Monday, February 14, 2011

"Starchitects" Admonitions On Inherent Urban Design: A Sample

WE HAVE THOUGHT of the city-form as being artificial, or essentially as being a hard, mechanistic form that is above nature and that can invent its own conditions for existence.  Therefore, we have presumed that we could design a new “machine” or modify parts of the machine, and that this is what we would do to update the city to optimize it.   But the “star-architectural” philosophers and urban planner/thinkers tell us that it is not that simple.

The city is chance-like—a “culture of congestion” suggests architect Rem Koolhaas.  We cannot control the effects of our “solutions.”  Like all living processes, Constantinos Doxiadis suggests that the city-form is an “entopia,” building from the bottom up to fit with the conditions of the immanent landscape rather than building uniformly from the top down as if external to the local place.  It may be illusory to imagine that the city can become be a “perfected ecotopia” designed from the top down.

Appearing almost over-old, the city has barely appeared in the history of the Earth.  Further, the majority of its citizens might be living in a community built in the last fifty years.  Being this new, the city is both incomparable and incomprehensible in the sense of being completely knowable and predictable or reducible or designable.  And beyond being new, the inhabitants do not operate like cogs in a machine, nor is the inflow and outflow of resources uniform, which quickly becomes apparent in applied urban design. 

The city is essentially dynamic rather than static, so that what is detailed today is quickly modified by myriad factors.  Change continues to happen accidentally as well as from a variety of intentions that are neither uniform nor even competitive.  Accordingly, efforts to describe any model for a city are sensed to always fall short, due to the natural complexity of the city.   Due to complexity, efforts to describe a prairie or woodland also fall short, but the city amplifies the difficulty of prediction since it is far too young to have the stability of an established climactic, “residential” ecosystem. 

While essential, “urban planning and regional planning” are, in a very real way, oxymorons.  Restrictions and opportunities and design can be set, but a comprehensive end-goal design cannot be attained.  Looking at architectural and planning theory, there is a broadly shared sense of the city’s deep complexity that naturally modifies design across time.  This can be both a problem and an opportunity.  It is a problem of control, but it is an opportunity to optimize a rich, borad-based spontaneous design process.  The absence of uniformity in urban dynamics is also mirrored in professional urban design, where there is argument over the directives to be taken in design objectives and goals.

In testy metaphors, Rem Koolhaas suggests that the city-form is nature out of control.  This perhaps implies an opportunity for freedom, but perhaps more of a sense of threat.  Looking more explicitly, the “nature” that Koolhaus describes is, paradoxically, an “addictive machine from which there is no escape.”  And looking even more closely behind the metaphor, Koolhaus is really to describing the addictive draw of cultural comfort and stimulation rather than an infrastructure or machine. In later writing, Koolhaas has described the unpredictability of a city as being caused by the degradation of once-functional subsystems into “orphaned” subsystems that function without relationship to each other.  This has resulted in modern space becoming “junk-space” that has taken on a life of its own with a primary drive to mindlessly expand “like a web without a spider.” 

Koolhaas seems to be describing the dominance of the machine that is disconnected, not participatory, and unnatural.  It is anarchical and has a sort of freedom but that is ultimately a tomb because it isolates and separates rather than integrates.  Life in this junk-space is delusional in the sense of being a landscape where “a TV is a substitute for a window” and where “cyberspace becomes the great outdoors.”[i]  The concepts of “urban sprawl” and “megalopolis” and “urban blight” are older terms that wear Koolhaus’ new clothing.  They draw attention to what is wrong rather than any sense of health being expressed in these “problems,” as well as divert attention toward “diving” into the vital life of the city-form. 

Koolhaas appears to find the chaos in urban life as having become largely dysfunctional. However, Koolhaas does describe a conurbation such as Lagos as something perhaps less modern where the “chaos” is powerful and inspiring and brutal in the positive sense of being perhaps cleansing—more natural and less machine—rather than dysfunctional.[ii] Many urban designers/planners have come to accept the idea of the city-form as still in creation—emergent—rather than being a set structure like a machine.  And it is almost a design commandment, as Koolhaas suggests, to first deal with places as they are, rather than operate from a set of identifiable goals that aspire to know what a city is and then design it.

