City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Afternoon walk, Stockholm 18 June 2020

Retrofit over new build; greening the grey, greying the green; urbanising the suburban, and suburbanising the urban; making the suburbs work, by enhancing diversity

Between the peri-urban surrounds and the central business district (CBD), we might find the diversified suburban neighbourhood — diversified in terms of activity, biodiversity, culture, space, amenity, environment.

Rory Hyde’s work has often touched on how the typical Melbourne suburbs — examples of the quintessential Australian urban form— might be retrofitted via simple interventions and repurposing. For Architect Victoria, he wrote:

“The suburbs we have are here to stay, so instead of decrying them as the places which will drag us all under, shouldn’t we develop new ways to retrofit them to be socially, environmentally and economically sustainable places in their own right?”—Rory Hyde

Rather than simply wringing hands over this lack of care, Hyde suggests an inventive resuscitation of Robin Boyd’s Small Homes Service, subtly shifted in focus to become a ‘Small Homes Adaptability Service’, with an emphasis on improving the already-there. He describes how such a service would be “directed to retrofitting the existing housing stock to suit the needs of today, transforming the suburbs to become socially, environmentally, and economically supportive places.”

For Architecture Australia, Hyde describes the idea in a bit more detail

“A new Small Homes Service would not be designing new homes to address this challenge. It would be geared toward adapting the existing housing stock to suit the needs of today and creating new opportunities to share space and resources — a Small Homes Adaptability Service. The suburbs are ripe for this kind of transformation. They are composed of many freehold titles, enabling owners to proceed independently rather than waiting for any top-down coordination. They have plenty of underused space: front yards, backyards, broad streets, verges, crossovers, garages and spare rooms. And perhaps most importantly, they have always been about freedom to experiment, to be transformed from the bottom up in incremental ways.”—Rory Hyde, ‘What Would Boyd Do? A Small Homes Service for Today’, Architecture Australia (2018)

Plans from Robin Boyd’s Small Homes Service, RMIT Design Archives Journal, Vol.9 No.2 (2019)

In another article for the RMIT Design Archives Journal (2019), Hyde’s sketches reveal a richer approach than mere re-planning, drawing in some of the ‘non-grid’ infrastructures he and I have often discussed, and which I described in Paper 15. House-Playground-Street (for example, super-local energy production and storage, nurseries and remodelled streets, shared mobility and logistics, co-working and small fabrication spaces, and so on.) These are also ideas later developed through discussion with Bryan Boyer, who’s leading the design of a new Urban Technology course at Taubman College of Architecture (University of Michigan), covering these approaches and more (as per similar approaches in Incomplete City studio we ran together, just pre-pandemic.)

“The kinds of transformation this Small Homes Adaptability Service would initiate would focus on energy, production, caring, creativity, sharing and conviviality. It would endeavour to create places that are self-supporting and productive, rather than merely places to sleep between commutes. It would adapt and join adjacent triple garages into co-working spaces and workshops, shared by the entire block, to support decentralized working. It would install solar panels and link up existing ones to create local energy smart grids, for charging cars and reducing bills. It would adapt front rooms for childcare and social clubs for the elderly, providing space and structure for the informal systems of care that already operate. It would redesign existing dwellings to accommodate different family types and uses, such as adding a separate entrance and kitchenette to a larger home to allow a student to cohabit with an elderly owner in relative peace, or adding a level to accommodate a growing family. Lightweight digital services could be introduced to facilitate sharing of tools, cars, books and time among neighbours. The simplest intervention might be to knock down a fence between dwellings, creating a new semipublic realm of shared facilities, from swimming pools to basketball hoops.”” — Rory Hyde, ‘What Would Boyd Do? A Small Homes Service for Today’, Architecture Australia (2018)

Sketch by Rory Hyde of various repairs by shared infrastructure, RMIT Design Archives Journal, Vol.9 №2 (2019)

This is a slowdown move par excellence. Boyd’s original service was building new homes, as befits the expansive (and yes, extractive) mode of the Great Acceleration. Hyde’s reinvention is retrofitting, repairing and refining the existing fabric, building in place. These kinds of small, adaptive infrastructures could fit into existing spaces, potentially layering in new applications onto the existing hardware—such as garage spaces, streets, corners, industrial units. This repairing in place, refining the existing fabric rather than continuing to build outwards, upwards, could produce great value, of almost every kind.

