Urban Carpet vs. Mat City

Mat buildings have many plusses as a result of them being a single unit solved for function, access, daylighting and ventilation and indefinitely repeated. So let’s supersize one and see what happens. The evolution of mat city is undocumented so this fast and loose history is going to have to do.

Around 5,400 BC, the city of Eridu, not too far from Basra in Iraq, is said to have been the world’s first city. Details are sketchy but, give or take a bit of artistic license, this image will give you an idea. Temples came and went but the urban carpet stayed.

The classic Middle Eastern city has access alleys separating clusters of buildings with inner courtyards that solved problems of internal circulation, daylighting and ventilation and also happened to lessen diurnal temperature extremes.

These cities became mat cities when levels began to differentiate according to urban function. This image of Marrakech shows residential usage in airspace superfluous to the illumination and ventilation requirements of the access level. Streets once fully open to the sky become passageways illuminated by lightwells. Streets that are nothing more than a means of getting from A to B do not need to be better lit and ventilated than buildings.

1914: Futurist City, Mario Chiattone

This looks all fine and Futurist and not all about form and Sant’Elia. Features are:

  • the identical city block repeated indefinitely
  • separation of what is presumably residential above from the commercial and retail below
  • the hierarchical nature of the buildings
  • the resetting of ground level so pedestrian traffic is separated from vehicular. [By the looks of that traffic, fellow Futurist Giaccomo Balla should have offered Chiattone some tips on how to represent dynamics of movement.]
  • there is elevated pedestrian access on the roofs of what’s probably intended as commercial space
  • patches of vegetation make that elevated pedestrian access into a public roof garden

Despite the intensification and repetition, it’s still a conventional city but with blocks now separated now by not one but two levels of access.

1925: Le Plan Voisin, Le Corbusier

A decade on, Le Corbusier’s plan for Paris has trees and café chairs but no Paris. Vision, by the way, is an anagram of Voisin, the name of the car manufacturers that sponsored this proposal. Le Corbusier gained more from the relationship than they did as his career took off circa 1930 while the European market for luxury cars tanked.

1924: Hochhausstadt, Ludwig Hilberseimer 

 

Ludwig Hilberseimer’s Hochhausstadt is said to be a response to Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin but has more in common with Chiattone’s Futurist City. Instead of building over roads and traffic, Hilberseimer proposes building over all land not being used for them – something that has since come to pass. Blocks housing commercial functions are still separated by streets. They form podiums for multiple residential slabs and re-set the ground level for pedestrian access. Between pairs of redidntial slabs are what looks like amenity courtyards. All city blocks therefore remain divided by streets but all residential buildings are separated by a street and an communal amenity courtyard.

It’s hard to tell what people do in all three of these cities. The high-rise bits are residential but where do people work? Where do they shop? What do they do on their day off? In the 1920s was human existence already reduced to sleeping, working, shopping and having to be somewhere else in a hurry? 

These precursor cities all have residential and commercial activity plus two ways to travel to and from it but the importance given to transportation suggests that many people have needs better satisified elsewhere. This would not occur in a mat city as most functions would be satisfieed with the repeatable unit, reducing the dependence on the automobile. In the 1920s when hardly anyone owned a car, architects – and not just Futurist ones – were excited by autombiles and the idea of rush hour.

The 1970s were another high point in the history of the mat city.

1971: Megaton City, Superstudio

Superstudio only gave us the big picture [and me the inspiration for my extruded PVC tile beach photoshoot – c.f. The Extruded Mat Building.] Megaton City assumes all human activity is somehow distributed and accommodated within this structure that we imagine encompassing the planet. I’ve always admired its clarity of perceiving and depicting human existence and activity as conceptually distinct from Nature (even though this representation of that autonomy is totally reliant upon Nature for contrast). The continuous landscape makes us see the natural spaces not as large courtyards but as land not built over. Be that as it may, I hope being squashed by the megaton force of one’s ceiling as punishment for having a dissenting thought won’t come to pass. It’s too early to say, but not too soon to start having doubts.

1971: No-Stop City, Archizoom

From the same 1971, No-Stop City was an endless interior in which dayligting and ventilation are solved by artificial means. The concept of functional necessity is also removed from the equation by having everything necessary for life and living provided and evenly distributed within that interior. People are free to move elsewhere but there’s little point doing so since it’s the same wherever they go. 

