Architecture professors discuss Latrobe

On Feb. 21, the American Institute of Architects College of Fellows awarded Bimal Mendis ’98 ARC ’02, the assistant dean and director of undergraduate studies at the School of Architecture and co-founder of the New Haven-Based firm Plan B Architecture and Urbanism, and Joyce Hsiang ’99 ARC ’03, principal and co-founder of Plan B and a critic at the school, with the 2013 Benjamin Henry Latrobe prize for research that will advance the field of architecture. The two architects received the $100,000 prize for their project “Urban Sphere: The City of 7 Billion,” which imagines the entire world as one urban landscape. Mendis and Hsiang discussed their plans and experiences with the News.

Q: How can readers best understand your project?

BM: You could conceptualize our product as three parts. One is a kind of concept, which is the fact that we have a global problem and a global approach, and also that we’re trying to expand the scope of the profession and so on. The [second] is creating a model, which is the idea of the digital model where we can actually integrate all this data — that’s primarily what we will be working on. The third is how that thing feeds into a tool that people can plug into. I think each [prong] is equally important.

Q: How did this project emerge?

JH: This research project … is after a series of research projects that we’ve worked together on.

BM: That’s been a five-year process starting with [researching] the scale of urban development and addressing issues of sustainability. Through our research we’ve also been looking at national and global scale issues. How this particular topic came about is an increasing realization that we can’t understand urbanism as isolated cities, because the boundaries of cities now far exceed their administrative stance — like their resource networks and flows of communication and energy and so on go beyond their literal boundaries. So through our research we came to realize that everything is — it’s a very simple conclusion I guess — much more interconnected, and to really understand urbanization at the global scale, you need to have a global approach.

Q: Why this project? Why now?

BM: One thing about this project is that it builds on research we’ve been doing. But also perhaps in the last 15 to 20 years this has been a particular trend — that urbanization and population growth in particular have been in the news as something that we will need to confront. This is something that we saw emerge in the sixties — you know, through the population boom — but there’s been an increasing focus on urbanization and population growth. This is the first time, I think, in our era where you do begin to see the global effects of all those things coming together. In the past things were still disconnected enough that it didn’t really have the kind of global repercussions that we see today. But we see great urgency in trying to tackle this through a global approach because for the first time in human history you do begin to see the global impacts of localized events and vice versa, so I think that’s something that we find to be particularly pertinent, relative to not just the scope of our work professionally in terms of what we want to do, but again as a global design problem.”

JH: This is the greatest problem that everybody faces. It is [of an] enormous scope that cannot fall within any category … [everybody] says this is beyond [their] purview. Part of the issue is that you have to find ways for every person to contribute and to have value in addressing what is the global problem.

Q: How will your students play a role in the reseach?

JH: [Part of our previous research has used] a lot of the students here at [School of Architecture] as research assistants. The students are often the ones who are not only at the forefront of the technology, but the ones who are being really innovative with it, because it’s not one standard program that you’re using [and] it’s not one kind of technique. Part of this is inventing that technique — it’s using multiple platforms and hybridizing between multiple tools. A lot of times, even when you start, you just kind of put a question out there. Certainly being at Yale, not only in the School of Architecture, but [also] at the University, is really an incredible resource. If you have a question, it’s really easy … to be able to just shoot an email or call another colleague or professor in another department and say, “You know we have this kind of question about this algorithm, how would you deal with this?” So that’s another great thing that doing this research in a university setting provides for us.

Q: This project is about expanding the scope of the architecture field to offer solutions to these global problems. Is it also a response to the economic conditions that have hit architects hard over the last handful of years?

JH: On the one hand you might think, “Well it’s because of the economy — it means you have to find work in other places.” That certainly is true, but I think if anything, the kind of recession or economic situation has highlighted even more how interrelated everything is, how you can’t do something without having an enormous impact globally. Before that, the profession was riding high, the projects that we were working on, everything was fast-paced — we were building everywhere. There were speculative master plans sprouting up around the world, frequently so fast that there was very little opportunity for reflection or criticism to actually question [what impact architects were making]. A lot of the time as architects, we do what we can with certain parameters, but we don’t necessarily have control over a lot of the parameters — whether it’s driven by the clients or the cities or the policies or the zoning or the financial structures — you work as best as you can within a limited realm. A lot of what happened in 2008 forces everybody to question those kinds of structures to try to understand more so that [we are] not leading into a similar situation.

Correction: March 6

A previous version of this article misquoted Bimal Mendis ’98 ARC ’02 as saying, “You could conceptualize our product as three pods,” when in fact, he said “three parts.”