Platforms of Visibility: Exploring legibility through the contemporary Latin American city

A thesis towards the degree requirements of M.Arch I
Graduate School of Design, Harvard
Advisor: Felipe Correa
May 16, 2013

This thesis was presented as a 20-minute video, which can be viewed to the left. Full presentation text below.

 

PART 1: INTRODUCTION

Urban architecture inhabits sites of radical dynamic interchange, often acting as the focal point where a variety of visible and invisible flows converge.  Global networks and processes transcend immediate notions of site and adjacency, forcing the restructuring of relationships around new definitions of scale, boundary, and spatiotemporality. Current networked and mobile infrastructures have not only radically redefined communication, but also how we interrogate and see our surroundings. For users of these networks, the whole idea of urban legibility and navigation has become immediate and much easier. But for those who study the contemporary city, these networks and processes only make the study of urban legibility that much more complex.

This thesis examines how architecture, as a primary participant in this stage, can serve as a legibility platform for the modern urban condition. Towards this goal, this thesis will begin by introducing a literature review into four overlapping tracks of research:

Urban legibility, Cartography, Media Platforms, and Cineplastics

The thesis work will then focus on Latin America, widely acknowledged to be the most urbanized region in the world. Out of necessity, this region has re-established and advanced the necessary toolkit for radical urban transformation in the 21st century.

The research content will look at mapping networked forms of imageability within the context of three Latin American cities: Caracas, Venezuela; Medellín, Colombia; and Quito, Ecuador.

The interrogation of the research data at multiple scales and mediums in Quito, Ecuador will serve as primary driver for an architectural proposal sited in that city

The ambition for this thesis is to present a platform — within the context of urban Latin America — through which the dynamic contemporary urban condition — and by extension the dynamic architectural condition — can be put in focus.

TRACK 1: URBAN LEGIBILITY

Before jumping into the work, let’s look quickly at the literature review.

The first track grounds the thesis in an overview of contemporary urban and social theory that explores the spatial implications of the city within the context of today’s hyper-globalized condition.

Of note is the idea that global communication infrastructures allow for instantaneous connection that breaks down hierarchical structures like boundary and scale.

This results in a flattening, a radical relationality where near and far intermix. These horizontal topologies remove restrictions of scale, redefining space. Edge conditions between one scale and the other are blurred, if not removed entirely, creating territories of thickened thresholds, emergent spaces defined by zones of exchange and interchange.

A critical takeaway from this research is that radical horizontality oftentimes results in the separation of the urban fabric into a variety of infrastructural tiers defined by speed and accessibility. Commonplace in the global south, these premium networked spaces exist as archipelagos, having largely seceded from their immediate urban contexts, creating conditions in which hard boundaries restrict one’s level of access. The striking result is the immediate spatial adjacency of those with hyper levels of global access with those who have none.

The topological landscape of radical relationality forces designers to think of placemaking beyond immediate spatial adjacency. Rather, there exists a networked context, a networked adjacency, a horizontality that allows for local intimacy at global distances.

TRACK 2: CARTOGRAPHY

Within this context, the next two literature reviews explore two methodologies for presenting urban complexity: cartography and media platforms.

Through its inherently diagrammatic representational space, cartography has long served as a platform for making sense of the flows and interchanges that define the urban condition.

In the age of the smartphone and ubiquitous gps, the act of cartography — who is doing the mapping and what is being mapped — is playing an ever critical role in how we see, navigate, and value our environments. Furthermore, our contemporary condition affords us access to a myriad of data, oftentimes geotagged and updating dynamically in real-time.

The research into mapping first took form in Felipe Correa’s options studio in the spring of 2012, A Line in the Andes, in which my research partner and I mapped urban flows through Quito, Ecuador and its territories. This research was then compiled and synthesized in the summer of 2012 for the studio publication.

