Architect, Co-Founder of Congress for the New Urbanism, Author of Suburban Nation and Developer of Urban Transect Theory
Michael Mehaffy: Pardon me for a long-winded first question, but I’d like to set up this discussion in the following way. As you know, in this issue we're discussing the “new science” of complexity and its implications for a new urbanism and -- perhaps -- a new architecture. This is of course a “new” science only in historical terms, since it has already been applied to urbanism and to architecture since the 1960s, by people like Jane Jacobs and Christopher Alexander.
Jane Jacobs ended The Death and Life of Great American Cities with that marvelously prescient last chapter called "The Kind of Problem a City Is.” In that chapter – which should be required reading for anyone in architecture and urban planning -- she talked very lucidly about the new science of "organized complexity". At that time the field was just then emerging, but since then one can fairly say that it has revolutionized the sciences. Back then, Jacobs made the case that a city was not a simple linear problem of the sort that planners had been assuming -- that a city had to be understood as complex, mixed, emergent. Only then could workable tools be developed to manage the complexity of the city for human ends.
It seems to me that this is the historic lesson we’re still trying to come to terms with. Some of the neo-modernists – Koolhaas, say -- throw their hands up and say that complexity amounts to nature out of control, let’s go along for the ride. By contrast the New Urbanists seem to be saying that complexity is just a deeper level of structure, but nonetheless understandable, predictable, something we can learn from. That we can restore the complexity and the vitality we’ve seen in the best cities, by first understanding what it is and how it is created, and then implementing new strategies for its creation. And the first step is to create diverse, mixed, walkable, well-connected urbanism.
But isn’t there some distance to go to get to the level of complexity, the organic character, of the greatest cities of history?
Andrés Duany: There is a potential contradiction at the center of your call for complexity: How to create such an urbanism by excluding any of the complex forces that impinge on it? Forces like the protocols of planning departments, and loan officers, and democratically produced laws; and those disastrous architects? Are they not to be part of the mix?
I am referring to the difficulty of getting such communities implemented in great quantity (which is the aspect of modernity that most interests me). Is a truly complex urbanism not irreconcilable with such fundamental forces as international finance, legal systems, bureaucracies, specialized professionals, retail organizations and not least: the wishes of the people?
Yes, the people's will may not yield what you consider an “organic” community. When asked, "the people" abhor diversity and connectivity. Yes, they are confused by media-induced fear and manipulative marketing. But as a result many of them want to live in monocultures, in enclaves. What are we to do, impose our principles upon their desires?
In the 21st century, it is too late for innocence, raw nature is gone. If we can manipulate genetics, then it must be possible to artificially create special strains of urbanism that work better. If not, we leave that big tool, hard science, in the hands of our adversaries, the modernists.
MM: I take your point that architecture cannot be separated from modern culture, and that modern culture is a technological consumer culture that is based on large quantities. Certainly we’re not going to return to raw nature, as you put it, and we need to take into account all the conditions you cite. But to borrow Leon Krier's title, wouldn’t you agree that that isn't our fate, that's our choice – to accept the awful state of affairs, or else to create the better strains of urbanism you mention, by getting our hands on this technology and reforming it to more humane ends? We’ve already made great progress with the traffic engineers, so don’t we need to extend the process to the problems you cite?
And if we are going to make this choice, guided by science, wouldn’t you agree that the first task is to really understand the nature of the environment of choice in a technological society - the nature of this state of affairs you describe? And it seems that all the fundamental forces you mentioned boil down to technical codes and marketing systems (including the marketable fashions of architects) - rather primitive, rigid and poorly adapted ones, in fact. There’s the problem.
So it seems to me that the “new science” shows us that it’s a problem of game theory – a solvable problem, according to the theory. Yes, we are technological people and we live in a world of codes and other generative rules, but there is no reason we can't supplant the existing codes with more adaptive codes that generate more life. After all, DNA is itself a code that generates life.
This strikes me as a very subversive and significant idea: a sort of virus that is infecting the organism of modernity, installing its own life-generating DNA.
