When Dario and I first extended the invitation to Nikos Salingaros, a professor of mathematics, urbanist and architectural theorist at the University of Texas, San Antonio, who has written extensively on architecture and urbanism, to give a keynote at the colloquium, we were specifically interested in his work on geometrical understandings of the relationships between people and the environment. Dr. Salingaros has worked extensively with Christopher Alexander, also a mathematician and architect, who is known for his work with colleagues in the 1970s on pattern languages in architecture and more recently on his theory of wholeness and harmony-seeking calculations for design in general. Through this body of work, the agency and agents of urbanity that factor in to the emergent quality of urbanity can be understood mathematically. The video lecture that Nikos Salingaros provided for us (link below) expanded on a number of themes that he has addressed in his work, notably A Unified Architectural Theory (2013, Vajra Books), Design for a Living Planet (2015, Vajra Books) and Principles of Urban Structure (2005, Techne). The current problematics facing architecture and urban design concern the scientific and philosophical grounds upon which person-environment relationships are investigated and modelled, upon which design decisions are made by architects and their clients (from scientific inquiry to seductive mysticism) and the role of the object (as self-referential or relational). As he could unfortunately not be present at the colloquium to engage with the questions inspired by his talk, Dr. Salingaros generously agreed to respond to a series of questions that attempt to situate the themes of the colloquium within the larger problematic to which he has devoted much of his scholarly work. Focusing on urbanity also allows us to avoid repeating the types of questions that have been asked in previous interviews of Nikos Salingaros (links below).
Agency / Agents of Urbanity edited follow-up to the colloquium of the same name held at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne
N.B. Questions and answers may be slightly edited in the final version, with permission of course from Dr. Salingaros.
When Dario and I first extended the invitation to Nikos Salingaros, a professor of mathematics, urbanist and architectural theorist at the University of Texas, San Antonio, who has written extensively on architecture and urbanism, to give a keynote at the colloquium, we were specifically interested in his work on geometrical understandings of the relationships between people and the environment. Dr. Salingaros has worked extensively with Christopher Alexander, also a mathematician and architect, who is known for his work with colleagues in the 1970s on pattern languages in architecture and more recently on his theory of wholeness and harmony-seeking calculations for design in general. Through this body of work, the agency and agents of urbanity that factor in to the emergent quality of urbanity can be understood mathematically.
The video lecture that Nikos Salingaros provided for us (link below) expanded on a number of themes that he has addressed in his work, notably A Unified Architectural Theory (2013, Vajra Books), Design for a Living Planet (2015, Vajra Books) and Principles of Urban Structure (2005, Techne). The current problematics facing architecture and urban design concern the scientific and philosophical grounds upon which person-environment relationships are investigated and modelled, upon which design decisions are made by architects and their clients (from scientific inquiry to seductive mysticism) and the role of the object (as self-referential or relational). As he could unfortunately not be present at the colloquium to engage with the questions inspired by his talk, Dr. Salingaros generously agreed to respond to a series of questions that attempt to situate the themes of the colloquium within the larger problematic to which he has devoted much of his scholarly work. Focusing on urbanity also allows us to avoid repeating the types of questions that have been asked in previous interviews of Nikos Salingaros (links below).
Contour : Dr. Salingaros, in the keynote you filmed for Agency/Agents of Urbanity , you define urbanity as concentrations of people, services, goods and ideas in a high density environment, which catalyze exchanges and interactions between people. You claim that urbanity is governed by a specific set of rules and these rules are geometric. They can be identified by studying successful cities, particularly through the tools and insights provided by person-environment studies. You cite environmental psychology as a discipline whose research suggests that certain geometrical configurations of the environment have positive or negative effects on well-being. In your work with Christopher Alexander, you have developed a body of research that links geometry (specifically fractal geometry) with visceral and neurological responses. This evidence is currently neglected by the majority of urban design and architectural practices, because, as you observe, it is seen as overly deterministic (and a hindrance to creativity) or perceived as wrapped up in calls for a return to pre-modern architectural forms. You conclude your talk with a relatively pessimistic outlook for design and planning practice and education. Architecture schools in particular spend more time engaging with different philosophies than the well-being of the people who will frequent the places we design.
