The Role of Urbanism and Architecture in Economic DevelopmentQ: In an era of rapid evolution in technology, cities and social expectations, what role does architecture and urban design play in the development of our society as a whole? How can this infrastructure foster economic development and social progress not just in the developed world, but also in areas that are in need of development?
A: Human civilization relies on architectural structures and their arrangement into settlements to build up and stabilize social order. There has always been a strong correspondence between the patterns of spatial and social organization. Cities have been building up increasingly complex spatial systems and growing into ever larger assemblies. Only this way, on the basis of this long-term evolving material substrate, has it been possible to structure a society with sufficiently complex and robust life processes and institutions.
The modern era has superimposed a new set of infrastructure systems that complement, compete with, and extend beyond the organizing capacity of urbanism and architecture. These systems include mechanical systems of transportation (trains, automobiles, aviation) and various systems of communication (print, broadcasting, telephone and Internet.) Obviously the social order and complex social functioning of contemporary society depends upon these technical systems of communication as much as they depend upon the patterns of built environments. However, the continuous innovation of the underlying spatial patterns remains an indispensable factor of social and economic development, both at the level of overall urban geography as well as with respect to institutional micro-environments.
One of the great challenges of contemporary urbanism and architecture is the socio-economic restructuring away from the Fordist paradigm of an industrial mass society, towards a post-Fordist economy of flexible specialization, with its attendant new order of diversity of work and life processes, and new level of fluidity and dynamism in careers, corporate organizations and economic relations.
The new language of architecture, developed under the banner of "deconstructivism" and "folding", is recognized as the current avant-garde trend within contemporary architecture. This trend has an obvious stylistic identity. However, under the guise of this emerges a new language affording a whole new set of organizing patterns and articulating tropes that have a profound congeniality in relation to the post-Fordist restructuring of contemporary society. There are striking correspondences between new patterns of spatial organization and the new models of social organization, which are becoming increasingly prevalent and inevitable for the progressive development of contemporary advanced societies. With respect to urbanism these new patterns allow the organization and manipulation of more complex life processes which overlap and integrate rather than separate the life aspects of work, education, entertainment and habitation. The modern principle of functional zoning is superseded by agendas of layering in mixed use developments. The serial order of repetition that marks out the Fordist era is superseded by systems that iterate, modulate and adapt, as well as proliferate diversity. The traditional architectural repertoire of crisp platonic figures and crystalline grids are antithetical to these new demands for variation and the intensive integration of contemporary life patterns. The urban repertoire of deconstructivism and folding is geared up to create complex, polycentric urban fields which are densely layered and continuously differentiated.
With respect to architecture, a similar complexity of spatial relations and an intensity of connections is on the agenda. Mixed-use complexes, which are highly integrated, require a new language of architectural articulation to turn this new order of complexity into legible compositions. Key concerns are layering, interpenetration of domains and multiple affiliations of figures. These are the current tropes of the avant-garde that cater towards such mixed-use programs. Consistent orthogonality can no longer be maintained. Instead the oblique and the curvilinear become prevalent. Typology has to be replaced by topology which allows for the gradual morphing from one condition to another. The field is structured by means of continuous transformations and smooth transitions rather than by abruptly segmented zones. Instead of a few opposing types, we look at rich spectra of variation. The concept of polycontextuality of any building replaces the simple idea of contextual fitting.
The claim I am making is that what at first glance appeals as a strange and willful formalism is in fact the attempt to develop a new architectural repertoire that corresponds to the new socio-economic logic. I believe that those cities which can shake off their inherited aesthetic regimes and dare to adopt a contemporary urbanism and architecture within their very centers will be the vital places where the next, most advanced sectors of the economy will flourish.