"Quantum City”
book Excerpts

by Ayssar Arida

sections
Preface
Introduction
Excerpt from Chapter 6
"Urban Design & The Quantum Worldview"
Interlude: cities & worldviews & cinema
Contents
Title Verso
PDF downloads
Introduction [80k]
Excerpt from Chapter 6
"Urban Design & The Quantum Worldview"
[500k]
 
"Quantum City proposes a description of quantum theory and the concepts of the 'new' physics of the 20th century, in a concise, non-technical language that is enjoyable to read and easy to understand for lay-people.”

"From this, it develops a conceptual language that can then be applied to different disciplines, in particular to urban design, where it is clear that the new vision can provide powerful insights into the growth and self-organisation of cities at different scales. The new language thus permits a higher degree of integration between the different disciplines of the city, and promises to be a useful metaphor for the development of various theories for the 21st century city.”

© Ayssar Arida 2002 -2021
Ayssar Arida holds a Bachelor Degree in Architecture from the American University of Beirut (AUB), and a Masters Degree with Distinction from the Joint Centre for Urban Design (JCUD) at Oxford Brookes University in the UK.
Although trained and practicing as an architect and urban designer, he has been extensively involved in various projects and productions, from public relations campaigns, corporate identity and environment branding, to multimedia and film.
He has taught architecture and urban design at AUB, has lectured internationally and has published numerous articles on the relationship between worldviews and the development of cities.
Ayssar prefers to blur the boundaries between different disciplines, using a solid experience in concept development to bring a unique touch to the projects he undertakes.
He runs a cross-disciplinary consultancy in London and Beirut.
He is currently preparing a second book, "Quantum Environments: Architecture in the New Paradigm" for Birkhauser/Testo&Immagine, the "IT revolution in Architecture" series. website
 

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Preface

Title Verso

Architectural Press
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First published 2002 © Ayssar Arida 2002

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I should begin with a disclaimer to physicists who might worry that the ideas introduced here have no scientific proof. This book does not make any claims as to the scientific correctness of its postulations; it merely produces a metaphor that borrows language and concepts from quantum theory – or at least from the popularized accounts of it. It creates a 'what if' scenario that wonders how the city would look if viewed through the lens of quantum concepts.

In an introduction to quantum theory basics and its implications, what is often referred to as 'quantum weirdness', for all its uncanny and counterintuitive symptoms, is essential to nudge the reader's expectations from the safe, familiar but limited language of determinism that rules our everyday life. It is also necessary to move up from the comfortable practicalism of our professional practice as urbanists.

What is more crucial in such a subject is to find the right tone of voice to express these ideas, without giving out the impression of 'New Age' rambling. Serious research has unfortunately been burdened with taboo areas, because of their over-use in so-called 'alternative' literature. In May 2001, Amazon.com listed 4096 books in reply to a search for 'quantum' titles, and many seemed to have stuck the word as an afterthought because it seemed so à la mode!

In my attempt at bridging two readerships – one interested in 'quantum' subjects and one interested in 'city'-related matters – I have tried to provide as much background information as possible about the development of science and worldviews, and have treated the chapters on urban history in a way that assumes most readers will have a minimum of familiarity with the subject. The book is structured in a way that the reader who is familiar with this territory can selectively skip material up to Chapter 3. However, I strongly suggest you do not skip the introduction to the basics of quantum theory, as the concepts I emphasize might be different from those you might have read elsewhere.

Some readers will find that many issues have been only hinted at, and not developed. A filmmaker friend once told me, 'sometimes what is not on the movie screen is more important than what is; but it is what is on the screen that triggers your release from its boundaries'. In this sense, the many unsaid things remain 'out there', and so I hope the novice will take this information as a starting point for further research, while the expert will forgive the simplifications I have had to make to produce as many 'triggers' as possible. The bibliography at the end of the book should provide countless more.

As for many authors who have eventually written about it, my own 'discovery' of quantum theory and its philosophical implications has been a real epiphany. It included middle-of-the-night insights and weird dreams of quantum antimatter twins... it has been a most thrilling experience, and I hope the present work will instigate the same curiosity and enthusiasm with which I researched and wrote it.

