The Emergent City?

This week, we embark on a new design project in studio. The project will become a primitive dwelling, the architecture should respond to the human body in an essential way, the detailing should be drawn from precedents, and the design should be at least somewhat computational, based on variable parameters. The program is straightforward, which means we’re expected to invest heavily in the theoretical argument. Today I’m focused on research, an attempt to find that argument.

On friday, we were given a grab bag of ideas and individuals, as a starting point: Body measurement, anthropometry, chronophotography, Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, Eadweard Muybridge, Etienne-Jules Marey, Harold Edgerton, Henrey Dreyfuss, Frederick Kiesler, SHoP, Bill Massie, Office Da, Ali Rahim, NOX, Lynn, UN Studio, Dagmar Richter, dECOi, Loie Fuller, William Forscythe, Serialists, John Cage, Stockhausen, emergence, cloud phenomena, crowds, field conditions, D’Arcy Thompson, cellular automata, the game of life, etc.

With those topics, our recent discussions (about computer modeling as a design tool, parametric design as a method, and the cultural implications of digitization) and my own recent reading list (Fernand Braudel’s Civilization and Capitalism, Manuel DeLanda’s A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History, Bertrand Russel’s A History of Western Philosophy), I’m starting to get a vague sense of what the project could really be about.

A few years ago, I bought Steven Wolfram’s A New Kind Of Science. Though he never explicitly states this, the intent of the book is apparently to demonstrate that the basic processes of nature consist of limited kinds of structures and operate by simple rules. All complexity arises as an emergent behavior. Consider that molecules can only combine in certain ways, based on their structure. In a primorrdial stew, there is therefore a limited number of possible combinations of molecules, some of which are self-replicating due to their physical form. These self-replicating molecules are then subject to generational variation, natural selection, and evolution. From the simple structure of atoms, and simple rules for their combination, all the complexity of life emerges.

From DeLanda, consider cities and urbanization as an emergent behavior of large populations. Their complexity arises from simple interactions between individuals. If we begin to sketch a Deluezean abstract machine for the emergent city, the diagram might look strikingly like a cellular automata graph.

If we combine the thought of Wolfram and DeLanda, we almost arrive at a new materialist philosophy. We can attempt to explain the structure of reality by looking at materials and flows, without resorting to metaphor.

Unfortunately, it is difficult (and pointless?) to translate this line of inquiry into architectural form.

More later.


  • Anonymous

    hI, Im writting to you from Barcelona, Im taking a master course and our firtst porject is to develope a sustainable city in Mauritania, we are also considering the fact of creating an emergent city and trying to apply parametric design during the porcess, the problem is that Im not very familiar with that design process, do you have any information or recomendation about this. If so, please send me an email at:

    thanks a lot.

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