Steven Holl: “Urbanisms: working with doubt”

In his editorial for Domus, our guest editor illustrates doubts and hopes about the future of cities through an analysis of seven different metropolises. 

“In every serious philosophical question, uncertainty extends to the very roots of the problem. We must always be prepared to learn something totally new.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1950 

Today, working with doubt is unavoidable. The absolute is suspended by the relative and the interactive. Instead of stable systems, we must work with dynamic systems. Rather than simple and clear programmes, we engage contingent and diverse programmes. We no longer work within a framework of precision and perfection, but with intermittent, crossbred systems and combined methods. Suspending disbelief and adopting a global understanding is today an a priori condition, a new fundamental for creative work in science, urbanism and architecture. 

While we are working with doubt, we hope equivalent portions of landscapes can be protected, restored and reforested parallel to new urban constructions, allowing increased urban density to decrease destructive sprawl.

Working with doubt becomes an open position for concentrated intellectual work. This issue of Domus examines seven metropolitan cities. Each analysis opens with a planimetric of the city’s urban morphology presented alongside an image of a contemporary lived experience. The 1811 grid plan underlying Manhattan is drastically different from the feudal territorial lines underlying the urban geometry of Tokyo. In the 1980s, urban theory argued that two forces determined urbanism: a city’s plan morphology and its building typology. 

Steven Holl, Reciprocal Relation New York City–Milan, 1986. Acquerello/Watercolour, 12.7 x 17.8 cm

For small cities and towns this dialectic still holds. However, in metropolitan densities, planimetrics have lost determinate meaning. Tall building sections now define metropolitan spaces. The experience of these new cities can sometimes be exhilarating due to the variety of their urban spaces, but it can sometimes also be problematic due to their shadows. While we are “working with doubt”, we hope that equivalent portions of landscapes can be protected, restored and reforested parallel to new urban constructions, allowing increased urban density to decrease destructive sprawl. 

In this dynamic urbanising moment, doubt and flux prevail. In our 2023 Domus manifesto Blurred boundaries we set aside rigid categorisations between the disciplines of design, art and architecture. Accordingly, in this issue art and new projects are presented in correspondence to the city of their creative studios. Anticipation of a future in which present polluting tendencies are reversed should include a future aimed at the poor and the rich, in an integrated humanity, on a planet of renewed air and purified water. Proceeding towards an international civilisation, landscapes should be reforested and restored while ultra-modern urban constructions are realised. Macro-focused plans can fuse landscape and architecture while simultaneously restoring natural landscapes. Rather than becoming categorical or moralistic, experimentation and innovative action should accompany the exploration of unprecedented techniques. 

Domus 1077 cover

Today we may be at a paradigm shift in time; a time-dilation. Like Thomas Kuhn’s concept of “incommensurability” or “discontinuities”, the moment we occupy can be seen without ideological or positivist bias. I remember reading in Jorge Luis Borges’s The Garden of Forking Paths (1941) that “it is not space but time which forks”. For all the rich urban schemes of the past, we cannot completely predict the cities of the future. We can only imagine architectures and urbanisms as a “function of becoming”, and with that becoming, the unending need for innovative social juxtaposition, explorations in new energy and new material concepts. Just as environmental and social innovations are introduced, so the spatial and material sense of these new constructions may yield unforeseen pleasure and experiential joy.

Speciale Guest Editor

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