban delivery-retrieval logistical systems are downright primitive in their poor performance: incoherent, inefficient, and unacceptably wasteful.

In the lean construct of an organism, each cell of the body is fed and cleansed by astounding symmetrical networks of arteries and veins. Trillions of cells are kept living and working by the gossamer reticulum of an inimitable delivery-retrieval system. Our monstrous multitudes of automobiles, soon over six billion, will never achieve even a pale approximation of the logistical perfection of any organism. Furthermore, a culture based on the automobile leads to the diaspora of habitat, inevitably segregating people and stifling true novelty, the synergy of culture and civilization. (McCullough p. 46)

Soleri argues that we need a genuine reformulation of the human presence, the human ecology, starting with our most fundamental needs: shelter, food, and transportation. This is the guiding rationale of Lean Linear  City, which has implications for urban complexity, logistical efficiency, and food production alike.

The largest sector of infrastructure needing radical reformulation is the one dealing with logistics and its far-reaching presence in all aspects of life. It might turn out that human habitat has to be realigned with the logistical grids serving it. That requires urban ribbons of modest width incorporating parallel roads, cycling pathways, public transit services, and stations for local, regional, continental trains. (Kim p. 30)

ILLUSTRATION: Patrick J. Lynch

The descriptor “lean” in the city’s name is intended to evoke an urban form that minimizes waste of resources, energy, and time while also maximizing local generation of passive energy sources (wind, solar, and greenhouse). “Do more with less,” is Soleri’s lean credo, and the arterial aspect of the city emphasizes leanness: that is, logistical efficiency that maximizes benefit to the urban community while minimizing needless waste of natural and human resources–including time wasted in commuting, for example.

The Lean Linear arterial city can be outlined according to its three distinct functional aspects: (1) the arterial logistical core, which emphasizes mobility, (2) the skeletal core, which among other features gives protective inhabitable structure and passive-energy capability, and (3) the variegated and evolving cultural invention that is sustained by these support systems. The three elements operating together compose the life of the urban hyperorganism, as Soleri refers to the city. In Soleri’s words, “Lean Linear proposes a more logical system where urbanism, energy generation, and logistics are tied together in its continuum.”

Lean Linear arterial arcology proposes a dense and continuous urban ribbon consisting of interlinked city modules designed to take advantage of regional wind patterns and solar radiation, both photovoltaic and greenhouse. The habitat “coincides” with logistical channels by incorporating the means of transit within the societal presence; that is, hyperlogistics are embedded within hyperurban structures. (Q14 p. 1)

The arterial core consists of transportation technologies ranging from pedestrian walkways and cycling paths to local shuttles and high-speed maglev trains. This logistical corridor ensures intensive utilization of space in the name of car-free mobility, enabling a dense and lively urban fabric based first and primarily on the pedestrian.

The skeletal core is the variable formal structure that houses, protects, and partially energizes the arterial core, while also defining the 200-meter width of the city cross-section, which inhibits outward sprawl and promotes density. The skeletal continuum plays a vital role in on-the-spot energy generation through running bands of windmills, banks of solar panels, and heat entrapment for greenhouses and passive heating. This multistory structure also provides protection to the population in face of extreme catastrophic events such as earthquake, flooding, tornadoes, and the like. This continuous linear corridor is composed of concatenated modules, like the vertebrae in a backbone, each 200 x 200 meters in footprint and nearly 100 meters high, a scale that ensures local walkability.

Zhouqu County Flood
PHOTO: Students for a Free Tibet HQ, NY
Every module interior is designed to be unique, while still promoting urban compactness and three dimensional movement by its inhabitants, thus creating conveniences and opportunities through easy proximity by foot.

The third aspect is the diverse cultural life engendered within the modules, each one an entirely unique locality. Each module is charged with defining itself, its industries, specializations, and cultural accents and flavors, consonant with geographical, ecological, and cultural context. Distinctive local cultures are generated as the inhabiting communities adopt and adapt the modules of Lean Linear as places to live, work, create, exchange, and flourish, basing their lives on the potentials enabled by the structural-arterial core. One can imagine formal and cultural transitions in endless variety as the city travels through different climates and geographical zones.

