Thursday, September 25, 2008

Mitchell Joachim: Redesign Cities From Scratch

By Tom Vanderbilt  09.22.08
Photo: Bruce Gilden

Dressed in architect black and sporting dreadlocks,Mitchell Joachim isn't your average Whole Foods envirogeek. For one thing, he speaks in an intense staccato punctuated with words like peristaltic and epiphetic. And don't get him started on sustainability. "I don't like the term," he says. "It's not evocative enough. You don't want your marriage to be sustainable. You want to be evolving, nurturing, learning." Efficiency doesn't cut it, either: "It just means less bad." Even zero emissions falls short. "This table does zero damage," he says, thumping the one in his office. "No VOCs, no carbons. Whatever. It doesn't do anything positive."

Joachim spent a decade working with architect Michael Sorkin, followed by a short spell with Frank Gehry. He now teaches at Columbia University and is a partner at Terreform 1, a nonprofit focused on ecological design. A kind of Frederick Law Olmsted for the 21st century, he spends most of his time thinking about how to reduce the ecological footprint of cities. It's not a short-term project. "It took 15 to 20 years to get a hybrid car," he says. "To change the basic paradigm for how we make buildings, 40 to 50 years. To change a city? That's 100 to 150 years." If the next president is smart, he'll want to get started sooner rather than later.

At the top of the agenda, Joachim says, is mobility and its inefficiencies. Citing US Department of Energy statistics, he says that while 29 percent of the nation's energy expenditure--what he calls "the suck"--now goes toward getting around, "in 50 years that will double." Among the biggest sources of waste, he argues, is the automobile--not only in energy but in the space it occupies (cars, he notes, spend more than 90 percent of the day parked). For nearly a century, Joachim says, "cities have been designed around cars. Why not design a car around a city?" So he did just that. One of his concept vehicles, the City Car , was named to Time magazine's Inventions of the Year list in 2007.

His various cars would be less machine than Facebook on wheels. Instead of rpm gauges, there'd be social networking software telling drivers where their friends are and how to get there. Made from neoprene and other soft materials, cars would no longer suffer traffic-fouling fender benders, merely what he calls "gentle congestion"--picture a flock of urban sheep grazing against one other. Like Zipcar vehicles, the cars would be shared. They would "read" potholes and send warnings to nearby drivers and city repair crews. Urban parking would be eased by intelligent real-time supply and demand management, with people bidding remotely for available spots. Of course, there'd also be more spaces to begin with, since his cars could be folded and stacked like shopping carts. The average New York City block could handle 880 of the vehicles, he says.

In this vision of downtown Atlanta (based on Joachim's renderings), the city is transformed by wind power and flooded parking lots. 
Illustration by Christoph Nieman

For Joachim, reinventing the city doesn't stop at the curb; he's been reimagining just about every part of the modern urban landscape. To help cool Atlanta, Joachim suggests flooding an area of the city now filled with parking lots to create a "munificent pool"--a large pond filled with fish, plants, and algae, surrounded by trees. It would counteract the urban "heat island" effect and process gray water and sewage. The waterworks would be powered by wind turbines.

Some of Joachim's ideas are more conceptual than practical: His vision for the future of New York City includes airborne public transit. He imagines low-hung blimps tethered to buildings, moving through the city 24/7. They would function like a ski lift, and commuters could hop on and off with relative ease. "We put the funk in functionalism," he says.

Architecture needs radical reengineering, too, and Joachim envisions a retro-futurist alternative for home building: "Let's grow it onsite." That's the concept behind his Fab Tree Hab, currently on view at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Rather than cutting down a tree and transporting it from forest to mill to lumber-yard to building site, the house is the tree. It's the ancient art of "pleaching"--training and joining plants to create structures--with a 21st-century twist, using milling software to achieve precise geometries. "You can pregrow a village with no consequence on the land," he says. "In fact, with a positive carbon contribution."

Or why not build cities out of garbage? Joachim notes that if you could somehow convert waste into construction material, you could make another Empire State Building out of what New Yorkers throw away in two weeks. There's enough trash in the city's , he says, to "remake Manhattan island seven times at full scale." That this sounds a bit like a recent Pixar release in which a robot builds towers of unrecycled trash isn't lost on Joachim, who recently gave a talk at Disney on making its theme parks greener. Wall-E destroyed a lot of my visions," he says. "They really did it so well." Not to worry: There's always room for another visionary in Tomorrowland.

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