Overlapped in Energy City

How Houston might meet its net-zero future.

By Jennifer Reut

Energy City Framework
Chen used parametric tools to study how new forms of energy production (wind, solar, biomass) can be overlapped with other land uses in urban areas. Images courtesy of Chen Chen.

The Overlapped City was architect Chen Chen’s second ASLA Student Honor award winner, and because of this, it offers a chance to see how ideas and frameworks can grow and mature over the course of graduate education.

Chen’s work is notable for its moody, almost dystopian graphic presentation, but it’s her analytical heft that caught the jury’s eye this year. The project distills the spatial implications of energy production, with the city of Houston as a prototype site. We talked with Chen Chen from her Beijing studio, reMIX, about her project, her abiding interest in energy, and the big opportunities that she believes landscape architects are missing.

You won the Student ASLA Honor Award in 2011 (for Vertical Territories, with E. Scott Mitchell and Amy Whitesides) and again in 2013. How would you describe the difference between your projects, and what have you learned and applied in the interim?

The projects share a lot in common. There are continuities of scale, but with quite different topics. Two projects deal with landscape primarily through vertical dimensions, integrating multiple goals, multiple data sets, and a multilayered approach. What is common is the verticality of those two projects, and they both try to deal with problems in [the] context of compact or dense urban environments. Both try to make a synergy between different types [of] land use. For example, both talk about how energy production can be overlapped with open space or landscape or ecological elements. I look at how those functions can work on different elevations to give some productivity to land and open space. Usually, open space in urban areas doesn’t produce any revenue—that’s usually the first thing to be removed when there is a high-pressure urban development. I am trying to look at ways of putting that back in.

In your project description, you assert that energy production, as much as manufacturing, transportation, or other urban processes, will shape the cities of the future. How did you get interested in urban morphology and energy production?

Since I am an architect, I am always very interested in urban form, especially since architecture is used in urban environments. I got more interested in energy as a topic, because, between the two awards, I had some discussions on post-tsunami events and on the famous Sandy. Because of these two events, actually, a lot of urban planners and landscape planners are very interested in energy production, and they got excited because a lot of other people got excited about energy production in cities. Seventy-five percent of energy consumption is in cities, for example, so if you want to talk about energy issues we cannot avoid urban areas or cities.

SA-238G Chen Chen
Chen Chen

Usually, energy is talked [about] as an engineering problem, and very few architects or landscape architects are interested in energy as a general topic. Attention is now on green building and sustainable design to conserve energy in buildings, but very few pay attention to [the] big picture of energy production, distribution, and consumption. I took the opportunity to look at energy in [a] broad sense and also consider it as a spatial or design problem.

What are some of the challenges you faced developing this project?

The challenge is, of course, that there is a huge amount of data and also complexity of urban systems generally. The urban problem is a huge problem. There are thousands of layers, and then there are the limits of tools and techniques. What I was trying to propose was a parametric approach to deal with this common problem. Although I had all these challenges, the parametric approach as a platform [rather than a design tool] allows me to be very flexible in terms of the data I use and the systems I create, and provides the opportunity to improve every component of the framework over time. I mostly used Rhino, with the free Grasshopper plug-in, and it worked very well.

Why Houston, and where does the project go next?

The site was chosen in the [Harvard Graduate School of Design] studio and had to be in the United States, but the project might be better suited for cities in developing countries. I chose Houston because it was the fastest growing and so was most like cities in developing countries, and it had great solar and wind exposure. I’m now practicing in Beijing in a little studio that is super young, and we’re really focused on urbanization in China. China now is putting a lot of push and effort into developing clean energy to prepare for the future. Both the government and some industries are investing a lot on research in this area. It’s a global phenomenon, and not so many designers are looking at the big picture. I’ve shared my work with many Chinese planners and industry groups, and they got quite interested in this. Since, in China, the politicians are usually from a science or engineering background, this kind of approach speaks their language, and it’s an approach they really respond to. My whole narrative—they really get it.

I’m looking forward to building a proper research team—an energy business specialist, computer scientists, etc., and developing a tool kit that we could provide to other planners to link numbers to urban space. I want to show, for example, that for a goal of 50 percent clean energy—what that means, spatially. Each number or goal they have means a lot in terms of urban space, and in terms of the experience of people who want to live there.

For me, I really believe in the capacity of parametric tools to be a tool and not a style. And I think it will work much better at an urban scale because there are too many layers of data—rather than forms—to rationally link form and data in a precise way. It’s just a beginning, it’s the first step, but that will be what we as the studio want to explore.

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