DDes conference offers new perspectives on urban metabolism

In describing the function of metaphor, linguist George Lakoff said, “communication is not what one does with the machine, but the machine itself.” By endowing objects with human characteristics or grounding complex processes in familiar concepts, metaphor provides the means to understand what we perceive, how we perceive it, and how we act upon those perceptions.

Doctoral students at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design are hoping one such metaphor—urban metabolism—will enable designers to perceive increasingly complex urban transformations in new, yet familiar ways. 

“Projective Views on Urban Metabolism,” the Doctor of Design conference held at the GSD on February 7, brought together scholars from across the disciplines and around the globe to explore how a new approach to urban metabolism might enhance our understanding of contemporary urban transformations.

The idea of the city as a metabolic system is nothing new. Marx and Engels used the metaphor of metabolism to describe material exchanges and interdependencies between society and nature in their critique of industrialization. The approach was adopted by social scientists in the 1960s, most notably sanitation pioneer Abel Wolman, in response to deteriorating air and water qualities in American cities.

Since then, environmentalists, industrial ecologists, political geographers, urban designers, and others have drawn on the concept of urban metabolism to map the flows of materials and energy within cities. Others have used it to critique the social and political dimensions of those processes.

The increasing complexity of urban environments, however, has made both of these tasks more challenging. “Everyone wants to have an understanding of urbanization that is more holistic. Urban metabolism helps us go beyond the building site or the city,” says Nikos Katsikis (DDes), one of the organizers of conference. Co-organizer Daniel Ibañez (DDes) agrees: “The concept of urban metabolism allows us to apply a very dynamic layer to our understanding of the city, so it becomes more about transformations and how things evolve over time.”  

While speakers hailed from a range of disciplines, the day-long conference—co-sponsored by the GSD’s Doctoral Program, Departments of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, and several research labs—placed designers at the forefront of this project.

The first panel brought together a historian, industrial ecologist, geographer, and political scientist to expand upon notions of urban metabolism as simply a mechanistic series of inputs and outputs. “To really understand how [the city] functions you have to take into consideration power relations, territorial transformations, political decision-making,” says Katsikis.

Exploring the connections between different metabolic streams was a common theme throughout the conference. Associate professors Kiel Moe and Jane Hutton (co-directors of the GSD’s Energy, Environments, and Design research lab) showed how urban metabolism relates to the transformation of spatial structures in their analysis of material and energy exchanges between the Empire State Building and Central Park. 

In one of the more provocative presentations, architect and designer Mitchell Joachim used the image of an obese man with a bloated car and sprawling “McMansion” to represent the current state of hyper-wealth and over-development around the globe. The earth, Joachim argued, simply is full. “It was an exaggeration, but it was a way of saying cities are becoming these massive metabolisms that are agglomerating and absorbing everything from the territory,” says Ibañez.

Others explored how new perspectives on urban metabolism are extending the traditional domains of architectural and urban agency. Associate professor Chris Reed, for example, identified projective modeling and scripting techniques that put into play energy, matter, wildlife, and people. “These drawings have been instrumental in constructing dynamic new conceptualizations of the world,” said Reed. 

Thinking of the city as a living system of material flows rather than a static collection of artifacts also has had unintended consequences. According to Ila Berman, O'Donovan Director of the University of Waterloo School of Architecture, “Design has never been more pervasive and powerful, and yet so vulnerable to the forces that are influencing its potential and capacity.” 

The rate at which cities are evolving in response to global pressures has rendered traditional planning techniques obsolete and challenged the typical role of the architect, Berman argued. At the same time, these factors have led to “the invention of a new toolbox of spatial concepts and design strategies with which to reimagine, redefine, and re-circuit the 21st century city.”

The conference reflects growing interest on the topic both within and beyond the GSD. Urban metabolisms is one of four topics in the 2014 Dean’s Design Challenge, co-sponsored by Dean Mohsen Mostafavi (GSD) and Dean Cherry Murray (SEAS) and open to students from all disciplines. Harvard, MIT, and Boston University recently embarked on a long-term research project funded by the National Science Foundation that aims to track the urban metabolism of Boston. And the forthcoming issue of New Geographies, entitled “Grounding Metabolism” and edited by Katsikis and Ibañez, will be published in May.

Related Links:

Doctor of Design (DDes) Program
Energy, Environments and Design Lab
Urban Theory Lab
New Geographies