Architect and urban designer Liang Wang came to Syracuse Architecture in fall 2020 as the school’s fifth Harry der Boghosian Fellow. During the 2020–21 school year, Wang will teach an architecture studio and two professional electives focusing on his research project, “The Architecture of the Commons.” By engaging the idea of “commons” in relation to the disciplinary knowledge of architecture and particularly through the lens of the superblock development, his research will contemplate the role of architecture as both common means for spatial production and common knowledge in conceiving new modes of collective life and the idea of the city.
Cultivated Imaginaries: Superblock and the Idea of the City
Superblock is a term with which almost all architects, planners and policymakers are conversant. Used to describe the building blocks of large-scale urban projects—ranging from Raymond Unwin’s Town Extension Plan to the housing blocks in the New Frankfurt and Red Vienna, to the mid-20th Century Soviet microrayon, and to the multiplicity of mega-developments that sprung up all over China since the 1980s—”Superblock” is a term that is familiar, useful and wonderfully imprecise. Indeed, despite its widespread use, there is no clear, established definition of the term. Why, then, does the term Superblock continue to have such appeal and purchase in discussions about the present and future city? One answer can be found in historian Alan Colquhoun’s 1971 essay, “The Superblock,” where he suggests that the Superblock not only describes an urban typology, but also, as a concept, it gives architects license to creatively “imagine” the totality of the city, an authority that was relinquished with mass industrialization and the emergence of ever more sophisticated, abstract and cybernetic forms of capitalist development. As the processes described by Colquhoun in 1971 have quickened, intensified and become more pervasive, the city, in turn, has become ever more complex, abstract and virtual, and creative speculation of the kind described by Colquhoun has become even more important as architects, planners and policymakers attempt to imagine a more equitable, sustainable and humane future city.
In this symposium we will examine the relationship between the Superblock—term, concept and “reality”—and the present and future city in the West and in China. We propose to do so by addressing two interconnected issues, one representational, and one praxis-oriented. First, we propose to discuss the kind of speculative possibilities of the “Superblock Imaginary,” a scale of urban representation that might help us to better picture, analyze and understand the city. Following on this, we will ask whether the Superblock might also allow us to “right-size” the scale of development and focus on a block-scale “commons” rather than on the entire city, one perhaps better suited to address the many hidden, structural inequities revealed this past year by the COVID-19 global pandemic and the reckoning with systemic racism.
Conceived as a critical component and a culminating event of this year’s Harry der Boghosian Fellowship at the Syracuse University School of Architecture, the symposium will conclude the year-long research seminar on the same topic, opening up a broader discussion on the new possibilities that might follow from a rigorous reconceptualization of the relationship between the Superblock—its architecture, urbanism and socio-political processes—and the idea of the city—in both western and Chinese contexts—through its history, imaginary and representation.