New Territories: Social Infrastructures | The Plan
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New Territories: Social Infrastructures


Virtual or physical, systems that aggregate individuals and ideas are institutional forums with indefinite boundaries. As virtual systems exponentially multiply, the value of the physical space of academic, professional, and cultural institutions is being debated globally. But just as the paperless paradigm anticipated by the advent of the digital was never realized, the virtual workplace/academic institution/urban center has not eliminated, but rather amplified the efficacy of shared space to advance ideas. Images of New York City’s Occupy Wall Street at Zuccotti Park and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Sit-in illuminate the ideological common ground catalyzed by social media, manifest in distinctly public settings, and dispersed again through images legible to a global audience. Against this evolving backdrop, academic, professional, and cultural institutions are questioning the quantitative and qualitative values of shared, loose-fit space as economic pressures, limited physical space, and demands for efficiency converge as they build for unforeseen futures dedicated to research and capitalized creativity. These pressures have led many institutions to value increasingly distilled program-specific buildings, but this apparent efficiency carries the risk of instituting physical and philosophical “blind spots.” Just as the modern office is adjusting to the “work everywhere” approach and academic models are fusing with entrepreneurial agendas, we believe there is increasing value in creating purposeful inefficiencies in the connecting spaces, amplifying visual and physical connections, particularly where the geographic segregation of multistory spaces can preclude engagement. Institutional campuses are currently undergoing a significant transformation. Universities, corporations, museums, and medical complexes are expanding their programs and ambitions against the context of limited physical resources. Once stable and clearly defined, these institutions are now operating at an increasingly large scale and often in preexisting urban settings where growth is provisional, haphazard, and opportunistic. In 1970 the Smithsonian Museums hosted 13.4 million visitors. By 2013 that number grew to over 30 million. Similarly, the number of students attending urban universities has increased by over 40 percent between 2010 and 2014. The converging and often contradictory forces of growth, limited resources, and evolving identities demand an intelligent approach to the complex spatial and functional needs of the contemporary campus. “Campus” derives from the Latin word for “field,” and although this definition has its associations with the pastoral (traditional exurban campuses like Princeton and the University of Virginia come to mind), it has little currency in describing campuses that are increasingly urban. Beyond simply a matter of internal organization, the efficacy of the contemporary campus is determined in large part by siting. Located in or near major urban centers so as to take advantage of the amenities and transportation services crucial to attracting talent, institutions have a certain responsibility to the cities on which they depend. The planning and design of “campus” projects is an opportunity to forge a bond across a broader and more diverse range of constituents, institutional actors, programs, and scales of interaction. The emerging hybrid of the research university, for example, creates a new set of architectural issues and opportunities. Here, producing clearly delineated building typologies within finite site boundaries is no longer relevant or possible. Although the research campus is perhaps the most visible manifestation of a broader transformation in patterns of work and education, traditional institutions of higher learning, medical complexes, and museums are also assuming increasingly important roles as economic engines, and the facilitation of their continued evolution poses its own set of design challenges. And, though developments in digital technology have forced institutions of every kind to reevaluate their priorities in programming, amenity provision, research protocols, and space needs, specific responses depend on the nature of the institution. The communal and pedagogical spaces that foster the open-ended study of a liberal arts college are not always conducive to the needs of a major research university where collaboration becomes essential. At the same time, however, such divergence of needs allows us to consider the ways in which each form of learning and organization can cross-pollinate the other. Despite their evident differences, nearly all institutions share constraints on property and available resources. New construction can rarely be accommodated in the heart of historical campus settings without displacing existing buildings or recreation spaces, necessitating either careful incision or the siting of new work on the edges of campus. If the Diana Center at Barnard College is an example of the former, our Krishna P. Singh Center for Nanotechnology at the University of Pennsylvania engages the latter condition. Although not outwardly infrastructural in size, these projects participate in the reorientation of their respective campuses - the first by concentrating activity within a new center and the second by establishing a peripheral locus of activity and reinforcing the spine of campus that connects the university to the larger city. Scale, Form, and Performance: Contradictions and Compatibilities Many of our projects for educational and research institutions, such as the Diana Center, the Singh Center, and the North American headquarters for Novartis, are individual buildings that, by virtue of their siting and design, participate in and shape their larger respective precincts. The language of architecture is often too singular to address new and changing programs, whereas the language of planning is not specific enough to address the nuances of site and scale. Both fall short and necessitate the development of new design strategies, new languages. In this emergent context we advocate