Perhaps more explicitly and more controversial, Koolhaas seems to reach a point in his architectural philosophy that does not identify any inherent process that naturally regulates urbanism either within or outside planning and control that might sustain the future city.  Koolhaas stresses not focusing on a big scale intervention because of this lack of pattern.[iii]
In contrast, Andres Duany suggests that we attend to the largeness in urban design. Critical of Koolhaas’ sense of the city as nearly beyond design, Andres Duany considers largeness as a fact of urbanization and one that makes urban planning essential.  However, rather than aspire to completely design the city, Duany explores creating “elements” or programs that create personal participation within largeness.[iv]  Duany suggests that because of largeness as a dynamic of the city-form, we have not yet transformed quantity into quality. In fact, he suggests the need to also look at an even larger landscape than the vast mega-city and recognize the influences and forces impinging upon the city from beyond the city. 

Duany challenges the vision of chaos that Koolhaas describes as illusory. Duany describes interlocking practices of marketing and engineering and codes and financing that are both precise and controlling, and that this control becomes evident when actions deviate from the established practices.  And yet, he acknowledges that building codes that can limit design can also stimulate out-of-control spontaneous design.[v]  In finding pattern in the city-form, Duany feels that there is a range of activity that is non-professional and that has occurred throughout the ages.  And rather than being destructive, he sees it as a dynamic that can make “great places,” but that is typically dismissed as unimportant in design.  He feels that this quality is captured professionally by a sense of the New Urbanism orientation where, for example, the street and the front porch of proposed “new towns” are envisioned as capable of promoting “community” rather than being a barrier, as well as effective large public space that promotes a personal affectionate experience of civic pride.  While New Urbanism aspires to recover the humane, it has been strongly planned design that fairly large-scale, costly, unsuccessful as a model, and increasingly outdated as a post-industrial model of urban habitation.

In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs writes that the city is complex and not completely knowable and therefore not a simple linear problem for planners.  But rather than presume that urban design must repair failure, Jacobs suggests that there is a deep organized complexity in the city-form that is successful, from which we can learn and with which we can work.  This challenges a sense that a radical new professional design must be invented.[vi]  Interestingly, she emphasizes identifying positive elements rather than focusing primarily on problems, with a particular focus on human-scale as positive and a key focus for urban design, specifically in the form of the interactive “new urbanism” neighborhoods.  In looking at the ecological potential of the city, Jacobs suggests that the city of the future will assume the role of producer of resources rather than be only the consumer of resources.[vii]  While considering environmental dilemmas, her focus is primarily an architectural emphasis rather than an ecological one.

Looking from the perspective of a “living city,” Ian McHarg pioneered a vision of urbanization as occurring within nature.  His design philosophy challenged the popular sense of urbanization as anti-nature.  Further, he suggested that design should be primarily design for the nature of the planet and not just for human habitation.  Frederick Steiner writes that McHarg “sought means for peacefully inhabiting the planet by greening and healing it.”[viii]  McHarg admonished design to utilize Western arts and sciences in a residential form of “ecological determinism”[ix] to challenge the predominant pioneering morphology of economic determinism that he felt aspired “to multiply and subdue” nature. 

With environmental dynamics having become public health issues, there been a shift in urban design to prioritize attention to nature in the city.  This has taken the form of a discussion of “livable cities” and sustainability.  But this change aspires to address environmental degradation without looking at the city as a natural process.  Michael Hough argues the “task is one of integrating the concept of urbanism into nature.”[x]  In designing cities, Hough writes, “…traditional design values have contributed little to their environmental health, or to their success as civilizing, enriching places to live in.” [xi]  Again, we become our words, and Hough suggests that there is “the alienation of urban society from environmental values and cultural connections with the land”[xii] and so in design, “little attention has been paid to understanding the natural processes… .[xiii]  This results in the very real, negative consequences of the city placing “unsustainable pressures on environmentally sensitive landscapes,” and becoming “sterile landscapes replacing complex environments,” and creating “pollution loads” by not capitalizing on the value of water, energy and nutrient by-products.[xiv]  Hough notes that urban soil is sterile and non-productive despite the enormous concentrations of nutrient energy. 

