Update on the Solar Decathlon

by Anna Fogel


Empowerhouse, Parsons the New School for Design and Stevens Institute of Technology.

Almost exactly two years ago, I went to visit the Solar Decathlon in Washington, D.C. This year’s Solar Decathlon had the same goal — to design and build the best energy-efficient house powered by the sun. Like the houses in 2009, and the houses designed in the four previous competitions, the houses this year are most striking because of how different the designs are for each.

Some contributors invented new material to insulate the home more effectively (used in CHIP, designed by the Southern California Institute of Architecture and the California Institute of Technology), others were inspired by traditional architectural forms and materials (TRTL, designed by the University of Calgary), while others were designed to sit on the roofs of existing buildings (Team New York’s Solar Roofpod, City College 0f New York).


Solar Roofpod, City College of New York.

The entries span four continents and five countries, and each are based on ten criteria. The top five criteria are: architectural design, market appeal, engineering, communications and affordability. You can visit a photo gallery of the houses here.

Interestingly, there was only one home that was designed for an urban setting: Team New York’s Solar Roofpod. This house was creatively designed to be placed on a roof to better leverage the rooftop space in New York buildings, incorporating roof gardens, storm water capture mechanisms and sustainable air conditioning through a heat transfer process (rather than electricity). Team New York brought up the question of how practical many of the home designs are for urban locations, including the fact that the definition of affordability for the competition — $250,000 — was out of the reach of most New Yorkers and city residents. One other home, Parsons the New School for Design and Stevens Institute of Technology’s Empowerhouse, also considered urban application: It will be used as a Habitat for Humanity house in D.C. after the competition.

You can visit the Solar Decathlon in Washington, D.C. from September 23 to October 2, 2011.

Credits: Photos of Solar Decathlon homes from solardecathlon.gov.

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São Paulo: City of Contrasts

by Melissa García Lamarca


Vila Prudente, São Paulo's oldest favela.


Cidade Jardim, a high-end residential and shopping complex.

With a teeming population of over 11 million, São Paulo is Brazil’s economic, cultural and administrative hub. As the financial capital of Brazil, and indeed Latin America, it is a booming global city with high growth and low unemployment rates. Yet UN-HABITAT reports that there is approximately one millionaire for every one hundred of the city’s poor and that São Paulo continues to have one of the highest income disparities in the world. Such disparities manifest themselves spatially, etched in the city, as depicted perhaps most famously in Teresa Caldeira’s "City of Walls."

In order to directly experience São Paulo’s housing inequities, IHP Cities visited one of its high-end gated communities and one of its makeshift squatter settlements (favelas) on the same day. The first is an exclusive residential and shopping complex named Cidade Jardim (Garden City), perhaps in an attempt to evoke Ebenezer Howard’s utopic vision. The latter is Vila Prudente, the oldest favela in São Paulo, settled in the 1950s.


Fortified entrance to Cidade Jardim residential towers.


Exploring the Cidade Jardim residential complex.

Once we got through the layers of security, including passport checks, we were met by architects employed by JHSF, the developers of Cidade Jardim. The development consists of nine residential towers with 322 apartments, the smallest being 240 square meters and the largest 2000. People who purchased their flats before construction paid $2,200 per square meter but those selling now can fetch a price of over $9,000 per square meter. The integration of the residences into the shopping mall – the most expensive in the city, with celebrity advertising campaigns from Sarah Jessica Parker and Heidi Klum – is one of the attractions for people living here. There is also a luxurious spa where membership costs $250 per month, half the rate charged to non-residents – who need to know a resident in order to become members. According to the architects we spoke to, security is one of the main motivations of the development: “People have everything here. It is important for them to be protected.”


Pool with a view to Berrini, São Paulo's newest financial district.


Claudio, ones of our guides, explains something to students as we enter Vila Prudente.

Upon arrival in Vila Prudente we were met by a resident and his colleague, both active with the Movement in Defense of Favela-dwellers (MDF). They led us through narrow corridors to visit several important community spaces MDF helped create, the first of which was the Vila Prudente Cultural Center. Founded by an Irish priest 20 years ago, the center provides art, workshops and after-school programs for children, and its work has expanded to 40 other favelas in the city. The MDF founded the Júlio Cesar de Aguiar Creche, a daycare for 65 children who live in the neighborhood, where we saw dozens of smiling bouncy kids running about. Through the MDF's decades of struggle, most houses have been consolidated and have electricity and water services. A few years ago, residents received the title to their land, finally obtaining their constitutional rights. Asked if there were one thing he could change in Vila Prudente, André, our resident guide, said it would be people’s mentality – to not be ashamed of living in a favela.