acupunctural design strategies that register a big impact. These strategies are infrastructural in ambition and performance rather than scale. They also recognize that the demand for a more ecological form of infrastructure goes hand-in-hand with the evolution of spaces devoted to other ecologies, other natures - those of research, learning, and community. Put another way, ecological concerns need not preclude the specific, fine-grained needs of art making, study, play, or even applied research. In fact, these activities generate their own parallel social ecologies - what Ian McHarg called the “biophysical social system.” Our interest in scale, form, and performance owes a debt to Fumihiko Maki, who, in his 1964 essay Investigations in Collective Form, analyzed the values of compositional form, megastructure, and group-form as they related to clusters of buildings or city fragments. The lesson from Maki is that the projects succeed in creating their own context that is as much social as it is physical. The value for us is in the creation of forms that become catalytic agents to create connections or links to a much larger environment. Similarly, in the context of our interest in scale and form we are drawn to Kenneth Frampton’s argument for megaform as a stratagem for creating a vital and culturally significant place-form. He writes: “What is more pertinent in the case of the megaform is the topographic, horizontal thrust of its overall profile, together with the programmatic, place-creating character of its intrinsic program [...] the contemporary pertinence of this type is its landmark and place-making potential.” Frampton’s emphasis on a “quasicatalytic function [...] the kind of urban intervention that stimulates hitherto unforeseen consequences” has been critical in developing our own work (Stan Allen, Marc McQuade, Landform Building: Architecture’s New Terrain, Lars Müller Publishers, 2011, p. 238-41). Rockefeller Center is perhaps one of the most successful examples of a megaform that inserts itself effortlessly into a preexisting context, in this case, the grid of midtown Manhattan. Here, the figural core (central promenade and sunken court) stands out against the grid and marks the center, whereas the project’s ambiguous edge weaves itself into the matrix of New York’s block structure. Living in New York, we often wander into the complex from Sixth Avenue via 49th or 55th Street, where we’re always surprised to discover the project as if for the first time. Approaching it from the subterranean level of the subway amplifies the topographic triumph of Rockefeller Center with a section that engages each layer and strata of the city. For us, the power of Rockefeller Center lies in its ability to simultaneously respond, disrupt, and transform its context. It also reminds us of how architecture can serve to model and facilitate broader urban transformations within the infinite variety that lingers within the city’s rigid grid. Research and Innovation: Density and Friction Geographers and economists have often noted the compatible clustering of economic activity and innovation. Seeking to leverage the benefits of density, universities, corporations, and research institutions are increasingly gravitating toward dense urban centers. Over the past four decades Cambridge’s Kendall Square has been transformed from an industrial neighborhood anchored by Massachusetts Institute of Technology into a gargantuan high-tech and biomedical hub. Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Twitter all have research facilities around Kendall Square, along with a host of small and midsize tech companies. More recently, Kendall Square has blossomed into a biomedical research district; more than two-million-square-feet of R&D labs and biomedical office space was added to the area between 2007 and 2014. The best research is consistently produced when scientists are working within close proximity of each other. Science has ceased to be a solitary endeavor, and researchers collaborate because they know that the most interesting mysteries lie at the intersection of disciplines. Research has established that - at multiple scales ranging from city to workplace - density, mixed-use programming, and the clustering of people increases innovation, and with it, patent production. “If you want people to work together effectively,” argues Isaac Kohane of Harvard Medical School, an author of a seminal study published by the Public Library of Science titled, Does Collocation Inform the Impact of Collaboration? on the effect of physical proximity, “[we] need to create architectures that support frequent, physical, spontaneous interactions. Even in the era of big science when researchers spend so much time on the Internet, it is still so important to create intimate spaces” (Jonah Lehrer, Groupthink, New Yorker, 2012). If the programmatic boundaries between pure research and applied research, the academy and industry, campus and city are dissolving, our spatial responses must adapt. The challenge here becomes one of effectively tuning the anthropomorphics of space to create an architecture that amplifies the frequency of programmed and spontaneous interactions. We believe the architecture or infrastructure that supports research should also enhance peripheral vision and catalyze positive spillover effects crucial to innovation and creativity. In our project for the Cornell/Technion campus on Roosevelt Island, the hourglass shape of the building is configured to enhance the petri-dish marriage of applied research and entrepreneurial endeavors, creating compression where circulation and sectional connections can generate the potential for interpersonal frictions across diverse groups and disciplines. By introducing programmatic juxtapositions - terraced collaboration lounges incorporated into connecting stairs, river-to-river spatial transparencies across lab and studio levels, and interwoven circulation routes orchestrating increased frequency of those productive frictions - chance encounters capitalize creativity. Identity: The Icon or the Quilt Given the proliferation of images in our digital and physical environments, it comes as no surprise that institutions tend to foreground matters of iconography and