In Gray World, Green Heart, Robert Thayer shares the observation that urban design involves many different pieces rather than an aspiration to develop one whole design.  Focusing more on environmental planning than on general urban planning, he suggests that it is not enough to focus on pieces of technology that address organic, wind, solar, recycling and wildlife issues because a greater transformation is required.  He encourages attention to enhancing natural process in the city, and encourages attention to an attitudinal shift to “topofilia” or enhancement of an existing public affection for nature.[xv]

Similar to Thayer, Susannah Hagan stress the need for a new contract between architecture and nature, suggesting that such a contract is not a sentimental position that is anti-urban or opposed to advanced technology.  She suggests that rather than eco-sentimentality or a response by efficiency experts, “…environmentalism is a vast new intellectual project, nothing less than the redirection of material culture…”.[xvi]  Still, the emphasis is primarily upon alignment with nonhuman nature to explore, for example, non-linear forms, with less emphasis upon urban human activity as being inherently natural.

Efforts to create “new town” human-scale communities to address the dehumanizing aspects of both central city and suburbia have declined.[xvii]  Similarly, comprehensive city designs such as Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti that involve city designs for 100,000 or 1,000,000 persons covering only tens or hundreds of acres are simply not pursued, even when argued that the costs would be dramatically cheaper than other approaches.  Looking at how Arcosanti would function as well as fail can be helpful, since it aspires to produce virtually no pollution, to recycle wastes as new resources, and to save solar and waste heat energy as well.[xviii]

Integrating human-scale and “topofilia” and large-scale infrastructure are very valuable directions to explore.  However, what has not been nearly absent from urban design is attention to an inherent “automatic” design that occurs broadly in cities.  Overall, urban design for the living city acknowledges an inherent or “automatic” design process that occurs without any intentional planning.  However, this automatic process is often envisioned as something that undermines design efforts.  It might be described as anti-design or chaos or as urban blight and urban dysfunction.  And yet, the emergence of cities is likely due to the wild, automatic process of inhabitants’ efforts to adapt to the conditions of existence that are changing and enduringly “chaotic.”

While always a secondary movement, architects and planners have explored the city as a living organism.  For example, looking more specifically at architects, Kisho Kurakawa, who co-founded the Metabolist Architectural Movement in 1960, described the city-form as a living organism.  And in Kurakawa’s urban organism, the automatic design that emerges from inhabitants’ activity was emphasized.  This orientation was derived from observing the self-reliance of inhabitants designing their local environments.  Kurakawa envisioned the city as being built from the bottom up on its own terms by “multivalent, heterogeneous elements” that both involved the “noise” or “messiness” and the more artistic ne or “music” rather than top down.  Kurakawa described a process of recycling and “metabolism” that creates mixed use habitats of dwelling, commerce and industry.  The “messiness” of the city and the ne is the overlooked authentic life of the city under its “hard skin.”[xix]  However, Kurakawa described the aliveness or naturalness primarily as cultural interplay between the local and the whole, with secondary attention to environmental sustainability or as a process of ecological adaptation.

Kurakawa’s Metabolist view of urbanization is a minor view with the generalized activities of urban inhabitants typically envisioned as not only messy but chaotic and dysfunctional.  The negative view of “automatic” design is due in part to the fact that urban issues have been articulated by urban planners rather than by inhabitants themselves who intuitively rather than intentionally design.  And these intuitive actions have only recently began to be articulated due largely to the emergence of an internet “blogosphere” that explores urbanization in new ways. 

The global electronic “World-Wide Web” has expanded professional interdisciplinary and general public discussion and has created a new phenomenon, an “urbanologist.”  The urbanologist is somewhat like a naturalist of old, inhabiting and exploring the urban landscape as an avocation rather than as a specific profession.  The exploration is more of an intuitive process rather than a rigorous process guided by longstanding concepts.  This “urbanology” is driven by a sense that major aspects of the urban ecosystem that are important for the future directions of the city have been overlooked and proscribed.  It can be anticipated that urbanologists will emerge from a broad variety of experiences, from urban planners to non-professional urban inhabitants who are drawn to a new unanticipated vision, perhaps somewhat like divinity-trained Charles Darwin.  This new “urban naturalism” aspires to develop an open approach to the city that encourages an unfocused, blurred, peripheral vision[xx] to explore and to identify and overcome biases.

