City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

The Incomplete City

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Rethinking urban design and urban development, and its teaching, with the Bartlett School of Architecture

Joseph Grima and I are the Sir Banister Fletcher visiting professors at UCL Bartlett School of Architecture this year, focusing on the urban design aspects of the school in particular. It’s a great honour for both of us, given the Bartlett’s standing amongst architecture schools, and Joseph, who is actually an architect (as opposed to my benevolent imposter status) talks lovingly of the ‘the Banister Fletcher’ architectural history textbook, and its status in architectural education.

We’ll be doing a number of things across the year, but the focal points are two week-long studios, the first of which we ran last month, and which are focused on the MArch Urban Design programme, working with Mark Smout.

Joseph and I came up with the brief of ‘The Incomplete City’, building on our perennial interests concerning networked urbanism, participative design, local urban cultures, and alternative models of urban development. We discussed it with Mark beforehand, and got some incredibly useful feedback about making it as tangible as possible for students.

We wanted to get students to explore some of the ideas that I’d written about in the network urbanism and the ‘social and democratic city’ essays—and much of Joseph’s work over the years—and focus in particular on might they become manifest; how they might be realised; what kind of decision-making might be involved in a new approach to urban design; and how this all begins to transform the role of the designer.

Crucially, we also enlisted our long-time colleague Marco Ferrari to help us with the workshop, without whom we could not have done much at all.

L-R: Joseph, me, mess on floor, city on wall, Marco

We should confess that we went into the week with only a half-formed sense of how it might play out (perhaps in keeping with the subject at hand!) We knew we wanted to build up an image of a city, collaboratively produced on the wall over the course of the week using an alternate philosophy of city-making to that usually practiced professionally, and we knew we could prime the students’ thinking with a couple of opening lectures—but we had only a loose sense of the various points might be in between.

A particular influence, which emerged during conversation the weekend before the workshop, included the projects run by Joseph and Marco for the Istanbul Design Biennale (where Brickstarter, another precursor, was exhibited in fact), and the collaboratively-produced newspapers that they created, pasted up on the city’s walls. Joseph recalled another workshop, with diagrammatic images of buildings stamped out by potato prints.

During each stage of the week’s programme, Joseph, Marco and I had what Mark ended up describing as ‘the huddle’ to decide the details of next stage, quickly making a slide with a set of directives for the students. Our goal was to stay one step ahead of the students throughout, at least in terms of instructions.

Some examples of our ‘just in time’ instructional slides (there were a couple more.)

This also meant we couldn’t outline the trajectory of the whole week, except in the loosest possible terms. This had the effect of keeping the students focused entirely on the task at hand, whilst also embodying, or perhaps simulating, a condition of the design practice we were trying to explore: designing around what and who you know, the stage at-hand; not over-building or over-planning; ensuring each stage of development is well-rounded, yet leaving some spaces, infrastructures and decisions deliberately incomplete, in order to enable adaptation. By focusing on each stage, and the hinge to the next, and working at human-centred scale, each stage of development could be coherent, fulfilling, productive, sensitive, full of life.

This is the opposite of the ‘Field of Dreams’ “build it and they will come” model of urban planning and development, whose signature features are a large infrastructure spend requires vast property development to pay for it, wrapped up in planning processes that rarely take people into account, and which take years developing an overly complete plan that rarely actually happens, before delivering compromised generic ‘spec’ buildings, over-sized, largely static infrastructure, and spaces that remain pretty vacant for years. There are of course good and bad executions of this model, but it’s worth noting how much urban development is in that rather careless mode.

My essay on ‘the social and the democratic city’ goes into all that and more, also noting possible ways out of that thanks to new kinds of distributed infrastructures, more agile and iterative, maturing development models like Baugruppen, collaborative decision-making processeses like Brickstarter or PRES in Constitución, and nascent district developments like Buiksloterham in Amsterdam. Of course, ELEMENTAL’s incremental housing ‘half-a-house’ model was another huge influence.

This workshop was an exercise in exploring what a active, intentional design process, or design strategy, for that might look like, and to get these urban design students to start thinking that another kind of urban development was possible, and to enact that, in a way.

