[editor’s note: This article was originally posted at Medium.com, and republished with permission of the author, Zachary Caceres. Below are links to some of the Free Market Urbanism writings and speaking of Patrik Schumacher, Partner at Zaha Hadid Architects. Schumacher’s writing is often too dense for me to parse, but Caceres does a great job of breaking it down.]
The Bottom-Up Urbanism of Patrik Schumacher
What is the “Radical Free Market Urbanism” of Patrik Schumacher? Here’s his deal as I understand it, gleaned from reading Schumacher’s nearly impenetrable essays.
Schumacher believes that architecture and urban design is at a crossroads. The styles that animated the mid-20th century are dead, because they depended too much on central planning (the sort of zoning and design that Jane Jacobs hated).
Modernism is dead and was the last truly coherent architectural design philosophy or style. But postmodernism isn’t really anything. He calls it the ‘garbage spill’ approach to urban design—where anything goes in such a way that you get an incoherent sprawling mess. Many modern American cities are like a Frankenstein of awful central planning and unstructured garbage spill.
So he proposes Parametric Design, a new—and to Schumacher—coherent 21st century design style. Parametricism is a conscious adaptation of insights from complex systems theory to design. Fundamentally, parametric design is like a fusion of agent-based modeling with complex computation enabled by computers. These models are about tying elements together rather than imposing a vision from above.
With so many linked dependent variables, the design takes on qualitatively different forms as you manipulate the independent variables. It’s like ‘emergence’ in biological systems.
Parametric design makes plans easily editable and manipulable even after construction has begun. It can also link untraditional data to design variables, like the heat map of the sun rays over a city. The heat map could then be used to determine height restrictions in a way that channeled sunlight throughout the design.
Schumacher consistently calls Parametric Design a “radical free-market urbanism.” He understands at a deep level the epistemological risks of central planning and why excessive planning is a failed paradigm.
Markets and open exchange are a ‘robust information processing system’—the best that humans have yet found. Cities are also ultimately about structuring information. The built environment embodies generations of lessons learned by humanity, the evolution of a community reflected in its roads and walls, and the deliberate structuring of human affairs through architecture.
The “Postfordist network economy”, as Schumacher calls the 21st century, is all about dense communication webs. Digital technologies go a long way to connect us, but there will forever be demand for built environments that also densify human connection. Schumacher believes the job of the visionary architect is to design such environments.
Despite the free-market language of Schumacher, he rejects the idea of planning of all by all. This is the garbage spill. By analogy, you might think of the garbage spill as an unsophisticated libertarianism that imagines every man a sovereign entity that must independently contract for all services/rights/protections.
The secret for Schumacher is to have an overarching urban design via parametricism that creates the constraints necessary for successful ‘unplanned’ market urbanism to take place.
Anyone familiar with complex systems can see the connection here. Emergence demands constraints on the agents in a system. A well-functioning market requires laws and regulations that enable social cooperation. A well-functioning urban environment requires a parametric frame to allow ‘radical free-market urbanism’ to occur.
I find Schumacher’s arguments compelling. Economics is undergoing a similar shift from a quasi-Newtonian reductionism to complexity and emergence via the work of places like Santa Fe Institute. Physics is already well on its way and there are signs that political science and law could go that way too, with people like Oliver Goodenough successfully modeling contracts as a computational system. So why not architecture as well?
Perhaps complexity will eventually eat everything. We will see the primary job of human beings as finding ways to structure our environment—legally, architecturally, politically—so that we allow for positive complex emergence, dense connections, and social cooperation.