From Koolhaus to Kurakawa, urban design clearly identifies the presence of significant unpredictable, not completely knowable or controllable dynamics inherent in cities of which urban design is admonished to be cognizant.  However, these dynamics are generally “built around” rather than explored and engaged as primary design elements, or, in the case of urban sprawl, minimally “channeled” to favor growth to expand in a preferred direction.  These dynamics are approached as costly to the point of diverting resources that could be used for human development, maladaptive rather than adaptive and healthful, and something to constrain as much has possible.  In a very real way, urban design aspires to counter “natural” inherent dynamics rather than optimize them, even though these dynamics might be the very living heart of urbanization that “softens” the hard urban grid to become more adaptive. 

The absence of attention to this “automatic,” inherent urban design is remarkable because it can be argued that this inherent design process may be the primary design force that is creating the city.  Inherent design is consistently acknowledged by starchitects and urban planners as a critical process to address in planning, primarily through observation and public feedback.  However, the planning may then take on a life of its own that is typically far beyond being participatory, and that may reflect the designer’s interests more than the communities.  Design tends to be driven by culture more than by nature, even though the “automatic, inherent design may be more “creatural” than cultural, in response to changing natural conditions. 

It can be argued that this automatic design is the living process of urban human life that occurs intuitively in reaction to the conditions of existence and brings cities together.  Further, it can be argued that this inherent process might be generally adaptive rather than oppositional and destructive or only chaos that is a consequence of the artificiality of the city.  It may be that intentional design efforts can be dysfunctional rather than always corrective because they are guided by beliefs that describe culture and nature as separate and the city as a machine, or by serving the longstanding strategy of exploitation and extraction of resources.  Inherent, automatic design aspires to challenge the designed “grid” to “soften” and be humane and, as such, is to be explored for its functions rather than proscribed as dysfunction. 

[i] Rem Koolhaas’ cynical vision of modernism having deteriorated to “junk-space” is derived from a variety of sources related to googling the term “junkspace.”
[ii] Deyan Sudjic, “He likes brutality and shopping.  He’s going to be the next big thing.”
[article on Rem Koolhaas], The Observer, Sunday, November 26, 2000.
[iii] Rem Koohaas [[].
[iv] Andres Duany []. [See also, Michael Mchaffy, “A conversation with Andres Duany,”], and Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk & Robert Alminana, The New Civic Art: Elements of Town Planning. New York Rizzoli Publications, 2003.
[v] See Benjamin Aranda’s and Chris Lasch’s presentation at “Postopolis!” in
[vi] Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Vintage Books, 1992 (Random House,1961).
[vii] Jane Jacobs, The Economy of Cities. New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 1970.
[viii] Ian McHarg and Frederick Steiner, Eds. To Heal The Earth: Selected Writings of Iaqn L. McHarg. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1998, p. 3.
[ix] Ian McHarg, “Ecological determinism.” In E. Fraser Darling and John P. Milton, eds. Future Environments In North America. Garden Ctiy, New York: The Natural History Press, 1966, pp. 526-538.
[x] Michael Hough, City Form And Natural Process: Towards a New Urban Vernacular. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1984, p. 6.
[xi] Michael Hough, 1984, p. 1.
[xii] Hough, 1984, p. 1.
[xiii] Hough, 1984, p. 1.
[xiv] Hough, 1984, p. 2.
[xv] Robert Thayer, Gray World, Green Heart. New York: Wiley, 1994.
[xvi] “An interview with Susannah Hagan, author of Taking Shape,” [].  See also, Susannah Hagan, “Five reasons to adopt environmental design,” in Building Nature’s Ruin?, Number 18, Spring/Summer 2003 [] and Susannah Hagan, Taking Shape: A New Contract Between Architecture And Nature. Oxford; Boston: Architectural Press, 2001.
[xvii] Michael Hough, 1984, p. 3.
[xviii] Paolo Soleri, Arcosanti: The City in the Image of Man. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1969.
[xix] See Kisho Kurokawa [] and Rahul Srivastava and Matias Echanove, “The metabolic city,” 10/17/2007, [www.].
[xx] See the philosophy of Finish architectural theorist, Jahani Pallasmaa, The Eye of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses. Chichester, West Sussex, England: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2005/1996.

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