Tag Archives: architecture

The patterns of place

(This article originally appeared in Get Ahead Magazine, for the Get Ahead Festival of independent short films in Brooklyn.)

When we speak of the identity of a place, we express a recognition of the patterns formed around us. We may not be conscious of them to the point of being able to draw them back with precision like Stephen Wiltshire, but we can remember them in the abstract, and in this way, identify different places from the abstractions we recall of their patterns. This is how one street can look sufficiently alike another that we can identify a neighborhood, and it is also why a landscape like Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto can feel like New York City, despite the fact that every object has been reconfigured to create a parody environment.

A city’s identity is made by the patterns selected by the people who built them. We can also say that these patterns are the fossil record of the people who inhabited a place. We can read the history, the culture and the sustainability of a place by the combination of its patterns. A building is a hierarchical computation of different processes nested within each other, and these processes can be substituted for others depending on what conditions are encountered.

Echoes of Holland

At the largest scale of patterns there is the building program, whether a house, a church, an office, easily recognizable in any cultural setting. These programs are realized using construction techniques that are conditioned on economic constraints. The Dutch who settled New York City brought with them their basic house program, but these had to adapt to the resources available by, for example, building in brownstone, an economic pattern. Despite this difference they kept features of their homes like stoops, patterns that were at first environmental but then became cultural.

As each successive culture either migrates to or emerges in the city, it needs to adapt the patterns of its buildings to fit its own practices. Fractals like these become habitual:

This is Chinatown in Brooklyn. We can tell it is Brooklyn because the basic patterns, program and materials, are Americanized Dutch. We can tell it is Chinatown because of the use of vertical commercial signs which are characteristic of oriental cultures (their writing being read top-to-bottom instead of left-to-right). The large-scale patterns are extended by smaller-scale patterns to form a full building fractal that is Dutch, American, New York and Chinese. This combination of pattern is the identity of Brooklyn, the people who have lived there and continue to live there.

One particular culture that has often been denounced as an anti-culture is the global corporation. Their aesthetic program has been to impose their corporate identity uniformly on communities, regardless of any consideration for local economic, environmental, or cultural factors. But there have been exceptions, such as the following case, where the corporation decided to extend the patterns of the neighborhood instead of imposing its own.

This Dunkin’ Donuts nested itself seamlessly in an old Dutch building next to a Chinese restaurant, and even improved upon it a bit with orange awnings that preserve the structure of the windows while announcing the presence of this corporate neighbor to everyone on the street. As well as being a demonstration of Dunkin’s neighborliness, it is also a demonstration of the sustainability of the neighborhood. The buildings are resilient, and despite the Dutch builders never anticipating that there could ever exist such a thing as a Dunkin’ Donuts, their patterns have been slightly adapted to fit today’s needs. Some day Dunkin’ Donuts will also be history. In its place will be some other culture which may or may not preserve traces of Dunkin’s presence, but the building itself will remain and serve a new purpose.

So far I haven’t said a word about architecture, which is simply because architecture does not enter the picture unless one has a lot of money for sculptural elements. It is possible to build a good neighborhood without architects, but a great one needs art, and that means getting some architects involved. The best architecture starts with utilitarian patterns, the same functional, economic and cultural patterns we see above, and then expands it by nesting sculptural elements, thus it is still possible to recognize identity of place behind the architecture. This architecture, sculpting the utilitarian shape of the building, becomes the final expression of identity, the artistic currents and fashions that propagate across cultures and then vanish, only to make periodic comebacks.

This is what Brooklyn architects did with these residential towers overlooking prospect park. What is in essence a stack of identical apartments made with the usual economic patterns was extended with sculptural ornament, most impressively around the otherwise obnoxious elevator shafts.

Looking at Brooklyn’s tallest landmark, the Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower, we see patterns that are Gothic, Romanesque, Italian renaissance, Art Deco, all nested within each other and wrapped around a stack of floors that can fulfill any purpose whatsoever. The final product is a building that is worth preserving from a bank, to dentist’s offices, to residences, because the patterns cooperate with each other instead of clashing, and answer our need to feel connected to any of these identities. This is another form of sustainability.

