Vertical Village

MVRDV stages an exhibition that poses questions about rapid urbanization and the possibility of retaining a small-scale, informal existence.

"Architecture is a combination of science and fiction," says Winy Maas, to a rapt audience of over 800 architecture students, eagerly gathered in Taipei to hear the Dutch master of sci-fi buildings race through a marathon slideshow of speculative projects. "On the one hand it is precise, on the other it fantasises."

He has come here to do some more of the latter—in the form of The Vertical Village exhibition, which opened last week in a former tobacco and wine warehouse in the middle of the city, where a lurid mountain of miniature toy houses now teeters above the rooftops.

The exhibition is the result of a three-year long research project, commissioned by the JUT Foundation for Arts and Architecture , the cultural branch of the JUT Group, Taiwan's leading luxury housing developer. It is their fifth Museum of Tomorrow project, a nomadic initiative that sees vacant sites transformed with temporary installations—"meanwhile uses" that generate a buzz around forthcoming developments and add to the company's increasingly trendy credentials.

Produced by The Why Factory , MVRDV's research think tank based at TU Delft university, The Vertical Village is a heady mix of science and fiction, precision and fantasy, a dreamy investigation into the future of the rapid urbanisation of Asian cities—from Taipei to Tokyo, Beijing to Bangkok.

