Urban Design in the Age of Undifferentiated Crisis

Syllabus blurb for advanced seminar in urban design theory and practice, Iowa State University, Spring 2019
alarmist prephub dimaxion globe of risk
screenshot of promotional video by MIT Urban Risk Lab’s Prephub project

URB D 522: Contemporary Urban Design Practices/ARCH 575: Contemporary Urban Design Theory

‘Pre-emptive design,’ ‘resilience urbanism,’ ‘proactive preparedness’: Urban design is a practice caught between two irresolvable demands. On the one hand, it is called upon to attenuate the effects of multiple risks that contemporary life produces: urban design must protect the inhabitants of cities and provide infrastructures through which to maintain current modes of existence in the face of climate change and the host of other human and more-than-human crises it precipitates. Contemporary urban design, we might say, measures itself against a field of undifferentiated crisis. On the other hand, today’s urban design, unlike in its modern predecessor, is a venture fueled almost exclusively by an ever expanding financial market for private real estate development. At the heart of every project today is a calculus of capital returns driven by the frenzied need to build more and more. Together, the two demands both contradict one another and feed off of each other at the same time: the rate of urbanization around the world is intimately tied up with acceleration of climate change, yet for every natural disaster caused or projected by an erratic climate, an opportunity for development reveals itself.

This course looks to understand contemporary practices in urban design by questioning the larger fields and networks of power that shape them. From discourses and forms of knowledge to legal structures and their attendant social divisions; from political histories to the history of crisis; from the collapse of European imperialism to a speculative imperialism shaping the near future, it will look to address how such a wide variety of scales, technologies and techniques deployed today as urban design can be grasped as a set of responses to certain concerns that lie beyond design, and charged by the larger theater of crisis that conditions contemporary life. By doing so, the course asks how designers can experiment with new imaginaries that can escape the gravity with which crisis, as an increasingly undifferentiated condition, operates today.