Vila Prudente Cultural Center.


Pastoral Centre in Vila Prudente.

Aside from the spatial arrangement, the active engagement and interaction between people living in Vila Prudente compared to Cidade Jardim was the starkest contrast between the two sites. In Cidade Jardim there was not much trace of its residents, and those that we did see were largely middle-aged women alone or in pairs returning from the spa. There were no eyes on the street or sense of collectivity or solidarity, as in Vila Prudente; high fences, cameras and security guards were there to ensure that safety and security rein.

Can São Paulo’s residential spaces become less segregated? Would increased income equality help bring the extremes closer together? With race, class and other structural relationships tied into the mix, change is not so easy, but it needs to happen somehow if we are to imagine a more just and sustainable city.

Credits: First picture of Vila Prudente from Marcelo Honorio Dias. First picture of Cidade Jardim from JHSF developers. All other pictures by Melissa García Lamarca.

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Photo-Realistic Tokyo Model Braces a Highrise Dream

by Chris Berthelsen



A complex scale model of Tokyo is on view by appointment at Tokyo’s Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills. The model was built in 2003 by 30 Mori employees over approximately 17 months. All streets and buildings were photographed at street level and from above via helicopter. They were then adjusted in Photoshop and glued to polystyrene models.



Touring the model is a fascinating introduction to Mori’s vision for the city, which is planned for construction after the company consolidates enough subdivided residential plots. “Just a matter of patience,” the guide assured us.



Mori’s flagship concept of Vertical Garden Cities aims to increase the “efficiency of urban infrastructure, including rail transportation and road systems, while systematically integrating diverse urban functions, including work, residence/living, entertainment, education, and commercial/retail.” This means putting all urban eggs in one “super high-rise” basket (offices at the top so that executives can feel powerful, residences below for proximity to green space). Greening will allow residents to enjoy “The touch of leaves. The fragrance of the grass. The crackle of fallen leaves underfoot. ... The singing of crickets in autumn.”



According to the Vertical Garden Cities guide, residents of these all-in-one structures will still be able to explore the city via train lines that pass through basement stations and terminate at spaces of consumption, such as Disneyland and Kidzania (where parents pay to enter and their children “learn about the social system” by pretending to be nurses, dentists, runway models, window cleaners and countless other professions — sponsored by companies like P&G and Coca-Cola).



Living space for the employees who service Vertical Garden Cities isn't specified. They would probably live in the western half of Tokyo, past Shinjuku, which is of such little interest to Mori that the map ends abruptly at Shinjuku Station. There are no plans to include it in the future. “What is the name of that park at the edge of the map?” I ask. “I don’t know, it’s not important,” answers our guide.

Further Reading:
Photos of the Mori model on Flickr
Vertical Garden Cities
“Tokyo At My Feet” in Mori Living: Diary



Chris Berthelsen is the founder of a-small-lab and Tokyo DIY Gardening. He is originally from New Zealand and currently based in Tokyo.

This is part of a collection of featured places from around the world. If you’d like to share photos of a place you find interesting, please add them to the Flickr group or send them to info@thepolisblog.org and we’ll publish your feature. Video and sound recordings are also welcome.

Credits: Photos by Chris Berthelsen.

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The Price of Solitude in Brooklyn

by Dustin Coates

No swimming sign at Newtown Creek Nature Walk

In the September edition of 7STOPS magazine, Benjamin Korman took a look at the Newtown Creek Nature Walk in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. What he found was an homage to industry, tucked between a sewage treatment plant and creek so polluted that signs warned against kayaking. What Korman evokes in his description is not one of nature — there's about as much nature here as in your average collection of potted plants — but of foul smells and poor scenery. This is where I stop agreeing with him: He considers this a drawback, and I think it's a feature.

In a city with more than 27,000 people for every square mile, room is scarce. The complaint that New York City is turning into a city for the rich is a valid one, but there is no denying that space has to be distributed in some fashion. Aside from some prominent exceptions, such as mandated low-income units, the preferred method of distribution is raising prices to reach equilibrium with demand. Usually, this price is in dollars or the price of sharing a park lawn with a thousand neighbors. With the Newtown Creek Nature Walk, the location and the smell are the price you pay.

Korman's right: The location is undesirable. Your choice of vistas is a construction site to the west, a highway to the north and the sewage treatment plant to the east and south. He's right about the smell, too, though anyone who has lived in a fishing community will come away wondering what the big deal is. But for these reasons, I have yet to see more than three people there at any time. Contrast this with the High Line or McCarren Park, where the only time you'll see just three people is at 3 a.m. or in the middle of the winter.

