Rotterdam Study Abroad Seminar: The Present Environmental Predicament: Design and the Limits to Growth

This Course is for students in the Rotterdam Study Abroad Program.
The title of this seminar refers to two significant essays written in the past half century.

The first one (“The present Urban Predicament”) comes from the field of architectural theory and criticism, and was written in the late seventies by Colin Rowe as a kind of condensed version of the theses he had developed in his famous Collage City (1978). In his view, the devolution of mainstream culture and the ideology of modern urbanism had forced cities and urban design in a kind of dead end. He therefore advocated the necessity for both a “reconquest” and reinvention of the dialectics of urban composition. Some decades later, whether we still find Rowe’s theoretical attempt stimulating or rather desperate and pathetic, we must acknowledge that the growing concerns about the sustainability or resilience of our world, and the pressure of the global environmental crisis, have changed both the scale and the nature of our predicament. To say the least, the idea that cities, or even metropolises, still represent an adequate or priviledged context to address those issues, has become highly questionable. What if « urban design » and « urban planning », after 160 years of loyal services, had now reached the time of retirement ?

The other text (The Limits to Growth) worldly famous as the first report to the Club of Rome, was published in 1972 by a team of scientists (led by Dennis Meadows) working at the MIT lab of Systems Dynamics. For the first time (after Malthus), this report — which was subsequently updated twice (in 1992 and 2004) — ventured the quite reasonable hypothesis that our world is finite, that its stock of resources is limited, and that growth could not last forever. Gathering in its model all the datas then available, the team delineated a series of scenarios which (almost) all converged towards the probability that a global crisis would occur around the first third of the XXIst century. We have now entered this historical phase of turmoil, and to our knowledge, no other book has been written since which provides a better understanding of our « environmental predicament ».

The ambition of this seminar will be to confront those texts, and many others, coming from the fields of architecture, landscape design and urban design, but also economy and evironment, so as to investigate this new context, a global situation which should have significant consequences on the evolution of the theory and practice of design.

To prepare themselves to this seminar over the summer, students could read (or reread) the following books :
Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter, Collage City, MIT Press, reed.

Colin Rowe, « The Present Urban Predicament », Cornell Journal of Architecture, n° 1, 1981, Reed. In As I Was Saying, vol 3, MI TPress 1996

Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Dennis Meadows, Limits to Growth : The 30 Years Update, Chelsea Green Publishers, 2004

And : Rem Koolhaas’ Delirious New York, “Singapore’s Songlines”, “Atlanta”, “The Generic City”, etc.