The tragedy of architecture in the 20th century, and the great confusion that came from it, is that modernist architects first banned sculptural elements in favor of purely standardized, globally uniform, utilitarian industrial patterns, then post-modernist architects declared that a building was only a sculpture for living, that the utilitarian should be subordinated to the architect’s artistic expression. The outcome has been a building culture that has no identity when it is not completely incomprehensible, and more than likely has no resilience and no future.

This “Dance Center” is a sad example of this confusion. Were it not spelled out in letters, would we be able to understand anything about this building’s identity? The people who occupy it? What any of its parts do, or if they do nothing at all and are simply there for visual effect? I can’t imagine a future for it. But there is worse.

This building makes no attempt at being anything other than mass human storage, the modernist tower block revived for the bubble epoch. It will likely be a financial failure for being too ambitious while being too redundant. If I were to take an apartment there, it would be impossible for me to tell which window is mine from the outside. What does this say about the people who built it? That they took the easiest path to financial income. What does this say about the people who will live there? That they have nowhere else to go. It is and will remain an alien in the neighborhood, a product that removes identity instead of contributing to it.

Today’s planning establishment attempts to reform the shape of our cities with “form-based codes” that dictate with precision the shape of every pattern. This comes at the cost of outlawing certain unforeseeable patterns that may make a net contribution to the identity of place. It also drives away people that need these patterns, and drains life that is needed to renew the neighborhoods. Last of all, it will not stop a monster like the example above. If instead of dictating shapes, we made it clear how to expand and preserve the neighborhood’s identity, we would all be much freer to live and express ourselves, adding to the history of our environment.

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Leon Krier’s lesson in architecture

Review of The Architecture of Community – Léon Krier (2009), Island Press

The Amazon Santa visited me this year and left Léon Krier’s latest, and likely ultimate, publication, The Architecture of Community. (Thanks to those who made generous purchases on the Emergent Urbanism Amazon Store, remember that you can also purchase anything at all.)

Back in the 1970’s when architectural modernism began to fall apart or be outright demolished, the architectural intelligentsia decided that it was okay to start using ornament again, to make buildings flashy, to take the dry structures of modern buildings and decorate them with absurd icons whose purpose was to entertain long enough that no one would notice that the architecture was still terrible. Léon Krier, a renegade amongst renegades who had no formal architectural education, had an other idea in mind: that there was such a thing as objective laws in architecture, that these laws remained unchanged over time, and that classicism was the best expression of these laws. Any other architect’s career would be destroyed by such a claim in such an era – Léon Krier just kept going, publishing article after article, book after book, until the estate of the Prince of Wales gave him his big break and commissioned the design of an entire neighborhood based upon his ideas. If there is a neo-traditionalist movement in architecture and urban design today, it is because Léon Krier imagined it first. This book is the compilation of the product of his career as an architect, but mostly as a writer.

Having read through the book, my conclusion is that Krier gives a thorough lesson in architecture, taking obvious pleasure is shredding the myths of modernism to pieces and exposing its false prophecies. However, the text never goes beyond the most superficially descriptive, often involving comparisons and an appeal to common sense. While Krier can point out, using his trademark caricatures, how absurd the patterns of modern sprawl are, he has no explanation as to why such patterns would exist, except that it may be just one big conspiracy. He has even less to say about community, which is strange considering the word is in the title. It is as if in the vocabulary of neo-traditional architects community and space have become synonymous. (Many of the great villages and towns of Europe are dying because their community is dying, regardless of their physical form.) For this reason Krier produces a very sharp lesson in architecture, but provides no insight into morphology, and cannot really develop a model of urbanism that isn’t simply architecture at enormous scale. It should be no surprise that his disciples have practiced town planning the same way.

Despite his claims of providing a plan for the post-fossil fuel age, his projects require enormous concentrations of capital to develop, the kind of capital only princes have at their disposal, and provide no guarantee of ever being home to a true community. Although he demonstrates a sensibility, if not necessarily an understanding, for chaos theory and complexity, I am left wondering if he refers to it because he finds it convenient, or because it is true. He points out that fractal geometry has denied modernism the use of abstract forms as more rational geometric objects, and many of his drawings could be used as perfect examples of complex geometry. It is however not explained why anything is depicted the way it is, or how it could be the way it is. Architectural complexity is embraced, but the leap to emergence, crucial for any practical model of urbanism, is not there.

