Catalyst Architecture: Rio de Janeiro, New York, Tokyo, Copenhagen

Hans Kiib (Editor), Gitte Marling (Editor)

Research output: Book/ReportAnthologypeer-review


’Catalyst Architecture’ takes its point of departure in a broadened understanding of the role of architecture in relation to developmental problems in large cities. Architectural projects frame particular functions and via their form language, they can provide the user with an aesthetic experience. The broadened understanding of architecture consists in that an architectural project, by virtue of its placement in the context and of its composition of programs, can have a mediating role in a positive or cultural development of the district in question. In this sense, we talk about architecture as catalyst for urban transformation, for development of a more inclusive urban life, for strengthening of the social cohesiveness and learning. Purpose and idea With growing globalization, all large cities in the investigation are facing the challenge of tackling rising social and environmental problems. The big cities on the planet have growing pains and social cohesiveness is under pressure from an increased difference between rich and poor, social segregation, ghettoes, immigration of guest workers and refugees, commercial mass tourism etc. In this context, it is important to ask which role architecture and urban design can play to counteract the negative consequences of globalization and to contribute in making our cities socially sustainable. How can architecture participate in developing the city’s social spaces, creating interaction zones for cultural exchange and contributing with architecture rich in experience? Which design qualities do the best examples of architecture as urban catalysts have, and how can we as citizens, politicians and professionals use knowledge about this in the development of our cities as good places to live? We wish to throw light on these key questions through case studies of a number of strategically chosen projects from the four cities, which represent very different geographical, social, political and cultural challenges. The book focuses on presenting the role of architecture and the architectural projects in relation to distinctive local challenges. The purpose is to create a better understanding and new knowledge of the projects’ architectural effects and about how architecture can work as a catalyst in important current social questions. The Projects The following architectural projects are included in the book: Shibaura House, Tokyo by the architectural firm SANAA (Pritzker Price winner, 2012). SANAA’s project stands out because of its ability to dissolve the relationship between outside and inside and by working with a mixture of the private and the publically accessible. This is a private building, in which the three lower floors offer a publically accessible meeting place with café, alternating exhibitions and informal meeting rooms for local inhabitants. On the top floor, there are workshop facilities for artists and designers. This is a small pocket with public access in a highly exploited and extremely commercialized urban district. Miyashita Park, Tokyo by Atelier Bow-Wow. On an elongated ribbon, squeezed in between high-rise blocks, busy roads and train lines in the densely urbanized Shibuya district, the Japanese architectural firm has created an active urban park with focus on exposed groups and young people. Particular emphasis is placed on the programming of the new urban space in accordance with the firm’s strategies for ´places of behavior’. The park, situated on top of a parking complex, is used differently and by different user groups during the day and in the evenings. Superkilen, Copenhagen. Superkilen has been elected as the best urban space in the world in 2012. It is designed by a consortium consisting of the architectural firm BIG, Copenhagen, the landscape architects TOPOTEK1, Berlin and the artist group Superflex, Copenhagen. The consortium’s new development consists of a series of urban spaces on an old freight train track. The project turns the city’s “back side” into “front side”. Via remarkable architectural expression and a wealth of objects, the ambition of the project is to constitute a new narrative for a multi-ethnic local community, Nørrebro. By creating easy access and establishing a regional cycle path running through it, several separated districts are linked together in a new interaction zone. Bibliotek + Kulturhus, Copenhagen. The architectural firms COBE and Transform have created a new building for the Northwest district in Copenhagen. The project is to be commended for its ambition to improve learning among children and young people in the district, for its role as the new public living room of the neighborhood and as a meeting place for a diverse group of inhabitants. With the applied architectural effects and the organization of the programs, COBE and Transform have created an open building, rich in experiences, which plays a significant role for the area. The High Line, New York. The High Line is designed by the architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro in partnership with landscape architect James Corner and his firm Field Operation. The High Line on West Manhattan is a conversion of an elevated freight rail track to a park bridge. The bridge opens all of West Manhattan for visitors and gives new energy to three run-down areas, with new buildings and renovation projects as a result. The landscape architectural strategy emphasizes preservation of the flora, which has developed in the area and which creates