Tag Archives: Le Corbusier

The manifesto of the Emergent Urbanism Network

As the idea of an emergent urbanism has become more popular, I’m receiving more and more emails asking me to look over some link or another and provide an opinion of the content. As I have unfortunately limited time, I cannot answer many of these requests. This led me to the realization that this little website needs to take a new, bold step into becoming something more than a blog/lesson, into an experiment in a new type of media.

When Le Corbusier set out to transform the world in his image, he did so by publishing his own magazines and books so that he would capture the imagination of humanity with all the power of the new forms of mass media, something that the traditionalist architects did not see any value in. It was his power to communicate farther and with more voice than any other that made him a legend. Despite all of our technological progress, we still experience the same form of mass media that Le Corbusier pioneered, and with mass media has come naturally the process of mass planning and mass architecture.

If there is to be a revolution towards a rediscovery of the more natural, more individual and more emergent forms of urbanism, there must also be a revolution in the media of urbanism. What is needed is not simply a change in form but a change in process all-around. The beginning of this change is a new way to communicate.

As social media networks have developed over the last few years (and it has taken very few years for them to stake their place alongside traditional mass media) we have rapidly accustomed ourselves to reading about only those things we find most relevant to our own perspective on the world, yet the information that is most relevant is spread out over myriad blogs, social feeds, and search engines. Those portals that do set out to provide news in urbanism rely on antiquated centralized editorial review processes to tell us what we should be interested in, in the same way Le Corbusier edited his magazine.

It is with these concerns in mind that I set out to design the Emergent Urbanism Network, a pioneering social media portal that aims to deliver to you the knowledge you need to advance your own personal growth as well as contribute to the growth of your peers. It is a portal that you create and you structure, in combination with every other member, into a publication that is infinitely scalable. It is an emergent form of media advocating for an emergent city.

If you are reading this, it means that you have become urgently interested in the subject of emergent urbanism. You may be a planner, an architect, a computer scientist, a consultant, an urbanist, an economist, a journalist, or anything else. Regardless of your title, your depth of interest is what matters most. Your contribution in the beginning of this new venture is critical, as it is the early structure you provide to the network that will shape its future. I need you to connect immediately and start telling us all about the issues and events you feel are related to urban complexity and emergence. You will help each other and you will help me as I continue to develop the technology to create the most powerful urban portal on the Internet.

Thank you all for your curiosity and your contributions. I’ll see you on the other side.

The Journey to Emergence

This is part I of a series of excerpts of an article to be published in the International Journal of Architectural Research entitled The Principles of Emergent Urbanism. Additional parts will be posted on this blog with the editor’s permission until the complete article appears exclusively in the journal’s upcoming issue.

Of the different domains of design urban design is an oddity. While the design of a machine can be traced to a definite, deliberate act of invention, and even the design of buildings (architecture) is rooted in known production processes, the design of cities was never seriously attempted until well after cities had become a normal, ordinary aspect of civilized living, and while the design of machines and buildings was a conscious effort to solve a particular problem or set of problems, cities appeared in the landscape spontaneously and without conscious effort. This places the efficacy of urban design in doubt. The designers of machines and buildings know fully how the processes that realize their design operate, and this knowledge allows them to predictably conceive the form they are designing. Urban designers do not enjoy such a certainty.

How is it possible for what is obviously a human artifact to arise as if by an act of nature? The theory of a spontaneous order provides an explanation. According to Friedrich A. von Hayek (Hayek, 1973) a spontaneous order arises when multiple actors spontaneously adopt a set of actions that provides them with a competitive advantage, and this behavior creates a pattern that is self-sustaining, attracting more actors and growing the pattern. This takes place without any of the actors being conscious of the creation of this pattern at an individual level. The spontaneous order is a by-product of individuals acting in pursuit of some other end.

