Tracking the Origins of MVRDV’s Cloud

Tracking the Origins of MVRDV’s Cloud

Urban design historian Grahame Shane weighs in on the controversial project tracing MVRDV’s explosive imagery to its source in research.

When Ole Scheeren departed from OMA Beijing with the MahaNakhon Bangkok tower to found his own office in 2010, he had the idea to connect tower and urban village, marking a key moment in a very Dutch delirium that moved beyond OMA’s CCTV tower. In the Bangkok tower the developer’s website claims this skyscraper “melds with the city by gradually ‘dissolving’ the mass as it moves vertically between ground and sky.”

MVRDV pursued this same research and logic in their Cloud twin tower development in Libeskind’s masterplan for the ex-US base in downtown Seoul. The firm had earlier developed the Sky Village project in Copenhagen in 2008, similar in concept to the MahaNakon project with its spiral upwards. Indeed, this spiral had long been a concern of Ken Yeang, the Malaysian architect in his “Bioclimatic” Malaysian skyscraper projects of the 1990’s. MVRDV pursued this research in their 2011 Vertical Village show in Taipei, Taiwan, that opened at the same time as the announcement of the Cloud.

Given MVRDV’s devotion to data mining and layering, it is probable that they followed the logic of the delirious Dutch research that believes you can collage anything beside anything else in a pragmatic, post-modern method of assemblage. This line of research descends from Koolhaas’ appreciation of the Downtown Athletic Club in Manhattan in Delirious New York (1978). MVRDV’s Hannover Expo Pavilion of 2000 demonstrated this technique, as did their project for the Metacity/Datatown exhibit of the same year. All interrelationships are then either pragmatic or better yet random. Then there is the fiction in a scheme like the CCTV, MahaNakhon, or the Cloud that no one person controls the emergent “free” assembly. Yet in Beijing or Bangkok the designers repressed the village-like interior organizations within the building mega-form, allowing a surface marking only, breaking the building surface as a pixilation in the MahaNakhon.

The Cloud design represented a step further in this logic, as it projects a so-called three-dimensional vertical village between the two towers. It would seem the excitement of the creation of an urban village half way up two skyscrapers blinded MVRDV to the very obvious 9/11 image the design might provoke. Why was MVRDV so excited? There was already an Asian mega-structural tradition of platforms between towers and even the idea of vertical villages as in Hiroshi Hara’s 1988 theories about urban scale in 3-D. Hara completed the Osaka Umeda Skygarden demonstration project in 1993. This tradition continued in the work of Chinese architects such as the Shenzhen based Urbanus group with their Urban Village and skyhook research of 2003-2004.

Why was the Cloud breakthrough so important for MVRDV? The design maintained the tower surfaces but burst out of the mega-form to introduce a three-dimensional, cuboid platform with terraces and stepped rooms inside a grid structure showing trees and shrubbery, a veritable hanging garden. Anyone who has visited Bangkok and eaten on the three-dimensional rooftop terraces, could recognize the appeal of this structure. But here its form was also that of a rationalized Brazilian favela or hill town perched above Rio or São Paolo, echoing Safdie’s Montreal Habitat (1967).

The Vertical Village show asked whether one can hybridize the top-down modernist skyscraper and the forms of the self-build bottom-up favela to make a new “vertical urban village.” Oliver Wainright writing for Domus magazine in October 2011 described the sequence of the exhibition that began with an analysis of existing urban villages , drawn in Atelier Bow Wow-style linear axonometrics with calculations of their density and Floor Area Ratio (FAR), proceeding via a corridor of images mined from the web using the terms “vertical village” to a contrasting display of massive, modern building projects for housing slabs and blocks that repress individuality in the search for cheap mass housing.

Wainright described how the positive qualities of informal urban villages are outlined in one gallery as an “Urban Community Quality Wheel,” which led to other rooms where visitors could use “Housemaker” and “Village Maker” software to adjust the parameters of a vertical urban village design. Wainright wrote that “tweaking settings from typology to aspect, hours of sunlight to distance from neighbors, the Grasshopper script then projects each house into the Rhino model, from where you can spin your clustered cloud of vertical dwellings around to your heart’s content—and then share it on Facebook.”

The Cloud project with its favela-like bridge between two towers emerged from this research. MVRDV released the images without seeing the connection to the 9/11 twin towers, later issuing an apology. How could these otherwise savvy media operators have been so blind? Was it naïvete? Or a planned headline-grabbing publicity stunt?

This blindness and emotional disconnection is interesting. Did MVRDV think that the design somehow incorporated the bottom-up built logic of the invisible favelas and shanties in their Cloud as it enveloped the two towers? Did MVRDV hope to signify the one billion slum dwellers here as the global system stresses out? Was their exceptional blindness the result of the uncanny return of the repressed masses in the outlying urban villages and favelas? Why do we need urban villages now in skyscrapers, in Clouds or in museums? Koolhaas and OMA have proposed the “Museum as City” for the Beijing National Arts Museum (2011) with horizontal “Arts Villages” held between “streets” and its vertical “Arts Lantern.” What is the symbolism of the village here? Is it time to reverse the mega-scale of the Bubble Years and start over with urban villages?

D. Grahame Shane teaches Graduate Urban Design at Columbia University and undergraduate students at The Cooper Union in New York. He also lectures for the Bartlett School of Architecture in London and at the Polytechnic in Milan. He is the author of Recombinant Urbanism: Conceptual Modeling in Architecture, Urban Design and City Theory (John Wiley & Sons, 2005).