Well, in keeping with my intentions for this blog to serve as a portfolio as well as a platform for developing my architectural and political theory, it’s about time I start posting my own projects. I will start with my most recent studio project, the New Amsterdam Hydroculture Center. With this project I attempted to synthesize my interest in emergent computation and algorithmic design with my libertarian belief in the power of free markets to drive social progress. Looking back on this project just one month since completing my first final review at GSAPP, I must resist the urge to stop writing this and continue working on it, as I can’t help but feel that the current design creates more questions than it answers. However, that is a project for another time. As reddit creator Alexis Ohanian writes, “Your first version should certainly embarrass you.” With that in mind, I present my work thus far to the world wide web.
The New Amsterdam Hydroculture Center:
In The Last Neighborhood Cops, Fritz Umbach observes a particular sort of off the books entrepreneurship, or “hustling,” common to the New York City Housing Authority’s public housing projects. Umbach notes that “Even though not all, or even most, of this informal economy ran afoul of the law, NYCHA’s tenancy rules explicitly barred operating a commercial enterprise out of an Authority apartment.” This legal grey area, the result of NYCHA’s prohibition of otherwise legitimate activities, has certain benefits, such as flexibility and a community oriented economic model. However, it also lacks the basic protections of a legitimate market, and has very little opportunity for reaching consumers outside the neighborhood. The New Amsterdam Hydroculture Center aims to establish a community owned hydroponic garden, fish farm, and marketplace, along with a public pool and auditorium as part of a programmatic hybrid.
New York City has a long history of prohibition, and has seen many examples of its unintended consequences. Organized crime thrived in New York during the alcohol prohibition of the 1920s, gangsters ruled the streets during the crack epidemic of the 80s and 90s, and today’s pot dealers are always just a phone call away thanks to the city’s growing number of marijuana delivery services. Yet the case of NYCHA is a particularly interesting case because many of the prohibited activities taking place are not even illegal. One example of this informal economy at work is the preparation of fish and other dishes to be sold to restaurants. Umbach notes that “building custodians began to find enormous quantities of fish heads in the garbage in the mid-1970s.” The lesson to be learned from these examples is that prohibition fails if there is a demand for the barred product or service and enough people with an incentive to supply it.
Formally, the design was conceived as a radical reinterpretation of the bubble diagram. Bubble diagramming has a long history of use in architecture as a tool for spatial organization, dating back to the Bauhaus, where it was applied in the functional organization of plans. With the New Amsterdam Hydroculture Center I attempted to take this concept a step further by assigning programmatic functions to bubbles of different sizes then allowing a sphere packing algorithm to generate the final organization. While I still have some work to do in order to achieve intelligent self-organization, I believe it is possible, and in fact preferable, to design a building as a logical system of equations. The architect’s role becomes the writing of the algorithm and the definition of the variables.
The resulting building is a cloud of glass bubbles suspended in a triangulated structure over the pools, auditorium, market, and farms. These bubbles, which contain the rain-collecting gardens, hydroponic gardens, fish tanks, waste water tanks, and several small pools, present these different uses of water as part of an interconnected system. The fish excrete nutrient-rich waste into the water, serving as fertilizer for the plants, while their roots act like a natural filtration system, cleaning the water that is then pumped back into the fish tanks. On a larger scale, the combination of a public pool and auditorium with an urban farm and marketplace also forms a symbiotic relationship. The marketplace benefits from its association with the pool and auditorium, lending the existing informal economy an air of legitimacy, which is critical as the legal status of prohibited commercial activities like selling marijuana are challenged. Meanwhile, the presence of the market would draw more diverse customers to the neighborhood, providing an important source of funding for the residents as well as the Housing Authority.
The biggest challenge I encountered while working on this project was figuring out how to present my libertarian socioeconomic theory without offending my relatively conservative critics. As a result, I did not bring up drug prohibition in my final presentation, instead focusing only on legal commercial activity that is prohibited by NYCHA. I felt that my project was about challenging the prohibition of free trade in general, and the existing illegal drug trade in the projects was a key reason for my decision to incorporate the market in the first place, but in the end I felt that I succeeded in framing my argument in a way that my critics would take seriously. Unfortunately, I can’t help but feel like the design of the building itself was not fully developed as a result. I have not yet made a strong enough case for my algorithmic design methodology, which I proposed would allow me to generate an optimal spatial distribution of the building’s components. I plan on revisiting this project when I have time to really make it work. In the meantime, if you have any comments, questions, or advice, please contact me, as I am always looking for ways to improve.