I cannot speak for all my PhD colleagues at the EPFL, but several of us were driven to research by the conviction that we could somehow make a difference in education and the profession by bridging scientific and design practices. Part of the motivation for the colloquium as well as the founding of our doctoral journal Contour is the desire to take account of the variety of disciplines that have something to say about the built environment and explore the synergies and frictions that occur when they confront current design and planning practices or theories. Urbanity is an emergent quality of cities that depends upon many factors and that many of us consider essential for a healthy urban environment. However, we are confronted today by a call to be not only responsive to the person-environment dynamic, but to the imperative of climate change and the well-being of the environment itself.
The interview will begin with your thoughts on what constitutes good scientific evidence, particularly in a world of heterogeneous and competing evidence. The amount of evidence is increasing, particularly as environmental concerns have to be addressed on par with those of human societies. The urban is now seen as planetary and urbanity is not limited to large city centers. I would like your thoughts on whether we need to extend the notion of ‘well-being’ outside those of the human and whether what is good for us in terms of urban structure may not be good for the planet. Then, the interview will address the geometries of urbanity and explore your thoughts on how we can go from deciphering existing patterns to inventing new ones—whether there are forms of urbanity that have yet to emerge.
Nikos Salingaros : There are many points to address in this first question. Human health is intimately linked with the health of the environment and the planet as a whole. It makes no sense to isolate human beings stuck in their imagined technological world from the real, natural world. That only leads to massive environmental destruction and eventual collapse. Being able to analyze the processes behind the linkage between our bodies and our surroundings, and the mechanisms at work, requires an understanding of the scientific method. Unfortunately, architecture students are taught the opposite approach to learning, in what amounts to a dogmatic anti-scientific approach to scholarship.
Basic science tells you to observe the environment and identify particular processes that play a role: to note down repeating instances of cause-and-effect. Then try to model the situation and see if you understand what’s causing it. True science rests upon repeatable experiments, not on what someone in a position of power says (which defines architecture today). We observe all around us that traditional patterns of urbanism make us feel better: the spaces are better sized, the materials are more comfortable psychologically, the path connectivity is far superior to oversized modernist grids and sterile urban spaces. Science tells us that there are lessons to be learned and re-used to create new human environments. But a dogmatic architectural establishment absolutely forbids re-use! That’s unscientific and makes no sense.
Many young researchers today are driven by the right motives and wish to save our planet from environmental destruction. They also wish to save our cities from the type of damaging “development” that makes them unpleasant and unlivable. They have their heart in the right place, but unfortunately in their training they are given mainly tools of destruction. What I mean is that the anti-scientific thinking I described above filters all information coming into architecture from outside the discipline. Only what supports existing ways of thinking (and the existing power structure) is allowed to penetrate and be used, whereas everything else is filtered out. Results that could make a huge difference in the way we design the built environment are kept out of the practice in order to preserve the interests of a narrow group of persons.
Contour : In our doctoral program, Architecture and the Sciences of the City at the EPFL, PhD candidates join research laboratories with very different approaches to scientific practice. In fact, few of us could claim to be doing research that is properly architectural (and, then again, what is research in architecture?). We are always adopting methods from different disciplines—engineering, geography, sociology. There is definitely a divide along the lines of social and natural scientific approaches. So even once architecture opens itself up to lessons from other disciplines with stronger scientific traditions, it finds itself plunged into debates where the ‘tools of production’ of one discipline are the ‘tools of destruction’ of another. And, as you observe in architecture (but also unfortunately even for science), these debates tend also to be questions of power. From your perspective, and without just pitting Architecture against Science, what are the ‘tools of production’ (or perhaps ‘of creation’) that we could be not only using in our own research, but also teaching to the next generation of architects and urban designers?