Most of the book consists of sketches, pictures and small essays whose intent is to persuade instead of to argue, and there lies the most peculiar thing about it. It is in precisely the same format that Le Corbusier once published his works of pioneering architectural propaganda. It is as if Krier sought to turn the very arms of modernism against it, to fight evil with evil with a classical counter-propaganda. Krier knows the power that architecture can wield – his monograph on the architecture of Albert Speer (Albert Speer: Architecture, 1932-1942) remains one of the most frightening architectural books I’ve yet seen, if there can be such a thing as a frightening architecture. He exposed fascism in all of its most seductive displays, at once explaining how the movement could wield power over so many followers, and why there would be a ban against classical architecture itself in the aftermath of the war. One could read hundreds of post-war philosophers without ever arriving at such a realization. Krier believes that classical architecture is a powerful cultural force that can also be used for good, that it is absurd to deny ourself this force because it was used to evil ends, and concludes as such his review of Speer. There is nothing so epic in this new book, although Krier dedicates an entire chapter to a plan for Washington D.C. that would “complete” the city (a plan he also displays on the cover), which shows us where his loyalties lie. What he doesn’t seem to know is how dangerous the power of propaganda is, and how using it may be feeding the very process he wants to denounce.

Hence, the most problematic issue with this compendium of Krier’s career is the medium itself. Krier presents drawings of an architecture that is rationalized and purified, playing it safe in order to rebuild architecture on its foundations. The great eclectic architecture of the 19th century, and the early 20th, is left out. That does not demonstrate confidence in one’s belief in laws of architecture, and will not provide anything greater to a new generation of architects than an alternative propaganda that may tap some deeper feeling, but won’t give them any arguments against other fashions that violate the laws. It also won’t give them the confidence to radically apply the laws in order to invent architectural patterns that meet the needs of today’s society, whatever you want to call it. (Post-post-modern? Ultra-modern? Webbed?) Krier may not have realized that modern architecture is a product of such propaganda, the result of architecture no longer being practiced by artisans for the benefit of their local community, but by writers and graphic designers trying to come up with the flashiest image they can place in a magazine. The quality of the building is irrelevant if the magazines drive your business.

Much like the medium created modern architecture, the medium also created medieval and neo-classical architecture. The information technologies of Gothic churches were primitive, but extremely complex. Neo-classicism could use printing, and that made mass propagation of patterns possible to the extent that these patterns were translated into drawings. The revival of the laws of architecture that Léon Krier dreams of will likely need a new medium, one that is characteristic of our society, to be accepted as evident. Until that is invented, Krier has done us all a great service by destroying the temple of modernism, leaving at least a clean slate and the right principles to start over.

Principles published

The full article conceptualizing the principles of emergent urbanism has been published by the International Journal of Architectural Research volume 3 issue 2. You can download the complete article or read the whole issue.

Design, configuration and natural form

When did human creations stop being natural? We look at a tower block, a subdivision or a shopping mall parking lot and see the worst of industrial civilization translated into form. We tolerate them as necessary to achieve the material wealth of our civilization. Those human settlements that are still natural we grant special protections through UNESCO and historical preservation laws. We do not have a law that promotes the creation of new historic settlements because we are not quite sure how they are made.

I believe that our mistake is not in the things we make, that there is nothing unnatural about a shopping mall parking lot from a design point of view. What makes the shopping mall parking lots we build so unnatural are errors in configuration of the design elements. To understand this, one must understand the difference between design and configuration.

The form of a tree is an ideal example to illustrate the difference between the two concepts. Any particular species of tree will have a design that is essentially the same from one tree to the next. The design elements in the tree are all the named parts: trunk, branch, leaf, root, bark, and so on. These parts are organized into hierarchical relationships with the whole tree and with each other. We will always find the roots related with the trunk in the same way. This relationship is a design solution that achieves a specific result. However, the position of any of the parts is not fixed. In the DNA of the tree are rules that instruct cells to adapt themselves to the larger context the tree finds itself in. The different design solutions that result from this cellular action will therefore adopt a position that reflects the particulars of time and place, ensuring that the tree’s form is perfectly adapted to its environment. This is why it makes no sense to create a description of the forms of a leaf in order to make another leaf – that form is relevant only to this particular leaf, and another leaf, although it would have the same overall design of parts, will take a completely different configuration.

