"One does not try to arrest chaos but one tries to organize and articulate its complexity" – Patrik Schumacher (Instrumentality)
There has been a contemporary shift from dialectic, euclidean based approaches to urban planning towards a viscous, free-form, and malleable approach, which has formed the current theoretical juncture in architecture. In the 20th century, linear and grid-forms dominated the landscape, with a generation of architects that more or less attempted to rescue the erratic and fragmented urban condition from itself. Theorists like Rowe had apologisms to write to keep modernism afloat, and Urban Planning had some legwork to do to revive society from the war decades. As architects brandished their Rapidographs, many of them sought to find new ways to espouse a personalized modernist agenda, despite it being the furthest thing from what the public actually thought was valuable. With theorists like Rossi and Maki’s claims of “natural” or semi-organic effects being relevant to architecture and planning, like-minded allies Ungers and Koolhaas classified the urban condition as lacking in cohesion. To them, something needed to be “fixed” – so that the Utopian condition could prevail. It never did entirely prevail though – and the implementation of these conditions only reinforced the idea of the gestamtkunstwerk.
Ultimately, the concept of some sort of idealistic cohesion would become the reactionary playground of rogue idealists who would sprout up (such as Schumacher and Lynn) eschewing modernist formality in favor of their fluidean values. Their view of the urban landscape is, not as a canvas, but instead as a topography where possibility may or may not be elicited by the existing urban fabric. To them, urban fabric was permeable, limpid, and incontrovertibly adaptable. Hence, it begs the question – are these fluid ideals as open-ended as they would appear? And if so, how valid are they for the formation of a flexible, useful theorem?
At the core of the fluidean approach is the concept of eschewing discontinuity and conflict. This deeply contrasts the previous generation of architects who were surrounded by conflict - and who therefore assumed that it behooved them to surmount it in some way. This new, deep distrust of conflict is yet another “smoothing” technique (if you will) that prevents any agitating forces from unduly influencing the theoretical recipe. Yet, it would be erroneous to say that the resultant of smoothing is a product that is always entirely wholesome. In other words, the external force of smoothing is one that unconsciously imposes itself in some way on both design and form. It should be clear that in both the euclidean and fluidean approaches that the resultant is always an imposition on the existing condition. The difference lies in whether the imposition recognizes or responds to the surrounding – ie: does it espouse an introverted versus an extroverted mentality? Instead of being fully deterministic, the fluideans have allowed an interpretive approach that they believe can maintain several layers of meaning. It is not irony, kitsch, or austerity that fuels the development of ideas – this was the knee-jerk reaction of post-modernists countering the opaque contemporary ideal – but instead it represents a suppler expression of form.
So, is this new approach truly closer to nirvana than ever before? The deeper strategies that lie behind both approaches can elucidate the advantages: Both Greg Lynn and Patrik Schumacher question the nature of geometry and its relationship to form and planning. Lynn is more concerned with the deformation and compliance of geometry, while Schumacher is interested in a cohesively adaptive complexity. Both of these approaches appear open ended and flexible – they break the 20th century mantra of form / repetition / modularity / consistency and respond to it with variability, adaptation, differentiation, and interdependency. The sensibilities involved are softer, and less exacting, yet they are applied extremely tactically. There is a contrast between anexact geometrical form and the rigorous preciseness with which it is actually applied.
Greg Lynn’s Stranded Sears Tower project is highly representative of this approach. He mentions that the deformations used are not accidental but unpredicted, and that the resulting monument still responds to the river’s edge, the city grid, and vectors of movement around the site. Likewise, Patrik Schumacher’s five points for a new parametricism utilize quite a methodical construct within which to operate. He goes to great lengths to posit his theory as one that is not derived from preexisting design methodologies, specifically pushing himself away from modernism. This is because modernism’s fascination with the grid - and the deformation of it - in his mind, has lost justification within his brand new singularity. With the grid successfully relegated to the sidelines, and other disciplinary targets also brushed aside (form vs function / classicism) Patrik has set himself up as an evangelist who holds the key to aesthetic bliss. He has also laid the terms to justify a kind of formlessness that allows his field theory to propagate itself within many contexts. Ultimately, if the goal of the fluideans was to exploit a loophole so that they could design within a completely free ideal without constraints, then they achieved their goal with almost near perfection.
Returning to the modernists for a moment, we now need to closely examine the perceived constraints that form the basis of the fluidean criticisms. The “maintenance of modern aesthetics”, as Patrik Schumacher refers to it in his Manifesto, is something that holds no place in the new reality. This is, perhaps, a factor of its oversaturation, as well as the (now) near unlimited possibilities inherent in digital design. The works of Koolhaas and Ungers, (both modern theoretical masters) were formed within a highly strategic and controlled model of design. The deconstructivists also used high degrees of precision to form their works – preferring to analyze and compose instead of respond and decompose, like the fluideans. Oddly, it was the PoMo movement that chastised this precision, specifically to endorse their own agenda. (It does not seem like a far stretch to say that Schumacher’s agenda was formed under similar pretenses...)
However, urban theory is more than just architectural theory, so it would be prudent to mention the analytical constructs that they believed or disavowed. Koolhaas, for instance, offers mostly criticisms of the American City in his essays on New York and Atlanta. He sees Manhattan as a “paradigm for the exploitation of congestion” and also “the capital of perpetual crisis”. This is because he is setting up a framework for the reader in which he is going to transcend the crisis and try to explain what is evolving from it. Perhaps the key to his interpretation of New York – is that the division of gridded urban space is both an imposition and a formation of a free market – and the structure of the urban grid actually imbues much more than simply a series of plots. To Koolhaas, the history and bureaucracy of New York are too interesting to allow Manhattan to fail, despite the conflict. His belief in the transformative nature of the grid is both utilitarian and mildly anarchistic.
Koolhaas’s view on Atlanta is slightly different. His assessment is one of a city in decay, disintegrating at the edges because of centrifugal pressures, and losing its center. It is also a biting critique of development, attempting to highlight the dangers of a homogenous approach:
"Very few cities these days are really designed, and that may be partly the problem, the reason why they are so bad. But I would also say that currently we are not really quite capable of conceptualizing cities in a particularly exciting way." – Koolhaas (FastcoDesign)
In the end, Koolhaas much prefers the imposition of the grid, because it folds in an open-ended framework that other failed American cities do not have, and to him, it prevents homogeny. It is interesting to note a contrast here: Koolhaas believes in a system that starts with an order that overrides topography (and ends ultimately in freedom, in his estimation), whereas the fluideans start with an assumed freedom that has certain responsive limitations placed on it, and that ultimately imposes a certain type of free-form dialectical order on a location.
Another 20th Century figure to mention is O.M. Ungers, who I believe actually had a very prescient and lasting assessment of the state of urban design during his time. Ungers was afraid of the traditional “places” within cities dissolving into a system of “data”. He also believed urban systems were “doomed to failure” because of their reliance on thesis. To him, speculation about the future was a useless and pointless exercise for urban planners. His realization in The Dialectic City that “idealism” cannot be effectively disseminated via urban systems still seems to hold validity today. Too many political / monetary / civil issues exist to say that one urban system would be paramount over others. Ungers also found a value in the ideal of “complement” instead of unification – he believed in the power of the grid, but he placed most of his belief in the layers and infrastructure of the city, which he said “transform chaos into order while retaining and even increasing the high level of urban complexity”. In a way, this sounds suspiciously similar to one of the current mantras of Patrik Schumacher.