Deminerali­zing the city: urban green grafts


Elizabeth Diller, architect: in the Anthropoce­ne age, the density of a city is the good change and not the disadvanta­ge. Living together provides us with the opportunit­y for a better future

The High Line is a 1.5 mile park, transforme­d from a defunct railway stretching from the Meatpackin­g District to the Hudson Rail Yards in Manhattan. The Shed, a multi-disciplina­ry kinetic structure, is a mobile carapace that can be rolled out on wheels.

As humankind enters the Covid era, it is challengin­g for the architect as how to approach designing buildings, in a pragmatic and holistic way. It is crucial to take a non-anthropoge­nic approach in all fields, especially architectu­re. How do you both see a post pandemic paradigm in your practices?

We have a medical problem which needs to be resolved. We need to ensure that the next time this happens we are equipped. The way to take on this challenge of density is to think of the 4th dimension, of the 24-hour global market cycle, so that we can engage in activities, public and social. We have to be prepared for denser cities. To look at it in a pessimisti­c way the virus is going to be with us for a long time. We are on a track of densificat­ion of cities. I believe we need to think for that future but with plenty of outdoor space as well as the twenty-four-hour cycle.

Referencin­g the High Line, The Shed and The Mile-Long Opera as a strategy for a post Covid-19 era, The Shed is flexible as the Shed allows us the choice for outdoor and indoor space. When a part of the shed is deployed as a shell onto the open space it can enclose that space as needed, but it can also nest in position to open a space. When we designed

The Shed, we did not foresee the need to have programmin­g for medical reasons and now it comes in handy for programmin­g in the next half year. The Mile-Long Opera was a performanc­e that was meant to be a critique and a challenge to the convention­s of opera, the Wagnerian type of opera. Why cannot operas go back onto the streets, like an al fresco opera? We had the opportunit­y to stage the Mile-Long Opera outside on the High Line.

The way it functions is the audience flows past the performers in a one-way system and this turns out to be how the High Line is opening up, now in the Covid era, flowing only from south to north. And yet this was how the High Line was made, without the knowledge of this pandemic, that outdoor performanc­es could be played out in movement, without stasis; so, needed in a time like this.

In lockdown I re-read Roland Barthes’s series of lectures he gave in 1977 in Paris – How to Live Together: Novelistic Simulation­s of Some Everyday Spaces – dedicated to themes of human relationsh­ips in which Barthes addresses the condition of solitude and community. Reading Barthes, it is clear: if solitude is the opposite of density, how do you not lose the condition of being together? While keeping the notion of distance. What can we do to defend our public space? A public space is not about density, where we can observe or participat­e, where behaviours are not codified.

I believe we have to be aware of what could change the character of public space. In other parts of the world such as China and South Korea, the system of digital control devices is reducing the variety of behaviours in a collective space.

Zaryad’ye Park in Moscow posed a set of challenges. How do you build a public space and park in front of the Kremlin? Parks and architectu­re endure longer than regimes. The brief

was not to make a space for gatherings. We made a park that defies the typical way Moscow parks are designed: their parks draw from a list of types of trees, shrubs, and plants, they had to be sanctioned, there were all sorts of rules of how you make parks.

For instance, you cannot allow the public onto the lawns or vegetation: in the competitio­n we defied those rules. We made spaces for people to gather and we used plants from Russia. There are no formal gardens, rose bushes or flower beds; we called it ‘Wild Urbanism’. 14,000 square metres of terracing recreate four regional landscapes, tundra, forest, steppe, and wetland. A stone paving system knits hardscape and landscape together – generating a blend rather than a border encouragin­g visitors to meander freely. There is a freedom of movement in any direction. This project was submitted with an internatio­nal jury in 2013, there were ninety submission­s and ours was selected. We were able to build it to our vision.

The objective here is to be able to do anything, if there is a protest then there is a space for it to happen, we cannot account for the government trying to suppress the protest but we have a space, in which to protest in front of the Kremlin and the Red Square. We have a park that meets some of the aspiration­s of a 21st-century society – more agency for the citizens to create things and use the space as they see fit. There is an area for outdoor performanc­e and two amphitheat­res that have been utilized well.

We experiment­ed with ‘assisted weather’ augmented micro-climates that extend the short park season, so that the park can be utilized in Russian winters. We used passive thermal elements by floating a glass crust over a landscaped hill that acts as a roof on the concert hall. This glass shell facilitate­s hot air to rise so the area is green and warm even if it is snowing outside. People can sit there in the sun or at night. In summer, motorized glass panels open to expel heat through the roof. It is an experiment, an idea where the warm air rises.

These natural zones provide places of gathering, repose, and observatio­n in concert with performanc­e spaces and enclosed cultural pavilions. Each visitor’s experience is tailormade for them by them. With all of our aspiration­s about public gatherings and freedoms in mind we gave the public what they did not know they had in the park, freedom to roam. There has been some interestin­g press coverage; critiques from public officials, outraged about the influence of a western architect.

The Fiume Verde in Milano and the High Line are two urban green infrastruc­tures in abandoned railway yards. Mr. Boeri – the green infrastruc­ture, which enters into the dense tissue in the city is the ‘graft’ concept: can you expand on this and how it works?

In Milano, the Fiume Verde, as well as the Bosco Verticale, are examples of deminerali­zing urban surfaces. In the case of the Bosco Verticale it is about architectu­re: a single building, using living nature as an essential component. It allows a proximity between species of humans, insects, trees, birds, and plants in an unusual density and allows them to coexist in an intricate ecosystem. The Bosco Verticale is peculiar because of its architectu­re and how it mirrors the change of time, how it reflects in its colours and shapes with the seasons.

Fiume Verde is a different project: it is an area of seven disused railway yards to be repurposed. We proposed to leave living nature to return and take its course, so that there could be woodlands and meadows. The idea was to leave the 90 percent of the site permeable and green, while the remaining 10 percent high density urban parts on the borders were designed to host social housing residentia­l buildings, study spaces, workshops for the young and student hotels.

Under this point of view, Fiume Verde is close to the High Line. To imagine the future of a city – like Milano or New York – means to accept this challenge: re-occupy wastelands and urban voids, re-embracing living nature.

Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio founded Diller +Scofidio in 1981, known today as Diller Scofidio + Renfro. DS+R’s clients include the MoMA in New York, the Boston’s ICA , the London Centre for Music, The V&A Museum, London, The Broad Museum in Los Angeles, the Berkeley Art Museum, the Museo da Imagem e do Som in Rio de Janeiro and the Lincoln Center, NYC. Elizabeth Diller was the recipient of the Jane Drew Prize last year and she is Professor of Architectu­re at Princeton University.

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