We talked about a more iterative model, wherein you start small and grow. That simple idea might seem typical of informal urban development, whether pre-modern European or slum/favela elsewhere, but we wanted to see if that dynamic of constant evolution, with each stage being coherent and human-centred, could be unlocked in non-slum conditions too, through the use of new infrastructures, partly, but also through more sophisticated decision-making approaches centred on participation, unlocked through the ideas of co-ownership of land, buildings and infrastructure. The ability to not have to dig over-sized, over-capitalised and inert infrastructure into the ground — as well as the ability to design housing with the people that will live in it; to share lighter, more resourceful services and infrastructures; to think ahead about the hinge to the next move, and in doing so, enable an agile form of development — opens up a transformational adaptability which should, in turn, fundamentally inform urban planning and design. This is in part informed by that old Eliel Saarinen quote I’ve used a million times:

“Always design a chair in the context of a room, a room in the context of a house, a house in the context of a street …”

… but adds a temporal dimension in there too. To think of this move in the context of the one that follows. This does indeed go back partly to the early adaptive design ideas I originally borrowed from urbanism to inform interactive product design. Yet now, it’s likely that — for all the current fuss over things like Project Ara — adaptive design’s real value may actually be in urbanism after all.

While we wouldn’t—perhaps couldn’t—get to a throughly rigorous academic or practice-based assessment of that possibility in a week, we wanted to have students explore it nonetheless, and we wanted to see what emerged from those seeds, both in terms of an outcome and a process. We did not have real data or a real place, and the implication of a decision was, at the most, discarding a sketch at the most. So this was not analytical in that sense, and can be easily critiqued as such. But it was a test of a vividly collaborative, human-centred and iterative urban design process nonetheless, as will be explained below.

Mr. Smout, inspecting.

To skip to the end, the results emerging from an incredibly intense yet happily productive week were extraordinary. The city that emerged on the wall was a true spectacle: a vast, pasted-up, hand-drawn, densely-packed town of 12,000 people, which you could stand back and admire, or get so close to that you could count each person, read each street sign. The students seemed hugely positive about the studio week, both in terms of the process and the outcome. Many selfies were taken during the making of this city—a contemporary sign of some success—and we had to virtually drag them out of the room at the end of the week.

‘The Incomplete City’ Studio #1, May 2016

Personally, it was a privilege to be involved, to see people work so hard, and with such purpose, and to witness their delight as the realisation of what they were building dawned on them, too—that’s one of the great joys of teaching, it seems to me.

The incomplete method

In retrospect, our method had a few key anchor points: the idea of revealing the process stage by stage; the opening talks ‘priming’ peoples’ thinking; the shifting scales of drawing, group-size and settlement; the analogue production methods; and the wall and the grid.

That last important anchor would enable an effective approach to drawing. Marco’s expertise led us to locking down the drawing to an isometric projection, pinned on a 30 degree grid. This simplified things for students, meaning a relatively straightforward approach to drawing, yet also meant boundless variation would also lock together consistently. (Marco had followed my talk on new infrastructures and cultures of city-making with a quite brilliant lecture on the nature and possibilities of drawing and projections, racing through a two thousand-year history of architectural representation, from Ancient Rome to eBoy. It was a complete joy.)

Patrick Weber pencilling in the projected grid.

We also decided—though I think this was instinctive for the three of us—that the production over the week would all be hand-drawn, scissored and photocopied. We liked the idea of framing an intensely ‘technologised’ setting—Tesla Powerwalls, autonomous vehicles, municipal robotics, crowdfunding systems—and yet having students explore the ideas using only pens, paper, scissors and copiers. I think this implicit tension proved to be highly productive (though I couldn’t actually prove that; it just felt right, and worked. Equally, it would be interesting to explore how computers would’ve aided, or changed, the process. We discussed this in the crit afterwards. But it’s interesting how refreshing, how focused, and how creatively stimulating it was for all involved not to have the computer on-hand.)

The whole exercise concerned algorithms, and an emerging form of algorithmic urbanism, even, and yet algorithms were not at work in the room.

Joseph’s talk set up students with their first task: working in groups of three (randomly selected, to break up the natural social groups that had formed over the semester so far) to imagine what we call ‘an atlas of urban elements’ – in short, using my phrasing of ‘smaller than a building, bigger than a phone’, the elements that comprise an everyday infrastructural layer in the city: solar cells, vehicles, chicken coops, bus-stops, biodigesters, steps, allotments, swimming pools, street signs, traffic lights, pylons, footbridges, ticket machines, urinals, graffiti, trees, kiosks, bikes and so on.