In this way cities appear as agglomerations of individually initiated buildings along natural paths of movement, which originally do not require any act of production as dirt paths suffice. As the construction of individual buildings continues the most intensely used natural paths of movement acquire an importance that makes them unbuildable and these paths eventually form the familiar “organic” pattern of streets seen in medieval cities. This process still takes place today in areas where government is weak or dysfunctional, notably in Africa where urban planning often consists of catching up to spontaneous settlement, and in the infamous squatter slums that have proliferated in the 20th century.


A transect of the city of Tultepec in Mexico provides a snapshot of the different phases of spontaneous urban growth. (Google Earth image)

As urbanization becomes denser, the increasing proximity of concurrent, competing individual interests causes conflicts between the inhabitants of the emerging town. Individuals build out their properties in such a way that it interferes with others, for example by blocking paths or views. These acts threaten the sustainability of the spontaneous order, and to resolve this situation the parties involved appeal to the same judges that rule on matters of justice. These judges, again according to Hayek, are required to restore and preserve the spontaneous order with their rulings. These rulings provide the first building regulations and, when government authority becomes powerful enough to do so, are compiled into comprehensive building codes to be applied wherever the force of that government extends. (Hakim, 2001)

The compiled building codes are later brought by colonists to create new settlements, reproducing the morphology across multiple towns but each time in a pattern that is adapted to the local context. Early town planning efforts are attempts at regularizing the building codes in order to plan for long-term organization of cities, but maintain the spontaneous production process. Most notably the rapid urbanization of New York City was accomplished by very simple rules on the size of blocks laid out in the 1811 Commissioners Plan for New York. Unlike the experience of urbanization in previous centuries, where urban growth was slow and often stagnant, the urbanization of New York took place in a time of rapid social and economic changes, and the city government had to invent building codes involving issues that never could arise in a pre-capitalist society: first the tenement, then the skyscraper, and ultimately, the automobile.

Modernism: the replacement for the spontaneous order

Architects and urban planners of the early 20th century, confident in the techniques of engineering and industrial production, believed that the spontaneous city had become irrational and had to be replaced with a new design fully integrating new industrial technology. The Swiss architect Le Corbusier is famous for designing a complete city around the automobile and building models of his design. In so doing he adopted a process of urbanization that was completely planned hierarchically, applying the processes familiar to architects at the scale of an entire city. He also ridiculed the morphology of spontaneous cities as being the product of donkey-paths.


This scale model of Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin marks the turning point where city plans as constraints on individual initiative are replaced with architectural design at the scale of millions of inhabitants. (Le Corbusier, 1964)

Although the architectural program of high-rise living of Le Corbusier was discovered to be a colossal failure, the modernist process of development replaced spontaneous urbanization in the industrialized world. The housing subdivision substituted adequately for the high-rise tower block, providing affordable housing in large numbers to a war-impoverished society. This production process is still in force today, separating cities into three distinct zones: residential subdivisions, industrial and office parks, and commercial strips.

Modern city planning has been successful at its stated objective, producing a city designed specifically around automobile use, yet it was immediately and has been perpetually the target of criticisms. Most significantly the vocabulary of these criticisms had to be invented in order to spell out the critics’ thoughts because the type of deficiency they were observing had never been seen. Words like placeless or cookie-cutter were invoked but fell on the deaf ears of urban planners who were trained in Cartesian processes and industrial production techniques.

The most devastating criticism of modernist urban planning came in the form of a sociological study and personal defense of the spontaneous city, the book Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. (Jacobs, 1961) In it she described in great details how the functions of a spontaneous city related and supported each other. Her concluding chapter, the kind of problem a city is, is still the most relevant. In it she attacks the scientific foundations of urban planning at a paradigmatic level, and claims that the methodology of the life sciences, at the time undergoing the revolution created by the discovery of DNA, is the correct approach to studying cities.

