A History Of Future Cities: Mechanism Versus Ecology

28 Apr 2015

During the post war era up to the 1970s there was something of a vogue in the designing of complete cities from the ground up, using “science”.

Now forgotten or derided as brutalist monstrosity, most of these projects have fallen by the wayside. Different trends and more flexible patterns have predominated in architectural thinking and in successful urban applications.

Brutalism was successful enough in some installations to be in use to this day. The more extreme ideas of starting afresh with planned cities that define and lay out the forms and functions, before the first foundations are dug, have had little success.

The industrial era approach of putting a narrative metaphor of the machine age could only carry so far, the analogy of a city as a living ecology has proven to be more apt and effective in understanding the underlying complexity.

 

A History Of Future Cities Mechanism Versus Ecology

 

Assumption Versus Actuality

A fine example of the most idealistic and dreamy of the utopian restarts is the never ending and never completed student project of Arcosanti. The complete communities that were supposed to occupy the forms of Arcosanti would somehow support all of their needs internally.

Planners and designers assumed a perfect understanding of many things, including the behaviour of populations, rational economics and the march of progress. This belief in the rational ability to measure all things and to have true insight has led to many attempts at perfecting civilisation with Utopian design and architecture.

In actuality, the behaviour of communities and economies is complex and chaotic; structures must be dynamic and responsive to the changes in the needs of residents. Human interaction in daily life is a complex web that has implications and feedback that creates both diminishing returns and cascading changes; growth is impossible to predict. Experiments in social housing that rely on the same brutalist assumptions have proven to be pathological failures, riddled with crime and urban decay.

 

The Shock Of The New And The Disappointment

Success has been best achieved in situations where housing shortages created unmet demand. The building of new town settlements has had mixed results. Depending on the ecology of the community that exists around it, a planned city may grow or founder. The key to growth is that there is an edge on which to extend the current form marginally over time.

Towns such as Inala in Queensland or Milton Keynes in the UK may be exceptions that prove the rule. The ability to grow at the margins and adapt to changes in use and occupation are the vital components that move them beyond the planned, rigid ideal. Planning is a required function that matches needs and resources. This works best when there is a critical balance of the structure and chaos that define the ecology of community living. When there is a need where growth can be directed at the margins leadership and direction through planning makes sense.

 

Scratch Built Cities Designed By Science

In utopian idealism there is perhaps a stretch too far. The assumptions are too many and the responsiveness is inadequate. A city must be dynamic and alive, like the coral based ecology of a reef, never too extreme and always based upon the principles of flexibility and responsiveness to the reality that is hidden beneath.

There is a fascination among designers that underpins the desire to start from scratch and build entire cities. It is the same that drives the career of many designers in the field of architecture. One thing that has become clear since the drawings of Arcosanti is that, for flexible and responsive use of the built environment, designers need to approach each project as a modular fit to the context and accept that it will change over time. In any case, the utopian designs of cities that dreamers of ages passed conceived have left us with some breathtaking hand-drawn renderings and perspectives.

 

Staff Contribution | Thought Leadership

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