#1 Speculative Urban Futures miniseries
When looking at deserted megaform and landform buildings we find ourselves wondering why they are still here. Why, after having been liberated from human occupation and completely abandoned do they still remain standing? As if by protest, they object to being exhausted by human and programmatic use, they do not give up on existence.
Konstantinos Retsinas is a London-based researcher and practitioner of urban design. He has been trained in architectural urbanism and his expertise lies within issues of spatial performance, governance structures, master planning, strategy making, and housing typologies. He most recently gained a Master’s degree from the Royal College of Art in City Design after having been awarded the Eugenides Foundation Scholarship. Following the completion of a 5 year Bachelor’s degree in Architecture at the National Technical University of Athens, Konstantinos gained academic experience as a teaching assistant in Urban Design Studio 9, at the NTUA.
This text is part of GRIP´s miniseries Speculative Urban Futures. As inequalities rise and cities grow, the need to speculate and probe possible urban futures is more urgent than ever. This miniseries opens up to various types of speculations about potential urban futures.
Abstract | Manifesto: To think of an afterlife for these buildings, firstly requires one to view them in a way which would render them as ‘unproductive’ entities. Secondly one should find the appropriate agency through which to intervene by doing very little, with the purpose of allowing the building the possibility of continuous transformations. If a depository of mega-big buildings is what we are left with, their ruins can be perceived like the undead; paradoxically refusing to die. This collapse, decay and underutilization of these megaforms should not be construed as a negative aspect of their existence, but rather as their life renewed. An urban meta-strategy around the reinvention of the city through typological reconstitutions in the scale of ‘mega’ is to be deployed by the manifestation of a syllabus of interventions for buildings of this spectrum.
In this framework, declining infrastructures, abandoned buildings and underutilized spaces become subject to speculation both in their state of pre and meta-ruination. Architectural ruins are to be conceived as the spatial manifestations of radical socio-economic transformations with a clear impact on architecture and the built environment pointing to how space is actually used and experienced. This speculation of an urban future attacks the typologies usually associated with the ruins of megaformic buildings, less by exaggerating their condition and more by envisioning a future of collapse and decay for them. This research extends beyond a mere genealogy on the typologies identified with megaformic structures. Alternatively it attempts to generate a speculative method with which buildings of this scale can be treated by expanding the common architectural renderings.
Mega: a critique
Megaforms, megastructures, pieces of artificial earthwork, landform buildings and groundscrapers are to be thought of as an act of architecture of a heroic scale. But, hardly ever do we realise that buildings of this spectrum have unlimited capacities that allow for their transformation on multiple scales. In a sense one could argue that a building’s possible futures are left rather underexplored unless it reaches the edge of decay and collapse, destabilizing its various contexts, patterns and rhythms.
Postulating on the megaforms’ afterlife scenarios, this research sets the recent collapse of retail as its starting point. While retail happened to be one of the main drives for many of these buildings, within the urgency for change – that the Covid-19 pandemic is strengthening – around retail habits, I intend to speculate the post-programmatic and place-creating character of such configurations of mega scale. The collapse of retail and its side effects is not only a pragmatic problem nowadays, but also a way to start thinking about a situation of a discontinuous moment in the life of these buildings, where temporality is highlighted by the destruction of the retail sector.
Within a scenario of collapse for these buildings’ – wherever their catastrophe may derive from and head towards – the polemics of this research stand strongly against the over exploitation of their form by a mono-cultural framework dictated by the needs that a retail, office or any such sector might dictate. The resiliency and adaptability that these built forms could possibly demonstrate is still to emerge. Their formal and functional latent capacities are powerful enough for one to postulate and create a life anew for these buildings. For example, the typology of the car park and patterns of automobile that these buildings are connected with are becoming obsolete in the same way that shopping has become almost obsolete. The recycling of commodities and service industries – promoted within the capitalist framework – ultimately block any possibility for a land settlement that could function as a thrust towards the production of a coherent civic space, an aspect that this essay aims towards the critical reassessment of. The main hypothesis – yet to be proven – is that the tendencies and capacities of these mega buildings are strong enough to signify a life beyond their primary configured occupation.