Am I going to take a date or a game of chess to the nature walk? No, though I should mention that I've witnessed the latter. Will I take refuge there when one of my four roommates has plugged in his amp, and I've had a long week of work? Of course, and the smell is a fair price to pay.

Dustin Coates is the founder of 7STOPS, an online magazine that focuses on one topic a month from seven different perspectives. A Texan from childhood, he now calls Greenpoint home.

On View: ‘Cloud Cities’ by Tomás Saraceno

by Vivien Park



Tomás Saraceno, an architect by training, creates large-scale installations that offer new ways of inhabiting the world. His latest installation — "Cloud Cities" — was inspired by the flexibility of bubbles and spider webs. Twenty balloon models are suspended in the exhibition space, their intricate networks of cables intersecting as visitors enter them and bounce on transparent floors.

"Cloud Cities" is presented by the National Museums in Berlin and will be on view at the Hamburger Bahnhof until Jan. 15, 2012.

Credits: Video from vernissage.tv.

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Sino Superfund

by Ivan Valin

Urbanization in China — explosive and seemingly boundless in potential — has in some cities reached a “natural” obstacle. A vast ring of post-industrial sites surrounds cities like Tianjin, Guangzhou and Shanghai. Although the factories have moved further afield, the remaining land and groundwater are often seriously contaminated. As cities push outward these sites are a threat to human health and an impediment to urban growth. A comprehensive legal and technical framework for cleaning up these sites has yet to be developed, as it has in other post-industrial nations. Redevelopment practices are ad-hoc and dominated by international firms that undertake remediation as a matter of corporate, not social, responsibility.


Post-industrial landscape in China. Source: Landscape.IS.Hankin

But this may change by the end of the year, as the Ministry of Environmental Protection is expected to release a set of remediation guidelines. Modeled on practices in the North America (the Superfund Act) and the U.K. (Part IIa of the Environmental Protection Act), it will be a step in the right direction for mature and sustainable urban growth.

The real challenge, however, will be to develop a Chinese model for post-industrial site remediation and reintegration. After all, the political, legal and social context in China is unique. The potential for large-scale remediation projects is greater here than in the Superfund model, which is based on a slow and litigious process. China still has the capacity to think big and act fast. The Shanghai Expo site was perhaps a successful model for a quick and technically successful process. The Tianjin Eco-City project makes a point of remediating and building on contaminated land rather than the easily developed but crucial agricultural areas nearby.

In the North America and Europe, the post-industrial landscape inspired artists and designers in new directions and scales. Robert Smithson worked with the language of contamination (as did to some extent Agnes Denes and Christo and Jean-Claude). More recently, designers like Julie Bargmann (D.I.R.T. Studio) combined this language with technology to create beautiful and remediative landscapes. Today’s “green” designs are bland and generic in comparison. A window is opening in China for another renaissance in land art in association with land remediation. Designers — both local and international — who have cashed in on China’s development boom will hopefully take note.

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‘Real’ Creative Cities: Grassroots Tel Aviv

by Oli Mould



Often embroiled in the rhetoric of global city discourse, the term “Creative City” (which involves making a city attractive to the “Creative Class”) is a label Tel Aviv aims to adopt. This label has gained increased notoriety in recent years, thanks to Richard Florida and Charles Landry upholding the regenerating powers of creativity. However, the “Creative City” and its proponents are often criticized for deploying the most recent neo-liberal iteration of capitalist accumulation through the fabrication of a model sponsoring urban policies linking creativity to economic action.

Tel Aviv has many examples of genuine creativity that are not immediately economically viable but are hidden catalysts to becoming a “Global City.” The cultural amenities that define a city are crucial to its status in the hierarchy of urban destinations, allowing cities to attract the most popular global tours, exhibitions and artists. But for a destination to succeed as a “Creative City,” cultural institutions need to interact with creative practices at the grassroots level. Museums and galleries will only succeed if the city’s intrinsic artistic values are embedded in the local community, ultimately serving as a foundation for creative practices.



In Tel Aviv, the Ha’chanut Gallery offers a small but interdisciplinary performance space in which actors interact with artists and musicians to put on a show that blends cultures and disciplines. Independent cultural offerings are crucial to the fabric of a city, since they provide the broad spectrum of cultural provisioning upon which economic competitiveness can be built.

Kav 16 is a vital cultural provision. Artists cannot always afford the gallery spaces in larger facilities in Tel Aviv or access the exhibition opportunities of citywide and national festivals. Kav 16 provides this venue by functioning as community gallery exhibiting contemporary art "outside the mainstream."

