Future Bronx(es)

As another semester ends and final reviews come to a close, the wealth of creative energy spent in design studios this spring risks becoming confined to student portfolios and never contributing to broader conversations outside the classroom. Our Studio Report series aims to address this intellectual loss by inviting the instructors of design studios with briefs relevant to New York City to share student work here on Urban Omnibus. Below, Michael Chen and Jason Lee, present some of the work from Future Bronx(es), the latest installment of their Crisis Fronts degree project, which probes the mutual influence of public policy and speculative design. For this studio, Chen and Lee, assisted by Justin Snider, encouraged their undergraduate students at the Pratt Institute to think big about the urban prospects of the Bronx. But rather than limiting students to the familiar tropes of designing for underperforming buildings or vacant land in a disinvested and isolated part of the city, the Future Bronx(es) studio takes an optimistic, opportunistic, and urban-scale view of the context at hand, beginning with the collection of new kinds of data that range from density and demographics to food distribution and cultural production. –C.S.

Aqueous Bronx, Katherine Bourke and Rachel Hazes | FEMA’s 2013 Advisory Base Flood Elevation map overlaid on the built fabric of the Bronx and Upper Manhattan illustrates the extent of the city’s territory that is potentially uninsurable without substantial physical transformation. Many properties in these zones are subject to substantial flood insurance premiums unless buildings are elevated or made to resists waves and storm surge.
Aqueous Bronx, Katherine Bourke and Rachel Hazes | FEMA’s 2013 Advisory Base Flood Elevation map overlaid on the built fabric of the Bronx and Upper Manhattan illustrates the extent of the city’s territory that is potentially uninsurable without substantial physical transformation. Many properties in these zones are subject to substantial flood insurance premiums unless buildings are elevated or made to resists waves and storm surge.

The work of our Crisis Fronts degree project (undergraduate thesis level) seminar and studio at Pratt Institute is concerned with the intersection of public policy and speculative design thinking and methodologies. The studio adopts a hacktivist attitude by engaging the wealth of data available about the contemporary city and employing the contemporary tools of analysis, visualization, simulation, and parametric and digital design in the service of producing design scenarios for the near to distant future of the city.

The Spring 2013 studio took on the Bronx as the primary site of exploration, with the understanding that the physical, informational, ecological, and historical context of the city is significant, but also that these contexts are volatile and ever changing.

Architecture is one of the last bastions of generalist and synthetic thinking

The Bronx has no shortage of urban challenges and within New York City it is the borough most closely identified with the shortcomings and the unexpected consequences of previous “solutions” to problems of transportation, housing, poverty, and crime. Though the Bronx, like New York City itself, is too complex and diverse to correspond to a single narrative, a number of the most persistent ones were considered. The proposed Future Bronx(es) engaged many of these contexts:

Opportunity Gulfs: The Bronx consistently lags behind the rest of New York City in terms of education, income, economic growth, and development, and the disparity between affluent and disadvantaged populations has increased in recent decades, as it has in the rest of the nation. This disparity is reflected in terms of economic opportunity, but also in terms of environmental health and social justice. Asthma and obesity are only some of the environmental health and justice issues that disproportionately affect the population in the Bronx.

Logistical Empires: Hunts Point is one of the few readily identifiable hot spots of logistical activity in the Bronx and one of the highest performing regions of growth (economically) in the borough. Much of the food supply of New York City is distributed through Hunts Point, though very little of this food and activity extends to the surrounding neighborhoods themselves.

Infrastructural Archipelagoes: Gaps, fissures, and bypasses characterize the relationship between Bronx neighborhoods and the institutions and infrastructure located there. While the Bronx is home to a number of cultural and research institutions, a wealth of public green space, and infrastructure, as well as highly productive industrial and logistical zones, these infrastructures and institutions are largely oriented toward populations in Manhattan and the rest of the city while often not directly beneficial to the Bronx itself.

Gentrification Machines: The burgeoning gentrification of regions like the Hub and the South Bronx, and the incremental development of parks and green infrastructure along the borough’s formerly uninhabitable industrial waterfront, are slowly transforming pockets of the Bronx. Partly a function of City Planning and the rezoning of the waterfront and previous industrial areas for other uses, housing and other development is replacing a maritime and manufacturing past.

New Ecologies: Ecological pressures and change, an emphasis on waterfront planning, and the legacy of the industrial past in the Bronx’s soil and water present very specific challenges from an environmental health standpoint, as well as from a urban development standpoint.

(C)ulture Industry: The Bronx is the historic site of many forms of cultural production that have traditionally fallen outside of formally recognized cultural enterprises. Movements such as hip hop, graffiti art, and a host of different modes of political resistance emerged in the Bronx. The legacy of the 1970s reflected in the social unrest of the time, the cultural production stemming from the political and economic climate of the ’70s, and subsequent recognition of these movements and practices within mainstream popular culture is a cultural context that should not be ignored.

