Notes on Tokyo. This project is an investigation on notions of collectivity and the invisible commons in an individualizing city.
Invisible Commons. Prototypes for Collectivity.
This project investigates the notion of the commons and asks how can architecture exist within it. The notion of the commons is defined as a set of existing collective actions by a set of individual agents who share a specific resource and safeguard its use. We ask how can architecture intervene and facilitate these actions within the context of an existing neighborhood in Tokyo. Community and commons don’t exist a priori. They co-emerge with small actions that connect people and places. Rather than monolithic and unitary, commons coexist at various levels; nestled into one another.
Our neighborhood of investigation is Yanaka.
Yanaka is quiet.
Yanaka is trendy with old and young shops.
Yanaka has families, children out for walks and old people.
Yanaka is for bikes, books and coffees.
Yanaka, a sector of Taito, Tokyo, Japan is one of the few Tokyo neighborhoods in which the old Shitamachi atmosphere of small diffuse streets can be felt. High concentrations of civic activism flourish in the area, as if filling the gaps between the existing houses.
The scale of the gaps between the houses determine the level of intimacy and therefore the level of domesticity. These gaps function as a social infrastructure and allow for collectivity to happen. They are the context for an idea of the “commons”.
The concentration of agents and activities in the area combined with its long history of shared similar motives, contributes to multiple layers of overlaps and intersections between these individuals and groups. Although the degree and nature of relations vary, this condition of loosely connected networks where each one is a potential resource for another creates a commons, but one that is invisible.
Yanaka is not an easily consolidated neighborhood (it is on the border with 3 local governments) and therefore not receptive to only top-down planning. We have to consider working with a ground-up approach.
The idea is to make these invisible actions of agents more visible through architecture, to create points of negotiation between neighbors and agents. In essence, we want to support existing collective actions, propagate them and mix them. This is what architecture can do.
This nuanced view of the commons suggests that it is not necessary to coerce everyone into a unified mindset, but rather allow and embrace the co-existence of a variety of motives. An approach that calls for negotiation between two distinct parties, government and citizen.
We want the citizens themselves to identify what more permanent program is preferable and necessary.
The Social Infrastructure
The fragmentation of the city means that the streets act as social infrastructure, a glue that keeps a fragmented city together, forming a bond between individuals.
Individuals like Yoko Inaba from The Children’s Theater who says, “I want a familiar space where both children and parents can be excited about” or Nandarou Ayashige from Book Street who says, “I thought having bookstores out on the streets would be fun”
or Yoshiki Mishima from Green Streets, who states, “I wanted to make a place with anonymous green, like a green infrastructure”
These actions are supported by existing social infrastructure. The small porosity of the street. But actions that are diffuse and uncoordinated.
Since the idea of collectivity existed within the Japanese pre-modern house (both as an internal and external interface), the first approach is to use that idea and project it to the neighborhood. Perhaps the existing social infrastructure can be enhanced at these points to create greater community resiliency within a neighborhood?
Collective rooms where the armature of the existing domestic actions that are characteristic of the small streets can be extended to create spaces with potential, as points of negotiation between neighbors and agents.
Points of Negotiation
The first site of negotiation is in defining the room. Collective rooms lie within existing voids in neighborhoods -the small sequences of two or three interlocking spaces with good proportion that can allow for gathering. Typically neglected spaces with immense potential to host varied activities and act between scales not typically recognized for their architectural potential.
We propose a mediator that works at the minimum within the collective room to both identify their quality and act as the mediums of negotiation between neighbors and temporary collective agents. These points take the form of existing water and power connections, street lights and other forms of public infrastructure.
The pre-existing points of contact are then supplemented with a new Tatami mat grid of posts and holes to be installed by the local municipality. In Japan, the tatami mat (2:1 proportion) is the unit of domesticity and gives the quality of room. This quality, given by the top-down, a government entity, through initial investments links the bottom-up, individual citizen, by re-establishing the presence of the domestic within the collective room. These points of intersection become places where the specific architectural elements can be plugged into the existing urban fabric.
Prototypes for Collectivity
After defining the collective room, the project acts at the level of the individual interaction in order to effect changes at the neighborhood scale and does so through the exploration of prototypes. These prototypical constructions represent a range of existing architectures and individual activities, but brings them to the identified collective room.