Would you say that this is a good description of what you're doing - working, through the Transect and related tools, to overcome the problems of a primitive technocracy, creating the "DNA" that is needed for advancement? Isn't this how we're beginning to learn how to achieve again that complex urbanism?
AD: I disagree with you only in one point: That we are at the beginning of the acquisition of knowledge. I think that Leon and Chris and the best New Urbanists are MASTERS of urbanism and that the latter group are also masters at implementation. To quote Chris: "We all know what the appliance is. . . what we need to do is design the plugs (note the plural) that connect it to the existing power grids." The New Urbanists are designing plugs now. You are crafting the plug to the scientists, and that is why we support you. To the environmentalists, who are a very powerful grid, we are plugging into with the Transect.
MM: I guess that’s one of the dangers of talking about a “new” science – or, for that matter, “new” urbanism. It seems to suggest that we're at the beginning, but in fact we're plugging in a very old and well-evolved appliance: a traditional urbanism that represents a collective intelligence of millions of human minds over thousands of years. But what's new is our understanding of it, our understanding of its sophistication, in today's scientific and technocratic terms. And also our understanding of how to restore and reproduce it in a technocratic society. How to “plug it in.”
So it seems to me that the plug to the scientists is a two-way link - we're going to get back some strong ammunition to show how this stuff we're doing actually represents the technological future, and is completely compatible with it -- even demanded by it. We're going to shatter the myth that it's romantic and pre-scientific. That will be hitting the modernists on their home turf of technological modernity -- a realm they thought they had to themselves.
You mentioned that getting things implemented on a large scale was one of the aspects of modernity that interested you. Isn't there a danger, as Chris Alexander has warned, that that kind of large scale doesn't allow the grain of adaptation that's going to be required for good urbanism and good architecture? Isn't scale one of the key things that the modernists screwed up on so badly?
AD: Yes scale is a prime problem, but it is also THE reality of modernity. It cannot be avoided. I believe it was Gideon, the theoretician of modernist architecture who said: "Ours is the problem of large numbers." These early modernists were very smart. There is immense population growth, even in the U.S.; there is the blinding speed of communication, of automatic decision protocols and of mass production. If we return only to the crafting of cities, what we do may be of high quality but it will not be important. It will be an art, which is fine--but that is all. But we have achieved such places already: Leon, Chris, even ourselves. Those were the Beta tests. They were slow, handmade. What is the use of slower urbanism except to indulge ourselves in the pleasure of doing things well?
I think that you agree that what we must craft now are not the communities, but the programs that create them quickly automatically, replicating the organic process of sequential decisions. This must achieve the authentic variety and resilience of traditional communities. These protocols must be propelled by the power grids, and not be tied to the limits of our personal efforts. Every one of our "adversaries" operates from automated protocols. Ones that allow one Wal-Mart to be built, staffed and stocked each and every day. Protocols that flow 200 mortgages for 200 parametric strip shopping centers, all bundled for purchase in a single transaction by an insurance company. What would they do with our one-off creations? Inspect them individually? They can't. John Hancock in Boston has to invest $7 billion a year. Their investments MUST flow smoothly without hiccupping on our individual conceptions and explanations.
These protocols are powerful because they are automated, but for that reason they have no resilient intelligence. We can infiltrate them like viruses, as you say. Once we control the protocols they can be made to yield the communities humans desire. The handlers don't care, they just need to cover their asses. And they need them coordinated with all the associated protocols so that the system can hum along processing great quantities of investment. For example: the strip shopping centers need 25,000 drive-bys per day; this requires the traffic protocols to load up certain arterials which will only happen by cutting off the precious inter-connected network. Our opponents have a highly integrated system.
We must understand the system. It cannot be destroyed and replaced. We can only infiltrate it and turn it to our purposes, like a virus does to a cell.
