Over the last decade we have undoubtedly witnessed a resurgent interest in the theme of “proximity” in urban thinking. Significant factors include the imperatives of a “Post-Kyoto Accord” sustainable city – which translates into a reduction in transportation of people and goods and the densification of existing built fabric – as well as the effective decrease in economic and financial resources of governments and common society.
After a long span of time in which the accent and investment were placed on networks and rapid transit, and in which kinship was said to be able to overcome great distances and divides, we must now come to grips with the fact that this distance has a real cost and is weighing on us once again (Cogato Lanza 2012).
Improvement in soft mobility and mixed use planning have become widespread policies for dealing with this new scenario. They are consistent with a tangible trend aimed at splitting urban usages into two distinct scales: the first relates to streamlined modes of displacement fanning out across the territory and reflecting contemporary work and leisure patterns; and the second concentrates on the notion of proximity and on densification. At its most basic, in a spatial and metrological sense, “proximity” circumscribes the radius of the contemporary dwelling environment, including living practices, extending out to everyone’s daily domestic and working sphere.
More broadly, proximity captures the sense of individual and social customs within a given area of study. It entails the rediscovery of social practices, either solitary or cooperative, that positively enhance the notion of proximity. Nevertheless, there exists at present a negative perception of proximity, particularly in areas that are frankly suburban. In these often inhospitable neighborhoods lacking in services, how can the sentiments of hindrance and seclusion among the inhabitants be avoided? In many of these areas the lack of residential mobility remains the essential problem, an issue closely linked to public housing policy and the real estate industry. How can one accept spending more time in this “disqualified” proximity, where poor renters are held captive and public space has become unlivable? In this sense proximity may represent a new kind of socio-spatial injustice.
It is precisely this kind of problem, sketched out in very broad strokes, which has become the basis for a pedagogical investigation centered on the visual representation of urban landscapes at the scale of proximity. How is it possible to visually articulate a qualitative assessment and to identify and formulate a judgment on the most relevant themes pertaining to the spatial reality of proximity?
Throughout the 20th century, proximity, in theoretical and design terms, essentially developed as an ordered and balanced arrangement of “neighborhood units” – an area contained within a 400-meter radius with homes for about 5,000–6,000 people. Both Clarence Perry’s neighborhood theory and its specific European variants met with unprecedented success, especially in the context of “welfare urbanism” and its policies, allocating goods and redistributing wealth with a view to ensuring individual and collective well-being. Architecture, urbanism and landscape architecture showed immense inventiveness in the treatment of new design concepts correlated to the neighborhood scale, including the new town, the civic center, the shopping center, and the various typologies of parks and public space. A range of architectural languages, from rationalist-modernist to vernacular, crystallized a sense of belonging according to the model developed by Perry.
At present, the theme of proximity can no longer be treated as it had been during a major part of the 20th century. A critique of the model emerged at the onset of the 1960’s, criticizing its segregated and authoritative mode and the growing discrepancy within a society where the family unit was no longer representative of the many possible lifestyles. The collapse of the welfare state further undermined this paradigm. We have entered an era of the decline of models, coupled with the decline of centralized decision-making, and the decline of issues relating to planned large-scale urban expansion. By way of compensation, we have observed a growing general concern with the densification of existing settlements.
One of the manifestations of the crisis of the welfare state has been the abandonment of uniformly distributed access to public services, such as education, healthcare and transport. Urban options are changing, both in content and in structure: retailers are looking to move away from the loss-making hypermarket model and trying to tempt consumers again by opening more small-scale retail outlets, and rebranding accordingly, as suppliers of material or non-material services.
We are slowly but surely entering a new era of “urban normality” under the banner of “densification”: mixity, soft mobility and ecology will considerably affect the design scenarios of urban landscapes in the near future. Nevertheless, the question of design themes and design instruments pertaining to a contemporary notion of proximity remains open, although a return to some Modernist model would be completely out of place. How can increased densification be made to tally with an increase in well-being at the scale of proximity? Can we improve the quality of public open space? If so, in terms of design programs, how can designers articulate spatial quality and orientate decisions accordingly?
