Tag Archives: modernism

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.

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.

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.

transect-of-tultepec

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.

villa-radieuse

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.

rule30

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.

References

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

The Urban Country: Holland

Rem Koolhaas once described the urban as pervasive. It took a tour of Holland for me to grasp quite what he meant. While Paris is mocked as a museum-city due to its protected urban tissue, in Holland it is the farmland that is protected, the rural tissue that cannot be modernized. This makes the experience of moving in the country, which is about the same size as the Dallas-Fort-Worth metropolis and has more people, utterly surreal.

Holland today is called the Randstad, or the Edge City, since its four biggest cities, Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht, were joined together by highways, leaving the heart of the country as the farmland the Dutch had created it to be. (God may have made the Earth but the Dutch made the Netherlands, so the saying goes.) With less than an hour travel time from any city to another making connections perfectly simple, the urbanization of the cities into one large metropolis was inevitable, just as the urbanization of the land between them was inevitable.

While, traveling from one city to the next, one may see a landscape of grazing fields for dairy cows, this landscape is always seen from a road that is packed with other travelers. Wherever you go, the ubiquitous presence of other people can be felt, either by running into them on their bicycles or just as the background noise of a not-far-enough highway. The grazing land and windmills may be beautiful to look at, they are only a decor, and the presence of other people, as well as the occasional 6-story office building squeezed in between two herds of cows, serve to remind you at every step how unnatural this arrangement is.

Typical Dutch landscape, but imagine the noise of an urban highway in the background for the real picture

Typical Dutch landscape, but imagine the noise of an urban highway in the background for the real picture

Urbanity is, ultimately, nothing more than people circulating. We sense that a place is urban where there are crowds (or in the controversial words of Rem Koolhaas, congestion). And good urbanism, in that sense, is taking full advantage of the crowd, with the small things like street-side cafes for people watching, the less small things like tramways, and the dramatically monumental things like balconies over a railway station concourse. Bad urbanism, on the other hand, is hiding the crowd away, or pretending that it isn’t there. This is what the land use policy of the Netherlands does.

Why do the Dutch need this farmland anymore? According to Dutch government statistics, land becomes at least twice as valuable once the land is rezoned as “urban”. That implies that making cheese is not nearly as important to people as human residence, industry and business. The government maintains that the zoning is necessary to protect the country against the market failure of not providing a beautiful landscape.

The landscape of Holland is the most artificial of any place in the world. Everything in the country was made by human hand. It all came out looking quite natural. Christopher Alexander even used the historic center of Amsterdam as an example of a city grown naturally in A New Theory of Urban Design. It is genuinely beautiful. Have the Dutch lost confidence in their own hands? What is going on?

Man-made nature in Amsterdam

Man-made nature in Amsterdam

If you follow architecture at all, you will be aware that Holland is considered as something like the Shangri-La of Modernism, a country where the modern paradigm has been fully embraced and where architectural experimentation is the rule. The result of this experimentation has been hard modernist mega-estates like Biljmermeer (it’s bigger than Sarcelles! exclaimed our companion) in the outskirts of Amsterdam, a city that despite having been reinvested with new modernist buildings, still is a ghost town compared to the bustle of Amsterdam, to the fashionably impractical like the diamondoid houses of Rotterdam, and terminating in the plain grotesque like the foodstrip that greets you on the highway into Amsterdam. What emanates from this experimentation is that the lessons acquired from one experiment are never used in the next, defeating the whole purpose of an experiment. We can only conclude that what is taking place cannot be defined as experimentation. The precise term for modernism is folly.

An "experiment"

An "experiment"

The foodstrip - yummy!

The foodstrip - yummy!

Against an onslaught of follies mutilating their landscape, what could the Dutch do but turn hyper-conservative in horror? They must realize though that the lines drawn on zoning maps can only be a temporary measure, a rear-guard action while waiting for the day we are no longer confused about what we are. I can imagine a Randstad with a center of parks, houses and estates that would be just as beautiful and natural as the current landscape and also serve as relevant solutions to the current problems of Dutch life. We don’t need to zone out the present. We don’t have to be afraid of ourselves anymore. We just need to know how to make things like nature does. Then the landscape that we have always made will once again be natural.

While Paris may be a monument to an urban past, the late 19th century, that no longer exists, the Randstad is a monument to a rural past that has long vanished. It is a museum-country that functions as a modern city. A tour of Holland is the essential companion to Rem Koolhaas’ S,M,L,XL, which is the essential narrative of late 20th century architecture and urbanism. If you ever wondered what could have produced such a strange mind, Holland could.

Crossing the Maas into Holland

Crossing the Maas into Holland

Follies in Rotterdam

Follies in Rotterdam

Living naturally in Amsterdam

Living naturally in Amsterdam

Nature in Rotterdam

Nature in Rotterdam

P.S. What was originally meant to be a weekend trip to Amsterdam with three fellow students of the Institut d’Urbanisme over the long July 14 weekend turned into, due to last minute planning, a full tour of Holland, with stops in Utrecht, Rotterdam and Amsterdam, and lightning visits to towns like Bunnik, Gouda, The Hague and Shoeveningen, the Biljmermeer suburb of Amsterdam and Gorinchem. That is to say, we did a full tour of the Randstad. Since it was on the way, we also stopped in Ghent and Antwerp, which felt somewhat more normal than Holland. The reason for this, I concluded recently, was that there were far fewer people on the roads.

P.P.S. Do not remain illegally parked in Amsterdam’s historic center, particularly not if your driver is an irritable parisian. Parking enforcement is very serious business there, with visibly positive consequences on the quality of the city.

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.

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.