Urbanism: From Thin to Thick

Apr. 12, 2008
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Ever heard of the terms “Thin Urbanism” or “Thick Urbanism”? They were used by Sarah Dunn, one half of the husband and wife UrbanLab architecture team based in Chicago, when she came to deliver a lecture to students at UW-Milwaukee’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning on Friday afternoon. She began her lecture by introducing the idea of thin and thick urbanism in terms that, apart from being vague, were rather suggestive. With the use of cipher-like parti drawings of past projects she attempted to relay her transition from thinner to thicker design.

The first project she described was for the facade of a tourism office. It dealt quite particularly with surfaces – which I assume represents thin urbanism - taking an approach that was as research-driven as it was context-driven. After mapping the paths of wandering tourists and their lines and fields of visions UrbanLab generated a rippled and changeable skin for the building. The second project she introduced still entailed quite subtle manipulations of surface, this time a plaza for the Museum of Contemporary Art (an unsolicited project she cheekily assured her audience). In this case parts of the program were drawn from the inside of the building to the outside – suggesting a “thicker” approach than the previous project. The next was a competition entry for an environmental center for a site bounded by industrial wasteland and marsh – an interesting interface between environment and industry. She and her husband looked at ways in which to use the site as a water cleaning system – essentially using this idea to generate what appeared a very gentle design making especially creative use of an earth roof that modulates in thickness, swooping all the way to the ground in some places or gently dipping in others to hold shallow bodies of water.


The residential projects the couple have worked on show an overriding emphasis placed on generous vistas which often render the appearance of the building as secondary concerns, deliberately austere. A project for a museum in Korea, meanwhile, emphasized the solidity coupled with permeability that seems to underlie UrbanLab’s designs.


However, its projects that work within the wider urban fabric that generated most interest in the audience, especially another competition entry to address future water shortages in Chicago. The team has designed a method for recycling water and reversing the flow of that water back into Lake Michigan. They propose to do so by incorporating finger parksor “eco-boulevards” every few blocks along the city’s east-west thoroughfares, the western end of each is punctuated by a cylindrical water cleaning tower. Each time a developer along those selected routes buys land he would be responsible for developing a piece of that eco boulevard, so that it would grow in increments as the city redevelops gradually over the course of decades.

It’s an appealing idea. Imagine glorious shit-stacks punctuating the skyline of Chicago(perhaps they’d fire up the romantic imagination of visitors as the grain silos once did!). What is reiterated in UrbanLab’s work is the idea of permeability, of weaving spaces via vistas or parks or bodies of water. Added to that is the idea of individuals “curating” patches of public land.


This in a sense suggests what thick urbanism might mean; an attitude to city planning that doesn’t bear a rectilinear or symmetrical stamp that urbanism has enjoyed in the past but one that calls for deepening the roots of the site so that it isn’t just a plan imposed on a site but is drawn from it, teased out of the fiber of which the area is fashioned. Public spaces often alienate the public that is meant to revel in them because they bear no relation to what any inhabitants of surrounding areas would like to see take form in that site. That idea of individual stewardship over areas of the city is an inviting one.


However the idea of thin urbanism is not one we can discount. In an increasingly visual and dense culture where each surface screams for attentions; sometimes a thin sliver of surface is all you have to work with . There’s no getting around it; our culture promotes thin urbanism. Perhaps we just need to focus on avoiding the dilution of ideas; of making the thin feel thicker.



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