4.1.2. Natural plans

A natural organization of dwellings, which follow the availability of building ground along some sort of physiological feature, is a common way of starting a community. A river or an escarpment offers a sensible place to make a house, the first to provide water at a short distance and the second to give shelter from wind or enemies.

A characteristic feature of the natural plan is its organic character. It points to a ‘biological’ component in the process of growth. This protocol can be observed in the living objects of nature, like plants and animals, but also in man-made objects, which came into being without preconceived plans (fig. 511). It can be transposed to urban development, when it is seen as a small entity on the outset, gradually accumulates in size and becomes a town with its own character.


Fig. 511 – A wall of the church of Puntagorda at the western brim of the island of La Palma (Canary Island, Spain) is constructed with natural material (volcanic rock) and fitted together in order to create a wall. The form (of the rocks) was given by nature, a quick selection was made by the stonemasons and the boundaries were highlighted by white cement. Such a process can be characterized as ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ since the human interference was kept to a minimum and the material was reshaped in a natural way.

Architect and planner Christopher ALEXANDER et al (1987) studied the ‘wholeness’, which can be experienced in certain cities of the past (such as Venice and Amsterdam). Their findings (and feelings) led to a new theory of urban design, based on the notion of organic growth. The authors came to the conclusion (p. 5) that a ‘good’, traditional city was the result of “a process of urban growth, or urban design, that would create wholeness in the city, almost spontaneously, from the actions of the members of the community… provided that every decision, at every instant, was guided by the centering process”.

They noticed the following four fundamental features in a ‘natural’ city, which is interpreted as a growing whole. These observations have affinities, by and large, with the characteristics of the four quadrants in a quadralectic outlook:

————————  1. The whole grows piecemeal, bit by bit

————————  2. The whole is unpredictable

————————  3. The whole is coherent

————————  4. The whole is full of feeling

These elements lack – according to Alexander et al. – in many, modern (i.e. late twentieth century) civic developments. Growth looks gradual, but the actions constitute of unrelated acts, which lead to chaos. Furthermore, the growth is controlled by conceptions and schemes. It lacks a sense of unpredictability. The internal coherence in town development, ‘which can be felt in every doorway, every step, and every street’, is superficial. Finally, there is no deep feeling in many planned developments other than a vague admiration for the ‘design’.

The process of centering to achieve ‘wholeness’ was, in their view, essential. It could be formulated in a single, overriding rule, which reads that: ‘every increment of construction must be made in such a way as to heal the city’. The word ‘heal’ refers to its basic meaning of ‘make whole’ – following the lines, which were set out some sixty years earlier by the South-African General Jan C. SMUTS (1870 – 1950) in his important book ‘Holism and Evolution’ (1926/1936). It is an omission that the authors do not mention this crucial source.

The single rule (of obeying to an abstract ‘whole’) is further substantiated by seven processes, which contribute to the outcome of being a human-friendly, traditional city. These seven detailed rules of growth are:

  1. Piecemeal growth
  2. The growth of larger wholes
  3. Visions
  4. The basic rule of positive urban space
  5. Layout of large buildings
  6. Construction
  7. Formation of center

Most of these rules can be placed in the quadrants of a quadralectic world view. The type of action is associated with a particular type of visibility. Some remarks will now be made to fit these rules in a quadralectic vision of architecture.

The piecemeal growth (rule 1) aims at a balance and equal distribution of sizes and functions of buildings. The speed of growth is associated with the value V (the length of a full communication cycle). It  does not say anything about ‘quality’. A search for balance and equality in the process of growth and/or the leveling out oppositional forces fit into the psychological setting of the Third Quadrant. This position is a distinct part of the quadralectic communication cycle, but  cannot claim a dominant place in the field of intensio (approach) and remissio (alienation), which takes place during the complete interaction.

Many urban expansions (like Amsterdam in the past) took place in a relatively short period of time when excessive money was available pursuant to economic prosperity. The surplus money looked for a way to be spent quickly and these frantic efforts were generally far from balanced. The quality of the result does not have to suffer from these unbalanced actions and could even be rated as positive. Natural development is, in essence,  a process of sudden bursts of energy followed by a rest.

The growth of larger wholes (rule 2) – as Alexander et al (1987) envisages it in the generation of urban structures without a plan – pays heavily tribute to Smut’s ideas about evolution. Extensive structures (linear) or centers (cyclic) are perceptible by  analogy in any process of growth. These centers are not actually planned, but they are the result of the comparison process, which simultaneous takes place during expansion. The awareness of these centers (points of recognition) is an essential element in their definition. They only emerge after they have been seen (in a process of an ongoing comparison of elements).

