Urban Topographies: Cuts & Patches

Linda Pollak is an architect, landscape designer and educator. Along with partner Sandro Marpillero, she is a principal of Marpillero Pollak Architects, whose work Omnibus readers will remember from this discussion about Queens Plaza and this podcast about the Whitestone Branch of the Queens Public Library. She is also an indefatigable observer and documenter of the urban environment at a wide variety of scales. Her investigations into mysterious carvings in the granite sidewalks of Lower Manhattan have much to teach us about the ways natural forces determine urban form. They also have yielded photographic imagery that is visually arresting on its own. I happened to glance at one of these images in Linda’s office last winter, and immediately afterward I started seeing the “cuts and patches” they depict everywhere I went. Turns out many of them are coal chute covers, relics of a different era of energy infrastructure in formerly industrial neighborhoods like SoHo or TriBeCa. But perhaps more fascinating than their original use is the way they testify to the diversity of granular elements that make up the urban environment. While you look around and marvel at the city, don’t forget, every now and again, to look down. -C.S. 


Cuts - Water

Urban Omnibus: Tell me about these images.

Linda Pollak: For a long time, in research and practice, I have been focusing on what I call constructed ground. This focus enables inclusion of living systems in my research and design work without segregating them into an exclusive domain of “nature.” The idea of constructed ground registers the fact that the ground of any site is not background; it isn’t flat; it isn’t a tabula rasa — it is always already constructed.

Some of the specific thinking behind these images emerged in 2004, when I was fortunate to be in Rome as a Fellow at the American Academy. My project, which initially focused on individual palazzos and villas, had to do with interrelationships of geometry and topography in architecture. I also began to look at these interrelationships at a more granular scale, focusing on infrastructure rather than buildings. I took hundreds of photographs of the remarkable drains and channels in streets and courtyards, which speak to the role stormwater can play in shaping urban space.

It’s archaeology without physical excavation: the cuts and patches register different eras of construction and settlement, the movement of water, the movement of pedestrians.When I returned from Rome, initially I felt as if there wasn’t much to photograph in New York City. A few years ago, I was struck by the way in which what seemed to be defunct small manhole covers were fit into granite sidewalks in downtown Manhattan. Without knowing their function or name, I called them “cuts and patches,” in reference to their shared properties: a hole cut into pavement, with a patch over it. What interested me about these artifacts was the narrow channel incised in the paving, which acknowledged, framed, and situated the hole, articulating it as more than a casual disruption in the ground. The outline of the channel varies: some are like teardrops or balloons or hair-do’s, some like little pitched roofs, some like targets. Some float in the middle of the sidewalk, others reach the curb. Some are amazing, with a lightness of spirit that is not usually associated with infrastructure.

These images make tangible not only the fact that the ground is constructed, but also the particularity and diversity of urban places, including the fact that, in some previously industrial areas of the city, the ground is hollow, with vault spaces of the buildings beneath the public sidewalk.

UO: When you speak of the ground as something constructed, I feel like you are also talking about how diverse urban elements perform in response to various forces at play in the urban landscape. Tell me about your interest in forces and performance and those infrastructures that engage, acknowledge, amplify or resist forces.

LP: I think that performance and forces are both terminologies that have to do with how something works or what something does. All of these carved channels are working to do the same thing: to divert water away from a hole. While the function of the hole itself is no longer necessary, the channel around the hole continues to direct the movement of stormwater running across the sidewalk to the street.

As traces, these cuts and patches allow us to perceive physical and social dynamics of an urban site over time. Looking at them together, they are like a kind of archaeology without physical excavation: they register different eras of construction and settlement, the movement of water, the movement of pedestrians.

Cuts and Patches - Sculptural

UO: What other studies have you done along these lines?

LP: While working on the Queens Plaza project, I was impressed by the monumentality of the steel curbs. I began photographing these curbs in different parts of New York City, seeing how they were formed and installed. My interest in curbs relates to my research into boundaries as places of encounter, where two or more things come together, with different possibilities for mediation or engagement.

