This brief text attempts to discuss two interrelated concerns: an examination of the techniques and analyses of the city that underpinned the work of O.M. Ungers and Colin Rowe, and secondly, the way in which that examination served as the conceptual foundation for a graduate architecture studio I taught in Fall 2011 at Cornell University which took their legacies and positions as the basis for a urban design and architectural project. The four projects shown here each enacted a rigorous process of manipulation, transformation and distortion of precedents by Ungers or Rowe (two of each). In doing so, the distinction between architectural history and design was purposely collapsed, requiring a combination of analogical and analytical thinking. While the discourse surrounding these two significant figures is vast, the precise relationships between their distinct projects is less well-known. Nevertheless, a key point of overlap (among others) is the issue of contextualism (a term with a slippery and debatable history), ie. how architecture grapples with and ultimately addresses the context of the historical and contemporary city. Ironically for the Cornell studio, the context of Roosevelt Island was ultimately understood as a kind of contextualism without a discrete context - a literal tabula rasa. In the place of a meaningful and rich historical context to respond to, the studio focused instead on the urban campus as type and the way in which it could become a microcosm of the city itself. These became two dominant concerns that supplanted the literal context often associated with contextualism. (Concurrent with the studio's timeframe, SOM developed a master plan for the site according to Cornell University's ambitions for a new Technology campus/ enclave on the very same site.) More importantly, the studio attempted to situate the design project within larger questions about the relationship between the city and architecture.
Using the design of a new NYC Technology campus and research facility for Cornell University as a foil, the studio, Ungers vs. Rowe, attempted to produce a theoretical argument about two divergent Cornell legacies: one, O.M. Ungers and the other, Colin Rowe as exemplary urban design positions that after some forty years remain still operative in today’s context. Their respective attitudes and ideas toward urban design and the metropolitan city at large acted as the theoretical foundation for the studio. Both Ungers and Rowe sought alternatives to the top-down methods of modernist urban planning, social realism, and the utopian speculations of megastructures. Both began their work on urban form from an observation of the failure of modern architecture to articulate an urban project (ie., that modern architecture was either naively utopian or helplessly artistic). Yet, there are both clear and ambiguous divergences between their approaches to the city.
Given the number of years that have passed since crucial debates in the 1970s on the relationship between architecture and the city, the studio was premised on the idea that the shadows of Ungers and Rowe are arguably still lingering within today's contemporary discourse. In addition to revisiting - and thus recuperating - these two architects from architecture's not-so-distant past, the studio attempted to position them within contemporary discussions on architectural and urban form. While the disciplinary and personal disagreements between Ungers and Rowe are well known and well documented, there is a surprisingly small amount of writing that has attempted to locate and understand their overlapping ambitions. As Pier Vittorio Aureli has outlined in his recent book The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture - a sustained investigation of the archipelago in a number of different registers - both Ungers and Rowe shared a desire to interpret “architectural form as the index for the constitution of an idea of the city.” Given the inherent dichotomies between design and history, between the relationship between urban design and architectural form, the implicit question for the studio to consider remains: given all of the changes to urbanism and architecture since the 1970s, what can be taken from these two figures that is productive today? Ultimately, the projects themselves attempt to indirectly provide an answer to this question by activating the precedents in a new context.
Through various analytic methods that interrogated and documented the metropolitan city, both Ungers and Rowe sought morphological principles and processes that shaped the making of urban form and space. More importantly, they each differently understood that these principles are founded upon the transformation and distortion of precedents; ie. a historical past that holds value structurally, formally, and urbanistically. Therefore, the mode in which the studio chose to investigate these two architects was similar to the methods that Ungers and Rowe used themselves, as architects interested in continuity with past manifestations of urban form rather than as historians working directly from the archives. Working analogically and analytically through a study of precedents, methods, and ideas, the studio’s re-considered critical projects and extracted principles as the basis for the architectural design of the new campus. While much of today’s discussion on urbanism comes to terms with an increasingly complex number of different forces, the paradox of the studio’s tabula rasa site condition on Roosevelt Island - an island with a low density, a discrete number of building typologies, and minimal infrastructure - became a testing ground for strategies that “reflect the urban forms of the city through architecture.”
Given that the new campus was to be sited on the southern portion of Roosevelt Island - and island within a metropolitan island - the design of the urban campus also must address its proximity and development in the shadow of Manhattan, and its past as an incubator of urban polemics and manifestos. Roosevelt Island’s unique position as both an autonomous, entirely separate landmass and a conceptual extension of the Manhattan street grid creates a dialectical position as both discontinuous and continuous from its neighbor: as island and virtual extension, as connected and disconnected. The dialectic between autonomy from and engagement with the city can be seen as a dominant concern shared by both Ungers and Rowe. Secondly, the design of the urban campus necessitates an attitude toward the the dialectic between the irreducible formal and spatial autonomy of each part (or building) and the possibility of conceiving of the different parts as one coherent structure, as a larger part of the urban context.