The maps interrogate:

1) how energy infrastructures like oil, electricity, and water break down traditional scalar hierarchies;

2) how political and land-use zonification helps define various sectors within the city;

3) and how transportation networks organize connections throughout the city and its surroundings.

TRACK 3: MEDIA PLATFORMS

The third research track studies the role that media platforms like photography and cinema have played in driving urban perception and experience, and argues that contemporary platforms like the internet —  but more critically mobile media — have created powerful distributed means for urban legibility via collective visibility.

The advent of photography in the mid-19th century mirrored the the top-down systematic transformation of cities like Paris into a hierarchical system of monumental boulevards.

The multiplication of perspectives highlighted a new relationship between the urban actor and the city. Enter the flaneur — the gifted walker who shows up repeatedly in urban and film theory — able to experience and make sense of the modern city based on pure subjectivity and intuition.

In the 20th century the moving image — cinema — captured the dynamism of urban modernization defined primarily by mobility.

Subjective urban experiences became more fragmented, mirrored by the multi-shot narrative montage of film. This emphasis on sequencing — that an image no longer had to be presented as a single totality — became a defining aspect of 20th century visibility.

Kevin Lynch’s ideas of legibility and visibility in the 1960s were highly predicated on this idea of multiple perspectives, that urban artifacts could act as experiential wayfinding and security devices.

In the 21st century, the internet and mobile media reflect the conditions of radical relationality and horizontal topologies. Access to communication platforms, networked collectives, and distributed cognition is now carried in our pockets.

Mobile applications become the lens through which urban actors interrogate and make sense of complex spatial relationships.

If photography in the 19th century and cinema in the 20th century reflected the visibility of their times, then certainly the networked user that snaps a photo and then shares it on collective social media platforms like Flickr and Instagram defines 21st century visibility.

TRACK 4: CINEPLASTICS

The fourth and final research track, grounded in film theory, examines the role of cineplastics — that is the intersection of space and time in the representation of the architectural imaginary.

As discussed, urban architecture inherently inhabits sites of radically dynamic interchange. Such architecture demands a form a representation that goes beyond the inherent static qualities of the image or model, to a form of representation that speaks to the dynamism of our time.

Within the vast disciplinary overlap between architecture and cinema is a toolkit that allows for the positioning of the architectural imaginary in dynamic environments in which space becomes a medium of time and vice versa.

Critical components of the research content and architectural project, therefore, will be represented through animation, building a repetoire through which architectural site and architectural project can be thought of and presented as dynamic.

PART 2: MAPPING IMAGEABILITY

This presentation will now turn to mapping imageability — the cartographic use of geotagged data from two networked photography sharing platforms: Flickr and Instagram.

The critical precedent for this research is digital cartographer Eric Fischer’s studies “See Something Say Something” — the relationship of geotagged Flickr photos with geotagged Twitter tweets — and “Locals vs. Tourists” — the relationship of geotagged Flickr photos taken by locals versus those taken by tourists.

These maps render urban experience quite convincingly — showing the location of nodal convergences and paths of movement. These images begin to make legible the unseen overlay of the digital network, characterized not by rigid boundaries but by non-Euclidean notions of density and falloff.

Mapping Imageability mines the public developer APIs of Flickr and Instagram, two very different platforms, amalgamations of the dynamic network: privileging connection, encounter, and ephemerality. These platforms provide communication, taxonomy, and dissemination structures for the modern flaneur. Furthermore, Instagram, being a mobile platform, speaks to the immediacy of how contemporary experiences are collected, codified, and remembered in the digital age.

A critical idea embedded within Mapping Imageability is that contemporary architectural visibility goes beyond the broadcasting of physical form within the city, and extends deep into the multimedia landscape of the internet and popular culture.

These ideas will serve as the framing through which to analyze urban legibility in three Latin American cities: Caracas, Venezuela; Medellín, Colombia, and Quito, Ecuador.