Adapted to chaos

A chaotic configuration of a standard design

If you’re having trouble seeing this, imagine the following scenario: we take the DNA of a tree and clone it 100 times. Then we lay out a grid 10 trees by 10 trees and watch them grow. What would happen would be that every tree would come out a different way, since the earth around them would be structured differently, the wind patterns would be different, the shade and the moisture would be different. The trees would each have the chaotic, random shape that we know trees to have, yet would all be perfectly symmetrical with one another without being identical. Each clone would adopt a unique configuration of the same design.

When we look at a traditional village, we find that the same house design is repeated time and time again, but configured in such a way that it is differently adapted than the other houses. The reiteration of an often very simple design is all that it takes to create a natural landscape, so long as each house is configured to adapt to its place, and the design elements of the house are themselves configured to adapt to these adaptations.

One design, many configurations

Even today this kind of natural adaptation takes place in modern settlements where planning regulation allows it, or fails at forbidding it.

Monaco

This is the skyline of Monaco, which by necessity of the small size of the city had to be built piecemeal but yet is still made with an entirely modern building stock. The piecemeal process allowed each building to be configured to its site and thus, despite the fact that the buildings’ design is very basic modern architecture, the whole landscape looks natural. It would be even more natural were the architectural elements also adapted.

favela_rocinha_rio

This the Rocinha favela of Rio de Janeiro. Here the building design is as bare as could be made, the houses being built by poor residents with little capital to invest. But the resulting configurations adapt perfectly to the shape of the hill and the other buildings, and the overall look of the place is that of a human jungle. (If you have the chance to see this summer’s The Incredible Hulk, the movie makes this point by fading from an overhead shot of Rocinha to that of a tropical jungle, subtlety be damned.) The buildings in Rocinha are just as natural as the trees.

How does that translate back into our shopping mall parking lot? It means that although the relationship between the parts, for example the lanes, the spaces and the paint that demarcates them, must be defined, the length of the spaces or the thickness of the demarcations do not have to be identical from one element to another. The chaos of nature requires that they be slightly different from one to the next, and that means that the people who make them must be able to make decisions while they are building. Simply copying an AutoCAD drawing is unnatural. The design must be translated into a language that instructs the builders to make configuration choices while constructing the defined forms. This kind of language is how builders have made traditional towns and how DNA makes organisms.

Separating design from configuration also allows us to make a second attempt at city planning. The plans of modernists all had fixed configurations, and their failure to adapt to their context meant the failure of urban planning. The conflict between design and configuration planning dates back even further, to the 19th century plans for Barcelona and Paris. In Barcelona, Cerda planned a grid of square blocks through which he ran grand diagonal avenues. Those were only two design elements in a very strict configuration that was made possible only by the enormous economic pressure to expand Barcelona. In Paris, Haussmann did not have the luxury of expanding the city with blocks, he had to upgrade a city of blocks that already existed with a new design element, the grand avenue. He deliberately left the configuration of his avenues open until they were completed, and placed them where he met the least resistance. Their effect on Paris is even today essential to life, and they could not have been realized unless their configuration was left adaptive.

What would a natural urban design look like? It must first be a definition of parts that must be related to each other in order to create urbanity. Describe the relationship between the avenue and the streets, the streets and the alleys, describe the relationship between the avenue and the pavement, the pedestrian crosswalks and the shade trees. Describe the relationships with the buildings without delimiting their size and shape. The city builders will then decide in what configuration these elements need to be to fit their context, and the resulting built form of the city plan will be perfectly natural as well as fully planned.

Classicism describes itself as the imitation of nature. Complexity, on the other hand, does not imitate. It is nature, applied to different problems. To create the urban design of our time requires not adopting a certain style or program, but ensuring that any style or program can be adapted to a particular context. It only requires us to use different tools than what we have become accustomed to.

