Opportunistic Urbanism

Designer: Weishun Xu, Tamrat Gebremichael
Critic: Nana Last
Year: 2011
Location: Chicago, IL, USA
Project Type: Urban Design

Project Brief

     This project views the future of Fermilab beyond the scope of its immediate programmatic needs as a suburban laboratory. It addresses two conflicts on the site: a global one between the programmatic shifts dictated by socioeconomic practices (including CERN as a replacement of Fermilab) and the physicality shaped solely by the need for scientific researches; a regional one between the required expansions of facilities constrained by the political boundary and the tendency of physical sprawl and population explosion of surrounding urban centers. Thus the simple function of the lab will collapse internally, if such program monotony is maintained till the cessation of the lab’s procedures.

Hence, the project approaches the future development of the site through qualitative changes of it social role rather than a linear extension of its current functionality. The question for the future then becomes a retrospective one: how to register the lab’s history without compromising the development of both Fermilab and surrounding cities? The proposal transforms the site as a new urban center generated by a formal language of folding and ground manipulation based on the site’s infrastructures for its scientific past. This new center discovers and re-defines Fermilab’s historical layers, and introduces a complexity of urban spaces and programs which triggers further opportunistic urban growth and densification. The history of Fermilab then is not a static image like the Stonehenge, but a dynamic one that always generates new activities and forms for the future.

Nature of [post]Labs

     The nature of a scientific research facility is to obsolete itself. Opportunistic urbanism seeks possible insertion of social events into the normal development (and obsoleting) pattern of a top-down regulated laboratory. These programs then diverge into urban activities and re-generate social demands for fully utilizing the site’s infrastructures (acceleration tunnels, power stations, etc.).

Strategies 1

Strategies 2


Staging Urbanism

     The long-term placement of new programs considers both current and future development of research facilities, and converges existing activity centers and spaces as infrastructures for social events to attach to. The activity convergence simulation provides three prototypical conditions for formal intervention when activity connections parallel, run across or mesh with the existing infrastructures. This generates three stages of opportunistic urban development with different programs and attitudes towards the existing site and its surroundings. The axes of ground manipulation and volume insertion are generated by both the physical connections between existing infrastructures such as acceleration tunnels and buildings, and the  possible future convergence of civic and research activity centers.

Staging 1

Staging 2Staging 3

Stage 1: Exposure

     Opportunistic urbanism starts as the Tevatron Accelerator is shut down. While other parts of the lab are still functioning, the exposure of existing infrastructures and insertion of interactive programs generate dialogues between the public and the lab. The first stage allows the society to re-position science to prepare the site for later developments.

Stage 1 Model 1 Axon 1 Persective 1


Stage 2: Regeneration

     The second stage seeks to intensively re-claim the rich infrastructures and generate urban programs while preserving the physicality of the site after the cessation of particle collisions caused by social-economic practices. It results in contextualized urbanization processes that are initiated by opportunities provided by the history of the site. Such processes in turn allow the history to continue developing and formally addressing itself.

Stage 2 Model 2 Axon 2 Persective 2


Stage 3: Fusion

     The third stage is a response to the sprawling of surrounding developments. It integrates the fabric of the new urban center with adjacent suburbs. Programs are generated by considering the social demands from both sides. The result is a mixture of both spaces and social activities centered around the core culture of Fermilab.

Stage 3 Model 3 Axon 3 Persective 3