Future of the American City Initiative

“The future of the American city is very much linked to questions of urban development and urbanization across the globe. Therefore, I think there’s something very exciting to really think about the future of the American city in the context of this worldliness.” – Mohsen Mostafavi, 2019

The Future of the American City project is an urban study initiative aimed at helping cities tackle urgent challenges. Building on the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s unique, multi-disciplinary model, the effort will use architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning and design to come up with actionable, efficient solutions that take into account community needs.

Research on Miami will form the first phase of the project, a broader initiative intending to also examine the cities of Los Angeles, Detroit, and Boston. The school plans to host a summit to convene experts from each city to create a national discourse on the future of cities and urban life in America.

To engage Miami residents in creating new approaches to address pressing urban issues—including affordable housing, transportation and sea level rise—the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is providing $1 million in support to the Harvard GSD. With the funding, the school will embed urban researchers in Miami and Miami Beach to better understand the cities’ opportunities and challenges, and launch a multi-year study toward building solutions shaped by residents.

Researchers at the GSD have been actively connected with the City of Miami and the City of Miami Beach for several years. Since 2012, the school has conducted six courses focused on Miami and held several major events in the city. Expanding on this work, the school will convene a range of experts, policy-makers, and members of the public to contribute to this new effort.

In its research, the school will focus on urban mobility, affordability, and climate change, themes that emerged from a series of previous discussions among its researchers and members of the Miami and Miami Beach communities. Following their analysis, students and faculty will offer toolkits, white papers, and other materials for review and use by city managers, mayors, and other civic leaders, many of whom will be directly involved throughout the study.

Project Team: Mohsen Mostafavi (PI), Charles Waldheim (co-PI), Jesse Keenan (co-PI), Chris Reed, Sean Canty, Lily Song, Aziz Barbar, Charlie Gaillard, Mercedes Peralta, Jeffrey S. Nesbit, Jessy Yang, Tam Banh, Theodore Kofman, and Jonah Susskind.

Partners: Michael Rock / 2 × 4.

Evergrande Times New City

“Agriculture is being increasingly submitted to the market economy and now this is the new state, a more digitalised landscape.” – Rem Koolhaas, 2014

Evergrande Times New City introduces new techniques by integrating advanced technologies with agricultural modernization for new town planning in the Chinese countryside. As a series of principles, standards, and applicable techniques, 50 Unique New Towns focuses on scenario programming, collaborations between town and agricultural production, and increasing the diversity of density and distribution. Covering an area of 10km2 and accommodating a range of 50,000 to 250,000 people, 10% of the urbanized area incorporates the surrounding agricultural land and includes new economic industries such as tourism, healthcare, education, and eco-production.

50 Unique New Towns’ primary themes—lifestyle, health, agriculture, energy, and culture—support an increase in agricultural modernization while simultaneously improving living conditions in the Chinese countryside by utilizing innovative technologies. With the great migration leading to demographic shifts, from the retired and aging population to agricultural workers and early nesters, the distance between agricultural land and dense urban cities has increased. However, Evergrande Times New City intentionally anticipates a return to the countryside, with people attracted by healthy living and promoting agricultural heritage.

China’s agricultural heritage is not only a vital component of conservation of cultural heritage, but also becomes the identity for distribution of Evergrande Times New City. Set within the central area of planning, the local heritage crop defines ecological cycles and cultural identity supported through agricultural tourism, leisure, and social programming. With an emphasis on integrating industry, service, and agriculture, the new towns benefit from living in harmony with nature and allowing for a diversity of density and walkability, and promote new forms of countryside accessibility.

50 Unique New Towns comprises 50 world-leading technologies and techniques based on five technical themes: Smart City [Data + Technology], Green City [Energy + Urban Form], Sponge City [Hydrology + Agriculture], Health City [Public Health + Lifestyle], and Culture City [Conservation + Culture]. These technical aspects provide applicable strategies for new town planning implemented into scenario planning and distributed across diverse regions in China. In relation to agricultural production and social activity, climate, geology, and solar irradiation models propose specific orientations and distributions through key innovative steps for scenario planning of future agriculture-based Chinese new towns.