Yet this can only be done with active participation and ownership from within the suburbs itself. There’s a lovely small image in Rory’s RMIT article: father and son in Sunbury, cleaning up a dirt bike on the driveway, a garage full to the gills in the background. These spaces are not just up for grabs by people like me; they are already full of people and their existing dreams and aspirations. Any ‘repair work to be done’ must be done on their own terms. And yet without that repair work, these suburbs, driven by what Brendan Gleeson has called the “growth fetish”, are not viable—and thus nor is Melbourne. Yet that simple fact is not enough in itself to drive change, frustratingly, given perhaps a generation or two of Australians having been firmly steeped in Accelerationist thinking. The lockdown gives us all an opportunity to see the value of these places in different ways, potentially speeding up the necessary transformation.

‘Father and son cleaning a motorbike in the drive of one of the new houses beyond Sunbury, 2017′. Photo by Rory Hyde. RMIT Design Archives Journal, Vol.9 №2 (2019)

In a similar vein, though with a stronger emphasis on permaculture, David Holmgren’s Retrosuburbia work also explicitly looks at the potential latent within the Australian suburbs. (Holmgren was the co-originator with Bill Mollison of the permaculture concept in 1978, with their publication Permaculture One. Thanks to Jordan Valentin Lane for the tip.)

Retrosuburbia, David Holmgren

In passing, Hyde also notes the Offset House proposal from Other Architects, which explores the possibility of building in and around the timber frame propping up most Australian (and North American) suburban housing.

“Suburbia is not just home for most Australians: it is the primary domain of social exchange, cultural relations and political discourse. In his influential 1960 book Australian Ugliness, Robin Boyd equated the brick-veneer suburban house with the nation’s racist White Australia policy. More recently, Pritzker Prize-winning architect Glenn Murcutt claimed that suburban houses are “not architecture.” But if the language of the McMansion is merely a veneer, shouldn’t Australian architects see right through it? Offset House aims to reveal the beauty and utility of the frame, peeling away layers of anachronistic construction, poor planning, and illogical furnishings. By reclaiming the frame for architecture, we hope to reframe our relationship to the suburbs.”—Offset House, Other Architects

Effectively hiding in plain sight beneath that veneer, the suburban timber frame provides space and structure for numerous other possibilities. Their proposal reverses the thrusters on most Australian housing dynamics, cleverly building inwards rather than outwards in order to maximise shared spare in return. It produces so much out of so little, with more than a nod to the quietly accumulative metabolisms of some Japanese architecture. It is also a richly inventive counter-proposal to the growth fetish monstrosities typically spruiked by The Block (as per another old piece of work, a Maginot Line design strategy for the Commonwealth Government.)

In fact, the possibilities are so rich within and without that simple timber frame that the truly complex remaining question is How? rather than What.

As I write, much of the region around Melbourne is in full lockdown, as the virus flares up again. People are now living and working solely in these suburbs, as if the climate transition is here and transport to the city centre, or nearby shopping malls, is already unsustainable. So we need more proposals like Other’s, yet now situated directly in these places, working up from within, around the humans and nonhumans that live, or could live, in these environments, repairing and refining in situ.

Offset House, Other Architects (2015)

The new advance agents of decentralisation

It may be that entirely new services emerge in these spaces. Just as the Great Acceleration produced the distributed infrastructure of petrol stations, mechanics workshops, driving test centres, spare parts dealers, vehicle insurance, and so on, what is the equivalent as car-based culture rapidly fades out, and working from home — for perhaps half the week — fades up? What is the equivalent of the garage here?