Megaton City and No-Stop City make architecture redundant as they don’t articulate the possession of space or things. The same physical framework and contents are repeated endlessly, with only human happiness left for people to work out for themselves. The statement “Life is what you make it” is both brutal and optimistic.

This stunning image is from a 2013 AA study titled Hiberseimer Study: Vertical City – Genericalness via Repetition exploring the urban carpet as an exercise in form. Actually owing more to Chiattone than Hilberseimer, it solves the problem of showing us what a urban carpet of the then most expensive building in the world would look like. Anybody know anything about those roof gardens on top of the Four Seasonses?

 

The history of the mat city stopped in 1971. Ubiquitous development didn’t suddenly disappear from the face of the earth but the appearance of it did. The New subUrbanism brought us 1982’s Seaside Florida carpeted with houses for short-term vacation renters all wanting a representation of individuality in a representation of a community.

Me, no. I’ll take the clarity of the mat city anyday, along with the individual and communal responsibility it demands. With that in mind …

La Ville Savoye

The Pilotis Level is the access and service zone. Service industry people live and mostly work in the inhabited pilotis that physically and structurally support The Residential Level.

The Residential Level is up in the air where it can better access sunlight and breezes through Horizontal Windows. Its habitable volume is in the airspace of the Undercroft.

The Roof Gardens on the uppermost level are for resident use.

The Basement Level is for services, storage and distribution.

villa-savoye-basement

One La Ville Savoye unit has a density of 32 persons per residential floor which, over four floors, equates to approx. 94,000 per hectare. That’s a lot of people.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cities_by_population_density

This means only two residential levels would be needed to house the population of Manila at the same density. Four levels would shrink its area by 50%. Cities with densities of 20,000 persons per hectare could shrink 75%. This is what the 20,000 persons per km² of Malé looks like.

La Ville Savoye would offer better distributed sunlight if it were on or near The Equator. Its energy density is relatively low since residential levels have bathrooms and kitchens naturally lit and ventilated, meaning all services conduits and pipes can be on external surfaces and not hidden in ducts. It doesn’t repeat the Metabolist error of having services penetrate the structural core and preventing proper maintenance and making future additions, replacements and reconfigurations messy, if not impossible. Kisho Kurokawa’s 1972 Nakagin Capsule Tower is always used to illustrate the folly of this approach.

Were it to have been built [buildable?], Arata Isozaki’s Clusters in the Sky would surely have been a more heroic failure.

Built representations of Metabolist principles such as Kenzo Tange’s 1966 Yamanashi Broadcasting and Press Center or his 1967 Shizuoka Press and Broadcasting Center don’t count as these buildings were merely made strange with contrived gaps but were essentially conventional structures with cores with services in shafts.

Unless it’s a location where pipes freeze or pigeons rule, it makes sense to expose services as tidily as possible. It doesn’t have to be made into a fetish by painting the cold water pipes blue and so on. [High-Tech and Post Modernism are both creatures of the same era – the former representing modernity and the latter representing continuity. They are by no means opposites.] IF we are to consider architecture an art, then the plumbing, utilities and drainage that are unique to it have more right to be used as a criteria for its evaluation as art than say, shape-making does. [c.f. Making Strange]

Exposing services is one practical thing we can learn from La Ville Savoye. Much like its namesake, one question it asks but doesn’t answer is what we want ground level to be. After 7,000 years, our cities remain agglomerations of activity spaces overlooking the streets that access and service them. Streets and their traffic compete for space with pedestrians at ground level, and with buildings for the airspace above.

Not all streets are bad and not all traffic is bad. Streets, after all, are a source of pedestrians and coffee-shop urbanism holds that pedestrian traffic brings Retail and Retail brings Vibrance. Masdar City Phase I showed it was possible to completely separate vehicle traffic at impossibly huge cost and succeeded in making both pedestrian and vehicular precincts lifeless.

Streets do have more important things to do than separate one café from another but their absence needs to be put to better use than merely provide a place to have a sandwich. I’m not suggesting ornamental traffic, but perhaps we should be asking what kinds of traffic we don’t mind living with and what kinds we do.

Once we know the answer to that, we need to partially build over those streets and make better use of that airspace.

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