Sandra Youkhana listing a city

(I’d used my opening talk to prime students’ thinking about this, focusing on the distributed, decentralised infrastructures outlined in Network Urbanism, and described further as ‘non-grid’ technologies. But of course, many of the elements are of today’s and yesterday’s cities. And given the multinational/cultural nature of the students, fairly diverse, as the image below illustrates. But the plug-in, adaptive infrastructural aspect of many of the resulting elements was a key driver of ‘incomplete city’ idea.)

We then tasked each student with drawing a couple of these elements each – again, randomly allocated – to build up a large library of components, drawn in pen at 1:50 scale. (Computers and phones were often used at this point by students, but only to look up images of these sometimes exotic—to them—elements.)

The isometric projection worked a charm here, in terms of forcing consistency across all these different types, though we did make extra aesthetic guidance around keeping lines clear, precise and thin, with little or no shade or texture, knowing we were heading towards photocopying at some point.

I’d shown drawings by Atelier Bow-Wow during my talk, as had Marco, which also framed the students’ approach to drawing—not simply for the similar aesthetics in their work, but due to the vivid presence of people in Bow-Wow’s drawings, helping them strike a gorgeous balance between what are effectively engineering drawings and delicate descriptions of people’s activities in a place, a form of narrative as well as blueprint.

Yet we were asking the students not to work in terms of buildings but in terms of elements; and so this was connecting ‘network urbanism’ with another Bow-Wow book I’d picked up; their collaboration with the Berlin-based Kooperatives Labor Studierender, which contained a chapter exploring, via some lovely drawings, how particular urban conditions were triggered by such elements: a boom-box/bike contraption enabling a karaoke arena; a bespoke waterproof plastic bag for clothes, enabling swimming in a Basel river; the chairs in a Parisian public garden tracing the daily patterns of activity. This was important as it showed Bow-Wow work focused not on buildings, but on urban conditions, as well as the role of non-building elements in their production with people.

Creating the atlas of urban elements was a useful exercise in several ways: it got the group productive as early as possible (thinking and drawing); it them working in a clearly collaborative mode from the first moment; and it also started them working at the scale of people, rather than buildings. The elements were then photocopied 20 times at 50% size, taking them down to 1:100 scale, to build up a shared library all students could draw from.

The photocopier was an excellent tool — but we needed access to about six more.

We then asked the students to work in groups of three, drawing from the atlas of elements in order to create a ‘neighbourhood’ for 100 people to live, work and play in. Buildings were supplied to students as simply rectangular shapes, cut out of trace, upon which they could write the function of the building, such as ‘library’ or ‘church’ and so on. This meant the students didn’t worry over the form of buildings, but about their function as part of a greater play—a neighbourhood—and thus about the connections and spaces in-between buildings, about their presence and relationship with other things, about their role as part of a greater ensemble, rather than the solipsistic mode that most architecture is practiced within. In essence, we asked them to focus on urban design, rather than architecture as typically practiced.

At this scale, they could almost have put names on individual people (something I did see on a project recently, working on Vinge in Denmark, where plots were sold to individuals before development, and can also be seen at the Space-S Baugruppe-style development in Eindhoven.)

We asked each group to give their neighbourhood a narrative, a description of sorts. One group came up with a place for key workers, another a kind of artists-collective/garden/favela, another a place built around a data centre, another a place for students with rent offsets based on low energy use, another a kind of co-working space (also for students – design around what you know!) with subterranean fab-labs, and so on.

The neighbourhoods are simply cut-and-paste versions of the elements and the generic building shapes, but with a few scribbled people, and the layering that paper and photocopying affords, they already took on an interesting quality, and despite the common starting point, differentiation was already emerging.

We’re at the end of day two at this point, closing with a feedback session in which all groups described their neighbourhoods.

We had around 21 groups at this point; here are five

The next stage involved halving the scale on a photocopier, down to 1:200 scale, and enlarging the neighbourhood to make it work for 200 people. So, halving and doubling simultaneously. This shift-zoom of scale is something else we reiterated – this notion that urban design means working from the scale of the door-handle up to the city-block, back and forth.

