Panel Discussion: Practical Utopias

Friday 11 Oct 2013

Jill Lerner: "In setting out to achieve the utopian, you risk the dystopian"

During the second half of the World Architecture Day conference, delegates were treated to a panel debate discussing the New York AIA exhibit ‘Practical Utopias’ on display at the Center for Architecture until January 2014. Jill Lerner, AIANY President and KPF Principal, along with Associate Dean Jonathan Solomon of Syracuse University, Mustafa Abadan of SOM, and Ashok Raiji of Arup embarked upon an in-depth discussion of the creative process of ‘Practical Utopias.’

The exhibit focuses on five cities in Asia - Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo - due to their multilayered and complicated histories. As one panelist noted, these cities weren’t built overnight, meaning new construction in any of the five locations requires a level of sensitivity and knowledge about the existing context. Additionally, the five cities under study have implications beyond their geo-political boundaries, as 3.8 billion people (about 54% of the global population) live within a three-hour flight of their city limits.

In naming the exhibit ‘Practical Utopias,’ the panelists expressed a desire to showcase the dual nature of new construction in cities: a utopian ambition for projects combined with a practical desire to shape urban life. Lerner noted that challenges emerge, however, because 'in setting out to achieve the utopian, you risk the dystopian'. Thus, in thinking about a framework to discuss these cities and projects, the panelists spoke of a framework dividing urban life into understanding places that are ‘connected, dense, green, thick, and fun.’

When the panelists focused on the theme of the day, they all agreed that there is no productive discussion about housing without mentioning politics. Certainly, politics can be a driving factor in building the newest and the tallest structures in cities, but the panel was unanimous in voicing the need to be intentional with height in architecture.

“Tall buildings should invite people up to the top,” according to Lerner. The panel discussed the ways that tall buildings could be considered ‘living machines’ that could produce as well as consume. Using the movement of air, for example, throughout the building could provide a source of energy for the building itself.

The final portion of the panel was devoted to understanding the ways that international architecture firms can avoid a clashing of cultures while implementing a local project from afar. While thinking about these future ‘practical utopias,’ panelist Ashok Raiji emphasized the fact that 'the projects that succeed are the one where the architect respects and see the local culture'.

Emily Bowe

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