Chaos Cities and Urbanism

3 NOV 2020
In the early 1990's Auckland hosted an architecture conference in the Aotea Centre. The keynote speaker was Fumihiko Maki who spoke about his Hillside Terrace - a development that he had been working on for over 20 years. It is a masterpiece of subtle urbanism.

But I, in my naivety, walked up to him and attempted to strike up a conversation about how I loved the unplanned chaos of Tokyo, and asked him how we could capture that in our projects. Maki-san went red, turned on his heel, and walked off. Stunned I was suddenly embarrassed and for decades thought I had uttered a slap in the face to Maki-san as he had endeavoured to fight against such chaos in his works.

But later I came to realise that far from my question being impertinent - it actually cut to the core the problem with town planning. Oftentimes the planned environment lacks the humanism and spontaneity of the ad hoc bottom up development that occurs naturally when people built what they need, where they need it. Tokyo is a fantastically chaotic and seductive city - and even where there is mass planning, such as in Shinjuku, it is between the cracks that the joy occurs. Such as in the back alleys of Omoide-Yokocho where long ago I shot some video for a friend's movie project.

Bloomberg reviews a new book on just this idea. That the good stuff is in spite of the professionals, and not because of it. It's seen in Hong Kong the contrast between the megastructures of Wanchai North and the vibrancy of the streets and alleyways of the old waterfront inland of the tramlines of Queens Road. Tourists certainly go for the old Hong Kong of chaos city, and not the planned podiums of planned city.

In Christchurch the jury is still out on how the city will develop post-earthquake - and that's because to date it has been the planned city that has got the funding and has built out the megastructures of the Conference Centre, and the 'Justice and Emergency Services Precinct' - and others. This is a looming tragedy for urbanism in the city. It is an indictment when it is the pop-up gap-fillers that were the iconic city elements of the 2010's.

It is certainly true that some location based town planning is necessary - let's keep the polluting, noisey, traffic intensive industries out of residential areas. But in large part most other businesses are entirely compatible with residential living - as Tokyo reveals. I prefer the grungier Osaka / Kansai area - it is, if that is possible, even more chaotic and enthralling than Tokyo which through shear size alone has driven town planners to meddle.

Just because it is possible to control something, does not mean that you should. Chaos in life, evolution, and town planning creates joy. Chaos and the fractal forms of nature have an equivalence in the best of city forms - some structure but intertwined with happenstance and surprise, juxtaposition and contrast. And when there are many many small experiments taking place there is less chance for one large failure to occur. Because following failure, comes innovation and change. On a small scale the risk of taking a chance are low enough for new entrepreneurs to start new businesses.

Town planners should perhaps step back from control more than they do, and let many small experiments flower - this is possible in the rundown old buildings in the alleyways of old cities. In Christchurch where whole blocks of the same have been razed we need a mechanism to drive this sort of low level innovation and change.

I have some ideas, and will outline them in more detail. So thinking back I don't think my question to Maki-san was so impertinent. And I now rather think that his red-face was due to a lack of English and resulting embarrassment - after all an ad hoc discussion is harder to tackle than a planned speech in English. If so this is ironic. The rewards from chaos are the greater in planning and discussions.
By Hab3