Prototypes are designed for a specific use, for one agent, but have the capacity to be misused by another agent. Prototypes themselves are points of negotiation. Stairs can become a new site for a children’s theater, landings become bookshelves, and canopies become social gathering spaces.
Prototypes that have the specificity of use but remain open to misuse allows for multiple speculative scenarios that serves as points of negotiation so that the community can decide what should or should not be more permanent program.
One such example is local agent Yoko Inaba who proposed the children’s theater. Yoko is an advocate for children’s theatre that promotes activities like observing, playing, gathering and creating enjoyed by adults and kids alike. They create various cultural activities like theatre, music, entertainment in the neighborhood.
Multiple scenarios are supported by an ownership model where both the city and the local can engage equally. While the city has the resources and means to identify the collective room and make minimal physical intervention and financing, it is neighbors and exiting agents that determine use, mis-use, maintenance or neglect through an active process of negotiation.
Each element is consistent in detail, and quality. Commissioned architecture through local governments. Prototypes embody legal negotiation with city councils which form economical boosts and construction while the neighbors themselves fill in the points of negotiation.
These elements plug into the tatami grid and fit inside a pavilion when they are not deployed or in use. The pavilion serves as a vessel for the collection of architectural elements that are designed for specificity but are open to misuse and neighborly appropriation.
The pavilion itself is a Japanese type (in proportion, material, construction and program) and serves as a reference to the familiar, its operability a reference to the unfamiliar, opening the possibility of discovery and revealing the invisible commons.
A New City. This project imagines a city in a tower. A city built from a master section rather than a master plan.
The Mythology of the Tower.
The tower as a cultural
and urban tabula rasa.
The basic proposal of a hypothetical tower as city is entrenched in a mythology, from Babel to Metropolitanism. In Manhattan, the tower arises from the constraints of the block, its height only determined as a speculation of imagination and limited by the possibility of its construction. It is a virgin territory that synthesizes all aspects of New York: scaleless-ness, congestion, artificiality and serial repetition.
The tower generates new grounds. Each floor different giving another world, yet are connected through shared infrastructure. Its shape is ultimately determined by stacking rather than spreading. The tower operates like a machine that relies on the air rather than the ground. The tower replaces nature with architecture.
However to limit a city to be built in the form of one tower, no matter how big, is to defy the most basic principles of modern urbanization as we understand it; an infinite web for human association based on mobility, infrastructure, and the individual dwelling. To contain an entire population of a country in a tower, a finite container, is to prevent its potential expansion. It is the ultimate anti-urban form and the ultimate architectural form.
The tower necessitates a new understanding of the city, one in which we are no longer obliged to follow urbanization’s intrinsic logic of disconnection between planning and architecture, the logics of capitalism, and the assumption of the infinite limit. The tower is an opportunity to question a current condition that links urbanism with modes of capitalistic production.
The endeavor of building such a city is to start with a cultural and urban tabula rasa; a condition that radically questions the status quo of urbanization as we know it. The new city encourages a resistance towards the given social and political conditions of the world in search for a different –and better- way of living.
The New World
The tower that is both familiar and unfamiliar.
To construct a new form of city is to interrogate the historical idea of the new world. A world that is at once is familiar but unfamiliar -a frontier based on the extraction and generation of resources. All the components of the city are known, kidnapped from their context and transplanted to a mythical island, reassembled into an unrecognizable -yet ultimately accurate- new whole: a utopian city, the product of compression and density. The city a catalogue of models and precedents: all the desirable elements that exist scattered through the Old World finally assembled in a single place.
The New Sublime
The tower that is nature and architecture.
The pursuit for the natural in the 18th century, and the metropolitan-industrial in the modern era, and the technological in the postmodern, is understood as a historical interrogation of the sublime that is inherent to culture. In a building that not only operates at the scale of a territory, but is a new territory itself, the sublime becomes a concept to be reexamined.