The Tzimer Music Rooms (below) is a small utilitarian and inspiring exhibition/performance space where budding experimental musicians can develop their sound in collaboration with visual artists as working audience.


Tzimer Music Rooms

The Old Bus Station in Tel Aviv is a fascinating space and must be considered in any discussion about alternative cultural provisioning. Within the rhetoric of the “Creative City,” human creativity is often heralded as the panacea for economic stagnation, but at the site of a decaying bus station, a type of creativity far removed from traditional models flourishes.

Modeling Open Source Cities

by Peter Sigrist



"Crowdsourced Moscow 2012: A Public Space Game" (above) was shown on Monday after a panel discussion with Adam Greenfield at the Strelka Institute. This was part of Social Media Week, a series of events focused on the potential for network technologies to strengthen democracy and participatory development in cities. The video was created by Andrei Goncharov, a Strelka graduate who communicates an exciting vision for urban governance and design. Here is a brief overview:
One of the major issues in Moscow’s public space is a lack of communication. Citizens can’t discuss what they really want in the city — there’s no platform for discussion. The promo video of the game 'Crowdsourced Moscow 2012' is based on the results of Strelka-graduate Andrei Goncharov’s research — a megasimulator in which the city is controlled by a balance of interests of different groups: residents, developers, architects, bureaucrats, businessmen, environmentalists. Solutions, for example on the construction of parking at Pushkin Square, or the demolition of the Peter I statue on Bolotny Island, are determined together.



Similar ideas have captured my interest over the past three years. This began during a walk through Cascadilla Park (above), a beautiful residential street that winds down a hill beside an urban gorge. It was built in the early 20th century based on Progressive Era ideas of civic engagement for improving cities beset by the effects of industrialization. I was inspired to find ways of supporting this kind of civic engagement today. During my search, Rob Holmes of Mammoth recommended a blog post by Brian Davis of Faslanyc.



Brian was working as a landscape architect and reading about Landscape Urbanism and Networked Ecologies, bodies of theory that encourage designers to consider the human and nonhuman networks through which urban ecosystems change, in order to optimize them for ecological wellbeing. Brian found these ideas compelling but often abstract, massive and top-down. He thought of a "lo-fi" approach based on similar ecological interventions at smaller scales, with grassroots origins and distributed funding via websites like PayPal.



I had been reading Urban Political Ecology and Right to the City literature, which proposes solutions to social and environmental problems based on political mobilization. It is also compelling and often abstract. I was interested in generating momentum through small-scale, experimental, technology-enabled projects that could eventually lead to larger initiatives.

Brian and I admired the participatory, incremental approaches to design and activism practiced by Christopher Alexander and Jane Jacobs. We were inspired by open source programming, in which developers work together on computer applications through a continuous process of innovation and reuse in different contexts. We saw this as a promising approach to urban development and governance, made possible via the Internet.



We began researching organizations currently using open source approaches to political mobilization, design collaboration and fundraising. While there are many examples, we focused on three: OpenPlans, the Open Architecture Network and IOBY (In Our Backyard). This resulted in a brief article that was published in Volume 23 of the Berkeley Planning Journal (it can also be found in HTML and PDF formats). Here is the abstract:
As global ecological problems pose increasing risk to human wellbeing, design and planning can play important roles in developing solutions. However, there is a need for alternatives to centralized, hierarchical, inflexible and exclusionary approaches that have contributed to problems in the past. We propose an 'open source' practice, which links participatory development with networked planning and design, fostering collaboration between government, business, nonprofits and individual citizens in addressing ecological problems at the local level.



OpenPlans is an influential nonprofit that applies open source programming to improve service provision in cities and advance projects like bike lanes and public plazas in abandoned lots (see Open Source Cities for details). OpenPlans was instrumental in persuading the Bloomberg administration in New York City to close portions of Times Square to traffic. We selected it as an example of network technology applied to political mobilization.

The Open Architecture Network was developed by Architecture for Humanity as a platform for connecting architects with local communities — especially in low-income areas — to work on projects that traditionally lack capital investment. Its extensive database includes community centers, schools, medical clinics and crisis housing. We selected the Open Architecture Network as an example of network technology applied to design collaboration.

IOBY offers a decentralized funding mechanism for local initiatives. Unlike Kickstarter, a more widely known fundraising site, IOBY focuses specifically on environmental projects in New York City. Citizens can post information about potential projects and make contributions to the ones they'd like to see implemented. We focused on IOBY as an example of network technology applied to fundraising for grassroots urban development.

Based on these case studies, Brian and I devised a simple model of how open source urban development and governance might work.







