Fall '11

Transformative Urbanism

Designing Urban Prototypes for Water Ecology

Design Studio

  • Start 21.09.2011
  • ETH Zurich, ONA
  • Prof. Alfredo Brillembourg & Prof. Hubert Klumpner
    Michael Contento, Lindsey Sherman, Marielly Casanova
  • Partner: International Program for Design and Architecture (INDA), Chulalongkorn University Faculty of Architecture


The city of Bangkok has recently endured a fundamental shift in its urban ecology from a water-based urban system focused on canal networks and agriculture to a land-based system – a retreat to terra firma. Simultaneously, global processes of rapid urbanization have created marginalized zones within the fragmented urban context, areas that lie outside conventional modes of organization. Paradoxically, many of these ‘informal’ areas are situated on or near high land values. As a result, these areas find themselves at the threshold of change, one that threatens to materialize the constant risk of removal into reality. These spaces are the shadow of the fragmented metropolis – an archipelago of urban frontiers, a fragmented periphery on the cusp of change.

The Khlong Teoi Port along the Chao Phraya River embodies this urban frontier. During rapid growth, informal settlements grew in and around the port area. Now, as the city focuses urban processes inland, plans include relocating port activities to the Laem Chabang port to the southeast. While the high land value of the waterfront escalates the threat of both removal and landfill for existing settlements and residents, the area also provides fertile ground to test prototypes for alternative, amphibious urban models.

This Research and Design Studio takes as its starting point the opportunity to reformulate the process of transition and reorient urban ecological thinking back to the water. It is an opportunity to reimagine the post-industrial port area as a means to legitimize informal settlements against the dual threat of radical transformation (physical and social) and removal – an opportunity to develop an alternative ecological planning philosophy on the basis of existing experience.

The task of the studio is to construct a comprehensive body of urban knowledge through applied critical research and to translate this knowledge into possible urban futures at the intersection of design, ecology, policy, and engineering. Focus is placed on establishing a robust analytical apparatus to critically read and understand the multiple layers of the city and to build an effective set of design tools that can respond to global processes. Central to this methodology and critical re-reading of the city is generating comparative analysis, identifying and engaging urban actors, and equipping participants with a potent agency to question conventional modes of thinking in the contemporary city. The result will be new multi-scalar urban prototypes that occupy the critical territory between the formal and informal – catalysts for an evolutionary growth from within.

The studio will be conducted in collaboration with the International Program for Design and Architecture (INDA) within the Chulalongkorn University Faculty of Architecture. Participants will join with students and faculty of the university to conduct a design workshop; activities will include explorations of Bangkok, site visits, roundtable discussions, and meetings with prominent community leaders.