the entrance to the future of cities congress and exhibition

This week I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the Futures of Cities Student Congress (part of the IFHP 2007 World Congress and hosted my school, the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts). The theme of this year’s conference was “Impacts: Indicators: Implementations,” and keynote addresses were arranged around these three themes. This was the first joint World and Student Congress, which was great because it meant that during joint sessions, students were able to mingle with professionals, and the school was able to host a party and a reception that included both groups. I thought that this was a great feature of the conference…although I do wish I could also have taken part in some of the activities that the “professional” (and prohibitively expensive) conference offered, such as issue-specific day tours around Copenhagen. But it was great just to be able to take part in the student congress. Another major part of the congress was the IFHP Ranko Radovic Student Competition, in which student teams from around the world submitted both questions and answers (in the form of proposals) about the theme, “Futures of Cities.” More 300 students from around the world attended the conference, and the 193 student competition entries represented 35 different countries. The judging and reviewing of the competition entries was mixed in with the other conference events, and the entries were on display throughout the conference.


Some photos from the conference:


the student competition exhibition


all 193 student entries are on display!


attendees during a break/more competition entries


I’ll include more detailed notes from the sessions that I attended below, but here’s a brief rundown of the major keywords and themes that surfaced in several different forums at the Futures of Cities conference:

A lot of talk at the congress revolved around the existence of the many contradictions that this city represents (old and new, global and local, east and west, rich and poor…the list goes on) and also about the speed of development that is occurring there. In the areas surrounding Shanghai, several new cities are being built completely from scratch, and there was a lot of debate and discussion about how this is being done, and how it “should” be done.

Dubai. This one was fairly obvious. Either Dubai or Shanghai was used as a reference every “cities of the future” came up in discussion. These places represent, to many people, the direction in which urban futures are heading, for better or worse. Dubai is a particularly illustrative example because of the nature of its many master-planned projects…they represent planning at its most extreme, and make “stamps” on the landscape. It’s also an entire city full of iconic buildings (as is Shanghai), which has created problems for both living and building in the city (see below for more discussion on the iconic building topic).

Micro-communities. This was a new buzzword for me. I’m still not sure exactly what it means, but it was often used in relation to global scale phenomena, such as in the student competition entry entitled, “A Microcommunity Solving Global Problems.” To me, this seems to be another way to talk about issues of where the “local” fits in rapidly globalizing societies, but I’m still not sure as to how small “micro” actually is…what makes a community a “micro-community?” This was a phrase that I heard used many times but not really explained.

Doomsday scenarios. Many of the competition entries were designed around scenarios in which the earth, or particular cities, were facing hardships related to global climate change or natural disasters and had to create new and innovative strategies in order to survive. The winning competition entry, “Trawling City,” was a design for a floating city that was both a production plant for more “cities” and an energy generator.

The irresponsibility of designing iconic buildings. It was refreshing to see several talks in which “practical” buildings were equated with being socially responsible. This was a key point of Shigeru Ban’s talk, and was particularly highlighted in Ellen Van Loon (of OMA)’s talk about their recent competition entry for a high-rise in Dubai: a rectangular building. Okay, it also rotated. But the firm was reacting so strongly against the landscape of “landmark” buildings in Dubai that it felt it was actually creating a landmark by making the plainest shape possible. Please see my notes on Shigeru Ban’s discussion for more about this.

It was really interesting to hear a largely European perspective on these issues. It was also a bit humbling to see how many times U.S. cities were used as the “bad” examples in terms of sustainable urban systems (hi there, Atlanta, Houston, and Denver!). However, references to U.S. cities weren’t all negative, and I was happy to see both Portland’s and Minneapolis’ streetcar systems mentioned, as well as Chicago’s green roof initiative and the work that William McDonough has done. We do, howeer, have a very long way to go, and there are some extremely inspiring examples from both Europe and developing countries out there. It was also very interesting to hear talk at the conference about Shanghai and issues of iconic buildings and city branding, as I spent time interning in Shanghai last year and contemplated focusing my M.UP thesis on issues of city branding.