Nikos Salingaros : I’m sorry to sound cynical, but from what I have seen in general, architects and urbanists collaborate with external disciplines only in order to further boost their present non-adaptive practices, not to learn anything basic about their own discipline. You already state correctly (below) that designers ignore evidence that is not “inspirational”. I will go further to say that they also ignore anything that contradicts what they have been taught as design ideology. Such evidence makes them feel uncomfortable because it questions their basic education and training: it undermines what they have been taught to believe in. On the other hand, if something from another discipline appears useful in a technical sense by supporting what those designers already practice, then it is quickly adopted. They don’t even have to understand it: it’s only necessary to use it as a superficial attraction in a marketing gimmick to sell a new project. This is the reason why architects pick up scientific jargon and images and misuse them to make nonsensical statements. Yet that propaganda game pays off with more commissions!
Architecture needs at long last to build up its own “science of architecture”. There is no other way to move forward (other than to destroy our environment for the gain of a handful of developers). This crucial step has been stubbornly avoided ever since architecture began to pretend to be an academic discipline, and not a practical trade. At the present time, it appears impossible to achieve this because of enormous vested interests. Why are present-day architectural academics apologists for the most inhuman buildings and living environments? The role of those “academic professionals” is to justify after the fact what architects build. If those buildings are soulless, oppressive, and unhealthy, then “academic professionals” have to find some nice-sounding excuse to cover up the buildings’ inadequacies. It’s a comfortable paid job. Unfortunately, after several generations of this practice of promotion, the propagandists come to believe their own propaganda.
It would be nice to teach these things to students: how to design adaptive environments conducive to human health. But when they ask about the surprising lack of teaching materials (compared to the predominance of design dogma promoting industrial modernism), the truth might shock them enough to drive them to abandon the field altogether. Yet brainwashing incoming students into accepting inhuman buildings and cities as “wonderful” is a criminal act. Is there a way to let students find out the information for themselves? I doubt it. Young persons rely heavily on authority figures to begin and guide their education. Those lecturers who first come into contact with architecture students have a responsibility to lay out the truth; but most whom I know don’t even know the truth about adaptive and non-adaptive design.
Contour : The colloquium introduced a variety of methods, theories and objects of research for investigating urbanity. From interviews with decision-makers and stakeholders, to the modelling of energy flows, the spatial analysis of informal settlements and cartography, the work of the colloquium participants attests to the heterogeneity of PhD work in architecture and urbanism. This raises a first question concerning the production and operationalization of scientific evidence. A couple years ago, researchers in the United States examined how the use of scientific inquiry in medicine was being appropriated by design research and practice. Evidence-based design (inspired by evidence-based medicine) seeks to incorporate results from scientific research into the design practice. They concluded that in general the plurality of epistemological orientations (tacit, instrumental, intuitionist, etc.) adopted during the design process necessitated a more critical approach to evaluating scientific evidence (Diaz Moore & Geboy, 2010). I exaggerate very little when I say that at an environmental design conference I saw research that investigated whether or not office workers were happier with an aquarium in the office. Few designers are going to take that as a convincing argument for placing an aquarium in their office designs. As the American researchers argued, designers tend to disregard evidence that is either not compelling or not inspirational. This is because the design process, regardless of the number of rules or constraints we give it relies on a significant amount of intuition and tacit knowledge, which is consciously or unconsciously transmitted intersubjectively.
As researchers, we confront this directly when we combine methods from the social and natural sciences in our work. We have to learn to judge good from bad evidence according to the rules of a game that changes from one discipline to the next. This is challenging enough for us, but how can we educate future designers within the three to four-year Bachelor or one to two-year Master programs? How do you teach your students to incorporate scientific research into their work and to become ambassadors of scientific knowledge in the collective design process? Not all designers on the team will know how to read scientific articles and the majority will not even have access to them (as they are proprietary and expensive). Furthermore, given that intuition is central to the creative act, what is its role in a design process that seeks to account for a heterogeneous body of scientific evidence?
Nikos Salingaros : Your question hints at the dangerous current of relativism. That way of thinking, made popular through contemporary philosophy, is simply catastrophic of human learning. Very few things are relative; many fewer than leading post-structuralist thinkers would have us believe. Science is for the most part absolute, at least in those domains where we can repeat experiments under controlled conditions.
