A Fractal View of Urban Design

Benjamin Wellington reviews a new book by Mark C. Childs, which paints a picture of the city as the product of a complex and highly detailed design hierarchy, from regional topography all the way down to the arrangement of indoor spaces.
July 5, 2012, 2pm PDT | Ryan Lue
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Architecture professor Mark C. Childs sees the city through the lens of the gestalt. For him, no design feature, however large or small, exists in isolation: "settlements are not just the sums of their parts; their poetry and vitality comes from their collective composition – the interactions among multiple designs."

So goes the thesis of his new book, Urban Composition: Developing Community through Design, which explores the interplay of elements at all levels of design. These elements produce not only the physical phenomenon of the city, but an ongoing dialogue of design and creation: "Great places emerge from the concinnity [i.e. harmony] of incremental acts of design. Existing work frames new projects, which in turn inspire future works."

What does all this mean for design professionals? It comes down to context and hierarchy. "A building is more likely to change than the lot boundaries, which are less permanent than the underlying topography. Additionally, a building creates new spaces for interior design, from the division of rooms to the arrangement of furniture. These layers of design define how different design professions interact with each other. The interactions between multiple designers operating at different scales leads to a rich urban composition."

In this narrative, even public art plays a role in the patchwork of the city, subtly influencing the perception and value of landscape architecture. As Wellington concludes, "in the same way that a road layout influences how buildings are shaped, landscape infrastructure frames and guides our built forms."

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Published on Tuesday, July 3, 2012 in THE DIRT
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