Further reading:

Complex geometry and structured chaos, part I and part II.

Complex geometry and structured chaos part II

Complexity, to employ the definition proposed by Jane Jacobs in the final chapter of Death and Life of Great American Cities, is a juxtaposition of problems. This implies that a complex solution is a juxtaposition of solutions: fractal geometry.

How does the way we build arrive at complex solutions to complex problems without driving the builders to madness? How can we solve problems which exist at every scale in space, but also exist at every scale in time? Let’s take a look at St. Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London.

Let us focus on two different parts of it, the dome and the belltower. At first sight, there is nothing that a dome and belltower have in common. They are two different forms that solve two very different scales of problems. And if they had been built very far apart in two different neighborhoods of the city, one would never even associate them together. Yet in this case they are not only “dome” and “bell tower”, but they are also part of a greater form we call “St. Paul’s Cathedral”. That is to say, their form not only solves the problem of providing a dome and a bell tower, but it also contributes to solving the problem of providing a cathedral. Several scales of solutions are juxtaposed in the same space in order to form a complex solution. How was this result achieved?

Perhaps the architect Sir Robert Wren was a genius, but intuitively we doubt that, since the geometry in St. Paul’s cathedral is very similar to the baroque geometry employed throughout Europe at the time. And when we think back to how the Gothic cathedrals were built, very slowly, sometimes over more than a century, they were necessarily built by more than one architect. If they were all geniuses, then they must have been lucky to find so many geniuses idling about in medieval Europe. That sounds impossible given that medieval cathedrals appear to be even more complex than St. Paul’s cathedral, even though more people worked on their construction over a greater timespan. The sublime Antwerp cathedral, for example, was built from 1351 to 1521, and never completely finished.

There has to be a key to this riddle. How did we lose the skill to make this kind of complexity?

Since Leone Battista Alberti heralded modernity (not to be confused with modernism) in architecture, and until the mid-20th century, architects spent their first days in training learning to draw the classical orders. These classical orders supposedly held the finest refinement of western civilization’s building culture, having been in use since Greek antiquity and maybe earlier. It was an architect’s duty to reproduce this culture by learning the orders. Any deviation would certainly cause the doom of civilization. What the orders actually consisted of were fractal nesting rules, settled on more or less accidentally through the ages. Since the abstract concept of fractal nesting would not be discovered until Benoit Mandelbrot’s work in the 1970’s, the orders were simply understood to be unquestionable tradition. Since they were very simple local-form rules, any architect could use them to make his building, and they could be taught to any laborer working on any specific sub-section of a building without his having to know his role in the form of the whole. They could even be used to make simulations of the building, drawings and scale models that would later be used to convince patrons to fund construction. The rules were always the same. Only the problems to be solved changed.

Let’s take a look back at Wren’s cathedral. What does the dome consist of? Nested structures, including columns. What does the bell tower consist of? Nested structures, including the same kind of columns. The two different problems to be solved, dome and bell tower, also happen to share the same nested problems, and when they share a solution to this problem, they become connected into a whole.

Once we are aware of this rule we no longer need a necromancer to reanimate Wren in order to build an addition to the cathedral. We can simply decompile the geometric rules and apply them to solve the new problems we face. Whatever we produce that way will belong to the cathedral as much as the original parts. But we can also extend this to the scale of an entire city. If we apply these geometric rules to build a house or an office tower, it will appear to belong as much to St. Paul’s as the bell tower and the dome do. This enables us to achieve the complexity limit of urbanism. And when we look at all the great cities of the past, Paris, Rome, Venice, Amsterdam, Mediterranean hill towns, what we find is that they look whole because the builders who made them were all using the same rules in order to solve their individual problems. They didn’t realize they were doing it, they were just doing it because that’s how things were done.

