Sunday, December 02, 2007

A neo-Jacobsian take on urbanism: "morphogenesis"

In this time of discussion about the influence and impact of urbanist Jane Jacobs, it´s interesting to hear a modern take that, while not explicitly referencing Jacobs´s work, seems to reflect her conceptualizations.

Take the innovative landscape architect James Corner of Field Operations. “Sites are always, in a sense, in a transition,” he said at a panel discussion November 8 at MOMA titled The Old Becomes New: Urban Revitalization in New York.

He contrasted the “model of erasure and tabula rasa” and its polar opposite, preservation, when “the historic residue has to be preserved” at all costs, with the notion of morphogenesis,” or “the growth of life,” which allows that “good landscapes, like good cities, are never static.” (The term comes from developmental biology.) Note that, while Jacobs has been embraced by preservationists, that was never her priority.

Ways to grow

He appeared with the principals from the maverick architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio. with whom he’s working on the High Line (right). He’s also working on the emerging park at the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island.

“We both share an ideal that is not tabula rasa, not preservation, but is about growth,” Corner said. In some cases, he considers how ecosystems "evolving into another state" and how "we can accelerate the effect.”

It’s an interesting concept, and it recalls the Jacobsian Roberta Brandes Gratz’s concept of “urban husbandry,” described as the “notion of shaping a city's growth and revitalization incrementally, piece by piece, slowly, organically, and with individual components.”

Diller at one point suggested that, with a firm like hers having the commission to remake Lincoln Center, there’s a mainstream attempt to embrace innovative architecture. “At the same time, there’s a lot of bad development going on,” she said. (That went unidentified, but it would be an interesting discussion.)

Landscape architecture + urban design

In an interview last year in the Estonian Architectural Review, Corner was asked if there’s a clear boundary between landscape architecture and urban design.

His response was no, and part of the commonality is process:
They are both different disciplines in many regards -- they each have their own histories, content and techniques -- but they are also commensurate in many ways, in particular in terms of scale, process (morphogenesis over time) and the inter-relatedness of systems (air, light, water, movement, public space etc). In my view, both fields would benefit significantly from a conflation into one discipline – a landscape architectural hybrid called landscape urbanism.

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