In 1932, Frank Lloyd Wright saw that the “gasoline service station may be seen the beginning of an important advance agent of decentralization.” So what are the new ‘advance agents’ of this shift? No doubt there will be a resurgence of the idea of neighbourhood co-working spaces (or simply great Third Places like libraries and other social infrastructure), located in and around transit hubs, as alternatives to endlessly working from home. To Hyde’s point, these could also be located in retrofitted garages, and other semi-formal spaces, at the end of streets. Whilst homes themselves are being remodelled, not-working-from-home is equally important; yet what the lockdown is often revealing is that this need not be in a city centre office or campus.

But equally, what are the equivalents of those mechanics, the repair shops, the insurance firms, the driving schools, the car financing companies? (Car ownership-related debt is enormous, as Dorling describes in detail in The Slowdown with data for the USA here. Where does all that go?)

Perhaps there are new trades emerging already: local business start-up advisors, tech specialists, data security advisers, business coaches, community facilitators, and the like. New services may spring up to help remodel and retrofit home working environments, hovering somewhere between interior architects, tech consultants, audio and video specialists, acoustics engineers, lighting designers, and health and wellbeing experts. These activities will have their own valuable maintenance regimes.

With the car-based economy, we know that for every high street or transit hub, there tends to be a slew of garages, repair shops, and offices selling various support services, tucked just behind, under railway arches or on backstreets. What are these spaces now? Again, there is huge opportunity here for reinforced and remodelled local economies, which could also be part of this retrofit and repair agenda.

Peri-urban spaces, such as big box retail parks and other fixtures of the Great Acceleration, could be repurposed, with a shift towards slower, localised infrastructures of everyday life. These could be agriculture spaces, growing food via slower forms of permaculture or regenerative practices, closer to the markets in towns and cities and so minimising logistics such that it can be carried out on active transport.

Other applications, also appropriate to these spaces, might emerge alongside these agricultural uses, such as wetlands, solar arrays, biowaste plants, and gravity batteries. These can feed charging stations and battery swaps for electric vehicles, autonomous and otherwise — fossil-free and restorative versions of Lloyd Wright‘s’ “advance agents”.

Equally, relating to nearby mixed-use places, and linked by active and autonomous shared transport at community scale, these spaces could become local hubs with co-working spaces, workshops, libraries, sports grounds, kindergartens for those areas that live nearby, and so on. These spaces can be intensely green and blue, enabling better flood mitigation and natural waste water filtration, rather than the vast concrete car parks of the Acceleration, and so with the potential to be massive carbon sinks and biodiversity generators, as well as food producers. Little of this is about efficiency, despite this emphasis on potentially quantifiable elements such as ‘sinks’ and ‘generators’.

A long time ago, in a city far away

A decade ago, working as part of Helsinki Design Lab’s Sustainability studio. our team sketched out a similar principle for the Helsinki and Espoo suburbs. We walked through the same suburbs there, where the Nordic overtones are subtly different to those of Melbourne’s; but equally, not as a different as you might think. Frankly, they were also full of people cleaning dirt bikes on the driveways.

In the Studio, we also ended up suggesting a careful intensifying, subtly introducing elements of urban density, diversity and amenity threaded through the existing greenery and spacious curving cul-de-sacs and pockets. In return, these are counterpointed with the converse for the city centre, by punching and kneading porosity in small pockets of green and blue amidst the stone blocks and streets. After several afternoons traipsing around the city and the suburbs with the team, Alejandro Aravena and I sketched out a few variations of this on the whiteboard (the better drawings are his, naturally), describing a blurring of forest and city, a more intentional continuum between these two states, with the forest appearing in the city as much as the city appears in the forest.

Whiteboard sketches by Alejandro Aravena and me, articulating thinking of wider team (HDL Studio 2010)

The latter has a firm tradition in Nordic planning — the ‘blocks in the forest’ around Sweden, for example, where a mid-rise block form defines much (though far from all) of the suburbs, rather the detached housing of Anglo-American cultures. KTH Prof Erik Stenberg, perhaps the leading authority on Miljonprogrammet, shifts the narrative around this extraordinary programme, attempting to prevent it from suffering the fate of other mid-century public housing by intelligently extolling its virtues in the face of an increasingly neoliberal, and thus segregated, housing culture — watch a discussion with Stenberg here in this KTH documentary. From 1965–1974, Sweden built over a million homes via the miljonprogram—compare that with today’s apparently technologically-advanced and free market-powered housing sectors: New Zealand recently gave up on building 100,000 homes in 10 years, describing it as “overly ambitious”. Progress, eh?

