BE DENSE (or go away!)

The world is urbanizing at a breathtaking pace. Ten percent of mankind lived in cities a century ago; this year we pass the 50 percent mark; by 2050, the United Nations projects, it will be 70 percent. The Endless City (by Ricky Burdett, Deyan Sudjic, Phaidon Press, 2008) give us the brilliant idea that density is key in categorizing and typifying global cites. All cities analyzed can be characterized by increases in density of buildings, roads, inhabitants, and economic activities. However, the way density functions vary sharply across the cities. Path dependency – a consequence of choices made in the past – has led to variations in the way built environments shape the face of global cities.

“a+t” (Spanish magazine) dedicated a series of three numbers called Density/Densidad the collective housing and the possible development of more intelligent and sustainable ways of living (19 and 20, 2002, No. 21, 2003). Even “Lotus” (No. 117, 2003, Population density, infill, assemblage) identifies in this word a more central question: it is one of the rare terms where a quantitative measurable parameter spread to qualitative consequences and implications in various aspects (economic, functional, environmental, social, spatial …) of the complex organization of cities and territories. As such, the topic has been widely and long debated, but still remain controversial.

Facing the insane overcrowded conditions in the cities of the industrial revolution, the most advanced approaches were initially oriented to scattering models , as variously as demonstrated by the garden city movement, by russian deurbanists, by the policy of standards resulting from “rational” approach  of CIAM etc.. (For effective reconstruction of these events, cf. Rebecca Solnit, suburban syndrome, in “Navigator”, No. 8, 2003).

The limits of this model of settlement, generally referred to sprawl, are clearly described by Le Corbusier in few lines of the introduction to Maniere penser de l’Urbanisme, Editions de l’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, 1946, where is mainly emphasized the misuse of… land, money, time… Half of the working day goes to pay our suburban life. But despite the clarity of the analysis, the responses of Le Corbusier and architects in general, seem to suffer from a narcissistic fascination with the side of the block and the other for the object of distrust towards the whole positivist layered complexity of urban systems that door, so to concentrate in large buildings housing collective, but diluted in a large amount of vacuum for green infrastructure, where the spatial density is comparable to that of the suburbs.

In those same sixties Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Random House, 1961) to clarify that the density itself (inhabitants per hectare) is not a decisive parameter in describing a state of social decay. The American sociologist stresses the close, complex and delicate relationship between density and the urban condition, showing even higher concentrations of housing to the thousands of inhabitants per hectare are not only possible but necessary for the activation of highly organized social systems: networks of solidarity and control of East Village in New York.

From the Hasted Hunt Gallery in New York during the exhibition “Architecture of Density”, german photographer Michael Wolf show us the specific visual elements he has depicted high density living in one of the world’s most crowded cities like nobody has before (Hong Kong Inside Outside, Co-published by Asia One Books and Peperoni Books, Hong Kong and Berlin, 2009). He removes any sky or horizon line from the frame and flattens the space until it becomes a relentless abstraction of urban expansion, with no escape for the viewer’s eye. Wolf photographs crumbling buildings in need of repair, brand new buildings under construction covered in bamboo scaffolding, as well as fully occupied residential complexes. Wolf’s disorienting vantage point gives the viewer the feeling that the buildings extend indefinitely, which perhaps is the spatial experience of Hong Kong’s inhabitants.

High density is normally viewed as an extreme form of urban pathology, congestion and crowding. But in Hong Kong it is shown to be vibrant, exciting and a dynamic aspect of city life. Thus, the context of a Western understanding of density and overcrowding in Hong Kong exposes the problematic of language. Conventional Western categories of description inadequate when it comes to representing Hong Kong density. The experience of Hong Kong density exposes its paradoxes and full range of interpretation: it can be positive and negative; exhilarating and overwhelming; an exciting or everyday experience. at the extremes of Hong Kong (Nuala Rooney, At Home With Density, Hong Kong University Press, 2002).

To contribute to a definitive reversal of value, from negative to positive, the term density and the issues connected to it, comes out in 1978, Delirious New York. The onset of Rem Koolhaas on the international scene offers a lucid and thorough reading of Manhattan as a true icon of modernity. The key word here becomes “congestion”, a sort of residential buildings hyperdensity achieved through “mutants” due to new technologies, lifts, steel and air conditioning can make an incredible new levels of features, inhabitants, users and users . On reaching a certain “critical mass” overlapping schedules unexpected active synaptic systems, upward mobility is likely to replace the horizontal, the private vehicle loses its need for and the turn into congestive paradoxical efficiencies.

Still dedicated to a city and its relation to modernity is Learning from Venice (Officina, 1994), in which Francesco Tentori retraces around the building to the research conducted by Giuseppe Samona thick and a large group of employees and students to ‘beginning of the sixties. Here, Venice is understood both as a physical example of the prevalence of dense tissue in its fully built, and as a school in which to experience new ways of design.

A similar experimental direction has been followed also by the Dutch MVRDV (FARMAX. Excursions on density, 010 Publishers, 1998). The acronym of the title indicates the maximization of the ratio of surface area and that the lot on which he insists, a condition investigated through some real examples and several projects, including the so-called emerging datascapes: building masses from time to time pursuant to measurable parameters such as light, visibility, noise etc.. The focus of Winy Maas, Jacob van Rijs and Richard Koek to the quantitative approach is explained by pointing to the economic and environmental sustainability of the interventions, for example as evidenced by Metacity Datatown (010 Publishers, 1999) where statistical simulation is a town isolated and self-sufficient than 400 km on each side which focuses a population equal to that of the US.

If the rationality of theory and experiment leads to much housing models with a sufficient density, the facts and desires is directed back in the opposite direction: the U.S. census of 1990 established the passing of the population residing in the suburban city and the European situation is not very far away. As noted by Andreas Ruby (Transgressing urbanism in Transurbanism, edited by Arjen Mulder, V2_Publishing/NAi, 2002) is now difficult to think of these settlements as something totally dependent on urban centers. Their initial attractiveness (due to space, green, accessibility, availability, convenience, transformability …) is now supplemented by service systems such as organizing an alternative way of living and independent. On the one hand, this transformation of the suburbs into something more like the city, at least in terms of operation, leading to phenomena of densification processes that seem to go back in time training followed by urban structures established: The Dense-City. After the Sprawl (edited by Mary-Ann Ray, Roger Sherman, Mirko Zardini, Electa, 1999) notes the spread of cases of growth, agglomeration, alteration, substitution, etc.. which, naturally, are investing in the metropolitan area of Los Angeles, and that is the city symbol of the dispersion.

On the other hand, the growing number of studies aimed to devise intervention strategies that can win the so-called urban sprawl of urban quality. Among the many contributions in this sense (almost all Americans: indicates about 43 titles published under sprawl over the last ten years) should be reported to the research conducted by Xaveer de Geyter, After-sprawl (NAi Publishers / De Singel, 2002) Direct study of the central European, the so-called “blue banana” between London and northern Italy, and the elaboration of tools, especially related to the enhancement of the voids, which can improve image and efficiency. At least until these voids are not completely filled by the vertical congestion of suburban growth…


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