I think that this is possible, as the system is susceptible to any organism that communicates in its terms. I am afraid (correct me, please) that Leon and Chris' methodologies do not wish to lower themselves, to the required level of communication, with the existing protocols. They create their own much smarter ones. But I don't think that we have time to break the existing ones down, nor to build up comprehensive new ones. No one has ever dismantled a bureaucracy--not Napoleon, not Hitler. They could only turn them to their purposes.
The strength of the SmartCode as a virus is that it is based on zoning, so that it can be administered by the existing bureaucracies. But the result is quite the opposite. By being Transect-based, it creates a zoning system of complex habitats with ecotones that assure overlap and connectivity; and furthermore, it is successional, like nature, so that communities can adjust and grow.
This particular "virus" will commence delivery to the market in January. MuniCode will distribute it for a profit. This is the outfit that writes most of the sprawl codes. It has 3700 open municipal accounts and a mailing list of nearly 40,000. And they will be sold at a good profit, so there is incentive to keep replicating. They are pleased to expand their business by distributing “an additional product.”
There are biological analogies to all this that perhaps you can help with. Doesn't the market behave like an organism?
MM: Well, that's part of the problem you described earlier, isn’t it? At this point the market behaves organically in a very limited way - it reduces valuation to a momentary decision, within a technocratic environment of very limited information and bounded rationality. Consumer manipulation and all the rest. You captured this earlier when you said "the people's will is no longer organic." By contrast, traditional patterns of the sort that Chris and Leon have identified have had the enormous benefit of slow adaptation and evolution, and because of the greater time span it was actually a much richer and more connected information environment. Also because it was a more connected cultural system. So now the challenge is to inject into the market the benefits of this richer information environment, by coding the patterns of good urbanism into the financial and legal and zoning systems - into the protocols. Then the market becomes a vector of traditional knowledge, through this code. And then the market does that work for you - which I take it is what you're saying.
By the way, I love that quote of Gideon about “the problem of large numbers.” That beautifully captures the conception of modernity in the last century. I think it’s what Koolhaas was referring to when he said that modernism had failed to deliver the alchemical promise to transform quantity into quality. But of course there’s a new conception of biological order, which is all about the differentiation of large numbers into structures of organized complexity. And we see all over in nature that large numbers are managed by generative sequences or codes. And that’s the new model that we can learn from, and that I take it we are learning from. That’s the new modernity.
So this is a real transformation of Gideon’s “problem of large numbers.” Instead of large numbers as undifferentiated statistical populations, we’re seeing large numbers as the result of prodigious but unique generative adaptive techniques, the way nature generates a billion critters, every one exquisitely different, and the whole thing incredibly efficient and economical. That shows us how we can still have great efficiencies and economies of scale, the way nature herself does. We’re learning to run manufacturing that way, with computer-controlled one-off processes.
So it seems to me that what is being done with urban codes represents enormous progress in that direction. But how much farther do we need to go? For example, the genetic codes of nature "learn" and adapt themselves to novel conditions and scales. The codes of traditional urbanism did this too, as part of the collective intelligence that they embodied. Can the SmartCode learn on its own? Or will you have to "re-program" it manually for any new conditions? I ask this because I think it's closely connected to the question of scale and grain of adaptation.
AD: Let me respond by extending your analogy to computers. The Transect is an operating system. The SmartCode is one possible program based on it. Its use to create a community is an application. This must always be done and it is understood to be necessary even in the modern world of mass production.
All sorts of codes can be written that are Transect-based. Our version happens to be the SmartCode. Ours is designed to be locally recalibrated very easily. It has text and numbers in [brackets] that must be replaced with local practice.
It contains, however, a hard core of inflexible principles. These are the principles of the human habitat that have been identified by Leon and Chris as timeless and cross-cultural.
There are other aspect to the SmartCode that supplement the answer to your question:
1. It includes notations about everything, even small things, for example, sign ordinances. Why? Because we have learned that our planning/legal system abhors a vacuum. Anything left void "because it doesn't matter one way or the other" will be filled, usually badly. We must deal with everything in order to protect flexibility and variety. There is no way around it.