It takes as its dramatic premise the relentless "Block Attack" of generic, high-rise sprawl that is invading these cities and destroying the small-scale, informal urban villages that have characterised their fabric for centuries. "Could we densify these areas without sacrificing the informality of the urban village?" it asks. "What if we could grow urban villages vertically, as an alternative to the monotonous urban sea of blocks?"
Top: the mirror-lined gallery displays the product of a six-day workshop with students at Rotterdam's Berlage Institute, in which six different groups were given 200 foam cubes a day and asked to build a layer of a vertical village according to six vaguely defined agendas. Above: Case studies of existing urban villages across nine Asian cities are analysed with quantitative data, alongside maps of their erasure by the "block attack" of new towers.
Top: the mirror-lined gallery displays the product of a six-day workshop with students at Rotterdam's Berlage Institute, in which six different groups were given 200 foam cubes a day and asked to build a layer of a vertical village according to six vaguely defined agendas. Above: Case studies of existing urban villages across nine Asian cities are analysed with quantitative data, alongside maps of their erasure by the "block attack" of new towers.
The resulting exhibition offers up few answers to these bold headline questions, but instead provides a fast-paced, colourful jaunt through a range of issues surrounding informal urbanism, leading to a wildly abstract model of how vertical clusters of such buildings could be generated through a parametric computer programme. An introductory wall of video screens presents a dash around the chosen nine cities' endless fields of tower blocks, leading to a room that outlines some case study areas in more detail. The sample villages are each seductively drawn in isometric—in the style of Atelier Bow Wow's seminal Pet Architecture project on Tokyo's informal buildings—and displayed alongside quantitative data, such as their FAR ratio and land use, as well as a diagrammatic map of each city showing the progressive erasure of the villages by the blocks. It is an interesting overview, but betrays all the hallmarks of arm's-length Google Earth analysis, with little depth and few conclusions drawn from this baseline taxonomy.
Visitors are led through a glowing tunnel, lined with images harvested from a Google image search of the term "vertical village"
Visitors are led through a glowing tunnel, lined with images harvested from a Google image search of the term "vertical village"
A documentary, produced by filmmaker Hsinyao Huang, then follows five Taipei families as they search for their ideal houses, alongside further data about the current housing situation in Taipei. Interestingly, it shows that demand roughly correlates to supply, with around 70% of people wanting to live in a high-rise apartment in the inner suburbs—the very generic blocks that the exhibition sets out to attack. But the research instead draws a different conclusion: that people don't actually want to live in these blocks, but that the city's "housing stress has stopped its inhabitants from dreaming." The evidence for this Taiwanese imagination deficit remains to be seen, but plenty of dreaming follows in the successive rooms nonetheless.
For all its shortcomings, there is a playful, childlike naivety in the work of this energetic think tank that must be lauded, and a bold simplicity that cuts through the opaque posturing of much of architectural academia.
The gallery of dreams
The gallery of dreams
Marking the shift from research to proposition, visitors are led through a glowing tunnel, lined with images harvested from a Google image search of the term "vertical village." This is a fun exercise that reveals how the phrase has become a trope to suggest a kind of clustered high-rise with the applied aesthetic of individuality—often leading to pixelated blocks of identical units, disaggregated to give the impression of diversity. But it is also a powerful warning, showing what an extensive lineage of speculative proposals for fantastical floating communities have gone before, and how the product, in reality, is never anything more than slightly offset floor plates with occasional sky gardens.
The properties of informal urban villages have been distilled into an "Urban Community Quality Wheel.
The properties of informal urban villages have been distilled into an "Urban Community Quality Wheel.
As if proving this point, the next mirror-lined gallery displays the product of a six-day workshop with students at Rotterdam's Berlage Institute, in which six different groups were given 200 foam cubes a day and asked to build a layer of a vertical village according to six vaguely defined agendas: energy, community, economy, structure, climate and access. Each day, the models were swapped and another layer added.
The colourful, six-metre high assemblage that accompanies <i>The Vertical Village</i> by MVRDV.
The colourful, six-metre high assemblage that accompanies The Vertical Village by MVRDV.
These rainbow totems make for intriguing sculptural objects, each iteration accruing strata of variously tower, slab-like, or clustered blocks, and the issues of collectively phased construction no doubt prompted interesting discussions in studio crits. Indeed, project tutor Ulf Hackauf tells me of lively debates about property rights, compensation tax, progressive structural reinforcement and "petrification" of the base. But displayed here, as dumb assemblages of coloured blocks with little explanation, they mean very little. Nor do they help our understanding—or MVRDV's, it seems—of what the vertical village could actually be.
The final rooms contain a grid of computers running the HouseMaker© and VillageMaker© software programmes, that allow you to take part in developing your own vertical village through adjusting a set of parameters
The final rooms contain a grid of computers running the HouseMaker© and VillageMaker© software programmes, that allow you to take part in developing your own vertical village through adjusting a set of parameters
The final rooms contain the propositional conclusion to this haphazard melee of ideas: a grid of computers running the HouseMaker© and VillageMaker© software programmes, that allow you to take part in developing your own vertical village through adjusting a set of parameters. Tweaking settings from typology to aspect, hours of sunlight to distance from neighbours, the Grasshopper script then projects each house into the Rhino model, from where you can spin your clustered cloud of vertical dwellings around to your heart's content—and then share it on Facebook.
Five villages gallery
Five villages gallery
Presenting this project at the press conference, with characteristic energy and charisma that belies the fact he has just stepped off a long-haul flight, Winy Maas sprints through another slide show—including flashing up an image of 24 book covers. These are the 24 projects that The Why Factory has undertaken in less than three years since its inception in 2008—a giddy pace that suggests all too clearly that "factory" is the operative word. If only they would slow down a bit, you can't help thinking, their products might have the chance of being a little more considered, and go beyond the ostensibly drag-and-drop mode of production.

But for all its shortcomings, there is a playful, childlike naivety in the work of this energetic think tank that must be lauded, and a bold simplicity that cuts through the opaque posturing of much of architectural academia. This effect is also perhaps exaggerated by the context in which the exhibition is shown: "I think our success in China has something to do with our directness," Maas tells me later.
An animated fly-through takes you through a journey of life in the vertical village.
An animated fly-through takes you through a journey of life in the vertical village.
What makes this particular context all the more significant is the fact that the JUT Group has now commissioned MVRDV to design one of their luxury housing blocks, forcing both sides to put their money where their mouth is. The burning question is will they bite the bullet? For now, it looks unlikely.

"I can't see how the Vertical Village ideas could be applied to a residential scheme," says Aaron Lee, CEO of the JUT Foundation. "Maybe for a retail project, or a hotel, but it could never work for housing, individually customised by multiple residents."

Time will tell how the project develops, but it seems there is still a long way to go before the gulf between MVRDV's theoretical and practical outputs can be usefully bridged.
Oliver Wainwright
The death and life of the urban village gallery
The death and life of the urban village gallery
The Vertical Village
On show through 08 January 2012
Chung Shan Creative Hub

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