There is no need for architecture students to study much science at university — a good background in High School Science will suffice. But what’s absolutely necessary is to stop with an anti-scientific interpretation of the world that disorients students as soon as they enter architecture school. This undoes all their previous understanding of science and prepares them for the intended indoctrination so they will worship “great names” and “great architects” who might well be intellectual impostors.
Your example of an aquarium is an interesting one. Biophilia has shown that close contact with animals and plants helps to provide a healing environment. Thus an aquarium containing fish and water plants would satisfy two components of biophilia. Now, whether users want to have an aquarium in their workplace is another matter. And I am not aware of extensive studies that show the beneficial health effects of having an aquarium close to you. Yet most designers couldn’t care less about scientific results suggesting health benefits. But this point is easily settled after a series of experiments has been performed. There is no mystery, only more data to be collected and interpreted. And in the end, people could unknowingly respond positively though bodily sensors to fish in an aquarium, yet they might choose not to have one nearby, even after you tell them that it is making them feel better. Students need to learn the science of architecture, which is obscured at present.
Contour : I returned to the article I cited on EBD and you are right. What the authors suggest in terms of adopting a scientific worldview and judging the quality of evidence within the constraints of that worldview is very much a form of relativism. I think the authors took a less polemical route—keeping the peace rather than calling to arms. I’m not convinced by their approach, but I realize that relativism could constitute a whole discussion in itself. Let’s talk about urbanity and the challenges for developing a scientific understanding of it. The authors argue that the traditional scientific worldview adopted by evidence-based medicine is inadequate to the problems faced by the design process. The controlled experimental settings required to isolate the effect of a one environmental variable on another (aquariums on happiness, for instance) is difficult to produce in a rigorous manner. I know this from spatial econometrics (that I adopted for my own research on connectivity between surface and subsurface commercial spaces), which requires many careful statistical checks and transformations to control for interactions between elements in space. In a sense, the impact of the aquarium on happiness could be related to many other elements in space, from which it is nearly impossible to separate it. I think this is the challenge we face with urbanity as a phenomenon we would like to better understand and even recreate. It is very difficult to set up as a classical experiment. Urbanity is highly contingent, dependent upon many interacting factors in both space and time, beyond just density counts or convergences of paths. Urbanity also manifests itself in different ways, meaning that we should speak of it in the plural (‘urbanities’). This is the mystery of urbanity that fascinates many of us (certainly Dario and myself when we set up this colloquium). I guess this is more of a comment and reaction than a question, but I’d be happy to have your thoughts on this.
Nikos Salingaros : It is very easy to understand the phenomenon of urbanity. All you need is to read Alexander, Jacobs, and related authors, including myself. It’s not a mystery, except that the discipline is clouded by impenetrable muck by those who try to sell their non-adaptive ideas. But if you stick to the right authors who have nothing personal to gain, then the information is clearly put forth.
As far as keeping the peace by agreeing with every point of view, that leads to disasters. You cannot remain silent and accept urban design that kills the life of the city. Here is relativism all over again. The old trick, which works every time, is to call for a “plurality” of views, and consequently the one backed by the most financial or political capital takes over. Only the scientific approach, which condemns false solutions that are based on dogma and ideology, can save us from power dominance. In science, the minority viewpoint wins because of the inherent methods of scientific validation.
Contour : One of the questions we decided to take up in the colloquium was that of the role of the non-human in investigating emergent phenomena such as urbanity. Any discussion on agency recalls Latour, Callon and Law’s Actor-Network Theory as well as Deleuze, Guattari and De Landa’s work on assemblages . In both cases, agency is extended to objects (understood largely as all that which we consider external to ourselves). Combined with a rising eco-consciousness and a desire to engage with ecological processes (I’m thinking here of landscape urbanism in particular), we are expected to extend the idea of ‘well-being’ to hydrological processes, geology, other species, etc. This is noble and few would dare disagree, but how does this challenge our conception of urban structure? Can certain geometries be detrimental to the environment while being good for people? How can we combine the well-being of the environment with our own?
