uncertain [uhn-sur-tn], adjective
definition: doubtful, changeable
synonyms: ambiguous, ambivalent, chancy, conjectural, dubious, erratic, fitful, hanging by a thread, hazy, hesitant, iffy, incalculable, inconstant, indefinite, indeterminate, indistinct, insecure, irregular, irresolute, on thin ice, precarious, questionable, risky, speculative, touch and go, unclear, unconfirmed, undecided, undetermined, unfixed, unforeseeable, unpredictable, unreliable, unresolved, unsettled, unsure, up for grabs, up in the air, vacillating, vague, variable, wavering
antonyms: certain, clear, definite, determined, foreseeable, secure, sure, unchanging
(Thesaurus Dictionary, 2013)
During the last decades, the word ‘uncertainty’ has been has been on the lips of many architects, urban designers or planners. Uncertain, doubtful or changeable scenarios seem to define our contemporary landscape in an increasing way: from instability related to the cyclic movements of financial crisis, to a rapidly changing climate, all is about change. Certain predictions belong to the past.
A certain amount of uncertainty is intrinsic to architecture and urban design or planning because they all engage in transformations of a ‘living’ environment or ‘live configuration’ (1). N.J. Habraken indeed reaffirmed this idea of uncertainty, by defining the built environment as ‘live configurations’, adding ‘living environments can not be invented, they must be cultivated. (…) This requires proper use of levels, judicious articulation of territory, and creative application of types, patterns and thematic systems’ (2). In other words, change and renewal, as part of ’uncertain’ scenarios, are considered main agents of transformation of the environment we inhabit. ‘Built environment, in all of its complexity, is created by people. Yet it is simply far too complex, too large, and too self-evident to be perceived as a single entity, an artifact. (…) Built environments have lives of their own: they grow, renew themselves, and endure for millennia’ (3).
The uncertainty inherent to contemporary reading, transformation or production of urban space is present as well in the idea of ‘palimpsest’: André Corboz used this concept to describe the contemporary built environment: an ever changing territorial system of differences and variable accessibility. The palimpsest contains the idea of ongoing modifications and transformations of a manuscript, producing a document with different superposed layers of contents, comments, footnotes and questions. ‘Territory is not a given, it contains both spontaneous developments and human interventions with an increasing control’ (4). He defends territory as a non-objective issue, but as an uncertain project, due to physical, mythical and political appropriation possibilities.
The ever-changing condition of territory in which agents act simultaneously and therefore transform territory, adds another dimension to the concept of ‘depth configuration’ as well: why would we design or program buildings, streets, squares or parks, why would we lay-out properties, as if there would be no change of use, no change in accessibility or permeability?
Landscapes of the Uncertain, a design studio experience
Considering that uncertain scenarios can be a solution, rather than a problem in dealing with the built environment, I would like to describe a specific case of a design studio within the International Master of Architecture at LUCA School of Arts. This design studio, called “Williamsburg”, was related to Streetscape Territories and dealt with ‘collective structures’: it focused on the ‘territorial organization of urban projects’, which means studying to which extent urban projects can or should be accessible or permeable. As a consequence, the students in the design studio dealt with ‘models of proximity’ within a street or a neighborhood: we started from the assumption that urban space, from the domestic scale till the scale of the city, can be understood as a discontinuous ‘collective space’, containing different levels of collective use (a lower or higher level of sharing or segregating) and that these levels are defined by multiple physical, cultural or territorial boundaries, all part of a ‘depth configuration’. This discourse is based on the theory of N.J. Habraken, who defined the concept of territorial depth: “Territorial depth is measured by the number of boundary crossings (…) needed to move from the outer space to the innermost territory” (5)
However, the studio approached the concept of depth in a non-judgemental way: long, smooth and gradual transitions were not considered better than short, sudden and radical changes of collective level within a sequence. As a result, non-hierarchical ways of organising space, allowing space and time for multiple choices, bifurcations, shortcuts, détours or even for making mistakes within the appropriation scenarios, were ranked higher than any pre-programmed ‘certain’ depth sequence. Students were asked to avoid ‘functional specificity’ and rather define architectural qualities within the sequence, based on spatial qualities (big, small, high. low, wide, narrow, shiny, soft, short or extended views, dark, light…) and on possible -maybe uncertain- levels of collectivity, of sharing or segregating space within the depth configuration.
Through case studies, the master dissertation students focused on the existence and importance of territorial systems as related to the street and used the theory of depth configurations as a framework to design or intervene: in this case, three students focused on the neighborhood of Williamsburg, New York. This area in the Brooklyn borough is known for its fastly changing character and appealing contrasts. The first contrast refers to scale. On one hand, the still-present, large-scale factories and warehouses (for now) refer to a vast industrial setting at the border of the East River; those factories and warehouses, however, threaten to become luxury lofts for hipster or fatcat communities taking hostage of the neighbourhood. On the other hand, the area is still characterised for its small-scale residential atmosphere: a swarm of rich, young hipsters now share this former immigrant neighbourhood with its original, poorer, multicultural inhabitants. Large-scale properties are mixed with small-scale properties, and picturesque wooden houses stand next to glass-façade real estate. Yet another contrast manifests itself by programmatic adjacency: industry, storage, and commercial activities complement housing and civic or religious facilities: one can find a funerary service next to a hip salad bar or upscale boutique. Bicycles and pedestrians share streets and sidewalks with heavyweight trucks and SUVs. Socially, the neighbourhood is very complex as well, as hipster and Latino communities live next to Hassidic communities, appropriating the streetscapes in a very different way. The historical absence of planning regulations and functional specificity turned this area into an interesting case study of multiple configurational scenarios, defined by its inhabitants through the years, in an implicit or explicitly way, as part of a tolerant or rather excluding attitude.
