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A Line in the Andes: Quito's underground metro in extreme topography

Aerial view of Quito. Source: “A Line in the Andes” / Felipe Correa

Levitating at 10,000 feet (2,850 meters) above sea level, secluded under an equatorial sky and immured by Alexander von Humboldt’s famous “Avenue of the Volcanoes”, San Francisco de Quito is an urban ensemble with a unique and highly animate morphology that has resulted from a time-honored relationship between multiple forms of colonization and its incredibly robust topography. Driven by the pervasive presence of the mountains, the most salient forms of urbanism that have shaped the city have predominantly acknowledged Quito’s unique sectional figure and effectively operated in between its paradoxical condition as established metropolis and new frontier. Caught within this framework, processes of infilling, leveling, bridging, and containing, among others, have been the key instruments in establishing flexible and open-ended patterns of colonization that can negotiate between the fixed prescriptions of settlement and the instability of this ground. This has allowed for dynamic forms of exchange between topology and typology, and more importantly, recognized the significant role of a highly malleable section and its inherent potential to provide a flexible, yet cohesive, urban framework: an abstract machine that can effectively adapt to the extreme vulnerability of the contour and effectively transition from the domestic scale of the clasped urban block to the unbound scale of the open territory.

With a population close to 3 million, Quito and its broader metropolitan district straddle the north–south axis of the Guallabamba River Basin. The city’s historic quarter and its most consolidated urban areas occupy approximately 300 square kilometers along an upper valley most significantly defined by its acute adjacency to the Pichincha Volcano. The entire extension of the metropolitan region covers more than 10,000 square kilometers and incorporates a much larger perimeter that extends far beyond the boundaries of the central depression and agglomerates a much more extensive valley system into a single geopolitical entity. This larger extension, which registers acute sectional differences of more than 1,000 meters, includes large agricultural holdings, as well as newly developed areas along the lower valleys that flank the more compact fabrics adjacent to the colonial grid.

This drawn-out metropolitan region could be conceived as an extended terrain composed of a series of unrelated fragments of built, natural, and heavily manipulated landscapes. Despite the inherent differences among these different urban components, they come together to assemble a quite unfurled, yet cohesive, urban system. This intrinsically complex terrain, since the deployment of the colonial grid in the early sixteenth century, has spawned unexampled settlement patterns that have actively negotiated between the rigidity of a grid that aims for an inherently flat surface and the idiosyncrasies of a topography that resists horizontality. The urban block, as a generative device, rather than as a mute type, has played a key role in the shaping and reshaping of this intricate urban ensemble. The city, throughout its 500 years of urban history, has developed a unique genealogy of blocks, which, instigated by the terrain’s sectional difficulties, constitutes some of the most unique colonization patterns of any form of urbanism along the Andes.

Today, present day Quito is investing in the city’s first underground metro line. Started by former Mayor Augusto Barrera, and continued by the current administration of Mauricio Rodas, the Metro de Quito project proposes a single 22-kilometer, 15-station underground line that will act as the backbone of a much more comprehensive transportation network, effectively bringing together under a unified transportation system the three main areas of the metropolitan district, the historic core, the compact expansions along the core, and the urbanized areas along the lower eastern valleys. While the Metro de Quito is a significant initiative in its own right as a cutting edge, long-term transportation solution for the city, its greatest potential lies in its ability to go beyond an autonomous mobility infrastructure and serve as the catalyst for the most ambitious urban transformation effort in the city’s history. A Line in the Andes, a one-year applied research initiative undertaken at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, examines potential ways in which the project can bring about a renewed urban agenda for the city as it addresses its twenty-first-century challenges.

The objective of this research is twofold. First, it reconstructs through archival material and original drawings, a visual history of Quito. The material highlights the rich cultural diversity, both physical and social, interwoven throughout the city in the last 500 years. It explains the formative process of the city through a series of nested scales. The work begins with a typological and morphological reading of the historic core, followed by an analysis of the expansion of the compact city, and ends with a series of visual profiles of the metropolitan region and the new conurbation stretching between the compact city in the upper valley and newer forms of urbanization along the lower valleys. The plates clearly show the urban dynamics of the metropolitan region. And the research frames the potential of the metro project, literally a line inscribed in the Andes, to tie together the diverse parts that make up the metropolitan region through a series of new centralities affiliated to the proposed spine.

The second component of the research, more projective in nature, proposes a series of design hypotheses that envision how the metro project, a chimerical line underneath the city, can have a transformative impact upon the city’s surface. Through an expanded notion of what a subway station can be, the projects conceive epicenters of new residential densities and urban services paired with the systematic introduction of high-quality public spaces. The strategies focus on rethinking the metro stations as nodal points that can, under a single design project, bring together multiple scales of mobility—from bicycles to rail—and pair them with a diversified programmatic brief in order to establish new urban centralities. The ultimate objective of the design hypotheses lies in establishing a constellation of projects that, through accretion, can exercise substantial and positive change at a metropolitan scale. The applied research and design proposals condensed in A Line in the Andes, in no way present a set of fixed prescriptions for the future of the city. On the contrary, the work presented herein serves as a series of provocations that allow the reader to imagine an infinite number of scenarios for Quito in light of its new metro project. Furthermore, this work highlights the value of the hypothetical urban project and its multiple scales of intervention as critical ingredients for well-informed, collective discussions about the city and the urban future it deserves.

23.Dec.2016 4690 views
Felipe Correa

Felipe Correa is a New York-based architect and urbanist, working at the confluence of architecture, urbanism and infrastructure. He is Associate Professor in the Department of Urban Planning and Design and Director of the Urban Design Degree Program at Harvard’s GSD. Through his design practice, Somatic Collaborative, he has developed design projects and consultancies with the public and private sector in multiple cities and regions across the globe, including Mexico City, New Orleans, Quito, Sao Paulo, and Seoul among many others. He is the co-founder and director of the South America Project (SAP), a trans-continental applied research network that proactively endorses the role of design within rapidly transforming geographies of the South American Continent. He is the author of multiple books including “Beyond the City: Resource Extraction Urbanism in South America” (University of Texas Press, 2016).

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