Project Team: Mohsen Mostafavi (PI), Charles Waldheim (PI), Boya Zhang, Aziz Barbar, Mingyu Kim, Xun Liu, Jeffrey S. Nesbit, Mercedes Peralta, Seok Min Yeo, Pamela Cabrera, Kenney Carmody, Anna Kaertner, Steven Kosovac, Bonnie-Kate Walker, Zishen Wen, and Weijia Wu.

Faculty Partners: Scott Cohen, Ann Forsyth, Teresa Gali Izard, Holly Samuelson, Andres Sevtsuk, and Bing Wang.

Heliomorphic Seoul

“The conception of form is ultimately the understanding of the forces that gave rise to it, as a representation of a form is a diagram of forces in equilibrium.” – Victor Olgyay, 1963

The Han River is a symbol of Korean civilization. It has been a vital source of water and agricultural production for thousands of years. Long ago, the city of Seoul was founded just north of the river. Today, the city extends well beyond the river, spurred by rapid industrialization and economic expansion. The industrialization of the river has led to massive ecological damage and loss of biodiversity along the Han.

Heliomorphic Seoul proposes an image of the city driven by bioproductivity. Landforms emerge from engineered ecological systems. Dispersed engineering structures redirect water flow, stabilize land, and accumulate soil. Synthetic ecologies introduce pondweeds and egrets, feed anchovies and weasels, and extend ranges for tiger butterflies and short-eared owls. Continuous erosion and deposition nurture dynamic ecological cycles.

Hangangcheolgyo (Han River Railroad Bridge) has connected the South Korean peninsula for over a century. Tunnels planned for the site promise to render the bridge redundant. Heliomorphic Seoul transforms Hangangcheolgyo into a vibrant, productive landscape, increasing biodiversity and establishing a platform for ecological connectivity.

Twelve residential towers traverse the river, absorbing water and solar energy. Heliomorphic Seoul proposes sustainable energy models for thermodynamic performance, including solar orientation, absorption, and reflection. Façade panels use biomass to filter air pollutants and support habitats in the sky. Fog-harvesting screens capture precipitation high over the city. Heliomorphic Seoul produces novel forms of bioproductivity, radically reimagining the city’s growth traversing the Han.

Project Team: Charles Waldheim, Jeffrey S. Nesbit, Aziz Barbar, Mingyu Kim, Xun Liu, Ciara Stein, and Seok Min Yeo.

Partners: Eric de Broche des Combes / Luxigon.

Elevated Parks on Obsolete Transportation Infrastructure

“Infrastructure’s long-term value, whether used or disused, is tied to a place. It is a local and material response to societal and economic challenges. Today we spend so much time immersed in the mediating environments of networked society, staring at data through monitors and at highways through windshields, that we are prone to forget infrastructure’s powerfully physical nature.” – Ian Baldwin, 2019

This report presents a series of themes, considerations, and recommendations related to the practice of redeveloping obsolete urban transportation infrastructures. Given the pace of economic restructuring and ongoing urbanization, many cities find themselves inheriting elevated rail or road infrastructures that have outlived their original use. While many of these redundant infrastructures are razed to make room for new forms of development, an increasing number are being offered a second life as elevated public parks. The practice of adapting defunct urban infrastructures came to prominence in the 1990s with the conversion of the Promenade Plantée in Paris, a 4.7-kilometer-long elevated walkway atop an abandoned railway viaduct in Paris’s 12ème arrondissement. The practice was further developed during the 2000s with The High Line, a 2.3-kilometer-long park built atop a disused stretch of elevated freight rail line in western Manhattan. Following their success, elevated parks proliferated during the 2010s, a trend that is expected to continue to accelerate. In light of the wide and rapid acceptance of this mode of adaptive reuse, as well as the ubiquity of derelict transit-destined areas in cities around the world, this research project draws on a comparative, case-based study of such parks in order to inform the discipline of landscape and urban design.