As valley cities characterized by rapid topographical change, Caracas, Medellín, and Quito share many formal characteristics. The idea of visibility — what the viewer sees and from where he sees — is highly determined by sectional location in the city.  It is imperative, therefore, that we build on Fischer’s work by mapping these cities in three-dimensions.

Positioning Caracas, Medellín,and Quito alongside each other, we see three distinct digital cultures, with the most robust data set — especially in mobile — coming from Caracas.

It is beyond the scope of this thesis to analyze this data through a detailed socio-economic, political, and cultural lens, yet it is reasonable to infer that Flickr usage is concentrated in cultural hotspots and that Instagram — a dedicated smartphone platform — is concentrated in wealthier areas of the city.

2a.) CARACAS

Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, sits in the north of the country, separated from the Caribbean by a striking coastal mountain range called El Avila.

The data set nicely mirrors the decentralized nature of Caracas, showing how the fabric of the city is composed of a number of pockets — spread along infrastructural spines that extend through the primary and secondary valleys.

Looking at the data annually, starting with Flickr’s inauguration in 2004, provides a different lens to read this decentralization.

Finally we see with the Instagram overlay a relatively even spread of smartphone usage, which speaks a lot about the value and accessibility of this technology within Caracas.

Querying the tagging structures of Flickr gives us a compartmentalized lens to view the data. Crowd-sourced taxonomies of keywords and classifiers provide the networked photographer a means through which to position his work in the collective.

2b.) MEDELLÍN

Medellín, the second largest city in Colombia, is located in the northwest of the country, embedded within the Aburra Valley of the northern Andes.

The dataset highlights nodal zones of visibility strung along the primary metro line that serves as the infrastructural spine of Medellín. These nodes are quite evident from the Flickr data, all the more so because Instagram usage is limited primarily to the wealthier areas in the south of the city.

Let’s look quickly at two animations. The first positions the Imageability dataset within the broad territorial context of Medellín, looking at the trans-scalar relationship between topography, hydrology and urban form.

The second animation is a chronological mapping that studies the relationship between the rise of networked visibility and the implementation of urban projects between 2004 and the present. This timescape shows how architecture serves as a catalyst for the evolution of nodal visibility.

Let’s now turn our attention to the photos themselves, with Parque Biblioteca Espana as a case study. The following photos demonstrate that Medellín’s architectural interventions broadcast a set of cultural values back onto the city and to the world at large. The interventions also serve as viewing platforms from which to better see the city.

This project is a good segue to discuss the subject of the ubiquitous violence and inequality that permeates the contemporary Latin American city. This is paralleled by the implementation of neoliberal practices that have splintered the city into privatized and tiered levels, amplifying inequality between those with access and those with none.

When combined with high levels of violence and insecurity, the result is a massive security apparatus that erects fortified edges around zones of live, work, and leisure.

On March 1st of this year, Sergio Fajardo — current governor of the state of Antioquia where Medellín is located and former mayor of who oversaw the transformation of the city between 2000 and 2007 — spoke on the subject of designing cities and region in Latin America. In 1991, during the spike in narcotrafficking violence, Medellin had 6,500 homocides. In 2007 there were only 630, a major feat that involved the disbanding of a number of urban militias and paramilitary groups.

At the talk, on the subject of violence and insecurity, Fajardo claimed that crime had all but been eliminated at the sites of each architectural intervention. The design tenents of social urbanism lie in the alignment of public transit alongside educational platforms, generous public space, and innovative architectural form — all within the marginalized sectors of the city. Creating public spaces of value plays a major role in increasing quality of life.

2c.) QUITO

Turning to Quito, Ecuador, we will explore mapping imageability across a variety of scales. Quito, the capital of Ecuador, sits way up in the Andes in a striking landscape. The metropolitan region is composed a dense compact city that sits in an upper valley, and 500 meters below to the east, more spread out patterns of urbanization.

The imageability dataset nicely mirrors Quito’s status as first UNESCO world heritage site, with the majority of Flickr data centered around public plazas and churches that characterize the foundational core of the city. Instagram usage is primarily seen in the wealthier north of the compact city and spread throughout the valleys.