If you think exclusively in architectural terms, a joint between two things – for example, a sidewalk or a curb – is something you need to fill, to make watertight, in order to restore the integrity of the surface as a single, solid, built thing. But if you think beyond architecture, it is possible to consider this joint as a space in which something can happen: a dynamic interface between constructed and living systems, between pedestrian and vehicular space. Once you understand that boundaries can operate as transformative locations, there is an opportunity to look at all of this coming together not only defensively, in support of conventional maintenance, but also to think how to reinvent it, in support of a longer-range sustainability. Ecologists have shown us that processes of disturbance—events that significantly disrupt the structure or function of a system– are fundamental to natural systems.

As a designer, the more you can make sense of the diversity of the physical environment, the more chance you have to enable others to make new sense of it.The urban topographies—the cuts and patches shown here, the curbs, and others, are part of what I call the Atlas of Invisible Places, a project I am working on with Nancy Levinson for Places. Versions of the cuts and patches and curbs matrices also appeared in Ecological Urbanism, a new book edited by Mohsen Mostafavi and Gareth Doherty, which engages and frames some of the issues we are discussing here.

UO: The inherent tension in the imagery, I think, is between pattern and uniqueness. How does analytical observation of pattern and uniqueness inform your own process as a designer? What other benefits does this type of observation and this type of representation of systems, patterns and forces offer to designers?

LP: For a designer, everyday spaces constitute materials. When you alter a site you make sense of these materials in new ways. Looking at urban space at the granular scale and finding beauty in the overlooked supports this kind of design process. Making inventories or sampling reminds us that the visual patterns that we can observe in the existing conditions of a site are the registration or traces of processes. These processes, whether environmental or social or both, are part of systems. Studying the patterns of water flows that are part of a hydrological system is a step towards integration of these flows in a design solution that builds upon dynamic relationships between systems.

To understand a site in relation to the multiple processes that affect it requires pulling these processes apart. In undertaking this kind of analysis, the matrix format of these images allows us to identify significant variations between different instances of an artifact while sustaining enough consistency for the artifact in question to be legible as a type. In the context of a design project, in combination with other forms of representation, this kind of inventory makes it possible to portray processes in a site that you couldn’t describe through any single means.

Cuts and Patches - Artifact

UO: It’s kind of like making your own pattern book.

LP: In a way, yes. Looking closely at things like curbs or tree pits or sidewalk sheds reveals a kind of urban bricolage: countless inventions to accommodate countless specificities. As a designer, the more you can make sense of the overwhelming diversity of the physical environment, the more chance you have to enable others to make new sense of it.

A fine-grained understanding of the conditions of a place makes it possible to design and make something at the scale of, say, a tree pit or a channel for storm water runoff that also contributes to a successful social space. We have such a long way to go in terms of making cities sustainable. We don’t know yet how or if we are going to get there, or what that “there” would look like. But we can be sure it will require an integrated approach to an infrastructure of everyday space that includes nature.

An integrated approach to diverse urban components and systems—stormwater, vegetation, movement, social spaces– makes it possible to construct environments that are consistent and memorable and operative and economical. We need to be able to understand relationships between phenomena in order to build productive frameworks that engage and support those phenomena, in spaces that enable interaction of social and environmental processes.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Stephen Goldsmith July 21, 2010

As usual Linda’s vision adds life and light to the little moments that create the big frame of our days. Thank you, thank you!

Georgia July 22, 2010

We walk through SoHo several times a week and will look out for the former coal chutes. We’ve noticed the vaulted sidewalks. http://www.humanflowerproject.com/index.php/weblog/mercer_street_could_be_cooler/

Holly Brubach July 24, 2010

I’ll be walking down the street with Linda, engrossed in conversation or my anxieties or the pedestrian traffic, when suddenly she pulls out a camera and takes a picture of a patch of sidewalk–it took a few times until I finally realized she was photographing A DRAIN. It’s one of the running themes of our friendship, our perpetual efforts to see more. Linda has made me see and appreciate what I’d never noticed. Thanks, Linda! It’s wonderful to see these images posted here, made public, presented in sequence, like urban hieroglyphs.

Belinda April 27, 2011

Thank you for revealing what these carvings were originally intended for, Linda! I’ve noticed them on my walk to work every day and have been wondering what they were. They are beautiful in their practicality, design and legibility. Do you know what each shape represents or codes?

Linda Pollak May 10, 2011

hi belinda,
i think that the different shapes are signatures.

Tom Heffernan August 3, 2011

Hi Linda,

Some time ago you led a design studio you called “figuring ground”. I regularly think back on what I learned that semester and it’s great to see you’re still working with the same subject.