Last year (2009-10) I ran a post-graduate diploma studio at University of the Creative Arts, Canterbury. This project by Chris Jennings-Petz was submitted by the school to the RIBA Presidents Medals competition.
Ashford, an old Kent industrial/market town on the Stour river complex, plans to double in size over the next two decades, with 30,000 new homes. However, although Ashford has recently plugged-in to international rail networks, the town has remained formless, indistinct, unconscious.
Research started with a mapping of the Ashford landscape as a metabolic entity, defined through demographic, infrastructural, economic, geological and urban flows. Forming what Bateson called “an ecology of mind”, this allowed intriguing insights into socio-geographical processes. Work soon focused upon socio-geological water flows, and included a novel report into the embodied water of building production. Through his regional analysis, major weaknesses were found in the city’s water planning. This issue defined the design strategy remit and project thesis.
The hydrological, agricultural and geological surveys revealed a band of clay and aquifer running below the city. In an ingenious move, Chris chose this as the (sub)site, and proposed to excavate a string of region/city-defining reservoirs passing through the urban centre, slowly filling to meet the expanding water requirement. The waterside edges create a series of new urban landscape conditions, transforming land values, and introduce a new metropolitan space, and metabolic relation, into the heart of Ashford.
A reservoir infrastructure was elaborated through a strong leisure programme, incorporating an ultra deep diving well, surface sports, a new ecological corridor with urban food production potential, and hundreds of floatation tanks. At the core of the scheme, the landscape both mounds, and drops to deep vertical wells, countering Ashford’s dominant horizontality. This move transforms the topography of the city, and perhaps reconfigures the cognitive maps of the city, in the inhabitants’ imagination.
Working across scales, strategic regional moves were paralleled with 1:1 material prototypes that crystallised a series of open-ended experiments involving salt solutions and clay castings of various kinds. Samples and apparatus accreted around Chris’ drawing board through the year, defining a metabolic aesthetic. His evolving installations animated the diploma studios, whilst the proposal staged a urban landscape infrastructure, as a new ecological domain of social experience.