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Thursday, October 20, 2011

City Design, Urban Design and Architecture

PLEASE NOTE THAT MY PRIMARY SITE IS NOW LOCATED AT “THE BUILT DOMAIN.NET”. A link is provided in the upper right hand corner of the screen.

It is my hope that architecture and urban design will become part of a city design strategy for stability, and that it will be based on the land use allocation of activity and intensity options within a limited Built Domain. Stability is a complex state but a worthy goal. Within cities, it involves shelter, movement, open space and life support systems. These systems attempt to protect our physical, social, psychological and economic health, safety and welfare. Normally, this sentence is disconnected for simplicity, but I’m trying to indicate that we are really attempting to protect: (1) our physical, social, psychological and economic health; (2) our physical, social, psychological and economic safety; and (3) our physical, social, psychological and economic welfare. It is a complex sentence that reflects a complex problem we are only beginning to appreciate, and shelter is an essential ingredient. In effect, the sentence is a question that asks, “Can we protect our physical, social, psychological and economic health, safety and welfare?” There is no answer at the present time, so I’ll call it a “symbiotic goal”. It implies a search for stability that has only been achieved in the uncompromising and flexible world of the Natural Domain. Fortunately, information technology now exists to link the data required for context knowledge and strategic evaluation of the question. Only then will informed city design decisions and compositions emerge to lead urban design and architecture toward a goal that will involve generations.

This should remind us of the Gothic Period. Generations will again be required, but not to build cathedrals. We are now asked to build cities that reflect reverence for a gift we cannot comprehend. The gift is a finite planet we do not own, and whose limits we only came to appreciate on July 20, 1969 at 20:17:38 UTC – the date and time the Symbiotic Period began.

Land use plans have achieved separation with sprawl while failing to produce stability because integrated context knowledge has been impossible to assemble in a reasonable amount of time. Information technology can only assemble relevant data, including context measurement, however. Research evaluation must tell us what activity and intensity combinations mean, and design must evaluate options in relation to the context knowledge acquired. These explanations may give design decisions the credibility they need to proceed toward our symbiotic goal.   

The term “urban design” is a rather ambiguous term. I can still remember my first interview after graduation when an architect asked me, “…what does that mean?” and “…how do you make a living with it?” I think of urban design as an effort to weave shelter, movement, open space, and life support systems into fabric that improves our quality of life within a limited area of a city. I think of city design as urban design for an entire jurisdiction with less emphasis on appearance and more emphasis on composition. It involves an architectural massing plan that emerges from land use allocation and intensity designations. These are arranged for symbiotic stability within a limited Built Domain. It is supported by an information system capable of monitoring success and modifying failure by forecasting options. Decisions will be based on research and knowledge that justifies adjustment.

City design is rarely successful based on popular opinion. The attempt is similar to a military campaign run by civilians using emotion and opinion as a substitute for the intelligence, tools, strategy and tactics that are the heart of any strategic effort.

Tactical efforts without policy, strategy and information produce random collisions across the planet. This is where we are with a host of environmental groups, and this includes architects pursuing energy efficiency. They will all remember this time as their “finest hour” in a confrontation with impossible odds and inadequate information. Once again man must use instinct to respond to threat while mobilizing a more adequate and successful reply based on collaboration and intelligence.

My essay, “The Public Benefit of Architecture”, attempts to illustrate the pitfalls of public opinion and the potential credibility of design advice when it is connected to development capacity forecasts and economic productivity. Advice will only trump opinion when it can prove consistently greater benefit.

The public will continue to believe it can make city planning, city design, urban design and architectural decisions based on popular opinion until we can prove the superiority of professional advice. This will require more knowledge and evidence to defend our logic, imagination and opinions. It sounds like medicine not that long ago.

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