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Toward a Science -- and Art -- of Better Places

The challenge for architecture is to be more firmly rooted in the real patterns of human activity. Michael Mehaffy reports on the 'New Science, New Architecture' Conference in London.
October 11, 2004, 12am PDT | Michael Mehaffy
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 Michael MehaffyA conference of leading scientists and architectural theorists in London has concluded that the so-called "new sciences" of organised complexity do not suggest a great need for more blobs, terrafolds, Bilbao-style computer forms or other innovative new styles in architecture. Rather, they remind us that to meet the challenges of the future, architecture must be more firmly rooted in the real patterns of human activity.

The new sciences also offer promising new ideas and tools to improve the quality and sustainability of the human environment.

George Ferguson, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, gave the introduction to the conference, held at The Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment. He called for a broader leadership role for architects in meeting the challenges of the urban future. He welcomed a "new conversation" between science and architecture -- not aimed at creating ever more dazzling technological solutions, but rather at understanding the patterns that work and don't work in our cities and towns, in order to improve them.

"What I believe in most strongly," said Ferguson, "is that we should move forward with a much more thoughtful, analytical way of doing things. We have too often leapt into inspired solutions that have fallen flat on their face in only a few years. And an awful lot of what has happened in this country post 1945 comes under that description."

He described fascinating new work in the neurosciences to understand how humans perceive beauty. "I think the more we can uses science to prove to the politicians, and to all of us, that there is a real tangible benefit to creating beautiful places, then I think the closer we will be to stop messing about with failed experiments. I think it is failed experiments that we have been suffering from for an awful long time."

Brian Goodwin, a prominent biologist and former board member of the Santa Fe Institute for the Study of Complexity, pointed out that the new biology offers important lessons about how human building can integrate into the natural ecology. He noted that science can use a number of analytic and cognitive tools to identify quality in the built environment.

Philip Ball, Consultant Editor of the journal Nature, discussed the role of science in architecture and urban planning. He described what he called a "physics of societies," showing how patterns of movement and activity can inform a more robust approach to planning and architecture.

Bill Hillier, Professor of Urban and Architectural Morphology at University College London, picked up that theme and described his extensive work in the morphology of movement patterns. His scientific analysis of the patterns of movement around Trafalgar Square in London's heart, for example, informed the recent redesign that has resulted in a 16-fold increase in use of the popular and thriving square.

Hillier believes there is great potential for the regeneration of other places using such methods. "We have to internalise this knowledge as designers, and try to, if you like, utilise the inevitable self-organisation potential of cities."

Hillier noted that the making of cities is both fully an art and fully a science. "The art of urban design, as I firmly believe it to be, does rest on the foundation of the science of space."

Charles Jencks, pioneer of postmodern thought in architecture, described a new "creation myth" coming from the new cosmological insights of science, and reflected in the new iconic architecture. He sees this as the beginning of a "new paradigm" in architecture. But he noted that the new architecture today is severely limited by the increasingly global corporate economy in which it operates, and that it is therefore increasingly remote from the local problems and challenges in much of the built environment today. He agreed with other panellists that the leading architecture has become a narrow fine art of "50 people building for 5,000 people around the world."

Other panellists joined in the critique of a global "novelty architecture" that has increasingly become a marketing arm of globalisation, while increasingly ignoring local needs and complex characteristics. Several speakers reminded the audience of the pioneering work of Jane Jacobs, who criticised the architectural and planning approach of the day, and described the need for new scientific models for understanding and acting upon cities.

Brian Hanson, architectural historian at London University, presented the recent work of the legendary architect and theorist Christopher Alexander. Hanson argued that Alexander incorporates and extends the lessons of "organised complexity" going back to other pioneers like Jane Jacobs, and he uses these lessons not for exuberant artistic expression, but to improve the real quality of the human environment. His new magnum opus, The Nature of Order, argues that order in architecture does not have to imply top-down political authority, but can "emerge" from the grass-roots acts of many individuals in a building culture. His argument is firmly rooted in insights of the so-called "new sciences" of complexity. Examples of his work show the successful results of this process in projects from the USA, Europe, Central America and Asia.

Alexander also co-lead a "master class" on the detailed ideas of the new book, and his pioneering scientific work in architecture stretching over 40 years. He also described fascinating recent work in a new generation of so-called "dynamic coding." The master class was attended by planners, architects and PhD students from the UK, Norway, Germany, France, the USA and Australia.

A companion website for the conference is operated by the journal Katarxis, at A discussion forum is included at that website, and contributions are welcome. Proceedings of the conference are expected to be available through the Foundation in the spring.

The current series of conferences and master classes at the Foundation continues through Spring 2005, with upcoming topics in heritage regeneration, human health and the built environment, local identity and the economics of building production, and other topics. Partners in the series include the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, English Partnerships, English Heritage, and other leading agencies, research and policy organisations, and academic institutions. More information is available on the Foundation's website at

Michael Mehaffy is Director of Education for The Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment in London, UK, and president of Structura Naturalis Inc. He has written and lectured on sustainable development in the US and Europe, and has served as project manager or consultant for a number of prominent urban design projects.

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