Catalyst III, Make Big Plans, 2016

Catalyst III: Urban Uncertainties

“Make Big Plans”
University of Virginia, 2016
Adam Yarinsky

In Spring 2016, Adam Yarinsky was the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Visiting Professor in Architecture and co-taught the 7020 Graduate Design Studio.

Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.
—Daniel Burnham


The boulevards, parks and plazas of Burnham’s late nineteenth century city beautiful emanated from the Beaux Arts spatial order of monumental civic buildings. The reciprocity between large scale works of architecture and the form of the city embodied the aspirations of American democracy in an urbanizing society. It is imperative that we assert, through design, the vital relationship between architecture and urbanism today. The 7020 studio’s embrace of “big plans” was grounded in the conviction that architecture is an integral part of the complex ecology of contemporary urbanism. Accordingly, the objectives of the studio were framed in terms of their broadest physical and social context. This approach required a collaborative, research-based design process to critically engage myriad site and program relationships and test multiple design possibilities. At a scale that bridged between an individual building and the particular environment of an American city, the studio’s goal was to exploit architecture’s potential to shape experience from the body to the region. Further, the 7020 studio’s projects explored architecture’s agency in creating a more resilient urbanism, which is critical today as coastal cities brace for the impacts of climate change.

Framing the Problem
Faculty members Manuel Bailo and Matthew Jull developed the 7020 studio’s format in 2014 and 2015 with projects in Atlantic City, NJ. We collaborated to teach the spring 2016 studio, which focused on the Norfolk region of southeastern Virginia — a dynamic urban context marked by disparate conditions including expansive waterways, giant military bases, extensive transportation infrastructure and suburban sprawl. Simultaneously ordinary and exhilarating, these conditions challenge the conventional idea that architecture is based upon and should create a stable relationship between a discrete building and its place in time. My interest was in fostering a design methodology linked to the deep understanding of site and program as parameters to be questioned and reconstituted by each student.

Norfolk’s small central business district and the sprawling middle landscape around it are comparable in character to other American cities. However, the ubiquitous presence of water presents unique challenges and opportunities. Norfolk’s strategic significance spans from the Battle of Yorktown to Naval Station Norfolk, the largest American naval base. Like many coastal areas in America and around the world, this region is threatened by both incremental sea level rise and the increased frequency of extreme weather events. Land subsidence combined with coastal geography mean that the region faces the greatest rate of sea level rise on the East Coast of the United States. Many parts of the region flood regularly at high tides and sea level rise will intensify flooding from storms as well. The studio required students to respond to these conditions through the design of projects in terms of both adaptation and resilience to flooding.

This precarious situation was coupled with a hypothetical program called the “Strategic Resiliency Command,” (SRC) a new joint military command for the defense of the eastern United States as well as force projection for the Atlantic Ocean, Carribean and South America. The large size of the SRC was a provocation to conceive the design as a quasi-urban field of activities that give rise to multiple simultaneous spatial orders. At approximately 150,000 square meters (one-sixth the area of the Pentagon), the SRC project reflects the ambition of the U.S. military consolidating its extensive regional installations as the relationship between water and land transforms in the future. The SRC includes five major components: command center, administrative offices, research facilities, staff amenities and logistics/infrastructure serving a population of approximately five thousand civilian and military employees. In addition to its day-to-day operations, the SRC also functions as a temporary disaster response center. Connection to regional transportation networks, which are generally elevated above flooding, also gives the project a greater scale and more public dimension.

Framing the Process
The students worked in teams, which was essential for both conceptual and practical reasons: to leverage collective intelligence to achieve more sophisticated designs and to process the sheer amount of information involved a project of this scale. This group effort was also an important step towards learning, directly through practice, the necessary skills to balance individual vision and teamwork to create architecture regardless of size. Visual documentation and analysis, including maps, diagrams, drawings and models were essential tools for testing and communicating ideas.

The project required that the design process integrate data and experience at every scale: from strategic planning with respect to landscape, urban patterns and infrastructure; to program organizational relationships; to ordering form and space; to materials and construction. This generated questions, ideas and intuition among students. The ultimate goal was to advance design and leverage the potential of collaborative effort through an iterative process including multiple feedback loops.

A critical aspect of the studio was that each group was responsible for selecting their project site, which framed their intentions at both urban and regional scales. The strategic implications of a specific site were established through analysis and documentation rather than given by the critics as in many studios. This reinforced the architect’s responsibility to question the project parameters and frame the objectives of the project itself as fundamental aspects of design. The physical qualities of the region’s dispersed urbanism, coupled with the vast size of the program dictated that architecture be considered as both object (figure) and organizational system (field). The scale of the project also had temporal implications in terms of planning for flexibility, phased construction and subsequent urban development. The students researched historical precedents for large scale mega-forms as well as buildings and campuses ranging from Le Corbusier’s Algiers project to the work of the metabolists to mid­century American corporate architecture by Saarinen and SOM to mat planning by Candilis, Josic, Woods and others. They also studied recent projects by OMA, Steven Holl, MRDV, SAANA and others, which revealed new possibilities for inventively ordering large scale programs.

As architects, visually communicating our intentions through form and space is of course vital to developing our ideas, sharing them with others and ultimately realizing them. Leveraging the greater capacity of teamwork, the studio sought to convey affect at multiple layers. The design process was structured to simultaneously develop external site relationships and internal program relationships, as well as respond to incremental and episodic inundation. The section was a focus of exploration; how architecture negotiates the ground is particularly important in a context with a fluid relationships between water, land and buildings. Views, sequence, light, space and structure were also elaborated in section to define a public realm which transcends the horizontal stratification of a large multistory building. The resultant design of the section provided hierarchy to the organization of each project which communicated ideas directly through the use and experience of the project over time.

A Living Thing

If carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels continue unabated, the vast West Antarctic ice sheet could begin to disintegrate, causing the sea to rise by five to six feet by the end of the century, destroying coastal cities and low-lying island nations and creating environmental devastation within the lifetimes of children born today.
The New York Times, April 1, 2016


While the studio was underway, 2015 was confirmed as the hottest year in recorded history and new climate modeling indicated the possible accelerated melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet. Sea level rise may in fact exceed the capacity of coastal adaptation and protection strategies presently under consideration. Freed of today’s political, regulatory and economic constraints, students created propositions that responded to the magnitude of this existential challenge. The Museum of Modern Art’s 2010 exhibition “Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront” (which my firm helped to frame and in which our project, A New Urban Ground, was exhibited) offered a precedent for this approach. Guided by the ethos that a critic termed “visionary pragmatism,” the studio’s goal was that projects be (in the words of curator Barry Bergdoll) “…so compelling they can’t be forgotten and so realistic they can’t be dismissed.” The students’ architectural interventions demonstrated how work and life might be transformed in this region to meet its watery future. Conceived as “a living thing,” responsive to the flows of natural and human systems, architecture becomes the seed or fragment of a new urbanism. More generally, the 7020 studio reinforced for me architecture’s potential to fuel the public’s appetite for substantive improvement of the built environment. The existential challenge of climate change and the rapidly urbanizing world make this even more important. Through broad and deep engagement with its cultural context, architecture itself – as both process and outcome – is renewed.