What is the role of the design academy in dealing with today’s challenges — urbanization, climate change, biodiversity loss, and population growth? Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) Dean Mohsen Mostafavi said the academy plays a unique role in a keynote speech at the Innovative Metropolis conference organized by the Brookings Institution and Washington University in St. Louis, arguing that design schools “construct knowledge, conduct research, and disseminate information,” but also “advance alternative possibilities, new ideas.” In a review of how urban design and planning have evolved over the years, Mostafavi also outlined the new directions GSD is proposing for cities, with its drive towards new theories of landscape urbanism and now ecological urbanism.
According to Mostafavi, there’s still debate as to whether “urban design is a true discipline” like architecture or landscape architecture or simply a “practice.” At GSD, where the first urban design program was founded more than 50 years ago, it’s treated as a practice area. Other programs, like the one at Washington University in St. Louis, treat it as a discipline.
At GSD, urban design and planning programs are linked, so that planning students actually get a sense of design challenges. It’s not the case, he said, at other programs. “The U.S. has very few planning programs rooted in design. Most plannng programs are like the Brookings Institution, with a focus on policy and social sciences.” GSD’s planning program is “project-based.” This was in part because the planning and urban design schools were created right after World War II, when the “world needed to reconstruct its cities.” These were the types of programs cities needed.
So what do design schools have to offer cities today? “We are not an NGO or government, but we try to have impact by constructing knowledge, conducting research, and disseminating our findings.” The goal of GSD is “not just boosting technocratic practices, but to advance new possibilities and ideas.” Design education, at its best, “can open up new questions and create new collaborations.” For Mostafavi, a rich vein of questions are around, “What does an ecological city look like? How does it actually function?”
Mostafavi explored some early urban design concepts. By the end of the 16th century in Rome, one could plot the connections between churches and see a “topography of Catholicism.” The nodes of the churches formed purposeful networks outlined in the landscape of the city. This was an early form of urban design. Then, in Paris, an actual landscape — the gardens and allees of Versaille — served as the model for the avenues of Paris. Showing photos of Paris’ axial green boulevards, Mostafavi said “this was a landscape model imposed on the city.” And while there were “military reasons for laying out the avenues as they did, landscape technique was used.” Decades later, an actual Garden City movement was formed, promoting the idea of a landscaped city.
For the past 10-15 years, Mostafavi, James Corner, ASLA, Charles Waldheim, Affiliate ASLA, and others have promoted the theory of “landscape urbanism, which used to mean quite a few things.” It’s really about “what we can learn from landscape techniques in making cities. It’s a focus on tools.” But, now, GSD’s scope has widened, with a new project on “ecological urbanism, a broader investigation at all levels of the financial, social, economic implications of merging ecology and urbanization.”
Indeed, for designers, just thinking of ecological urbanism is bound to bring up exciting visions — of a city that functions like an ecosystem, providing itself with all the resource it needs to function. For Mostafavi, it’s about “creating a new aesthetic practice, new modes of imagining.” It’s about creating new images that can relay the radical ideas found in ecological urbanism, which posits that an ecological approach is what’s needed to fix problems in cities, and can even guide the organization of new cities.
As an example, in the past, “productive landscapes,” such as agricultural, mining, or permacultural ones, were seen as functional but pretty unattractive. What about promoting their innate functionality as a new aesthetic? “We can move from only functionality and usefulness to pleasure and aesthetics.” Here, the dean showed shots of unappealing urban situations — salt being used on roads, waste piling up on streets — to show how a service infrastructure is part of the urban landscape, too. On the prettier end, he showed the High Line in New York City, and the Promenade Plantee, the precursor to the High Line, in Paris. “These places are both elements of infrastructure and elements of beauty.”
Mostafavi also seemed very interested in the idea of scales in cities. He argued that “architecture is a pre-existing condition in cities.” Cities can’t wipe out of their buildings anymore and start from scratch. Cities have to work with them, so the “middle scale of urban design” is a way to create something new. Further differentiating scales into small and large, an ecologically urbanist place could work on a “tactile, bodily level” and also as a grand organism. For example, the small and large scale could be combined in a skyscraper that also function as a garden. “There could be productive landscape within.” Or, in another instance, green facades could be placed on buildings, or even make up the exterior of buildings. Going beyond simple green walls, these “green facades could perform.” Apparently, Arup is already working on “engineering a living building.”
There are lots of new ideas. “Fusing the building and landscape” could be a new future. But, as he added in comments after the session, those futures will look different in each city. “There’s no singular notion of an innovative metropolis. Each place has its own logic due to its own culture.”
Check out Ecological Urbanism, a book by Mostafavi and Gareth Doherty, ASLA, which features articles by a number of leading landscape architects.