mental connections of the site to its global relationships. Jane’s Carousel, DUMBO, New York. The project is designed by French architect and Pritzker Prize winner Jean Nouvel. Ateliers Jean Nouvel has created a small glass pavilion for an old, newly renovated carousel, which is placed in the new harbor park in DUMBO, Brooklyn. The pavilion stages a grand narrative about Brooklyn’s industrial history. With its very prominent location, its consciously underplayed scale, its transparent facades, its play with the transition between outside and inside, the aesthetically different experience of day and night, the architectural project is a new landmark, offering a new and ambiguous view of New York’s and Brooklyn’s skylines. The Cantagalo Elevator, Rio de Janeiro. The architectural firm JBMC Arquitetura & Urbanismo from Sao Paulo has created a hybrid elevator building, which connects the poorest parts of the Cantagalo favela with the wealthy district of Ipanema. The project, which consists of several public programs, addresses the need to open up districts in Rio and create access and connections in the socially divided city across the formal and informal areas, of which the latter counts for more than half of the population in Rio. Museum of Image and Sound, Rio de Janeiro. The museum, which is localized on Copacabana Beach, is under construction. It is designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, New York. The museum celebrates popular music and film. It is to be commended for its folding of a public program into the building. Thereby the ground floor is opened to young people and those interested in culture to walk straight in from the big public domain in the city, Copacabana Beach. A set of stairs outside the building leads to a public domain on the top floor with free film shows and a view of the city and the ocean. The building offers a new open-minded meeting place for interaction and cultural learning. As will become apparent, eight architectural projects are analyzed, ranging from a small pavilion, a smaller private district building, to ambitious hybrid culture projects and new concepts for urban parks and urban spaces linked by pathways or cycle paths. The projects are chosen because each of them has a strategic role in the local area, in which they are located; and because they seem to meet the challenges, facing the local area or the city. They are however also chosen because each one of them holds architectural qualities, which we find interesting to study and to learn from. The projects have in common that they all connect, transform and set a new agenda in the given context. They all have public access and in most cases, they are also under public administration. Thus, we do not deal with shopping malls, office, business or residential buildings, nor do we examine traditional private or public institutions. The focus of the book is architecture and the role of architecture in relation to a diverse city life. In this respect, relevant political agendas are involved. However, it is important to mention that it is not the intention to bring a debate on economic or more general political topics, how interesting it might seem to be. Among others, the issue of gentrification is very relevant in connection with urban renewal of urban interventions. We are very well aware of that. We mention the problem especially in the cases in Rio de Janeiro and Nørrebro in Copenhagen, but we do not examine the topic further. Case Studies in Transition Zones In the selection as well as the analysis of the projects, particular emphasis has been placed on their localization. There has been particular focus on transition zones between one or more neighborhoods, or localities containing social or cultural conflicts. The Cantagalo Elevator in Rio de Janeiro connects two districts directly. The High Line in New York floats above 3-4 districts, and Superkilen in Copenhagen is placed between and makes its way through different neighborhoods and districts. Other projects are situated at the edge of a district, public park or a public domain used by various social groups. This is the case with Jane’s Carousel in DUMBO, New York and with the Museum of Image & Sound, which is localized at the edge of the Copacabana district in Rio, where it works as an extension of the large public domain in Rio, Copacabana Beach – the place where rich and poor meet. Finally, a few projects are localized in physically extremely fragmented neighborhoods, which in themselves can be characterized as transition zones. Here, the role of the architectural projects is not to connect across neighborhoods, but to connect and strengthen a physically fragmented area in which there is a lack of public meeting places. Bibliotek+ Kulturhus in Nordvest in Copenhagen is one of these projects. It is localized in the middle of a multi-ethnic and physically divided neighborhood. Shibaura House and Miyashita Park in Tokyo are other examples; Miyashita Park is localized in a former unoccupied area on top of a parking complex, between existing infrastructure and buildings. The park is woven into, above, under and between, so to speak. Strategic Projects We have chosen to analyze the projects as case studies, which contribute with strategic knowledge rather than generalizing from average considerations. These are ‘strategic projects’ where we have looked for the specific and the particular (Flyvbjerg 1991). According to the case studies, we use the case study method developed by Bent Flyvbjerg. As he recommends we have developed our general research questions from a preliminary research on all the