We also know that the footprint of buildings in the scale of ‘mega’ has a great environmental impact. One could probably cite many examples of such catastrophes like “buildings of ever larger supermarkets and shopping malls that are not only ‘unsustainable’ by definition but also invariably isolated from the topographic grain of the surrounding landscape. The maximizing of such shopping facilities, together with the recent proliferation of gated communities, can hardly be regarded as environmentally or culturally sound solutions to the predicament of land settlement”, Frampton says. This is what recent history would document as a delirious consumerism that was to be embodied in several types of buildings such as shopping malls, all of which engendered civic microcosms in their forms. Thinking of retail-animated life in built environments of a big scale and its recent decline reminds one of Koolhaas’s reading of the metropolis, where “bigness exists either to destroy or celebrate a new beginning”. What we are facing now is an event of a discontinuous moment where temporality is shattered and malls in particular are being rendered completely abandoned.
Japanese graphic designer Tsunehisa Kimura’s Visual Scandals appear as an awakening. He treats history in a different way through photo montages, and he talks about urban catastrophes and landscapes that no one ever expected the last century would bring. He uses scale in a provocative way to talk about a human-made metropolis in collapse. The future of mega-buildings according to the research conducted is being rendered almost apocalyptic. Spare elements of automobiles, fragmented architectural elements, and many other mechanistic parts, help towards the creation of the scenery. Thinking beyond their ‘decadence’ is almost like proposing a new reading for these architectures as an act of imaginary reconstruction in the way that Piranesi and his Appian Way teaches us.
Landscape Language for Buildings
Megaforms are more related to the urban fabric configurations that are able to address changes in their surroundings, while megastructures are more autonomous and self-referential buildings that tend to assert themselves because of their figural, representational and monumental appearance. Volynets Iryna on her review on Benjamin Wilkie’s argues that “the buildings are no longer self-identical structures that simply exist in their context, but rather they are defined by urban context, nature, roads, trees, and the human beings who inhabit and use them”.
To make a point around the idea of megaform and how prolific this notion appears to be today, this research has been extensively using a landform language to provide definitions, describe megaform in detail, and allow for connections of already known megaform examples with their various effects. To that end, some of the principles of Landscape Urbanism are to be acknowledged as a productive set of tools for further experimentation. Just as the landscape tends to change over time allowing for the different patterns of social and spatial interaction to emerge, we point to this variability and reversibility in the case of megaformic structures. Such complex structures also have the tendency to transform, adapt, and are of course subject to ongoing transformation. Their horizontally oriented building form demonstrates a strong relationship with the ground, a connection to the urban context, and a new potential to emerge.
There is an inherent value in how a landscape changes over time. In the building analogy, we see this as a potential of a building’s life to expand beyond its original use, to amplify itself. Stan Allen in his conversation with Kenneth Frampton and Hashim Sarkis, argues that: “We associate this potential much more with landscape, and the notion that buildings themselves are used and recycled is much less easy to grasp”. Rarely can such a notion be seen in architecture. However, this concept comes to be tested every time these controversial spaces need to accommodate for cases of emergency and catastrophe. Stadiums in Japan have the potential to be transformed into camps, hospitals, and so on. In the recent history of the Covid-19 pandemic, spaces – with certain characteristics – such as airports were occupied by care facilities and stadiums to function as food distribution points.