The specific context for this analysis is the case of the IIIia Highway in the Barrio 31 area of Buenos Aires City, for which a similar redevelopment project was recently proposed as part of a larger urban integration plan. The work presented in this report, in line with the Office’s goal of addressing societal and cultural conditions associated with modern urbanization through design research, organizes and visually represents complex arrays of information related to Illia Highway’s prospective conversion. Instead of producing a definitive design, it negotiates between analysis and proposal, using simulations and scenario-based projections to reveal relevant conditions that can serve to later guide the design processes.

This research project revolves around a series of key themes — identity, accessibility, activity, hydrology, ecology, energy, and materiality — drawn from studying international precedents and presented in order of priority. Each theme, developed over the course of a chapter, serves as a lens through which to tackle areas of interest. As such, “Identity,” as a topic, becomes a point of departure for thinking about the materialization of the park; “Accessibility” refers to issues of entry, as points of access are related to the intricate and narrow spatial conditions of Barrio 31’s buildings; “Activity” proposes thinking through programming and events throughout the whole section of the highway; “Hydrology” illustrates how water can be both a challenge and an asset for the park; “Ecology” displays the interconnectedness between users, vegetation, biodiversity and microclimates; “Energy” considers the influence of the sun patterns and the need for shade in the proposed park; and “Materiality” helps to anticipate the volume of materials to be dealt with and notes the ramifications thereof. In addition, direct guidance is offered for the development of various scenarios along with advice on the convening of academic and professional peer reviews and the documentation and dissemination of findings. The Barrio 31 case in Buenos Aires is assessed in relation to similar projects in New York, Chicago, Paris, Barcelona and Seoul, integrating different forms of knowledge in order to foster social, cultural, and environmental renewal. With an ecological framework as its background, Barrio 31’s proposed park stands not only to join the city’s roster of celebrated landmarks, but also to set a new precedent for urban redevelopment around the world.

A synthetic representation of the precedents used is compiled at the end of the report in the form of a comparative catalog. This report ends with a series of general observations and recommendations, as well as a small list of winning proposals in the international competition for the design of the elevated park.

Project Team: Charles Waldheim (PI), Daniel Quesada Lombó, Erin Yook, Mercedes Peralta, Aziz Barbar, Daniel Ibañez, Sofia Xanthakou, Lane Raffaldini Rubin, and Charlie Gaillard.

Landscape as Urbanism in the Americas

“Landscape Urbanism presents an implicit critique of architecture and urban design’s inability to offer coherent and convincing accounts of contemporary urban conditions.” – Charles Waldheim, 2016

The multi-year project in collaboration with various Latin American institutions, Landscape Urbanism in the Americas, is guided through a series of discussions on the potentials for landscape as a medium of urban intervention in the specific social, cultural, economic and ecological context of Latin American cities. Over the past two decades, landscape has been claimed as a model and medium for the contemporary city. The discourse and practices of landscape as urbanism can be found in Europe, North America, and Asia. During this time, a range of alternative architectural and urban practices have emerged across Latin America, situating ecological and territorial implications for the urban project.

The conference series revealed a set of theoretical and practical skills that could benefit from the establishment of a dialogue within and beyond the Latin American region. This first set of conversations is now available online, accompanied by an archive of design projects curated by our advisory board. Through its research, education, public outreach programs and the careful selection of design projects, this ongoing collaboration provides a foundational platform as the first repository of its kind for landscape and urbanism to suggest alternative approaches to urban form across the continent.

Project Team: Charles Waldheim (PI), Felipe Vera (PI), Luis Callejas, Jeannette Sordi, Tomas Folch, Pedro Aparicio, Sara Favargiotti, Daniel Quesada Lombó and Mercedes Peralta.

