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Audi-backed Competition Drives Speculative Urbanism

By William Hanley
October 11, 2012
Photo © CRIT
Mumbai firm CRIT’s proposal looks beyond their city’s existing infrastructure. The Urban Future Award finalists go on view today in Istanbul. The winner of the €100,000 prize will be announced on October 18.

At least since Jane Jacobs took on Robert Moses’s plan for a freeway through Greenwich Village, the car has played the villain in urbanist narratives. But German automaker Audi hopes to change the role of its product in the next chapter of the story.

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Next week, it will present the second Audi Urban Future Award, the culmination of a biennial competition to reimagine the city beginning with transportation infrastructure. “We are not only talking about improving the image of the car,” says Audi strategic corporate planning advisor Dominik Stampfl. “We are also talking about envisioning the way individual mobility takes place in the future.” The goal, he says, is to develop new products that, rather than threatening the city, evolve with it to meet future transportation needs. In the meantime, the award helps bolster Audi’s brand as a forward-looking, design focused company.

Audi has built the 2012 award cycle around envisioning new ways of moving people through five rapidly growing metropolitan areas: China’s Pearl River Delta, Istanbul, Mumbai, Sao Paolo, and the United States’ East Coast megalopolis from Boston to Washington, D.C. With help from the design consultancy, Stylepark, the car company selected a firm from each location to develop a scheme for its region. The proposals go on display today at Istanbul’s Hasköy Spinning Factory—a former textile manufacturing facility—in tandem with the city’s first design biennial. On October 18, a jury will select the winner of the €100,000 prize.

Audi set out three parameters for the competition: Each must take into account the region’s identity, explore new forms of mobility, and envision how the region could look in the year 2030. In May, the design teams presented preliminary proposals at Audi’s headquarters in Ingolstadt, Germany. There, the six-person firm CRIT proposed to connect Mumbai’s ad-hoc small businesses, which have emerged to fill space left by the decline of large-scale industrial manufacturing. Urban-Think Tank considered reorienting Sao Paulo’s car-focused infrastructure to improve access to its sprawling neighborhoods and favelas, promoting economic and social mobility in addition to physical transportation throughout the city. And NODE Design and Urbanism presented a plan for a “post-sweatshop” era in China’s Pearl River Delta.

Not all of the proposals directly alter infrastructure. In Istanbul, where the average age of the population is 28 and Facebook use is among the highest in the world, Superpool would create a mobile application to enable that network of people to democratically propose and review infrastructure projects of all sizes. “When our rate of development is combined with poor planning and legislation, it’s kind of the Wild West,” says Superpool principal Gregers Tang Thomsen. “We are trying to tap into the vast number of people on Facebook to encourage a participatory process.”

Also considering the changing lifestyles of the young and mobile, Eric Höweler of Boston-based Höweler + Yoon has taken to carrying a laptop adorned with an “I Heart Boswash” bumper sticker. He and his partner, J. Meejin Yoon, have adopted the portmanteau in an effort to rebrand the corridor of Interstate 95 from Boston to Washington, D.C., with a single metropolitan identity. The firm’s proposal layers existing auto, rail, and air transportation into a holistic system to serve a population that migrates throughout the region. On top of the infrastructure of Postwar sprawl, their plan aims to create a platform for a new American Dream. “Not everyone wants that single-family house anymore,” says Höweler, “I think it’s a generational thing: You used to aspire to the nuclear family, but now we have different ideas about the ideal network.” The firm will present the judges with three possible outcomes for 2030, some showing a seamless group of thriving urban centers, others showing a dystopian vision of endless acres of parking, the landscape sacrificed to facilitate the circulation of people.

When the designers present their final proposals, along with the judges, Audi will be scrutinizing the entries. In 2010, it began to incorporate more automated driving features into its research and development programs after Bjarke Ingels, a runner up in the first award cycle, presented a scheme for a city configured for non-polluting, driverless cars. Stampfl expects the company to find similar inspiration in the current crop of proposals. Audi also appears willing to invest more than just prize money in an innovative plan, says Stampfl, “Next year, we are going to try to implement the winning idea with a small pilot project.”

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