Landscape Urbanism is particularly interested in addressing what seems to be a horizontal condition. While being time-specific nonetheless, landscape urbanism also addresses conditions that appear on a long-term effecting horizon. By that means, it brings together such opposing powers and is subject to negotiation. Once more, within the building analogy, not all typologies can relate to these notions. Megaform appears to be the closest one described, analysed and eventually critiqued by landscape principles. To sum up with one of Allen’s manifesto points from the preface of his collective work of Landform Building: architecture’s new terrain, architecture as a discipline goes side by side with the experience of the landscape. Landform building embraces the expanded notion of the interior. In his own words: “the vast scale of these megaform proposals brings landscape effects inside and blurs the boundary between interior and exterior. In this context, landscape is no longer viewed as pure exteriority but is understood as an immersive environment similar in experience to the contemporary city”
Collages of the Non-stop city project by Archizoom in the 60s drive one’s attention to a horizontally oriented building form similar to a landscape endowed with the potential of different ecologies to emerge. The infinite plane indicates a nomadic way of living where people move and organize themselves freely while only a few elements remain fixed, including an absolute structural skeletal system. Although Stan Allen would probably disagree with the non-design or very generic approach of such an infinite space, he too connects Landscape Urbanism to the “notion of an open-ended, indeterminate attitude toward program”, which is to be understood like “anything can happen on a green field: you can play football, you could have a market, you can have a political rally, whatever”.
This provocative statement allows one to question both the design conditions and the degree of fixity to trigger diversity for such a space, balancing between the emptiness of a field where anything could happen and a rather fixed vessel where nothing can be modified. There is of course a degree of determinacy in the decision making process around any kind of programme one might possibly come up with, which will potentially face a phase of trial and error.
The catastrophes that this scenario foresees in megaform buildings may be caused by violent treatment of their built structures, natural causes of decay, and conditions of over exploitation of their spaces. Whatever the reasons may be, this scenario doesn’t seek hope and prosperity. On the contrary, this speculative scenario applies a kind of optimism and growth to the fall and decline of mega-architectures by deploying a protocol on how megaforms can be reevaluated and treated in the light of their underestimated breadth and width of their spaces of possibilities.
A language of growth and proliferation that may be applied to these forms needs most importantly to acknowledge their given characteristics as specified within the theories of mega mentioned above. Then, the lens offered by a mat reading within a megaform context becomes a logical sequence on how to treat these buildings’ surfaces differently on both a formal and programmatic level thus allowing for ever-changing programmes to emerge, with the curtail aim of avoiding any type of specific use to be attributed to them. Acknowledging the right for ever-changing transformation for these buildings means more to let them be, rather than to tame their existence and natural course of life. So, if one was to intervene sectionionally in a megaform, a set of “surgical” tools would consist of subtracting, voiding, and emptying its mass. Rendering parts of a megaform completely useless would allow space in between to emerge as equally important and as fully functional as the rest of its spaces.
When great disruption within the built form occurs, its primary diagrams of massing, urban orientation, circulation and structure are highly affected by the intervention. Therefore, the relations that the original diagrams used to indicate, no longer exist in the same manner. Spaces generally understood as open and public are to be taken over by a new kind of domesticity, and can be given back repeatedly and prior to any negotiation. The investigation of whether a space is domesticated or not surpasses the question of where for example its private bedrooms may be and what the unit to whole relationship dictates within this context.
On the one hand, it can be demonstrated that the private bedroom is to be rendered outside the norm of the family unit as outlined by the model apartment 1851 engendered by the hierarchy of the family structure. According to this, the private bedroom can exist anywhere provided that everyone agrees with the common knowledge that there can be no room without a view, no matter what its window overlooks. On the other hand, domesticity is to be framed within a reuse framework, as a fully-fixed proposition for the life of megaforms. In other words, if one is to design the megaform anew within its adaptive reuse agenda, that would mean to tame its potential towards a specific programmatic scenario. Normally, to redesign a megaform that has been either underutilized or been abandoned would mean to opt for a fully functional building. Instead, this essay aims to make it possible for different scenarios to emerge, all of which are to blend the boundaries between what one knows about these buildings and what these buildings could possibly be.