Nikos Salingaros : I’m sorry but “Landscape Urbanism” is a strange mixture: very nice green landscape but not much urbanism. Landscape architects (quite separate from landscape urbanists) plan and execute excellent garden environments, ranging from the formally-planned garden, to the carefully-implemented green area composed of native species. Such landscapes are complementary to good buildings, yet landscape does not constitute urbanism, nor has this ever been claimed by landscape architects. Indeed, the landscape urbanist projects are in no measure urban, but suited rather to the urban periphery. More disturbing is the link of all such projects with the sterile architecture of inhuman modernism. This movement thus re-introduces the finally discredited 1920s typologies by linking them visually with attractive gardens in renderings. It’s deceptive in presenting the ugly New Modernism to the crowd camouflaged in attractive new clothes.
My friends in the New Urbanist movement have some nasty things to say about landscape urbanism and its practitioners, claiming it to be a brilliant propaganda move to take over territory from American New Urbanism (which originated and remains outside academia). True or not, I’m personally repelled by the incomprehensible philosophical jargon imported from contemporary architectural discourse, and now used to boost landscape urbanism’s credibility. This, and the link to alien building typologies, are not good signs, even as the movement has garnered great recognition in architectural academia.
Contour : I didn’t mean to specifically endorse Landscape Urbanism (LU) and I won’t claim to be an expert in the debate between LU and New Urbanism (NU). The problem seems to be that they disagree on what constitutes a ‘healthy’ state. Even if they articulate similar urban structures, the outcomes are conditioned by very different aims. The conception of ‘health’ seems ideologically charged and inseparable from social and political commitments made by proponents of both LU and NU. Mathematics (I was reminded recently in an article by philosopher Ray Brassier), despite always being implicated within a socio-historical context, maintains a relative autonomy from this context (i.e. it is not reducible to it). Admittedly, the question can be raised as to whether a universally applicable model of a healthy human state could ever be established, but the more important question, in my mind, is whether such a state could exist in the world, whether for a city or the entire planet. We tend (inaccurately according to some ecologists and philosophers) to equate balance in nature with mathematical equilibrium. In fact, the stable state of many systems (particularly complex, organic ones) is one that is out of equilibrium. My question for you is whether we can extend the concept of well-being into the world (outside human somatic response) and the role mathematics can play in this conception of well-being, with the knowledge that ‘health’ is not just an equation that balances to zero.
Nikos Salingaros : No, so-called Landscape Urbanism does not articulate a similar urban structure to New Urbanism. Only an entirely superficial glance would suggest that. Their projects’ “green” appearance is the principal yet deceptive attraction for practitioners of Landscape Urbanism to win commissions. Landscape Urbanists continue the industrial-modernist imposition of alien forms onto the environment, now in a “nice” rural setting. By contrast, New Urbanists (at least the more conscientious among them) aim to create living environments that foment human life on the human scale, using human dimensions, spaces, paths, and materials that people connect with on a visceral level. All of this is conspicuously absent from Landscape Urbanism, which grows out of industrial practices that simply ignore human emotions and psychology.
I also criticize your questioning of whether a universally applicable model of a healthy human state exists. Of course it does! Ask any physician! The model of healthy urbanity is not a unique geometrical configuration, but an infinite set of configurations that enhance human health. Moreover, the healthy set of configurations is instantly recognizable because it has common characteristics. Everything else is dangerous because it stresses us and harms human health in the long term. An unhealthy set of configurations that we have to live with in our cities is also instantly recognizable: meant only for machines and not human beings, yet it has replaced living urban fabric the world over. This second, unhealthy set represents industrial modernism, backed by fanatical support from academia and trillion-dollar global finance.
Your question on natural equilibrium could take us into a whole book. Suffice it to say that nature exhibits dynamic, not static equilibrium. Human society that lives in an adaptive, human-scaled built environment works with many dynamic processes, so that in both the short and long terms, people are more-or-less able to gain healthy feedback and psychological pleasure from their surroundings. An unhealthy situation occurs when the required range of dynamic processes is severely restricted by the geometry of buildings and the city. The industrial-modernist city and block towers are totally deterministic, highly restrictive, and totalitarian.
