In 2007, Amale Andraos and Dan Wood, principals of the New York-based architecture firm WORKac, were teaching an “eco-urbanism” seminar at Princeton University. To grasp this relatively new term, Andraos, Wood, and their students had to first learn the history of the two fields from which it evolved. So the architects had their students dissect a number of city plans, from the fully realized (Levittown, New York, 1947) to the audaciously conceptual (Buckminster Fuller’s Tetrahedral City, 1965). Just how socially inclusive and sensitive to the environment were they?
“Over the following summer,” says Wood, “we thought it would be interesting—as a WORKac project—to re-examine the urban plans we used in the course in terms of their ecological performance. We stripped them of their sociological and cultural intentions or context and simply analyzed them.”
The result was 49 Cities, a 2009 exhibition, at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in Manhattan, and an accompanying book in which 49 urban plans were flattened by a series of filters measuring overcrowding, pollution, FAR, density, housing, parkland, and more. The cities could then be compared and measured—not by their ideals, but by their actual (or potential) “ecological footprint.” The results were presented in info-graphics, charts, and re-drawn plans.
The first and second edition of 49 Cities sold out. Wood says that they have received continuous requests for copies over the last five years. But the married partners have been busy: they had children, the recession hit, they were growing a successful practice, and Andraos became the dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation.
Finally, 49 Cities will be republished by Inventory Press (whose founder Adam Michaels is the founder of the architecture and design studio Project Projects)—as long as a $22,000 Kickstarter campaign is successful. The Kickstarter funds will pay for the printing. The book’s design, new writing (including interviews with Archigram’s Michael Webb, Chip Lord of the collective Ant Farm, and Yona Friedman), and improved illustrations have been provided in-kind. The updated edition will be a clothbound hardcover with foil-stamping, "flexi-binding,” and higher quality paper.
49 Cities is meant to be a kind of “guidebook for contemporary urbanism based on historic precedents” says Wood. Since it was first published, climate change has only become a greater threat (or “fear factor,” as Andraos and Wood would call such an environmental or social menace in the book) to sustainable cities worldwide. “But through careful attention to factors such as density, diversity, sustainable systems and infrastructure, and consideration of the relationship between urban, rural, and natural areas, cities can become agents for change,” says Wood.
Cynics might say that it is a utopian dream to think that architects, planners, developers, and city governments will evaluate urban planning and architecture as painstakingly as Wood and Andraos do in 49 Cities. But as much as possible, the two have tried to incorporate the ethos of the project into their practice, from the urban farm they created for MoMA PS1’s Young Architects Program in 2008 to their Edible Schoolyard projects in Manhattan. Another takeaway is the importance of infrastructure. “As a means to create new forms of public space and city structure, it has also been very important to our work, including architectural projects,” says Wood. (No city can survive without sewers and streets, after all.)
One other change since 49 Cities was published in 2009, notes Wood, is that conversations about urbanism have increased exponentially. “Hopefully architects are coming out of the self-imposed exile from urban design and returning to a time when their great strengths can be brought to bear on the very important issues facing cities today,” he says.