Form Axioms: Design Strategies in South China Sea

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Eva Castro and Federico Ruberto (


The studio takes on the challenging task of rethinking the area that circles around “South China Sea”, its geopolitical and material ecology through the reconceptualization and design of large scale infrastructures and localized-material assemblages.

Terms central to our methodology are:

  • Infrastructure
    Rather than approach the question of infrastructure as a cosmetic problem –in need to be concealed, we treat it as an opportunity to engage with the machinic processes ranged across its sites. The critical role played by infrastructure in the organisation and management of the city’s complex systems of movement, communication and exchange is recognised as the basis from which its operation can be further developed and pushed beyond its tendency to fragment and divide toward other possibilities. We pursue the formal and material articulation of infrastructure, coordinating its operations with the territorial processes, forms and parameters identified in the site, developing its relation to the ground, and elaborating its architectural composition. Beyond the problem-solving and remedial capabilities, landscape and engineering techniques, such as soil remediation, water cleansing strategies, traffic control, earthworks… to name a few, become the medium through which concepts find the material constrains to emerge as highly designed spatial structures.
  • Ground morphologies
    Collectively, the approach to the different dimensions and registers of the site are coordinated through the morphology of the ground. It is especially through the treatment of the ground, through its formation, that we seek a means to resist the tendency to conceive a site as, ideally, horizontally articulated, absolutely flexible, and infinitely reprogrammable. We would argue that it is through form that landscape urbanism attains one of its principle means of agency as a design practice concerned to commit itself toward specific urban scenarios:This type of ‘groundwork’ provides an opportunity to generate artificial topographies with the formal capacity to structure relations between environmental, social, cultural and economic factors on a given site. Whilst the techniques employed for this type of groundwork may be borrowed from those used in more conventional techniques of landscaping, it is through their architectural elaboration that these forms achieve the greatest potential to articulate determinate — though not deterministic — urban relationships.
  • Hybrid Strategies
    Specifically we ask: what’s autonomy in nowadays multi-layered capital liquidity? How does one sustain its particular territorial “form of life”? Within this framework, and given it is a “design studio” the student is supposed to unfold the delicate knot: define the relationship between bottom up and top down strategies: “decide” how to design in a complex, vast multi-stratified territory that requires both interpolation of data and more defined —ideologically defined— interventions.

Studio Structure

  1. Indexing Territories: the workshop understands mapping and diagramming as both exploratory and propositive, having an active and crucial role in the design process. Indexing records the constitution of a given territory. It registers its topographical, geological, environmental, demographic and socio-economic conditions as processes, forms and parameters. The aim is to develop the capacity to read information from fields and then decoding, synthesizing and systematically processing it into indexical models. Meshing the Grounds: this workshop will deal with the mediation of bottom up readings and strategic decision-making concepts.The overall arrangement of the material components produced in the previous steps will be adjusted and further articulated to respond locally to specific conditions and globally to relational strategies.
  2. Scripting Prototypes: the purpose of the workshop is to explore different scripting techniques as a means of creating flexible design tools that are capable of accommodating change and a degree of indeterminacy within the design process. In this stage we will generate variations of material components, linking them to a research on infrastructural, environmental and/or other spatial performance.

Testing Ground

The South China Sea is the central core of our testing ground, an area that has multiple designations given by the various sovereignties that claim it. Its boundaries arise amidst the shorelines of China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam. Within its 3,500,000 square kilometres it contains no more than 15 square kilometres of land distributed within no less than 250 islands, atolls, cays, shoals, reefs, and sandbars; some seasonally submerged, others permanently underwater; some in continuous state of mutation, growing, solidifying. The SCS carries a tremendous strategic importance owned to the fact that one-third of the world’s shipping passes through it carrying over $3 trillion in trade each year; it contains fisheries that are crucial for the food security of millions in Southeast Asia and, it has huge oil and gas reserves -believed to lie beneath its seabed.

