Incomprehensible: Urban Design

On hefty volumes, quality and quantity, unsound sustainability, design and research, the forever-legitimate question ‘What does the writer mean?’, the field of tension between knowledge and art, the gulf between thinking and acting – and on how Allard Jolles still managed to find happiness in the end.

I get the distinct impression that the market for books on architecture is gradually reaching saturation point. That said, the number of books of genuine significance can be counted on one hand. As so often, quantity and quality are at odds with each other. The Faculty of Architecture at Delft University of Technology is adding merrily to the avalanche of publications. Recently issued was the long-awaited doctoral thesis by Bernard Leupen. And late last year saw the publication of the standard work Ways to study and research: urban, architectural and technical design, which explores the study of architecture in all its breadth. But missing from this useful work is a contribution from the Department of Landscape Architecture. By coincidence of not, they too have just released a hefty tome. Its title – Architectural Design and Composition – suggests a similar attempt to approach architecture in the broadest sense. But the book does not form a counterpart to Ways to study… That’s understandable, for it largely features the same writers and contains comparable texts. What’s more, one of the final chapters is actually a summary of Bernard Leupen’s doctoral thesis, written by Leupen himself and illustrated with the same images. A fine text, but repeatedly recycling your own work like this is an unsound form of sustainability.


The basic principle of the book is ‘design and research’, and the authors deal with various systems of architectural composition. According to the press release, the authors believe that experimental design ‘[assumes] the continual adaptation of a series of experimental compositions until a new balanced composition is achieved. This procedure is treated in the book not only as a purely technical feat based on academic understanding (knowledge) but also as an artistic amalgamation of elements into a coherent whole (art).’

No easy text to understand. It’s about the convergence of knowledge and art, something like that, but it’s crystal clear in comparison to the book’s introduction written by Italian architecture critic Aldo Aymonino. Conveying the drift of his text is impossible. Likewise, answering the forever-legitimate question ‘What does the writer mean?’ is a hopeless task. It’s as if the collected work of Leen van Duin and Kees Vollemans (two Delft academics) from their Deconstructivist and Post-Stalinist periods has been compressed into a single article. Aymonino writes about the ‘connection between thinking and acting in the international architecture debate’. Think first, then act – that’s what I would say. And thinking belongs to the discussion, acting to the business of building. That could have been a concise and clear article.


But nothing of the sort. Among Aldo Aymonino’s claims is that genuine modern architecture consists of infrastructure and that modernism has burdened us with urban areas that are too large. The world’s becoming one suburb. Not much in the way of news here, and the writer conceals that with foggy language. If, Aymonino concludes, architectural research can find a way of focusing attention on the impact of non-volumetric architecture (?) on the quality of our surroundings, perhaps we can save all large areas that are now testimony to the failure of modernism. Is that what I read this article for? But there is one short sentence near the start that goes to the heart of the matter regarding the field of tension between knowledge and art. Aymonino writes that the ideal city, as presented to us since the renaissance, contains neither homes nor nature. For it is no real city, but a promised city. I fully agree. The ideal city is not the same as the ideal society. The city that is a work of art in stone is no place to live, but a place to contemplate. The ideal city is a Utopia, and Utopias don’t belong to the real practice of urban design. Why? Because practicing urban design (or architecture!) with no thought for people is criminal, and urban design that is not inextricably connected to society lacks all content. And that’s something you can’t accuse modernists of, which is what Aymonino does. Modernists weren’t looking for the ideal city; they were looking in their own way for a form for the ideal society. Aymonino thus proves the very opposite of what he set out to prove. He falls into his own trap, because he was unable to free himself from the modernist design language he so despises. The gulf between thinking and acting, and between knowledge and art, is nowhere greater, though unintentionally so, than in Aymonino’s text. And that makes me happy.