bradley samuels + SITU: inclusive growth in megacities

There is a hidden population of people living in incredibly densely populated areas of the city in illegal housing situations, who don’t show up on research or any sort of city data.

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I’m going to be discussing the human-centered design research done by a team of architects and designers at SITU, NYC, which is, by their own definition, is “an unconventional architecture practice that uses design, research and fabrication for creative and social impact.”

First off, what are megacities? A megacity is any metropolis area harboring more than 10 million people. There are currently 33 of these in the world, each one rapidly expanding both in population and in need for human centered design. Two-thirds of the entire population of the earth will live in megacities by the year 2030, most of these people being poor. The 3 largest megacities are Shanghai, Beijing, and Karachi. In the states, Los Angeles and New York City are the only Megacities we have. SITU, the architectural firm in New York City, focused on uneven growth within New York for this exhibit.

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Bradley Samuels, a founder at SITU. Samuels focused on gathering data for his team and for this project. The team at SITU examined where space is left over, or where there is potential for reuse and differentiation, in New York, so it may no longer be just for the rich who can afford to live there. 

Critic David Harvey on his reflections after this MoMA exhibit says “We are [ . . . ] in the midst of a huge crisis—ecological, social, and political—of planetary urbanization without, it seems, knowing or even marking it.”. There are about 200,000 people or more, depending on how you’re counting, living in illegally converted apartments in New York. They don’t show up on the census, a lot of them are undocumented or homeless, so this condition of density is more or less hidden. It occurs within existing housing stock, so it’s not a visible and very present part of an average New Yorker’s life. 

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Samuels describes the way his team was able to gather data for this project, a task that isn’t easy due to the lack of prior data. “One thing we did was to use 311 complaints of illegal conversions — not a perfect data set, because it tends to be biased toward places where there’s a lot of tension between more affluent and less affluent communities. But if you look at the heat map, it does give you a general sense of where the concentrations are. It’s not surprising that they’re mostly in the outer boroughs, in more remote parts of the city where immigrant communities are living.”

…” We also worked with community organizations to actually get access to apartments to see how they’re being subdivided: what it looks like inside a cellar where many people are living, how spaces are being shared. We wanted to photograph and document these spaces so that it’s not just an abstract data set that you’re presented with, but a form of documentation that gets at the way people are actually living.

Living design in New York City is oriented toward metropolitan growth, high towers, large buildings that only a certain range of people can afford or develop. This project focused on the other end of the spectrum regarding future living in New York.

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“When we talk about density and how we house the next one million New Yorkers, the conversation almost always ends up going towards concentrated vertical development at a scale that really only a very limited number of actors could participate in. Only a certain number, maybe the top five developers, could even think about building at that scale. So we were interested in thinking about what other kinds of growth, perhaps more incremental or accretive growth, could work in New York: strategies that might allow other types of development to enter the question, that weren’t just concentrated on very tall towers”

The idea SITU presented to the exhibition, which was the perfect place for these designers to push the limits of what is possible, was to create living spaces in the unused gaps of the city. Basements, rooftops, alleyways.

“we’re walking this line between reality and some kind of fiction, because obviously this presupposes rethinking of lot lines and property and things like this. But we felt that an exhibition was the right place for this kind of thinking. Policy organizations only have about four years to get something through in an administration, whether it’s legalizing cellars or meeting a certain target for a number of new housing units or something else. Their work tends to be about the low-hanging fruit; the things that could actually reasonably be done. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t much larger issues that need attention. We felt like the exhibition was a chance to point to the larger issues without the urgencies and the political liabilities of getting things done quickly. And that was very much the mandate of the curator as well.”

This research opens up the conversation for policies and new populations within design that weren’t previously given attention. While it isn’t logistically something in the works, the research done by this team at SITU explores the underbelly of this Megacity, and begins to pick apart the pieces most researches have been missing. 

Bradley Samuels closes his dream for the exhibition with this: “It’s not that we said “this design is a solution to this problem”; we thought that would be a ridiculous way to approach this. It’s more the design of a typology, the design of a strategy that could be played out an infinite number of ways by an infinite number of designers — or non-designers, in the case of the DIY stuff; turning over agency to the people that are going to be living there.”

Design, for the invisible, and design for the future in a way that everyone can translate, apply, and visualize.