Each student focused on different sites and topics—the common denominator being the idea that each architectural intervention was part of a wider ‘uncertain’ streetscape territory. This way, the ‘depth configuration’ discourse was interpreted in a different and personal way by each of the three students: the introduction of a set of non-programmed communal spaces within a neighbourhood by Michal Janák, the integration of a system of flexible storefronts in the neighbourhood by Amélie Van Neer, and the proposal of a building as an infrastructure (a system of inhabited platforms linked to elevated metro lines) by Guillaume Dopchie.
For this essay, and because of the relation to the concept of uncertainty, I would like to focus on the project presented by Michal Janák, entitled ‘Landscape of the Uncertain’. It considered a project, a design intervention in this neighborhood in full transformation, based on ‘uncertain scenarios’: waterproof functional (over)programming of a building was avoided, as well as predefining the future of this neighborhood. At the contrary, the project embraced the idea of a needed ‘collective structure’ within the streetscape, that could be filled in by the neighbors, according to their needs or desires. Referring to the Streetscape Territories project, this particular project defined different spatial qualities to five different though related buildings or ‘collective structures’ in this popular neighborhood. Michal Janák describes: ‘The image of Williamsburg is a very strong one. Diversity, change, hope, fear. Once prosperous, then poor, now hip. Post-modern mash up of ‘cultures of tradition’ and subcultures. Social mix of original ‘industrial settlers’, new coming hipsters and future luxury. This scenario ultimately evokes questions: how does this diversity affect built space? And how will newly built space affect future diversity? Is gentrification an ultimately wrong process that inevitably erases social and cultural diversity for the sake of better spatial quality? And could it be an attempt to increase the quality in a non-political way?
However, in the urban landscape, there have always been places that are ‘out of radar’ but their existence is essential for any neighborhood, community or culture. Abandoned buildings, ruins, unreachable spaces are the ‘dark side of the city’. In the context of high density of cultures, interests and population, these are the oases of tranquility, non-interest and no-policy. Their occupation is often illegal, but tolerated and their vividness may vary from a ‘lovers hideaway’ to an accepted ‘Southside community garden’. The project attempts to interpret the future situation of ‘Southside’ as landscape of possibilities, where a ‘missing link’ is suggested to reinforce the political strength of the street and neighborhood. Could this ‘landscape of the uncertain’ be deliberately produced in the future? I believe it could, if it operates on the levels of collectivity, not program, being ultimately un-programmed. The more possibilities of use, the better, as the community proved here to be a much more clever programmer than architect. The street, as the predominant element of spatial configuration in a system where communities determine natural territorial borders, will become a ‘programmatic configuration’ by adding certain spatial elements.” To achieve this, the building(s) are generic, ambiguous, yet specific. The whole should be seen as a repetitive set, almost as fragments of ‘one’ building spread through the street. In such strategy, the building(s) are significant enough, but yet, their bigness is in their omnipresence, not specific size or program. The configuration, the friction, production of “leftover” space adds another layer to the space produced (programmed, un-programmed, unspecified). While similar, the buildings are in five different positions (horizontal, vertical and variations) to achieve further internal uniqueness and relationship with the context. Collectivity, in its most spatial dimension, is defined by a relative set of spaces and happen inevitably according to relative relations of spaces and their relation to context. The level of relative thinness and transparency for social control every room is facing facade, but persons outside can never observe the activity in the whole building from one place, uncertainty is the building’s main quality. The user inside does not have the control to hide his/her presence, but can control the activity. The added value will not be only the space and the activity in it, but the actual involvement in the daily life of the street. The use is not culturally specific, and thus, inclusive for the diverse communities. On the level of collectivity, it does not attempt to be a public space, ultimately open space, but a ‘neighborhood’, working with, for the community and identifying the space via the community, which has and will have the ultimate power of inclusion and exclusion. The lack of pre-designed programme opens up different interpretations of use, based on the context and it’s perception with a surprising climax.’
b: At the corner of Keap street, abandoned lots have become a natural garden adjacent to the daycare center. The potential of use of the garden is in creating of surprise – “hidden” garden behind the wall, the communal building.
d: Hewes St. Southside community garden. Elements in the garden are flexible and thus possible to rearrange three dimensionally. Building covers the garden from views, creates an entrance “street” with the anticipation. Existing garden as climax.
(drawings by Michal Janák)
The design studio, based on the Streetscape Territories research project, dealt with territorial mechanisms in a plural way, each of the students working at a different scale with a peculiar focus, but all of them proposing architectural interventions that were based on a social commitment and a critical use of space, seeking to reinforce tolerant systems of collective spaces for this neighbourhood. The proposed interventions illustrated plural models of proximity and permeability of buildings within a neighbourhood and questioned the recent abuse of explicitly defined territorial boundaries in urban projects: at the contrary, they preferred to embrace ‘uncertain’ scenarios for the neighbourhood and even further build upon them.
1 Habraken, 1998: 236
2 Habraken, 1998: 326
3 Habraken, 1998: 6
4 Corboz, 2001: 57
5 Habraken, 1998: 137
Brown, T.: 2009, Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Corboz, A.: 2001, Le Territoire Comme Palimpseste et Autres Essais. Paris, Les Editions de L’Imprimeurs, Collection Tranches de Villes
Habraken, J.: 1998, The Structure of the Ordinary. Cambridge: MIT Press
Featured image above: House under construction, Crete, Greece, January 2013 (picture by Kris Scheerlinck)