Experimenting Proximity – Research Project


At its most basic, in a spatial and metrological sense, “proximity” circumscribes the radius of the contemporary dwelling environment, including living practices, extending out to everyone’s daily domestic and working sphere. Over the last decade, we have undoubtedly witnessed a resurgent interest in the theme of “proximity” in urban thinking. Significant factors include the imperatives of a “Post-Kyoto Accord” sustainable city, as well as the effective decrease in economic and financial resources of governments and common society.

Nevertheless, the question of design themes and design instruments pertaining to a contemporary notion of proximity remains open: How can increased densification be made to tally with an increase in well-being at the scale of proximity? Can we improve the quality of public open space? If so, how can designers articulate spatial quality and orientate decisions accordingly?

Constructing a coherent discourse on the urban and architectural production of cities at the scale of proximity means abandoning all theoretical and ideological assumptions about models and style, and switching to a new methodology based on an informed visual culture revolving around the essence of place. With its mission to explore different urban situations in Switzerland, the Urban Landscape Observatory set out to achieve a better comprehension of the dimension of proximity in current living practices, and a better understanding of comfort qualities in contemporary urban landscapes. It sought to define a new form of urban criticism based on visual representation combining video and mapping.

We made the choice to conduct research through a heuristic approach. The direct transfer between research and education characterizes the philosophy of the Urban Landscape Observatory: the iterative process works in both directions, and students were invited to critically reflect upon the notion of proximity in their site readings, adopting various modes of investigation and representation through video or mapping depending on the context.

The perimeters for the case studies in Geneva (EPFL) and in Zurich (ETHZ) were chosen according to similar urban situations in order to obtain comparable results. A common scale of measurement (a) and a concept (b) were used to define the field of study:

(a) One Kilometer is a distance, which is not too taxing and can be covered on foot in 10 to 15 minutes. It corresponds also to a particular scale of dwelling and neighbourhood.
(b) The Urban Landscape is a cross-disciplinary category, which allows us to conceptualize sensory and physical aspects of the outdoors, taking into consideration more particularly the questions of liveability, comfort, sustainability and aesthetics.

Students criss-crossed the 1 x 1 km sites in search of particular conditions of well-being, and were asked to transcribe them visually in either mapping or video mode. Each visit should be considered as a decisive act of viewing with the potential to reacquire some of its pertinence in design. The findings from this this “pedagogy of site restitution” were subsequently introduced in exercises during the following semesters; this positively nurtured the interface between video and mapping.

Students work is presented in this website both according to Case Studies, and organized by three Concepts: Dwelling, Formation, Atmosphere. These headings identify the three fundamental modes of well-being for the sites selected in Zurich and Geneva. They represent three different perceptive modes in an environment as well as three areas of design, independent of the instruments of visual perception. This interface between the methods developed at both schools in matters of video and mapping constitutes the first tangible result of our shared interest in public space.