2. Many prescriptions are parametric: physical requirements are stated numerically, as expected by the protocol, but the tabs are set so wide apart that it is similar to having flexibility or, in some cases, to having no rule at all. This achieves our purpose of flexibility while keeping the lawyers away.
3. The text and format of the SmartCode is heavy, and it is meant to be. It is very dryly written; it dispenses with explanations; it is technocratic and legalistic. In other words, it slips perfectly into the existing legal/administrative system. It simulates a “real” code – it is not an instructive or a hortatory document, like Leon's or Chris marvelous and necessary publications.
4. The reason that it will respond to local and evolving conditions is that it plugs in to the existing American political system. That this unfortunately consists of amateurs running government means that it will be compromised. This is the cost of being complex in an evolving democratic society.
This code would give better results in France or the old British Empire, which were run with powerful, professional and elite civil services. But since it is the American middle class that is emulated by the rest of the world, it is a good thing that we are working at ground zero, however noxious it may be.
A possible flaw in Chris' proposition is the assumption that the American people, unfettered, will build communities that serve them well, if only they are provided with the right tools. We must assume that they would want such places if they were only available, or we might as well quit right now; but we shouldn’t romanticize the reality about how they came into being. Most of our best places were created by powerful elite individuals (developers and town founders such as Oglethorpe, Nichols and Davis) or cabals (the 1813 Manhattan committee on streets). It is the naïve charm of Americans to think that democracies do everything best. Democracies indeed do many things well, but urbanism does not seem to be among them. We the planners must have the confidence to lead and the honesty to say so. In his willingness to admit this, Leon is less romantic than Chris.
MM: Again, it seems to me that goes back to the question of “the people’s will” and the process of cultural traditions like science and art. Clearly human culture -- human "collective intelligence" -- implies some selection, emergence of leadership, authority, all the rest: it is hardly led by a pure democracy of equals. Not all scientists have equal say in shaping the tradition of science: the Einsteins and Newtons have a disproportionate influence. I suspect you and I would agree that democracy ought to do that which it is best suited to do, allow a rightful say in the running of things, but without allowing human culture to be hijacked by a tyranny of the majority. Or by a tyranny of market fundamentalists either. We need to restore the legitimacy of that neglected third force, human culture, and the collective intelligence of cultural tradition.
On another topic, as you know we also interviewed Chris Alexander for this issue. He said that he was very proud of you and the New Urbanism for all that you have accomplished -- but that he remains concerned that the conventional development process, with all its financial constraints, still has a stranglehold on the result. That it forces construction to occur too suddenly, not allowing the adaptation that has to occur.
AD: The cities of Chris and Leon are my personal, unattainable dreams. I have said that if I had to go to a desert island for the rest of my life with only one book, that would be A Pattern Language. If I had to behold one image for the rest of my life it would be Krier's Atlantis.
I love reading and thinking theory and I do so constantly, but my abilities lie in what the Germans call the Operatif. Our office designs between two and three new towns a month. They are not as good as Leon's and Chris' propositions, but they are much better than those usually created by the “constraints” that Chris refers to.
Leon doesn't have a proposition for implementation. Chris has developed one that I have not read yet (I assume that it is in his new books). The last thing that I wish to do is to contradict him, but the way we implement may be different, and by our relative efficiency it inevitably infers a criticism. This cannot be avoided. I would hope that he considers it an alternative or interim delivery system.
As I have said, one reason for our relative efficiency is that we implement using existing systems. Chris requires their dismantling and replacement by something rare: leadership. The SmartCode requires only a run of the mill bureaucracy to operate, while A Pattern Language requires a leader of some charisma. Chris might wish for a pure democracy, but that little Bible of his requires a prophet to quote chapter and verse and to lead the people to the Promised Land. Americans these days are prostrate before bureaucrats and allergic to leaders. What are we to do?
And the problem isn't just financial. As I have said, it is the interlocked system which is so comprehensive that one has to grant it an awesome beauty, like that of a vast, smoothly functioning empire. Like the early Christians, our chance is to infiltrate it by using its assets: its secure communication network, its stable currency, its common language and its myths. We will push until the first Emperor of the ULI becomes a New Urbanist (It's close). There have already been two Governors that are open converts. The vast bureaucracies are everywhere infiltrated, as are a few schools.
