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A New Theory of Urban Design 2009/12/09

Posted by Patrick in Urban Design.
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A New Theory of Urban Design, by Christopher Alexander, Hajo Neis, Artemis Anninou, and Ingrid King (1987)

A New Theory of Urban Design is the sixth of seven books published by Christopher Alexander and The Center for Environmental Structure describing a new view of planning and architecture that attempts to revive the organic processes that once formed cities. Each volume in the series expands Alexander’s belief that cities should seek “wholeness,” the sense of oneness exuded by organic cities and biological organisms. This volume briefly summarizes his approach to urban design and describes an experiment conducted to test his approach.

A whole city, according to Alexander, grows incrementally and is unpredictable, coherent, and full of feeling. Alexander describes wholeness more fully in other volumes, but illustrates it he with several diagrams of cities that grew organically, such as Amsterdam. He then attempts to determine what sort of process might give wholeness to a town. He first proposes one overriding rule: Every increment of construction must be made in such a way as to heal the city. That is, “Every new act of construction has just one basic obligation: it must create a continuous structure of wholes around it.” This rule is intended to guide all development in the city.

Alexander then expands the overriding rule to form “seven detailed rules of growth.” These are:

  1. Piecemeal growth: Growth should occur incrementally.
  2. The growth of larger wholes: Each increment of growth should help form larger centers.
  3. Visions: Proposed growth must be experienced and expressed as a vision.
  4. Positive urban space: Buildings must create coherent adjacent public space.
  5. Layout of large buildings: The layout of a building should be coherent with with building’s overall position.
  6. Construction: The structure of every building must generate smaller wholes within itself.
  7. Formation of centers: Every whole must be a center in itself and must also provide a system of centers around it.

The remainder of the book describes an experiment performed to test the use of the rules as a process for developing cities. The authors chose a 30 acre site immediately north of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco and constructed a model of the existing conditions. They then recruited 18 graduate students from UC Berkeley to play the role of developers and community groups proposing new development over the course of a simulated five years. A committee of the authors reviewed each new proposal. After their approval, a model of the proposal was constructed and placed on the existing scale model. The book discusses each of the 90 separate proposals, ranging from large (a midrise commercial building complex) to small (bollards in a public square).

Alexander then evaluates the process’s use in producing coherent urban form. He considers it an overall success, but also proposes several modifications to individual rules. He notes, finally, that the present state of zoning and development are incompatible with the production of coherent cities.

A New Theory of Urban Design makes no attempt to convince the reader of the necessity of promoting organic form in cities. Alexander does not explain how the “wholeness” exuded by organic cities improves the lives of residents or makes the city better. Alexander’s argument in this book is limited to displaying pictures of organic cities and apparently asking the reader to infer their superiority. Presumably the other volumes make an argument for promoting organic form in the development of cities. Furthermore, the practical applicability of the book is unclear. Alexander’s rules are intended to guide the design process, a much more flexible process than the standard process planners use to approve or deny permits. Planners would have to greatly modify the rules before they could be used to regulate new development.

The process explained in this book also fails to deal with urban design problems beyond the scale of a redevelopment project. The most notable example of this failure is the Embarcadero Freeway that stands prominently in the project site. Only two years after the book was published, the freeway was damaged in an earthquake and subsequently replaced with an at-grade boulevard. Alexander didn’t question the necessity of the freeway at all.

This book is not intended to stand without the other books in the series. In particular, The Timeless Way of Building explains Alexander’s concept of “wholeness.” A New Theory of Urban Design is intended merely to propose and test a new way of designing urban space for architects. Like many projects emerging from architecture schools, it is somewhat impractical and it limits its scope to architecture alone. However, the book succeeds in briefly presenting a new concept for thinking about urban redevelopment and organic form. Despite its limited scope, it is well-written, beautifully illustrated, and a fascinating read. I recommend it.

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