If the classical orders were so great, why are they no longer being taught? Up to the 19th century, building technology changed very little, and so simply repeating the tradition was enough to create complexity. When metals and glass became massively affordable in the industrial revolution, architects faced a puzzle. Although the traditions succeeded at creating complex solutions, they were no longer solutions to problems that were relevant to anyone. Some architects experimented with new rules for nested structures using the new materials, more or less compatible with the old rules, and that gave us Art Nouveau and the Eiffel tower, for example. And some more radical architects, such as Louis Sullivan, said that modernity required the invention of a whole new architecture, and this became known as modernism. The modernists were right to declare the classical orders irrelevant, but in their rejection of the very foundations of architecture, the application of simple nesting rules, they also made it impossible for themselves to create complex buildings, and the result is the architectural wreck that unfolded starting in the 1930’s. The worse culprits, no doubt, were those modernists like Le Corbusier and even Albert Speer (bet you wouldn’t think he was a modernist) who favored abstraction and repetition in architecture. Abstraction is only the denial of complexity, the physical nature of our universe. It is the architectural equivalent of playing ostrich.

Post-modernism tried to bring back traditional forms without really giving up modernism, and that was a disaster perhaps worse than modernism was. Since post-modernists did not create nesting rules for their architecture, and on top of that were bringing up forms that were solutions even less relevant now than when they were abandoned, the result was a worldwide goofy architecture that everyone mocks as pastiche.

Some architects have been stumbling upon the right path these last few decades. The most remarkable effort has been the remodeling of the Reichstag in Berlin by Norman Foster.

The old building represented the federalist traditions of Germany, but also had to be adapted to the new philosophy of popular democracy. Foster built a glass dome from which the people can look at their politicians at work while enjoying a wonderful panoramic view of Berlin. Foster nested a new solution to a new a problem within the traditional geometry of the Reichstag, and thus created complexity that is relevant to the problems of today.

Architecture is, ultimately, just the repetitive computation of simple geometric rules to solve complex problems. Necessarily that creates complex solutions, and truly fractal buildings. With the right ruleset, anyone can do architecture, and by extension, great cities. The rules guide your hand.

Fake Complexity – CCTV Headquarters

Engineering firm ARUP provided the complexity for this project.

From time to time I happen upon an attempt to “do” complexity that completely misses the point. In this first installment of many “Fake Complexity” topics, the culprit is Rem Koolhaas and his CCTV Headquarters for Beijing.

The choice of Rem Koolhaas is not random. Koolhaas is the only starchitect who understands anything about complexity, making this building that much more tragic. And the sad part is that the CCTV does have some complexity in it – the structural frame of the building is so complex that it had to be generated by computer software, explaining the weird, random shape of the mesh holding it up. The error is that this emergent structure is put to work holding up a horribly corrupt design, and the random pattern of the structure exists to match the similarly random physical stresses the design imposes. The global shape of the building itself is just an aesthetic decision by the architects, it is not the result of a complex process. Complexity only factors in after the architects have done their work. Form here does not follow process.

The fact that the building’s form is not emergent is also the reason why the people of Beijing do not take it seriously as a building. It has already been nicknamed “Big Shorts” by locals, because that’s the form the architects decided for it.

And a comment in passing about the architectural criticism linked above.

You might think that, like a good deal of Koolhaas’s work, the building is as much showmanship as architecture, but it evinces a quiet, monumental grandeur. Some of that is due to the color of the glass, which is a soft gray, almost perfectly echoing the overcast Beijing sky.

What the hell are these people on? Is overcast the new grandeur?

Bonus Fake Complexity Update – Tour Signal by Jean Nouvel

Jean Nouvel was recently announced as the winner of the contest for a second iconic tower in Paris La Défense, which has absolutely nothing to do with him being awarded the Pritzker Prize a few weeks ago. Here is Jean Nouvel’s idea of complexity: a wallpaper of the Mandelbrot Set on the gargantuan atriums of his building. This is an even faker kind of complexity than Koolhaas used, as in that case there was a legitimate emergent process used in the structure of the building. What Jean Nouvel is doing is taking a 2D printout of a complexity-generating computer program and slapping it on the walls of his building. This being kitsch projected to every corner of Paris, it becomes a crime. Thankfully, given the current conditions of global real estate markets, it will meet the same fate as Jean Nouvel’s doomed 90’s project for La Défense, the Tour Sans Fins, and this is why it doesn’t deserve its own Fake Complexity update.

Architecture without design

Just eccentric ordinary people making it up as they go along.