Archinect talks with Charles Waldheim about Office for Urbanization and inaugural conference, “Heliomorphism”

Charles Waldheim's Unbuilt Manhattan

Charles Waldheim, “Unbuilt Manhattan,” 2016. Image: Charles Waldheim

Since its launch in November 2015, the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Office for Urbanization has outlined and delved into its research ambitions, expanded its staff, and convened its first public events. Earlier this year, it organized a colloquium in Miami—the site of its inaugural research project on challenges provoked by sea level rise and other aspects of adaptation to climate change—as well as a series of conferences in South America. As when it launched, the Office remains committed to focusing the intellectual and practical capabilities of the GSD on a range of projects attendant to the contemporary city, aiming to imagine alternative urban futures through applied design.

On the cusp of the Office’s recent conference “Heliomorphism,” held at the GSD, Archinect spoke with Charles Waldheim, the Office’s director and the GSD’s John E. Irving Professor of Landscape Architecture, about the program’s origins and inspiration, as well as the themes and projects that he envisions on its horizon.

The Office for Urbanization's director Charles Waldheim
The Office for Urbanization’s director Charles Waldheim

“The idea for the Office is something that we cultivated based on the idea that we had been doing these applied design research projects”—a collaboration with AECOM on Chinese cities, and a project with the Exumas, a series of islands in the Bahamas—“and these are prototypical, in that they deal with questions of urbanization somewhere in the world,” Waldheim tells Archinect. “They are applied in the sense that they tend to be more specifically making recommendations to decision makers, people in civil leadership or in political positions, and we found that after doing a couple of them, every one of them was kind of a start-up: new team, new file-naming convention, a new skill set, et cetera.

“The Office is meant to build on those experiences of the Exuma project and the AECOM collaboration on Chinese cities and to then make that kind of capacity more sustainable.”

The Office’s “Heliomorphism” conference, held Thursday and Friday, September 15 and 16, offered a framework of how it will apply design as a mode of research investigation. The conference gathered GSD faculty, doctoral students, and alumni in discussions of, among other topics, new forms of urban order through solar orientation. Thursday evening’s keynote remarks by Jeanne Gang (MArch ’93) and Thom Mayne (MArch ’78) revealed the design research behind some of their iconic projects. They also discussed their relationship to the ideas of architect Ralph Knowles, the pioneering theorist of the “solar envelope.”

Read Archinect’s full Q&A with Waldheim to learn more about the Office’s present and forthcoming work.