MM: So how do you deal with the conventional development problem of “building too suddenly” that Chris Alexander describes?
AD: Regarding "building too suddenly" Chris is correct: it is essential to a resilient, authentic community that it come into being sequentially, influenced by many hands and minds. That is my definition of urbanism, as opposed to that of the large architectural project designed in detail at one time and that passes for urbanism because of its scale. But take Seaside -- what was "too sudden" about it? Scores of people, many not even designers, designed it over 20 years. The codes were there to downstream decisions to others in our absence.
Seaside was all right. The problem is that while Seaside's 450 dwellings were being built, some two million awful ones in dysfunctional communities were built elsewhere in Florida.
It's always back to the problem of large numbers. Unless we are going to be satisfied with dinghies of excellence precariously floating in an ocean of mediocrity, we have to figure out how to deliver the luxury of sequential design for the masses?
And there is another, more insidious problem: The assumption that by handing decision over to others, that what will ensue will be variegated and that it will manifest the intelligence of collective self-interest. There is little evidence of that. The default setting of modernist American (and European, African, Latin American, Moslem, Indian and Asian culture) is not Atlantis or A Pattern Language, it is monocultures of KITSCH! Look around! That is what the people have fallen to. The vernacular mind (Douglas Duany’s concept), the cultural equivalent of natural function, has been exterminated from this earth. It must be recreated in the lab from surviving strands of urban DNA.
Do we let the people make mistakes? OF COURSE NOT! Urbanism is too long-lasting. When poorly done its capacity to undermine human happiness is too great! The secret of all good planners (Chris included) is that they have "a black shirt hidden in the closet" (to quote one of our best and most experienced colleagues, told to me in private conversation). Someone really strong must decide the Patterns. We at DPZ, who have handed over more design to others than anyone else, have learned that the looser the constraints (the codes) the worse the result. I can easily document that.
We can no longer count on the vernacular mind. The noble peasants and masons of yore now have televisions and magazines. They are willing subjects of a sick culture, not prisoners within it.
Our only chance is to act like proper modern revolutionaries and capture the most powerful transmitters of the culture: the codes and protocols and marketing mills. There is no other method for implementation on the scale required.
MM: I suspect Chris Alexander would agree that the challenge is to recreate the vernacular mind in a technological, post-Enlightenment era. If our era can do that, we will add a historic new dimension to the Enlightenment. And it seems reasonable that we can only do that through leadership, not any gauzy romantic notion of “empowerment”. I recall the Margaret Mead line about a small group of committed individuals…
Getting back to the question about scale, how do you think we must now move beyond the scale of urbanism to the scale of architecture? It seems to me that we have made great strides in arguing for a restoration of connectivity and complexity to the urban realm - mixed use, street networks, pedestrian zones and so on. There is a long way to go, but we hold the academic high ground. By contrast, in the realm of architecture, the Decons hold the academic high ground. And the result is the nonsense one can see for the just-unveiled World Trade Center site - very primitive crystalline structures that are horribly adapted to the urban fabric of one of the world's great cities. And what's worse, few people really understand the massive structural poverty of this, the historic betrayal of our legacy that it represents. The culture is mesmerized by this crude pseudo-modernity.
How then do we capture, or recapture, the high ground in architecture?
AD: It depends on how you define the high ground of architecture--where you draw the line. If the line is drawn, as Leon does, with a reform of tectonics, which is to say building well with "real" materials, then that will be difficult. That is the Ruskinian level of reform, which is from the inside out and top to bottom.
If you are referring to the recurrent reforms of Neo-Classicism, which is about the physical expression, like the reforms implemented by Palladio, Schinkel and Asplund in their times, then that is possible. For them what mattered was the effective form of buildings, regardless of what was inside the walls, as long a nice coat of stucco covered it all. This was about design and did not require a correction of the craftsman’s lot.