Although a single module inhabited by 3,000 residents is a relatively modest urban enterprise, a fully developed lean urban ribbon tens or hundreds of kilometers long would be able to employ a very large, skilled, and diverse labor pool. As an infrastructural system advancing across the whole continent, Lean Linear cities could advance in parallel, coupling with each other within areas of highly concentrated population. (Q14 p. 16)

We also do well to consider the impact this urban construct would have on the culture of farming and food production. On the one hand, concentrating population in high-density urban corridors spares undeveloped land from sprawl, leaving it open for agricultural use, recreation, and wilderness (habitat for myriad species of life); on the other hand, Lean Linear in a sense brings the city to the farmer. One can imagine farmers able to reside in a fully urban context, then travel into the abutting landscape to farm and cultivate food. Soleri articulates this prospect with China specifically in mind:

China with its own problem of farmers abandoning the land in search of city life and employment–300 million of them, equal to the entire population of the United States–is offered a plan that brings the city to the farmer instead of the city invaded by a dislocating population. Lean Linear by intent inserts itself into and penetrates the land in an orderly, self-constrained way: one can work the farm while residing in town (an old European tradition, by the way). (Q14 p. 7)

As China is already constructing an arterial rail network for the whole continent, Soleri is hopeful that China’s planned investment in railroad technology will reformulate the pattern of human presence on the planet, giving shape to an alternative model for development that might be emulated in other parts of the world–even in the developed West. Rather than embracing the sprawl, gigantism, gargantuan inefficiencies and waste that are a concomitant of automobile transportation, Soleri hopes the automobile can be marginalized in China by the 200 to 400 kilometer-per-hour trains being constructed as part of the new continental rail network.

Chinese Bullet Train Beijing-Shanghai
PHOTO: Sjors Provoost

What China should do, according to Soleri’s linear urban thinking, is develop in parallel a secondary arterial system that interlinks with the primary one, providing indispensable transportation service for the 1.3 billion Chinese who are increasingly interested in becoming fully modernized, mobile, and urban. Given that this mobilizing population is more than four times the United States’ population, the scale implied is monumental. Soleri views its significance in terms of evolutionary steps: “Given the unavoidable economic, financial, cultural, technological trauma that the Chinese social structure will incur, the advance toward a secondary arteria  system requires an evolutionary step in proportion to and in resonance with the primary arterial events, the present evolutionary undertaking” (Q14 p. 7).

China already recognizes the necessity to create the primary arteries needed; will planners in China take the next evolutionary step, Soleri asks, and recognize the need for a secondary system of networks–in fuller emulation of the venous–arterial concept? One point emphasized by Soleri is the crucial difference between mere reform and reformulation of urban systems. When an urban system is by its nature dysfunctional and incoherent, it should not be “reformed” but completely reformulated.

Reform is too conservative, rescuing and retaining too much of the dysfunctionality, thus producing what Soleri calls a “better kind of wrongness.” Mere reform falls short of coping with the challenging new conditions that modern human industriousness has generated. Reform is mostly the attempt to improve what already exists, not to apply creative invention toward generating an entirely new urban formula.

China is well positioned, in Soleri’s view, to recognize the inescapable imperative to reformulate urban systems that “per se are no longer coherent but constitute a race into capriciousness, self-contradiction, inequity, destruction, collapse, nemesis” (McCullough p. 52; Kim p. 26).

China, on the border of a new era, has the enviable chance to leap beyond existing technosocial culture and land in a quasi-pristine environment with a post-Western formula. The Western formula is showing signs of hitting the zenith of unconditional materialism. Logistical paralysis is just one of the afflictions of the American landscape imposed on the population by antiurban diaspora. To reform this landscape is an exercise in too little too late. Reform will not effect sufficient transformation because it works at improving the wrong thing and thus moves toward a predictable dead end. (Q14 p. 5)
We [in the West] have been decoupling the urban from the logistical (transportation). As long as we persist in hyperconsumption mode and automobile supremacy, this conflict has no solution. Reduction of consumption and increase of three-dimensionality–a multistory habitat–offer the only alternatives to urban sprawl. (McCullough pp. 45–46)

Urban reformulation of this kind would also imply a reformulation of the modes and methods of construction itself. Taking advantage of the horizontal continuum of Lean Linear, the construction process would “unroll” across the land, building itself one layer at a time, growing continuously, carpet-like, its volumes being generated from high-tech bases strategically located along the Lean Linear continuum. The order and timing of construction would be suited to the continuous horizontal stratification of Lean Linear (Q14 p. 4).

