Emergent Urbanism

Rediscovering Urban Complexity


The challenge of dense sprawl

A demonstration of complexity in Dubai

Dubai's suburban development is often criticized for its poor taste and gigantism. While the products of Dubai megadevelopment are often crude, the engineering feats achieved in producing them are astonishing.

Recent pictures of the progress of the Burj Dubai tower, the tallest skyscraper ever built, demonstrate this contradiction in a single frame. The tower itself, while monstrously tall, is nothing very interesting. It consists of speculatively-stacked concrete floors waiting for someone to do something on them. But take a look at what is happening on the ground.

Fake Complexity - Frank Gehry

The emperor of starchitecture, Mr. Frank Gehry (as seen on The Simpsons), is really quite naked when you lean in to take a closer look at any of his buildings. While he has made himself famous by defining his own characteristic style, flowing metal shells and mid-collapse building frames, the complexity of his buildings is there only in name.

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.

A demonstration of complexity in New York City

This discussion originally appeared on the Wired New York forums.

Allow me to point to a great example of contemporary emergence in New York City, and perhaps clarify the principles involved.

This, as most of you probably know, is Times Square.

Fake Complexity - CCTV Headquarters

Engineering firm ARUP provided the complexity for this project.

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

The emergence of a sense of place

Modern urbanism has given us a landscape that many consider to be soulless. Everything looks the same. Nothing creates a sense of place. New Urbanism has attempted to reverse this by returning to traditional architecture and town planning forms. This was done in European new towns, under the advice of well-meaning men like the Krier brothers, in the late 1970's, and did not succeed.

Cinderella architecture

If you ever find yourself speaking to an architect at a party, most likely the word transparency and the supposed need for it is going to come up over and over. This is a recent concern for the building arts. Modern architecture, traditionally, has been philosophically focused on honesty of materials, or the meaning of forms. Transparency is in a way a renunciation of architecture. Its purpose is to make the form of a building as unnoticeable as possible. Architecture just gets in the way, so making it unnoticeable is the best design choice. Nothing is the new something.

A demonstration of complexity in London

The immensely productive Physicist-Mathematician-Entrepreneur Stephen Wolfram theorized, based on his studies of cellular automatons in the 1980's, that there exists four classes of physical processes in the universe. Class I is simple continuous behavior (line). Class II is repetitive behavior (checkerboard). Class III is nested, hierarchical-fractal behavior (basic fractals like the Sierpinski triangle). Class IV, the most fascinating, is chaotic behavior (random fractals such as the Mandelbrot Set).

Complex geometry and structured chaos

Fractal geometry has infiltrated popular culture since it was formalized in the early 80's from the works of Benoit Mandelbrot. While it has been used to study the form of cities by researchers such as Pierre Frankhauser and Michael Batty, the insights to be drawn from this field of mathematics have not yet penetrated the field of urbanism, defined as the construction of cities.

Further comment

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