It is from this interrogation that the city calls for the necessity of a new sublime. A sublime that is not generated by a fear of nature but replaces nature with architecture itself. A sublime that is not defined as an emotional response, awe or fear, but the result of reason and the understanding of the limits of reason. A sublime that is framed on what Kant would define as the “presentation of an indeterminate concept of reason”.
The New Pilgrimage
The tower for the collective individual.
The citizens of the city are like pilgrims to the new world. In a conscious act to escape the current condition of urbanization, they choose to travel to and live in a form of reactive containment.
As a response to the anxiety of production and accumulation inherent to the capitalistic urban complex, pilgrims to the new city demand an austerity beyond the means of design. The new city acts as a condenser. It closes the distance between its citizens and the processes that enable their existence. Within this rejection of current modes of production, there is the possibility of creating new and meaningful architecture. An architecture based on a radical individualization that privileges not the one but the many.
A city becomes a place of radical intention both in form and its citizens. It is the place to look for a different place to live, and is the place you go and come back from. It is place that addresses a continuous transformation of the self, and it is a place to think, to leave and to come back to.
The New Urbanization
The tower that is a condition rather than a place.
Crisis in urbanism is worsening. An urbanism that is in disagreement with new forms of behavior and results in dismal and sterile ambiances in our surroundings. Can a new era be produced out of a condition of decadence, over-consumption and the assumption of infinite growth?
It is a dissatisfaction of present urbanism that in the context of the tower, we can radically challenge the formal plan-based notions of urbanism itself. Instead, a new form of city is imagined from its section rather than its plan. A city built by a deep section rather than a deep plan.
The idea of the deep section is first understood through its historical representation in painting. We choose a painting by Hieronymus Bosch The Garden of Earthly Delights. Its format and content are interrogated, dissected, assembled and reassembled. This process forms the methodology to construct the new city.
The Founding of the City.
Architecture rather than urbanization.
From master plan to master section.
To construct a new form of city, we propose the model of an old city. We interrogate the historical idea of the New World. We use the model of the New Amsterdam.
We imagine the city occured at a radical shift in History that reorientated every aspect of Super Manhattan -a much needed break in an otherwise continuous assembly of individualities. The citizens of the city seeking a restart, a revised necessity of seclusion, built on top of the existing landscape of the Tower beneath them. They remain isolated even when the tower continued to grow above them.
The city becomes became a crack in the Tower. A call for the architectural necessity of the sublime. It is an event in history that, while necessarily integrated within the bigger structure, refuses to completely fit in.
Translating the New World into a tower implies an understanding of the city beyond the master plan. The view of the new city moves away from the current logics of urbanization. The drawing of New Amsterdam can no longer be understood as a plan but as a section. A deep section or an oblique surface.
Drawing from the methodology developed with The Garden of Earthly Delights, New Amsterdam becomes the template for a new city -in form (what is drawn and how it is drawn) in content (text and program), and political, social, economic, and cultural implications. In this way both the feasibility and the poetic of the project are approached equally. Through its imagining the project can comment, critique and reflect on contemporary issues.
The deep section –or the elevation of the new city– understood at the scale of a territory calls for an architecture of intensive interiority. A compendium of overlapping planes. The city itself a landscape in which new notions of the sublime are negotiated.
The master section is then narrowed down to a set of literal programmatic bands that are connected through oblique surfaces. A city divided into bands reminiscent of the efficiency–driven understanding of modernist urbanization, where infrastructure becomes both the means of separation and a unifier of the whole and where the bands are collided by oblique streets –the transportation system within the new city- that takes the understanding of the New York athletic club to an urban level. The condition of the ground floor becomes that of the oblique surface and the experience of architecture becomes the way the territory is inhabited. Manhattanism reimagined.
A Library for the Blind. This project imagines a place for the unseen image. It asks what is the role for architecture in the contemporary library.
A place to read architecture
At a time when the library is questioned both as container of information and place of communal exchange, this project seeks to rid architecture of these responsibilities and to explore a new freedom.
The project attempts to reassert the role of architecture through its most basic qualities -its volume, form, material and comfort. In other words, the project asserts that public architecture can define spatial capacities -the ability to frame and define specific physical experiences for civic life.