As outlined in the diagram above, concerned citizens could post proposals to project profiles (similar to Facebook profiles) with information and imagery. They could then send a link to others and begin working with them on political mobilization, design collaboration and project funding. They could discuss the project on the profile wall, vote on whether or not it should proceed, and make donations. Funding could proceed in stages based on collectively determined priorities, so that projects don't remain stalled for lack of massive capital. Once necessary resources and support are assembled, the projects could move to the next stage.

There are obvious challenges to implementation, as it would require a completely accessible, impartial and effectively monitored online platform with no guarantee of positive results. But urban development and governance seem to be heading in this direction, and a model like the one presented in "Crowdsourced Moscow" could make participation more democratic.

After the panel discussion and video screening at Strelka, I saw Andrei Goncharov talking with Adam Greenfield. It was exhilarating to consider the possibilities in that conversation, giving me hope that the ideas in the video will someday be realized.

Credits: Photos and videos linked to source. Diagram by Peter Sigrist.

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Monica G. Turner on Landscape Ecology




"Landscape ecology emphasizes broad spatial scales and the ecological effects of the spatial patterning of ecosystems. Specifically, it considers a) the development and dynamics of spatial heterogeneity, b) the interactions and exchanges across heterogeneous landscapes, c) the influences of spatial heterogeneity on biotic and abiotic processes, and d) the management of spatial heterogeneity. ... Ecologists, land managers, and planners have traditionally ignored interactions between the different elements in a landscape — the elements are usually treated as different systems."

Monica G. Turner, from "Landscape Ecology: The Effect of Pattern on Process," Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 1989

This is part of a collection of quotes related to cities. They don't necessarily reflect our views, just topics of interest. We welcome you to add others.

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Book Review: Jan Willem Duyvendak’s ‘The Politics of Home’

by Alex Schafran

One of my first impressions of Dutch sociologist Jan Willem Duyvendak was when he bravely announced to a room full of critical urban social scientists that he loved Starbucks. In the bourgeois circles of academic urbanism, his comment seemed to draw as many smirks and self-conscious nods as winces. Perhaps it was because the audience understood the basic argument behind his point — he feels at home in Starbucks, in part because it is generic. Like Sigrist, Duyvendak recognizes that, in contemporary society, global corporations are often able to create zones of comfort and security — "hominess" of a sort — which the critical urbanists in us would prefer to think is only possible in the hyper-local and the unique.

The Starbucks argument is a small piece of Duyvendak's larger struggles with the interlocking questions of home, belonging and nostalgia, the subject of his recently released book The Politics of Home. Rooted in some of the same questions as the upcoming Cambridge conference on nationalism and the city, Duyvendak is prompted to explore the question of home by the rising ethno-nationalism he is witnessing throughout western Europe. This wave constantly refers to the nation as a home under attack by "foreigners" and outsiders.

As a longtime student of the United States, he noticed two other "crises" in American spaces in which the question of home is also front and center: the traditional household, where both the gender revolution and ongoing economic pressures have altered the line between work and home in ways many find uncomfortable and unsettling, and gay neighborhoods like San Francisco's Castro district, where men and women long unable to make homes in their birth communities came to establish "home" at the neighborhood scale.

Along with Duyvendak's sparse and wonderfully unpretentious writing, the book's strength is this examination of one of the most basic and seemingly simple of human concepts — what makes us feel at home — along the scales of the household, neighborhood and nation. Though rooted in years of research, the book is more conceptual than overly empirical, and Duyvendak is unafraid to think through the basic spaces and places where we feel at home and how this is altered at different scales. He conceptualizes home as having three components — familiarity, home as haven (secure, safe) and home as heaven (place for self-expression, free identity) — components that mesh unevenly and sometimes problematically, producing complex places that can be both freeing and exclusive at the same time.

In his short section on the Castro, Duyvendak smartly highlights that the attempt by some Castro residents to push the community beyond a familiar haven for gays and lesbians into a heaven for explicitly gay self-expression worked to exclude in a place initially founded for the excluded. Similar forces are at work in the Netherlands, where the mostly Muslim "outsiders" are excluded from the Dutch "home" in part because of allegations that they are not inclusive — of gays, women and supposedly Dutch progressive values.



Ultimately, Duyvendak's heart is with the difficult question of home and nationalism in the Netherlands and with the larger questions of exclusion, belonging and nostalgia in sociology. Despite his vast credentials as an urbanist, the urban question is at times lost or underdeveloped in the text. I would be curious to hear how he reformulates his questions about heaven and haven with cities — as opposed to neighborhoods or nations — front and center. As I discussed last month, I feel at home in Amsterdam, despite the fact that I am a foreigner, but that may have to do with the fact that I supposedly share the "progressive values" being distorted in the name of exclusion. It could also be that, like many in the footloose, mobile and often privileged class that forms part of his understanding of how different people relate to questions of space, place and home, I am just very good at making myself at home wherever I am, including a Starbucks in a global city.