Architecture is one of the last bastions of generalist and synthetic thinking, and as critics we are extremely interested in the political instrumentality of design and its ability to pose questions and outline unique problems in the way that only design can. The discipline of architecture is also in the midst of paradigm-shifting change. Thinking about the social, technological, and environmental life of cities that has long been accepted as an important element within the province of planners and landscape architects is newly resurgent within architecture and is both expanding the bounds of architectural thinking and transforming the way that architecture is conceived of as a discipline. At the same time, the tools and techniques of digital design, which have done so much to expand the repertoire and augment the agency of designers — especially young designers — are already in the process of transforming the manner in which architecture is practiced, its formal expression, its relationship to information, and its methods of production.

The aim of the studio is to leverage this disciplinary transformation, along with the inherently forward-thinking dimensions of digital design methodologies, and the politically and ecologically speculative dimensions of what we might think of as a renewed socio-environmentalist strain within contemporary thinking about the city, as a means to engage its possible futures. New methods for design are frequently either trapped in an inward-looking discourse or employed in service to a prevailing orthodoxy rather than being leveraged for their potential to engage real and pressing issues that confront contemporary cities. Perhaps the most critical dimension of the studio’s work is the degree to which this renewed socio-environmentalism is reflected, not in a new sobriety or new orthodoxy hardening around the reflexive responses to crisis, but in an enduring optimism about the city and a commitment to architecture as a deeply speculative as well as a material enterprise.

The projects and research efforts of the studio are sympathetic to the larger disciplinary realignment within schools of architecture attempting to diversify the scope of architectural thinking and working methods to encompass urban environments in their broadest sense. This has certainly been aided by digital methods of visualization, analysis, and design that have afforded both a finer and a more comprehensive view of the city as an environment and have made those factors more visible and actionable. The aim of the studio however, is to encourage slippage between visualization, simulation, and speculation as a way to engage in meaningful thinking about the future of the city in an information-rich but also conceptually rich way.

Genuine public policy and speculative design are not as far apart as we once might have thought. Consider Governor Andrew Cuomo’s $400 million post-Sandy coastal buyback program, which proposes to return some of the land that “Mother Nature owns” to the sea. Transformational shifts such as these are reflective of an almost uncanny hyper-pragmatism that is in many ways stranger than the most radical of proposals dreamed up by architects, mostly because they are true. In an era when New York City anticipates growing in population by over a million residents in the next fifteen years, the notion that urban “retreat” is codified as an urban design strategy is an ontologically transformative moment, arguably the first moment that the city’s footprint has ever contracted affirmatively and by design as opposed to entropy.

Like the city itself, information about the city is live and ever changing. To acknowledge this is to recognize an inherently unstable and uneasy relationship between complex problems and singular solutions, but also to acknowledge a slippery relationship between data and information, and between fact and fiction. Concerned as we are with offering productive and rigorous scenarios for the future, the changing nature of the city is both a site and a moving target.

Images courtesy of Michael Chen, Jason Lee, and the students of the Future Bronx(es) studio.
Images courtesy of Michael Chen, Jason Lee, and the students of the Future Bronx(es) studio.

Jason Lee is a founding partner of tentwenty, a design studio in New York City. The studioʼs inquiry engages a variety of scales from exhibition installations, branding strategies, to public space and architectural master plans. Jason is the assistant chair of the undergraduate architecture department at Pratt Instituteʼs School of Architecture. In addition to his administrative role, Jason coordinates the media and representation sequence. Jason is a graduate of the School of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley and the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University, where he was the recipient of a William Kinne fellows traveling prize.

Michael Chen is principal of Normal Projects, an architecture and design firm based in New York City. The office’s work and research have been exhibited and published in the United States and internationally. Normal Projects’ ongoing Signal Space project exploring the contemporary and historical relationship between urban form and antennas was featured in the United States Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale of Architecture where the office exhibited a map of the 12,000+ mobile phone antennas in New York City. Michael’s writings have appeared recently in Bracket [Goes Soft], MAS Context, and Urban Omnibus. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley (AB) and Columbia (MArch) where he was the recipient of a Kinne traveling fellowship and the Lowenfish award for design excellence. He is the recipient of grants for independent research from the Graham Foundation, Pratt Institute, and the Van Alen Institute, and in 2003-2004 was the John Dinkeloo Fellow at the American Academy in Rome.


Michael Chen and Jason Lee co-direct Crisis Fronts, a research seminar and design studio that explores the intersection of public policy and speculative design strategies and methods. The work of the studio has also been exhibited and presented internationally, including at the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Biennale of Architecture in 2009, and at numerous academic conferences and events. In 2011 and 2012, the studio was one of twelve contributing to the Culture Now Project an initiative curated by Thom Mayne addressing the design futures of struggling mid-sized American cities. The studioʼs effort culminated in a symposium and exhibition in 2012 that included projects from Columbia, Harvard, Kentucky, MIT, Penn, Princeton, Rice, RPI, and UCLA.

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


Studio Reports

Student research and propositions from design studios with real-world implications.