Grindtorp miljonprogramm housing, Täby, Sweden

Stenberg notes that the blocks are often “well-built and today provide good homes and communities for many”, and also well-situated, already supported by infrastructure and amenities. These blocks are in effect primed for this next phase, particularly as the value of modernism is increasingly recognised, both functionally and stylistically.

They need work. Yet the enhanced urban amenity required by Slowdown dynamics could shape this work in useful directions. A neighbourhood predicated on far more frequent home-working, increased community interaction and restorative environments presents precisely the diverse array of design inputs that Miljonprogrammen retrofits need. Previous retrofit programmes have over-focused on energy efficiency, and whilst this aspect is of course fundamentally important, it is too limited and discrete to drive what the retrofit is about. The Slowdown potentially changes what is required of a neighbourhood, requiring a far greater diversity of activities and amenities, environmental qualities, landscapes, and social infrastructures. This set of requirements for distributed complexity could finally block the reversion to the mean dormitory suburbs of the earlier ABC-stad strategy.

Continuing the theme of this series, Stenberg “champions careful, community-engaged renovation rather than demolition … … Sustainability is about managing with and for the assets you already have”. He describes the value of “an incremental approach to renovation. It’s a more gradual approach, based on apartment-by-apartment renovations that adapts to specific circumstances and evolves over time. Hence, it’s more sustainable — in economic, social and environmental terms.”

In Nordic and Northern European cities, the challenge is often at the opposite end of the continuum that Aravena sketched out; overcoming the stolid and narrow-minded maintenance cultures that keep city centres and inner-suburbs grey hardscapes, and instead reintroducing the forest—and the river, lake, infields etc.—into these overwhelmingly stone and concrete enclosures. Not as separated parks, which would reinforce the old centralised model, but woven throughout. Along these lines, I’m positioning the first of our recent projects with retrofitted streets in Sweden as a suggestion we might reforest Stockholm. (Sheffield’s Grey to Green programme is an excellent example of what can be done; yet even this should move to increased intensity of urban biodiversity, slowly growing beyond its carefully constrained channels and culverts.)

Repairing an American dream

In the very different suburban context of Los Angeles, the emergence of the ‘accessory dwelling units’ typology has been artfully and positively exploited led by likes of United Dwelling, Modative, and LA Más, who are generating variations on of innovative retrofits of garage spaces into live/work spaces. The New York Times reports on Stephen Dietz’s company United Dwelling, who spotted that by far the majority of detached garage spaces in Los Angeles do not have a car in them, which enables them to be reworked into accessory dwelling units:

“His idea is simple: United Dwelling enters a partnership with a homeowner, pays for the garage conversion, manages the rental of the apartment to a qualified applicant and splits the rent with the homeowner. Since most of the detached garages in Los Angeles aren’t used for cars — 91 percent of the 2,100 homeowners surveyed by Mr. Dietz’s students use their garages for something else, mostly storage — this can provide rental income and affordable housing in many neighborhoods. And it does it by using existing structures.”

Backyard Homes Project, by LA Más

This clever shifting of space—and capital—increases the density of housing located near existing metro stops, further repairing LA by enabling the ongoing removal of cars, yet effectively without building. The conversions by LA Más, part of their Backyard Homes Project, are particularly sharp. (See also: Portland’s new Residential Infill Project regulation, allowing multiple-units on the same suburban block; not ambitious by international standards, but in the context of suburban American planning, a step forward.)

Backyard Homes Project, by LA Más

After the first wave of the virus in Australia, some of my old colleagues at Arup Australasia produced a report Towards Superbia, exploring similar ideas for reimagining suburban environments and economies.