Credits: Book jacket from Palgrave MacMillan. Billboard photo by Alex Schafran. 

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Rome and the Excavation of Occupation City

by Andrew Wade


Mailboxes on the main gate of the Metropoliz occupation site in Rome.

The high volume of vacant and derelict buildings woven into the urban fabric of Rome has provided an opportunity for those unable or unwilling to pay formal market rents to proactively reclaim slices of the city through a strategy of occupation and resistance. The marginal socio-political status of low-income Italians, immigrants and Roma population has evolved, through the forced occupation of abandoned sites and structures, into a spatial cohesion and network within the city. While some occupied buildings lie on the periphery of Rome and make their marginal status clear through location, security and protection measures to isolate and decrease visibility (Metropoliz), others are very central and integrated with neighboring areas and formal housing (Porto fluviale).


Part of a disused salami factory on the Metropoliz occupation site, reclaimed by squatters.


One of several self-organized internally segregated areas within Metropoliz — this area is home to Peruvian immigrants.

As part of an innovative workshop exploring this urbanism of resistance, the Development Planning Unit (DPU) of the Bartlett in the U.K. recently activated its inaugural summerLab, structured as a six-day immersion into contested sites in Rome. The primary case study, grounded in the Metropoliz occupation, dealt with two adjacent sites, each containing derelict factory buildings. In the past two years, both sites have been occupied by squatters, immigrants and a Roma population in an attempt to both secure a home within the peripheral urban limits and actively resist market and political pressures forcing them into marginalization.

The two sites are divided by a masonry wall, pierced in only one location by a gated opening. Within these sites, the occupation has self-organized over time, using the hollow shells of the former factory buildings to enclose self-built residential units. A natural segregation has occurred between the Roma community and immigrant communities from Peru, Morocco and others. Without the external catalyst of impending site redevelopment or building demolition, the conflict between the occupants and State authorities continues to simmer just below the surface, with the "grey" legality of occupations held in check by the "grey" legality of evictions and alternative site selection.


The open gate that controls movement between the Metropoliz site and the adjacent Roma site.

Placing this in the context of the wider housing market, Corviale demonstrates the extremes of a Modernist solution to social housing. Built in the 1970s, it is a kilometer-long structure on the very edge of Rome, with one length of the building facing the city and the other facing farmland. Its length requires a bus route to run along the front of the site, stopping at each of the five main vertical circulation cores before reaching the far end. With no clear system of management and maintenance, the building appears in some ways illegally occupied and in perpetual decline, even though this is not the case. Other more integrated and centrally located buildings, despite being illegally occupied, appear highly organized and fairly well maintained and adapted to current uses.


Corviale, a kilometer-long housing project constructed in the 1970s on the edge of Rome.


An internal corridor in Corviale used to access living units, now controlled by security gates.

For instance, in centrally located occupations such as Porto fluviale, residents have formed their own mini-State, spatially defined by the building limits, with its own rules of governance, democratic decision-making and demarcation of communal and private space. As such, an alternative model of housing and living has developed in resistance and critique of the formality of surrounding apartments and homes. To what extent should such freedom and self-determination be allowed or even supported? What are the ramifications on the wider city's housing market and economic health?


From the internal courtyard of Porto fluviale, an occupied building in central Rome.


From the roof of Porto fluviale at dusk.

Marginalized and secretive occupations, centrally located and transparent occupations, and failed attempts at mass formal housing are scattered throughout the city as visible evidence of a fractured urbanism. What are the underlying causes and trends behind this? Not many cities are forced to address an excess of underused infrastructure in an age of rapid urbanization; however, the unmet housing needs that this condition reveals must be addressed. Beneath the surface of Rome lie the modern ruins of an activist city of occupation and resistance. Can this model of critique transform into a constructive plan of action and renewal?

Credits: Photos by Andrew Wade.

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An Ideal World Without Flush Toilets

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca



According to U.N. water statistics, conventional flush toilets in middle-class homes account for approximately 30 percent of their water use. The average daily water use per person among middle-class populations is about 200 liters, although in some countries the volume is larger. (In the U.S., for example, it is 380 liters per person.) Thus, on average, each middle-class person uses 60 liters of fresh water per day to flush their urine and feces down the drain. Considering that there are almost 7 billion people on earth (expected to reach 9 billion by 2050) and that only three percent of the world's water is fresh, is it reasonable to use this water to flush toilets?



