Urbanism is in a crisis in terms of identity of the profession, the work it should do and the work it can do as well as the way it interconnects with other disciplines. Well actually it has never had a position regarding these points. Pressure is rising from all sides, Sustainability approaches are developed here and there, but not within the profession, theoretical concepts as well as technical concepts are also developed elsewhere and even the job is done by other people. What can be done?
What a joy to read a book on urbanism that actually seeks and to some extend manages to to shape a particular position. There are clear references to were this position comes from and what the tools are that are used to work, but it leaves the clear impression that it creates something different.
Image taken from Steven Holl / Spread 12/13, Beijing: The linked Hybrid Located just off the second Ring Road.
In terms of tools, clearly the architectural approach is used. There are plans, there are models, there is usually even a building. Not just a shadow but actually a proposal or even a project that is being built. So what makes this variance then?
The difference really is the scale. Starting on page two with a plan that is actually more of a map covering a large section of Manhattan, page there a map-plan covering the centre of Amsterdam and page four a map-plan showing the lower section of the Saine in Paris. I call it a map-plan because it is a plan of the project location, the site or building is marked in a black and white context in red, but the scale is really more what you would expect of a map. The approach could be accused of simply scaling up the building project to city scale and claiming this to be urbanism. This is probably true, however I believe the result counts. An in this case at least the book and the presented projects here really strongly give a sense or urban character and importance.
Image taken from Steven Holl / Spread 4/5, title page showing the project Ile Seguin in France.
Covering a time span of 43 years, from 1967 with a student project to 2010, Steven Holl covers his position on large scale interventions and overall this detailed collage manages to piece together a position. A position that really lets you believe again that something like urbanism really exists.
The book we are talking about here is 'Urbanisms - Working with Doubt' by Steven Holl, published by Princeton Architectural Press. It is a book, very much in the sense of a book. It has a very traditional feel to it, even though it makes use of the new arrangements, like page numbering or ordering of elements and so on. However layout and font, but also the feel to the cover and the square format render it extremely formal.
38 projects are presented, together with essays and statements by Steven Holl. Together this creates the position. The most important statement, that also has given the book the subtitle it probably 'Working with Doubt', here Steven Holl says: "Today working with doubt is unavoidable; the absolute is suspended by the relative and the interactive. Instead of stable systems we must work with dynamic systems. Instead of simple and clear programs we engage contingent and divers programs. Instead of precision and perfection we work with intermittent, crossbred systems, and combined methods. ... Working with doubt becomes an open position for concentrated intellectual work." (Steven Holl, p13)
Image taken from Steven Holl / The 'Linked Hybrid', my favorite large scale building.
This position is illustrated in the book with the project and it is possible to understand this position, I think this is the real achievement of this book, as an entity it works great.
However, in the sense of the starting question it might provide guidance and thoughts, but no solutions. I am not convinced that this super-sized architectural style has solutions in all situations, especially when it comes to diversity, social, and longer term temporal aspects. What Steven Holl offers are large scale buildings, quite literally (with massive projects in the middle East, particularly China), that have the potential to play a an important role, define spaces and create identity for an area, but they are not the city.
These super-sized site plans on city scale seem to be the new trend at the moment. For example also the new Herzog and De Meuron Book is making use of this tactic to locate the presented projects. Where this will take us we will see.
Nevertheless, this is the most recent comprehensive urban statement you can get your hands on. It will challenge your position.
Holl, S., 2008. Urbanisms: Working with Doubt, New York, N.Y: Princeton Architectural Press.