Death and Life of Great American Cities has been adopted by contemporary urban planners as a textbook for urbanity. Its descriptions of the characteristics of a city are now the models upon which new developments are planned. The old urban development of housing subdivisions and office parks is being substituted for the new urban development that has streets, blocks, and mixed uses, just as Jacobs had described to be characteristic of life in the city. A major difference between Jane Jacobs’ preferred city and the new urban plans remains. The layout of mixed uses is organized and planned in the same process as Le Corbusier planned his city designs. The scientific suggestions of Jacobs have been ignored.

The discovery of emergence and complexity science

In the time since Jacobs published her attack on planning science molecular biology has made great technological achievements and provided countless insights into the morphology of life. In parallel the computer revolution has transformed the technology of every human activity, including that of design. But the computer revolution brought along some paradigm-altering discoveries along with its powerful technology. In geometry, the sudden abundance of computing power made it possible for Benoit Mandelbrot to investigate recursive functions and his discovery, fractal geometry, generated a universe of patterns that occurred in many aspects of the physical universe as well as living organisms. (Mandelbrot, 1986)

Some thinkers saw that the life sciences were part of a much more general scientific domain. They formed the Santa Fe Institute and under the label complexity studied not only organisms but also groups of organisms, weather systems, abstract computational systems and social systems. This research formed a body of theory called complexity science that has resulted in the creation of similar research institutes in many other places, including some centers dedicated specifically to urban complexity.

Their scientific revolution culminated in two major treatises within the last decade, both from physicists practicing in a field of complexity. The first was A New Kind of Science by computer scientist and mathematician Stephen Wolfram (Wolfram, 2002), where he presents an alternative scientific method necessary to explore the type of processes that traditional science has failed to explain, presenting a theory of the universe as a computational rule system instead of a mathematical system. The second was The Nature of Order (Alexander, 2004) by architect Christopher Alexander, where he presents a theory of morphogenesis for both natural physical phenomena and human productions.

A definition of emergence

To define what is meant by emergence we will use the abstract computational system upon which Wolfram bases his theories, the cellular automaton. Each cell in a row is an actor, making a decision on its next action based on its state and the states of its direct neighbors (its context). All cells share the same rule set to determine how to do this, that is to say all cells will act the same way with the same context. In this way each row is the product of the actions of the cells in a previous row, forming a feedback loop. The patterns of these rows are not in themselves interesting, but when collected in a sequence and displayed as a two-dimensional matrix, they develop complex structures in this dimension.


The 30th rule of all possible rules of one-dimensional cellular automata produces a chaotic fractal when displayed as a two-dimensional matrix, but most other rules do not create complex two-dimensional structures. The first line of the matrix is a single cell that multiplies into three cells in the second line in accordance with the transformation rules pictured below the matrix. This process is reiterated for the change from the second to the third line, and so on. All the information necessary to create structures of this complexity is contained within the rules and the matrix-generating process. (Wolfram, 2002)

The same general principle underlies all other emergent processes. In a biological organism a single cell multiplies into exponentially greater number of cells that share the same DNA rules. These cells create structures in a higher dimension, tissues and organs, which form the entire organism. In the insect world complex nests such as termite colonies emerge from the instinctual behavior of individual termites. And in urbanization, buildings form into shopping streets, industrial quarters and residential neighborhoods, themselves overlapping into a single whole system, the city.


Alexander, Christopher (2004). ‘The Process of Creating Life’, The Nature of Order Vol. 2, Center for Environmental Structure
Corbusier, Le (1964). La Ville Radieuse. Éléments d’une doctrine d’urbanisme pour l’équipement de la civilisation machiniste, Édition Vincent Fréal et Cie, Paris, France
Hakim, Besim (2001). ‘Julian of Ascalon’s Treatise of Construction and Design Rules from Sixth-Century Palestine,’ Journal of the Society of Architectural Historian, vol. 60 no. 1
Hayek, Friedrich A. (1973). ‘Rules and Order’, Law, Legislation and Liberty Vol. 1, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London and Henley, UK
Jacobs, J. (1961). The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Random House and Vintage Books, New York, USA
Mandelbrot, Benoit (1986). The Fractal Geometry of Nature, W.H. Freeman, New York, USA
Wolfram, Stephen (2002). A New Kind of Science, Wolfram Media, USA

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.

