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Alphabet City

Part 1 Project 1998
Jenny Lam
Bartlett School of Architecture (UCL) | UK
The project is a conceptual proposal, developed through initial investigations, site-specific observations and set in the context of American culture. Sited on the edge conditions of Salton Sea and Imperial Valley of California, is an agricultural/ wildlife region. With migration of visitors [for bird-watching, fishing] and field-workers, the proposal is to design an infrastructure of an airport town for their temporary occupation. The 'airport' is literally two landing strips extended from an artificial island into the waters. Pyrotechnic bird-scaring devices create explosions of red prior to every landing / taking off.

The contracting / expanding town accommodates the fluctuating number of migrant workers affected by the harvesting calendar. This ephemeral quality is reflective of a 'throw-away' American culture. Mass-produced living units, condensed into wrapped-up packages, provide potential accommodation for this momentary town. When needed, the packages unravel and assemble to a habitable space via connection to out-door land / water power-points.

The town forms a rectangular grid system, extending outwards dividing up the fields, this grid deep-rooted in American town-planning, a remnant of Thomas Jefferson's democratic utopia. From investigations of parking lots, the micro-scale of one parked unit, when repeated, suggests a shopping mall provision, further multiplied, becomes the macro-scale of an entire town. At night from the air it appears to resemble a horizontal skyscraper. Like experiencing the vastness of the American landscape, the town is designed to be observed from the road / air. Travelling pass American towns by car, is a transient experience of the peripheral vision. The 'Main street-extending to-runway' strip, is a spatial expression of this notion of speed, where acceleration blurs to a point of take-off.
Jenny Lam

Alphabet City: Interiors, exteriors developed from gathered data off the television with the following topics in mind: ephemeral /permanent, mass / unique, local / global, interior / exterior.

Further consideration was given to the following: weight / measure / time [scale / interval / duration], repetition / absence. Procedures of editing, collage, rephotograph, renaming, used to rework the gathered material.

Initially non-site specific, the project became grounded in the American south west. The vast tracts of agricultural land, strip towns and highways margins provided a setting for the project. Against this 'background' was a shifting community of migrant workers, snowbirds and truckers. To service this need architecture should be short life, discardable, servicing fluctuating immediate requirements and desires. Houses, super marts, soda fountain, malls, seen as industrial units of production, in the latest style, specification and standard of equipment much like the family car. The project imagines a city where definitions are blurred, roadway becomes runway, interiors become exteriors, it expands and contracts with user demands.

"The new landscape . . . is composed of rushing air, shifting lights, clouds, waves, constantly changing surface between the wheel, the rubber, the wing. The view is no longer static, it is an evolving, uninterrupted panorama of 360 degrees."

JB Jackson - "The Abstract World of The Hot" Landscape 7, No.2, winter 1957-58

". . . And then there are those new suburbs. The whole place is in a process of continual expansion and change which makes traditional architecture and town planning techniques simply not adequate. Thinking about the problem of the permanent and the changing it would seem that some sort of ' fix ' i.e. a system of permanent reference points, is necessary to the stability of the individual, and that a changing environment must take account of this need.

On the scale of the American environment such permanencies would have to be pretty big, and it occurred to me that there might be a controlled background - say of agriculture or forestry, or, as in the east, simply unused space - against which would be set a throw-away immediate environment . . . a transient aesthetic, unlike present housing environment which is transient, but is realised through a permanent aesthetic . . . . at least some system would be under way in which both permanence and change would be given social and plastic value."

Peter Smithson "Letter to America" extract.
Architectural Design, magazine March 1958

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