Walls and windows for the urban — new architecture

Nahal Sheikh
Oct 3, 2019 · 4 min read
Ebenezer Howard’s ‘Garden City’, 1903 © citylab.com

Contemporary architecture is an evolved architecture deeply intertwined with sophisticated technology. Historically, architecture as an industry has witnessed a flood of approaches, each claiming to bring something new. An inherently creative study expects nothing less. When these approaches are clouded by a pursuit of modernist aesthetic, they’re likely to face the danger of overseeing functional sustainability.

The diagram above was published in Ebenezer Howard’s 1903 treatise, ‘Garden Cities of To-Morrow.’ He was the founder the Garden City Movement, a pioneer of ‘green’ conceptual designs for cities. Emily Badger comments on Howard’s ideas in CityLab:

Howard wanted to design an alternative to the overcrowded and polluted industrial cities of the turn of the century, and his solution centered on creating smaller “garden cities” (with 32,000 people each) in the country linked by canals and transit and set in a permanent greenbelt. His scheme included vast open space, with the aim of giving urban slum-dwellers the best of both city and country living. He captioned the above diagram “A Group of smokeless, Slumless Cities.”


An approach that realizes the danger of overseeing sustainability goes by the name of Co-design. Its underlying premise relies on creative design that not only challenges mono-generational appeal to aesthetics, but disrupts the traditional binary relationship between client and designer. It allows for a multitude of people to contribute in the design-making process, and confluence different concepts, perspectives, needs and purposes — keeping in mind multi-generational viability.


Illustration by Naomi Elliot © curbed.com

One very influential architect and design theorist played an influential role in spurring off this new way of thinking in the 1970’s — Christopher Alexander. He comes under the school of design called New Urbanism, a movement promoting contextual and environmental-friendly architecture. Alexander has built a many of things — a village portion in India, university in Japan, homeless shelter in California; the list goes on.

His design concepts followed what he calls ‘Pattern Language, also the name of a book he published in 1977. Alexander claimed how science for him is ‘figuring something out’; and his patterns do just that. Each pattern describes a problem that repeats itself in our environment, identifies the core problem and consequents a solution. The solution tends to adapt to local circumstances and constantly evolve with changing needs in time — making this approach a transformative device for the constructive abilities of architecture.

Christopher Alexander, British-American architect and design theorist © kotonogo.blogspot.com


Despite his expanse influence, some feel New Urbanism and co-design failed to reach expected heights since the 70s. A team of experts called Matter Architecture is one of today’s leading hubs advocating New Urbanism. The Director, Reynold Karthaus, comments on the contemporary status of design and architecture:

While there continue to be well designed buildings of all types […] they remain exceptional and it would be hard to say overall that the design of the build environment has substantially improved in recent decades.

Matter Architecture team © designcurial.com

Matter Architecture has been trying to reverse this built environment by leading many creatively and intellectually stimulated projects and research. These include Dean Court Almshouses which re-developed old almshouses to improve health and social activity amongst its elderly residents; the SpringBoard Innovation Centre, an incubator of offices and shared facilities that engage members in sharing of ideas and activities; and a workshop in Naya Rajpur, India to explore a new city plan keeping in mind the many thresholds the city experiences such as narrow streets, and limited places of social interaction.

At the heart of their work lies an interdisciplinary ethic allowing them to carry out exceptionally alternative projects. Matter Architecture has also collaborated with a justice policy expert on an applied research project — ‘A design approach to transform prison’ — to reflect on UK policy agendas on prison rehabilitation.

Framework for prison research © matterarchitecture.uk

Collaborations like Matter Architecture run on co-design’s premise of ‘figuring something out.’ This practice takes scientific tools, design, and expert-civilian engagement to a level that finds itself in the process of re-branding architectural design itself.

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Nahal Sheikh

Written by

Writing on art, culture, design and how they affect modern life — words in The Startup, Towards Data Science, The Culture Corner & more — nahalsheikh.com

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +785K followers.

Nahal Sheikh

Written by

Writing on art, culture, design and how they affect modern life — words in The Startup, Towards Data Science, The Culture Corner & more — nahalsheikh.com

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +785K followers.

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