 

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Introduction

Contents

Acknowledgements

> Preface

> Introduction

Chapter 1: Worldviews and the city
The Roman Empire
The Classical Greek Polis
Pharaonic Egypt
The Christian City of God
Renaissance and baroque urbatecture

Chapter 2: Science and worldviews
The Organic Worldview
The Scientific Revolution
The Cartesian Schism
Newton's Mechanism
Entropy versus Evolution
Einstein's revolution

Chapter 3: Quantum theory: an introduction to basics
Searching for the light
Classroom physics 101: the two hole experiment
The wave-particle duality: the Principle of Complementarity or the both/and logic
A jumping universe: random leaps beyond space and time
The Uncertainty Principle: does God play dice?
The Copenhagen Interpretation: WYSIWYLF
Non-locality and relational holism: the universe is one
Multidimensional quantum field theory: malleable energy patterns
The vibrant vacuum: something out of nothing

Interlude: Mathematical Chaos and Urban Complexity

Chapter 4: The Quantum worldview
Dynamic Contextualism
Relational Holism
Meaning and Spirit
Tolerance and Pluralism
Technology and Ecology

Interlude: Feng Shui or the Tao of the City

Chapter 5: 20th century cities
Industrialization and modernist urbanism: the mechanical worldview takes physical form
Postmodernism or Relativity misinterpreted

> Interlude: cities and worldviews and cinema

Chapter 6: Urban design and the quantum worldview
First Generation
Pictures
Re-definitions
> The role of Urban design
    the urban designer versus Urban Design: a new attitude

Information storage
Timekeeping
Model or Metaphor?
The Quantum hyper-metaphor

Chapter 7: A quantum look to the postgraduate education and practice of urbanism
Renaissance Genius, Modern Hero and Quantum Acrobats
Probabilism and Scenario-buffered design

Chapter 8: Quantum analysis of the urban realm
Open systems
Duality not dualism
Interference in malleable propensity fields
The human user: vessel for non-locality
The society-space-time quantum continuum
The creative role of the user's mind: the observer-observed dialogue
Information fields and knowledge media
Meaning beyond function: image, identity, and memory of place

Chapter 9: Implications for built form
In search of an axiom for the definition of ‘good urban space'
Oscillating construction blocks: life in quantum lego-land
Composition rules
Time and the user as an observer-designer
The public-private continuum: territoriality, admissibility and the human gaze
Landscape-based design exemplifies the society-space-time unity
Built form as memory storage media or the city as memorial
Awareness before construction
Surfaces and textures as wave sources and relays
Initial states in new large scale development
Transition phases: colonizing the vacuum
Ruins as primary wave sources and other development seeds
Landmarks and events: local wave disturbance sources
Event horizons: an edge is not a border
The city and its region: a self-organizing quantum system of neighborhoods and quarters

Transition

Bibliography

Index

Some mornings I wake up with my head full of rhythms, and rhythms of rhythms, and rhythms of rhythms of rhythms. And to have to speak English is like having to put on a straitjacket.
(Leroy Little Bear 'Sa'ke'j' Henderson)

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible.
(George Orwell)

I first visited Oxford in 1993, as a tourist with a camera looking for the postcard beauty of a legendary culture of education. I found it in the intriguing orderliness of the place, the gothic grandeur of its formal buildings and the romantic serenity of its landscapes.

When I returned there four years later as a master's student, I felt doubly betrayed. In spite of all the intellectual drama that played itself within the quad walls, a few months within my sojourn I was confronted with the spatial sterility of the place.

Sterility is a shocking word, I admit. We are more willing to qualify Modern functionalist settings with it than places like Oxford. But I assure you, the realization probably shocked me far more than it does you. I had come from Beirut, from all its post-war Mediterranean chaos, where I had been trained as an architect. I had been trained to think of physical order as the ultimate goal of our profession. I had come to the disciplined context of Oxford to be promoted into an urban designer. Against all my expectations, the values I carried as a template in my mind were suddenly put to the test. In order to frame this appropriately for you, I have to take you back and forth between several settings in space and time, so that you can most accurately perceive the arc of the experience that put this book in your hands today.
1997, Oxford. As most other students went home for the semester break, I was left with nothing but the stones of the city, nothing but the physical container of that famous culture the rest of the world envied.

Oxford fanatically clung to a predictable homogeneity of form. I felt this exposed her insecurity towards the complexity of her users'* backgrounds. The moment they were all gone, she seemed to recompose her artful veneer only to welcome the buses full of octogenarian American tourists with their Japanese cameras.

I thought the order of things here would teach me how to 'fix' the chaos of my home country. However, perhaps fuelled by a certain homesickness as my host city emptied of its living users, I realized I would be more comfortable in the physical chaos of Beirut than in the extreme orderliness of this 'beautiful' town. My experience both as a user and as a designer in Beirut had showed me that chaos had a limited manageability, but the excessive blandness of Oxford seemed too sterile. I found total incompatibility, at least on the surface, between the level of stimuli in both places and its relationship to physical form. And the contradicting levels of stimuli in both environments made me doubt my beliefs that what made 'good' urban space was a simplistic vision of static order and homogeneity, and pushed me to look for a middle ground, a more creative and more dynamic dialogue between order and chaos.

When I tried to describe what made up the qualities of Beirut, I found it was impossible to do so in the language of my formal education. My conceptual language, the core of my professional expression, betrayed me.

