Digesting REBURBIA

The environmental design site Inhabitat recently partnered with Dwell, a contemporary architecture and design magazine, on a contest called REBURBIA, which challenges architects and designers to develop concepts that will provide reinvention and recovery for the sort of auto-centric suburban developments that have become conventional in North America since the end of World War II. This is particularly important given not only the various challenges of reducing the immense carbon intensity of such development, but also the resource demands as oil prices become increasingly volatile and production begins to peak.

REBURBIA announced a set of finalists over the weekend, and many of these concepts are very exciting. We’ll highlight at least some of these, particularly focusing on the current front-runners, the bigger concepts, and a couple of choices that are puzzling to say the least.

As of publication, the current front-runner was Adil Azhiyev and Ivan Kudryavtsev’s T-Tree modular housing concept. While it’s interesting, it’s also fairly derivative, reminding several commenters immediately of other modular concepts ranging from L’Habitat in Montreal to Nakagin’s “capsule tower”. Really, what’s new here? Other than materials, I mean, which I guess is kind of important.

Craig England’s PuRE system for natural water filtration is immediately more interesting to me. While I’m not sure a lot of people would immediately want to reclaim their pools for water treatment in the absence of a profound water-related crisis, this and Calvin Chiu’s much less-realized “frog’s dream” should at least foster more dialogue about reclaiming urban waterways. Cities from Denver to Seoul have reinvigorated streams in their city centers for secondary treatment and recreational use, and I’ve held for several years that Richmond could realize a major lost amenity by uncovering Shockoe Creek, which flows under numerous impervious vacant lots in a highly valuable central neighborhood prone to major flooding. (More on Shockoe reclamation later.)

Helene McElroy is selling PRT as “modular trains“, which I would imagine she thinks sounds way cooler to mod minimalist designers. Whatev. PRT is still a freeway on a stick and combines all of the most cumbersome aspects of private transportation with the highest capital costs of rail service. And I’m not usually one to diss alternative transit concepts; I’m a big supporter of monorail, for one, and pretty tolerant of BRT.

And I love, love love love, the audacity of AIRBIA. I for one endorse Alexandros Tsolakis and Irene Shamma’s sexy neo-mod commuter-Zeppelin future. OMG. Many people have forgotten that dirigibles can be incredibly efficient, reasonably speedy – like, 90 mph (150 km/h) average speeds quick, which is rail-comparable – and above all direct. And maybe people would be willing to reconsider riding in one if it didn’t look stupid.

Of the other more audacious high-concept designs, Lacoste+Stevenson’s Burbs Reduxed looks unbelievably cool but also has the drawback of being a bit stupid. While I think it’s kind of fun to reimagine the air rights over cul-de-sac catchments becoming sexy, sinuous apartment blocks and fields full of McMansions falling fallow before the majesty of modness, it’s an incredibly expensive concept that doesn’t actually solve any of the issues it seeks to address. It’s like the Highline, if it didn’t ever actually have any particularly good reason for being. Besides, not everyone is actually going to like their driveway being overwhelmed by a ribbon of metal and concrete, like a giant Lacoste collar popped on the entire landscape, or a double-reverse Le Corbusier. Um, what?

No seriously, if what you want is weird and funky and arty and rustic and superweird, just stay in a Snuggles Hotel.

Ultimately the concepts that I think have the most immediate impact to address suburban problems, ironically enough, are the most incremental: Galina Tahchieva’s Urban Sprawl Repair Kit provides an open-source pattern set inspired by prior New Urbanist infill projects, while Urban Nature’s Entrepreneurbia simply deregulates single-use suburban communities so they can become more vibrant and productive with investment. While neither of these strikes me as sufficient on their own, they are both highly complementary and immanently “doable” solutions that work together, particularly in combination with denser, more interconnected suburban develoment concepts such as the Malaysian “bungalow honeycomb” (h/t to Spencer Lepler for letting me know about that one).


In reality undoing the problematic design issues of sprawl is going to be both more and less complicated than these designs, but I expect it’s going to take less snakey subversion of air rights and heavy-rail jitney cabs and a lot more diverse transportation and development choices in places we don’t currently have them. Maybe a few years of doing the right thing will be able to counteract decades of design on autopilot, but it’ll take some doing.

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~ by J.D. Hammond on August 10, 2009.

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