Towards Superbia, Arup

All of this work follows in the footsteps of the feminist architectural historian Dolores Hayden, and her landmark works addressing the American suburbs. We have much to excavate and reinterpret from her work, given this new slowdown dynamic. In her book Building Suburbia (2004), seven suburban typologies (‘Borderlands’, ‘Picturesque Enclaves’, ‘Streetcar Buildouts’, ‘Mail-Order and Self-Built Suburbs’ ‘Sitcom Suburbs’ ‘Edge Nodes’, ‘Rural Fringes’) all tend to emerge, in America at least, during two centuries of unchecked growth of the Acceleration.

Aside from Hayden’s book

In her Redesigning the American Dream: Gender, Housing and Family Life (2012 second edition), Hayden reviews numerous strategies for housing and neighbourhood projects (of particular interest, the 1974 Solar Tenement in New York, Women’s Development Corporation in Providence, and the Californian courtyard blocks of Irving Gill—Hayden noting that “Los Angeles is the most interesting multi-family housing stock on the courtyard model.”)

‘Redesigning the American Dream: Gender, Housing and Family Life’, Dolores Hayden (2012 second edition)

Hayden’s book could provide much of the playbook required for these retrofits. Her cases are not solely American suburbia, despite the title: her research includes assessment of Sven Markelius’s and Alva Myrdal’s Collective House in Stockholm, Tinggården in Herfølge, Hans Wirz in Zürich, Aldo Van Eyck’s Unmarried Mothers’ Houses in Amsterdam, as well as Nina West Homes in England. Hayden also covers the ‘dark matter’ of organisation and economy, including a discussion on measuring paid and unpaid work, cooperative models, participation strategies—and all framed in particular through gender relations (in some senses a companion to the work by the 1970s collective Matrix that I referred to in an earlier Paper.)

Redesigning the American Dream: Gender, Housing and Family Life, Dolores Hayden

Amongst her examples, the Danish Tinggaarden particularly exemplifies an idealised low- to mid-density, diverse and equitable arrangement. Designed and built from 1971–1978, and then adapted and doubled in 1983–84, the architects, Vandkunsten, essentially describe the project as virtually defining their entire subsequent DNA:

”In many regards, Tinggaarden also marked the beginning of Vandkunsten Architects. We created a manifesto for the competition, with clear architectural positions on everything from the way we shape our society and functioning communities to the interaction between the built and the natural environment, the choice of materials and so forth. These ideas went far beyond the specific project and shaped the way we’ve been approaching architecture ever since.”—Michael Sten Johnsen

Tinggaarden, in Herfølge outside Copenhagen, as depicted in Redesigning the American Dream: Gender, Housing and Family Life, Dolores Hayden

Tinggaarden thus exemplifies a well-known Scandi archetype for this kind of ‘social democratic housing’, albeit one ripe for redeployment elsewhere, just as much as it needs reinvigorating in the Nordics.

Tinggaarden, in Herfølge, Denmark, by Vandkunsten architects

Yet the genuinely new ideas in Hayden’s book were in the retrofit stories. She points to Hattie Hartman’s handbook of variations for suburban spatial reorganisation, reconfiguring the archetypal single family suburban houses that have been copy-pasted across the USA into almost endless variations of apartments, much in the spirit that Hyde and Dietz would later propose. Hayden writes:

“Many experiments can take place with regards to the sizes and shapes of new apartments. They can be in the garage, extending into the backyard, under the roof, or at the bottom levels of a split-level design. A good architect can make many of these plans work. Designing for acoustical privacy is especially important.”—Dolores Hayden, Redesigning the American Dream: Gender, Housing and Family Life

In Building Suburbia, Hayden even briefly touches on the possibilities and pitfalls inherent in telecommuting. With some prescience, given the book was written in 2003, she described the “nervous mantra” of turn of the century broadband and real estate ads; the following quote could almost have been written yesterday:

“While the search for peaceful domestic life in quiet country settings has been constant since the 1820s, the most recent rush from the city has been marked by odd moments of frenzy, as paid work spilled into family life in new and anxious ways. The home as ‘electronic cottage’ might become a kind of twenty-four hour sweatshop, with one or two adults trying to accomplish a full day’s work with the computer. Psychological studies have established that prolonged hours of interaction with the Internet have tended to make people feel distant from their social circles, distant from their families, depressed and isolated.”—Dolores Hayden, Building Suburbia (2004)

Hayden notes the “struggle to allocate the second shift of cooking, cleaning, and chld care after a full day on the paid job”, and that “telecommuting might reduce schedule conflicts for employed parents … but it presents potential spatial conflict.” (Again, I mentioned these issues of equality of organisation of time, space and value in the previous batch of Papers.) Hayden talks about the need for “better planning for child care and neighbourhood workplaces for telecommuters”—again akin to the strategies mentioned previously.

Yet Hayden wrote this two decades ago. With many now shoved in this direction by the virus—propelled into ‘the biggest work-from-home experiment in history’ with “decades’s worth of change in months”—now is the time to actually address these spatial, temporal, cultural, social and environmental conflicts.

Without that focus, that ‘decade’s worth of change’ will move in precisely the wrong direction, missing the opportunity for reinvention:

“Numerous studies of working parents’ lives during Covid-19 (have shown that) a disproportionate share of the burden is still falling on women.”

Outside of education, cultural and political change, part of this shift concerns the slog through the dark matter of employment law, occupational health policies, workplace insurance and so on, all moving towards a distributed, trusted model. Yet there is not enough focus yet on the supportive material changes required within architecture, urban design and planning. As Zürich-based consultant Allysson Zimmerman says: “We have to get curious and ask questions and challenge assumptions of what the ‘home’ looks like.”

Both of Hayden’s books end with the suggestion of care-ful retrofit, celebrating what is there whilst repairing, maintaining, and redirecting, rather than further expansion. These are necessary strategies for a slowdown. Crucially, Hayden writes that challenging the mental model of growth itself—the one under threat from the Slowdown—must be firmly articulated in our work. It cannot be left implicit, or simply be tinkered with by architecture alone:

“Better architecture cannot, in itself, change the larger patterns of social and economic exploitation developed by growth machines which profit from round after round of fringe development. If the United States is to become a more sustainable and more equitable place, older suburbs have to be saved rather than abandoned on the way to new projects.”—Dolores Hayden, Building Suburbia (2003)

This is not simply a North American problem. The implication applies to most places, requiring a evolution of thinking from the simplistic demonisation of the suburbs that many urbanists have taken part in over the last few decades. Conversely, it also requires the steam to be taken out of the boosterish central business district/urban innovation district narrative, where the clear fields of suburban growth are simply swapped for rights to air space, subdivisions of the sky. Both city and suburbs can be retrofitted and reinvented and better sutured together, rather being seen as oppositional sites for endless growth of new developments, unsustainably pushing outwards or upwards.

As Hayden’s work indicates, these are political issues. Let President Trump and his ilk now try to own these binary oppositions between city and suburb. His craven and damaging destruction of affordable housing acts are clearly no more than an attempt to conjure votes from the suburbia. Yet his idea of those places is as anachronistic as his appallingly sexist language when he appeals to the “Suburban Housewives of America”. Fortunately, this is one of Trump’s many misunderstanding of reality, in this case, the reality of what their American suburbia has become:

“On this issue, just like on other issues like immigration, he’s trying to appeal to people who haven’t looked carefully into these issues for maybe 20 or 30 years. In this decade, suburbs are a microcosm of America.”—William Frey, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution

As Kriston Capps puts it, “For suburban areas, he’s promising to enable NIMBY neighborhoods to continue to self-segregate; for urban areas, he’s delivering something closer to all-out war.”

Clearly, we have to take the opposite tack. To design with care means dissolving this simplistic distinction between urban and suburban. This does not mean that these distinctive places cease to exist—a downtown has been meaningful for centuries, it is distinctly not suburbia—but it does mean a richer, more meaningful relationship between them. Enhancing diversity in both types, human and nonhuman, will be key to this.