Below is a selection of my notes from the various talks and conference events that I attended. Where I’ve added my own thoughts, they appear in italics.

“Impacts of Architecture” (Ellen Van Loon, OMA)

• International business prefers the tower
• Dubai is trying to position itself to become the economic center of the Middle East as its ability to produce oil is declining
• Residential land is newly created, as opposed to using what we have
• The city is “one big mess of special buildings”
• OMA took part in a competition in Dubai to create yet another icon: instead of making a traditional highrise, they tried to create “public” or “urban” layers within the building…but left it as a plan, rectangular form (that rotated) – they lost the competition to Zaha Hadid’s design
• Europe is shrinking, not growing; need to focus on issues of reuse
• UNESCO charters, over time: shift from focus on monuments to issues of heritage diversity and cultural heritage
• Ongoing OMA projects: bank project in London, new curatorial design for the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, embassy in Berlin, Casa de Musica in Porto…all of these projects have distinct urban strategies
• There exists a dichotomy between historic and generic identities…how do we balance the iconic and the cultural?

I found this last point particularly intriguing – especially in light of the observation about the UNESCO charters. Is there some kind of relationship between what we are beginning to value as worth preserving culturally and this “irresponsibility of iconic buildings?” Will we begin to view monumental buildings differently? Also, “monumental” is only such if it can exist within a field of “ordinary.” This is the problem that Shanghai and Dubai are having…today, it’s technically and economically possible for nearly everyone to build ionic buildings, not just the state. There are undertones of urban identity here, as well.

“Co-Evolution” (Danish-Chinese collaboration: CEBRA, EFFEKT, COBE, and TRANSFORM of Denmark, with Liang Wei of Shanghai)

This was one of four parallel sessions…the others were: Negotiations, Re-territories, and Regional Urbanism.

• “Faced with both opportunities and challenges, we must carefully think about and seriously answer the question of how to jointly build a sustainable future.” –Hu Jintao
• During periods of urban growth, rural populations move to cities to achieve a better (middle-class) lifestyle…in Europe, this took 200 years; in China, the same amount of transition has happened in 20 years
• 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China
• Four Danish architecture firms focused on how to implement sustainable cities
• China will soon surpass the U.S. as the world’s greatest consumer of oil
• China is no longer isolated…it’s connected to you
• Chinese “system of favors” – open system, balance through wholeness
• From “made in China” to “made by China” – innovation
• German, English, Swedish towns outside Shanghai: “copied” urbanism

“Works and Humanitarian Activities” (Shigeru Ban)

• There should be a wider goal for architecture than the monumental building…especially in a time of so many disasters
• Nomadic museum, curtains for curtain walls
• Disaster relief housing: Rwanda 1994, Kobe 1995, Turkey 1999, India 2001

The rough outline of this talk was a walk through Shigeru Ban’s architectural projects…it was great to see the transition through his body of work from experimentation and formal exploration of paper chip (cardboard) as a structural material to a technical emphasis on exploring its structural capabilities to humanitarian use of the material in post-disaster situations. Ban’s first project using paper chip was an exhibition design – he just wanted a cheap material to use in place of wood. From there, he continued to use it throughout his career…and today it serves his agenda of creating good, cheap, practical designs in post-disaster situations. The paper chip is easy to dismantle, move, and reuse. As Ban said in this lecture, the ability of a building should not depend on the life of its structure, but on whether or not the building is loved…that determines how long it lasts. I really liked this last thought. Ban’s talk also resonated with me because I had a chance to take part in a post-disaster community building charrette in Kobe in 2006. It seems that he is able to use design and an economy of materials to respond to difficult situations in a truly meaningful way.