Mobility-Oriented Design

“The city of Miami has always been modern. Born of the railroad and fed by the airlines, it was shaped by transportation systems that linked the city to distant destinations while dividing local districts. Perhaps as a result . . . the city has long been divided into interdependent, yet spatially distinct cities.” – Gray Read, 2009

Mobility-Oriented Design (MOD): The Case of Miami Metrorail investigates the multiple facets of public transit in Miami-Dade County and its effects on the urban fabric. Broadly, this design research project seeks to understand how public transit operates within the county and why it has historically underperformed. MOD focuses on Miami Metrorail as a case study and identifies and analyzes the specific parameters that have guided transportation and development within the city’s emergent transit corridor along U.S. Highway 1.

This research project synthesizes multiple perspectives and analytical frameworks to present the historical and contemporary factors that contribute to Miami Metrorail’s low ridership and poor accessibility. It pays particular attention to the influence of public opinion, the day-to-day experience of riders, and the relationship between the transit system and its surrounding urban context. A close analysis of these factors and an investigation of correlated prospects and issue areas informs several design scenarios that are intended to visualize and project future options and investment alternatives. Ultimately, this project proposes a menu of recommendations at a variety of scales that are meant to inform decision-making around reinvigorating Metrorail’s existing infrastructure, facilitating ridership, promoting higher-density living, and improving the rail’s integration into the urban fabric.

Project Team: Mohsen Mostafavi (PI), Charles Waldheim (co-PI), Jesse Keenan (co-PI), Jessy Yang, Aziz Barbar, Daniel Quesada Lombó, Charlie Gaillard, Mercedes Peralta, Tommy Hill, Sofia Xanthakou, and Fletcher Phillips.

Partners: Michael Rock / 2 × 4, and Eric Rodenbeck / Stamen.

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South Florida and Sea Level

“We do not have time to deny the effects of climate change… Nowhere is it going to have a bigger impact than here in South Florida.” – Barack Obama, 2015

The Harvard Graduate School of Design and the City of Miami Beach are partnering on a multiyear study of the impacts of and potential responses to sea level rise for coastal communities in South Florida. This research project will examine the implications of rising sea levels and increased storm events on the economy, ecology, infrastructure, and identity of Miami Beach in relation to its metropolitan and regional contexts. The study will develop planning strategies to anticipate future potentials, and to mitigate present threats. As Miami’s coastal barrier islands form one of the most recognizable and singularly valuable cultural landscapes in the world, the study of Miami Beach reveals the potentials for ecological and infrastructural strategies as alternatives to large single purpose engineering solutions.

The emergent topic of urban adaptation to the effects of climate change is among the more pressing areas of research for those engaged in the built environment. While it was not entirely clear how the mitigation of climate change implicated the disciplines of architecture, urban design, or planning, the more recent focus on adaptation to ongoing effects of anthropogenic climate change puts those fields at the center of the conversation. Over the past several years the North American discourse on the subject has sensibly focused on the significant case studies of New Orleans post Katrina and New York post Sandy. Both of these cases have engendered a range of public discourse, planning proposals, and design strategies for living with the ongoing reality of increased storm events, rising sea levels, and a host of secondary and tertiary effects associated with the new reality. In each of these cases the design disciplines have been central to the projection of alternative futures for these vulnerable major metropolitan centers. While these cases have provided unique contexts for the advancement of disciplinary knowledge, professional practices, and societal engagement with the subject of urban adaptation to sea level rise, they have reinforced a tendency toward the defense of relatively densely concentrated urban agglomerations through the deployment of large hydrological engineering systems. By contrast, much of the North American coastline, and its associated urbanization resist such approaches by the realities of their geography, hydrology, and patterns of urbanization. Among the more extreme cases in this regard is the present status and uncertain future of South Florida’s coastal communities.

