SPACE AS MATRIX
Just as in the aftermath of the 1918 global influenza epidemic, today’s pandemic has forced a break of the grip of rigid thought patterns about the proper design of cities and urban life. The massive death toll and an increasingly militant consciousness against entrenched racism and its related social and economic segregation, on top of pre-existing concerns about global warming, droughts and other associated planetary disasters, urge us to return to seek possible solutions in older ideas, some long-ignored, that give priority to the inclusion, health and well-being of humans.
Regarding the design of urban spaces and housing that could promote the healthy integration of different age, race and income populations, and the fine-grain merger of built and natural spaces within blocks and neighborhoods, I want to refer to ideas I already expressed in my 1976 essay titled “Space as Matrix” (1). There I argued that that in order to be able to think cities and housing anew, including questions of density, hierarchies of exclusion and patterns of discrimination accumulated over time, we need to rethink the very idea of space itself. Nothing less would achieve this purpose.
Historically, the responses to new conditions such as strict and lengthy confinement have taken the form of proposals for the redesign of cities and housing when the old ones are deemed inadequate (2). Regarding density, for example, the creation of low-rise high-density housing complexes originated in the US as a response to the infamous high-rise high-density buildings such as Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis MO, dynamited between 1972 and 1976. But the tower-in-the park concept that inspired these buildings was a response to the congestion of dense European cities after the early 20th century pandemic. None of these responses and counter-responses, however, addressed the problems of social exclusion, access to opportunity or alternative energy sources, among other considerations.
To rethink space anew means going beyond typological categories such as housing, parks, and commerce; it means breaking down the conventional distinctions between private and public, individual and shared, built and natural environments, to propose an interaction between opposites. Hierarchy then can become a way to organize space inclusively, instead of a method for exclusion.
Now, the forced confinement that prevents the spread of the disease is making people reconsider their experience of home, work, and public spaces. The lack of easy access to nature is more easily normalized when the home is occupied less than half the day. But when the home becomes a workplace, a school, and an arena where the strains of family life are experienced round-the-clock, the need for access to the outdoors and contact with other human beings becomes urgent.
Sociologists, architects and urban designers are again stressing the need to rethink density, the importance of spaces for “the common good” and of places in urban homes that open to streets and green spaces not clogged by cars. There are also endless proposals for squeezing work spaces into the home with clever furniture, but these quick fixes assume that the city and its housing remain essentially unchanged. Less thought is being given to the question of physical distancing in public transportation, even as cars acquire a new relevance as a protective bubble. Maybe this is the time to start thinking about hybrid systems for home/work commuting routes, where private transportation modules can get hitched or unhitched to/from surface mass transit systems at specific stops.
But instead of rethinking yet another version of older architectural types or urban patterns, we should focus on moving beyond a binary structure of the environment. Again, we should rethink the very idea of space itself. Towards that goal I advanced in 1976 the following three principles that address weaving together, matrix-like, private and public, individual and shared, built and natural environments.
1-The simultaneous attainment of seemingly opposite objectives:open/enclosed, isolated/connected, low/high, small/large, intimate/monumental.
2-The creation of multifunctional spaces reflecting the way people actually live and cities change. The single use of spaces and the segregation of domestic and urban functions embedded in regulations and codes promote a constrained isolation between private, shared and public life.
3-The introduction of flexible elements to facilitate adaptability and change within the close, self-referential logic of design. In the concept of matrix space, fixed elements are combined with changing spatial possibilities for transformation and growth (3).
I believe that if these principles became common currency in architectural and urban design thought it would be possible to avoid the back-and-forth reactions about density and move towards better integrated human and natural environments.
- (1) It was published in Heresies 11, the feminist journal on art and politics, in 1979. See http://heresiesfilmproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/heresies11.pdf
- (2) These include the “supermanzanas” revision of existing urban fabric: https://www.plataformaarquitectura.cl/cl/922775/supermanzanas-como-nuevo-modelo-urbano-por-salvador-rueda; the so-called “15-minute city,” where access to most living and working spaces can be accomplished on foot, currently being promoted by, among others, the Honorable Anne Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris; and an updated version of the shikumen housing type, by a team led by Richard Sennett.
- (3) A limited version of this idea was developed 27 years later in Alejandro Aravena’s Iquique incremental housing and other, later projects.
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