The s-trap watercloset facility, known as the flush toilet, appeared in Europe and North America in the late 19th century, when the earth's human population was approximately 1.8 billion and water was considered an infinite resource. Today, with almost four times as many people on earth and the majority of water sources either polluted or over-exploited, we are still using the same inefficient device. Moreover, it is being adopted throughout the developing word, accelerating the extraction and pollution of fresh water sources.

The solution to this unsustainable situation has already been invented. The approach is generally known as ecological sanitation (eco-san), which aims at making efficient use of the water and nutrient cycle in each household/neighborhood — a form of permaculture. This is very difficult to manage with flush toilets. A more appropriate device is the dry toilet. Ecological sanitation combines this technology with effective policy, education and funding mechanisms to effectively minimize the wasteful consumption of fresh water water supplies.

Credits: Photo of a sewer dumping waste water into a river from Preparedness Pro. Illustration of early flush toilet design by J. G. Jennings (1877). Dry toilet graphic from Gold Mine.

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Conference to Explore Nationalism in Cities

by George Carothers



I'm involved with a project at the University of Cambridge that takes as its focus the intersect between nationalism and the city. As the deadline for a paper proposals nears, my co-organizer Chris Moffat and I thought we would offer a brief introduction to the theme for Polis readers:

As urbanists, we regularly claim that "the city" breathes life into those within it. Yet this relationship is twofold: ‘the city’ would be nothing without the breath and imagination of its own people.

An interesting problem emerges here: How are we to understand the role of space and place in the history of ideas? Can we conceive of an intellectual history written spatially? Ideas move, that is certain. They can ricochet off certain surfaces and be absorbed by others, transformed by integration or emboldened by rejection. But can certain ideas have specific relationships with certain types of spatial environments?

An upcoming conference at the University of Cambridge hopes to find an entry point to these questions by narrowing the parameters, navigating towards the city. What, it asks, is the role of urban space in the history of nationalism as an idea? How does the city relate to the constitution of national identity as a discourse?

The apparently ambivalent relationship between nationalism and the city offers an opportunity to think about the ways space can affect the origins, dissemination, perpetuation and undermining of ideas. Homogenizing nationalist narratives seem to leave little room for the chaotic reality of the city, but the two share intersecting imaginaries and have inspired multi-layered identities. It was through cities that early ideas of the nation were traded, and it is in cities that national identities have been pushed to their breaking points. The urban has helped to shape the national, and this relationship also works in reverse: cities can be sites for national consolidation and commemoration, but also facilitate the emergence of spaces of alterity and zones of conflict.

The February 2012 conference, hosted in Cambridge by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), is designed to "re-center" the urban in theories of nations and nationalism and is currently inviting paper proposals from across the spectrum of academic, professional and informal interests. Over the next few months, Polis will follow the conference's development through a series of posts; readers are encouraged to participate in this conversation on the role of cities in nationalism's pasts, presents and futures.

The fast approaching deadline for paper proposals is Oct. 1, 2011. Details on submission can be found on the conference website.

Credits: Photo of "Company C returns from Boer War" from Wikimedia commons.

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Tales of Congestion and Creativity

by Min Li Chan

In her conversational preamble at a recent show at the Yoshi's jazz club in San Francisco, Brazilian songstress Luisa Maita introduced the song "Alento" (which roughly translates as "encouragement" or "courage") as an homage to the city of São Paulo. Paraphrasing Maita: "Sao Paulo is difficult — it's hard, it's energetic, it's ... nice. But it is difficult. Traffic is very bad: three hours to get to work, then three hours to go home. You must have a lot of desire to get things done."

Urban congestion was articulated as a deterrent to the spirit of endeavor. Surely for those of us who have been mired in soul-sucking traffic for hours, this observation makes good sense, what more in a city of more than 7 million vehicles.



Thankfully, city dwellers are a resilient lot. Stephen Johnson in his book, "Where Good Ideas Come From," pulls from the work of theoretical physicist Geoffrey West, whose research investigates whether urban life slows down as cities grow in size, just as metabolism slows down when living organisms scale up in size. While the slowdown is apparent in energy and transportation growth in city living, to his delight (and ours), human ingenuity accelerates in the congested urban environment:
A city that was ten times larger than its neighbor wasn't ten times more innovative; it was seventeen times more innovative ... that despite all the noise and crowding and distraction, the average resident of a metropolis with a population of five million people was almost three times more creative than the average resident of a town of a hundred thousand.
The will to endeavor thrives among creative groups in hyper-interconnected, fluidly networked dense cities.