“Urban Identity” (Joint Session: Kent Martinussen, Henrik Valeur, Boris Brorman, Avinoam Meir, Daisuke Abe)

This was one of the joint sessions between the Student Congress and the World Congress. The other sessions that ran parallel to this one were Megacities, Housing Estates, Nature in the City, Shrinking Cities, and Affordable Housing…it was tough to choose just one. Again, Shanghai and Dubai were featured. Boris Brorman was by far my favorite of these speakers…his focus was on Dubai and city image, which I think he’s written a new book about. Most of the notes below are from his talk.

• “Identity” is one of those “open,” often-used phrases/concepts…what does identity mean in each context?
• Shanghai: building new cities…streets hidden behind advertisements… “selling the dream”
• Nine new satellite theme towns, Western historicism
• Public space that used to be on the street in the low-rise city has become contained; it is inward-looking
• Postcard image of Pudong in Shanghai as the “official” identity – what the government wants to promote to the outside world…but it doesn’t have much to do with the actual everyday life of the city
• Divide and confusion between advertised and real – how to establish a “sustainable identity?”
• Design as a tool for constructing identity
• “Kazakhstan was a perfect stage to apply my ideas.” –Kisho Kurokawa…who is representing who? Opportunism?
• Readability of urban landscape…identity in the plan (Dubai!)
• Cities once developed by strong states; now developed by private interests (“Cities are fun!” – Disneyfication)
• Singapore is upgrading its identity/profile with a series of urban “masterpieces” commissioned of international designers (issues of political identity)
• Dubai: new residential developments are stamps on a map: “If planning solves problems, I wonder what kind of question this is an answer to…?”
• Identity by figures of private land, identified by aerial image, not experiential quality – where is the human??
• “The City of the Image”
• Context>Concept>Cosmology…(or, “From Genius Loci to Genius Logo”)
• Symbols can have different referential systems in different contexts
• “Expoisation” – cities become expos (Shanghai!)
• Places as commodities (Dubai!)
• The relationship between identity and physical structure is arbitrary – “empty signs” – can fill in with arbitrary meaning (back to iconic buildings again)
• Berlin (and Shanghai) – changing urban identity through the change of street names

A lot of this discussion made me thing that is must be possible to construct some kind of hierarchy of “contextually responsible” planning (a la Arendt)…I think it would go something like this: stamp>image>experience. The fundamental question is, “Where is the human being?” How is human experience conceived of as projects are designed? In the “stamp” projects, meaning is imposed, not lived or created.

“Futures of Cities: The Global Agenda vs. the Competition Entries” (Sven Felding)

Before announcing the winning student projects, Rector Sven Felding gave a brief address regarding the issues addressed in the competition and their relationship to issues discussed at the conference and those being faced in everday practice:

• “Can our cities survive?” – Sert/CIAM
• Question of survival – three contexts: climate change (physical survival), globalization (survival among competitors), survival of the profession
• Copenhagen’s Harbor Pool project as a tool for thinking about the space of the harbor and the city; a new kind of public space on a “civic” harbor – now provides a chance for visitors and different groups to mix (as does Amagerstrand)
• It is important to always conceive of new types of social spaces (in addition to maintaining the established ones)
• The profession can survive if…it has the ability to understand societal and spatial dynamics; it can manipulate the market; it can combine time, process, and synergy; it can understand and develop tradition, use, and spatial qualities
• Need to begin with understandings and then proceed with design

IFHP Ranko Radovic Student Competition 2007

For more specific information about the competition, please visit:
Here’s a summary of the winning project titles and a brief synopsis of each, adapted from the competition brief distributed at the congress:

Honorable Mention:

The Transformation Towards a “Happy Village:” The project’s concern is the manner in which growing cities “eat” small villages. The project directly addresses the Pearl River Delta in China and proposes a strategy of small changes seen over time in a coordinated process. Focus is on two scales, the village block and the edge, and three strategic interventions (reorganize, add, combine) involve both local neighborhood residents and NGOs in restructuring ailing villages.
Harbor/Harbor: This project challenges the problem of lack of land for affordable housing, parks and free spaces. It proposes reusing salvaged commercial ships for mixed-use development. Instead of being broken down, transported around the world, and removed from a location’s “history,” the shipwrecks become part of the place’s narrative and provide new and needed spaces.
• A 50s Cadillac Automobile Working Musuem: This project, designed for Havana, deals with the creation of a working and constantly expanding museum of Cadillacs from the 1950s in the historic Castillo del Morro. The museum gives new life to the old castle and adds an attraction to the city.
A Micro Community Solving Global Problems: This submission deals with the problem of shantytowns developing on the outskirts of rapidly growing cities. The project suggests a strategy based on a housing solution with integration of water and sewers, which increases residential density and creates new public spaces. It also suggests a new transport system comprised of buses, cable cars, and subways and local production of electricity.
• Textile House Integrated with Residential Structure in Porto: This submission studies how a residential structure can benefit from being part of a public function. The site is in Porto in Portugal, at the edge of the city where there exists a dense area dominated by small-scale industries and traditional housing. The submission analyzes the site and places a textile house (a combined production facility and education center) into the existing urban fabric.
Biopolis: The idea of the proposal is to create a solution to the future of mankind in one single seed. As an alternative to the existing dependency on natural resources, the Biopolis presents a self-sufficient city. It is a fusion of urban living and agriculture, inhabited high-density vegetation, and a genetically designed urban growth.
Eleonas Olive Grove: This project explores the city’s need for expansion and new areas of economic growth near the old center. The site, near the center of Athens, is considered the last hope for the city to acquire a big, natural green core. This project tries to deconstruct the typical block and to redefine a new structure on a larger scale. A mountainous form is constructed on top of the city as a continuous walk filled with public squares, open air activities, and natural elements.

Third Place:

• Paris Tout Autour: This project proposes a restructuring of the Periphique ring road into a new Boulevard Central. With broader streets, a sky rail and a public strip, the ring becomes an area of contact, densification, and livability day and night. Widening this boulevard “edge” will help to connect one Paris (the center) with the other (the periphery) by design of a shared public room.
• Reload the Floating City: In this project a site of major cultural importance, Xochimilco, is the focus of a restructuring process. Here remain only smaller parts of the old ‘chinampas,’ (sown field edged with trees on a piece of land) floating on water. The project aims to recover the old lake and to form a new floating environment of urban public spaces and buildings dedicated to music and performing arts.
• De’Web Plane Neighborhood 2030 – Tradition Kept Alive: The focus of this project is on shrinking or slowly growing cities on the regional edges far from the exploding metropolis – in this case, Singapore. The site is a fisherman’s village, and the program calls for the integration of existing cultural buildings with new service, housing, and workshops, as well as a new public transportation network.

First Place:

• Trawling City: This project is responding to the coming severe climate changes resulting from global warming. It presents a doomsday scenario, where the Gulf Stream is stopped, temperature in certain regions of the world is increasing and the sea water level is dramatically raised due to the melting of polar and mountain ice. The concept imagined to counteract this scenario is based on civic cooperation, mobility, and high technology. “City plants” are constructed to float on the rising sea like enormous Noah’s Arks, containing huge urban societies. Natural power is gained from wind, sun, and underwater rotors. The city is transformed into a ‘plant’ of autonomy and sustainability.

All 190+ of the competition entries are on display at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and are open to the public.