Environmental_ perennial disputes among 6 countries over its ownership; huge environmental impact of dredging activity of site, destruction of coral reefs on site; subduction + low salinity of the water; weakened buffering capacity to strong typhoons Geopolitical_ being one of the most important slocs in the seas on the one hand, and given the ambiguity of both, its morphological thresholds and masses dusting its waters on the other, this site has been subject of historical disputes over its sovereignty. These disputes are increasingly becoming one of Asia’s most potentially dangerous point of conflict, one with a political domino effect that could surpass by large the immediate region, creating new territorial alliances and hierarchies within the worldwide power structures. This term the studio will have 5 leading paths within 5 different geographic locations:

  • paleo-netics
  • plas.tic.i.ty
  • volcanism
  • augmented nature
  • bodies in exile

Speculative Approach [Meta-Fiction and Ecology]

We will read the (in)tangible lines drawn by geology, energy (resources) and politics and map the invisible, describe the submerged, uncover the concealed … in doing so we will design a future: the fictional context within which these precious 15 square kilometres are contained. Among many possible scenarios based on the hastening events taking place now, ours will choose to be situated within the polemic, evidencing the studio’s provocation.

As Kim Stanley Robinson writes,

“science fiction is the realism of our time”.Designers are in this course strategists, writers, conceptual and morphological explorers. Influences of the lab are the politically driven fictions (such as that of the Russian Cosmists, the Xeno-femminist, the Accelerationist), any “hyperstitional” narrative able to re-invent the present, by having the courage to reimagine-and-live right here and now, the possibility of an-Other future. To design in the course is to map and bring out layers of “controversies”, to form an alternative milieu whence a new reality could germinate. What emerges at the end of the course, we hope, are works that are politicized at core, designs that have the courage to look onto posthyper- anthropocentric scenarios and that give now hopes to one primary mission: liberating thought from the enslaving forces that makes it a victim of its own incapacities, and with such liberation imaging new forms of living together on earth, and possibly in a future, in one of its distant horizons.

We move into the space of reconceptualization of the very core of nature by challenging philosophical positions that take for granted a benevolent nature, and that from such position move towards the representation of the environment and its naive re-naturalization forgetting that the environment is not to be joyfully used, but that in order to live on this blue marble, it is something to be redesigned. One has to loose the trivial gaze upon things and embrace that things, and that nature as the actual set of all things, is constructed by social and political, material and ideological forces —that are to be studied and in-taken at the beginning of each design venture. Fiction will by the studio be developed as ecologically driven abstraction, because as Reza Negarestani put it:

“terrestrial thought and creativity must essentially be associated with ecology, but an ecology which is based on the unilateral powers of cosmic contingencies such as climate changes, singularity drives, chemical eruptions and material disintegration. Any other mode of thought basking in the visual effects of Earth as a blue marble or the Sun as the exorbitant flame is but submission to heliocentric slavery”
(Reza Negarestani, “Solar Inferno”).

The studio aims at implementing “ecological infrastructure” as the main vehicle to introduce new narratives within the territory’s interstices, envisaging strategies that will dwell on issues of connectivity, political-geographical adjacencies and temporal conditions.

We aim at crafting para-consistent fictions by tweaking some of the constitutive elements of a specific/given reality that is selected as study case. This means not to take reality at a distance and so to swim in a comfortable and frictionless space, rather that any design must be forced into a given reality and that by fermenting and developing between the constrictive regimes of such reality, it forces a new reality out; design is neither adherence to reality nor its radical denial but a rewriting of the inner mechanism of a specific reality. ‘A reality’ is taken and analyzed with political, environmental, social and physical-material lenses in order to reconstruct a model of its constitutive cores oftentimes hiding in plain sight – too complex to be fully captured by a plain gaze, or too intrinsically part of the phenomenological framework of each thought. Crafting tools for ab-straction does the job of distancing thought from its “givens”, allowing it to construct, together with other thoughts (in a team, a commune, a society) new, and conceptually uncompromised futures.