Betrayal is an unforgiving sentiment. It is hard to accept that what you had been counting on would fall short of expressing your problems, let alone solving them. Oxford's stones had perhaps deceived me personally only now, but I felt the betrayal went beyond the stones and beyond me. Every year a plethora of international students, many from non-Western countries, and from diverse cultural and disciplinary backgrounds, return home. There they discover too late the incompatibility of their just-learnt conceptual language with their cities and their lifestyles.

Indeed there were some dimensions missing from the education of urban designers, namely the social, the psychological, and other subjective – even spiritual – dimensions that one associates with concepts of territoriality, identity, memory, and meaning of places and spaces. The interface between social form and physical form varied tremendously from one country to another, through cultural and worldview differences. The Western world had many things to teach developing cities, but there was a lot to be learnt from those cities in return. Yet an under-dimensioned education left us with little insight regarding how to use the experience of different cultures to solve our own problems creatively.

1971–1997, Lebanon. One of the most historically celebrated examples of plural societies... nineteen different official religious affiliations, four million people on 10 000 square kilometres of sunny coasts, snowy mountains, and green plains: an 'anomaly' in its region, a blessing in disguise. A special case in all the aspects that made up its identity. Lebanon's geography, politics, demographics, ancient and, of course, recent history have all contrived to create one of the world's most contrasted – and contradictory – social and physical environments.

My personal experience was strongly influenced by every aspect of these environments, and to phrase it in the language I will develop for you over the course of this book, you could say that it made my tolerance to the density of diversity probably much higher than if I had lived in the English countryside all my life.

Born to a Christian father and a Muslim mother, I was exposed to 'both sides of the coin' – and of the story – as I was raised through fifteen years of civil, and less civil, wars. Moving from the city to the suburbs, to and from one or the other of my parents' hometowns (and extended families), to Europe or to the Arabian Gulf, then back to a reconstructing Beirut again, we were constantly fleeing from localized skirmishes, periodically crossing internal and external borders. Palestinians, Israelis, Syrians, Iranians, and Lebanese Muslim Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, Christian Maronites, Fascists, Socialists, and Communists played out their differences on this tiny territory, involving in their turmoil the Americans, the French and the United Nations. Meanwhile, at school and at home we were raised on the stories of this land of mythical Phoenician ancestors, and the histories of Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Aramean, Hittite, Medean, Persian, Greek, Roman, Arab, Crusader, Ottoman, and French occupations and their cultural legacies...

Training and practising as an architect since the end of the war in 1989 in Beirut – a city transforming at an incredible speed, but also a city in a continuous tug-of-war between old and new, between East and West, and between regionalism and globalization – has deepened my passion for my city, and for the city in general. War had created the most intense of environments: fighting and laissez-faire development had decentralized and re-urbanized more than 80 per cent of the country's population. Most of those displaced preserved many of their rural traditions and worldviews. Squatting in 1950s modernist buildings, they adapted both their physical environment and their lifestyle to fit each other. The layers upon layers of memories and meanings they introduced gave the city an unsettling sense of visual uncertainty, only balanced by an unexpected and buoyant optimism. From Phoenician ruins to those of five-star hotels of the pre-war golden age, Lebanon's history was literally engraved in its bullet-ridden stones, leaving behind an architectural and social landscape of surrealistic strata.

Could the vision of this 'impure', heterogeneous society that experienced and survived a full generation of chaos and uncertainty develop into an emergent urban identity based on diversity? That is the question I was originally interested in answering in my master's thesis in Oxford.

But when I realized that the Urban Design Newspeak I had been trained in over the previous semester was incapable of such an expression, I almost gave up. I soon found myself searching for an alternative thesis topic.

1997, Oxford. Frustration was setting in as the deadline for the thesis subject proposal came closer... To relieve the frustration, I needed to forget about urbanism for a while and read other subjects. I took advantage of the term break to access books and resources that would be difficult to find back home.

Several years before arriving in Oxford I was walking one summer through the historical centre of Beirut, under total reconstruction after the fifteen-year war, when I came across an architect friend of mine sitting in the dust of an archeological pit. He was enjoying the sun and a book, waiting for his archeologist girlfriend to finish her work. Seeing me, he invited me to join him. Leaning his back onto a 2000-year-old rock wall, he held in his hand a small book with an intriguing title: Einstein's Dreams. He read a passage out loud to me, and I was immediately hooked. Alan Lightman, who teaches physics and writing at MIT, weaves in this book a series of beautiful worlds, dreams in the mind of the famous father of relativity and space–time, Albert Einstein. Each dream is extrapolated from strange but possible qualities of time taken to their extreme literal application in a 'real' world, mostly manifested through everyday urban life in parallel versions of Switzerland.

It has since become my fetish book. Back in Oxford, I remembered Alan Lightman and thought I'd look up his other books. The digital catalogue informed me that Great Ideas in Physics was available in the university library. Initially disappointed that it sounded like a textbook, I was immediately hooked again, and devoured the pages in one day.