Using the vehicle of Miami Beach as a case in point, the Harvard Graduate School of Design and its partners will examine the implications of sea level rise and increased storm events on the sprawling urbanism of metropolitan Miami and its numerous municipalities and communities. The low-lying coastal conditions and singular cultural heritage of Miami Beach resist the types of massive civil engineering projects that have recently been proposed for London, Venice, or other major international examples. Given the reliance of South Florida’s economy and identity upon the specific landscape conditions of Miami Beach, this research project proposes to use the frameworks of green infrastructure, landscape ecology, and cultural heritage as potential responses to looming threats associated with sea level rise.

Project Team: Charles Waldheim (PI), Aziz Barbar, Matthew Coogan, Rosetta Elkin, Francesca Romana Forlini, Mariano Gomez-Luque, Helen Kongsgaard, Christian Lavista, Chris Merritt, Javier Ors-Austin, Richard Peiser, Maggie Tsang, Lindsay Woodson, and Jessy Yang.

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Heliomorphic Chicago

“The forms of buildings and groups of buildings must, themselves, be adaptive. The cyclic variations of nature must be specifically recognized as the governing purpose for the design of an adaptive architecture that will embody a new aesthetic.” – Ralph Knowles, 1974

Heliomorphic Chicago imagines the radical revision of Chicago’s urban form through optimized solar performance. The project makes new history by presenting a pair of counterfactual futures—two Chicagos that might have been. These alternative visions are modeled through specific parameters of solar access and ecological performance. The project presents alternative potentials for many of Chicago’s iconic buildings as opposing pairs, optimized in relation to either social equity or sustainable energy. Heliomorphic Chicago posits a pair of alternative histories for Chicago’s collective urban identity as derived from the simple, yet intractable, opposition of zero-sum economies —solar equity on one hand and solar energy on the other.

The speculative modeling of Heliomorphism is disseminated through a range of disciplinary audiences, including academic conferences and international exhibitions. Exhibited in the Chicago Architecture Biennial (2017) and recalibrated to reflect the conditions of towers.

Project Team: Charles Waldheim, Aziz Barbar, Matthew Moffitt, Daniel Quesada Lombó, Amir Karimpour, Helen Kongsgaard, Fletcher Phillips, Christopher Reznich, Lane Raffaldini Rubin, Dana Shaikh Solaiman, Isabel Strauss, and Jessy Yang.

Partners: Siena Scarff / Siena Scarff Design.

Airfield Manual

“Thousands of abandoned or underutilized airports exist around the world, and these redundant infrastructures present extraordinary opportunities for addressing the social, economic, and ecological challenges confronted by cities today.” – Office for Urbanization, 2017

The city of Mendoza, Argentina presents a unique opportunity to examine the extraordinary benefits that the transformation of decommissioned airfields might bring to the city and its inhabitants. The Mendoza Aeroparque is a 72-hectare decommissioned airfield sitting at the western edge of the Andean city in a strategic position between the foothills and the high plains. The Aeroparque sits today behind concrete walls surrounded by the ongoing urbanization of a 1200-hectare district spanning two municipalities and host to various social, natural, economic and urban challenges. The twin municipalities of Mendoza and Las Heras belong to a the larger metropolitan area along with five other municipalities including Godoy Cruz, Guaymallén, Luján, Maipú and Lavalle. Taken together, these department make up Greater Mendoza, a metropolitan area with 1,900,000 inhabitants. Mendoza is among the world capitals of wine production and is known for this specific agricultural, commercial, and tourist economy. Mendoza’s high desert climate features warm summers and very cold winters. Mendoza is presently the fourth largest metropolitan area in the country. Situated in the Precordilleras de la Rioja, San Juan y Mendoza, the city was established in 1561 in an alluvial high plain whose ecological input dictated the organizational logic of its urban form. The region is predominantly a desert due to low levels of precipitation; however, pre-Hispanic water management techniques engineered the land to be amenable to human life. The city’s grid was designed to capture Andean snowmelt and provide an urban oasis through a system of channels called “acequias.” These channels form the morphological and hydrological logic of the city’s spatial structure. During the second half of the twentieth century, urban expansion advanced from the plain up into the mountains, occupying parts of the piedmont ecosystem of the Andean slope. The Mendoza Aeroparque, an exception to this historical line of urban expansion, is a major land area whose ecology can generate new sensitive urban forms.

