A New Approach to Designing Smart Cities
One day, I’d like to design a truly modern, functional city with the character of a medieval hill town.
Rather than a blueprint, I’d like to design a series of recipes for how to create it, from the community to individual human level, from street plans to door handles. This outlines how and why that approach could work, compared to how cities are designed today.
If you designed a fruitcake the way buildings are, you would specify the coordinates of every nut and raisin. Every cake would look the same and there would be something distinctly non artisanal about it.
But cakes aren’t designed, they are created from recipes and the end result is slightly different for each one because of the action of the person applying the recipe and subtle variations in the environment. The more a product made from a recipe is connected to individual human interaction and its local environment, the more local and artisanal it looks, and people often pay a premium for hand made artisanal products rather than factory made ones.
To summarise: things made from a recipe rather than a design have more character, and hand made things made from recipes have even more character, still.
Things created by recipes rather than by design have characteristics that are similar to the natural world. DNA is often described as a blueprint for organisms, but it’s not — DNA is a recipe. There is a genuine connection between recipes and organisms, and recipes are at the heart of organic 'design’.
In natural, ‘organic’ systems, where the output is from a recipe, everything is slightly different but based on the same pattern and decoding these patterns allows recipes to be uncovered. Some of the patterns we see in the built environment, and how they relate to each other were famously described by Christopher Alexander in A Pattern Language. Alexander’s patterns codify not only the objective attributes about form and function but the subjective and emotional ones. For example, one pattern explains how pools of light directly over tables in restaurants create intimacy. Because the patterns have diagrammatic and verbal descriptions, they codify the human made environment so it can be recreated, like recipes. Also, because the various patterns describe how they relate to each other, they form the syntax of a type of language — a pattern language.
People often feel more at home in organic environments built up over time following patterns rather than sterile, overtly planned design. Jane Jacobs understood this well and it drove her efforts to protect the organic character of Manhattan’s West Village.
A balance between design and recipes.
Not everything should be organic, however. An artisanal iPhone wouldn’t have sufficient scale for it to be functionally great and non high-tech aesthetics would tend to be kitsch by being skeuomorphic — ie having a form that pretends to be something it isn’t such as being made of wood. Some things actually become disturbing when they are organically designed and David Cronenberg created good examples of this in the film eXistenZ. Like most things, there is no hard and fast rule and the design of cities works best with a balance of geometric design and organic vernacular that offset each other. There is no better example of this than New York’s Central Park with its simple rectangle containing a romantic landscape.
For examples of how highly geometric or minimalist modernism work well when balanced with an organic environment, the trees or sculpture in a Mies van der Rohe design are critical components, and an elegantly designed building created from standard industrial parts such as the Eames’ house works best surrounded by the dappled light from trees.
Why industrial era cities haven’t been created from recipes.
New cities haven’t tended to be designed from scratch, from recipes because of the constraints of infrastructure. Medieval hilltop towns that grew organically were difficult to justify as blueprints for transport and utility networks. This functional need for highly ordered city plans is changing, however, as information technology allows communication that is independent of the physical environment, and intelligent automation allows point to point physical movement in self directed pods rather than mass transit on fixed arteries. Specifically, ubiquitous, GPS enabled smartphones remove entirely the concept of ‘getting lost’, and route programmed self driving cars and mesh network power grids enable organic city layouts to replace grids. Cities of the industrial age looked mechanical, cities of the information age can look like fractal networks — like nature.
Doing away with street plans that solve industrial infrastructure needs means cities can be designed with forms that primarily serve our emotional and aesthetic ones. By making these forms be derived from well understood recipes and patterns, they will go way beyond the superficial attempts at organic style planning that typified garden suburbs. These looked natural on the surface but were based on blueprints not recipes (i.e. designed like a cake with specified co-ordinates for its ingredients).
Just as Christopher Alexander’s Pattern language is a hierarchical list of recipes, a masterplan for a recipe based city would consist of a series of connected recipes for different scales and types of interaction, from community to household to human level. This would allow the city to have character at every level from door handles to street plan, to have meaning and detail at every level and for there to be connections between them.
Bringing back decoration to modern architecture without being historical pastiche.
For a long time, modernism stripped decoration from architecture as it didn’t fit the idea of rationality in the ‘modern’, post industrial world of science and technology, and so would appear fake, dishonest and unergonomic.
Postmodernism was an attempt to bring back that meaning, through decoration, but the translation from theory to reality missed the point entirely. The theory realised that theme park style places like Las Vegas that weren’t concerned with ‘honesty’ as they were all about selling fantasy, retained the idea of meaning and narrative in the built environment to and didn’t have a problem with decoration. In short, decoration was still there, but it was advertising not architecture. The seminal post modern architecture book was called ‘Learning from Las Vegas’.
The problem was that when architects started to build post modern buildings, they basically produced crappier versions of classical ones, sterile blocks with ancient Egyptian or Greek style geometry that was cheap to do, if you skipped the carvings. These buildings said nothing, they had less to say about the world of today than a neon Vegas sign.
Decoration is intertwined with the notion of recipe based cities for two reasons: 1. The embedded meaning in decoration is important for forms that are designed to satisfy emotional needs. 2. Decoration is part of what makes pre-modernist architecture seem organic as natural things tend to have detail at all scales, whereas pure geometric forms don’t.
Today, due to computed recipes, we have an understanding of how to create geometry with detail at every scale through repeated, fractal algorithms that are exactly the same as how nature produces them. We can combine this with an understanding of meaning through association (advertising style decoration as art not advertising), to introduce meaning and decoration into recipes for a modern city.
Meaning in architecture, without ideology. The art of the science of planning and the science of the art of design.
The profession of city design is called planning and city planners are more often characterised as civil servants or bureaucrats seeking efficiency gain rather than as artists. However, the mechanism by which planners often operate is through recipes rather than design. Planners often create rules (recipes) for how cities can emerge organically rather than drawings or blueprints that specify exactly how. By merging the social science process of planning with the explicit artistic aims of architecture, planning becomes something entirely new.
This isn’t just a question of social science embracing art, however, it’s also a story of social science becoming hard science in order to codify how to serve irrational but human needs and behavior. Just as a true science of economics is emerging based on understanding markets as being irrational because there are humans involved, while understanding exactly what that irrationality is, the same science of behavior can be applied to serving our needs for the built environment.
If recipes for cities leverage recent, scientific understanding of human behavior they can serve people’s needs from a psychological rather than just functional perspective, to serve spiritual needs that are an accepted fact, without needing to be tied to a particular ideology or religion. We can create recipes for new cities that make people happy, by design, not just house them.