And what of small but ambitious city states such as Singapore and Dubai? Against the backdrop of West's findings, it isn't surprising that their governments strive to create special economic zones and incubator environments to draw in the creative class, researchers, entrepreneurs and businesses. In the absence of organic density, these small city states put in place incentives to generate what a large, dense urban setting would naturally engender. Some may argue that this avoids the side effects of crime, congestion and chaos, while others point to progress tainted by a sense of sterility and artifice.

In her liner notes, Maita mentions that "Alento" is sung from the point of view of a motorcycle delivery boy zipping through the city. With its driving maculelê rhythm, it is ultimately a celebration of the indomitable industrious energy and gumption for urban life embodied by cities like São Paulo:

É eu não fui feita pra fingir
Eu tô ligada é no amor
Que se tem pra viver





Credits: Photos of São Paulo by phoebekuo.

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Featured Artist: Matilde Cassani and Sacred Spaces of New York

by Rebecka Gordan



Do you know of a secret sacred building in your neighborhood? Do you know of a shop that has become a mosque or an apartment that has become an Iglesia Evangelica? Is there a prayer space on your block?

One of my favorite exhibition spaces that often features shows related to urbanism is Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York. On view at the moment is "Sacred Spaces in Profane Buildings" by Italian artist and architect Matilde Cassani (b. 1980). Cassani is a Ph.D. candidate who currently teaches at the Politecnico di Milano and is developing a project on "holy urbanism" at the Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti (NABA) .


Iglèsia Pentecostal, Mercy Avenue, New York.

Cassani’s exhibit at Storefront explores the secret sacred territory throughout New York. The photographs unveil the many ways in which religion manifests itself in non-traditional spaces in the contemporary city.

As part of the exhibition, Storefront and Cassani are also developing a New York archive of sacred spaces in profane buildings and are calling for submissions from the public. These can be memories of a visit, a sketch of a known space, a photograph of a street sign or a location on a map. The aim is to construct a comprehensive guide to the sacred unknown of New York.


Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba Sahib II, Carrer Fraternitat 16bxs, Barcelona.

The exhibition will transform Storefront's facade into a golden wall framing three spaces for reflection: 1) a reading room connected to the archive; 2) a presentation of four mobile, foldable structures designed by the curator based on her research into objects associated with rituals performed in temples and unofficial prayer rooms; 3) a presentation of a collection of symbolic objects donated by different religious communities in New York.

The age of majestic churches, glimmering synagogues and grandiose mosques may be gone, their remnants sometimes turned into museums, theaters or shopping malls. But the need for quiet spaces for contemplation in the bustling city seems to remain. These are no longer visible architectural manifestations but are retrofitted, hidden away, sometimes only identifiable by their users.


Nagarjuna Buddist Temple, Carrer Rossellò pral 2A, Barcelona.

Does this mean that religion in the city has left the political and public sphere and turned into a private question? Probably not. Cassani’s image of the mosque in the community center at 51 Park Place reminds me of the political turbulence I experienced last year living in New York, sparked by the fact that the mosque was to be located near the the World Trade Center site. Although it was hidden behind a profane facade, it provoked public debate. But it’s there today — a symbol of the tolerance large cities often create.


PARK 51 mosque (ex. Cordoba House), 51 Park Place, New York.

The exhibition will run from Sept. 14 to Nov. 5 at Storefront for Art and Architecture. A series of closing talks, lectures and debates will take place on Nov. 5 from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Credits: Images courtesy of Matilde Cassani.

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James Holston on ‘Insurgent Citizenship’




“I want to argue that one of the most urgent problems in planning and architectural theory today is the need to develop a different social imagination — one that is not modernist but that nevertheless reinvents modernism’s activist commitments to the invention of society and to the construction of the state. I suggest that the sources of this new imaginary lie not in any specifically architectural or planning production of the city but rather in the development of theory in both fields as an investigation into what I call the spaces of insurgent citizenship....By insurgent, I mean to emphasize the opposition of these spaces of citizenship to the modernist spaces that physically dominate so many cities today. I also use it to emphasize an opposition to the modernist political project that absorbs citizenship into a plan of state building and that, in the process, generates a certain concept and practice of planning itself. ... The spaces of an insurgent citizenship constitute new metropolitan forms of the social not yet liquidated by or absorbed into the old. As such, they embody possible alternative futures.”

James Holston, from “Spaces of Insurgent Citizenship” in Cities and Citizenship, 1999.   

This is part of a collection of quotes related to cities. They don’t necessarily reflect our views, just topics of interest. We welcome you to add others.

Credits: Photo by Jacobo Méndez.