While the discussion around the studio and its output could be couched in its pedagogical imperatives (primarily revolving around issues of precedent and history), the argument extends further. While some will say “nothing new here,” others may scoff at a return to “revisionism” and therefore shrug off any project that willingly sidesteps current dominant discourses of globalization and infrastructure. How are the ideas from the 70s translated to today’s context? And more critically, how does the studio take into account other developments in urbanism that have since risen to the forefront of discussions on the city? These questions remain latent in the reception and reflection of the work.
A secondary agenda for the studio can be understood as a cumulative effort to locate and position a recuperated version of Rowe which does not simply deadend in the conservative postmodernist repetition of his work, and likewise for Ungers, instead hoping to avoid his pure, absolutist geometric introspections. Instead, the goal was to focus on periods of their work that might be repeated and abstracted away from these dominant endgames. While academic studios typically showcase their results in the form of final jury reviews, the work produced typically disappears into the archives shortly afterwards. Re-thinking this process, there is an opportunity to extend the discussion outside of that singular setting and into a larger forum. Therefore the ambition here is to provide an opportunity to revisit the studio in a larger context for both critical examination and reflection.
O.M. Ungers’ project “The City Within the City: Berlin as Green Archipelago” (completed with a group of Cornell summer students and co-taught with Rem Koolhaas, Peter Riemann, Hans Kolhoff and Arthur Ovaska in 1977) consisted of shrinking post-war Berlin to its irreducible and significant parts while the remaining depopulated area was to self-organize through agricultural and park land. Each of the city parts were then understood as architectural micro-cities that were meant to act as an urban composition in miniature which analogically could contain the complexity of the city as a whole. As Aureli has written, Ungers sought to articulate the limits and finitude of architectural form as a recovery of defining traits of the city - its inherent collective dimension, its dialectical nature, and its composition of contrasting urban forms. The design proposal for Berlin deliberately accepted and made visible the effects of forces on the city; the fragmentation of urban form, anonymity of architecture and instability of program.
In the Archipelago projects, and what followed, architectural form was treated as a simultaneous exploration of multivalent urban conditions and a confrontation with the existing urban scenario. Rather than directly equating architectural form with political ideologies or social imperatives, or denying any possibility of social impact, Ungers’ work addressed particular aspects and limits of architecture: the collective, the contemporary condition of the metropolis, etc. Unlike Koolhaas, whose deft writing framed the conditions under which architecture is constituted and simultaneously effaced (program, scenario, event, etc.) Ungers maintained a belief in architecture as a confrontation of concept and built reality. More importantly, his work maintained a commitment to architecture’s historical obligations to forms of order (institutional, programmatic, etc) that provide organization to the human world. More specifically, as Aureli has outlined in his book, Ungers’ operations on form were rooted in an analysis of the collective nature of the city, its common ordinary forms (types) rather than individual figures - through morphology, interpretation, and transformation, he was able to read the as-found conditions and thus transform the conditions of the city through precise architectural insertions.
Colin Rowe’s Collage City (published in 1978, with Fred Koetter) sought to create an urbanism from eclectic “set pieces” which would allow forms to be freely extrapolated from any historical, political or geographical context and put into place in a pluralistic, morphological collage. Successful urban forms were understood to be the results of a ceaseless process of fragmentation, collision and superimposition of many diverse ideas imposed by successive generations. This strategy became a license for an eclectic connoisseurship of history’s figural urban and architectural forms, once abstracted and re-assembled, could create a continuous adjudication between opposites, ie. tradition and utopia. The legacy of Collage City is a highly charged and ambivalent one, especially given its criticism for “remaining primarily in plan as a play of distorted axialities similar to Beaux-arts pattern making” and Rowe’s own acknowledgement that the tactics generally performed best in urban zones under a height of five stories. Rowe’s formal tendencies, understood as visual and conceptual complexity found in the dialectical balance between scaffold/ exhibit, structure/ event, ideal/ empirical, etc., create a method of dealing with heterogeneities and fragments rather than idealities and large-scale systems. In this sense, Rowe’ projects use “plan homologies as a way of collapsing history, merging and transforming various past examples to remove them from their historical specificity.”
