Over the past two years, I had the pleasure of working on a speculative exhibition titled “The Horizontal Metropolis: A Radical Project,” which was included in the 2016 Venice Biennale. An extension of a studio taught by Paola Viganò at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, this exhibition examined what Benton MacKaye described as ‘The Middle… Read more »
Over the past two years, I had the pleasure of working on a speculative exhibition titled “The Horizontal Metropolis: A Radical Project,” which was included in the 2016 Venice Biennale. An extension of a studio taught by Paola Viganò at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, this exhibition examined what Benton MacKaye described as ‘The Middle Ground,’ or, those periurban places that occupy the margins of metropolitan centers. The central argument of the exhibition is that suburbia will become central, rather than peripheral, in dealing with forthcoming urban issues such as housing shortages, projected levels of storm surge and drought, obsolete transit infrastructure, and post-industrial contamination. This is position is radical because it argues that peripheral urban settlements are crucial components of metropolitan centers; therefore, it is in these areas that infrastructural progress should be made rather than solely the metropolitan center.
Case studies from Switzerland, China, Italy, and North America were used to test interdisciplinary design strategies for tackling the issues unique to each site and its cultural narrative. The site for North America was Framingham, Massachusetts—a bedroom town located 25 miles west of Boston, whose major claim to fame is Shopper’s World, the first shopping mall in America. With just a small historic New England town center, Framingham consists primarily of 1950s Campanelli ranch-style houses and contains some of the most contaminated water infrastructure in the state.
After conducting interviews with local residents, taking a precarious bike tour through the car-dominated streets, and meeting with local town officials, some key issues emerged. After the great recession in 2008, many college-aged students, young families, and elderly had to move in with their families—building additions onto their ranch homes and redefining what the traditional nuclear family means in contemporary America. Rivers and reservoirs running through Framingham have been contaminated with post-industrial tanning waste. This contamination has permeated into the drinking water, caused higher rates of cancer, and created huge voids in the urban fabric as boating and fishing are no longer permitted in the majority of the water bodies. Abandoned aqueduct corridors run through backyards buffered by abandoned lumber forests. The car is still the primary means of transportation and the majority of those who were interviewed commuted to Boston or Worcester for work.
Utilizing Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City as a reference, and specifically a two–by-two-mile module, the studio viewed Framingham’s issues as prime opportunities for transforming suburban life in America. The comprehensive design suggested that aqueducts be used as productive agricultural land, plots for agro forestry, and social infrastructure such as bike trails. Riparian filtration buffers and phytoremediation forests were recommended along waterways, revealing to residents areas where groundwater is contaminated, cleaning the contaminated water over time, and creating a sponge that filters heightened runoff levels and flood events given intensified storm surge. Residential parcels, which are on average an acre in size in Framingham, would be sub-divided and occupied with smaller homes that match the scale of Framingham.
While it might seem a grandiose endeavor, the test is meant to show that urban-scale transformation can result from the accumulation of smaller design shifts. Ultimately, exhibitions like this are not only important in generating forums for open discussion on pressing urban issues, but also in allowing designers to reflect on what real, tangible projects can emerge from this discussion and what projects can help address these issues.
Phoebe White is a designer in SWA’s Sausalito studio. Click for more information on the Horizontal Metropolis Exhibition.