WPA 2.0: Working Public Architecture Competition Jury on Next Generation Urban Infrastructure

This is part two in a series of posts on the WPA 2.0: Working Public Architecture competition.
Part one highlights the keynote speech by Ron Sims, Deputy Secretary, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which framed the overall competition, and explains the six finalists’ ideas. WPA 2.o was organized by UCLA’s cityLAB and held at the National Building Museum earlier this week.

Before deciding on the winning project, “Carbon T.A.P.// Tunnel Algae Park” by PORT architects, the jury discussed the concepts illustrated by the finalists, as well as the future of urban infrastructure design.

The WPA 2.0 jury included Elizabeth Diller, Principal, Diller, Scofidio + Renfro and Professor of Architecture, Princeton University;  Cecil Balmond, Deputy Chairman, Ove Arup and Partners and Paul Philippe Cret Practice Professor of Architecture, University of Pennsylvania; Walter Hood, ASLA, Principal, Hood Design Urban Landscape + Site Architecture and Professor, University of California, Berkeley; Thom Mayne, Founder and Director of Design, Morphosis and Professor, University of California, Los Angeles; Marilyn Jordan Taylor, Consulting Partner, Skidmore Owings & Merrill and Dean, PennDesign, University of Pennsylvania; and Stan Allen, Principal, Stan Allen Architects and Dean, School of Architecture, Princeton University.

Hard and Fixed vs. Soft and Flexible Infrastructure:

Stan Allen: Allen served as jury moderator, and kicked off the session by arguing that next generation infrastructure, if designed well, can dissolve the impasse between policy and design. “Infrastructure can be an instrument of policy in a design field.” Additionally, infrastructure “cuts through scales,” including regional, urban, local, and human scales, and therefore must be designed and implemented with these different scales in mind.

Given the large capital investments in infrastructure coming down the pike with U.S. recovery funds, Allen asked, should the infrastructure of the near future be harder or lighter? “Do we need to work opportunitistically (as seen in the Border Wall project), and steer existing infrastructure in new directions? Or do we need more fixed infrastructure?”

Thom Mayne: “Infrastructure in the future will be hybridized, soft, flexible.” The Border Wall project (see earlier post for more details) presented a way of thinking through problems, and demonstrated the role a designer can play in “interrogating a problem.” All infrastructure problems are “multi-variant problems.”

Elizabeth Diller:  “Information infrastructure is one of the key soft infrastructures that we all rely on.” Access to new data sparked all the finalists’ projects. All the projects depend on soft infrastructure.

“The first step” in a design project is data collection. Design professionals can visualize data and “bring something to life before the eyes of policy makers.” Designers can also use data to “break down scale to smaller and smaller bits.”

Cecil Balmond: “There is active and passive infrastructure.” Active infrastructure includes roads, highways, ports. Utilities are passive infrastructure; water infrastructure is passive. “Many finalists presented localized, highly intelligent water solutions.” However, Balmond thought there was a huge gap between the “big ideas” exemplified by the proposals and “real life implementation.”

Balmond argued for the use of toolkits that can help create change in small ways and can be scaled up on to the global level. As an example, he cited a project in an Indian urban slum. Many slums don’t know where to begin to connect existing sewage infrastructure. Furthermore, the muncipal areas didn’t have the funds to extend the infrastructure into these areas. A local activist created a micro-sewage system that recycled waste among ten households in a sustainable manner. The network soon spread across a major slum area.

Marilyn Jordan Taylor: Taylor thought the most interesting common element in the proposals was that you could see the infrastructure. “21st century infrastructure is visible.” This idea is almost a return to Roman times, when aqueducts were “beautiful.” Taylor argued that if you can’t see infrastructure, you can’t take care of it or make it aesthetically appealing. She also argued for research-based and data-driven design.

Walter Hood: “Data can help us look at where we are, where we should be and shouldn’t be.” Hood argued that there are some places humans shouldn’t be living for environmental reasons that they are living in now. In addition, maybe some infrastructure shouldn’t have been built. “Big (fixed) dams are heroic, and we often romanticize these big projects, but should we really be building these big heroic projects in the future?”

Thom Mayne: Successful infrastructure projects need both design and strategic thinking. These are separate ways of thinking. Strategic thinking requires tactical solutions.

Integrative thinking isn’t “part of U.S. culture.” Mayne cited the renewed popularity of Ayn Rand and think American are too used to thinking of themselves as a single unit. “The self is the only unit.” As a result, infrastructure, like highways, are single purpose, instead of integrative. The U.S. hasn’t benefited.

The Romance of Big Infrastructure Projects:

Stan Allen: “I love big dams. They are beautiful.” He asked how the jurors looked at the aesthetics of infrastructure without romanticizing big infrastructure.