As we begin to increase scale, we also asked students to think what needs to change; what needs to be consolidated, what alters in relationship, what new functions need to emerge. The scale of the cluster had not been defined, yet it naturally emerged at a certain level of density, simply forced by what could fit on a table, and handled by a group of three. There was considerable variation nonetheless.

Then, a shift-zoom again, photocopying their neighbourhoods, their clusters of city, down to 1:500, and to make it work for roughly 500 people.

At this point, we were able to force a certain scale—by introducing the large wall that ran along the side of the studio as their eventual canvas. We’d loosely suggested what we were doing with the wall from the first moments; not least by taking most of our teaching team to one side to sketch out a vast isometric grid on the wall. Now we were able to decide the scale of thing—we could describe each edge as 20m at 1:200 scale—and thus get a good hectare (100m2) from a 5×5 diamond-shape, or some other configuration. The wall could handle many such hectares of city.

(It also occurred to us that the walls of architecture schools should come pre-installed with such grids; or at least there may be a market for architecture school wallpaper. This entire exercise also reinforced the importance of what I call ‘knockabout space’ for schools like this.)

Each group would make their 500-person neighbourhood fit a hectare, one way or another. This choice of density level was interesting: we’d been deliberately non-specific with our sense of place. Given no way of researching or engaging with a particular place with any kind of thoroughness (we only had this week with the students) we decided to make it no-place, suggesting only a loose sense of ‘London’, if forced to choose.

Yet 500 people per hectare is relatively dense: central Barcelona is around 350 people per hectare, so this is Barcelona++.

Again, we asked students to consolidate their infrastructure, to refine their sense of place, to think about what changes at the scale of 500 people.

Then, with strong 500-person neighbourhoods emerging, at 1:200 scale, we asked them to start merging; to find a neighbourhood they want to join with. This was a fascinating exercise in negotiation— “I have data centre, you have favela!”—a kind of frenzied speed-dating for chunks of city. But importantly, we focused the students on thinking through strategic relationships—what should connect with what, and why?—and what needs to change.

Intense negation over joining clusters together; reportedly, the hardest part of the exercise.

This meant taking scissors to things, as well as drawing new elements of connective tissue: social, economic, energy, water, waste, mobility etc. They could add in new components at each point, from the increasingly messy atlas of urban elements.

It also meant groups were now around six people—and then we asked them to merge again, leaving us with neighbourhood clusters of effectively 2000 people, across four hectares, now working in fairly unwieldy groups, sprawled across the floor, or across multiple tables.

It’s worth noting at this point, at the end of day four, the indefatigable spirit, and considerable skill, of the students! Most were now working from 9am to 9pm, and were collaborating brilliantly. In retrospect, the whole week may have been an exercise in collaboration as much as anything; this is a skill fundamental to professional design practice yet rarely taught coherently in most design education. By the end of the week, as students were pasting up each others’ work to the wall, you feel that this group of 70 students could’ve achieved pretty much anything at that point.

And so on the last morning, the moment came when people started pasting their now hybrid neighbourhoods up onto the gridded wall. Joseph and I decided we needed some kind of fulcrum for the city, and so, what else? A river. (Joseph’s time at the Architectural Association really paid off when he started drawing that squiggly isometric river on masking tape …)

A city starts with a river.

The first groups, chosen as they happen to have incorporated a river and waterfront, started pasting, with multiple hands reaching up, almost Iwo Jima-like (!), to hold up the flopping sheets of city … But the thing began to take shape quite quickly. We were constantly interjecting, to ask students to consider what connections were being made, what needed to be resolved, what elements were being negotiated into proximity with what.

This meant some difficult conversations resulting in people cutting out parts of their creations, having to compromise heavily to as each part became integrated into something that was greater than the sum of its parts.

Once most components were stuck into place (invisible sticky tape working its magic here) students started drawing in more detail, photocopying and sticking more trees, adding new details—a train line, a harbour, a park—The wall taking waves of additions for an hour or so, before the incomplete city was, well, complete.

The drawing at this point was a sort of palimpsest of the week’s work, layer upon layer, the fresh-inked figures over the multiple photocopied figures. Some building elements were now built out at scale, and with some variation in form emerging, and the tracing paper lent a lovely ghosted quality to many of the structures, enabling a real depth, a variation in opacity.

