︎ 2017

Ordinary Wormholes

With Lindsey Krug
Harvard Graduate School of Design

In his Psychogeographic Guide to Paris, Guy Debord maps a series of wormholes - a term which here means connections across space and time. Looking only through the window of his own reality, he constructs a city within a city, accessible only to him. The act of drawing arrows between previously disconnected spaces lays the groundwork for the creation of wormholes, raising the idea that connectivity between spaces does not necessarily have to be physical.

Debord’s project is deeply personal, so we wanted to see how these kinds of hidden urban connections could be mapped on a much larger scale. We turned to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, a website which allows you to source microtasks from hundreds of anonymous users around the world. We set up an account and asked hundreds of strangers a simple question: what can you see out of your window? The responses allowed us to imagine a hidden global network of windows - ordinary wormholes.

Our task was to reimagine the Triple-Deckers, Boston’s favorite housing stock. The three-story building emerged as a housing typology that allowed for affordable, high-density housing for a huge range of lifestyles, from big families to single roommates. As a housing type, the Triple-Decker has rich potential for a comeback in 2017 as people are flooding back to cities. The typology combines the density of a row-house with access to 360 degrees of light and air from every unit. Bright and expressive facades form a uniquely Bostonian language and give ordinary streets a sense of improvisation and wonder.

Triple-Deckers have their own folklore. From the footnotes of light wood construction manuals to the comment boards of the Boston Globe, the city is bursting with stories of anomalies, coincidences, and disappearances of Triple-Deckers. Most of these seem to focus on the window; highly specific patterns of placement, size, and alignment evolved over time, giving the Triple-Decker a unique language of openings.

Window anomalies are nothing new, and have have long been a subject of controversy in New England. Puritan colonists feared that these “wind-eyes” were portals of sin. Looking into someone’s house was like staring into their eyes, and was sure to lead to moral corruption. Part of our project was to catalogue some of the stranger tales of Triple-Decker windows.

Triple-Deckers are ripe for study when it comes to fantastically ordinary instances of private domestic life. However, they have seldom strayed from their core program: dense low-rise housing. Given the flexibility of the identical 3 stories, we wondered if we could inject new life into the Triple-Decker and other ordinary urban elements, in order to create more opportunities for the kinds of connections we found in the first study. Perhaps, we thought, one could imagine a city’s public spaces as a constellation. Rather than occupying a specific location, public space could be thought of as a network of in-betweens. In our catalogue of urban moves, the window is a membrane between public and private, shaping relationships and perceptions of spaces on either side.

Armed with the idea that an urbanism could be generated by these little moments of connections between neighbors, we turn our sights on our site. Situated at a threshold between industrial, infrastructural, and residential zones, this triangle in South Boston presents an opportunity to re-interpret the traditional language of the city’s housing.

Our proposal is a blanket of triple deckers in seven families, an extension of the surrounding urban condition with a series of twists. Each triple-decker family draws on our wormhole research, marrying a typological anomaly with a programmatic transformation. In this way, we hack the language of the triple decker to generate new urban forms.

We tried to choreograph potential oddities and serendipitous connections within each family, but by orienting them along deliberately incompatible grids, the hope is to preserve the initial conditions of spontaneity that formed the basis of our initial inquiry. New and unexpected coincidences, awkward moments, and surprising alignments might happen in these awkward misalignments.