Spatial literacy is an ability to imagine and interpret location, distance, direction, relationships, movement, and change through space. Spatial illiteracy is the inability to read and understand a space, its volume, and atmosphere. As public architecture retreats from its role to define both public and private life (less public institution, infrastructure, housing, washing, bathing etc. etc.) spatial illiteracy increases.
The project suggests an architecture that operates on an elemental level. A library to be experienced slowly rather than seen quickly. Library as a proto-building, where the qualities of architecture (its material, texture, volume, and relation to sensation (light, sound, air) is pushed to the front of the agenda. A project that generates spatial awareness. Where architecture itself is the content. Where the reading of architecture drives the agenda.
I ask the following questions: How can the concept of library be re-engaged that focuses on experience through its architectural quality? What audience requires a focus and engagement with spatiality?
The library for the blind
Within the New York City, there is only one retrofitted library (in central Manhattan 40 W 20th Street) that serves the blind community. Although ‘fully accessible’ and ‘barrier-free’ the architecture is not responsive to the blind –built for the seeing but used by the blind.
The spatial library for the blind aims to enhance perception. Discreet spaces explore different spatial and structural relationships making each space identifiable for the user varying in size, light intensity and weight of materials. Each space can activate a different sensation that is critical to the enjoyment, capacity and ability to conjure the mental image associated with the program of the library.
The project proposes to use blindness itself as a device, a catalyst to generate a spatial quality for everyone. It demands spaces of great specificity. It necessitates a focus on the role of architecture to support the ‘imagined spaces’ of reading, listening, talking, or simply enjoying. It reasserts the need for public provision of these experiences as part of civic life.
The site is read as a territory, a public square that is a void formed by the intersection of the grid, connected by 8 subway lines and on the edge of the historic Fulton Street that connects Manhattan and Brooklyn. The strategy is to push the program from the corner to the plaza –giving the space back to the public and removing the remaining cutting street.
Removing the cutting street reemphasizes existing faces of the plaza –its facades. Contour lines of perception are drawn from the existing buildings–each with increasing distance as spatial orientation decreases–this gives an indication of where to place the library masses. Instead of a singular building, many small pavilions connected —creating a new ground for pedestrians sheltered from traffic. The small buildings frame three public spaces -one a garden with aromatic plants, one a patio, and one an amphitheatre. The historic line of Fulton Street is maintained.
Texture is approached a primary element. The texture of the walls, pavement and floors. But also the texture of the light and sound. The touch of light on the skin –darkness to full sun. Quiet spaces with soft materials, loud spaces with hard materials, a place for the sound of water. The texture of the pavement changes as one approaches.
The small buildings (each a reading room) are approached both from below and at the existing ground depending on the program. Each room because of its volume, texture and material unique and identifiable —to the blind and the seeing.
One a vertical room—a tower that connects to an upper floor of the city tower -a void that is surrounded by a narrow staircase that forces its touching -a reading of architecture. There are moments of rest as one ascends or descends.
One a round room—connected to the bank through to the garden. The round room, its form having both acoustical consequences, and its aperture tracking the movement of the sun. Small private rooms for the listening of books, the texture of the walls a soft material. Below is a communal listening room.
One a rectangular room—that contains reading spaces, its interior circulation around a central void and the texture of the walls changing from floor to floor to identify location -the building allowing the passing from one side to another.
One a square room—an impluvium for the collection of water—its interior a restaurant that can be closed to light on the west side. The upper level, a flexible gallery space with light from above.
One a triangular room—connected at the street and below -a printing press for braille and main storage spaces for books in braille for circulation to the community -its facade written with the imprint of braille. Loading dock access to the printing press is maintained along a restricted avenue.
Each room is not read as individual objects but rather as a whole. Its precisely their indoor/outdoor quality, the interiority of their volume, the supporting program hidden within their walls that gives them a quality of “room” rather than “object” retaining a publicness.
A New Ground. This project imagines public housing to produce an architecture of resistance.
We imagine housing from the following principles.
Housing not as commodity.
We reject modes of housing that are susceptible to consumption, obsolescence and replacement. Instead housing should embody an attitude of staying. Housing (as the basic unit of the city) is viewed as a public good. It is investment rather than speculation -a place to return to not to leave from.