This research report proposes a series of recommendations for the future transformation of the Mendoza Aeroparque. The Aeroparque’s location and surrounding conditions provide the ideal setting for a strategic urban plan that binds together multiple scales of impact and reprograms available land with mixed uses. Its objective is to share with local stakeholders a set of spatial considerations where landscape and ecology are the media of new urban form. These recommendations were structured following two site visits by the Office to Mendoza, Argentina in December 2016 and March 2017. Both visits comprise part of a half-year research project led by Principal Investigator Charles Waldheim and Research Associate Pedro Aparicio at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design in Cambridge, MA. During each site visit, engagement with public officials, technical experts, the academic community, and local citizens offered nuanced visions about the challenges and opportunities that this airfield conversion might entail.

Project Team: Charles Waldheim (PI), Pedro Aparicio, Sara Favargiotti, Mariano Gomez-Luque, Matthew Moffitt, Ruben Segovia, Dana Shaikh Solaiman, Ximena de Villafranca, and David Zielnicki.

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Airport Landscape

“If the erasure of conventional boundaries is the most salient spatial feature of the late-twentieth-century condition, the airport may be taken as its most perfect landscape expression.” – Denis Cosgrove, 1990


Given the rapid growth of air travel that came alongside the great expansion of cities, many airports have since become obsolete, underutilized, and subsequently abandoned. Reasons for this include insufficient size of facilities, locations that became unfavorable for airport operations, decommissioning of military uses, and the functional obsolescence of buildings. With a database of over 1800 decommissioned airfields around the globe, we claim that the abandonment of airports is a pervasive phenomenon globally. Within a decade, hundreds of urban airports will cease operations. What will be done with these flat, concrete, highly complex sites—many of them in the center of cities—once they are no longer needed for air travel? The Airport Landscape Initiative gathers and examines contemporary design proposals for the ecological enhancement of operating airfields and the conversion of abandoned ones.

The Office examines the airport as a central site and case study for the practice of landscape and ecological urbanism conveyed through a variety of disciplinary perspectives including: exhibition (2013) and publication (2016) titled, Airport Landscapes: Urban Ecologies in the Aerial Age, with Sonja Dumpelmann, and two research publications Airfield Manual: Field Guide to the Transformation of Abandoned Airports (2017), and the Airfield Manual: The Case of the Mendoza Aeroparque (2017). Recommendations are not considered as design projects but as principles conveyed through design scenarios. For example, the Airfield Manual compiles case study strategies and best practices for the conversion of decommissioned airports for a variety of new uses. Written for an audience of civic, business, and political leaders as well as for directors of aviation, engineers, and managers, Airfield Manual offers an executive summary of the issues and options attendant to the ownership, management, deactivation, and decommissioning of the airport site.

Project Team: Charles Waldheim (PI), Sonja Dümpelmann, Pedro Aparicio, Sara Favargiotti, Matthew Moffitt, Lane Rubin, Ruben Segovia, Dana Shaikh Solaiman, and David Zielnicki.

Data, Design, Decision

“In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”  — Herbert Simon, 1971

Recent claims around big data, smart cities, and the Internet of Things suggest that we are on the verge of an unprecedented wave of information about the contemporary city. From IBM’s early “smarter cities” initiative to Google’s recent foray into “civic innovation technologies,” a variety of companies have entered the marketplace of urban informatics. At the same time, a number of open source developers have contributed platforms and strategies to help cities operationalize data for the public good. Governments have responded to a call for transparency and innovation by releasing data into the public domain for others to access, analyze, and leverage toward alternative and better futures. Today, a range of technology advocates, from technology corporations and open-source developers to architects, planners, and urban designers are advancing strategies to effectively resolve urban questions as data infiltrates the public realm. Concurrently, developments in design methodology, and the increasing prevalence of design thinking in the domains of business, public policy, and information technology, among others, promise innovation in decision-making processes.

