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comprehending bottom-up and top-down negotiations in urban contexts

Fall 2018 | Various Locations

Hydro Fictions: About

This research-based design studio focused on the bottom-up transformation of cities and explored how designers and planners could tap into the self-organizing behavior of cities. Focusing on case study research centered on citizen-led initiatives in Pittsburgh and Zurich, the lessons and inspirations drawn led to the development of individual thesis proposals.
The critical investigation of practices of urban commoning and their contextualization in a broader societal transition, served as a stepping stone towards the articulation of individual hypotheses. Learning from an initial 18 months of collective research, we have now developed thesis proposals to begin testing the lessons learned in urban milieus of our choice.

The commons are emerging as a key concept beyond the binaries of public and private space for tackling the challenges of the contemporary metropolis:


  • How do we build urban resilience in the face of diminishing resources?

  • How do we tackle the growing inequity in the face of polarizing politics?

  • How do we articulate common interests despite increasing social individualization?

Here, commons are understood as a set of practices dealing with the production and self-management of collective resources and spaces beyond contemporary forms of domination (such as class, gender or race).


Left: Protestors at a rally in Pittsburgh advocating for stricter regulations towards air quality.

Right: An event bringing the 13 apartments together at Mehr Als Wohnen in Zurich.


Pittsburgh has had an exhausting struggle with air pollution, dating back to the mid-19th century with the rise of iron, steel, and coke industries filling the air with putrid, dense smoke, giving Pittsburgh its slogan of “Hell with the Lid Off”. While it seems that the quality of air has greatly improved in the recent decades, it is sadly not the case. Allegheny County (of which Pittsburgh is a part) still ranks in the top 2% of counties in the United States for cancer risk from air pollution, their year-round particulate pollution levels result in many cases of asthma, strokes, neurodegenerative disorders, birth defects and varied forms of cancer.
It is fairly evident that air is a vital resource to all living beings, and fighting for an improved quality of air is paramount. However, concerned citizens are not fully aware of how dire the situation is, and are uncertain of how to move forward and make an impact other than protest. With the rapidly advancing digital commons created by the internet, The Breathe Project comes into play in that precise location.
As a clearinghouse of information, research and empowerment on air quality for Pittsburgh and Southwestern Pennsylvania, The Breathe Project has been a public facing organization since March of 2018, and with the aid of science, technology, and research, empowers citizens with political awareness and factual evidence to take action towards better air - a medium through which pertinent information is disseminated to the masses.

Hydro Fictions: ProGallery_Widget


1. It is important to consider that when dealing with natural resources critical for our survival, it benefits to have a partnership with the state, as these authority figures could perform the appropriate civic duties through creating new regulations and ordinances towards environmental revitalization.

2. In a scenario where several organizations are coming together to pool their knowledge and information to work towards a common goal, implementing techniques of equal governance and collaboration, such as sociocracy or deliberative democracy would be beneficial in creating harmonious and productive

3. Crowdfunding should be taken full advantage of in situations where everyone is a likely target of neglect. It reveals the issues and aspirations the public is most concerned about, while simultaneously providing them with an opportunity to be involved and create positive change.

4. If the cause is severe, added with major oversight by the state and market, such that citizens believe taking responsibility through protest to be the only way, they should be provided with the relevant data and knowledge on the relevant issues to validate their concerns, thereby performing a more enlightened form of protest.


In 2004, thirty-five of Zurich’s housing cooperatives assembled to stage a design competition for the largest cooperative housing project since the conception of the movement in Switzerland over a hundred years prior. Mehr Als Wohnen, or “more than living”, is intended to usher in a new era of cooperative housing, transcending the scale of the building and attempting the scale of the neighborhood.

The competition awarded the urban design to firms Futurafrosch and Duplex, who described the street network, building perimeters and guidelines, and the general community network of retailers, restaurants, offices, and more to be injected into the neighborhood to serve both the housing project as well as the rest of the community.


The three other firms - Muller Sigrist, Pool, and Miroslav Sik - worked within the collaboratively set guidelines to design the buildings. The process of negotiation between architects, urban designers, and cooperatives at the design stage and at this large a scale is unprecedented in the region, producing a project that attempts to build in both variation and continuity at the scale of a neighborhood.



1. A “coat line” has to be maintained through all buildings, such that the cubic effect is maintained, even with projections or obtrusions.

2. The built mass of the buildings needs to be readable while simultaneously allowing for ample natural light to enter the apartments.

3. Each building should adhere to a three-part structure - base, apartments, and roof - to emphasize the interplay of the human scale.

4. Audience-oriented uses are focused around the public squares, whereas residential uses are given privacy.

5. The facades assigned to squares should be largely free for community use. As a result, the entrances to the apartments are allocated on the alleys and side streets, creating recognizable street trains and making identifiable addresses from the entrances of the houses.

6. The central square should be seen as the urban development center. The facades facing the square are accentuated to enhance the atmosphere of the square, different from the building’s other facades.

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