Suzhou, China
PHOTO: Dainis Matisons

While Soleri seems to be advocating that radically reformulated linear cities be built everywhere suddenly, overnight and all at once, in fact he recommends a gradualist, trial-and-error approach. He argues for experimentation and testing with one module at a time, building the second on the basis of lessons learned from the first, and so on. The first step would be to establish laboratory-like urban institutes that work on urban problems step-by-step, functioning as testing grounds and feasibility research stations for the synthetic and systematic approach that the problems demand (Kim p. 24).

As we face the environmental realities of global climate change and the threat of catastrophic events of nature, cities need to be designed for security in face of multiple forms of natural disaster. The Lean Linear model makes it possible to define robust and coherent infrastructures that even in emergency conditions take care of the essential delivery and retrieval of people and things (water, food, power, and shelter) and achieve conditions where a half-hour early warning would allow most of the region’s population to seek refuge in the logistical urban context. This robust infrastructure would make possible an enormous reduction in the post disaster material wreckage and havoc wrought on human habitat, human lives, and urban cultural life (psychic havoc being one of the gravest consequences) and would radically reduce the costs of restoration (Q14 pp. 24–30).

It is imperative, Soleri urges, that we formulate a “lean alternative” to the hyperconsumption model that characterizes the Western pattern of development, which he criticizes as “precarious, unjust, and bloated,” as well as “demonstrably indifferent toward planetary equity and biospheric coherence” (Q14 p. 25). He is especially critical of North Americans’ attachment to single- family dwellings–the suburban dream of a private home on a circumscribed lot that is entirely automobile-dependent–which stands for a rejection of community and society in favor of social isolation and material possession.

As the logistical infrastructure now in disrepair is obsolete anyway, we need a serious conceptual reformulation of the whole system along realistic guidelines, not futilely fighting the ever increasing congestion of roads, highways, and parking areas by expanding roadways to accommodate ever increasing traffic, but reformulating the damaging patterns of our communities, especially our anti-cultural, anti-environmental, anti social promulgation of one- to two-story single family homes. One house or mansion per family requires a logistical landscape horrendously wasteful and brutally anti-environmental–the antithesis of greenness. (Kim p. 26)

The aim of Soleri’s architecture is to intensify urban complexity and interactivity, making possible new cultural-evolutionary forms that are unforeseeable in the relatively static, segregated, and dissipated architecture of the present and past. His commitment to the city is an outgrowth of his conviction that the “urban effect” is the origin of all living systems, from the single-celled microorganism to the hyperorganism that is the city (McCullough pp. 41–44). Each inhabitant of Lean Linear lives in the arterial network as a connector and conductor, pursuing in person the transformative potential of the urban effect: “As we are definers of spaces and are defined by space, the natural environ and the manmade environs, the lean linear arterial city is a conjecture willing to test and improve different geometries of space” (Q14 p. 1).

It may even be possible to convey Soleri’s urban thinking to China as a new approach to cultivating jen–the Confucian notion of just, virtuous, magnanimous humanness–in a modern twenty-first century context. Is it possible that cities designed with human creative intelligence and ethical potential in mind can actually embody principles of jen? On the one hand, Soleri’s arcologies are informed by Darwinian evolutionary thinking as it responds to the urgent necessities of living on an overburdened planet: “Life must pursue hypercomplexity or die. Only the ‘folly’ of self-creation can conquer the entropy of materialism.” On the other hand, his philosophy is less driven by necessity than drawn by potential beauty, including moral beauty, for it is beautiful t  intuit an urban scale in which everything is coherent with everything else–and perhaps it is not too far a stretch to imagine a Confucian li (sacred ceremonial communion) coming into play within this thoughtful cultural coherence. Such concentrated urban potentials promise more sustainable and vital modes of human existence that also might save the planet from our less virtuous tendencies.

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