Friday, May 30, 2008


The presence of universal principles in the building of the city is an undeniable fact. Despite the constant attacks by a flock of disconnected modernists, these principles cannot be outdated, replaced, or superseded. Traditional cities and architecture are not the result of dogmas or outmoded doctrines but the outcome of years of human experience attempting to find connections between the order of nature, our human bodies, and our minds.

Unlike the intellectual simplicity and spatial bankruptcy of the so-called “modernist cities”, traditional cities and architecture are timeless and legitimated by proven anthropological rules. Our defense mechanisms and our subconscious minds trigger convoluted chemical reactions when we experience one or the other; in the presence of utter simplicity, our brains initiate feelings of loss, fear and horror; in the presence of complexity and fractal information, we are prompted to feel interest, find peace and reach happiness.

Humans instinctively recognize what feels and looks natural, and react accordingly. We can hardly examine different city plans without realizing that despite their many differences, they fall into two broad categories: the regular and the irregular –or what Unwin and Parker called “formal and informal beauty”.

In spite of what we are set to believe by the Ivy League mob, neither regular nor irregular plans represent a particular modernist or traditional practice. The sensible beauty of places where building frontages are not straight, roads do not meet at square angles, or views are not symmetrical is undeniable; and, so is the graciousness of those formal parts of Paris, Nancy or Washington D.C.

A formal setting is a product of the mind; an informal setting is a product of our human experience. A formal plan requires a grand vision advocated by a leader with a lot of clout; an informal plan is an evolving act composed of many incremental decisions taken in-situ. Formal beauty is man-made and requires maintenance, management, and surveillance; informal beauty is natural, care free and the product of ordinary judgments.

We shall be wise to avoid dogmatizing on the reasons why one is better than the other; in truth, some designers may lean to one side, and some to the other. Most importantly, we must keep in touch with the actual requirements of our commissions, the practical manners in which they need to be solved, and the obvious needs of those who will dwell in our projects.

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