Win a copy of Fabricate 2017 with Dezeen!

By Alison Major, on 21 July 2017

Leading architecture and design magazine Dezeen is giving away five hardcover copies of Fabricate 2017: Rethinking Design and Construction, which brings together the best in projects involving digital fabrication. Bringing together pioneers in design and making within architecture, construction, engineering, manufacturing, materials technology and computation, Fabricate 2017 details the best of the triennial international conference of the same name. Each conference leads to a supporting publication, to date the only one of its kind specialising in Digital Fabrication.

The 2017 edition features 32 illustrated articles on built projects and works in progress from academia and practice, including contributions from leading practices such as Foster + Partners, Zaha Hadid Architects, Arup, and Ron Arad, and from world-renowned institutions including ICD Stuttgart, Harvard, Yale, MIT, Princeton University, The Bartlett School of Architecture (UCL) and the Architectural Association. To enter visit Dezeen.com, or, if you’re feeling impatient, download the free PDF here.

Why the suburbs are important

By Alison Major, on 4 April 2017

Today’s excerpt, by Mark Clapson of the University of Westminster, is the foreword of Suburban Urbanities, a multi-contributor volume edited by Laura Vaughan, UCL Bartlett.

In recent years there has been much debate within urban studies as to which came first in the evolution of human settlements, the countryside or the city. There was always a third context to this discussion, however, and that was the suburb. Life beyond the city walls was a distinctive feature of ancient urban civilisations from Persia to Minoan Crete, and today in the Anglophone world the suburban population is a majority. How surprising, then, that few scholars have attempted to understand the nature and agency of suburban living as a dominant characteristic of human settlements. This was symptomatic of a wider academic indifference and even hostility towards ‘the suburban’ which has only (ridiculously) recently been challenged by a new generation of scholars who take suburbs seriously.

Suburban Urbanities is a hugely important contribution to understanding our suburban world. Drawing upon scholarship within the now rapidly expanding field of suburban studies, synthesising historical geography with space syntax theories and methods, and the sociology of everyday life, it sheds new light on the historic and spatial evolution of the city. It shows that suburbia is not a synchronic caricature of a life-less-lived, but a dynamic context of metropolitan agency and creativity. As an historic process, suburbanisation is not something that evolved beyond the city to suck the life out of it, but was intertwined with trajectories of growth, with the socioeconomic patterning and structuring of cities large and small. It is impossible to grasp the meaning of class relations, of gendered lifestyles, of ethnic segregation and integration, of urban economies and patterns of mobility and communications, without placing suburbia at the forefront of the analysis. The universality of the themes of Suburban Urbanities is obvious: the dynamics of growth are significant historically because suburbs are starting points in change over time, not the end of the line. Old suburbs were once new, and today’s new suburbs, springing up rapidly across the world, will one day be old. As dynamic environments they continue to act as vectors of social, economic and political development, locally, nationally and globally.

The book is timely in another important sphere, and that is the personal subjectivity of suburbanites. To those who live in them, suburban lives have meaning. Back in 2013, I went for a walk in Fort Totten, an AfricanAmerican suburb of Washington, DC. On a sweltering August lunchtime, as I took photographs of the comfortable suburban homes of middle-class black people in roads that were empty except for flowering trees and parked cars, a woman’s voice called out to me with a gentle but audible ‘good afternoon’. Across her neatly trimmed front lawn I began chatting with a woman in her sixties who was taking tea with a friend on her veranda. She had left downtown DC in 1976 and as she stated with some passion, ‘I couldn’t wait to get out’. Fort Totten had its problems, but it was an attractive and spacious place to raise children, and well connected to the city. Her story is an important one because it is one of millions of inconvenient truths being ushered out of view by the current urban policies that demonise suburbia, and by the retro-fitting of suburbs that were, until very recently, doing just fine. Myriad examples of successful suburban living and suburban happiness and of triumph over social exclusion can be found if academics want to look for them. Suburban Urbanities looks for them, and understands that they are part of an ongoing pattern of human settlement that stretches from the ancient past to the present, and will persist long into the future.

An Interview with Robert Biel, author of Sustainable Food Systems: Role of the City

By Alison Major, on 21 February 2017

RBIEL78I’m intrigued about your pathway into this topic.

