Innovative MIT projects at the Seoul Biennale

Responding to the theme of “Imminent Commons,” a diverse contingent of MIT faculty, researchers, and alumni from the School of Architecture and Planning are participating in the first Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism, which is being held from Sept. 2 through Nov. 5.

Historian and critic Hyungmin Pai PhD ’93 is codirecting the biennale with architect Alejandro Zaera-Polo.

In their introductory statement, the directors ask, “Amidst radical social, economic, and technological transformations, will the city become a driving force of creativity and sustainability or will it be a mechanism of inequality and environmental decay?”  

The biennale brings together an international array of architects and designers whose work grapples with the ways in which these issues are already changing the ways we operate in cities. The exhibition consists of two major parts.

The first, “Thematic Exhibition: Nine Commons,” posits nine ways to place cities on a path toward a just urbanism. Four are focused on ecology (air, water, fire, and earth), and five concern technology (making, moving, communicating, sensing, and recycling).

The second part, “Cities Exhibition: Commoning Cities,” invites participants to put forward 50 projects that respond to rapid urbanization, limited public resources, and the privatization of commons.

Pai was the curator for the Korean Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2008 and again in 2014, when he was awarded a Golden Lion award for best national pavilion. He is currently a professor at the University of Seoul and serves as a member of South Korea’s Presidential Committee for the Hub City of Asian Culture and the Mayor’s Committee for the Future of Seoul. He is also the chair of the Mokchon Architecture Archive.

The MIT-related projects and associated faculty, researchers, and alumni at the Seoul Biennale include:

Code City,” by Yung Ho Chang, professor of the practice and former head of the MIT Department of Architecture (2001-2005), and Tongji University explores and critiques the story of zoning and its implications, specifically in the construction of Chinese megacities. Through four urban “fables” — each focusing on a particular portion of the zoning code such as land use, massing, and density — “Code City” presents alternative scenarios based on the manipulation of the current code and resulting building regulations to highlight the implications of such processes in Beijing and other cities in China.

Underworlds,” by Carlo Ratti, professor of the practice in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning and director of the MIT Senseable City Lab, and Eric Alm, professor of biological engineering in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and director of the Alm Lab, is a collaborative research project led by the Senseable City Lab and the Alm Lab and sponsored by the MIT-Kuwait Center for Natural Resources and the Environment. The project explores data gathered from the world’s sewage systems to understand the vast reservoir of information on human health and behavior that lies, untapped, in urban wastewater. In Seoul, the team recently deployed an iconic robot named Luigi, which traveled through the sewers of three districts, Gangnam-gu, Mapo-gu, and Seongbuk-bu, to collect sewage samples. In partnership with GwangPyo Ko’s Lab at the Seoul National University’s School of Public Health, the team has extracted data from these samples to study the aggregate health of the city by neighborhood.

Working with the results of an analytical model that uses data scraped from Chinese social media sites, the Civic Data Design Lab, led by associate professor of technology and urban planning Sarah Williams, is displaying one of the first interactive maps of the “Ghost Cities” phenomenon in China. Using cutting-edge technology and methods — such as combining quantitative data models with qualitative data, drone imagery, and data scraping from social media and maps platforms — the exhibition allows visitors to explore modeled cities, while learning about the characteristics of vacant real estate developments.

Can our future cities digest themselves? “Cyclopean Cannibalism and ‘The Cannibal’s Cookbook’: Mining Myths of Cyclopean Constructions” is a prototype of a recipe from “The Cannibal’s Cookbook” by Brandon Clifford, assistant professor of architecture, with Wes McGee and Quarra Stone. The cookbook studies, analyzes, and presents historical cyclopean constructions for contemporary consumption; the recipes “cannibalize leftover debris” to create new work. This prototype gets its name from the mythological race of giants known for constructing massive stone walls and the tactics of Incan builders, who used stones from previous works for new projects. In the face of unprecedented quantities of waste generation in today’s cities, Cyclopean Cannibalism deciphers historical construction methods and translates them into possible contemporary design methods.

Design Earth, the creative practice co-founded by Rania Ghosn, assistant professor of architecture, and El Hadi Jazairy, assistant professor of architecture at the University of Michigan and research scientist at MIT’s Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism is presenting the project “Trash Peaks,” which brings the materials of waste to the foreground of architectural and urban concerns. Six speculative propositions — Plastisphere, E-Fungi Volcano, Janus Incinerator, Towering Construction, Leachate Cenotaph, and Methane Aviary — are presented through the artifacts of the carpet, folding screen, and ceramic tableware. “Trash Peaks” addresses the relation between regional and transcontinental refuse systems and geopolitics.

I/K Studio, the design practice of assistant professor of architecture Mariana Ibañez and Simon Kim SM ’08, present the installation “Strange Weather” to focus on the artificial distinctions between interior and exterior environments. The project uses the floor tiles embedded with various technologies — vaporizers, high-lumen LEDs, and heaters — to produce a range of interior environments through adjustments of moisture levels, temperature, and lighting. These variations are produced through a feedback loop that reads the actions and patterns of visitor input in real-time.

Plug-In Ecology: Urban Farm Pod,” by Mitchell Joachim PhD ’06, Terreform ONE, and DJ Spooky, addresses agricultural production in megacities such as Seoul. The pod is a living cabin intended to bring food production closer to the city’s inhabitants and to transform the food system into a visible artifact in the city. “Plug-In Ecology” is part of the “Commons: Earth” exhibition, which presents architects and urbanists who consider how to reshape architecture’s relationship to the earth’s surface.

Axel Killian SMArchS ’00, PhD ’06 presents “The Flexing Room,” an experiment that explores embodied computation and autonomous robotics in architecture. The installation is equipped with sensors to detect human presence and is designed to adjust its actions based on visitor interaction over time. Building behavior becomes a communicative device between a space and its inhabitants.

In “Beyond Mining: Urban Growth,” Philippe Block PhD ’09, a professor at ETH Zurich and lead of the Block Research Group, and collaborators including Dirk E. Hebel, professor of sustainable construction at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, present the first full-scale structure designed using 3-D graphic statics from regenerative materials bamboo and mycelium. The project suggests an alternative to current material and construction methods — which follow a linear model of production, use, and waste — to a cycle that considers the cultivation, growth, and reuse of materials alongside the current capacities of digital design tools.

At Home Together,” by Neeraj Bhatia SMArchS ’09 and Antje Steinuller of the Urban Works Agency, joins the conversation on commoning through an investigation of contemporary collective living experiments in San Francisco. The project analyzes these spaces to learn patterns of habitation, changing conceptions of public and private space, and the soft appropriation of existing urban and housing conditions.