The Option Design Studio STRATA asks students to examine ecological flows and processes across the strata of a rock quarry and to propose a landscape and architectural intervention for a site in active or abandoned quarries worldwide.
We rely on the raw materials of stone, gravel, sand and clay for the construction of our cities, buildings and infrastructure. While the supply chain is becoming evermore global, the impacts remain local. Cities today are often supported by material and waste infrastructures that are removed from our daily lives. As a result, we often fail to consider the social and ecological consequences of these infrastructures. The process of blasting, crushing, sawing, splitting and transporting the raw material leads to environmental degradation including air and noise pollution, fragmentation of ecological corridors, and habitat destruction.
Extractive operations are expanding at an accelerating pace globally. Mining in the United States, for instance, will exhaust available federally-owned land by mid-21st century. It becomes increasingly clear that quarries and mining grounds will have to be reclaimed for other purposes— from residential to infrastructural to leisure activities— at the latest by the end of this century.
The studio unearths these out of sight processes and asks the students to propose how these sites of extraction might be re-conceived with new program and ecologies.
The establishment of the city, from its very inception, is the result of a fundamental separation between places of consumption – located within the city limits – and places of production, where enough surpluses of raw materials and food are created to support city development.
Spatial contiguity between cities and their host ecosystems has been the rule for the past 10.000 years in the history of stable human settlements. Until recently, urbanised areas still had a close relationship to places of agricultural production and extraction of natural resources. By and large, they existed only where enough resources in the immediate surroundings, including firewood, water and productive soil, could provide for a growing population of city dwellers.
With the industrial revolution, cities outgrew these on-site resources and required increasing amounts of energy and materials to be transported from distant ecosystems. The interdependency of ecosystems on earth, however, requires that each subsystem’s intake and output must be compatible with the higher-level system’s ability to provide energy and matter and to process waste. Natural ecosystems rely on a complex network of feedback loops to regulate activities within sustainable limits. Breaking up the spatial and temporal continuity in the flow of energy and materials of the industrial city resulted in interrupted feedback loops. A city that oversteps the ecological boundaries of its remote host-ecosystem does not need to suffer -- or even be aware of-- the environmental consequences of overconsumption. Today, the impact of cities on places elsewhere, be it hinterlands or places far away – the so-called city footprint – is reaching extraordinary proportions and threatening a drastic reduction of bio-diversity, air and water pollution, and the depletion of natural resources.
“Ecology” as a framework from which we design is an essential component of contemporary landscape architecture. Our definition of it is not confined to “natural” or “environmental” contexts; rather it refers to the complexity of agents acting in any environment and their unique interactions. These agents are biotic and abiotic, urban and natural, human and non-human and they produce incremental changes on the broader system over time. For centuries western culture considered nature to be outside of – and therefore separate from – the city. Nature was sacred, foreboding, pristine, pure, wild – something that lived independent from and was threatened by the influence of humanity. The city, on the other hand, was the realm of man and technology; it was a canker creeping out into primeval nature. Today we can no longer make this distinction; as urban areas expand and population growth strains our remaining resources we are forced to acknowledge humans and their constructions as an active participant in the natural environment.
In Occupation, Frei Otto suggests that forces have a specific field —a domain or territory —and that space can be organised based on the forces acting on it. In other words, each force—but also resource, such as water or nutrients in a field—has a spatial dimension to it. By means of extracting, transporting and storing resources, the industrial revolution has disrupted the original relationship force to territory, replacing it with new, more complex relations. The Studio uses environmental analysis and parametric design strategies in order to re-establish a correlation between forces and territory.
Working in teams of two to three, students will select a site upon which to focus their project. The first design exercise of the studio is to understand the complexities of the extractive site and to develop landscape strategies that will structure a new dynamic system in, on and over the ground. In the McHargian tradition, teams will begin by separating layers of geology, hydrology, plant communities, topography, solar exposure, urban development, cultural meaning, infrastructure, pollution and contamination and overlapping them to reveal a new site reading. The mapping itself becomes the first critical exercise in the design process. More than a simple cut-and-paste of data already available, each layer is drawn to represent a particular intention of the designer. The maps are closely edited for content and clarity; too much information does not allow for a clear reading of the design strategy, while too little information renders the map useless.
As a complement to the mapping process, the site will be analysed by a time-based representation of the processes and flows. Together, these analytical methods not only provide and understanding of the existing conditions and patterns, but allow for projective simulations of future scenarios on the site. The second half of the studio will build on the work of the first half by developing a landscape and architectural intervention on your site.
In one of his seminal writings, Buckminster Fuller famously declared: “[…] Forms are inherently visible and no longer can ‘form follow functions’, because the significant functions are invisible”.
He was referring to natural forces, as well as to material properties that are not detectable by senses or experience, since they result from manipulation at the molecular level that are invisible to the naked eye—yet have a great impact on the built form. Environmental analysis tools can provide critical insights into these invisible functions by widening the architect’s gaze in areas of knowledge outside the spectrum of visible light.
There are obvious advantages in giving form to these invisible forces, as they play an increasingly larger role in the built environment. Architects typically resort to highly technical solutions for compliance with ever stricter energy codes— ‘green gadgets’ that come in the form of sophisticated mechanical systems, super-insulation materials or expensive glass treatments—so that they don’t have to question a consolidated formal language. Conversely, formal solutions that directly address these invisible forces at a structural level can dramatically improve the performance of buildings by reducing heating and cooling loads, fostering daylighting and natural ventilation, and generally lowering energy demand.
Additionally, a building form that is the result of a form-finding process can manifest information regarding the ambient - prevailing wind direction, solar radiation levels, air flow or pedestrian traffic - in ways that are intuitive and do not require mediation. A classic example of the architect’s disconnected design approach to the new energy imperative are the many digital displays showing the amount of energy being produced by solar panels that are hidden away on the roof of buildings. This is particularly relevant in an age of mediated information: as we increasingly rely on screens, large and small, to retrieve useful information on our environment, embedding information in the persistent structure of buildings can have positive effect in learning to navigate our world without depending on a smartphone.