Well it converged from two directions. I’ve been an allotment holder for 15 years, experimenting with a low-input, high-productivity method where you work alongside natural systems, not against them.  That was a hobby, something I loved doing.  Professionally, I was teaching international relations theory, which is a lot about how order can emerge from within a system itself.

In the debate following my first book, The New Imperialism, I discovered general systems theory, which tries to identify what’s common to all systems: they have a capacity to self-regulate, but they can also go haywire.  So I began to understand that the ecological problem and the threats to human society are not two separate challenges which just happen to face us simultaneously; rather, we can study them – and look for answers – in an integrated way.

I addressed this in my 2012 book The Entropy of Capitalism, but at that more general level it was easier to write convincingly about all the bad stuff that was happening, than about solutions! The only way to get to grips with positive solutions was to take a very concrete topic and run with it.  With Sustainable Food Systems, this all came together.

Please tell us a bit about the process, from initial conception, to publication

Together with my colleague Yves Cabannes I started teaching a Masters module on Urban Agriculture, and there were also a few small community food-related action research projects.  This suggested a lot of ideas which I felt somehow needed to be written down.

But the project implies an unusual form of knowledge, drawing on both natural and social sciences.  While general systems theory was a help, I had to be respectful to the integrity of each specific discipline – soil science, anthropology etc. – even where I don’t have specialist training.  To ensure the research was solid, I embraced the peer-review process at several levels.  I started with a conference paper, delivered in Paris in 2012, and then split it into five journal articles and book chapters, all exploring different aspects of food-systems issues.  While I received much important feedback from the reviews on these papers, I was also myself doing quite a lot of peer-reviewing for journals.  And I could trust the peer-review system for the quality of research in the leading scientific journals which I was citing.

At the same time, the ‘new paradigm’, also implies deeper issues of fundamental world view.  In this sense, knowledge (or maybe we should say wisdom) should not be reduced to academic research.  The traditional/indigenous spirituality doesn’t see a distinction between nature and society anyway, it understands that our minds are part of nature, and correctly sees farming as intrinsically rooted in the wider ecosystemic context.  In this sense, visioning sustainable futures is also a return, to a more authentic way of apprehending the world and our place in it.Sustainable Food cover

Finally, the project implied a different publishing model.  Though there were enquiries from conventional publishing, I quickly rejected this when I realised that the form of publication must reflect the content: the book is about emergent order, self-organisation, commons regimes, peer-to-peer, grassroots research … therefore it had to be open-access.  I was delighted that UCL Press was thinking the same way.

What’s your take on organic food? Are you advocating it?

There are two issues here.  First, from a consumer angle, of course there are dangers from pesticides or loss of nutrients, which are rightly emphasised, but at the end of the day you might just say mainstream agriculture successfully feeds the world and the risk of changing it is too great.  So I would rather approach the question from the production angle: the main thing wrong with conventional farming is that it destroys the complex soil ecosystem and ultimately the soil itself, and therefore the risk of not changing it is too great.  We have a window of opportunity while there’s still enough food around.  That’s why the issue is urgent.

Secondly, ‘organic’ can often seem a negative definition, i.e. we limit ourselves by renouncing chemicals, which makes it seem like we’re farming with one hand tied behind our back.  I’d rather emphasise what we are opting into: a whole new world of biomimicry and self-organisation … that’s why I sometimes prefer a term like Natural Systems Agriculture.  Besides, the problem isn’t just chemicals, but a lot of other stuff: excessive ploughing, monocropping … Much of this is about how we face risk, because natural systems spontaneously evolve in response to shocks, and become stronger in doing so.

Surprise me with something unexpected you encountered in researching this book.

A couple of paradoxes, which are in fact closely linked:

[1] When looking for cutting-edge examples of the new paradigm in action – learning from nature, self-assembly and self-healing, not trying to control systems too much – I found them in areas like industrial design and materials science; farming in contrast, which you might expect to be our interface with nature, is still horribly conservative and stuck in the old ways. Wonderful research is being done, about soil systems for example, but translating this into an innovative, high-productivity, totally biomimicked farming practice: that’s not yet the mainstream, it’s still very peripheral.

