Tag Archives: Natural Landscapes

Chaos re-emerges

1960’s psychedelic art?


Or the American landscape?

Notice how much negative space is created by the imposition of the grid on a chaotic reality. The simplicity of the cartesian plan is deceptive. It generates complications as the random process of change unfolds.

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.


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.


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.

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.