People feel passionately one way or the other, but I don't. What counts for me is economy, speed, flexibility, the ability to forgive mediocre workmanship and, above all, mutability. I trust the arguments set forth by Stewart Brand in How Buildings Learn. Communities require their buildings to be modifiable over time. It is for this reason, and only this reason, that I am against most modernist tectonics: they are too specialized to be mutable. As an urbanist, I need buildings to evolve without requiring demolition. This requires a tectonic of flexibility more than durability. Paul Murrain has a good term for it: resilience. This means that it can take whatever life throws its way. Even Le Corbusier eventually acknowledged this. When his community of Pessac was damaged by modifications, he shrugged and said, “Life is always right.”
Beyond its production… regarding the reform of the formal expression of architecture, which is a different issue. What we need is a common language that will: 1) camouflage the necessary diversity of uses. We must have apartment buildings next to houses, next to shops and offices, without causing consternation to the citizens); 2) create a harmony of expression sufficient to allow multiple private buildings to coalesce into the street walls that define public places spatially; and 3) accommodate the spectacular egocentric architects (if necessary, of WTC caliber) for the design of the civic buildings that will play with the emotions--pride, identity, artistic aspirations--of a community. Such architecture has a role to play, and it is different from the first two. The problem is that most architects only have this last in mind.
MM: It certainly seems reasonable that that latter kind of exuberant sculptural singularity can have its place. But let me see if I can express the concern about the current extreme state of the profession here, and get your reaction.
What worries many people is that this current incarnation of modernism arrogates to itself the exclusive leadership position for all of architecture, and by extension, all of the building culture. This flows from the embrace of post-structuralist theory, in which as you know the artist is to avoid imposing mere socially constructed narrative on others -- an imposition of elitist power – and seek to explore only its deconstruction, as an act of liberation. The self-contradiction of course – the reductio ad absurdum -- is that this itself is an imposed social construction by an elite, the circle of critics and leaders, over all of architecture!
And they have largely achieved that leadership position at this moment, evidenced by what is happening in architecture schools around the country, and what the most fashionable architecture critics are persuading their readers to believe – a kind of fashionable nonsense, in Alan Sokal's memorable phrase. At the same time they have gleefully abdicated their leadership responsibility for the wider building culture. (Remember when New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp said about the crisis of the American suburbs, "you know, who cares?")
And in that position they are fond of making a facile attack on you, Chris, and Leon, as reactionary and irrelevant. Here is Herbert Muschamp again, bashing the lone urban-friendly firm in one of the WTC sets of proposals: "Peterson Littenberg are followers of the reactionary architect Leon Krier, Prince Charles's architectural adviser. With this firm on retainer, we risk seeing all of Manhattan below Canal Street morphing into a cenotaph…"
So the concern is not so much either expression, or tectonics, but once again, scale. That is, that the monstrous conceptual scale these folks want to insert into the urban fabric (and are still managing to do in cities around the world) implies something quite at odds with the mutable, learnable structures you rightly call for. It is something deeply at odds with the new paradigm of biological complexity, and therefore, I would argue, something anti-modern, out of place, out of relevance. A walking corpse that urgently needs burial.
It is a central thesis of this issue that just as science now provides ample evidence for a more human-scale approach to urbanism, it also provides ample evidence for a more human-scale approach to architecture. And this should only make sense, as these are of course only different scales of the human environment. Therefore, can we really afford to look the other way when these rather bizarre deconstructed neo-mod proposals come out (with their bizarre claim to exclusive artistic and political legitimacy); or should we rather gather the ammunition that science has to offer us, and engage their spurious logic? Show that in fact it is they who are mired in the scientific past, of crude statistical methods and mechanics, while we explore the later science of complexity, adaptation and collective intelligence? That science shows us that it is they who are in fact the ones “mired in the past” – and a failed industrial one at that?
Shall we take on "The Empire's New Clothes?"
AD: That is among the things that we must do. Let’s talk about it again.