Contour : Let’s think about a geometry of urbanity. In describing urbanity, you evoke factors such as concentration of people and built form, information exchange, as well as movement of people and of goods. Can we think such relationships mathematically? Geometrically? In particular, we know that the degree of urbanity of a place depends on its connectivity to other places, which precludes limiting analysis to a local scale. How would you go about mathematically describing urbanity and what tools or methods exist already to evaluate existing or potential urbanity?
Nikos Salingaros : You need to estimate two types of density. First the density of people in a static situation, but you need to plot such changing densities for each place at different times of the day and night. And make sure to do that in the two-dimensional plane of the earth’s surface, which will show the overconcentration of superimposed people in high-rise buildings.
Second, you can use a variety of methods to trace paths on the ground, in streets, in urban spaces, building entrances, etc. Then try to plot those paths to get an idea of their interconnectivity, concentration of flow, or sparseness.
Urbanity starts to act as soon as one exits from their front door, with an important transitional region between private, semi-private, and public space. Unless a person feels entirely at home in exterior surroundings, and feels comfortable interacting with other people in those surroundings, urban design and planning have failed. Concerns of transportation efficiency, infrastructure, and design lie on top of and removed from the more fundamental questions of immediate human responses. Yet what planners have done in the past decades in to completely ignore the human element and focus on mechanical/industrial concerns. It has been great for the construction industry, but it has killed the life-giving qualities of our cities.
Contour : You are very critical of contemporary architecture and the development of formal novelty for its own sake. Christopher Alexander’s ideas as well as your own are criticized or disregarded for appearing nostalgic and wrapped up in an alienation story calling for a return to ‘traditional’ or ‘vernacular’ forms of architecture. Indeed, we recognize that many of the structural, geometrical-visual qualities of the built environment that invoke a positive biological response in people are wholly present in many pre-Modernist buildings. However, these may actually be manifestations of deeper relational principles that, when expressed mathematically, actually remain relatively agnostic to one formal expression or another. In this sense, Alexander and colleague’s Pattern Language can be read as a catalogue of such formal expressions and less a formal than a procedural (algorithmic) series of prescriptions. I think you address this in past work (cf. A Scientific Basis for Creating Architectural Forms , Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, 1998). Couldn’t novelty then be understood as a much larger solution space that relies on as-yet-unrealized formal actualizations of underlying geometrical principles? Would this not divorce us from the normative grip that past forms have on us? Could there be a form of urbanity that we have never seen?
Nikos Salingaros : Of course! That’s what I would like as the realization of a dream first conceived by Christopher: a new form of urbanity that we have never seen. You mention some old writings ( A Pattern Language , and some of my early papers), yet both Christopher and I have moved far beyond those to outline the principles of a new conception of design for the built environment. Christopher’s The Nature of Order and my more recent writings (and those of close colleagues) develop this theme very much further. As I outline in recent articles, we all welcome a new form of urbanity that breaks out of the monolithic Bauhaus blocks so loved by Soviet and Right-wing totalitarian regimes — and are so easy to implement in a corrupt top-down construction industry. We want a new human-scale environment free of preconceptions and images, whether those are the old industrial blocks or new dizzying starchitect deliria.
The mathematics of design confirms that no innovation can ignore past precedent. So, if we want human-scale environments, they need to incorporate traditional human-scale solutions. In so doing, these new innovative solutions will look a lot like old pre-industrial environments, even though they don’t copy those directly. But it is this resemblance that is dogmatically and fanatically forbidden by today’s tastemakers: they rush in to condemn anything that resembles traditional cities in any way. They have forgotten the original political and ideological motivations behind this hatred. It goes back to the 1920s in pre-Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. The past as a comfortable bourgeois environment is marked to be destroyed by the coming revolution that will build a new society based on utopian social principles. Notice that some of our most influential starchitects are (or at least were) Marxists, so they do carry this intellectual baggage onto their design philosophy. I don’t care about the political orientation of any architect, but we cannot shape our built environment according to failed political dogmas from the 1920s — we continue to do so only out of historical ignorance.