PART 3: QUITO CENTRO HISTÓRICO

Zooming into Quito’s historic core, the data is overlaid onto a base Nolli map courtesy of Felipe Correa and completed by members of the research team for the A Line in the Andes studio publication.

From this framing we see a clear axis of visibility that extends from Quito’s primary basilica –  Basilica del voto Nacional —  in the north — to El Panecillo, a hill that overlooks the historic core in the south. This axis includes plazas, courtyards and streets, key elements of Quito’s patrimony.

Zooming in a bit closer reveals a strong sense of non-Euclidean place, made all the more evident by the Nolli overlay. Public experience and perception is determined not by the hard walls of architectural form but through a gradiented porosity.

I visited Quito in March 2013, and over four days documented this axis of visibility through motorized timelapse photography, using compressed spatiotemporality to capture each site’s unique rhythms, flows, and energies. Of note in these sequences are when the camera captures people taking photos with their cameras or mobile phones. It is the trace of these digital footprints that lies at the heart of the geotagged mapping exercise.

ARCHITECTURAL INTERVENTION

In thinking about how to position an architectural project that deals with the various themes of this presentation within Quito, it was important to look again at the axis of visibility.

The strategy here is that architecture can be sited in order to project its form into the axis, all the while acting as new nodal platform from which to see. An ideal site would be one with low levels of imageability and rapid sectional change.

In this dropdown animation we see the relationship of the chosen site to topography and various types of open space.

A sectional analysis shows the nature of topography as well as the block’s sectional relationship to the foundational plaza of the city. The site block is characterized by rapid elevation change on three sides, with range of vision increasing dramatically the higher one is.

The block is characterized by a number of elements that make it unique.

The first is an empty lot on Manabi with a facade that maintains the continuity of the street elevation.

The second is a staircase on the west of the site that runs adjacent to a ravine

The third is a bodega at the extent of Esmereldas in the northwest corner of the site that is perched out over the city.

The fourth element is a pedestrian footbridge that extends across the ravine that connects to a park and more urban fabric.

The fifth element is a privatized interior block condition that consists of a number of green spaces, the majority of which are uninhabitable due to the terrain.

By removing a few buildings we can open up the block interior in order to create a public diagonal passage from the empty lot on Manabi to the staircase and across the footbridge.

The idea is to perform a series of typology operations that will turn the current private interior block into a fully public condition.

We start with the typology of the single courtyard unit, in which a public courtyard is surrounded by private functions. Extruding, dislodging, and terracing this condition creates a string of embedded and connected courtyard units into the hillside.

Because the interior block is already surrounded by private residences, we can remove the private from the operation. The architectural project will be the formal manifestation of the resulting diagram of public cores and circulation.

The public is separated into four interlocking programs, each relating to visibility within the city.

The most accessible is the circulation system that connects the formal elements of the project and consists of courtyards and viewing platforms.

The second programmed element are galleries that showcase installation and multimedia work on the contemporary urban condition.

The third program is a government agency that deals with issues of GIS, cartography, and the spatial mapping of large datasets.

The final program is an interdisciplinary public research institute where students and faculty study methodologies of urban legibility.

Looking now at a series of sections that start at the top of the hill we see how the architectural design negotiates the intense topographical change of the block

The inward-facing nature of the courtyard spaces is framed by a series of large cuts in the massing that serve both as viewing platforms to the city and distinctive formal element that project out to the city and seen from the axis of visibility.

I would like to finish this presentation with a short animation that takes us through the various moments of the project. This montage sequence highlights the primary experiential quality of the design, that our ability to see the city changes dramatically as we move up in elevation. The theme of seeing and being seen is the driver behind the architectural design and the sequencing of the animation.

CLOSING STATEMENT

Platforms of visibility positions architectural siting and design strategies within the context of research platforms that add legibility to the complexity of the urban condition.