Instead a housing of dignity is proposed.
Stability rather than flexibility.
We argue for stability rather than flexibility —in the selection of type, program, form and material. While flexibility recognizes the failure of modernist architecture to address the capitalist city, its commitment to change, subdivision, modification etc. paradoxically it assumes capitalism’s unevenness and let-it-be policies as natural processes and therefore acceptable evolutions of the city. In other words, housing as a public good becomes marketable, easily consumed, repackaged, and commodified. At the unit level, flexible plans can lack catalysts or condensers. The overlapping of uses on a single space results in the overall reduction of space given to the house. The lack of specificity can result in spaces that while simply adequate for every task, are not proficient at any. Lastly, with an infinite reconfiguration with absolute freedom, users are not able to manage the space on their own in an optimal way.
Instead a housing of generosity is proposed.
Slow rather than fast.
We favor processes that are slow and resists those that are fast. Building a community is a multi-generational process. Therefore, the capacity of housing to build community is directly related to its ability to last —to gain, lose and regain meaning— and by the way it is meant to be occupied. Housing that is cheap and supports shorter and shorter rent horizons disrupts communities.
Instead a housing of permanence is proposed.
Clear distinction between public and private.
We favor spaces that are private as private (refuge) and public as public (community). The project proposes that community occurs in the public sphere not the private. Modes of co-sharing, co-living that blur the lines of private and public may encourage sharing, but may also lead to rationing, less generosity, less personal space, and the transformation of the public sphere (goods that should be enjoyed by all) into private building amenities. A clear delineation or limit resists the privatization of what should be public.
Instead a housing of limits is proposed.
A respect for beauty.
We look for beauty both in the existing territory and in its architecture. A beauty that is defined by taking care rather than any set of aesthetic values. The existing is not only referenced but preferred. The project favors local building material and slow techniques. The careful balance between the interior and the exterior relate to the concept of beauty. Interiors that are clearly defined, beautiful spaces controlled for light and air. Exteriors that communicate domesticity and community.
Instead a housing of quality is proposed.
An architecture of resistance
At a time when the question of housing has become dominated by socioeconomic or political discourses —fields that themselves are fluid and liquid and susceptible to capitalistic appropriation —this project argues for an architecture of resistance. An architecture that operates at its most basic level —the ability to provide a frame for living and enjoying —dreaming and remembering.
New York City has a history of typological experiment where each housing type is a reaction to a former —from 19th century tenement in fill, through 20th century towers in the park, to contemporary low-rise and mixed-use developments.
Each version of type questions the limit of the street and delineation between the public and private. Existing tenement housing built to the edge maximizes lot coverage, towers pull away from the street to create an open space, and contemporary low-rise developments favor the translation of the public (or shared goods) into private amenities.
The negotiation of the street in housing is complicated by a capitalistic framework where forces of privatization constantly attempt to undermine the public sphere. Both conditions of building to or away from the street are susceptible to forces of privatization. One type defines the street edge but transforms shared public space into private amenities within the building. Another type leaves the open public space loosely defined so that processes of enclosure implicitly start to impose with fences and barriers. The visible uselessness of the spaces make them susceptible to private development and calls for infill. The idea of ‘the public’ becomes one of ownership or collective responsibility.
The question arises about how to intervene from a position of resistance. The project aims to ask: What are existing qualities of resistance? If housing is a seen as a public good and a basic building block of the city, can a radical approach in typology, form, material, or program be proposed that can hedge against replacement, commodification and protect the public sphere?
Redrawing the City
Housing and public space are primary elements that must generate the structure of the new city —a city that shelters public life for people in a peaceful and harmonious coexistence.
The project seeks to work outside the mode of current urbanization. This intension is the first step of a strategy to recover and reinvent. Consequently, the project does not argue for an autonomy of design, one that confirms the existing mode of production in city-making but for the possibility of an alternative idea —in essence an autonomy of project.
The Claremont Village area of the Bronx serves as the greater site of this project’s experimentation in housing. The starting point is at the scale of a block, currently a low-rise perimeter housing type, but seeks to extend past these fixed boundaries. Using drawing as a methodological tool, the project reveals the existing in the city as a hierarchy between public and private rather than built and void, in the manner of Pianta Grande di Roma, showing new opportunities and deficiencies. The intension is to draw and therefore imagine the public sphere with a greater intensity and specificity -to imagine a new ground.
