MATRIPOLIS: A GREEN MEGACITY INFRASTRUCTURE

Contribution to the 1st European Urban Green Infrastructure Conference, Vienna 2015

 

During the 60s architectural megastructures for megacities were suggested by some architects, as by the British group Archigram, the Canadian Reyner Banham, the Hungarian Yona Friedman, the German Eckhard Schulze-Fielitz. None of them came to realization in built examples - only the Austrian architect Harry Glück succeeded in building the three megatowers of  'Alterlaa' in Vienna. Common to all these ideas was to find solutions for a dense, overcrowded city with a flood of cars; all of them proposed a separation of the level of cars from those levels for pedestrians. Until recently the idea of megastructures seemed to be not more than a periode of history in architecture. Meanwhile the upcoming awareness of global growths of population and its concentration in megacities have caused a re-thinking of mega-solutions in urban planning. 'Alterlaa', for a long time detested by the architectural circuit, now is re-discovered as a exellent solution of densly concentrated flats with good living conditions, highly appreciated by its residents. The broad awareness of climate change has contributed to a re-appreciation of this building complex: Here you find an dense area without car traffic and with a lovely green coverage of the ground extended even on the building up to the 14th storage. BIOTOPE CITY refered to this extraordinary complex. Now we introduce another approach to an up-to-date megastructure, driven by the awareness that architecture has to take in a account the changed circumstances in cities caused by climate change. The British architect David Dobereiner suggests a megastructure free from cars and completely coverd by green: a structure of combined terrace buildings. (Helga Fassbinder, Biotope City Journal)

 

Abstract

Most cities have a major flaw. Their public spaces consist mostly of streets, where pedestrians and machine powered vehicles share the same space, as if these two movement systems were compatible.
They are not.
Matripolis proposes a new urban infrastructure where machines and pedestrians each have their own separate dedicated space (just as railed traffic has always been recognized as needing its own dedicated system).
Another problem shared by most cities is the scarcity of green space. These spaces are mostly either confined to parks or marginal land not suitable for building on.
Except for the wealthy few, couples wishing to start a family, recognizing the natural desire for children to play in a garden adjoining their home, often choose to move out of the city to the suburbs. But this creates other problems, such as disconnection from the diversity of social life that the city uniquely offers.
Matripolis proposes a green infrastructure where social housing is directly juxtaposed to ample green space comprising community gardens, significant food production, recreation and play space in a setting friendly to life in general.
Instead of people living in blocks, separated from each other by streams of traffic, Matripolis proposes living amphitheatres where self governing communities form around the modern equivalent of the ancient Greek Agora.

 

From Metropolis to Matripolis.

It is clear that the neo-liberal system of endless growth and ever escalating inequality has had its day. In some form or other, its opposite, a society restructured around organized groups of sharing and caring neighbors must  replace it. There is no alternative to this alternative.
The basic idea of Matripolis is that the housing for all citizens is provided on a permanent infrastructure of soil bearing shelves. This soil, accumulated from the compost produced on site, becomes a uniform 60 cm deep. This means most species of tree and all other plant life can be grown on every level at the discretion of the local inhabitants. The vertical distance between shelves is 6 meters allowing two story high row housing to occur in the overlap.
To strengthen the sense of community identity, the stepped shelving is wrapped around a commons at ground level. The resulting amphitheater can be adapted in size and shape to suit existing site conditions but is limited to a height of 7 steps (42 meters) in order to keep it within reasonable range of the ramps used by pedestrians, bikes and wheel chairs.
At ground level, the agora is surrounded by community support facilities such as pubs, clubs, community restaurants, food coops, clinics and most importantly a civic center incorporating a public assembly building where any resident of the matripole can attend the weekly meetings that decide by direct democracy all matters of governance that affect the community. These matters would include selection of delegates (not representatives) to send to ‘higher’ levels of governance.

 

Matripolitan zoning

The city is re-conceived as an eco-city in which some urban functions, such as residential, commercial, administrative, manufacturing, retailing, instead of being located in different

locations on the city map, are distributed and mixed according to the local needs of each Matripole.
So each Matripole is to some extent an autonomous self governing entity containing within itself residential, working, learning, health maintenance, food and energy production etc. The plaza and all roofs of each commune are public domain, connected to neighboring communes by pedestrian bridges linking the first decks of each (at +6m).
The upper zone is where people live in a bowl-like amphitheatre, full of greenery growing on its stepped sides. These steps are spaced wider on the north facing sides to maximize solar exposure and to allow some sun to enter these dwellings through reflective skylights.
The lower, or ground level zone, is centered on the agora surrounded by its community support facilities. Surrounding these are the vehicular servicing areas and the work zone, including offices, factories and warehouses. These are overhung by the residential terraces above, which are structurally independent of the separate facilities in the work zone
(for sound and vibration transmission reasons).
Finally, surrounding all the above, is the vehicular circulation system, consisting of a network of roads serving all structures in the city. This system ideally differs from the conventional in two ways. First there are no ‘sidewalks’ because pedestrians are not permitted to come anywhere near the roads. Secondly wherever the adaptation becomes practical all intersections become three way rather than four, as would be the case if the road network
were to be based on a hexagonal, rather than a grid matrix. In Matripolis there are no traffic lights because none are needed.

