Sunday, April 12, 2015

On Architecture, Urban Design and Town Planning in a Changing World

April 4, 2015
I’ve been away from the pages of Boidus Focus for some time, nursing what doctors call COAD (chronic obstructive air-ways decease – similar to silicosis and dyspnoea). I’ve come to realize that I’m a living metaphor for the global COED (chronic obstructive economic decease). COAD is possible to live with if diagnosed early and the same goes for COED. But a change of living conditions is important and necessary, hence the topic for this essay.
Let’s us start with some mutual self criticism – the economic basis for ever ongoing economical growth in the world is running out of air, or oil rather. The basis for ever-growing industrialization is over. There’s only very expensive and hard-to-get stuff left. OK, we can still get some of it but it leaves our children with almost nothing. Thus, a change must come, the sooner the better. (The sudden low price for oil is temporary and more of a competition and no basis for continued, endless growth.)
We, in the development professions should know that, and start preparing for a sustainable future. For instance, we know that we will not be able to pay for long transports of food and building materials. We must localize needed production as fast as possible and try a more steady and robust economical concept, based on our own resources and labour. Developed countries are today “post-industrial” (while we in Africa are hardly even “pre-industrial) and they are busy discussing de-industrialization. There is no basis to mimic their developments and no party to join any longer. The Party’s Over, as Frank Sinatra used to sing, once upon a time. What to do, then?
Well, warnings have been around for long, decades and even a century as we will see (but ignored by neo-liberal authorities, backed up by privately owned media). Hence I start with some historical notes worth to remember.
Secondly, I’ll try to present contemporary concepts for more sustainable design and methods more in line with appropriate technology – giving us a kind of “Architects Almanac, if you remember the famous Farmers Almanacs. In simple words it gave thumb rules for farmers in the old times, and for many centuries, until “scientific farming” became conditional and traditional Low Tech farming ceased. Among dissident agriculture pundits, traditional farming methods in Africa, all of a sudden are more sustainable than so called modern intensive farming – interesting, for sure!
Of course, the economic decline (COED) will have a great impact on so called “well-to-doers” but will not be much of a difference for the unemployed and people living in rural poverty - I sometimes wonder if this is not the strength of developing countries, a strength the more developed lost many generations ago. In fact, I think we here in Africa are more resilient in meeting economic decline than the “privileged” countries. But I leave that question open for applied philosophy, at the moment.
And, still of course, this will also have great impact on the construction industry we have, engineers, architects, town planners alike and other professions – e.g. realtors (all well-to-doers, by the way as well as most politicians – a democratic dilemma).
And we must remember, a very professional macro-economist, Prof. Roman Grynberg, has given warnings that the sustainability of ‘strip malls’ like the ones we have and now plus CBD is not written in stone and will hardly sustain well in an economic decline situation. And there are many more warnings of the day. Most seriously, some writers are pointing out that even opposition parties are cut off from the grass-roots.
Adjustments to a new situation must be done now if we are serious about the appearance of and renewal of our now aged City, built for a quite different situation. For instance, our outdated ‘modernist’ codes and standards as well as methodologies are based on the eternal growth concept and won’t help us in a declining economic situation. A good example is BHC that can’t produce truly low cost housing any longer - hence we must start with examining the outdated rules, codes and design principles, and also the construction methods we have. I know studies are being done but fear that the “eternal growth concept” might cause cognitive dividing problems and quickly make the studies outdated before the printing ink has dried. “You’re stance is wrong” as Peter Carr told me when I wanted to improve my golf! Another fine metaphor!
So, let’s see what we have in the history books and on the net, today:
Let me start with the not very well known online site (by architects and planners, even students) called Katarxis. In issue 3 there is an article by Brian Hansson (co-editor) on “Science and Aspects”. It’s a long article and I have to abridge it extensively and thus, missing many aspects. But the interested reader will find it on the net (
Then I’ll move to writings by and on Christopher Alexander, earlier mentioned in articles by me and father of what I call “An Architects Almanac”, mentioned above. I find his conclusions very essential for our future as architects and planners as well as the beauty of our City. Let me start with Brian’s writings:

Brian Hansson is presenting an old character and wise man – John Ruskin (1819-1900). An astonishing modern thinker that my professor in Architectural History spent two hours to present to us students, once upon a time (1964) - for deaf ears, mostly. Ruskin seems to be totally forgotten today (even in universities), consequently he must be highly important!
Ruskin was interested and active in many seemingly disparate fields and offered early clues about interactions between them and, hence, what unifies activities between architects, artists and critics (and a link to the Prince of Wales regarding “modernism” and the devastating effect it has on today’s cities). There are fascinating Ruskinian ideas, based on late 19
th century developments that are valid even today. His books – The Seven Lamps of Architecture and The Stones of Venice were cautiously welcomed by professionals but his more radical tone in lectures and pamphlets were unheeded. A common situation for dissidents even today!
His books were translated to other languages and many architects were impressed. Certainly by the importance he accorded to the faculty of “memory” (today we, especially Christopher Alexander, refer to history and spirit of a place) and his concerns began to make their mark on culture. But too slow, in his mind, and he realized that the hurdles were to be found in political, economical and social issues.
He went on with a book - Unto this Last on world economics by the time (actually not very different from today’s problems. By the way – during a long train journey through South Africa, a young Indian lawyer read his book and it fell into fertile grounds. The lawyer was a young Mahatma Ghandi!
In his lectures - Storm Cloud of the 19th Century in 1884 – he described the effects of industrial air pollution. By the way, again, I hope our unions know that at the time of infant unions, the air pollution was the starting point for change. Not at all “a bigger piece of the pie – concept” that is the major spark for unions today (that doesn’t work well as the pie is getting smaller and smaller). Food for thought!
Back to Ruskin – his way of looking at the world led him to recognize omens to which conventional science was still blind. This was a full century before science caught up, bringing insights about the environment that Ruskin already could see. For instance:
When Modern Movement was born in the 1920’s, and the fundamentals of it lasted well into the 1970’s in the western world (here it’s still alive in outdated codes, planning and zoning), there were in fact early warnings from Ruskin. He abhorred the purism of his time and could foresee what was in the pipeline and the common errors of this concept that come to dominate planning and architecture for many decades long after he parted with this world.
A final point in this very abridged presentation of Ruskin is his discussion about the superiority of aesthetics over a mathematics view of the world. Aesthetic matters (e.g. beauty, form and visual impact) are still regarded as woolly, imprecise and subjective while mathematics, by contrast, is assumed to be scientific, precise, objective and economically rewarding (with its more ambiguous and uncertain details).
No wonder why the CBD area looks like it does – and I know quite a few people that abhors it! And Ruskin very early identified two important failings of architecture of his time as it became too much preoccupied with individual buildings at the expense of context and seldom bothered with the visual impact on the environment.
It’s interesting that his aspects on architecture and culture have a modern follower in Christopher Alexander (CA), in my view. Ruskin’s grasp of “the whole” are exactly what we find in CA’s findings and writings – also presented in Katarxis 3.
In an interview, CA is pointing to the lack of quality and value concepts in modern science that is confusing our paradigms of beauty and harmony in our built environments. His books, understandable even for laymen, are comprehensive, but, somewhat expensive bestsellers. CA has been around for many years and I remember one of his first books – A City is not a Tree subject to heated discussions in my student years. He was completely right, a city is not a tree where you follow veins from a leaf to the root, back and forth. It is a patchwork of overlapping entities that must interact!
I have written about CA earlier in Boidus Focus (e.g. The Game of Monopoly, issue Aug 9, 2012) and I think I conclude with his “Architecture and Science” from Katarxis 3 when he discussed his quartet of books on The Nature of Orders” . However, it must be made clear that CA’s concept of “new science” includes earlier somewhat “metaphysical” conceptions of beauty, wholeness and common man perceptions:
To create beauty of form and beauty of adaption and connection, in the land or in the city – that is the core of every architect’s work. And as all of us know, who have tried to do it for years, it is fiendishly difficult to it well. It makes the utmost challenge to our abilities, our artistic skills, our emotional resources. Given how hard it is, and how precious it is when we achieve it, even in small degree, many architects may well ask themselves how anything scientific could possibly help them in such a task. They could easily wonder – “Is the interest in new science, and in a new science of architecture, something trendy, a wish to be ‘scientific’ for its own sake and a little more?
The answer is a resounding “No.” The purpose of a scientific view of architecture is to enable us to create deeper structure – and that means more satisfying design, more eternal forms, more valuable places, more beautiful buildings. The new theory is not merely a gloss on architecture, to raise its intellectual level. It is above all, a source of help – artistic help – to pull us out the mud pit we have fallen into during the last eighty years, by making, following and copying over simplified forms, only because commercial instincts have robbed the field entirely of the kind of awareness which was needed, for millennia, by the people who made the great buildings of the past, in many cultures and in many conditions.
The awareness hinges above all, on the processes that are used to make these buildings. The process we have learned, and have come to accept, as the “normal” way to design buildings and to get them built – the procurement methods of the 20th century – are very, very defective. To do better, to make places people genuinely like, to make places where people feel at home, it is necessary to have new tools of practice – new ways of creating buildings, new ways of conceiving buildings. The science I speak of is the bearer of new, more sophisticated techniques of making, shaping and designing. That is something that open our eyes, as artists, and permits us to do things we have not dreamed of for decades or generations.”
We must contemplate on these words when we are engaged in architecture, place- making and wholeness but mostly we do not! Otherwise, our designs might become lawyer jokes. And self-criticism is useful. My illustration is from the Architects Costume Ball in New York 1931 – seemingly one proud and six rather embarrassed architects! Sorry, my friends – planners and architects alike.
- JW

No comments:

Post a Comment