[2] The countryside is so heavily depleted by herbicides, pesticides and monocropping, that cities are potentially havens for nature to regenerate itself: this has been beautifully demonstrated by green roofs, for example, and is potentially very encouraging for a programme of greening the city.  We might even pioneer the new paradigm here!

The book has an optimistic vibe, because it’s about solutions, and as you’ve said, some elements of ‘paradigm shift’ already underway.  So what’s blocking it?  And in particular, how do you interpret the recent Right-wing nationalist backlash.

In the book, I paraphrase a quote from Lenin, about the ruling system being dragged against its will into a new social order.  The shift in world politics towards the nationalist Right shows the system digging its heels in, frantically resisting the implications which its very own development has unleashed.  That’s the aspect internal to society.  But then there’s the environmental context: climate – plus soil-degradation and species-loss – forms the backdrop to everything.

So why is the nationalist Right addicted to climate denial? Because if we take climate seriously, we’d have to face up to the social conditions demanded by resilience: decentralised capacity, peer-to-peer networks, modularity, non-monetary exchange, commons regimes.  These are all evident in today’s food-related social movements – seed-sharing for example.  The issue is inevitably political: a new ‘order’ is a self-organised, emergent order.  That’s what scares the ruling interests.

So what about this term ‘food sovereignty’? That sounds nationalistic in a way…

I think it was always more about community autonomy.  But in a deeper sense, I take your point: we must dare to be normative, not just describe a movement like food sovereignty, but discover what it should be.  A lot about the ‘old’ food sovereignty was resisting the extreme neo-liberal agenda of ‘free’ trade and its disastrous implications for food, and that was all very necessary, but it was only a phase.  In the book I try to place this in a much broader historical context. You have millennia of resistance against exploitative agrarian systems, then against colonialism and imperialism, then against the ‘Green Revolution’ of the Cold War; at an English level, there is an unbroken legacy: the peasants’ revolt, the Diggers of 1649, early 19th century Chartists, the Land and Freedom movement of the 1970s, and some inspiring contemporary stuff. If the ruling agenda is today shifting away from ‘free’ trade, the enduring issues of commons and land rights haven’t changed.

At the same time, today’s food sovereignty must also face up to new challenges.  What has gone haywire (in society and its relations with nature) has been a narrowing, homogenisation, simplification.  Physically, this is seen in the shrinking variety of crops being cultivated, in the strains of each crop etc.; socio-politically this is seen in intolerance, xenophopia, the narrowing of discourses.  If that is permitted, we will have a system (in food, in society) which fractures and disintegrates in the face of shocks.

So if we are to respond to this threat, I would say – prolonging the book’s argument – that if political liberalism has in a sense destroyed itself by hitching itself to economic neo-liberalism, then the good things which used to be (very imperfectly) identified with liberalism must be regenerated on a new basis: tolerance, pluralism, what I’d call a ‘new cosmopolitanism’ … in essence a diverse system which can produce innovation from anywhere and which – when it faces shocks – will get stronger.

The movement over land and food can be a flagship for this.  Today, the academic and science community is trying to resist the attacks of obscurantism, but can’t do this alone: it needs mass allies.  This is precisely what the land/food-related struggles – of peasants, indigenous peoples, the urban masses – can supply; the academic world has important knowledge to offer, but it will also be itself transformed by discovering a new social relevance.

In these ways, researching the book, I got some kind of glimpse of a new world coming into being.  It’s exciting to feel part of this.

Sustainable Food Systems: The Role of the City is available to download for free here.

Housing – Critical Futures: ‘a critical issue at a critical time’

By Graham Cairns, on 17 June 2016

research programme led by AMPS (Architecture, Media, Politics, Society) and supported by UCL Press

The Housing – Critical Futures research programme confronts a critical issue at a critical time. In London, a leading capital of global finance, there is a chronic shortage of affordable housing for those that service ‘the service’ sector. The crisis is at levels not seen since World War II. In Beijing, capital of the 21st century’s political powerhouse, the displacement of long-standing communities is a daily occurrence. In Mumbai, thAmps finale biggest health risk faced by the city today has been identified as overcrowded housing, while in São Paulo, football’s 2014 World Cup took place against a backdrop of community unrest and the chronic living conditions of the poor. The private sector, the state and residents themselves are searching for solutions. Whether housing refugees in conflict areas, providing safe water to the households in the developing world, or ensuring key workers can live in the cities they support in the West, the question of housing is not only global, but critical.