While technological and social change may, in fact, produce more and better information, the status of that information relative to decision-making, especially in the urban context, has been a longstanding area of research in the design disciplines. Over the past half-century, the discourse and practices associated with design thinking have been proposed to describe the role of design in dealing with a surplus of data. Beginning with discussions of design methodology in architecture and urban design, design thinking emerged as a means to address the complexity of open societal systems through a propositional model of intervention in the world. In contrast to empirical or descriptive models of inquiry, design thinking is most often propositional. Rather than simply describing the world as found, design is capable of describing how it might change. This projective condition for design is most often concerned with material, spatial, or temporal interventions in the world. In this respect, design thinking is often characterized by its capacity to propose alternative and better futures, particularly in contexts where traditional forms of scientific inquiry are found inadequate to the complexity of the situation at hand.

Project Team: Charles Waldheim, Helen Kongsgaard, and Robert Pietrusko.


Heliomorphic Manhattan

“For decades the optimal milieu for a variety of human activities has been achieved mainly through energy input… now a building can be transformed into a quasibiological system that sensitively responds to environmental variations, opening itself like a blossom, harnessing and absorbing ambient energies.” – Vladimir Matus, 1988


Heliomorphic Manhattan revisited changes, conceptual and projective, that contemporary models of computational geometry have brought to this design model. The topics of solar orientation and social order, public health, and political economy were fundamental questions for many protagonists and projects of modern planning. In the wake of the collapse of modern planning, singular models of social urban order based on latitude and solar equity have given way to neoliberal models of market-driven urbanization.

The speculative modeling of Heliomorphism was disseminated through a range of disciplinary audiences, including academic conferences and international exhibitions. The GSD conference Heliomorphism (2016) convened an international group of GSD faculty, doctoral candidates, and a select group of GSD alumni to examine its present potentials through three discursive frames — plug-ins, commons, and zero-sum — and showcased the work of Heliomorphic Manhattan.

Project Team: Charles Waldheim, Pedro Aparicio, Aziz Barbar, Mariano Gomez-Luque, Helen Kongsgaard, and Soo Ran Shin.


“The natural sciences are concerned with how things are. Design on the other hand is concerned with how things ought to be.” – Herbert Simon, 1969

The topic of solar orientation and urban form is both perennial and, once again, timely. The discourses and practices of ‘ecological urbanism’ have turned our focus to the terrestrial topics of hydrological connectivity and ecological function. Heliomorphism proposes to revise and extend the ecological urbanism agenda by returning to solar performance. Recent projects by a number of leading architects and urbanists have suggested new forms of urban order through solar orientation. In many of these projects, designers correlate the shape of the city to a complex and contradictory economy of solar performance.

The topics of solar orientation and social order, public health, and political economy were fundamental questions for many protagonists and projects of modern planning. In the wake of the collapse of modern planning, singular models of social urban order based on latitude and solar equity have given way to neoliberal models of market driven urbanization. The inaugural conference of the Harvard GSD Office for Urbanization returns to this archaic aspect of urban order, and convenes an international group of GSD faculty and doctoral candidates, as well as a select group of GSD alumni to examine its present potentials through three discursive frames: plug-ins, commons, and zero-sum.


Ralph Knowles’s concept of the ‘solar envelope’ proposed a design tool that anticipates contemporary interests in parametricism and relational modeling. The envelope offered a projective form through which urban morphology was indexed to solar performance. The technological developments of the last decade have enabled an unanticipated degree of precision and feedback, potentially infusing new possibilities into an idea that has a half-century of history. Plug-ins revisits the changes, conceptual and projective, that contemporary models of computational geometry have brought to this design model.