In order to theoretically innovate the topic of proximity and develop experimental research into modes of visual representation, The Chair of Landscape Architecture (ETH Zurich) led by Professor Girot, and the Laboratory of Construction and Conservation (LCC at EPF in Lausanne) with Elena Cogato Lanza, created the Urban Landscape Observatory, a research and teaching structure comprising Masters students and Post Doctoral assistants.
This book presents some of the results of the 1 km Well-being experiment, realized by the Urban Landscape Observatory between 2009 and 2011 and funded by the Swiss Cooperation Programme in Architecture (SCPA). With its mission to explore different urban situations in Switzerland, the Observatory set out to achieve the following goals: a better comprehension of the dimension of proximity in current living practices, and a better understanding of comfort qualities in contemporary urban landscapes. It sought to define a new form of urban criticism based on visual representation that combines video and mapping.
To define our field of study, we established a scale of measurement corresponding to “one kilometer of Urban Landscape.” One kilometer is a distance that can be covered on foot in 10 to 15 minutes. It is directly linked to the abilities of the human body to move, and this is one of the reasons why it corresponds to a particular scale of dwelling and neighborhood in numerous 20th century theories and models. Urban Landscape is a cross-disciplinary category, which allows us to conceptualize the sensory and physical aspects of the outdoors, taking into consideration more particularly the questions of livability, comfort, sustainability and aesthetics. It also helps bring together urban and landscape viewpoints, represented by the two research units working in association at the Urban Landscape Observatory, and refers to spaces that are publicly accessible and within close proximity to the home. It does not determine any morphological or typological criteria. The contemporary city should be understood as being part of a landscape totality according to the term coined by Sieferle (2003) that defines all the alterations and changes in the living environment as artifacts.
The sites under study, located in urban perimeters in both Zurich and Geneva, presented “edge condition landscapes.” Set within one square kilometer, the sites of Grünau, Sihlcity, Sihlquai, and Hardau in Zurich and the sites of Meyrin, Vernier, Libellules, and Lignon in Geneva are comparable in terms of scale, situation, and morphological properties. All these areas represent urban conglomerates that are heterogeneous in their structure with extensive mass transport infrastructures; they present a juxtaposition of resolutely modernist quarters adjacent to more conventional mixed residential, commercial and industrial neighborhoods. These sites will most likely be densified in the future, given the general framework of sustainable urban politics.
What are the well-being conditions peculiar to each site? How can one define and represent their particular “well-being”? After the collapse of preconceived models, are we still capable of identifying the qualities of the sites under study and describing their specific character and morphology within the dwelling customs to be observed? If densification is the way towards some form of “urban normality,” then the inherent difference between the sites and their landscapes should become the prime source of improvement. How can the material qualities of a site, with its variable urban forms, landscapes and textures, be precisely accounted for and integrated in a knowledgeable set of observations?
Constructing a coherent discourse on the urban and architectural production of cities at the scale of proximity means abandoning all theoretical and ideological assumptions about models and style, and switching to a new methodology based on an informed visual culture revolving around the essence of place. As mentioned above, the concept of urban landscape is the cornerstone of an improved correlation between built form and public open space, which relates not only to established rational and functional parameters, but also existential, relational, emotional and atmospheric ones.
Beyond this concept, what are the cultural referents and visual instruments needed to relate the multifaceted relationships of the contemporary urban landscape at a scale in which the corporeal dimension is central? How can we record the many indices and proofs on site, if they actually contradict common expectations and a presupposed reality? We must address the challenge of a new form of visual criticism in our approach to cities. Our hypothesis is that video combined with mapping can be extremely powerful. From an active and engaged gaze deployed in various situations, a new way of thinking the city might materialize.
The theory of urban landscape and its modifications must be interwoven with experimentation in the domain of visual representation. Christophe Girot and his group have shown a long-standing concern about the primacy of image and visual thinking in landscape design. The topic cannot be separated from the advent of digital media, which overturned the “perspectival” inheritance that has governed the way we move through, understand, and work within and upon urban space. Concern about the reality of our contemporary vision, conditioned as it is by media images and their production, was developed through video over three decades ago at the ETH Department of Architecture, first with the experimental works of Rudolf Manz in the early 1980’s, then with those of Dieter Kienast, and finally with Christophe Girot from 1999 onwards.