Aureli describes the concept of the archipelago as a “condition where parts are separated yet united by the common ground of their juxtaposition,” and understands a crucial feature to be “the struggle of parts whose forms are finite and yet, by virtue of their finiteness, are in constant relationship both with each other and with the ‘sea’ that frames and delimits them.” The ‘islands’ of architecture stand in dialectical contrast to the space of urbanization, the city at large. While the book outlines the work of four architects whose project “was advanced through the making of architectural form, but whose concern was the city at large,” it traces an underlying tension between the boundaries and exchanges of architecture and urban form. Through the ‘metaform’ of the archipelago, he identifies the project of the city, addressed through “transformations of the city as seen through the elaboration of specific and strategic architectural forms.” More critically, the respective projects for the city do not take the form of an overall plan but are manifested as an archipelago of specific interventions. This metaphor is a productive entry into parsing the differences between Ungers and Rowe because it offers a concept of architecture and urbanism that concerns the inherent tension and dialectic that both architects believed was not dealt with in modernism’s totalizing plans or its utopian polemics and speculations.
In examining the metaphor of the archipelago further, it is possible to understand that the architects chosen by Aureli (Mies, Palladio, Piranesi, Boullee, and Ungers) each, in their own way, exemplify ‘islands’ that provoke “architectural form toward the possibility of being not a general rule but an example for the city.” In particular, the last chapter focuses on a number of projects, competitions and works by Ungers, leading up to his study of Berlin, which best exemplifies a number of Ungers’ urban design principles. The fact that it literalized the ‘islands’ as self-contained city forms/ enclaves within the decay of post-war Berlin is secondary to the definition of architecture as collective fragments which “pierces through urbanization.” The “sea” is understood as a set of self-organized gardens, forests, agricultural and recreational spaces, dialectically opposed to the collective, bounded condition of the islands themselves. Ungers’ secondary idea of the “city as collection” in which as-found conditions, both local and historical, are abstracted and systematized into a restricted formal vocabulary creates a “city in miniature” or a “self-sufficient city” (Enschede and Grunzud Sud in particular). This vocabulary is made up of clearly formalized city parts - finite artifacts - that in their internal formal composition, were evocative of an idea of the city (not unlike Rowe’s ‘set pieces’). A formal tension between the simplicity of each architectural part and the complexity of spatial arrangements is therefore created by their overall composition.
In contrast, Rowe’s work evidences a dominant concern for the ‘sea’ itself rather than the islands. For Rowe, the islands are the public spaces of the city, the figural voids in the urban fabric that best represent ‘cityness’ as opposed to the islands. The Excursus in Collage City lists a series of city parts - memorable streets, stabilizers, splendid public terraces - all of which negotiate between urban texture and architectural artifact. Rowe’s specific formal predilections - Beaux Arts axiality, complex figuration, multiple levels of hierarchy and scale - create interrelationships between architectural form and urban form that unites the two rather than demarcating their distinct boundaries. For Rowe, the archipelago consists of those openings or rifts in the fabric that create richness and diversity within the built mass of the city. The well-known cover drawing of Collage City, which was meant to best exemplify the idea that “an elegant hybrid - a solid equipped with local spaces, the other largely a void in which objects have been encouraged to proliferate, each giving value to its opposite condition” stands in vivid contrast to Rowe’s later meditation on Mondrian’s Boogie Woogie painting, which “maintains (a) spatial matrix and figure in a reciprocal and constantly fluctuating relationship.”
Both Ungers and Rowe share an overwhelming concern for the deployment and manipulation of precedent (with all of the baggage the term implies) as the basis for making and conceptualizing form. While they both mask this issue behind different methods and varying ideologies, it is clear that they each believe that architecture’s raison d’etre comes from its ability to logically and rationally manipulate the material, structure, and organization of the city. For example, “Thesis 6” in Ungers’ text on Berlin claims that “in order to determine this quality of urban spaces, cases may be used to serve as a model, even if they were planned for another time and another occasion, if they have comparable typological qualities.” Meanwhile, a healthy portion of Rowe’s writing on urbanism points to the notion that “history is open to the architect, ie. collage is a strategy for democratically integrating disparate cultural impulses and hybridizing fragments of history.” These lessons and more underpinned the work in the studio, and hopefully serve to elucidate both its theoretical basis and problematics for the student projects below.
Ungers Project 1:
Gunho Kim + Hyun Chung
Rowe Project 1:
Vivian Shao Chen + Henry Adam Weber
Ungers Project 2:
Ryan Glick + Julia Pascutto
Rowe Project 2:
Armando Rigau + William S. Smith
 Pier Vittorio Aureli. The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture. Cambrige: MA. MIT Press, 2011.
 Joan Ockman. “Form without Utopia: Contextualizing Colin Rowe.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. Volume 57 Number 4, Dec. 1998.
 Amanda Reeser Lawrence, unpublished PhD on Jim Stirling, “Remaining Modern: the Work of Jim Stirling 1955-1975.”
 See Wilfried Kuhn’s chapter “The City as Collection” in O.M. Ungers; Cosmos of Architecture.
 Lotus 19
Currently he is the 2012- 2013 Walter B. Sanders Fellow at University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. Previously he taught at Cornell University's Department of Architecture in both Ithaca and New York City. His speculative design, research, criticism, and ...