Year One Review

October marks the one-year anniversary of this blog. Here is a summary and guide of what has been explored to this date.

Emerging the city introduces the new scientific paradigm as a response to the mechanical sciences used to justify planning programs in the 19th and 20th centuries. This paradigm is complexity science, which is rooted in physics, biology, mathematics and computer science. The mechanical paradigm, which attempted to solve a very narrow set of problem, is inferior to complexity which must solve an infinity of problems at every scale.

The mathematical definition of a city defines an abstract model of a city through set theory, establishing cities as relationships between spaces that can be built and demolished independently, and the city as a set of such relationships that becomes more complex as complementary spaces create a greater number of links.

Why build cities anyway? asks what makes cities useful and preferable to other habitats. It is first about the density of choice, or in other words diversity, that cities are good places. It is second about its ability to move in time, to rapidly change and adapt to new situations and lifestyles by reconstructing only a small share of the urban fabric, that cities are different from architecture.

Complex geometry and structured chaos is an introduction to fractal geometry, the geometry of complexity science and chaos theory. By comparing how beautiful art can be made through a generative process for the chaotic Mandelbrot Set, with images of classically chaotic cities like Venice and Manhattan, it is shown that a city does not have to be planned or designed to be beautiful; randomness can be structured to create beauty.

They can’t work as a team is a comment on an observation by Rem Koolhaas that architects are no longer able to build anything that adds up to a collective work. This means that their architectures are not symmetric with one another.

How is a subdivision possible? looks at the dominant building typology of our time, the housing subdivision. The housing subdivision, because it contradicts the mathematical definition of a city and the reason why cities are built, cannot be a natural form of urbanization and must be the result of bad planning systems that work at an excessively large scale.

Architecture should be abolished looks at what architecture has become, a form of artistic expression divorced from material reality. The vast majority of things built today are not architecture, and it is this form of construction that must be made into an art.

A measure of urban connection looks at one way that a city is well connected, the average distance from one doorway to another. Promenades that go right up to a door make it safe and simple to walk from space to space. Shopping malls are shown as an example of this, tightly connecting complementary stores with an interior street, but completely disconnected from the outside, creating urbanity on the inside but dead space on the outside.

Victims of the subdivision shows the economic risk inherent in large-scale construction, the problem that cities are supposed to resolve. A subdivision developer goes bankrupt, stranding the people who bought in an unfinished system.

The marketplace city explains how commercial centers deal with urban growth, badly or poorly, depending on their planning system. Even the best-designed shopping malls become disordered and confusing if they do not have a design that can deal with chaos and economic change. Lifestyle centers built with separate stores offer a better hope for a future city in the suburban centers, so long as they maintain a good pedestrian structure.

Dying in dignity – Berlin and the American city is about the qualitative aspects of urbanism. Americans often see cities as political battlefields between conflicting groups, and have neglected quality as a factor in city-building. Berlin has been an actual battlefield many times over in its recent history, it is an industrial city built in parralel with other great American cities, and today it is alive and civilized even while shrinking, when American cities like Detroit are collapsing. This stems from a political confusion identifying cities as governments, while in fact they are public enterprises with objective goods to produce, like the post office or electric utility.

A demonstration of complexity in London introduces the complexity theory of Stephen Wolfram, based on simple computational programs, by examples in the urban morphology of London. There are four classes of computational-physical phenomenon: linear, repetitive, hierarchical-complex and chaotic-complex. The best neighborhoods of London have either hierarchical or chaotic complexity, and builders would be wise to learn the simple computational rules to generated them.

The movement economies is about the research work of Space Syntax and the conclusion we can draw from it about urbanity. It is the economy of movement that defines urbanity, not high density and short distance but offering something to people who are in movement, or making a spectacle with them. These economies occur at different scales, from the metropolitan shopping district to the small corner store and neighborhood square with terrasse, depending on how far we calculate the spatial integration of the network.

Scale-free urban systems takes a look at the issue of size, and finds that cities are structures that are independent of size and must be able to work no matter what size they achieve. This is nothing like machines which must be complete or be useless, but is the same as the Internet or biological systems like trees.

Fitness is about symmetry shows that modern buildings can fit into historic neighborhoods if they share as many scales of geometry with other buildings as possible. It does not matter if the building is well or poorly-made, or if it would fit in a completely different neighborhood.

Cinderella architecture is about skyscraper skylines, showing the reason they become much more beautiful at night is that the emergent structure of the interior of skyscrapers, created by the local actions of thousands of people, becomes visible, while the architecture itself becomes invisible.

The collapse of rural cities shows how cities die, by the disintegration of their relationship set, in the somewhat unexplored context of rural urbanisation. Cheap motoring and road construction has turned the countryside into one endless city, with the appearance of subdivisions and shopping malls in the middle of nowhere confirming this evolution. With cheap motoring taken away, the rural city is unwinding back to a life of isolation.

The emergence of a sense of place is a theory of how place is achieved, not by any of the specific urban forms and urban designs which have failed in European New Towns, but by the personalization of a place by its own inhabitants. The fact that it requires the direct intervention of all individuals to give a city its sense of place makes placeness an emergent phenomenon.

Fake Complexity – CCTV headquarters shows that complexity cannot simply occur at one scale, such as the scale of the structural frame of the CCTV headquarters, while ignoring other scales, that of the whole building.

A demonstration of complexity in New York City shows how Times Square creates organic complexity through adaptive configurations of a single, shared, very modern design solution: billboard advertisements.

Complex geometry and structured chaos part II shows why traditional buildings are fractals. Their structure is made of nested juxtapositions of forms, solids and voids, that solve problems created by previous iterations in the design process. By re-using the same solutions as much as possible, the buildings achieve internal symmetry that makes them look whole. This means that old buildings can be modernized by replacing scales that are no longer solutions to relevant problems with new, adapted solutions.

The Urban Country: Holland is a reflexion on a country that has become fully urbanized while facing an internal conflict on its nature. While the center of the Ring City has been preserved by law as grazing land for cows, the peripheral cities have been invaded by architectural follies claiming to be experiments. Neither are truly complex and natural, and it is shown that traditional Dutch cities have managed to be both natural and very urban.

Fake Complexity – Frank Gehry shows that creating more complicated forms for buildings is the opposite of complexity and results in a design failure instead of a solution, while employing boring designs for nested structures like windows is not complex at all. Complexity is about infinitely-reiterated simplicity and can be achieved with design tools that make creation simpler.

A demonstration of complexity in Dubai shows how complex the ground construction site for the Burj Dubai tower needs to be in order to achieve the gargantuan size of the tower.

The emergent dimension, or why New Urbanism is not urbanism explains the difference between urban design and urbanism. Urban design relies on the control of space by one actor, while urbanism is the integration of many autonomous urbanisations into one whole system. It contrasts the urbanism of Calgary, which is a large-scale highway network, with the urban design of Traditional Neighborhood Developments built alongside it.

Creating the emergent dimension, or learning from Wikipedia compares the work of urbanism with that achieved with Wikipedia. Instead of starting from one single vision, Wikipedia attempts to simplify and integrate the millions of individual visions of its users in one system of encyclopedic knowledge that rivals all “planned” encyclopedias assembled together. It concludes that some forms of urbanism have been applied without thinking through the emergent consequences, like the ubiquitous supergrid used in North America enabling the emergence of suburban and ultimately dense sprawl.

One response to “Year One Review

  1. Should you ever get to Santa Fe, NM, please stop by the Santa Fe Complex ( We have a lot to talk about and hope you might be willing to give a presentation on your work.
    All the best,
    Tom Johnson

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