It is obvious that a ‘vision’ (rule 3) can operate as a guiding element in the process of awareness, or, as it is stated by Alexander et al (p. 50): ‘’Every project must first be experienced, and then expressed, as a vision which can be seen in the inner eye (literally). It must have this quality so strongly that it can also be communicated to others, and felt by others, as a vision.’’

Vision is, in a quadralectic context, a Second Quadrant commodity, related to ‘ideas’ and other conceptual entities at the inception of a communication. However, it can at the same time be the result of a complex of experiences, which are joint together in the (second part) of the Fourth Quadrant. It is most likely that this latter idea of ‘vision’ is meant by the researchers. Their  theory of urban design aims at historical and personal connotations.

The definition of a ‘positive’ urban space (rule 4) has to do with a building and its adjacent, public space. The psychological setting of buildings versus their environment, like gardens, streets, and parking lots, is oppositional. The addition of a ‘positive’ public space only brings this point further to the forefront. There is nothing wrong with this approach – anybody is allowed to operate in any type of division thinking – but it will only provide subjective preferences. In a real ‘holistic’ environment is no opposition between a building and the surrounding space, because they are both one.

The layout of larger buildings (rule 5) has to fit into the comprehensive picture (of wholeness) of the neighborhood or city. The detailed division of the building into parts has to be coherent with its position in the street.  Christopher Alexander gives a series of steps to achieve this goal. The recommendations might be useful in their own right, but they are not particular relevant if they are placed in an oppositional relation between a building and its environment.

The attention to construction (rule 6) covers the details of buildings and their relation to the wholeness of the city. The character and wholeness of an architectonic entity should, in an ideal case, generate smaller wholes in the physical fabric of the building. This observation makes an interesting point. It brings the importance of details of a building, as recognizable parts of a greater visibility, to the sphere of attention. In particular the architects of the art nouveau and Jugendstil movement – like the Belgian architect Victor Horta (1861 – 1947) and the Dutch architect Berlage (1856 – 1934) and his followers in the Amsterdam School (1910 – 1940) – have taken this aspect of building seriously. Many constructions of that period (early twentieth century) are adorned with little pieces of art, which express the intentions of a building on a smaller scale, but pointing to the forces which lead to the wholeness of the structure.

Finally, there is a formation of centers (rule 7), which deals with the geometric shape of all the wholes, at all scales within the process. ‘Every whole must be a ‘center’ in itself, and must also produce a system of centers around it’ (p. 92). The center is not a point, but can be anything, like a building or a larger space, a road or a complex of architectonic features at the same time. Alexander points to the necessity of symmetry, especially bilateral symmetry and an axis – indicating his preference for duality (fig. 512). Clearly  other forms of symmetry (like the tetragonal or hexagonal) are just as viable to act as references for the formation of centers.


Fig. 512 – The example of a leaf, as given by Christopher Alexander, to indicate the formation of centers. The presence of bilateral symmetry is, in his view, a necessary element in his theory of urban design.

The outcome (evaluation) of the experiment by Christopher Alexander and Ingrid King was disappointing. The conditions in the modern society, with its existing planning laws, regulations and financing structures, seem to be incompatible with the idea of wholeness. The insight into the planning of historic cities and the introduction of ideas of wholeness are valuable in their own right, but are not sufficient to bring the project to reality. The authors rightly conclude (p. 242) that ‘the task of reformulating urban processes of implementation, to make way for the kind of process we have defined, is an enormous one.’

Good examples of ‘natural’ city plans are notable in a conglomeration of Syrian cities, which were built in the Hellenistic period (second century AD). These cities, now known as the Dead Cities, were part of the (late) expansion politics of the Roman Empire in the Middle East. There are about three hundred ‘dead towns’ scattered throughout northwestern Syria and the southern Hauran plateau, built between the second and fourth century AD. The most outstanding example of an abandoned town is Deir Sima’an, with the Monastery of Saint Simeon Stylites as its highlight. The holy man, who spends thirty-six years of his life in such an uncomfortable way, was born around 390 AD and settled in the monastery in 412 AD. The convent and church were earlier discussed as a specimen of a devotion to the cross design (fig. 187/188).

