The Urbaneers

TED Fellow Mitchell Joachim and his team at Planetary ONE are going beyond green to re-engineer Brooklyn, New York’s most populous borough.

Architectural visionary Mitchell Joachim is known for his more unconventional imaginings of what the urban landscape could be. He and his teams at Terreform ONE and Planetary ONE have created houses made of test tube animal meat, grown buildings out of strains of fungi, and started work on villages made completely of grafted trees. I caught up with Joachim at his studio (the only architecture studio in the world that has a biology lab, by the way) to talk about his radical notions of what “green” design could be, how he reimagined Brooklyn, and his newest project Super Dock, a redesign of the Brooklyn Navy Yards.

Some people would look at the work you are doing at Terreform and Planetary One and say that it is pure science fiction. What would you say to that type of critique?

It's not. It's off-the-shelf technology that you could have bought 30 years ago. We can think of things like making a soft car. It's not science fiction. It's a different solution space for how you think about vehicles. We wanted a soft, kind, cuddly, connected, vehicle moving in flocks and herds. Part of its design premise is to rub up against others, to be a scuffable surface, not a shiny precious metal box that you can't scratch or damage. So traffic in the future becomes a desire, becomes something called gentle congestion as we move in these flocks. So, Terreform is the non-profit, research branch and Planetary ONE is kind of a larger company that can look at all the various details of how technology like the soft car would affect the city. So we don't consider it science fiction. Although, I do think science fiction is a phenomenal way to kind of get some window into the future, as long as you don't make it into a promissory notice.

Planetary ONE seems to be redefining a new architectural language around sustainability. Why are you using new terms and does it resonate with people?

We don't use the word sustainable. We prefer socio-ecological as far as our design impetus. Socio-ecological is a term that recognizes that there's a science factor to solving these problems about climate dynamics, and that there is a social factor, and they're almost equal. The design part is where we come in, listening to those multiple voices and creating solutions that would deal with issues like climate dynamics.

A lot of people talk about “green efficiency.” We don't want anything to be efficient. Efficient means, “I still use gasoline, but less gasoline.” Zero is also a problem because my desk is a zero-emissions desk. Meaning, it doesn't do any bad, just doesn't do any good either. We believe in positive contribution models that rethink the system; they stop doing bad, start doing good, and are accountable for their mistakes.

When you're redesigning a city, what is the most important aspect to prioritize?

There are many priorities. We want to get a fully self-reliant city. This is what we were aiming for with our Urbaneering Brooklyn project. The goal was to create a place that is responsible and accountable for everything that it does, and that has an amazing infrastructure that supports everything that it needs. So this is a society that's very open and egalitarian, but everything that's needed is inside its own realm. Imagine a city broken up into quadrants where the population is capped and waste, food, water, air quality and mobility issues are all satisfied within a particular territory. It's a city that celebrates infrastructure as its central component.

Can you describe the quadrants?

There would be a central operating element that would be like awater energy works- kind of like a queen bee - that helps balance all the different quadrants. Then, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) becomes a mechanism that serves water and deals with the peri-urban condition. We'd fill up the BQE with water, create tons of housing and make the BQE into a neighborhood itself. We'd remove the cars, put high-speed transportation underneath, but basically use it as a way to service water between all the quadrants. The East River seeps into Brooklyn and saturates the parks. No more coffering dams to try and have this line of armistice, a battle point between water and man. We accept that the two worlds must constantly bleed and feather.

Why do you think Brooklyn is a ripe location for this type of redesign?

Margaret Crawford, a professor of architecture and urban theory at Berkley once said in a debate with Rem Koolhaas, “If there was ever a chance for Utopia on earth, it would be in Brooklyn.” If Brooklyn were a city in itself, it would be one of the largest in the United States and has a lot of potential. It's always had a great sense of self and community, and it's far from a monoculture. Brooklyn has more room to adapt, and now is the time to start thinking about Brooklyn as an urban design project, so we can move from abstraction to reinvocation.

Who do you think would be the best organization to partner or collaborate on Urbaneering Brooklyn if it became real?

Shell, BP, and Exxon would be great collaborators, because their thinking is totally opposite ours and we need to find out what makes it work. Obviously, we both want the best possible scenario. Other folks I think we're in a deeper alignment with are folks like TED; TED is more about education and spreading ideas. Google seems to be really adaptable too; they've gone into the car business, they certainly can go into the city business.

What is your next big project?

We're doing another large-scale urban model for the Brooklyn Navy yards and rethinking the shipping industry and freight industry and its relationship to cities, and we're using a New York City site to do that.

How did you choose to focus on the Navy Yards next?

We chose it because it's Brooklyn, it's a major project that hasn't been successfully developed in this city, there are a lot of players involved that are more powerful in the community, and the environment there is horrific. It's probably the worst place when you think about the desperate need of some massive environmental cleanup. We did it without a client, so we could do it for the needs of the community and for the environment, but we wanted to make it fabulous.

 

The team at Planetary ONE created this foam and wood model to show how various elements of Brooklyn could be transformed to create a more self-sustaining community. The curving pathways represent former streets that would become arteries for delivering food, water, and other energy sources (underground transportation would eliminate the need for cars). The whimsical fish-like structures illustrate ecologically sound buildings created through natural grafting methods. Rounding and “softening” the edges of the city would allow for the East River to seep into Brooklyn to help create new wetlands. The concept utilizes infrastructure as the central component of a city, rather than celebrating commerce through the abundance of skyscrapers.

The Future of The City

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The adoption of ubiquitous computing, mobile devices, and rich sources of data are changing how we live, work, and play in urban environments. Increasingly, a digital landscape overlays our physical world and is expanding to offer ever-richer experiences that augment—and in some cases, replace—the physical experience: “The city is the platform, the network, the sensors, and the interface,” as frog creative director Rob McIntosh put it in a recent talk. To celebrate the New Cities Summit where frog hosted a workshop on the Meta-City, design mind presents a special digital issue exclusively on the future of the city and live coverage from the event.

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