Melanie Fessel, architect, is Director of Design at Terreform ONE, a non-profit design group that promotes smart design in cities. Through amazingly creative projects, her team aims to reshape New York City and inspire solutions in areas like it around the world. Fessel, born in Lake Constance (Germany) in 1982, thinks that “ecology in design is not only a philosophy that inspires visions of sustainability and social justice, but also a focused scientific endeavor”, so she initiated ONE (Open Network Ecology) Odyssey, an interdisciplinary research enterprise based on philanthropic design principles, to integrate ecological issues into the urban environment.
You say urbaneering rethinks all scales in a city, from the doorknob to democracy. It seems a huge job. How many people and how many time do you need to rethink a city in all scales?
Whose job is it to create a city? Our intention is to jumpstart a new profession that can re-invent and negotiate the complex mix that encompasses a city. We have defined a radical new occupation to regenerate, pioneer, and sustain the future urban realm. These innovative multi-disciplinarian advocates are called Urbaneers. Their immense task is to manifest and facilitate the City 2.0 across the globe. Each Urbaneer is an individual with a different set of versatile abilities that merge previously disparate occupations. They range from combined ecological architects and engineers to action based urban planners and developers. Almost any recombined professional activities will work, so long as they meet the constantly changing needs of urbanization. Urbaneers perform in a role akin to [urban activist who championed community-based approaches to planning] Jane Jacobs, but at the magnitude and accomplishment of Robert Moses [the “master builder” of 20th century New York]. An excellent historical example of an Urbaneer is Frederick Law Olmstead. For years, we have shaped a school called ONE Lab that has expanded on this very notion. ONE Lab instructs in the art of Urbaneering to people seeking to augment their sensibilities and operate within cities. We wish to further develop an Urbaneer curriculum at ONE Lab.
One of your projects is to remake New York by utilizing all its trash and producing seven new Manhattan Islands. Is this project just an utopia?
New York City is disposing of 38,000 tons of waste per day. Most of this discarded material ended up in Fresh Kills landfill before it closed. The Rapid Re(f)use project supposes an extended New York reconstituted from its own landfill material. Our concept remakes the city by utilizing the trash at Fresh Kills. With our method, we can remake seven entirely new Manhattan islands at full scale. Automated robot 3d printers are modified to process trash and complete this task within decades. These robots are based on existing techniques commonly found in industrial waste compaction devices. Instead of machines that crush objects into cubes, these devices have jaws that make simple shape grammars for assembly. Different materials serve specified purposes; plastic for fenestration, organic compounds for temporary scaffolds, metals for primary structures, and etc. Eventually, the future city makes no distinction between waste and supply.
You say that, unlike the elevator, the car has arguably caused more problems in the cities than it has solved. Do we have to eliminate cars from the cities? How?
[Our project] Smart DOTS is a radical strategy for rethinking the crossroad by “injecting” a system of intelligent environmental elements -“smart dots”- that can spread out from the core to the periphery, reorganizing the streetscape. The design scheme is a critique of the hard boundaries that the automobile inflicts to the function of the streetscape, where people are forced to move around cumbersome barriers and often dangerous metal cars. Our future street is a soft, gradient field: a “pixelated” urban landscape of distributed functions, with no hard borders between different street occupancies. Soft MOBS invokes a new technological and material arrangement for adapting cars to cities in pliable organized movements -“soft mobs,”- while it also suggests the use of softer vehicles where users can be in direct contact with the street. While architects and urban designers mostly take cars as given, and are content to design streets and public spaces around car movement, here we challenge and reverse of this well-worn assumption. This proposal signals a new vision for the city, crystallizing images of civilization reinventing itself. Smart DOTS and Soft MOBS may function as a prototypical strategy for inserting soft plazas in various street intersections. We can rethink the city as whole by making nodal changes that may grow to infiltrate the rigid grid that we currently live in.
The 20th century maybe represented the apotheosis of ”male” values such as speed and aggression in the cities. Do you think women have to participate much more in the design of the cities? How?
I am not sure if I agree with you as I believe we have moved past the Industrial Age that was significantly represented by speed and aggression. I believe the problems we are facing and have to solve are socio-ecological and describe a world that faces a population of 11billion people in the future.
So you don’t think we need cities with a more feminine urban planning?
I think we need urban planning and design that integrates people from many different backgrounds. Interdisciplinary approaches for problem solving are highly valuable and your sex and shouldn’t matter! As long as we think it matters the inequality between women and men will not change.
You say the problems we are facing and have to solve are socio-ecological. What do you mean exactly?
I am interested in interrogating “sustainability” with the general assumption that it is both a physical and a social issue, and that cities, particularly rapidly growing ones, are central to any idea of “sustainability”.
You say that Hip Hop comes out of the disruption of a neighborhood and community in the Bronx through massive highway infrastructure that would soon segregate their neighborhood. Could you tell us more examples of cultural movements related to urbanism and architecture?
Occupy Wall Street and the movements it generated globally!
Why Occupy Wall Street is related to urban planning and architecture?
I thought of the Jane Jacobs vs Robert Moses example. Just like hip hop came out of a disruption of a neighborhood by a giant highway that disconnected neighborhoods so did Jane Jacob successfully fight against a highway, planned by power broker Robert Moses, that should run through her neighborhood, the west village. Occupy Wall Street in a similar fashion responded to a social inequality created by finance institutions and the way they voiced there opinion was by occupying a place in the physical city. They inspired many more global movements with their respective architecture/urbanismo being in the center of the discussion. For example Tahrir Square in Egypt.
Which are your favourite cities in the world?
New York City, Berlin, Barcelona – all of them for their unending qualities!
Ventana al Conocimiento (Knowledge Window)