In addressing these questions AMPS (Architecture, Media, Politics, Society) has partnered with institutions, organizations, individuals, activists, designers, theorists and, of course publishers. Our key publishing partner is UCL Press which has been fundamental in ensuring that the work of those we collaborate with reaches a wide and relevant audience on an open access basis. UCL Press has worked with us in developing a book series on housing that allows AMPS to bring together the ideas of diverse players internationally around the issue of housing. The Press is supportive of our interdisciplinary agenda meaning together we are able to present an amazing array of perspectives covering a range of issues. Whether it be architects dealing with design-led ideas, residents analyzing participatory processes, planners critiquing models of development, economists explaining financial frameworks at macro and micro levels, or activists campaigning for changes on government policy, UCL Press has worked with us to find dissemination routes.

The AMPS journal, Architecture_MPS is also published through UCL Press and while this is open to an interdisciplinary body of authors and is open to a much wider range of topics, UCL Press has welcomed our use of the journal to promote our housing agenda. We have developed a series of SIPs (special issue publications) with them and our first special issue, which will be published in September 2016, is focused on housing.

About the author

Graham Cairns is Director of AMPS and Executive Editor of the associated journal Architecture_MPS. He is currently based at Columbia University, New York, and is Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL.

More details:

Architecture_MPS journal: http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/uclpress/amps

Housing Critical Futures Book Series: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ucl-press/series/housing-critical-futures

‘We are all suburbanites’

By Laura S Vaughan, on 16 June 2016

Suburban Urbanities is an edited collection that is the culmination of over seven years’ research into the urban form and social logic of metropolitan suburbs. The research considered the factors that contribute to the long-term success of suburban town centres. In order to do this we studied a century’s morphological evolution and land use patterns of twenty outer London suburbs as well as, more generally, how cities IMAGE 4_Scottgrow and take shape over time. The research took a multi-disciplinary approach, integrating urban analysis (using space syntax) with ethnographic studies of people, organisations and places on the one hand, and historical studies of land uses and urban form on the other. Towards the end of our project we sought out a comparative set of examples from the UK and elsewhere around Europe and the Mediterranean. The book takes these examples and organises these into three themes: Suburban Centralities – which has a focus on city-wide transformations, showing that local places are shaped and formed over time according to their accessibility to long-term patterns of human, social and economic networks of activity across scales; High Street Diversity – which has a focus on the high street, the active centre of urban and suburban centres. The last section of the book is called ‘Everyday Sociability’.  In addition to the case studies themselves, the book has a clear agenda, to challenge the perception that urbanity only exists in the city. Opening with a pair of theoretical position pieces, it argues that urbanity exists in a continuum from urban to suburban. When discussing suburban life it is vital to get away from the binary choice between suburban versus urbane. Indeed, we are all suburbanites in one way or another, given that urbanism is a temporal process.

As an early adopter of open access through UCL’s repository, UCL Press seemed like an ideal choice for Suburban Urbanities, given that it is a university press dedicated to full open access. A surprising bonus has been the fast turnaround, from submission in April 2015 to publication in November 2015. At the same time the visual and material quality of both online and print version is excellent – indeed, one of the book’s reviewers commented that it is “a book that looks and feels beautiful”. Most important for me has been the immediate impact of the book. Alongside its thousands of downloads (3750 at last count) in eighty eight countries, it has had impact in all sorts of unexpected places: featuring in The Atlantic in its CityLab blog and an activist in New Zealand has been tweeting excerpts of the book at his local planning authority to raise various policy issues. My hope is that it will continue to resonate far and wide as we continue to battle with the complexity of suburban urbanity in future years.

About the Author

Laura Vaughan is Professor of Urban Form and Society at the Space Syntax Laboratory, Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, and editor of Suburban Urbanities. In addition to her longstanding research into London’s suburban evolution, she has written on many other critical aspects of urbanism today. Follow her on Twitter at @urban_formation.