Students stepped back and just looked at it, somewhat in awe. That many of them then started taking selfies next to their favourite neighbourhoods is probably a good sign. A wonderful thing was that, due to the nature of its construction, pretty every single square of wall probably contained an element invented or drawn by every single student. You could step back from it, or zoom into it. The level of detail is incredibly rich, thanks to the human-centred scaling process.

We closed the week with a crit for an hour or so, discussing what the process had been like, what people thought of the outcome. We talked through some of the implications of decisions—for instance, the vast data centre tower had consolidated into an actual building (the layered tracing paper actually leaving a lovely opacity), and in growing tall, it had freed up space for a ‘kite park’ in front of it, and a train station behind. Yet the train station, and the tower, backed into the ‘favela’, which was thus on the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak; we discussed whether the park would’ve been a more open ‘interface’ between the tower and the favela. There were several other intriguing connections like this.

Note how unbelievably messy the workshop got—something we take considerable pride in. The cleaners, quite rightly, gave up cleaning after day three. We had a big communal tidying-up session at the end of the week.

The ‘Barcelona++’ density was interesting, giving us a town of 12,000 people but at a density level of 500 people per hectare that you never really get in a town of 12,000. Joseph pointed out that this size of settlement—the 10,000 to 50,000 population—is the most frequent settlement size across Europe. And now we could see the value of density, even in this smaller settlement, in that you could effectively cycle across the whole thing. With an on-demand ‘mobility as a service’ option—as public transport, shared transport—there’s little need for heavy mobility infrastructure (the train line you see top-left was simply for connecting to other cities.)

Some of the students had started to develop some ‘incomplete’ or adaptive moves, such as leaving space for expansion, despite the density (note the ‘reserved for trees’ stickers), as well as separating out various forms of infrastructure and leaving them accessible. While the energy infrastructure was not really viable of course, we did discuss that, given another week we could’ve dug into how to actually serve a town of 12,000 with renewable energy in the lightest, most adaptable forms of infrastructure—this would’ve been a good use of some digital models, as would have been mapping the outcomes in terms of mobility, environmental qualities, conviviality etc.

Students also discussed some of the difficult negotiations that had happened —all with good grace—and we had a good discussion about the value of top-down planning as well as emergent/tactical urbanism approaches. In reality, we know both are required; it’s just that we haven’t been able to make the latter scale before (except in informal urban conditions, often with problematic outcomes) and its now emerging as a genuine option.

We’re looking forward to running the exercise again later in the year. We’ve scanned ‘the atlas of urban elements’ and hope to make that available via GitHub, and we’ll try to use the OpenStreetMap engine to build a scrollable version of the city from this first studio. (We have an emerging plan for studio #2, and Chris Green and I are also working through variants for workshops with clients at Arup.)

The studio was a continuation of a fruitful creative relationship with Joseph, which started with the Postopolis NYC and Postopolis LA ‘happenings’ almost a decade ago, and then through to Joseph, Marco and I working together to help reinvent Domus under Joseph’s leadership, and enlisting both of them to help reboot to Fabrica under mine, as well as the odd book or two and biennale along the way. It’s always such a joy to work with both of them. Our peculiarly Anglo-Italian practice isn’t quite completely telepathic yet, but it’s getting there.

It was also a huge pleasure to work with Mark Smout for the first time, to whom we owe thanks for the Banister Fletcher appointment in the first place, and for supporting and shaping the ‘Incomplete’ idea, as well as the great team of supporting tutors at the Bartlett, including Sabine Storp and Patrick Weber, Roberto Botazzi, and Sandra Youkhana and Luke Pearson of YouAndPea in particular. Thanks also to Chris Green in my team at Arup for the insightful input, and for developing the ideas further post-studio.

Stay tuned for part two, later in the year.

(A bunch of things (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, from various users) were tagged #incompletecity during the course of the workshop, if you’re looking for more.)

Related Incomplete City Editions

Afterwards, and as a result of performing and writing up this first edition, there have been several other Incomplete City versions subsequently. There was indeed a second iteration at the Bartlett, which I will describe here one day, and a few more, below. In fact, there have been more than are listed below, but these have been spotted and written up.

Incomplete City: Stratford Edition

Year 9s at a London school adopt and adapt the Incomplete City method to create their alternative utopia.

Incomplete City: Michigan Edition

My long-term colleague Bryan Boyer and I ran a version at the Taubman College of Architecture, University of Michigan, in late 2019, which Bryan documented brilliantly.


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