Learning from old towns

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Learning from old towns

Cities have been built and rebuilt over more than seven thousand years. But much of the knowledge of ancient city builders has been lost by now and learning from old towns made a mind-boggling exercise. Nevertheless, some of the embedded knowledge could possibly be restored. We are now able to decode and recode their wisdom if we only managed to track down the growth processes of old cities. Some of the encoded design know-how has naturally become irrelevant since the function of the city has changed. However some essential functions such as providing shelter and encapsulating social activities have remained unchanged. Therefore – one hopes – we may be able to learn from old towns by recycling some of our precursors’ ingenuity in order to design our cities today.
Contemporary architectural and urban design practice is constantly reinventing answers to age-old questions. Often, architectural design and planning is considered as solving ‘problems’ in the built environment. We almost seem to think that the previous generations of builders and architects have got something wrong and we can fix their mistakes. This kind of problem-solving approach disregards the knowledge captured in existing settlement layouts and buildings.
For obvious reasons sprawling suburbia has become the target of harsh criticism, but nobody complains about old towns. These parts of our cities are often full of visitors; their human-scale architecture and the peculiar sense of place are attractive to residents too. Property prices are soaring and businesses are booming here. Besides the geographic location, there must be something else that has been done well in the environment.

I would argue that using synthetic modelling could reveal the organisational principles and system dynamics that have played the major role in the evolution of historic townscapes. Synthetic modelling helps investigating and decoding the processes that have led to the emergence of old settlement structures by remodelling and simulating these processes in the digital environment. The simulation models are reiteratively developed and the output is continuously tested against the geometry of existing streets layouts and building structures in the real world. The objective is not exactly mimicking the morphogenesis of old towns but to understand the drivers behind it.
Why do we need to understand the growth processes of historic towns in the first place? Well – we may find it useful for creating more compact and enjoyable urban environments. Compactness in cities is something that we seem to have lost during the last century. While car manufacturers may not be overtly unhappy about it, we seem to have also lost the human scale in our cities. Both of these qualities – compactness and fine granularity of urban texture – are still preserved in our old towns. Let’s learn from it!

I recently presented my paper about synthetic modelling of the ‘unplanned’ settlements at CAADRIA 2014 conference. The research that I have been doing over the last year at the department of architecture in the Estonian Academy of Arts has lead me to believe that this method can indeed take us to the next level in understanding historic settlements. The early results of my research are described in http://www.reneepuusepp.com/generative-housing-model/

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Design automation, Generative design

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