The brilliance of it was that it presented the major turning points in science through the character and personal backgrounds of the men and women who brought them about. Somehow understanding who the man was made Newton's optimistic determinism or Einstein's relativity theory so much more understandable and fascinating. But by far the most extraordinary story was that of quantum theory, which, unlike the former ideas, was more the work of a multitude of scientists and of decades of interpretation. Its interpretation turned the world of science upside down and inside out, and its application was responsible for all the sophisticated technology of our everyday modern life, from television and lasers to the microchip and digital computers. The history of modern scientific discoveries played itself out like a dramatic thriller, with engaging characters and never-ending surprises and mysteries. With plot twists worthy of the best of science fiction books, the story of quantum physics seemed, in its own right, one of the most remarkable narratives of the twentieth century. As I slowly began to parse apart the worldview elaborated by this revolutionary physics, I was appalled that we had never been taught about all this at school. It was really splendid, and would have made physics classes that much more exciting.

Quantum theory said the world of the infinitely small was made up of possibilities and tendencies, not of physical certainties. In the strange world of the atom, it was not possible to determine accurately where things were and where they were going at the same time, because they presented themselves as dual-aspect entities. Neither simply particles nor simply waves, these 'building blocks' of our universe could only be described as particle~waves. They were not fixed, dead matter, but responsive units that 'decided' which aspect to show the observer at the instant he or she looked at them. Up to the moment of observation, these entities could only be described as probability waves and interconnections that dynamically linked their possible position and their possible action. What was more, not only could a subatomic entity be in different places at the same time, it also actually behaved as if it really were in different places. Its probability wave filled all space and time and gave it certain qualities, which other entities' waves interfered with to produce new emergent qualities, and on and on. Quantum theory reconnected the world and finally recombined objectivity and subjectivity into one model of reality, clashing with all that classical thought believed the world to be.

As the semester break was winding to a close, this might have been the end of that story. A fascinating narrative, a compelling theory, a revolutionary way of looking at the world; marvellous entertainment, but not my discipline at all. And yet, the strangeness of that world began to unfold into reality.

Several days later, still wrestling subconsciously with my relationship to Beirut and Oxford, to my programme and to my thesis, something happened while I was sleeping. Like Newton's apple, like Einstein's flash of light, it came to me in a dream. I woke up in the middle of the night, grabbed a piece of paper and scribbled: 'Quantum UD' – Quantum Urban Design. What suddenly became clear to me was that the world of quantum theory, in all its strangeness and changeability, could in fact provide a metaphorical language applicable to urban design.

Quantum theory seemed to describe a world of complementary dualities, of both/and values, of uncertainty, of choices at all scales, of interactive relationships, emergent qualities and of sustainable vibrant ecologies... a language that described best the complex artefact that is the city: the urbs AND the civitas, the stones AND the emotions**. The language needed to describe the chaos, uncertainty, complexity, heterogeneity and subjectivity of life in the city had been there all along. Scientists had been forced to create it as the only means of describing what their empirical experience at the heart of matter was showing them, but we had never been taught this language.

The book that you now hold in your hands is the result of several years of grappling with the ideas that emerged from this original insight. It is an attempt to borrow some conceptual formulations from quantum theory, and to use it as a background metaphor to describe the urban realm. In the search for concepts better adapted to the paradigm that has come to affect most of our production at the dawn of the millennium, I will attempt to map the city in a language that is more deeply applicable to the complexity we observe to be operating in 'vibrant' space.

What I want to share with you is the sense of excitement, the utter dumbfoundedness that occurred in that epiphanous moment when I discovered, suddenly and to my great surprise, that an eloquent language had just opened itself up to me. It finally allowed me to express something that had always been buried intuitively in my perception of the world, and which I had been unable to articulate before. I hope you will join me in my curiosity, as we unfold and explore this alternative way of looking at the city and describing it. It is a way much closer to our intuitive thought processes, and one that will hopefully lead us to some qualitatively different conclusions.

Notes

*The generic term 'user' will signify throughout the book all people who inhabit, use or move through the urban realm: the 'urbanauts'. This includes local citizens, but also transient students, passers-through, tourists, and so on.

**Saint Isidore of Seville (c. AD 560–636) traced in his Etymologies the origins of the word city to different sources: the urbs (or stones of a city), laid for 'practical reasons of shelter, commerce and warfare'; and civitas, 'the emotions, rituals and convictions that take form in a city'.3Thus, the urbs and the civitas could also be defined as the physical and the cultural (or political), or, in the language of quantum theory, as the particle and the wave aspects that make up the city.

