The Supurban Project

March 7, 2011

Designer Nick Axel looks at the city of Phoenix and proposes in his thesis a sprawling form superimposed over its landscape. A juxtaposing of distinct spatial ecologies that engenders a dynamic landscape of differentiation and localization.


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© Nick Axel.

Our surroundings result from specific techniques to organize networks of people, goods, flows, and services. The urban plan attempts to orchestrate these systems into economically sustainable spatial practices. The American suburb, established as an alterity to the industrial city, was founded and marketed on existential conceptions of subjectivity. Acting as an ideological framework for the creation of identity, it represents the first explicit modeling of a social network. Working dialectically, the suburb’s efficacy was consequentially negated as it propagated the American landscape; its difference dissipated. As a typical 20th century city, Phoenix, Arizona developed largely on standardized suburban prototypes that are inevitably made obsolete by newer peripheral developments. Atrophy has become an affliction, with vacant land and degenerating fabric. The network is crumbling from the inside out.

This thesis revolutionizes the aberrant form of the contemporary city to reinstate the existential potential of the (sub)urban realm now lost. Patterns inherent to the suburb are polemically redeployed in the prototypical first-ring suburb of Garfield using a radical strategy of “homogeneity + homogeneity = heterogeneity”. Subverting the suburban morphologies’ logics, a sprawling form is superimposed over the landscape; a continuous infrastructural and programmatic network reifies their symbiotic relationship. Juxtaposing these distinct spatial ecologies engenders a dynamic landscape of differentiation and localization, producing a context to reterritorialize the urban subject.

The suburb has developed into a highly idiomatic form; Phoenix provides a literal historical narrative if one was to take an entire cross section of the city. Developed almost solely on the principles of homogenous zoning and sprawl, Phoenix is the least dense city in the world with a population of over 1 million people. The first ring suburb of Garfield, located to the northwest of downtown, has had a complex local evolution over the past 80 years; the premier luxury commuter suburb once connected to downtown via railcar now is predominantly populated by a low-income immigrant demographic that is currently undergoing gentrification by scientific research, technology and higher education. Organized within the notorious 1 mile square grid of Phoenix, it is rigidly subdivided into a serial pattern of 50 feet x 150 feet individual properties zoned for single family residences. This grid lays the framework which every other system such as power, water, circulation, zoning, community, and family operates on. This complex amalgamation of history, urbanism, and culture has produced a downright freakology and results in a highly varied treatment and use of the built landscape. By walking around the neighborhood, one gets the almost-haunting sensation that the territory feels empty.

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Suburban development of Phoenix. © Nick Axel.

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Suburban development of Phoenix. © Nick Axel.

Aside from the fact that Phoenix is a city built in the middle of a desert, this feeling of emptiness is further confirmed by the fact that approximately 10% of all lots sit either vacant or foreclosed. Here, one can watch the desert start to take back its land. Lawns and fences often stand neglected, and in rare cases there are sparse patches of grass. Often times, what happens in one lot is either ignored or disregarded by its neighbors. As they seemingly turn their eye to the visible signs and spaces of degeneration, these locations act as a starting point; a node within the network; a place of entry into another suburb. By prescribing all propositions to be located on vacant land within the existing context, a synthetic symbiosis can emerge with dynamic interrelationships and consequences. Atrophy as a condition is an inevitable result, symptomatic to fundamental suburban characteristics of development and habitation.

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Network of potential spatial relationships. © Nick Axel.

Through a gesture of abstraction, vacant and abandoned lots are isolated from their urban structure in order to negate its form, an act of liberation that provides the opportunity to create something truly different, and maybe even new. Continuing this dialectic, the relationship between each of the sites is mapped, revealing a network of potential spatial relations. Proximity between nodes is emphasized as a fundamental element for creating a new community established on the social propensity of the built environment.

Once the preliminary network is established, additional performative metrics are incorporated that inform the methods of structuring it and creating an architecture. Nodes are analyzed for their intensity and their relative direction towards each other, resulting in a single vector for each site. Less distance between two locations provides an opportunity for greater density, as well as the potential for structural optimization. Each is then evaluated for their adjacent infrastructures, such as sewers and high-traffic roads. Areas are catalogued and calibrated ultimately for their size in order to determine which locations have a stronger inclination towards greater development.

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Propensity, Calibrating, Optimizing. © Nick Axel.

The concept of a bridge spanning between two sites preliminarily establishes the gestural condition for a symbiotic relationship between the two ecologies. Bringing vehicular traffic into the air synthetically extends the existing context while violating its rigid formal boundaries of circulation. This new spatial logic for traversing the landscape with familiar means drastically reorients the subject in the context.

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Promenade in the sky. © Nick Axel.

The homogenous program of the suburb is extended into the structure. A new residential fabric is organized in a highly industrialized fashion with a modular double-loaded corridor placed underneath the road. The traditional functions of the sidewalks, such as pedestrian traffic and parking, are located along the perimeter of the structure. Oriented outwards, the interior is left for habitation and leisure. The middle area of the road is separated and surfaced with a net, viscerally augmenting the ground plane while allowing light to reach the corridor below.

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Backyard corridor. © Nick Axel.

The double-loaded corridor condition is typically defaulted to uncomfortable circulation, but is now liberated as an open and private backyard. Running down its spine is a water feature that is the result of an extensive phytoremediative system based off the concept of the Living Machine that runs throughout the structure. Sites adjacent to major sewer lines are starting points for building, where anaerobic digesters are established to process waste from the sewer. This produces rich fertilizer for local community gardens while creating a natural source of biofuel. After processing, the remaining water is transported into the structure to provide an aquatic plant environment, a rare local source of aquaculture and evapotranspirative cooling. In this way, the Living Machine concludes the reinterpretation of the lawn as a communal and productive device.

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Living Machine diagram. © Nick Axel.

The suburb’s traits of homogeneity and sprawl result in a multitude of singular conditions and conflict. As a network, the suburb is highly resilient. It is adaptable and evolves from a complex confluence of will, people, culture, capital, and everything else spontaneous and unforeseen. This is what we seek to provoke.

The Supurban Project responds to the infrastructural and latent presence of the suburb as a framework for inhabiting the built environment. It is explicitly homogenous and is instilled with the propensity and volition for sprawl. It is explicitly foreign; foreign enough to produce a truly symbiotic relationship. It is armed with the potential to stand up to the suburb, beyond what is inside it.

Based on a subordinate spatial logic to the grid it superimposes, a dynamic field of local intensities is produced. By engendering the situation in which one has the potential to appropriate the charged intersection of two distinct spatial ecologies, heterogeneity emerges as the product of the dialectical relationship itself.

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Systematic growth logic. © Nick Axel.

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Entry points of intensity. © Nick Axel.

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Provoked reappropiation of the existing environment. © Nick Axel.

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Ground. © Nick Axel.