One of the variables to be taken for granted when thinking of the afterlife of the structures of this spectrum is that their structural skeleton happens to be the most heavily grounded part of a megaform’s establishment. Its structure imposes a systemic grid that is to be interpreted as an ‘ever-extending’ supporting system, the basis for its various loose and open organizations. Unconstrained by ownership structures and leases, new occupation patterns are to emerge where humans are free to act nomadically in the way they organize themselves. They should be able to move quite easily and make extensive use of the urban furniture presented to them.
Frampton in his theory of megaform makes a distinction between the ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ parts of a building. According to this distinction, he relates the ‘wet’ part of a megaform with the place-form – its most permanent element – and the ‘dry’ part of it with the product-form, its many loose assemblages that are less fixed and more susceptible to change that respond to the specific needs of its character. Then, one may see robotic platforms, shelves and stocking areas pop up as part of the megaform’s finish that add onto its complexity coming from the assemblages attached to it.
Benjamin H. Bratton makes use of the notions of megastructures and utopias in his own work while trying to explain in spatial terms the formation of something that is generally understood as immaterial like planetary-scale computation, from cloud infrastructures to several interfaces. In his work it is not the megastructures themselves that interest him but the megastructural protocol that he makes use of. In his essay on Cloud Megastructures and Platform Utopias, Plug-In City by Archigram is merely seen as a recombinant landscape; Continuous Monuments by Superstudio reflect the massive deployment of transoceanic fiber optics and No-Stop City by Archizoom as the interfacial city without beginning, end, or middle. By looking at several cases that belong to the same spectrum, Bratton makes it possible to see characteristics of megastructures as they have never been seen before while deploying his own theory of megastructures when talking about Amazon or Facebook as a materialization of a cloud polis…
Finally, if we are to accept that we still live in modernity, we need to acknowledge two states, according to Stan Allen. Firstly, the iconic building comes as a celebration of the new condition, and secondly the spatial performance enacts the organizational and social dynamics of modernity. “Modernity has directed its gaze away from the thing itself and toward its constitutive relationships and its position in a contextual field. Today we pay increased attention to the interval – the sequence of parts and the space between things: “[…] architecture’s empty space”. Late modernism has been connected with technological apparatuses and mechanical fantasies, the failure of which is present at the decomposing architectures of mega-building. If we are to apply optimism and growth to the failure of modernism then we can start deploying a language of growth and proliferation to our advantage of this building form currently fading out.
 Tae-Wook Cha and others, ‘Shopping (Harvard Project on the City)’, in Mutations, ed. by Armelle Lavalou (Barcelona: Actar, 2001), pp. 124–83 (p.176)
 Kenneth Frampton, Megaform as Urban Landscape: 1999 Raoul Wallenberg Lecture, ed. by Brian Carter (Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan, A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture + Urban Planning, 1999), p.39.
 Kenneth Frampton, ‘Technoscience and Environmental Culture: A Provisional Critique’, Journal of Architectural Education (1984-), 54.3 (2001), pp. 123–29 (p.127)
 Rem Koolhaas and others, Small, Medium, Large, Extra-Large: Office for Metropolitan Architecture, New edition (Köln: Benedikt Taschen Verlag, 1997), p.942.
 Iryna Volynets, ‘Benjamin Wilke (Ed): Stan Allen: Four Projects’, Nexus Network Journal, 19.2 (2017), 547–54 <https://doi.org/10.1007/s00004-017-0345-9>.
 Stan Allen and Marc McQuade, Landform Building: Architecture’s New Terrain (Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 2011). P.35
 Allen and McQuade. P.256
 Kenneth Frampton,‘Seven Points for the Millennium: An Untimely Manifesto’, in The Journal of Architecture, 5 (2000), pp. 21–33 (p.27)
 Benjamin H. Bratton, ‘Cloud Megastructures and Platform Utopias’, in Entr’acte_Performing Publics, Pervasive Media, and Architecture- Palgrave Macmillan, ed. by Jordan Geiger (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), pp. 35–51 (p.38)
 Allen, p.126.