The work primarily focused on urban landscapes at the edge of Zurich and has little to do with long established canons of painterly landscape perspective.
Actually, framing reality in this manner has become rather blurry in an age where images demultiply, dematerialize, and atomize into minute particles of information. Since those pioneer days of video, with its black and white cathodic screens, the techniques of film and video are now practically indistinguishable. What is the substantive value of a media-conditioned gaze in urban design and landscape architecture? How does this affect our perception and reception of landscapes in general? Landscape architects need to react to a media environment where what matters is no longer what a society looks at but rather what it ignores.
The engagement of the LCC in Lausanne in cartographic experimentation was a more recent effort to develop a mapping instrument capable of relating the direct experience of a place. The LCC has formulated a cartographic analysis that is interpretive, specific, selective, and focused on the notion of “project” (Cogato Lanza et al., 2013). This should be understood in opposition to the more common usage of cartography via thematic layers that tend to avoid contextualization through the decomposition of reality. These questions are crucial in the domain of landscape and urban design, more particularly in the training of young designers in schools of architecture. It explains the choice we made to conduct research through a heuristic approach.
The direct transfer between research and education characterizes the philosophy of the Urban Landscape Observatory. The iterative process works in both directions, and students were invited to critically reflect upon the notion of proximity in their site readings by adopting various modes of investigation and representation through video or mapping, depending on the context. The findings were subsequently introduced in exercises during the following semesters. This positively nurtured the interface between video and mapping. The main objectives of this “pedagogy of site restitution” compensate for the lack of a recognized “culture of experience in public space” that sadly seems to be lacking from the curricula of both schools.
The two contributions of Antonio di Campli and of Fred Truniger and Nadine Schütz more completely relate the results of the research to track the mapping and video methods. They comment on a selection of student works (reproduced in the book in the form of illustrations, while an unabridged version of the works) is available in our website at www.eperimenting-proximity. net). Both video and mapping contributions present a similar structure. An introductory part shows each respective method, then student work is presented, organized under the three headings: Dwelling, Formation and Atmosphere. These headings help individuate the three fundamental modes of well-being for the sites selected in Zurich and Geneva. They represent three different perceptive modes in an environment as well as three areas of design, independent of the instruments of visual perception. This interface between the methods developed at both schools in matters of video and mapping constitutes the first tangible result of our shared interest in public space.
The heading Dwelling refers directly to the survey of a particular relationship between built space and human corporeality. It refers to the way in which inhabitants actively use their dwelling, revealing its qualities and drawbacks.
Dwellers focus on some of the conditions present in the urban field only, leaving others untouched; mapping in this instance acts as a filter or grid, sifting through the urban landscape, selecting various elements and situations that suggest scenes of well- being. The heading Formation qualifies both the form itself and the act of forming as part of the generative processes of the city. Priority was given to measurement, morphology, and precise mapping, but psychological and imaginary dimensions were also freely added. In order to show spatial and typological variations in the processes by which urban space is formed, various time scales were incorporated. Finally, the heading Atmosphere qualifies urban landscape space as a form of synesthetic experience that adapts to ambient conditions. Well-being in this instance was investigated as an “immersive practice” in which urban landscape was explored as an “envelope” endowed with intrinsic ambient qualities.
Before looking at student work, it is important to underline the walking and viewing themes that were linked to the site visits. The three headings chosen refer to types of activity that were recognized early-on and then situated at the heart of our methodology. Both the site visit and the mode of gazing were theoretically constructed around these headings. Students criss-crossed the 1 × 1 km sites in search of particular conditions of well-being, and were asked to transcribe them visually in either mapping or video mode. Each visit should be considered as a decisive act of viewing with the potential to reacquire some of its design pertinence.
Extract from Experimenting Proximity By Elena Cogato Lanza and Christophe Girot Published by the Presses polytechniques et universitaires romandes