notes on complex urbanism

February 3, 2010

Couple of notes on Andrew Benjamin’s complex urbanism which he presented in a most articulate manner yesterday. Chimes with conversations that I seem to have on a recurring basis with an architect friend about the implications of constitutive networks around built projects. He calls it planning, but I want to disassociate the kind of ideological implications associated with urban planning, moving towards a concept of network as informative relational framework with the double articulation of theoretical and material influence. In other words – wondering whether it’s possible to build out of a network? So that individual buildings, and we can think of examples of social condensers and projects designed to change ethical and social relations, are informed as much by the environment they sit in – indeed, not even immediate environment but wider infrastructural provision – as the design elements that exist in them.

Firstly, by way of context, this here article on the Burj Khalifa (the idea that you can watch the sunset twice still holds some bizarre romanticism for me), which nicely illustrates the ‘jewel in mud’ problem – in Benjamin’s terms – that consists in the delinking of building from environment. Or, in theoretical mode that was stressed as the analytic core of the formulation on complex urbanism, construction without analysis of the environment in which it sits.

Benjamin stresses that his formula for complex urbanism consists in the integration of potentiality, the possibility of unforeseen potential, into the urban environment. What’s meant by this within the constraints of a planning configured as a re-regulation, he illustrated with the formula x + y = x + y + z. The idea being that planning consists in the integration of elements that will give you more (unplanned potential) than what you had in the first place. It’s an additive problem that Benjamin constructs as addition. Simply, that if you add something, it is additive. Tautology sure, but the abstract nature of the term is derived from a couple of initial steps that I’ll mention subsequently. The z then, is the representation of the unknown or unplanned consequence of the additive process. It’s a way of modelling unforeseen outcomes by way of allowing them space: a prior acceptance of the consequences of allowing for unpredictable consequence.

What’s derived from the inclusion of the unpredictable is the widening of the scope of architectural practice as both transformative and analytic tool. Not a acquiescence to planning as a mode of control aligned with pre-existing built logics, but planning as the analytical pursuit of a wider consequential mapping of the results of construction, with the all important embrace of the potentiality of the unpredictable included in.

Underpinning the additive formula, is I think, the unspoken assumption that the outcome of the z – the unpredictable – is positive. What’s interesting here is that Benjamin did some preliminary work on arguing that his conception of human being consisted in the being of human placed, that is, expanded in his ‘ecology of relations’, humans being within relation to other humans. They are then, existing within relational networks. This is abstract, and he concedes it as abstract, but is done in order to reach some kind of non-normative starting point out of which to build a conception of human, human environment, and an ethics deriving from a shared conception of commonality. However, the non-development of an ethical system has implications for the embrace of the potentiality of the unpredictable precisely because without the political and ethical framework built from, as opposed to imported onto, the idea of human as placed, the outcome of the unpredictable simply is.

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