Cecil Balmond: “Everyone wants to renew dead things. Somethings need to die.” Balmond said policy makers need to change the economic model that supports large-scale single use infrastructure. Without a change in the underlying economics, the projects will continue to be built.

Elizabeth Diller: “Infrastructure is kind of a desperate problem.” Developers, policy makers, infrastructural specialists often only make energy efficiency arguments. However, infrastructure needs to be better leveraged so it can do other things. Infrastructure can help save the planet, but all projects also have aesthetic arguments.

Walter Hood: “Place should be used as leverage.” People should recognize where they are and use existing ecological systems when creating new infrastructure. “How do you tap into existing ecological systems? This is an interdisciplinary problem.” As an example, Hood noted that Washington, D.C. is a swamp, but the built infrastructure was designed to keep the swamp dry. “How do you tap back into that swamp for your benefit?”

Using Data to Design:

Stan Allen: Returning to the point about information infrastructure, Allen asked whether almost too much information was available. “What data counts?” Architects can visually relate and spatialize data, but “new tools of representation are needed.”

Elizabeth Diller: “The first step is to seek information, determine what you need to research.” Geo-spatial and other design tools can, in part, “think for us.” However, Diller thought a lot of important data still isn’t collected. “There are lots of data black holes.”

Marilyn Jordan Taylor: Someone joked that “planners collect data and architects mess it up trying to use it.” Analyzing data is important, but all design professionals need to reach a point when accumulated data starts to “mean something to you. What is the breakaway point?”

Cecil Balmond: All the finalists’ projects used data “loosely, apriority.” 

Extending the Lifespan of Infrastructure:

Stan Allen
: Infrastructure has a long life span. “Landscape architects have been dealing with change over long periods of time, and thinking in 50-100 year time horizons.” How can infrastructure projects be designed to change? How do we know their future needs?

Walter Hood: Projects need to factor in reactions over time. Many finalists’ projects didn’t explain any causalities. “What happens in a 100 year storm event? What happens if there is a mass exodus of people from the region?”

Thom Mayne: All the projects have a global and local aspect and are based in data. “There is a broader problem and the local problem.”

Stan Allen: Design professionals have an “ethical mandate to work optimistically.” All projects, even tiny ones, can have incremental effects. “Projects demonstrate tactics and can be catalysts or models of new tactics. A project may only reduce .000001 percent of global C02 emissions, but can be scaled up.

Walter Hood: In responding to the idea that sometimes park projects seem like some final end point, “we can’t work in a singular way. Projects need not close the loop. They should leave open other options in the future.”

Marilyn Jordan Taylor: All the projects rely on scientific, bio-driven processes. Some decentralize. “The concentration of energy, water treatment at the local levels is a great idea.”

Urban Infrastructure Design in Developing Countries:

Stan Allen: What about developing countries? In terms of Sub-Saharan Africa, Allen heard from a colleague that “$1 billion in infrastructure investment in Ghana would disappear overnight” due to the overwhelming stock of projects waiting for investment along with corruption. “The challenges in terms of creating urban infrastructure design strategies in developing countries is exponential.”

Elizabeth Diller: When working in developing countries, there must be a sensitivity to local conditions. “Through the process of collecting data, you can understand local conditions.”

The Importance of Interdisciplinary Teams in Next-Generation Infrastructure Design:

Elizabeth Diller: Diller, Scofidio + Renfro works in “trans-disciplinary teams.” However, through interdisciplinary work, architecture has the danger of “losing its discipline.”

Marilyn Jordan Taylor: Working in an interdisciplinary manner means having an affinity to one field, but knowing about the others. Good collaboration means bringing areas of expertise or knowledge. There have to be clear responsibilities. Someone has to lead.

Cecil Balmond: There must be a “community of integration.” Balmond argues that Holland has created the most beautiful and successful infrastructure projects of the last 50 years with their underwater sea wall system that covers 80-100 miles of coastline. “It’s the world’s most exciting infrastructure project.” The project was led by marine engineers and architects, but the project teams were highly interdisciplinary. “No one cares which function is at the head of the team as long as they can provide the necessary vision to get the project done.”

Elizabeth Diller: The High Line Park in NYC occured because of a combination of factors: civic activism, a supportive mayor, sponsors, etc. All these factors, which were “trans-disciplinary” enabled a “trans-disciplinary” team to form.

“Firms have to work within systems. Policy makers create sets of systems designers have work within. Systems thinking happens on one level, but only designers can then translate that into site-specific solutions. There are inter-connected issues that must be addressed in a unique way.”

Walter Hood: Urban infrastructure projects are political. “Who takes credit? Who benefits? On the other side: Who isn’t looking? If no one cares about an area, this creates an opportunity to do something on your own.”

Image credit: PORT Architects

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