Independent of location or latitude, access to the sun is considered an ancient and inviolable right in many cultures. Several current politico economic conceptions, however, protect it for health considerations while others regulate it for energy reasons. Regardless of these two distinctions, commons reconsiders both types of solar access to be issues of social equity and it examines, accordingly, the tensions that exist between built form through capital accumulation and access to sunlight through environmental consensus.


The energy crisis and economic shocks of the 1970s led to experimental and counter-culture practices of architecture and urbanism. These practices enabled the emergence of domestic applications and DIY methods of implementation in a new political economy of solar energy. The current environmental crisis embraces zero-carbon responses and has pushed the scale of operation to neoliberal corporate and governmental urbanizations. Zero-sum reviews the shifts from the domestic to the urban, from the individual to the conglomerate (political or economical), from the alternative to the new normal.

Project Team: Charles Waldheim, Sergio Lopez-Pineiro, and Daniel Ibañez.

Event Program

Sustainable Exuma

“We, together, acknowledge the on-going need to have citizens embrace the concept of ownership of our natural environment in the historical context, as well as those things of value, which are crafted by people over the ages.”  – Philip Brave Davis, 2013

This multi-year ecological planning project is a collaboration among the Government of The Bahamas, the Bahamas National Trust, and Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD). The goal is to facilitate the design and management of a more sustainable future for the Exuma archipelago, and The Bahamas more generally.

The project has two parallel and mutually informing components: research and education. These components work to inform the development of proposals and interventions as well as the building of capabilities for local empowerment. An important part of the project is a series of Scholarships for the degree programmes as well as opportunities for Bahamians to engage in the summer Career Discovery Programme at the GSD. Furthermore, the project is integrated with the research and pedagogy of the GSD.

The project seeks to understand local issues through various forms of public engagement. Public forums, workshops, and conferences are part of the process, in addition to fieldwork that facilitates the connection of researchers with residents. The first year focused on fieldwork including participation in daily routines that created a better understanding of local issues particularly across Exuma and more generally across The Bahamas. The second year of the project focuses on proposal making, where we design and imagine projects that have the potential for a long-term spatial and economic impact, while the third year focuses on a plan for action and implementation.

Project Team: Mohsen Mostafavi (PI), Gareth Doherty (co-PI), Filipe Vera, Fadi Masoud, Jose Maria Ortiz Cotro, Tomas Folch, Fábio Duarte, Robert Daurio, Mariano Gomez Luque.

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Common Frameworks

“We believe passionately that those cities that are positioned to excel in this time of global change are pursuing broad, integrated strategies to tap hidden value, celebrate ecology and culture, attract people and investment and overcome financial and operational inefficiencies to define success.” – AECOM

The Harvard GSD AECOM Project on China is a three-year research and design project premised on two fundamental ambitions: recuperating an idea of the city and pursuing alternative forms of urbanization in response to the challenges posed by the developmental city in China. The former treats the project of the city as a cultural, political, and aesthetic act; the latter views the city as a site for urbanization, articulated through architecture, landscape, and infrastructure. This endeavor is analytical and propositional in equal measure.

Each year, the Project on China focuses on a theoretical problem and practical challenge posed by the model of the developmental city in China, using a particular city as an exemplar. The first year focuses on the problem of the megaplot, the basic planning unit for rapid and speculative urbanization, using Xiamen as a case study. The second year investigates the challenges faced by cities in city-regions and the effects of cross-border urbanization, with Macau as the paradigm. The third year examines the status of the countryside in the context of state-driven initiatives to urbanize rural areas, with a focus on existing villages and in-progress new agricultural towns.

Project Team: Christopher C.M. Lee (PI), Mohsen Mostafavi, Simon Whittle, Peter G. Rowe, Rahul Mehrotra, Piper Gaubatz, and Jianfei Zhu.