Modern urbanism has given us a landscape that many consider to be soulless. Everything looks the same. Nothing creates a sense of place. New Urbanism has attempted to reverse this by returning to traditional architecture and town planning forms. This was done in European new towns, under the advice of well-meaning men like the Krier brothers, in the late 1970’s, and did not succeed. While there are blocks and squares and on-street parking, the general configuration of traditional towns, the new towns did not develop the identity and personal relationships with their inhabitants that was intended with the return to traditional forms. They still experience the same population mobility that the other suburbs of the periphery experience.
The reason this happened is the same reason that New Urbanism has not caught on, despite the fact that everyone agrees with it. The New Urbanists have been focusing on outcome instead of process.
Complexity is an emergent phenomenon. This means that its outcome cannot be determined, that only the process of emergence can be determined, and the outcome must be what results from this process unexpectedly. The sense of place that we seek is not traditional town plans, although those have merits of their own, but the realization of our personalities in buildings.
Home renovation has become the cultural expression of the landed middle classes, and the propagation of the home renovation big box chains is a testament to this culture. I cannot have a single conversation with any middle aged home-owning couple without some renovation project of theirs being mentioned, and I shudder to think how conversations go when they are amongst themselves. I believe that, more than a form of consumer culture or cocooning, this trend is a reaction against the placelessness of suburban environments. As the standardized, tract homes are transformed at small scales by their residents, they come to reflect the choices and personalities of the individuals that inhabit them. This is what had been missing from the speculative, mass-produced housing that colonized the periphery and eventually exploded across the entire landscape. Once buildings have been transformed by someone, the presence of this person is felt in the building’s form. It becomes a unique historical event, and thus forms a place.
How does repetition of identical buildings come to be? The answers are in the building processes. Repetition was never seen prior to the industrial age, and even through the industrial age not all cities actually saw mass-produced housing. American cities laid out on grid patterns all have their share of row buildings, as does London. But in London the trend started with terrace housing for the aristocracy, and other centers of industrial revolution in Europe, such as Paris and Berlin, have no trace of repetition at the scale of working-class neighborhoods in industrial America. The simple fact of industrialization cannot explain this kind of urban morphology. Even today, while the construction of repetitive housing subdivisions continues in the post-industrial world, the industrializing countries such as China are constructing wildly individualized buildings inside the existing urban fabric. And in the informally economic shantycities of Africa and favelas of America, personalized building is the only rule. The latter feel more alive, although less comfortable. That living quality, the result of millions of individual acts of transformation to create fitness, is what gives a place its placeness. But in order for this quality to emerge, there must be a personally-enabling urban process at work.
Christopher Alexander theorized such processes in his Oregon Experiment, where he also wrote a scathing criticism of city plans. He described how the directors of urbanism for the University of Oregon could act to enable the creativity of the inhabitants of the university in the elaboration of new buildings that would solve their personal, individualized problems. This would be the opposite of designing a plan for the university’s expansion that would then be imposed on the inhabitants in perpetuity
The traditionalist New Towns I mentioned do have such plans, and they do forbid personal transformation on the urban fabric. This is why they remain only a product and have not grown into a place. The same fate awaits suburban subdivisions where strict HOA rules forbid changes.
Beyond those two cases, a larger problem still has to be challenged. Why is it that the processes of urbanization in our countries limit or destroy complexity, while enabling it in foreign countries? We must take a critical look at our processes, which are unfortunately often enshrined by government legislation, and replace them with those processes that enable the emergence of complexity. Only then can a new urbanism be achieved.
Alexander, Christopher and others. The Oregon Experiment.