Designing SkyCar City: A Post-Studio History (Guest Post by Ella Peinovich)

Many notable architects and designers throughout history have created transportation-centric city models that represent the future or an idealized present. Historically, architectural movements have used these models to demonstrate their design fundamentals in a pure state to a world that did not, at that time, have the capabilities to achieve such idealistic forms. Each designer, in turn, walked a fine line between reality and fiction.

A few models worth mentioning would be the Futurist Antonio Sant'Elia’s Citta Nuova, and then, within the Modernist movement, Le Corbusier’s plan for Algiers and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City. Later, the traditional utopian city changed when the line was officially crossed from being about the study of technological advances to science fiction, with Archigram’s Walking and Plug-in Cities. More recently, the 3D city model has been featured in the work of Dutch firms OMA and MVRDV through designs like the Hyperbuilding and the Five-Minute City.

Taking all of this into account, one can understand how overwhelming -- not to mention exciting -- it might be for a group of young architecture students to be presented with the open-ended challenge of creating such a complex city model by Winy Maas of MVRDV, a veteran to the topic. That was the situation I (and eleven of my classmates) found myself in during the last studio of my education in architecture.

…create a city built for the use of a skycar, a city with 'streets' at any level, or perhaps empty of streets as we know them…
-- Winy Maas, first day of the semester describing our assignment.

My studiomates and I were presented with an experiment: see how far transportation can shape architecture, with one constant variable -- the flying car. Winy had introduced us to a whole new set of Lego pieces; ones that were gravity-defying. We were to design a city that had no specific location, no city boundary, and no technological limits. This is a similar formula to those that have been at the heart of most city models in the past, except for the fact that we (twelve near-strangers) had no pre-established theory to drive the experiment.

We, with the guidance of our studio's co-leader, Grace La, quickly developed a pragmatic methodology of how to approach our design and then applied it to our hypothetical scene, assuming that humans would always be subordinate, or at least married, to our means of travel (this was also in line with the prescribed “sky car”). Ironically, though we were all architects-in-training, little time was spent designing architecture in the traditional sense. During our process, research, and developments we wore many hats: Urban Planner, Product Designer, Civil Engineer, Research Analyst, Historian, Editor, and then Architect. This mash-up of information with the added flavor of democratic group decisions more or less drove our re-imagining of the city form.

During this experience I learned some valuable design lessons. In no particular order of importance:

1) It is our responsibility as designers to address real issues rather than represent feel-good utopias.
A city model that is designed in reaction to current outstanding issues of common society (e.g. waste disposal, greening, traffic relief etc…) will likely get a lot of attention and praise. On the contrary, our city model chose to explore and build up a topic which currently carries a negative stigma. We suggested that, as a society, we accept that every person wants the freedom of having their own car. We chose to assume this desire of every individual and suggest that public transportation has no future. We feel our model holds its clout because it is based on realistic projections of where society IS headed, rather than where it SHOULD be.

2) Design by committee vs. the individual
When an individual is allowed to carry out an idea, they are able to create one conclusive and seamless design in a similarly seamless process. As soon as you allow everyone a voice, all you get is noise -- at least at first. It took my studiomates and I a while just to figure out how we could work together, which inevitably took away valuable design time. Admittedly I, and likely others, caved to the majority vote at different times during the design process just to move forward, and I know that many “place-holders” never got re-”placed”. However, I can confidently say that our design would not have been what it was without any one person in our studio contributing their input.

3) Build from the Bottom-up
I have to believe that the Modernists and Futurists had an idea for the final form of their models before they designed the infrastructure to support it. In my experience, a top-down method can be inefficient, continually having to cover its tracks along the way. Please do not misunderstand me; once a design has been established I think it is necessary to go back and implement the design diagram to every last detail, but I am referring the process of getting to your building diagram. On the contrary, we were very honest in our studies; we did not hide the unpolished edges that are always a possibility of functionally-driven design. Our process was prescriptive and built from the bottom-up.

4) Get Published
The most responsible thing a designer can do is contribute to the Industry by publishing and distributing their work. Being able to show something as a product of thought can create a much larger ripple than just talk, especial in a visually-oriented community. Work should be shared, flaws and all, so that others may see and critique in order to create dissemination.

There may be a conflict of interest for some in the architectural profession that view their work as an artform. But when you think of what has been entrusted to us by the public (e.g. to create efficient systems, reduce environmental impact, ect…) we owe it to everyone to find the best technologies to do the job, regardless of who authored them.

Now, well after the publication of Skycar City: A Pre-Emptive History, the record of my and my classmates' semester of city-building, it is up to the readers to make their own conclusions about the success of our research and model and decide whether it is worth mentioning alongside the great city models of the past.


Big thanks to Ella Peinovich, a design associate at Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill's San Francisco Office. Ms. Peinovich participated in a mixed studio, led by guest professor and MVRDV founding partner Winy Maas, of twelve undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's School of Architecture and Urban Planning in the spring of 2006. The participants recorded their process and city model in the book Skycar City: A Pre-Emptive History.

Skycar City Studio co-leaders: Grace La, Winy Maas

Skycar City Studio participants: Bryan Howard, Tony Janis, Nick Moen, Ryan O’Connor, Trevor Patt, Ella Peinovich, Nick Popoutsis, Tarah Raaum, Gloribed Rivera-Torres, Scott Schultz, Tuan Tran, Andy Walsh

Edited 4/12/08 to include full list of studio participants.

Blogger's Note: The original post planned for tonight and announced on Sunday was going to focus on urbanism programs for kids in Singapore and Chicago. This post has been temporarily postponed, and will run at a later date. Sorry for any confusion!

Skycar City (Powells)

MVRDV-UWM Studio (Warning: absurdly long load time).

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