Saturday 9 January 2016

The Fluid Gradient of Bandon Bay

This parallel studio is a unique collaboration between Aula PFC Aranguren (School of Architecture of Madrid, ETSAM, Polytechnic University of Madrid) and INDA, the International Program in Design and Architecture, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand, and runs over the academic year 2015-2016. For two separate semesters, INDA’s Y4 option studio students are working on a common topic with ETSAM’s Y5 final thesis students.

The topic of this collaboration is Amphibious Architecture.  We proposed research in the context of wetlands situated in both countries.  The topic encompasses a broad range of issues regarding thresholds, ambiguity, resiliency, as well as adaptability.  In the first semester, the projects were situated in Spain, and in the second semester, the site is in Surat Thani, Thailand.

Last semester, the students proposed a broad range of interventions that responded to the dynamic landscape of Cadiz.  Proposals include new housing typologies that reactivate abandoned salt pans, transportation infrastructures that serve as an indicator of the tidal shift, and prototypes of expandable platforms that respond to the development of coastal dunes.  Every project introduced ‘soft systems’ as strategies to engage the context rather than traditional structures that are more permanent and controlling.  

This semester, we aim to continue our investigation into soft architecture, but this time, with a more integrated focus with landscape ecologies and urbanism.

A system is a network of relationship among components that interact with and influence one another through the exchange of energy, matter, or information. As a system, an urban landscape is operationalized through ecological intelligence and social dynamics. One of the most complex socio-ecosystems is an estuary - a brackish ecosystem where water level is regulated by seasonal rainfall and tidal flux. Tidal dynamics are active agencies that shape biophysical structures and process hydro-ecological transactions. Previously, estuarine cities had intimate associations with climatic, topographic and hydrological conditions, which the upland rainforests released nutrient mixtures through river tributaries to enrich downstream settlements. After World War II, the traditional tidal-based landscape in Thailand started to change. Rapid urbanization and population increase inserted new forms of building and solid infrastructure at the expense of former intertidal terrains. Soft, gradient, dynamics, and fluid settlements are transformed into solid, segregated, single-used, and controlled systems. The solid-based urbanization had completely altered geographic and hydrologic structures of estuaries, which causes massive elimination of essential services, including food production, flood regulation, pollution control, temperature moderation, and hydrological adaptability. Moreover, it proposed methods of flood control that have now been proven to be inefficient and insufficient, examples such as the North Sea Flood of 1953 and the Maharashtra Floods of 2005. 

In the present day, soft systems are reintroduced. De-poldering in the Netherlands is one of the largest infrastructural reinvestments that aims to reintroduce tidal processes as an urban programmatic device that reactivates diverse ecological performances, underpins economic exchanges, and drives transformation over low-lying intertidal landscape. Creation of levels and hydrological distributaries engages adaptability to multiple water regimes rather than controls or works to stabilise the flux. Cities in monsoon estuaries must do the same.  They must be soft, absorbent and adaptive. Re-engaging soft systems over hyper-flux conditions becomes a design experimental platform that explores mixed hydro-ecological functions and tackles environmental shifts in diverse range of temporal and spatial scales.

As a mudflat of complex, temporal, and fluid gradient, Bandon Bay, Surat Thani province is a unique platform for design experimentation over the tide dominated coastal system. Along the lower Gulf of Thailand, the 100-km bay is part of Tapi and Phum Duang estuaries, where a semi-enclosed coastal body of water has a free connection with the open sea, and salt water is measurably diluted with freshwater derived from upper land drainage. Tidal dynamics is an active agency that shapes biophysical structures and processes hydro-ecological transactions. With the high rate of sedimentation and water depths ranging from 1 to 5 meters, this brackish ecosystem is host to a wealth of wildlife within the intertidal and subtidal conditions. Across 1,840-km coastline of the Gulf of Thailand, 9 watersheds, 11 major rivers, and 12 provinces, the temporal and fluid gradient of estuaries has been drastically transformed over the past decades. Surat Thani becomes an important hub for urbanization and industrialization of the southern region. Massive exploitation of coastal resources and rapid urbanization cause multiple challenges including destruction of mangroves, distinction of marine species, land subsidence, shoreline retreat, polluted dead zone and sea-level rise transgression. Nowadays, Bandon Bay is confronting multiple challenges including extreme decline of coastal resources, devastated fishery systems, and excessive pollution discharge. Additionally, the current mode of urbanization disregards existing tidal dynamics, resulting in a landscape of hard edges of distinct entities, privileging land over water, solid property lines over open terrains, defined land uses over fluid occupancies. 

What is next for Bandon Bay? Do the estuaries demand gradients not walls, fluid occupancies not controlled land uses, negotiated moments not hard boundaries? Confronting non-equilibrium dynamics, the connected networks of Tapi and Phum Duang estuaries offer latent potentials to be re-conceptualized as hybrid estuarine infrastructures that tackle multiple challenges - provide diverse ecological services and social programs, as well as propose urban adaptability to climate contingencies. 

Image: Bandon Bay, Surat Thani, Thailand Source: Chon Supawongse