“Integrated Urbanism – Living in the ‘Ecological Age’” (Malcom Smith, ARUP)

• Dongtan: 8.5 thousand hectares, on Chongming Island near Shanghai
• ‘Total architecture’ implies that all relevant design decisions have been considered together and have been integrated into a whole by a well-organized team empowered to fix priorities
• Difference between urban and architectural propositions is time
• “A city is more than a place in space, it is a drama in time.” –Patrick Geddes
• Principles of biomimicry (Janinie Benyus)
• ARUP principles: authentic (resistance of a generic condition), negotiated (a process of hundreds of years), accumulative (a growing organism), non-specific (leaving significant areas unresolved), accountability (vs. sustainability), camouflaged (non-specific boundaries)
• Three key elements: what, how, why to develop?
• U.S. stats fail! # hectares development per person/miles of road per person
• Dongtan to be the antithesis of Pudong – 6-8 story development (like Copenhagen)
• Research project for China – testing a new paradigm
• Focus on water, social/cultural connections, biodiversity, waste as a resource
• We have most of the answers to be able to design ecologically…political issues are far more difficult to resolve than technical ones
• Beehive: physical and social (environmental vs. ecological)

The focus of Malcom Smith’s presentation was Dongtan, a new master-planned community in the greater Shanghai area. I’ve heard a lot about this project in the past (I think one of my China studio professor, Michael Leaf, even did a design for it). It was interesting to hear ARUP’s perception of “the issues” in Shanghai and to see their approach to building a “sustainable” community in Shanghai. In principle, I think this might be a good project…whether or not it gets carried out or detailed in the way that they imagine has yet to be seen. I heard a lot of talk in Shanghai about “green” building and “sustainability” without a lot of understanding of what that meant in a given context or any proof of what was being accomplished with a particular project. A really good example of this is the exhibit on the third floor of the Shanghai Urban Planning Museum, which is all about how “green” the city is…but is, in my opinion, completely unconvincing (for example, all streets with trees are “green streets” – you get the idea). Anyway, I digress. I wish ARUP the best and look forward to seeing what happens.

IFHP 2007 Student Congress Debate

I thought that this was a great idea for the congress – a debate focused on topics addressed by the student competition entries, and not limited to those projects that actually won. Unfortunately in the session I chose, most of the time was spent explaining the projects…but I still think that this was a great element in the congress program! The theme of the session I attended was:

Urban Reconstruction: Relationships (some quotes and thoughts from the debate)

• “The most dangerous thing for a city is a segregated public room”
• “Our idea for the future city…is to adapt the historical value as a core element”
• “High-profile building can’t solve these problems”
• Common landscape as resistance against monotony
• “I like my home and I want to stay here forever/I like my friends, my neighbors, my family”
• Extending and widening borders instead of eliminating them; making them a point of interaction and contact

“Responding to Peak Oil: Towards Sustainable Cities” (Peter Newman, Murdoch University)

• TODs, PODs, GODs: need to do all three!
• TOD: transit-oriented development (Vancouver, Perth, Portland, Curitiba)
• POD: pedestrian-oriented development (Boulder (?), Copenhagen, Vancouver)
• GOD: green-oriented development (London, Malmo, Chicago)
• “The new world will largely depend, as it did in the old world, on human creativity…this happens when people come face to face…” –Peter Hall
• TOD + POD + GOD: Vauban in Frieburg (office block exports solar-based energy to the grid, have to pay dearly to park a car, 5,000 visitors a day, carbon-neutral development)
• Call for political courage!

As a final keynote address, this was a nice wrap-up to the conference themes of sustainability and dealing with potential doomsday scenarios. Prof. Newman also gave many statistics that aren’t recorded here, but it was clear from his presentation that cities are suffering from our dependence on oil, and that alternatives need to be enacted immediately. This was the presentation in which several negative stats were shown about U.S. cities – it’s clear there’s a problem; again, there are many great European and Australian examples for us to learn from.

As a brief conclusion, I’d just like to say that is was a great experience to have attended this conference. The topics addressed made me think a lot about my own past experiences and observations, and gave me inspiration for my M.UP thesis project. The Royal Danish Academy, in hosting this event, created a great atmosphere in which students and professionals could meet about the topic of the conference. There was a lot of diversity in the program, and there was equal focus on the student competition and the keynote addresses. It was just an all-around great experience.