Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Discussion of the Week: SimpliCity vs. ComplexCity

One of our primary interests here at _URB_ is fostering discussion on issues relevant to urbanism and its related fields: architecture, landscape, and design. To help facilitate a more discursive atmosphere we are starting a new section featuring discussion topics that will be open to debate for one week. Please check in at the beginning of each week for the new topic. Also, if you have topic suggestions please do not hesitate to contact us.

Topic #1: SimpliCity vs. ComplexCity
The first topic that we would like to bring up for discussion is a debate between complexity and simplicity in the city. From the early moments of Postmodernism complexity has been celebrated as a worthwhile objective in both architecture and urbanism while the seemingly simplistic nature of the urban plans of the Modernists was vilified. Prior to Postmodernism the dissatisfaction with Modernist urban planning dogma had been growing for some time and is best exemplified in popular culture by the films of Jacques Tati such as Playtime and Mon Oncle. (1) In architecture the first signs of discontent began with the Team X group but it was perhaps not until Venturi first uttered the phrase “Less is a Bore” in Complexity and Contradiction that the floodgates of dissension were fully unlocked. Thus began what can beset be described as a disciplinarian full-court press in pursuit of the proper form of complexity that could overcome the damage that the elementarist attitude of the Modernists. (2) Rowe and Koetter’s Collage City, the research into the signs and systems of the ‘ordinary and ugly’ of Venturi and Scott Brown, the indexical mappings of Eisenman, the overlapping grids and fragmentation of deconstruction, and the montagic operations of Koolhaas/OMA were all attempts to imbue urbanism with the plurality, density, and ultimately the complexity that was determined missing from the Modernist City.

Over the last few years a new approach has developed, which is even known as the ‘Complexity Project.’ The complexity project’s most internationally recognized practitioners would be Hadid and Schumacher, but the group also includes firms such as Reiser + Umemoto (RUR), UN Studio, FOA, and countless other young practitioners. It is primarily associated with schools such as the AA in London (the DRL, EmTech, and Landscape Urbanism units in particular), Columbia University in New York, and the Angewandte in Vienna. In other words there is a tremendous amount of research and intellectual resources devoted to the Complexity Project.

The Complexity Project’s theory is based on a scientific understanding of complexity and is therefore related to computational, algorithmic, behavioral, and systems based approaches and ideas of emergence and self-organization. The complexity project is characterized by the use of advanced geometries such as Voronoi and Delaunay scripts; parametric software and the use of associative geometry are used to create fluid forms; and computational logics are used to digest massive amounts of information.

With these techniques they claim to trump both the mechanical approach of the Modernists and Postmodern’s rudimentary attempts at complexity. RUR claim that collage is the “accumulation of the merely different” and reject it in favor of “progressive differentiation” in their search for a “new conception of the universal.” This approach pushes for systems of variation rather than systems of variety. Hadid and Schumacher promote the concept of Parametric Urbanism and have developed techniques such as soft grids, fields, and pliant surfaces as a way to bring added richness to the city, although their strictly formal approach can be argued as not adequately contending with the real complexity of the city.

Recently I have been wondering if the Complexity Project is the appropriate response to the already overwhelming complexity of the contemporary metropolis. I wonder if we as designers should not be developing strategies to make them less overwhelming and more comprehensible. Using John Maeda’s concept of simplicity I wonder if we can come up with an idea for the SimpliCity. Recently there has been a backlash of sorts in response to the ComplexCity project. Some people argue that the diagrammatic fluidity of some of their projects belie a paradoxical lack of flexibility in the final fom--in it's use and adaptability. Groups like Dogma in Europe have been arguing for more formal autonomy and strong, identifiable geometry. This might be an initial way of understanding what the SimpliCity could be. I would also like to point out the progress of product design towards simpler interfaces and minimal design, Apple’s iPod being the perfect example (or think of virtually any Apple product compared to their competitors). In pop culture we might look to the evolution of the robot as demonstrated by Wall-E and Eva.

So now I would like to ask all of you, what do you think of the idea of the SimpliCity? What would it be? How would it operate? Would it create a desirable city or is the notion of complexity more appropriate for unleashing the potential of the city? How can we utilize simplicity without falling in the same traps as the early modernists?

In addition to these questions I am also providing some images below for visual stimulation. I cannot wait to hear what you all have to say!

1. Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities is obviously another example.
2. Best described in the first chapter of Reyner Banham's Theory and Design in the First Machine Age.


Dave Brown said...

so, to break the ice, i'll throw out a couple of things.

first, one thing i keep thinking about is new york--how the grid is on one hand very simple--the most basic repetitive grid iron. But it sets up a framework for complexity to happen within it. Also, through subtle variation between the dimension of streets and avenues it anticipates certain types and scales of development to happen within it.

Second, someone over at archinect mentioned the idea of simplexity, which they describe as "a fellow lecturer calls it simplexity...the balancing act of the simple/complex in a singular environment." This is a really interesting way to think about the subject.

Mark Collins said...

But what would New York City be without Broadway, the main ingredient in the complexification of the grid? Its the most productive of all NYC's urban features, cutting a slight diagonal, implicitly creating small and large parks, corner properties, vast intersections and of course embedding differentiation into the property values of those self-similar blocks. I think one of the main trend lines through what you call the 'complexity' project is the desire to produce space that is as qualitatively diverse (not to mention quantitatively) as a city 'needs'. Its an acknowledgement that we shouldn't try to 'script' life too 'minimally' - to the contrary of how most perceive algorithmic work, it is not aiming to statically fix life but to form correspondences with a plural and temporal set of agencies - to make 'robust', not just complex!

Anonymous said...

i was just wondering about the idea of simplicity and completxity in terms of how we visualise the city to be, as well as how we navigate/orientate ourselves within the city.

a grided city like new york will definitely be easier to navigate/orientate around as the grids provide an easier understanding of the roads and networks, regardless of the complexity that is within simplicity.

a organic network like that of singapore (my hometown) is much harder to navigate as the road networks grow out like branches as and when they are needed or when the demand is there.

so i think the degree of complexity/simplicity largely depends on our ability to visualise the city. of course a simple city, in a form of a grid, will enable easier planning of route networks, etc. it could be complex, but that is how much detail we are willing to know about the city.

back to the question, simplicity does help in urban planning, but complexity is up to how the people visualise the city to be.

just my 2 cents, not sure if i am right. cheers