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An Elevator Company's Challenge for Architects and Urbanists

Utopia. an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect. The word was first used in the bookUtopia (1516) by Sir Thomas More.

Even though urban life has globally become the predominant form of existence, the hunger for an urban Utopia, for an all different city in which all is perfect, has lost its luster. Too often has this been tried and failed, too often the results were mediocre or so far from "perfect" that the term has become a mockery. Architects such as Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright developed Utopian models, so did the landscape architect Ebenizer Howard and the entrepreneur Pullman. Architects like to quote Daniel Burnham that one should make "no small plans".  But the time when powerful or creative white men could cast a mold for others to adjust to has passed. 

Floating City: Utopia?

This article will show how a global manufacturer of vertical transportation agrees and disagrees with that conclusion.

Not Utopia but pragmatic small steps, sustainability and resilience, in short, incremental progress is today's preferred model, even though urbanization  occurs at such a rapid clip, especially in emerging economies, that incrementalism seems inadequate where entire metropolises spring up within a decade. But instead of boosting Utopian aspiration, the sheer size, the speed of growth and the complexity of cities has become a deterrent for any attempt of achieving perfection.

Who should define "perfect"?  Who should conceive and who implement an Utopian plan at a time when


cultures, values and ideas mingle freely. One's Utopia is the other one's nightmare. One of the purposes of cities is to allow and enable the collision of cultures and ideas; forcing them all into the mold of a particular  perfection would be antithetical and stifle a city instead of making it flourish.

Frank Loyd Wrights Ideal City: Broadacre 


This shouldn't be an argument against planning, though. Some cities became just like their plan: Washington DC looks a lot like L'Enfant's plan, and it worked pretty well through times of rapidly changing values and demographics. Chandigarh looks like Corbusier's plan. Stapleton, Kentlands, Columbia and Reston are more recent examples of masterplans that have been followed to completion. That doesn't make any of the places Utopian but only shows that, properly done, a masterplan layout can be a good "scaffold" for a city to thrive.

But couldn't plans be a bit more ambitious? A Swiss elevator company certainly thinks so.

Where strong authoritarian governments are in place as in the Arab Emirates or in China cities like Dubai, they follow a central plan and are imposed from above. Where governance is weak, as in parts of South America or Africa, self organization brings about the structures of emergence which some architects have discovered as Utopian (or dystopian) models for their own thinking.

Complexity and contradiction, no doubt, have increased dramatically since DC's L'Enfant, Chicago's Burnham or even Philadelphia's Bacon. Architects now realize that urbanism isn't only about physical form but also, or even more so, about social structure, economics, technology and transport. These are fields in which neither architects nor planners are trained.  Disruptive and frequently unpredictable quantum leaps of change often spring from precisely those areas. The elevator was one of those technological advances, the liberation of women a social advance that the male Utopian models had mostly ignored, the civil rights movement was never reflected in Futurama. Global migration, trade and assembly-line of production were economic changes that influenced cities as will the onset of the sharing economy. 
Hanging buildings in the Imax

Environmental degradation, lack of water and climate change will dictate new urban paradigms to an even larger extent than any of the noted factors ever did. The environmental shifts, in turn, will have physical, social and economical implications. As a result even the search for a solid and functional "scaffold" may prove elusive. Even though, urbanists and planners cannot simply put their hands in their laps. Through interdisciplinary collaboration, research and a broad knowledge base they need to strive for concepts that stay ahead of the problems, anticipate the challenges and provide a framework in which a diversity of cultures and peoples can persist and provide a decent living in spite of adverse conditions. Why would a Swiss doctor turned electrical engineer participate in conferences about the future?

The recent national AIA convention in Philadelphia, then, was an appropriate occasion to ask how the future city will manifest itself and challenge the notion that the future can be a mere incremental extrapolation of current trends. It was [ ] telling that the question was most pointedly posed by a vendor and an engineer and not a planner or architect.

The question was raised in the unlikely cacophony of the bazaar-like exhibit floor that inevitably accompanies conventions. Here on the floor where vendors of the construction and building industries hawk their products and provide continued education in sometimes thinly veiled sales pitches, deeper thoughts rarely reside. 
The shelf: Sloping streets, parks

And yet: One vendor decided to challenge the architects milling about on the exhibit floor: the Swiss elevator company Schindler. They carefully wrapped the provocation into an elaborate multi-part presentation in a rear corner of the hall, allowing them the placement of a over 7,000 sf tent city in which to hide a row of "rooms" formed by black cloth allowing a sequence of elaborate projection surfaces including an IMAX show. Schindler called it their immersive dome theater showroom  In parts one through three of the hour-long high tech visual demonstration the vertical transportation experts predictably explained and sold their ware. In this case a new mid rise elevator that didn't seem to be all that revolutionary in spite of bombastic words that promised to "change everything".

But hidden into the mundane elevator product itself is the Schindler patented so-called PORT (Personal Occupant Requirement Terminal) technology which, indeed, is a revolution in the way elevators operate in large buildings. "Standard elevators are like airplanes where you board and then the pilot asks where you want to fly" said the engineer of Schindler's Port system Dr. Paul Friedli to me in a chat after the presentation. Friedli, originally trained as a physician, is head of Advanced research at Schindler and participates in talks about innovation and transportation, including with the auto industry. (Video). In the new elevator dispatch approach, which is now widely in use across the globe, the dispatch of elevator cars are optimized based on a central demand input collecting several destinations. PORT technology reduces the core size because the efficiency of bundling desitnations results in fewer cars being able to bring folks to their floors. The method is well established and the fact that Schindler now offers a smart phone app that can replace the manual destination input isn't an earth shaking or disruptive change.