 

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Excerpt from Chapter 6

"Urban Design & The Quantum Worldview"

To be able to use the new metaphor, and because we are still functioning within an existing practical, educational and professional frame work, we will need to discuss a repositioning of some of the disciplines in charge of the urban realm. In particular, I will propose a redefinition of the role of urban design, not of Urban Design itself. At this point a fixed definition of Urban Design itself seems an epistemological impossibility that would only fall back into the current quicksand of definitions and counter-definitions. Redefining the role and not the discipline is similar to using another one of our ‘open-ended pictures’ to signify Urban Design itself. Urban Design can thus retain its flexible definition, necessary for its fulfilling of the multidimensional role proposed. A similar concern will lead us to discuss a redefinition of the urban designer rather than, again, Urban Design itself.

 

The role of urban design

"There is no single definition of urban design. It is not for Government to dictate what is good urban design."
(Department of the Environment (1995). Quality in Town and Country – The Urban Design Campaign.HMSO.)

Urban design as an activity seemingly has a very loose definition, and means different things to different people. While some consider it as a discipline in its own right, others consider it merely an ‘interface' between other disciplines. Is it a multidisciplinary activity, or an inter disciplinary activity?

Traditionally, the most popular definition is that urban design is the interface between urban planning and architecture. In this sense it plays a mediative role between two major disciplines involved in the urban realm, but at different levels and scales. Moreover, the latter directly tackles the physical built form in unitary particles, while planning manages more ‘abstract' notions such as zoning, functions, transport networks and economy. Hence urban design focuses on the urban space created through the effects of planning and realized through the physicality of architectural buildings.

If the subject of architecture (buildings, etc.) is particle-like and that of planning (policy, etc.) is wave-like, then urban design thus defined already shows notions of wave–particle duality, but that is a limited and limiting definition of its true role – although we are already beyond the pejorative definition of urban design as ‘big architecture' (Figure 6.1). Yet this is the role perceived by most actors and players in the development process, and it is not surprising to see it relegated to a secondary level in many real-life situations.

Figure 6.1
Urban design as the interface between planning and architecture

 

This misconception of the importance of urban design is due to a lack of awareness at the public, the professional and even the educational levels, of the responsibility it can and should handle.

In order for urban design to fulfil the role of a real interdisciplinary interface, it should be thought of – and taught – as a multidimensional activity. Other than planning and architecture, it should be clear that other seemingly independent disciplines play equally crucial roles in the study and/or creation of cities. Landscape architecture, communication and transport engineering, but also the ‘soft’ disciplines – sociology, economy, group and individual psychology and behavioural studies, even art and the humanities – are some of the poles that together shape the urban environment and give it its inherent subjective qualities.

Urban design can and should form the interface between all the relevant specialties that deal with the human and the human environment, both objective and subjective (Figure 6.2). Urban design should thus function as a multidimensional interdisciplinary interface, with the responsibility to manage and transform the interactions of the different aspects of urban life into a physical and/or usable form (Figure 6.3).

In our current educational and professional models, these different disciplines are clearly defined and entrenched in their respective responsibilities. This is partly due to the segregationist logic brought about by Newtonian atomism and Cartesian dualism, the two pillars of the mechanical worldview that preceded our paradigm. It is interesting that this new attitude of urban design sounds so relevant to the mended worldview described by quantum theory. We suggest there fore an additional role for urban design: to provide society with settings relevant to its current paradigm, and to be positively active in its dissemination and adoption.

 

Figure 6.2
Urban design as a multidisciplinary interface

 

Figure 6.3
Urban design as a multidimensional interdisciplinary interface

 

This role is not new; it has simply been an automatic, de-facto effect of the design of cities to be resonant with the worldview of their inhabitants. Like a work of art, the city has been designed and built with a vision in mind, and that vision has generally coincided with its contemporary worldview. With the atomization and mechanization of the professional disciplines urban design, like architecture, shifted away from art and has become a more rational, analytical discipline. Urbanists adopted dogmatic manifestos, and a self-conscious, self-righteous attitude developed within the discipline. Within the politicized discourse of the profession, antagonistic ideologies were often pitted against each other, yielding polemics instead of cooperation.

Urban design as an occupation is relatively new, but historically it has always played the major role in forming cities. Under different guises and definitions in different periods and places, the longest lasting imprint on cities and people was due to whoever controlled the urban design decisions. The term itself was first used only in 1957, by the American Institute of Architecture. It gradually spread, mainly through the work of Kevin Lynch and Jane Jacobs in the 1960s and Christopher Alexander, Leon and Rob Krier, and Robert Venturi, amongst others, in the 1970s and 1980s. The last decade of the last century saw urban design coloured by the views and counter-views of Charles Jencks and Sir Richard Rogers, HRH the Prince of Wales and Rem Koolhaas, to name but a few...

