Could Fractals Provide the Secret to Designing Optimal Cities?

Michael Mehaffy and Nikos Salingaros explore the application of fractal structures to the design of the built environment, and why they believe they hold the key to improving our understanding of and appreciation for our cities.
May 30, 2012, 7am PDT | Jonathan Nettler | @nettsj
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Simply defined, fractals repeat a similar geometric pattern in many different sizes. They can be found almost everywhere in nature: "in the graceful repetition at different scales of the fronds of ferns, or the branching patterns of veins, or the more random-appearing (but repetitive at different scales) patterns of clouds or coastlines," and humans appear hard wired to "read" fractals in our environment, write Mehaffy and Salingaros.

So why is this biological trait of importance to designers and planners? The authors argue that the visionaries of modern architecture, including Le Corbusier and Adolf Loos, stripped away ornamentation and differentiation in design to the detriment of our unconscious understanding and enjoyment of the built environment.

"To put it simply, our current methods of making cities are over-reliant on economies of repetition and scale, which do offer narrow advantages but are also extremely limited, and from a human perspective, very crude and destructive. Natural systems never use those strategies in isolation, but are always combined with economies of differentiation and adaptation."

"In this ideologically driven design movement, we have come to accept the incorrect idea that fractals are somehow primitive, whereas smooth, undifferentiated 'Platonic' forms are 'modern' and sophisticated. Ironically, the opposite is the case: The most advanced theories of today's science are all about complexity, differentiation, networks, and fractals - a dramatic contrast with the straight, smooth industrial geometries of early modernism."

"Recognizing this, many architects and urban designers are speaking in terms of fractals, scaling laws, and "morphogenetic design." But the question remains: Are these individuals really engaging such principles to create human-adaptive structure? Or are they only using them to create attention-getting aesthetic schemes, tacked onto what is essentially the same failing industrial model of design? These questions are at the heart of the debate on the future of the built environment."

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Published on Monday, May 28, 2012 in Metropolis POV Blog
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