Architecture and Complexity

November 17, 2007

I’ve always been fascinated by the processes and professions of design—above all, architecture. Faced with the complexity and multiple contexts of an emergent space, good architects always find ways to blend art and science into craft without compromising either.

Last week we attended a talk by the new dean of architecture at USC, Qingyun Ma. His firm was asked how to revitalize a historic district in Shanghai. Ma felt that any direct intervention would strip the authenticity from the old streets, buildings and communities. Instead, he suggested developing a new, adjacent shopping district as an extension of the old district’s main thoroughfare. The idea was that the new development would draw more people through the original neighborhood…

That way, the extra traffic would create opportunities (we’d call them attractors) and encourage existing residents and shop owners to upgrade to capitalize on those opportunities in their own ways. Ma says the idea was inspired by Chinese medicine, which often “treats the lungs through the stomach.”

Architects tend to find innovative solutions to the constraints at hand. A few years ago, I attended a Cuban complexity conference and took a tour of Havana’s old town. We were told that when the Ministry of Education built its headquarters in the middle of all the stunning old buildings, it was supposed to reflect the style of the neighborhood. But this just wasn’t practical. So they decided to take the mandate literally: and erected a modern office building with windows glazed with mirrored glass that reflect all of the architecture around them. At least that’s the way I heard it.

Ma’s talk was part of a monthly salon hosted by Carol and Richard King. Their home is another unique architectural solution. Built in the last undeveloped part of Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco, the Kings needed a rustic site to set off their vision of a home that synthesized Japanese and Southwestern sensibilities. Long forgotten by its previous owner, the former Tongva Indian village and orange grove sits directly beneath the Highway 134 bridge that leads to downtown Pasadena. But rather than complain about the freeway noise, they enjoy a view of the historic 1913 Beaux Arts Colorado Street Bridge, perfectly framed by the newer bridge’s main span.

If you have read my post this far, you might be able to help me with an anecdote I’ve been trying to source. I have heard many versions of a story about an architect laying out a new university. The buildings were arranged around a square, but there were no sidewalks indicated in the drawings. The square was simply planted with grass. The architect told the masons to wait a while and see where the students chose to walk . After that, they simply paved the emergent paths. So does anybody have a definitive version of that story?

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