Roth / Utopian Imagery of Urban Peripheries in the Context of the Anthropocene´s Cultural Concept

Utopian Imagery of Urban Peripheries in the Context of the Anthropocene´s Cultural Concept Cooperative image production as design method

Authors: Martin Roth, TU Berlin; Marcus Kopper, TU Berlin

Research stage: Intermediate doctoral stage

Category: Artefact

Utopian imagery as artefact

Both the use of images (perspectives or renderings) and their production are neither part of the design process nor part of the architect's craftsmanship, but are typically outsourced to specialized visualizers, often at the end of a design process. In addition, they are rejected by leading jury members as too concrete and too seductive, especially in the context of competitions.

Yet, images have always played a central role as a method of artistic expression and knowledge transfer. They are a recognized form of representation and communication to make complex content and relationships understandable, especially for laypeople.

As urban designers and architects, we often have the utopian, unbuilt imagery of the late 1920s to early 1990s in mind when considering new concepts and methods (such as Leonidov's Linear City, Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacre City, or Andrea Branzi's Agronica, among others1). In her book Utopia as a Method, Ruth Levitas2 advocates understanding utopia as a distinctive but repressed method that can be used as a heuristic tool to explore possible futures in a dialogical and reflective manner. Utopian images have the potential, she argues, to be a crucial instrument for imparting knowledge and thus also to become a “scientific” tool.

Image production process as method

The two authors of this design-driven research work closely together in an iterative, mutual design/image process. This process consists of mutually exchanging, interpreting and revising images, adding project references, dealing with the content of ecological aspects/systems and taking feedback from third parties into account. This process is documented with the help of a chat program.

Mostly within the framework of urban design competitions, a wide variety of imageries is created in the form of perspectives and projections.

The media used include illustration and CAD programs, hand sketches, 3D modeling as well as visualization programs. Structure, distribution and layering, are applied as techniques on the two-dimensional level, while staging (light, colors, atmospheres, etc.) and image composition (viewpoints, image elements, etc.) are predominant on the three-dimensional level.

The Anthropocene’s cultural concept as methodology

Geographers identified the last century as the starting point of a new geological time - the Anthropocene. But besides understanding it as a man-made epoch only, according to Helmuth Trischler, [3] it is much more than that. It is a narrative social concept which links deep time perspectives with human responsibilities. Therefore Eva Horn argues that there is a need for new aesthetics of the social concept as method by identifying three challenges: “(1) latency, the fact that the transformation of the world is happening not in the form of cataclysmic events but in imperceptible and unpredictable processes; (2) entanglement, the fact that the modern separation between the human and “the world” has dissolved into uncanny dependencies, unintended consequences and unpredictable side-effects; (3) a clash of scales, the fact that the environmental crisis of the Anthropocene unfolds on very different spatial, temporal and quantitative scales.”4

Can a dialogical and reflexive image production of utopian (speculative) urban peripheries contribute to conveying the Anthropocene´s cultural concept?

Against the background of the Anthropocene’s cultural concept, the focus of this research is in particular on the changed relationship between culture and nature, between cultivated land (mainly settlement and agricultural areas) and potential flora and fauna habitats. The design-based research therefore focuses spatially on urban peripheries, which can be interpreted as spaces of dichotomies. Although die Forderung nach Nachverdichtung sind allgegenwäertig, diese Orte bilden vor die forfront of urbanization in Germany.

“Non-landscapes, which have neither a relevant historical value nor landscape properties worth protecting, are allowed to disintegrate and do not have to be structured according to figurative goals […]. They are traditionally not beautiful, but are often very rich and have the most dynamic morphology.“5

This consideration raises the question of a new understanding of landscape and settlement structures. A multi-scale and interdisciplinary design approach seems to be relevant, which requires two approaches in particular: first, a multi-scale analysis of the respective project site beyond formal studies (like figure ground plans, circulation diagrams, traffic analysis, distribution of programs etc.) as human system analysis and secondly, it also has to consider questions of other disciplines from geography to biochemistry, from sociology to field ecology as ecosystem analysis. In other words: what kind of ecological and social relationships and connections do we find and at what kind of ‘urbanism’ are we looking at? Vittorio Gregotti describes this multi-scale approach as the analysis of the “ground condition”.6

In architectural theory, peripheral and suburban areas (as potential sustainable forms of urbanization) have been theorized and examined as well (see Zwischenstadt by Sieverts and Horizontal Metropolis by Vigano)7, yet, not visualized convincingly beyond abstract, rather technical drawings.

A set of images representing different settlement and urbanization models is developed on the basis of utopian/speculative designs in order to contribute to the discourse and to the state of knowledge in Germany. The aim is to investigate which spatial combinations and mixing ratios between built and unbuilt, cultivated and uncultivated spaces are possible, whether synergies arise and atmospheric effects can be achieved that have an influence on the design. Furthermore, in the context of sustainability and ecology arguments this research offers new perspectives beyond re-densification of existing neighborhoods, land-use reduction and expenditures of protective areas.

Large-scale images are created that illustrate the specific content with its many layers of detail, narratives, and networks in a simple way, creating a closer, interactive relationship between the viewer and the image itself.

The relevance of the research lies in the image-based, collaborative method, as it complements the discourse between the explicit knowledge of natural science and the implicit knowledge of humanities. From our point of view, it closes a research gap in the thematic discourse and can be transferred to other research areas.

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  1. Waldheim, Charles, 2010. “Notes Toward a History of Agrarian Urbanism”. In: White, Mason. 2010. On farming. Actar.
  2. Levitas, Ruth. 2014. Utopia as Method: the imaginary reconstitution of society. Houndmills (Basingstoke), Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
  3. Helmuth Trischler, 2016. The Anthropocene A Challenge for the History of Science, Technology, and the Environment. (NTM, 2016), 309–335.
  4. Eva Horn,2020. “Challenges for an Aesthetics of the Anthropocene” in The Anthropocenic Turn, ed. Gabriele Dürbeck and Philip Hüpkes. (Routledge, 2020), 159-172.
  5. Gregotti, Vittorio. 2013. The Territory of Architecture. In: McGrath, Brian. Urban Design Ecologies. Chichester: Wiley. 92
  6. Gregotti, Vittorio. 2013. The Territory of Architecture. In: McGrath, Brian. Urban Design Ecologies. Chichester: Wiley. 92
  7. Sieverts, Th. 1997/2001. Zwischenstadt. Zwischen Ort und Welt, Raum und Zeit, Stadt und Land. Basel, Boston, Berlin: Birkhäuser.