What could be revolutionary, is the obvious potential of the algorithms of vertical transportation for horizontal transit and even for autonomous vehicles (Audi article). Applicable to campus shuttles, circulators and entire urban bus systems, making actual demand the base for dispatch would result in a smaller fleet of transit vehicles that could provide a much more efficient service than the fixed schedule service model that has been around for centuries. 
Torre David: Glorified misery

The PORT technology presentation was still part of the sales pitch and not the challenge. The novel provocation of the architect came at only at the last step of Schindler's presentation extravaganza. Placed in the IMAX theater, where spectators easily lose their footing, no matter what is shown, the talk was no further about elevators. Instead Friedli, who had emerged during the PORT presentation like a magician, introduced as the last part of the presentation a film which was extremely critical about the non-sustainability and unpleasantness of current urban development patterns and architecture. The critique, presented with the immediacy and urgency of the 3D screen, was clearly aimed at the profession which constituted the audience. The concrete jungles of mega cities, the isolation of residents and workers, the land consumption, the traffic nightmares, the top down approach where large investors offer a finished product, the ever increasing slums, all this was shown in 3D as a design problem with the withering conclusion that the prevailing type of design was not centered on people but money. 
Torre David: Self organized  vertical slum

Schindler had sponsored research on Caracas' famous Torre David in which favela residents had taken over an abandoned, unfinished 45 story condo tower and occupied the first 28 floors ( the highest they felt they could go without an elevator). One of the findings of this model of self organization was that the absence of elevators fostered community in the building. People met each other. A startling insight coming from an elevator company! 

This insight informed the concept of the first new urban living model in the film, "the urban shelf".  Essentially a midrise armature of slopes not unlike a Bjarke Ingels structure but instead of being completed it would remain unfinished for user controlled completion. The shelf is a raw flexible "scaffold" like a shipwreck becomes the home for a coral reef. The shelf gets completed over time and allows the same variety of uses from apartments to gardens and from offices to shops that had been found in the Caracas tower. The older Buckminster Fuller idea of hanging buildings ("inverted tower, inverted pyramid") that save valuable ground space and allow storm water infiltration and other such drastic departures from standard building construction were beautifully rendered in the 3-D fly-trough as well.
Paul Friedli: Schindler's futurist
The beauty of these Utopian models as presented by Schindler is that they are not encompassing an entire city but represent interventions on the block or neighborhood level. 
Indeed, in this stomach-churning 3-D flight through the future the various options were depicted as collages in front of the backdrop of mountains that could be somewhere in Arizona. The Swiss, of course, are no need of any Utopia or innovative city. They have long realized their urban perfection in a decidedly old fashion: walkable, clean, plenty of mom and pop retail, streetcars, trains and bicycles, immaculate parks and conservatively dressed Swiss people eating cake in the afternoon on the sidewalk in front of a cafe. Diversity as frosting on the cake. Therefore, Schindler wasn't entirely credible with their city of tomorrow, inspiring as it was.

Still, the Schindler show did ask the right questions. For example, what to do with a trend in which half the global population is expected to live in slums by 2050? (Friedli: "They have 24 hours a day to think about how they can live like you", suggesting not too subtly major unrest and upheaval unless the dystopian slum future can be averted).  How can the building footprint be reduced? How can large green spaces be inserted into cities? Can vertical and horizontal transportation merge? How can users be engaged and most importantly, how can people become happy and less isolated? A bit too tangential was the question of resilience against disaster.

The suggested solutions were radical enough to shake things up, while being small enough in scale to be immersable into existing urban systems. They addressed physical, social and environmental aspects including earthquakes, tsunamis and water shortage. Foremost, they would allow different people and cultures to flesh the ideas out in their own way. The ideas included in the Schindler film were truly scaffolds, armatures and frameworks from where all kinds of forms of living together could emerge. They were like green walls in which plants can grow, except in these concepts the plants were the people.
The Schindler City in the IMAX

Even though the architects in the audience were placated with a sandwich and a pack of Swiss chocolate after the credits of the movie rolled, it was obvious that this commercial vendor had taken them beyond their comfort zone and far beyond the timid innovations of all the other exhibitors; probably also further than most of the professional presentations and panels of peers that make up the bulk of the convention. 

Only Neri Oxman of MIT expanded even further beyond our standard roam of thinking with her talk about bio architecture. Bio-mimicry, though could be seen as a natural extension of the structural models Mr Friedli had suggested. Her presentation almost got back to Utopia.

Even though the elevator vendor didn't say so, in a way their future was one of a very different way of getting around. But what informed those rendered future wasn't simply a futuristic mode like those helicopters  that decorated obsolete Utopias of the past, it was the new paradigm of people responsiveness that permeated the entire presentation. Not a bad paradigm, one that may actually last beyond the next world expo.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA 

Related article on this blog:
The History of the Future

Schindler Film
Ten failed Utopian City