Bionic City’s hypothesis most certainly rejects the trend to homogeneity in design and architecture. In all my studies of ecology, both at a species and ecosystem level, it’s evident that heterogeneity is the norm, wherein species, and in turn ecosystems, may have common traits, but are adapted at a local level. Indeed, heterogeneity is so central to the physicality of living things as for it to be expressed at the individual level, as we see in our own species. It’s not coincidental that humans all look different; our features hint at our ancestral past and were born of practical evolutionary adaptations to our surroundings. This is one of the reasons there is such great variance in the biodiversity of the world.
Therein, the hypothesis I’m working with assumes that whether at the building or the city scale, all places, to a lesser or greater degree will be heterogeneous in the Bionic City. However, while the causation of this heterogeneity is practicality, the results would arguably be more aesthetically interesting than a mass production approach to design. Subjective though that statement may be, it is backed up by millennia of data on cities and their cultural and social interfaces. Individuality is central to the human condition; we like to differentiate ourselves as individuals and as groups. In that respect modern man is no different to our tribal ancestors.
There is growing evidence that many a developer’s notion of progress is at stark odds with that of the communities that live in the places where significant amounts of new development is unfolding. Take for example my observations when I was in India earlier this year. Most of the visual representations of India’s future cities were acutely homogeneous in design and looked much the same as other plans for other cities about the rest of the world; all towering straight lines, glass and occasional balconies, with the odd patch of greenery dotted about ground level. From a functional perspective, many of these building types are less efficient than some of the centuries old architecture about the region. While ‘passive’ heating and cooling, and rainwater harvesting are thought by some to be the ‘new’ thing, their origins stretch back millennia. Ecologically the developers’ designs are most often equally, if not even more obnoxious, presenting little, if any opportunity for indigenous and migratory insects, birds and mammals to utilize the architecture, which is not the case with the traditional Indian architectural styles. Socially and culturally most of the new development proposals fail in equal measure, for while some may chirp that the developers are ‘giving the people what the people want’, the on-the-ground interviews my colleague and I conducted indicate otherwise. Whether interviewing slum dwellers or staff and students at the most prestigious regional institutes, rickshaw drivers or shopkeepers, mechanics or engineers, citizens wanted cities that accommodated their cultural and spiritual needs, including a close relationship with nature and places for contemplation and worship, amongst other things. The men and women that we interviewed felt left out of the decision making progress – ignored and abandoned, and some were understandably angry with this. I made many other observations during the trip, however, the long and the short of it is that a great many of the new urban developments that I witnessed were more out-dated in their thinking than that of some of the ancient architectural ruins I visited.
Humans, just like other animals, have many different physical, cultural and social needs. Shoehorn us into places that don’t meet those needs and you unravel a hornet’s nest of problems. Some try to frame a love of nature as psycho-emotional babble. Science says otherwise. Umpteen studies indicate people are happier and healthier in an around nature. Is homogeneity merely a result of poor research and ignorance on the part of some developers? This is a possibility, though I think a more significant factor is the current economic model. Most developers buy a plot of land, stick something on it and flog it to whomever will buy it, and upon doing so, retain no long-term responsibility regarding how effective the building performs at a social, cultural, ecological and/or resource level. There are exceptions to the rule, and the UK and Europe is generally performing fairly well in this regard, as illustrated by the strategies being employed by companies like Skanska.
The heterogeneity inherent in the Bionic City approach is one of the reasons that I have not yet sketched the city, only facets thereof. Its hypothesis isn’t seeking to present a prescriptive design aesthetic, as did Modernism. It’s instead concerned with behaviors, characteristics, relationships and the systems these form. Of course, I consider how Bionic City’s genetics may express themselves in physical form. However, for now at least, I’m working with the basic building blocks of the city – its early evolutionary stage. Attempting other than this would be pure speculation, not science. Luckily I like the idea that rather than single-handedly sketch the city, as did Frank Lloyd Wright with Broadacre City or Le Corbusier with Ville Radieuse, it’s a collaborative process. Again, reverting to the point above on discovery in design, co-creating a city with like-minded souls presents more opportunity for surprise, and that’s a very attractive prospect!