The environs of Aleppo  has a concentration of ‘Dead Cities’. The area is regarded by Warwick BALL (1998; p.141) as ‘the greatest storehouse of Byzantine architecture to be found in the ancient world’ (fig. 513). This group of, now abandoned towns and villages in the hinterland of Antioch, was once flourishing community during Roman times. The well-preserved, ruined town of Serjilla can be regarded as the gem of the Dead Cities. The town was not built according to any plan or strict urban layout. ‘Serjilla is nothing more than an unassuming, everyday small country town such as can be found the world over’.


Fig. 513 – This map of Warwick BALL (1998) gives the position of the Dead Cities west of Aleppo. They once formed a thriving economical area in northern Syria. The cities grew in a natural, ‘organic’ way in the existing, rugged topography.

Another area of ancient city building in Syria was situated in the south of the country, in an area called the Hauran. This area prospered in the second century AD, just like places as Jerash, Petra, Palmyra and the Dead Cities of the north. The black basalt of the Hauran area offered a strong and durable material, which could be used in much the same way as wood (as beams or girders). The domestic architecture is a blend of Hellenistic, Nabatean (Petra) and Roman styles and has a unique state of preservation. Moreover, the ‘Palmyra door’, consisting of a single upright slab with stone hinges (see fig. 104) was used here.

Bosra is the main city in this area, with a number of references to the tetradic way of building, including a standard grid pattern, the Cardo and Decumanus (crossing main streets) and a tetrapylon, or four-way arch. Several Roman emperors, like Trajan (in 106 AD), Septimus Severus and Alexander Severus added their Roman-inspired architectural features to the city. Bosra had many colonnades, lining the main roads. They were of the Ionic style, pointing to an early position in the Roman period.

The Theater of Bosra is possibly the largest ever made in the Roman world and was built in the second century AD. Its diameter is over hundred meters and would have seated some fifteen thousand spectators. The hippodrome is just south of the city and was the place where chariot racing and other sports were performed. Fig. 514 gives some of these plans, using natural phenomena as their primary existence.


Fig. 514 – The city plans of Antioch, Apamea, Laodikeia-ad Mare and Seleukeia-in-Pieria in the Hellenistic period, according to John GRAINGER (1990). The maps are drawn on the same scale. These cities had their extensions and city walls dictated by the local physical features like rivers, escarpments, etc.

The list of cities or villages with a natural genesis is sheer endless. Their present position within the framework of quadralectic architecture varies, depending on the relevance for the observer. Their common denominator is a period of human ‘innocence’ during  growth. No preconceived geometric plans were used in the process and the political authorities did not use their power to dictate certain outlays.


Fig. 515 – This ‘natural’ street pattern was seen on the sun-cracked surface of a city plan in Tazacorte on the island La Palma (Spain). The underlying, original plan was almost illegible, since the forces of nature had produced these ‘imaginary’ outlays on the perspex glass.

The cities with a natural plan, following the peculiarities of topography, can be seen as being situated in a Second Quadrant, with ideas shooting in all directions and picking out those which are most practical and useful. If nature is our guide, we could end up with a ‘natural’ street pattern like the one seen on a city sign in Tazacorte on the Spanish island of La Palma (Spain). The sun had cracked the coating of a city map in such a way that a new map appeared, with streets running in a natural pattern (fig. 515). A similar ‘map’ was provided by a painted window in the Netherlands, which had also been exposed to the sun (fig. 516).


Fig. 516 – A painted surface is cracked by the sun on an outside glass window of the Panorama Bollenland in Voorhout (The Netherlands). The Dutch landscape painter Leo Van den Ende (born 1939) finished the large, two-hundred-and-fifty square meter, panorama of the bulb fields in 2008 after eleven years of work.

Natural phenomena can be used as a guideline for city planning, although it was never applied in such a way. Nature, in its most diverse expressions, can provide a master plan, which is just as good as any man-made, artistic proposal. The crack, either caused by the action of heath (the sun) or due to tension (stress), is a way of opening up a surface. This process is comparable with the human intervention in a landscape by  infrastructure. Therefore, city development along stress patterns is a totally natural method and should be valuated as such.

The boundary of the natural (city) plans with the next chapter of human-designed cities is often a gradual one. Nature can dictate an initial start of a concentration of people, but the human mind – of planning and deliberate design – might interfere in the historic process of accumulation at an early stage. Every addition to an existing location needs a subjective decision: what is the distance to the next building and in which direction will the extension progress? A pure ‘organic’ (natural) development should not be opposed to a planned city growth. Man, as an initiator of the building process, is always in command – although the constraints of nature ultimately make the rules.

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