Friday, March 8, 2013

What is the Prime Directive?

I was going to post a great big thing about this one particular slide that I have, that I literally could probably show only it, and still talk for an hour.  As you'll see, it is loaded down with information in itself:















It's full of animations and layers that reveal themselves then pile on as I walk through them, so it's a bit overwhelming to get all of that information at once rather than sequentially.  It's predicated on the science of complex systems and that cities are emergent systems where the most visual things we touch and feel are little more than a by-product of the underlying processes and dynamics.

In Kunstler's latest piece he gets at this notion of complexity, self-organization and our misunderstanding of the processes of cities in his latest piece at peakprosperity:

When you show a photo to any random audience of Americans of some ghastly boulevard of strip malls and big box stores, with the many layers of incoherent signage, and ask them what’s wrong with the picture, they always say every place is the same as every other place… it’s all the same! That is their chief complaint, and it is off the mark. They don’t get it, really.
There are many places and things in the built-by-humans world that are characterized by uniformity or sameness. To the casual observer, the ancient hill towns of Tuscany look virtually identical from 500 meters distance. Montepulciano and Pienza might be as hard to tell apart for the average American tourist as a WalMart in Hackensack from a WalMart in Oxnard. But you will hear very few complaints from tourists about thesameness of the design scheme in the Italian villages – the red tile rooftops on every building, the narrow, twisting streets, the stuccoed masonry walls, the casement windows with their functional shutters, etc. Few American tourists return from Paris grousing that the boulevards were monotonous and gave them a headache.

The two divergent examples he gives are exactly what I'm showing on the slide.  That there are two different operating systems or 'prime directives' governing these two disparate types of places.  But the processes within are the same.  In other words, the hardware running the software is the same, but the software then produces two different outcomes.

The Prime Directive, or PURPOSE, loosely governs the millions and millions and billions of decision making, when in totality, produces a higher ordered system, emergence, self-organization, and complexity.  But with two different directives, you get two totally different physical forms and private land/business responses, thus two different types of cities.  City and Anti-city in Mumford's terminology.

When cities are built with the Prime Directive of "improved quality of life through social and economic exchange' you get one kind of city.  Well, THE kind of city.  A functional city.  When that is the PURPOSE of city building, the response is generative.  Rather than codes and review boards and design panels and city councils and planning commissions pouring over every single ridiculously minute detail, the process of city building naturally produces what we know as urbanism.

When that PURPOSE was replaced with "must move cars shutup must move cars fast shutup must move cars shutup your point about livability is invalid must move cars," the by-product is the fragmented, degenerative anti-city we see today, proliferated around the Sun Belt in particular, as the cities are so young as to have had few other Prime Directives.

This produces a tension between built anti-city and actual human needs for Improved quality of life via social and economic exchange that humanity created cities and civilization as a tool to advance.  So we enact things like zoning and form-based codes and deck parks as a top down way to control the uncontrollable chaos produced.  Similarly, grass roots efforts like guerrilla urbanism and the various citizen derived incremental efforts also represent a tension between inherent human need and the built world around them and the governing processes that do not meet those needs.  And often won't nor can't, because the prime directive won't allow them.

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Incidentally, Dallas once again made Kunstler's architectural eyesore of the month in February, also Star Trek related.  Also, a product of chaos, disorder and entropy.