 

Cities are for people not cars

Most modern cities exist in a state of war. It is a fight between people and vehicles. It is a struggle to occupy territory. The territory is the ground plane.
Cities have adopted different strategies to minimize the casualties, with greater or lesser success. The most common one is to exploit the time dimension. Crossing points are accessible to both systems but at different times. The control mechanism is the traffic light.
So at every intersection pedestrians or drivers are frustrated, but not both at the same time – until the next intersection.
A more rational system would be to separate the planes of the different movement systems. But people going about their daily lives enjoy the outdoors. They like fresh air, sunlight and the presence of other life forms, greenery, butterflies and bird song. Would it be possible to redesign today’s metropolis so they could experience a semblance of the natural environment as they walk or cycle to and from everything they need on a day to day basis?

 

 

Urban places for participatory democracy

The original idea of Matripolis was that people should live on green terraces surrounding a commons.
This incorporates all the benefits Jane Jacobs observed in the café culture of Greenwich Village, but adds another, in the form of sunlight and trees instead of the looming vertical cliffs that define Manhattan’s streets.
It also removes a major disruptor of easy and relaxed conversation  and interaction between people; namely, the constant buzz and distraction of vehicular traffic.
But the most magically successful urban space in Europe is in  Siena. By some stroke of genius, the civic centre, the Palazzo Publico, was built facing a grassy slope – Il Campo. (this of course was soon fully paved for civic rituals etc.) Here traffic is effectively excluded except for servicing during strictly regulated times.

The warped ground plane forms a forecourt to the Palazzo, almost like a shallow amphitheatre, where people can and do seat themselves to admire the architecture of the building’s inflected facade and campanile.
The shape of the space is organic, its walls seeming to embrace the commons, like cupped hands. There is no trace of any underlying Cartesian grid.
The Piazza del Palio inspired the idea of a commons at the centre of every Matripole. Because of their free forms, each would be unique.
But the size would be informed by the original model. Il Campo feels right all the time, whether occupied by 10 people or 100 (or 1000, when the twice yearly celebration of Il Palio, the famous horse race, occurs).

The size of the  commons then effectively determines the size of the whole Matripole, given the six housing decks that define its bowl-like configuration. This would then support a minimum population of about 1,000 residents.
Matripolis has been criticized because this size is out of scale  with the average urban infrastructure of streets, utilities and the building blocks they define. Critics point out that existing urban development would have to be completely erased before the new system could take shape in a transformative way. And this would always be unacceptable in any city with a historic core.

We searched for districts in major European cities where the Matripolitan system could be adopted and phased in over time, using most of the existing infrastructure and without requiring massive initial demolition.

We found an ideal location for this kind of growth plan in the Eixamples district of Barcelona.

 

Application of the Matripolitan system to the ‘Eixamples’ of Barcelona

The social values and aims of Ildefonso Cerdá, the mid 19th C planner of the Eixamples area of Barcelona, were strikingly consonant with those that inspired Matripolis. Cerdá focused on key needs: chiefly, the need for sunlight, natural lighting and ventilation in homes….. the need for greenery in people's surroundings…. and the need for the seamless movement of people, goods, energy, and information.

However, his visionary thinking could not anticipate the impact of motorized traffic and rampant capitalism that was to subvert his intentions in the later years of the century and ongoing. What Cerdá had originally planned, a low density garden city, where people of modest means could safely raise a family, was rapidly gentrified. Land values shot up and the area became one of the most fashionable and expensive places to live in the whole of Barcelona.

In the 150 years since Cerdá’s plan was realized urban populations have increased exponentially. Urban sprawl has encroached on agricultural land, which itself needed to increase in area. Forest land has consequently suffered a reduction in size, reducing habitat and commencing the sixth mass extinction event in earth’s history. Anthropogenic global warming is accelerating the process of desertification in the lower latitudes.
In our time urban growth must proceed at higher densities than were deemed appropriate at the start of the industrial revolution. But these densities must be achieved while maintaining access to green space as envisaged in Cerdá’s low density garden city concept.
One way of achieving this is to superimpose a ‘Matripolitan’ grid on to the Eixamples grid. Every four adjacent existing blocks then form each a quarter of the new larger grid. Alternate streets from the existing grid form a new dedicated pedestrian system intersecting in the octagonal commons of each superblock.

The key to making this transformation work is that the new Matripoles are built from the top down, not from the bottom up. Therefore initially there is no major demolition work required. Housing for about 800 people per 4 block unit are added on top of the existing stock. The amount of green space added is even greater than that envisaged in Cerdá’s Interway (although all on roofs, existing and new).
The long term plan for future growth then becomes the re-purposing of outward facing existing buildings for offices or light manufacturing, and the gradual replacement of interior facing buildings with the lower decks of the complete Matripole. At first the community support facilities can also be accommodated within the lower floors of existing structures. Eventually these will need replacement with new structures.