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Book review: Cities and Forms

Cities and Forms by Serge Salat in collaboration with Francoise Labbe and Caroline Nowacki, published by Hermann Editeurs des Sciences et des Arts

Book review by: Fanis Grammenos and Woytek Kujawski

A compelling new book from  architect and planner Serge Salat sets out on a daunting mission to determining the ideal form for the sustainable cities of the future. Fanis Grammenos and Woytek Kujawski assess whether “Cities and Forms” hits its intended mark, and describe why this tome could soon become a central piece of the urban planning canon.

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“No theory can define a city form sufficiently complex to meet the current challenges of urbanization.”

These words come from a rare synthesis of history, theory and design about cities  by Serge Salat, a researcher, planner, architect and artist. This work could soon belong to the list of classic reference works on urban planning for many reasons:

First, for its bold philosophical bend. Few earlier and even fewer current works attempt to explain the structure of observable city form using a theoretical model. Salat’s book sets out on a formidable challenge by looking at cities beyond their surface to reveal their formative rules.

Leaf Circulation System Structure

  Caption: The leaf and its fractal network of veins permeates Salat’s book as a metaphor for city structure.

Second, for its immense scope. It analyses, critically evaluates, and sums up centuries of urban thinking, traces the history and evolution of several cities around the globe, and correlates their physical form to the ideas and forces that shaped them. Its eight parts and thirty chapters span the gamut from the highly theoretical to the exceedingly practical, completing a circle not usually attempted in other studies.

Third, for its introduction of innovative city-form metrics. Eulogies have been written about certain cities (and condemnations  of others) before, but rarely are we given to understand what lies behind their attraction, what elements sustain their magnetism. The section on Assessing Urban Forms goes beyond simply describing the “the good city form”, to measuring it, by summing up previous discussions on city morphology and distilling them into several  ready-to-use formulas.

Fourth, for its many exquisite illustrations that, not only enhance the understanding of the text, but often are the text, fully explanatory of an idea in themselves.

The book sets out to accomplish an ambitious goal: to find the means of addressing what the author presents as fundamental issues, or flaws, of cities in their current state. At the intersection of the natural and man-made laws governing urban forms, and the city as-built, the author hopes to identify formal “anomalies” to which current city issues can be attributed. The list of problematic conditions includes connectivity, scale, gaps, ugliness, inhumanity, energy use, and, on the theoretical level the impact of “modernism” personified by Le Corbusier. The task of uniting all aspects under one theory is daunting, if not impossible, and as the author recognizes: “No theory can define a city form sufficiently complex to meet the current challenges of urbanization.”

Undaunted, he takes on this pioneering, massive challenge. As with all truly path-breaking works, the book sets up a direction, and opens up new vistas for exploration and, at the same time, raises new questions. As such, it is a work in progress, and further exploration in the following areas would strengthen this new approach and magnify its potential influence.

Connectivity

The author sees lack of connectivity between cities and people as a major current issue. The author describes the superior connectivity of historical cities where social and physical connectivity was synonymous. If connectivity is understood as primarily social, the means for enabling it must be considered in tandem with its prevalence. Modern technologies allow connectivity to escape its original physical space bounds, suggesting that the metrics for connectivity could be extended to include “social connectivity” provided by media such as television, telephone, and the Internet.

Were the metrics to be extended, one might discover that contemporary cities are far more connected than their predecessors, both in space and time,when connectivity is seen as social and its outcome as “social capital”.  Revisiting “connectivity” is one intellectual challenge the new paradigm poses that could be addressed by a future piece; a sequel, perhaps.

City as a Fractal  Structure

A second issue, that the book tries to produce answers to, relates to the overall conception of a city as an artifact that exhibits coherence and, through it, harmony and meaning.

The book reiterates the presence of fractal order in organisms and posits that such order is a fundamental prerequisite for a well functioning city. The leaf metaphor is juxtaposed with a tree and both are compared conceptually to a city’s street network. Some cities, or parts of them, are leaf like, while others are dendrite.  The implication is that the former are “good” because they display universal organic principles and the latter could be dysfunctional. This presumption of quality runs into difficulties when the case of Haussmann’s intervention in Paris is presented as  a contribution to the improvement of the city. Haussmann worked on a medieval city that had grown organically over centuries, a process that in fractal theory should naturally lead to a fully functional form at all levels; an “organic” city. Yet it was Haussmann’s surgery that rendered its street network “organic” in its distribution of sizes and lengths; a logical puzzle. However, the analysis of fractal order in selected cities is confined to their old parts and does not extend to the new areas such as suburban Paris, Prague, Rio de Janeiro or Barcelona. Were these areas to be included, the result might show a thick borderline between “conventional” fractal and chaotic. Conceivably, they may also be fractal, but with distinctly different dimensions. Such analysis may answer the question, for example, whether the Parisian suburbs are in fact an organic fractal growth added to the thousand-year old city or not. If not, then they must find a new theoretical classification that integrates them into the body of the city of which they are parts.

Paris Metro Subway System by the year 1970 Connecting daily millions of people within a 5 km radius, these boulevards, unimaginable by Haussmann, are not counted in the “connectivity” of   city form. Note their organic, piecemeal growth, far from a rational engineering diagram.

Modernism

While reading the book it is hard to miss the frequent polemical tone which contrasts sharply with the general scientific, academic (and sometimes poetic) language. Its target is Modernism and the assault is relentless. As a didactic tool to prevent a repetition of the movement’s alleged sterility is welcome.  However, Modernism has been discredited and derided extensively and no one is currently practicing or defending “Modernism” as according to Jencks’s (1973). It’s hard to escape the impression of a personal anti-modernism bend; however, the reason for such passionate attack is not readily obvious.

Conclusion

 This volume is a unique contribution to the planning literature for its new perspective, its depth and the weaving of many strands of science, art, history and sociology into a complete tapestry.  The author has attempted a synthesis of diverse disciplines to create a book on city planning that belongs both in the classroom and on the practitioner’s desk.

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Fanis Grammenos is a principal of Urban Pattern Associates and was a Senior Researcher at Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation for over 20 years. He focused on housing affordability, building adaptability, municipal regulations, sustainable development and, recently, on street network patterns that lead to the Fused Grid model. Prior to that he was a housing developer. He holds a degree in Architecture from the U of Waterloo.

Woytek Kujawski  is a Senior Researcher at Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, an Architect Certified as LEED AP and a member of International Initiative for a Sustainable Built Environment. His areas of expertise cover Green Building construction and Sustainable development.

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