5. The structuralist renaissance

A public space in Guanajuato, Mexico.

“By far the greatest and most admirable form of wisdom is that needed to plan and beautify cities and human communities.”
— Plato, The Republic

How can we sum up these scientific and philosophical lessons for designers? I would suggest that they point us toward a profound reformation of the methodologies of design — methodologies that will, in their essential outlines, be less like the creative processes of artists, and more like the diagnostic processes of physicians. (It is important to note that the artist’s creativity is certainly not eliminated, but is re-integrated into a larger process.) Or, to use another useful metaphor, our design approach might be less like that of a carpenter (planning and blueprinting a structure, then milling, cutting, assembling, etc.) than that of a gardener (planting seeds, watering, pruning, weeding, building trellises, etc.) As Jacobs and Alexander remind us, we must plan for the unplanned, and design for emergence. And there is indeed a rational discipline for doing so.

Broadly speaking, we might describe the steps in such a design process as follows:

Several other important consequences flow from this as well:

The last point is worth dwelling upon. For several generations we have taken a largely reductionist, tabula rasa approach to design, imagining that we can “start from scratch” and “use our imagination” and assemble elemental structures to compose wonderful, functional, effective designs. But we can now see this for the dangerous fallacy that it is. We can see that we have relied too heavily upon only one of the principal strategies of design synthesis — that of reduction and re-combination — and we have failed to understand the power of induction and differentiation.

There is another, related danger of the modern fundamentalist method. It is in the inherent danger of abstractions, to lure us away from the discipline of rigorous adaptivity, and into the enchanting realm of pure abstract synthesis. Alfred North Whitehead touched on this theme often, and nowhere better than when he noted, in his 1938 book Modes of Thought:

Mankind is distinguished form animal life by its emphasis on abstractions. The degeneracy of mankind is distinguished from its uprise by the dominance of chill abstractions, divorced from aesthetic content.

Or, we might add, it is distinguished by abstractions that provide their own derivative aesthetic qualities, which can be dangerously disconnected from the immediate realities of place and life.

There are many other implications awaiting further development. We summarize several of the most notable here:

This discussion is by necessity the briefest overview of a vast and burgeoning subject. But we hope it does suggest the progress that awaits, and the many avenues that are available for further development.

Moreover, as we hope this discussion has shown, we now stand at a critical kind of culmination, and, we can hope, the beginning of a new chapter, of a very long historical dialogue on mereology, hylomorphism, and idealism. In a sense, we have not strayed far from Hellenic culture — and indeed, in modernity we find that we have returned to our own philosophical origins, where, in the words of T.S. Eliot, we “know the place for the first time.” We have come back to Plato’s idealism, in the patterns and the structural attractors of modernity; and we have come back to Aristotle’s hylomorphism, in modern complexity science, and in Alexander’s structure-preserving transformations. And yet, we have also taken important steps to transcend them, and to resolve age-old apparent paradoxes between matter and value, and form and life. If this is true, then it may free us from the prison of our former ideas, and place us on the edge of a veritable renaissance of structural and qualitative possibility, within our technology, and within our culture. May that much-needed renaissance begin.