Reinventing the Urban River

Posted on Monday, June 1st, 2009 at 12:00 pm

ARCH402 – Reinventing the Urban River
Richmond, VA

The intention of this studio is to propose inventive ways to inhabit the ground when sea level rise, radical weather shifts, and loss of permeable ground surface all contribute to loss of land due to periodic flooding and more permanent saturation of once dry areas.

Cities built around navigable water bodies are the most at risk. Typical responses such as levees, floodwalls, and other heroic means of resistance, have proven to be unreliable means of protection. These barriers only hide the natural ebb and flow of rivers and other water bodies so that precipitous change is only recognized when it is too late. Furthermore, water, in all forms becomes understood more as menace than as essential instrumental and poetic resource.

The James River in Richmond is typical of urban rivers originally valued as a mode of commercial transport. River frontage, mostly understood as the private territory of now abandoned commercial ports, heavy industrial manufacturing, rail corridor and warehouse facilities, is only belatedly being reevaluated as public space. After a period of being seen as prime real estate for new interstate highways, sewage treatment plants, etc., now there are walking paths, recreated sections of a lost canal, along with the ruins of a Civil War munitions operation. While these are considered to be public amenities, they lack the urban context and connectivity that could engage the urban whole.

Making matters more unlikely is the heroic floodwall giving the false sense of protection from forces far greater than human constructs can protect against. Hidden, demeaned, and fraught, the James offers little in the way of urban amenity.

The above account might seem a bleak context for architectural invention and yet it is just the opposite. If, instead of futilely trying to keep nature away, we were to explore ways to live with its unpredictable force, to recognize its otherness, then the poetic potential is enormous.

This last semester of the fourth year will operate more as a thesis or design research studio. Students will make proposals for Richmond that demonstrate how urban life can engage natural process to mutual benefit. The James will now be seen not as the backyard of the city, but as a new form of public realm. New interpretations of urban park, public infrastructure, urban dwelling, places of work and recreation will need to be invented. New forms of representation will need to deal with the dynamic nature of a changing environment with its correlative responsive constructions.

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