In all cases, many today have accepted the fleeting nature of urban design definitions as an unavoidable fact, as Alan Rowley concludes in a highly revealing article:

Many urban designers reflect a deep seated anxiety when challenged to define urban design. They long for a short, clear definition but in reality this simply is not possible. No one or two sentence definition is really adequate, nor is it likely to prove of lasting value. So it is pointless to search for a single, succinct, unified and lasting definition of the nature and concerns of urban design. It is much better to follow a number of signposts about, for example, the substance, motives, methods and roles of urban design.

A precise definition of urban design is necessary only for administrative purposes, to relegate responsibilities and liabilities, and to keep legislators busy. For a designer, it is not necessary. In fact, for a ‘real' designer – you know, the passionate artist in all of us – boundaries are anathema, and definitions are just that. Thoughts and pictures are not. That is why I believe a new mindset is what is needed, and that is what I hope to define in this book.

The underlying search is for the starting point of a theory that relates ‘good urban design' to the faithfulness to an organic worldview – not to the retrograde vision of traditionalists and neo-traditionalists, nor to the nihilistic futurism of postmodernists, and not even to the numb practicalism of post-postmodernists. We will go after a synthesis of all these approaches and more, going deeper – almost literally – into the heart of the matter. We will be looking for the role of a unified world-view in the making of urban environments, beyond the formalism adopted by typical research. An urban design process that responds to the current paradigm should provide positive urban space, as long as this worldview is holistic and organic, as it was in pre-Cartesian societies, and as long as it is technological and pluralistic, as it needs to be in the twenty-first century. Because the new sciences provide such a worldview, they should be ingrained as early as possible in the minds of the different players of the urban realm.

The urban designer versus Urban Design: a new attitude

‘Urban design' is a relatively recent occupation, and therefore so is the profession or expertise ‘urban designer'. It is remarkable that the introduction of this new expert class at a time when Urban Design itself has such a loose definition has only added to the confusion facing young graduates at the moment of choosing their professional path. I still have in mind the welcoming speeches of the respective chairpersons when I started studying architecture in Beirut and then urban design in Oxford. The first phrase of each speech is the only thing I remember clearly, probably because in both cases it sent my mind scrambling for implications. The architecture chairman gathered the 50 or so new recruits, and proclaimed: ‘Welcome to the elite'. Several years of boot camp later, armed with a state-of-the-art architecture degree, I went on to the professional battlefield only to realize the absurdity of that phrase. Looking for a new mantra, and for an upgrade of my weapons arsenal another few years later, I was aghast at the urban design Chair's welcoming speech: ‘Forget all you have learnt before'. He might as well have said ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here'!

Our educational system is as atomistic as Newtonian physics... the illogical need to proclaim the supremacy of each discipline only to break with it at the next step creates a sense of unfinished business and wasted time. The five or six years spent in architecture schools have got to be worth something to remember in urban design! And what of the years spent studying and practising landscaping, social sciences, history, geography or planning? Postgraduate urban design courses cater to professionals from all these and more disciplines, not to forget the personal and cultural experiences of each individual, particularly in international courses. Is forgetting everything and replacing it by monothematic, brainwashed ‘urban designers' the right attitude? We shall return to defining a better mode of interaction between multicultural design teams in the coming pages, but let us ponder first just who the urban designer is.

We propose to examine the proposition ‘the urban designer is the designer of the urban realm'. Let us quickly define ‘design' as the act of ‘initiating change in manmade things', and extend it to ‘change in any environment', whether physical, mental or virtual. ‘Urban' through out this book is considered to signify any human settlement, in its most generic sense. We have a tendency to equate ‘Urban Design' with ‘the design of the urban realm'. But while ‘Urban Design' is only the professional discipline with the role defined above, the urban realm itself is the collection of spaces and buildings, landscapes and ecosystems, mindscapes and people that make up and shape any environment.

The traditionally defined ‘urban designer' has a generally limited role in time, space and society. He or she typically intervenes in a finite context – for example, to propose an analysis and then a solution/strategy for the built environment. The urban designer's work is little more than an informed bet on the possible outcomes of the future development of a site. It can be a catalyst for change (hopefully positive), but in the end the real actuators of urban design are the end users themselves.

It thus becomes obvious that the straightforward proposition ‘the urban designer is the designer of the urban realm' does not relate to the ‘urban designer' as the class of specialists that practise the profession ‘Urban Design'. Rather the urban designers of our proposition are the literal generators of the environment – in other words the users themselves with their continuous shaping and re-shaping of the urban realm: the urban designer is the urban realm user.

The professional unit responsible for urban design is the ‘urban design team'. Expert members of the urban design team can themselves happen to be users of the same site under study in some cases; conversely, lay users could collaborate in the team. What should be kept in mind is that the product of the urban design team is limited and relative in time, and it is only fulfilled by the continuous use of it.