A simple mapping identifies New York City’s wealth of undefined publicily-owned spaces. It leads to questions of how best to address the question of density (its necessity or lack there-of), the balance between what is public and what is private, and most importantly what architectural elements are present, can be removed or added to maintain this balance.
At the scale of the individual block, the project approaches the site from its existing condition and looks for qualities of resistance. Block 2912 consists of a low-rise perimeter housing with off-street parking and a void in the center. Historical records show that the center has resisted development. Although Block 2912 was increasingly subdivided by infill housing, its center remained intact. In the current configuration, this void is not accessible to the public.
In interviews with residence of the block, the void carries special significance. Locals name the space, a ‘park’ rather than ‘courtyard’. This is in contrast to the open undefined space surrounding the public housing towers adjacent.
Block 2912 presents an intermediary approach to the public space. A void where the public space is defined by the frame of housing but is unaccessible by the general population. For current residence, this frame defines the existing common space inside. The idea of community is embedded within the structure of the void. Its publicness is present but latent due to the current lack of access. In essence we seek to project the quality its publicness to the rest of the neighborhood, beyond a single block.
Housing as a frame is proposed.
The project aims to approach housing as a framing device. Like most contemporary housing developments, the given program is mixed. Two-thirds housing (16000m2) and one-third public (8000m2). Instead of ‘housing’ as the driving element, we view it as a frame for the public program. A frame we can extend to define the existing public housing buildings south of Block 2912. The use of the frame can define their open spaces which are already publicly-owned land.
We argue community takes place in the public commons. Therefore we propose public programs that have a capacity to last, endure, slow and give stability required to build community. New buildings, as well as transforming the existing public buildings, to build upon their existing quality. At the ground level, new public programs, kindergarten, government services, laundromat, youth centre, day-care, church, farm, playground, market, pool and sports facilities. At higher floors, community workshops, vocation centre, senior living, office and adult education services. The intersection between the existing housing towers, the highest density portions of the proposal, and the frame redefine the limit of the tower to the edge of the street.
The idea of the frame is extended to its use as a formal device deployed at the urban scale and at the scale of the unit. In essence a thick wall.
Housing is imagined as walls rather than rooms. The thick wall of the urban frame protects serves and defines the public commons. The thick wall redefines the entrances and exits of the existing housing towers. At the scale of the individual house, thick walls serve and frame the living and sleeping space (whether it is open or closed). These walls contain all standard services: storage, a bathroom, stair, kitchen, alcove. Each wall acts as a pochè space and supports the needs of the inhabitants. They are orientated perpendicular to the larger frame of the urban plan.
Deploying the frame to the neighborhood, the question of porosity, gate, filter, access, open/closed becomes key drivers how to negotiate between the street and the space of resistance inside. At the urban scale, we reduce the frame to a minimum dimension 8.5 meters. At the scale of unit we reduce the frame to a minimum dimension of 1 or 2 meters.
Each side of the urban frame responds to a different condition. One side where production and living is combined facing a busier street, where the ground level can be occupied with workshop, cafe, garage, or other services which residence determine the local demand themselves. One side only with living units. Another interacting directly with the existing buildings and program. Another open. The idea of sidedness of a wall is reinforced at the unit scale. When is a wall shared? When is it porous? When does it open and close? Rather than being a sequence of rigidly separated spaces, housing becomes a sequence of spaces where being alone or together can be negotiated constantly by the inhabitants.
New York City has a history of innovative ownership models that can resist commodification. New housing is organized according to principles typical of the union or cooperative. We imagine that inhabitants would take part in a collective ownership structure. This housing would be withdrawn from the commercial real estate market —the union prevents commercial takeover by ensuring that the housing remains a communal property, and that rents remain stable in the event that the original tenants move out.
We recognize the instability of housing typology within a capitalistic framework. For the context, we choose to start with quality of the existing condition —the block commons— and give it back to the public to form a space of resistance. We seek to extend this quality of resistance and see it as a driver for change.