This sense of enhancing diversity was at the core of the previous batch of Slowdown Papers, particularly when pulling on this unravelling of the suburb further into the exurban regions, the countryside. The same flattening of the curve on the dense, magnetic concentrations of the city itself can, zooming up a scale Eames-style, also rebalance activity across a bioregion, a small country. And that smoothing of value should not imply a diminishing of difference—in fact, quite the opposite. It is actually a broadening of the agenda and ambit rather than a narrowing focus on a handful of ‘attractive’ cities.

As I described, there is potential to more proactively care for and nurture more resilient, distinctive local businesses and cultures in this way, whilst also repairing political differences at the broader scale. At the core of this idea would be Ezio Manzini’s ‘cosmopolitan localism’ principles, in which the potentially parochial is counterpointed by the connected global.

For the discussion above need not be necessarily more about the suburbs than any other space; it is a potential condition of our built environment generally. As I described in an earlier Slowdown Paper, these retrofit ideas are akin to Tokyo constantly turning over its same soil, not particularly growing in the centre or the suburbs, due to a slowdown condition, but constantly rebuilding and refining in the same spot. Dorling has the numbers on this, in terms of the growth patterns of the city.

But the metabolism of the average Tokyo neighbourhood, with the typical use-by date of each building being around 25–30 years, has a well-known fascination within urbanism. It affords a perhaps unique opportunity for ongoing reinvention and change, if done sustainably, by opening up to the regular incorporation of both incoming technology and social diversity. Theoretically, at least.

Ryue Nishizawa’s design principles for houses in these Tokyo suburbs (discussed here) are an immediately useful starting point, given this context of the care-ful retrofit of suburbs:

“dismantling; smallness; acentricity; transparency; the creation of an environment; multiple tenancy/density; and the absence of borders.”—Ryue Nishizawa

I would add some of these dynamics of care, repair and maintenance to that, but it’s a useful starting point.

Although it seems a stretch, this ‘refining in place’ in hypermodern Tokyo could be seen as part of a deeper Japanese tradition, from well before the Great Acceleration. In Ise, around 1,300 years ago, they started rebuilding the wooden shrines of the Ise Jingu every 20 years, in a process called Shikinen Sengu. The practice continues to this day, as described in an upcoming film Wood Rots Like We Do, by the architect and artist Matthew Rosier.

New shrine at Ise, by Matthew Rosier

In the film, Takeshi Nakatani describes how: “Wood ages and rots just like we do, and just as with the shrines which we rebuild every 20 years …. it’s through this constant process of renewal that something lasts forever.”

The sense of time at work here is not one based on preservation, as if attempting to freeze development; it remains a form of growth.

The rebuilding of these Ise temples every 20 years approximately matches the rebuilding of Tokyo houses. This is not a technical pursuit as much as it is about social fabric, and deeper culture, as Kenichi Suzuki, the Mayor of Ise suggests when he says, “To maintain the Shikinen Sengu system you need to pass on and maintain skills, and a knowledge of natural materials. Communication and community is an important part of this. So maybe they were aware about sustainability at that time, even if the word didn’t exist.”

This is a different form of growth, clearly — not simple replacement for the sake of deriving more value from further extraction, but enabling an ongoing adaptation to changing circumstances and technologies, of purposeful care, and deliberate maintenance, of using the building not for its exchange value into finance, but as a reason to develop human and ecological relationships over time. Again, this is slow growth timber as both metaphor and reality.

“Growth’ in an urban environment is a more complicated phenomenon than simple replacement of what existed before; growth requires a dialogue between past and present, it is a matter of evolution rather than erasure.” — Richard Sennett, The Open City (2006)

Ed. Many thanks to Rory Hyde for numerous conversations that have heavily informed my thinking here in particular.

Next: 25. Slowdown landscapes: Building blocks for care and repair of the city
Previous: 23: Slowdown landscapes: Flattening the curve on the city centre
Intro to third batch:
19. The waters draw back, only to return
Intro to Slowdown Papers: 1. Writing the coronavirus to memory
Index: All Slowdown Papers are here


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