The claim that users are the urban designers is not made in the same manner as proponents of ‘participatory urban design' make it. It is made in the sense that the urban realm is a constantly redesigned continuum completely interlinked with its users. In other words, the urban realm is not merely the ‘container' of urban life, it is both the container and life itself, and urban design is the design of the continuum, not merely of the container. In the first democracies of Greece, polis signified both the city and its inhabitants; in the Arabic language, the word for ‘neighbourhood' or quartier, both with purely spatial connotations* is hayy, which is the exact same word for ‘alive', while its plural ahya'a is the same word for ‘the living'. This intricate relation ship between the container and the contained is felt very strongly in the liveliness of Middle Eastern cities. It is even more remarkable when you realize that the Arabic language has an extremely rich and nuanced vocabulary, making the choice of words more philosophical than merely practical, especially in such cultures where Urban Design is not a common professional discipline.

The point is that the separation between the designer and the designed, the container and the contained, common to Western culture and language in the Cartesian paradigm, is similar to the absolute separation between observer and observed in classical Newtonian science, but is superfluous in the language of the quantum worldview. Yet the best-willed attempts to counteract traditional approaches of ‘top-down' design have translated into little more than ‘participatory urban design', branded as the secret elixir for all urban and social ailments. My own sentiment, especially from living and practising in a part of the world where ‘container' means ‘contained' and vice versa, is that in many cases participatory urban design is an artificial solution to an artificial problem. It is more often than not a localized, apologetic attempt at ‘bringing the locals in', which remains in most cases based on severely patronizing attitudes and, when exported to non-Western settings, on almost colonial attitudes dressed up in orientalist clothes. The ‘locals' are in whether we like it or not – whether our elitist education admits it or not. They are themselves the intrinsic ties to the space they will be living in. In other words, if they cannot have this link, they will simply either move on or destroy the place until it reflects if not their comfort at least their discomfort – and in both cases their state of being.

Participatory design tries to counteract typical top-down design by looking at the ‘community' of users as a fixed, predictable mass of people and customs, and thus attempts to ‘give the people what they want'. But ‘nowhere in the society are people's futures mortgaged so far ahead as when the municipalities plan housing projects, earmark uses of land and build highways'.** With all the goodwill in the world, besides a few successful experiments, such an attitude remains oblivious to the fact that this community is an open, living organism that will develop in time new lifestyles, new tastes, new needs, new politics and new economies, and as such it is almost unavoidable that the next generation of users will feel alienated by the setting of its predecessor. The same sample group of people involved, say, in a participatory design workshop will provide totally different answers depending on how the questions are formulated, or even depending on whether it is a sunny or cloudy day. People are more moody than electrons, and in quantum theory electrons themselves seem to adapt their behaviour to the experimental setting!

Whenever the changeability of the current users is recognized it is looked at as transience, mainly when dealing with communities with particular identity of social class or ethnicity. The attitude then becomes based on postulates of high transience of the users, thus building generic or worse: ‘universal' environments that are rigidly regulated against ‘personalization' – in other words, against ‘tampering'. The theory goes that the next ‘wave' of users will find it easier to adapt to it this way.

By using the both/and logic and accepting that the real urban designers are the users themselves, a stronger attitude considers the users as both transient and fixed, with their environment completely and intricately linked to them at any particular moment in time. In other words, it allows the production of fault-tolerant design that accepts the changes and adaptations made to it by its users as the essence of what it is: theirs. Those changes do not need to be reversible (a costly and irrelevant quality), but simply re-appropriable by the next wave of users, whether of a different generation or simply of a different group or identity. In all cases, and in a long-term planning attitude, consecutive generations should be allowed to relegate to their successors a memory of their own knowledge and their own memory, as a basic need of humanity's supra-conscious continuity.

Notes

* from a report by the Swedish Secretariat for Future Studies, quoted in Myers and Kitsuse.
** ‘Neighbour' translates as jar in Arabic, while ‘neighbourhood' sounds like ‘the container of neighbours'; in spite of its clear social connotations it remains much more spatial, as it is easy to imagine a neighbourhood without thinking of the actual neighbours. In its literal Arabic translation jiwar it is the physical vicinity and is not equivalent to hayy. Similarly, the French quartier (quarter) and secteur are decidedly spatial, even geometrical words.

 

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Interlude: cities & worldviews & cinema

Cinema, from its earliest days, has been a wonderful medium for projecting worldviews in the form of screen cities. In particular, many science-fiction films have given exacerbated form to the city within the different paradigms they portrayed, while simple fiction or historical movies have just romanticized it.

Fritz Lang' Metropolis (1927) comes to mind first. This early German expressionist movie remains one of the most violently visual representations of the mechanical/industrial city, with its towering ghost-like skyscrapers linked by bridges, biplanes and zeppelins, looming over an under ground world of machine-like workers. A few decades later, the modernist take on the city was represented by the risible (yet highly enjoyable, at least aesthetically) screen adaptation of Ayn Rand' The Fountainhead (King Vidor, 1949), also in glorious black and white. In the age of Technicolor, Hollywood moved to historical dramas, recreating the most grandiose of settings to represent the Roman urban lifestyle centred (apparently) on the arena (there wasn't enough spectacle in the forum). Stanley Kubrick' Spartacus (1960) is a great example, and of course its 1990s descendant, Gladiator , which was directed by Ridley Scott (2000).

