TERREFORM, THE ECOLOGICAL RESEARCH AND ARCHITECTURE FIRM OF MICHAEL SORKIN AND MITCHELL JOACHIM, IS RIPPING UP THE PAVEMENT OF URBAN
Between the urban ambitions of starchitecture and the modest aspirations of sidewalk advocates for a new urbanism, it can sometimes seem there are no new ideas under the sun when it comes to urban planning. Then there is Terreform, the ecological research, urban planning, and architecture firm of Michael Sorkin (below) and Mitchell Joachim. These two architects’ work is full of epic ambitions and fantastical ideas, including city plans based on total urban self-sufficiency, houses made of growing trees, and soft, sheep-like cars that scrub the atmosphere clean with every drive. Of course, most architects have drawers full of unrealized blueprints. But Terreform’s architecture of ecological engagement sacrifices any pretense of pragmatism in order to reach for a realm of unbridled, futuristic innovation. (Even their firm is organized as a non-profit.)
That’s just the way the principals want it. Sorkin, long known as one of architecture’s most distinguished provocateurs, is a professor who’s had appointments at Cooper Union, Harvard, and Yale, among others. He is currently director of the Graduate Urban Design Program at the City College of New York, and is a longtime proponent of “urban citizenship and sustainability.” With Joachim, an MIT architecture Ph.D. who paid his dues working for Frank Gehry, I.M. Pei, and Moshe Safdie, the two make an interesting intergenerational team: eco-boomer meets eco-dreadhead. Despite the almost willfully prankish part of their work, their plans for buildings and parks are strikingly beautiful, even elegant in a futuristic, ecological way—as if a punkish Jolly Green Giant had been set upon the urban landscape.
Take for example, Terreform’s Fab Tree Hab, a prefab housing unit built by nature. Or rather, nature guided by a CAD program that controls the pruning and forcing of a single tree seed, grown on-site, into an actual house. “We can predict the geometry to seven decimal places and build out the jigs that control the growth of those trees as scaffolds,” says Joachim, who won a Habitat for Humanity prize for the Fab Tree Hab design. Another fanciful idea is a concept auto made of soft fabric with an engine (run on biodegradable fuels) that scrubs the air clean as it gently (slowly) passes through the streets. Or an urban plan for New York City, based entirely on the idea of a self-sufficient organism. Unlike Terreform’s city plan for Shanghai’s Zhabei District (actually being implemented) most of these ideas were never intended to see daylight, but were instead conceived as part of a long-term process of architectural and urban innovation— canaries in the coal mine of the early 21st century. “It takes about 150 years to change a city, 40 years to change building technology, 15 years to change automotive technology, and five years to change communications and computing technology,” says Joachim. “We’re just starting the process a little early.” —Craig Bromberg
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