projects. During the process of case analyses, a rich variation of information is uncovered, which is leading to new specific research questions for each case. (Flyvbjerg 1991). Thus, the reader will find that the number of questions and the findings are broadening through the book. The collection of data has subsequently been systematic and reflective in relation to the raised research questions. Written documents, plans, historical sources, surveys and concrete facts have been part of all the case studies. All the architectural projects have been analyzed ‘on location’. The physical site’s relationships and connections to the neighborhood and the city have been listed on maps. The programs, plans, facades, spatial and architectural effects of the projects are registered, analyzed and documented. The users’ everyday practices in the architecture have been observed and embedded in ‘story boards’, and in a number of cases documented with tallies. A few projects have been observed and analyzed over a couple of years with several visits on location. The only exception from this is the Museum of Image and Sound in Rio de Janeiro, where it has only been possible to visit the building site, as the project is still under construction. In addition, information is given about the architects’ ideas and goals with the projects, their architectural approaches as well as their own evaluations of the results. In most cases, this knowledge is obtained through interviews in their drawing offices. These interviews are documented in films about the projects. The given challenges are always analyzed concretely and evaluated in relation to site-specific challenges, as the different architectural firms’ interpretations and architectural strategies are included in the analyses. This implies that there is a large variation of empirical knowledge about the selected problems. That is the reason why we give a short introduction to the exact use of approaches and methods in the beginning of each case study. Based on the analysis of the strategic cases, drawing conclusions by comparison across the cases is not immediately possible. The thematic summary in chapter 7 should therefore be read concurrently with the presentation of the individual cases. In this way, the empirical richness, which the analyses make available, can be enhanced. The Chapters of the Book Chapter 2, Architecture and Place deals with the analytical approaches of the book. First, the architectural concept in question is determined and then the applied site concept is presented. The chapter finishes with a short account of the themes and methods, which the theoretical basis sets out for the interaction between architecture and site. Chapter 3, New York addresses the transition, which New York is undergoing in order to reinvent itself as one of the leading knowledge and cultural cities of the world. In this connection, the focus is on the challenge related to opening up the city with new recreational areas along the water and creating access for the ‘ soft road users’. Then the High Line design by James Corner Field Operation and Diller Scofidio+ Renfro is analyzed, followed by the project Jane’s Carousel designed by Ateliers Jean Nouvel. Chapter 4, Copenhagen is introduced with an identification of the welfare city’s challenges anno 2015. This is followed by an analysis of Bibliotek + Kulturhus designed by COBE and Transform, and Superkilen designed by BIG, TOPOTEK 1 and Superflex, respectively. Chapter 5, Tokyo is introduced with an identification of one of the central challenges in the city: the need to create widespread and better public and non-commercial squares and meeting-places. The selected projects, which are then presented, are Miyashita Park designed by Atelier Bow-Wow and Shibaura House designed by SANAA. Chapter 6, Rio de Janeiro firstly introduces the specific challenges facing Rio de Janeiro - a divided city with the formal city and its wealthy neighborhoods on one side and on the other, the many favelas, which are not included in the regulations and public practices of the formal city. Then the case studies of the projects Cantagalo Elevator, designed by JBMC Arquitetura & Urbanismo, and Museum of Image & Sound, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, New York are presented. Chapter 7, Conclusion and perspectives sums up central parts of the new knowledge provided by the eight case studies. The summary is undertaken across the cases in five themes, which have been central throughout the whole book: architecture in transition zones; architecture, which opens the city; architecture with diverse programs; architecture, which is aesthetically involving, and architecture, which renews the narrative of place. A few comments on this complete each section in the conclusion where we point out new issues, architectural challenges and tasks, which the investigation has raised and which open new areas for continued research. At the end of the book, you find information about the applied literature/ sources, information about the authors, the architect firms and a list of photos/photographers.
Translated title of the contributionCatalyst Architecture: Rio de Janeiro, New York, Tokyo, København
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationAalborg
PublisherAalborg Universitetsforlag
Number of pages307
ISBN (Print)978-87-7112-223-7
Commissioning bodyAalborg University
Publication statusPublished - 27 Feb 2015
SeriesArt and Urbanism Series


  • Architectue
  • Catalyst
  • Social Citizenship
  • Urban Transformation
  • Cultural Citizenship


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