Scott also gave us the epitomous screen version of the extreme pessimistic postmodern city. The Los Angeles of Blade Runner (1982), with all its messy chaos, is a futuristic Chinatown – actually it is China, but with giant Japanese electronic advertising billboards and pyramid-like mega-towers.

Its dust-corroded downtown buildings are constantly shrouded in darkness, and when they are not manufacturing or hunting humanoid ‘replicants', its people scream at each other in a mishmash of Western and oriental languages. But that was the early 1980s; a ‘lighter' take on the postmodern Heteropolis comes from the mid-1990s. The Fifth Element (Luc Besson, 1997) borrows the sky-avenues from Metropolis , but replaces the biplanes with wheel-less yellow cabs, and the zeppelins with a jet-engine propelled flying Chinese boat (for home delivery of Chinese food of course). It's all very French and cartoon-like. Which is also the case in Jacques Tati's Mon Oncle (1958), which confronts the ‘house as a machine' to the livelihood of rural towns, with a lot of behavioural connotations and support from the soundtrack ...

Batman (1989) and Beetlejuice (1988), both directed by Tim Bur ton, are based on comic-book originals. The former is set in another sinisterly dark city, the aptly named Gotham City, with its take on a gothic worldview of Good and Evil brought into the twentieth century. The latter opens up with a (almost) caricatural version of suburbia, with perfect little houses in perfect little gardens, and a toy-like set of colourful cars lining up every morning at the exact same time on the way to the city and back in the after noon. A less dramatized version of perfect little lives – although no less dramatic – can be followed ‘live' on The Truman Show (Peter Weir , 1998), set in the most perfect little town of Windsor. In the film, the little town in question is ‘the world's largest stage set', englobed in a giant dome beyond which is reality. Truman does not know that, because his world is complete, with a fake ocean, fake moon and fake weather. It is only when a stage light falls on his head in the middle of the street that he realizes something is wrong. I doubt anything will fall on anyone' s head in the ‘real' Windsor , which is a New Town in Florida designed in 1989 by the champions of New Urbanism, Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk.

While the Americans were making film-like towns and cartoon-like films, the Japanese were making film-like cartoons. Manga films are extremely detailed, action-packed, well-scripted, feature-length animations. The unmissable Ghost in the Shell (Mamoru Oshii, 1995) has the most atmospheric rendering (not to mention the soundtrack) of the megalopolis of the Far East, Hong Kong and Tokyo. Another brilliant Manga film is the less known Wings of Honneamise (Hiroyuki Yamaga, 1987). This sumptuous movie has the particularity of describing a world where the scientific revolution has not brought about any form of mechanization. It is set in a culture where space travel has become a possibility, but where even the manufacture of spaceships remains an artisanal craft. This means the whole aesthetics of the city of Honneamise are extremely craft-like: cars, buildings and everything else (down to the electric lampposts) are beautifully detailed without being ornamental. Without mechanization, everything seems to have retained the memory of a human touch.

Memory itself is the key actor in Dark City , which visually and atmospherically has many elements from Metropolis, Blade Runner and Batman, while the observer–observed concept is similar to The Truman Show. In this hypnotic film noir, aliens live underground researching human consciousness. Through advanced mind-over-matter capabilities, they stop time every night and ‘inject' new ‘manufactured' memories into the minds of all the inhabitants of the city. The new memories mean, for the oblivious citizens, new lives past, present and future, and this of course requires new settings (although in this city the future only goes on until the next night). This is the most spectacular part of the film, as our aliens re-shape the city, transforming it every single night, growing buildings, creating streets, tearing down bridges and relocating people, all in a matter of minutes. With their control over time, space and society complete, they then resurrect the city and lie watching until the next project, a little like contemporary urban designers ... who can do worse than watch the film Mindwalk , centred on a discussion between a poet, a politician and a quantum physicist. In fact, I strongly suggest all readers try to find that film on video and watch it at this point of this book. In spite of its dated ‘New-Agisms' (and an unfortunate ending), it does present a good recap of the post-Cartesian paradigm as popularized in the late 1980s. I am not sure what director Bernt Capra's relation to Fritjof Capra*, the author of The Tao of Physics and The Turning Point , is, but you might find Liv Ullman more eloquent in her exposition of quantum physics 101 than I am!
 

Note

* UPDATE: SURPRISE, FRITJOF CAPRA TURNS OUT TO BE THE FILM'S SCREENWRITER...

Ayssar Arida

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