Why build cities anyway?

It’s strange that in all the literature on the subject of urbanism and city living, very few people ever ask themselves why humans would build cities at all. It seems to me that in order to truly know what to do with the city, we must start out by knowing why it’s there in the first place. Somehow cities are so deeply rooted in humanity’s history that we never get around to asking why we live in them.

I suppose the best way to start out is to look at what life would be like if there were no cities. Let’s suppose that we all lived on our own homesteads, much as some of our ancestors did (truer in America than elsewhere). We would get up in the morning, work our homestead, eat our meals at home, provide for our entertainment at home, then go to bed at night, without ever leaving the homestead. But could we organize into advanced industries? We could build “factory homesteads” where we would get up in the morning in the factory, work in the factory during the day, and sleep in the factory at night, with all the thousands of other workers. (This is what the first socialists-planners, like Charles Fourier, proposed to do with their Phalanstère. It failed miserably.) But that still would be a very bare lifestyle, and it’s not very nice to live in a factory. So instead we would probably want to live in a house, and then walk to the factory and back. So would our fellow factory hands want each their own house.

But what if we were bored of entertaining at home? After the factory, we might want to get dinner out from a place that cooks better than us, and go to a show with people who are better entertainers. That’s two different locations that we need to add to our web of destinations. These locations matter to us because we want to form a relationship to them. Since they can do something different than us, they are complementary to us.

By now our model landscape of homesteads has been split up into a sprawling landscape of different zones, somewhat like Frank Lloyd Wright had proposed Broadacre City should be. But since everything is so far away from everything else, it is costly to form many relationships. The closer together we build the different (differentiated) spaces, the more relationships can form between them at the same cost. And so we cluster everything together as tight as feels comfortable, and we now have a wide selection of different factories, eateries and entertainment to choose from. Cities ultimately make possible diversity. Why are the densest cities in the world, like Paris’ left bank or New York’ Manhattan, also the most expensive? Why would the richest people choose to live there in close proximity to others, when they can afford to live anywhere? Because that is where there is the greatest diversity of relationships they can form.

So having decided that it’s a good idea to be close together, are there any alternative means of achieving that? We could commission a great architect to build us a gigantic arcology that would condense us all into one big huge building. But what would we tell him we need to build? And where would we live until it’s done? This project would run into the inevitable problem of programmatic chaos. An architect can only begin his work when we know what we need him to build. We may need a house with 3 bedrooms and a large kitchen, and therefore we tell this to an architect and he builds this house for us. But can this apply at the scale of an entire city? In reality, we are not quite certain what it is we need at this moment, and we certainly don’t know what our needs will be a decade from now. A million-people arcology is going to take that long to build. And where would live until that thing is ready to inhabit?

Cities solve these problems by splitting up this huge system into individual cells that can be added or removed at pretty much every scale. If population goes up, we keep up by building more homes. If it goes down, we shrink. If we decide that in fact bowling alleys are not cool anymore, we remove the bowling alleys and build schools in their place. But it is always in the present moment that we know what is sorely needed, and we can only know this by evaluating what the city consists of in its current state. The program, the features that a building is designed to support, can only be determined for very small scale projects. A house, a school, a shop can be described in great details based on our previous experiences with these and their interaction in the complex mesh of the city. But the bigger the building is, say a big skyscraper, the more difficult it is to define it clearly, so what we see is that skyscrapers usually are made to be “bare bones” generic space that will be later filled up with concrete activities once the skyscraper is complete, several years after being designed.