branding. Unfortunately, in this context, the production of an architectural identity can quickly devolve into superficial image-making at the expense of more nuanced and layered gestures. Architecture can certainly work to create a brand or mirror an institution’s preconceived history, but it can also challenge that history. It can introduce multiple meanings and multiple histories that do have collective value without succumbing to the allure of the logo. For us, a meaningful approach to this conundrum lies in the mediation of type and site, function and affect. At the Krishna P. Singh Center for Nanotechnology, the architectural complex is organized around an ascending spiral that hybridizes the tradition of the campus quadrangle with the public promenade. Both the university and city of Philadelphia have a tradition of organizing buildings around open quads, yet laboratory buildings are typically organized around a linear corridor that affords little public space and even fewer spaces for interaction among researchers. The Center for Nanotechnology twists the laboratories around a central quad, opening the sciences to the university landscape and providing a suite of spaces for interaction. Here, multiple types - courtyard, laboratory loft, ascending gallery - each with their own distinct histories, are grafted together to create a new, but recognizable, hybrid. The center’s identity emerges from this confluence of relationships rather than an overriding gesture. Stability/Instability Institutions are facing constant change. Flux and unpredictability are the norm, regardless of scale. At the scale of the campus, delineated boundaries and edges are porous, eroding distinctions between on- and off-campus spaces. At the architectural scale, the typical response to change is the now familiar trope of the neutral box that presumes a high level of flexibility. Non-generic spaces, however, often provide a level of character that offers traction and invites change and inhabitation. In our Novartis project, the predominant requirements for a flexible and changeable work space informed the metrics of twenty-four-foot structural bays, eight-foot furniture modules, and a comprehensive raised floor system. We chose to strategically contrast these open, flexible work spaces with a series of carefully delineated public rooms continuously interconnected by amphitheater-like stairs and highly-modeled wood surfaces. Places to eat, drink, gather, and pause create five distinct social destinations within archipelagos of open office workstations. In Manhattan, our design for Barnard College’s Diana Center, a seven-story creative arts building, transcends the intrinsic cultural separations associated with multilevel buildings through a diagonally interconnected series of double-height volumes. Avoiding the level-by-level geographic separation that multifloor urban buildings can create, these spaces carve through the building, creating strong visual connections between distinctly different program elements and departments, and enhancing a subliminal awareness of Barnard’s vibrant creative arts programs. A glass stair breaks free of the building’s perimeter, connecting the diverse program centers at each level and offering new views of the campus. This deliberate composition of movement through a site and building can amplify the effects of a space, create more open-ended relationships between architecture and landscape, intensify the panoramic wonder of a vista, or offer a highly edited refuge from the excess stimulus of everyday life. Rather than a casual unfolding of one event after another, we are interested in an experience of one event because of another. The levels and movement patterns here not only connect and reveal site conditions, they restructure their locations to allow them to be seen in new ways and transform the broader territories they engage. As modes of work, study, recreation, and cultural production are increasingly intertwined, the role of such social infrastructures is shifting into an unknown territory. Forming the infrastructure of our beliefs, interests, and ambitions is a conviction that educational and cultural institutions are no less an inheritance than our physical environment. Architecture cannot outpace rapid developments in digital technology and the expanding social domain, but it can and should serve as a strategic partner in these efforts - an effective incubator for innovation capable both of anticipating its evolution and shaping its course toward more public ends. Resilient forms invite change and appropriation, privileging active engagement over passive reflection. As we discovered with our project at the National Mall, not even monuments can exist in a vacuum. The site of the Sylvan Theater at the base of the Washington Monument serves at once as a frame for that towering obelisk, a concert venue, an offloading zone for tour buses, and a hinge point in a broader circuit linking the Mall to the memorials encircling the Tidal Basin to the south. As it currently stands, the site underperforms in each of these roles. Our design constructs a new topography that simultaneously conceals the sights and sounds of tour buses while bringing into focus the improbable backdrop of the stage and obelisk. A campus in the most fundamental sense of the word, the Mall is both historic artifact and a “campus” in a continually evolutionary state. The transformation of such an exceptional public forum into a model for a more social form of civic engagement is perhaps the most overt demonstration of the kinds of changes we hope to effect with each of our projects, public or private. The portability of the social bridges high culture with the cultures of the workplace and the research institution, ensuring that well-designed projects induce effects that exceed their origins and proliferate throughout the urban environment. By approaching social infrastructures through a strategic lens, our practice encourages the development of new forms of connections, constructing objects and grounds that fundamentally alter those conditions when needs evolve. This infrastructural thinking reminds us of what a consensual thing a city and a campus can be.


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