But as long as this current continues, it does enormous harm to innovation towards living environments. The establishment blindly supports those outdated forms and typologies linked to “progress” from the 1920s, and viciously attacks our efforts to build human-scale cities. The word “nostalgia” is used as a weapon to discredit years of work by honest and sensitive practitioners. It has the same effect as accusing someone of being a “traitor” in a state where this will get them into a lot of trouble. But as I have already explained, a human-scale environment will inevitably resemble traditional urbanism, hence will look “nostalgic” in part. There is no way around this fact. The public, however, is denied a whole new opportunity for healthy life because it listens to a few misguided fanatics who despise traditional environments.
Contour: From your comments, I would venture that as soon as urban design and planning become the product of ideologies, urbanity is the first victim. The potential for encounter, for serendipity, is dramatically reduced by an over-determination of form and an over-prescription of activity. In Design for a Living Planet (Sustasis, 2016), you highlight several scientific observations about the world that could inform the design process. One of those is computational irreducibility. Indeed, the forms we observe in nature and, at times, seek to imitate, are the result of an innumerable amount of mutations and variations that are nearly impossible to retrace (or reproduce) in a simple chain of causality. The models we have of these forms and of their mechanisms of genesis are, in the end, reductive. When designers attempt to impose these models upon the world, there is a loss of complexity and often a brutal simplification. My initial reaction to this would be to state that we should design processes (algorithms) rather than final states. However, even processes are computationally irreducible. In Chance and Necessity ( Le hasard et la nécessité , Éditions du Seuil, 1970), the Nobel laureate and biochemist Jacques Monod challenged the claim that natural processes were teleologically oriented—that is, driving towards a pre-defined, ultimately ‘necessary’ state. Rather, these processes are often the result of a random occurrence, which, by chance, is reproduced. They become necessities only after the fact.
I interpret this as a challenge to attempts to perfectly reproduce the structures of existing natural processes (even those in which human agency plays a part), because those processes could, theoretically have been otherwise and could mutate unpredictably in the future. Furthermore, the state that results (and that we observe) can by no means be presumed to be the ideal or efficient one. This is not to say that anything is possible (and certainly not that ‘anything goes’), but rather to imagine the design or planning process as one that has to find a happy medium between over-determining and under-determining urban spaces—so that the surprising and sometimes disturbing, yet exhilarating, moments of urbanity can emerge. How do you think we can account for this irreducibility of both form and process, knowing that we must leave some room for randomness and unpredictability and that nature, itself, has not necessarily produced the only possible structures for our world?
Nikos Salingaros : Why do urbanists and other commentators cite Jane Jacobs but never bother to read her marvelous books? She explained everything there. The industrial-modernist model for buildings and cities is based on pure totalitarian ideology. It is deterministic and destroys the living city. In my own work, I explain why traditional human-scale environments have evolved through centuries of design computations. Randomness worked to provide alternatives, from which the most adaptive solutions were selected. Those adaptive processes gave us urban environments that we prize today, enough to spend money to go visit them, and pay even more money to live near one (if such still exists in our city).
We don’t actually need to worry about your questions on randomness and unpredictability. Adaptability according to design rules proposed by Christopher Alexander and myself computes one of several possible excellent configurations. The existing initial conditions (pedestrian and vehicular flows, footprints and façades of buildings surrounding the site, etc.) guarantee that every particular solution turns out to be distinct. To emphasize this important point again: adaptive design leads to unique solutions, different for each case. Adaptive design, in turn, catalyzes random human encounters, which are the seeds of society. There is never any need to “introduce” randomness to prevent unwanted design rigidity. This matter is only a concern within top-down industrial modernism, where every act of design is an abstract imposition rather than adaptation and response. The entire profession has somehow gotten used to this unhealthy way of designing and building, which carries along its philosophical baggage, confusing us even as we are ready to transition into an entirely different, healthy design method.