The programmatic chaos that we must live with in a complex society means that we can’t build huge structures in one step, we must build them in feedback loops by building chains of small structures that connect together, each new structure correcting the imbalance that was perceived in the last loop. So if I move to a new city and I can’t find a home to my liking, I can buy an empty lot and build one, or build one on an abandoned or crumbling building, correcting two imbalances at the same time. And while I get a new job or start a business the city’s industry will change as well, and may need different buildings and different places to put them. But this is work that is entirely different from the work of architecture.

This means that the 20th century model of urban planning introduced by Le Corbusier and the CIAM has not only been a huge mistake, but it has attempted to destroy the very thing that makes cities useful in the first place, the fact that they can deal with the uncertainty of our future by transforming themselves while remaining functional through this transformation. This is what makes them complex systems like the organic structures of the natural world. They are multicellular, they are capable of growth and adaptation by changing these cells, and since they transform themselves to meet uncertainty, they are unpredictable, emergent structures.

When we look at science fiction, we often see pictures of huge city-sized space stations, shining smoothly in perfect circles or some such. But these gigantic space stations would inevitably also run into programmatic chaos, so what we would see in reality is probably stations with a lot of “suburban growth” attached to them as space pioneers built extensions to make up for the lack of omniscience of the station’s designers. The best thing to do, of course, would be to build space cities, space stations that could work at any scale and grow and shrink, and the construction of these space cities would have to employ many of the techniques used by city builders here on Planet Earth.

So what we learn from all these philosophical exercises is that urbanism is quite an important discipline, one that happens to be completely different from architecture, and that it represents in itself a very important form of technology for humankind.

Emerging the city

In the 20th century, the modern movement in architecture drew up grand plans to remake cities for the machine age. Le Corbusier, the leader of the movement, conceived his Radiant City plan. He designed every part of it himself so that it would work as he had willed it to. His machine provided the solution to four problems: inhabitation, work, recreation, circulation. Everything else was removed.

The idea of a machine city expressed three assumptions that led to the catastrophic results of modernism.

The first assumption is that the city is a machine that solves a problem. It can then be designed as a tool would be.

The second assumption is that the will of a designer can be imposed at the scale of a city.

The third assumption is that the form of a city, its morphology, can be conceived in advance of its development (“planned”).

After a titanic fight over the future of New York City, Jane Jacobs explained this error in the final chapter of Death and Life of Great American Cities. The “kind of problem a city is” shares nothing with the physical and engineering sciences. It is like the biological sciences, a problem of organized complexity.

The city does not solve a problem or some problems, it provides the environment to solve the infinite diversity of little problems that human beings have.

It is so complex that no single human can ever hope to understand it entirely.

Its morphology must be defined by its growth process as it adapts to changes in human needs and desires.

The city cannot have a designer. It cannot be built according to a description fine-tuned to perfection. This has become obvious to practically everyone, although urbanism in the english-speaking world is still tied down by the title “urban planner” in the face of all the evidence that planning makes no difference whatsoever. Still the practice of large scale zoning and site planning continues.

The problem was the absence of an alternative theory.

Today this theory exists. Research into DNA and cellular automata has shown how systems of transformations, as opposed to descriptions, create complexity in nature through emergence. Cells which multiply themselves and interact following simple sets of transformation rules produce forms of astonishing complexity.

A system of transformations is similar to a recipe. It is a list of actions that you must take, as compared to a descriptive system which gives you a picture of a finished object. Imagine trying to bake a chocolate cake with nothing but a picture. Now try again with no picture but a full recipe. By following the recipe, you will get a tasty cake no matter what mold or size of cake you made. If you make a mistake in the recipe, your cake will not succeed.

The definition of emergence is thus: it is a form obtained as a result of following certain processes. The opposite of emergence is design: it is a form conceived by a designer which will be used as a blueprint for its realization.

In emergence, form is the result. In design, form is the starting point.

The 21st century paradigm of urbanism is discovering and applying the right recipe, DNA, transformation set, to build a city, at any size, shape, or starting point, so that it will always work, always be adapted, and always be full of life.