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Grey Britain: Misery, urbanism & neuroaesthetics

View of London from the Sky Garden (source: skygarden.london).

“We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions. We thrash about and are a danger to ourselves and the rest of life.” – E.O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of the Earth (2012).

In a previous article I have discussed the use of simple patterns to interpret the complexity of nature and the human interface with it. Here, I will illustrate this concept on a larger canvas, discussing this interface, between nature and social systems, more thoroughly. This final article, in the series on inter-disciplinary work I have written for the University of Bristol Cabot Institute for the Environment, is partially motivated by my personal interest in the cycle of urbanism, the associated architecture and concepts. It is also motivated by a project I followed closely during a past flirtation with living and working in London and the comparable changes I see happening around me in Bristol, where I currently live and work.
Billboard #1 from London is Changing project (source: londonischanging.org).

‘London is Changing’ was an arts project undertaken by Dr. Rebecca Ross at Central St. Martins in 2015. It highlighted the effects of economic policy in the capital by displaying the stories of individuals relocating in, out and within the capital, out of choice and necessity, on billboards around the city. On one level, this project introduced me to the plight of individuals whose movements are determined by expropriation, economic policy or various other processes largely beyond their control. On another level, it gave me an insight into the emotional response this change in environment can invoke in those undertaking such change.

Indeed, as modern society has ridden the wave of an economy of concentrated wealth creation the transient notion of moving somewhere new for education or employment has become a perceived norm. Yet, there is a polarising undercurrent to this wave, in which generations of individuals face the prospect of never being able to afford to permanently root themselves to the environment, where the terms ‘gentrification’ and ‘displacement’ have come to define the nature of settlement and where our demand, and in some cases, expectation, of a ‘home’ is placing an unsustainable strain on ourselves, materials, space and the environment at large. Be it due to social, economic or environmental causes, these trends are effectively driving people further from their familiar habitat and immediate social connections, which leads to social destabilisation – a key contributing factor of societal vulnerability.
Billboard #2 from London is Changing project (source: londonischanging.org).

The inter-environmental patterns of displacement and resettlement are as intriguing as they are worrying. Similarly, a concept related to this physical displacement, the notion of intra-environmental displacement is one which can set the foundations of an unstable social system. This is to say, an emotional displacement characterised by a detachment created through rapid physical change of the surrounding environment, one that can enhance the disconnection between people and their environment and, in some cases; other people. Notionally linked to gentrification, urban renewal or regeneration is part of the cycle of urbanisation and whilst it does not immediately or physically displace a person from the environment, it’s effects are becoming more documented and this is to a largely negative fanfare.

Drawing on the personal experience of having worked and socialised with residents of the recently regenerated Heygate, Aylesbury, the (old) south Kilburn Estates in London and coupling this with my academic work and interest, I have given great consideration to the phenomena of intra-environmental connection and disconnection. Indeed, the initial results of my own research with flooding and social systems is conspecific with the kind of systematic social change discussed in this article, differing only in temporal scale, whereby enhanced social interaction has the potential to negate the detrimental effects of uninvited change, be it rapid onset as is the case with a flood inundation or prolonged onset via environmental redevelopment, to the structure of the social system. Observing the changes currently taking place in Bristol, at Temple Quarter and along the southern bank of the Avon, I feel urgency in the need to communicate the detrimental potential of poor foresight, as well as the positive potential of implementing new approaches, in urban development and renewal of any kind.

The Biophilic Hypothesis, P2P Urbanism & Neuroasthetics

Biophilia is a term that was first introduced by psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in 1973’s ‘The anatomy of human destructiveness’ to describe a “passionate love of life and all that is alive”. One only needs to pause for a moment to consider this term in relation to current global affairs to concur with the author in his estimation that it is distinctly lacking from the zeitgeist of our time. 

Biologist and foremost proponent of sociobiology, E.O. Wilson later utilised the term to describe “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life”. Wilson has suggested that this urge, to affiliate and connect with one another, other species and the natural environment at large is a biological necessity in the continuation of our species. Furthermore, Wilson has also suggested that a true or complete biophilic environment would be one that provides an appropriate habitat and home whilst also naturally connecting the human to the environment via the promotion of natural social and environmental connections. The biophilic principle has acted as the inspiration and catalyst for a divergence in thinking related to modern urban theory.

The structure of life I have described in buildings is deeply and inextricably connected with the human person and with the innermost nature of human feeling
 – Christopher Alexander, Nature of Order (1963).

Nikos Salingaros and Christopher Alexander, leading design theorists, polymaths and ardent critics of modern architectural design, have suggested in their works that a historic shift in urban architectural design accompanying post-world war II urbanisation, based on a supposed ideal concept of order over function or form, has become a pseudo-standard leading to a widespread loss of environmental identity at the human scale within the built environment initially through sprawl and latterly grand-scale, monoculture. 

This loss of identity occurs through a number of routes, aesthetically via design or use of distally sourced materials, unclear structural purpose via desired use of the structure superseding local need or location via dramatic replacement of a visually recognisable building of historic or social importance. Salingaros and Alexander have suggested that this loss of identity lends itself to a loss of societal orientation and has partially or fully led to the proliferation of all things from social polarisation to the increasing rates of mental ill health in urbanised areas.

Drawing influence from Wilson’s concept of concilience, Salingaros has proposed many alternative solutions for the reconciliation of urban development at the human scale, solutions which are based on rigour with a view to addressing future human needs and ambitions. One of the most ambitious and rigorous of these solutions is P2P Urbanism

P2P Urbanism is a process of open-source urban intervention carried out cooperatively across a spectrum of people and agencies with vested interest in the evolution of their urban environment, not just architects and city planners. It is primarily based on the application of analogous techniques of file sharing and open-source software with design patterns generated by Christopher Alexander. The idea underpinning P2P being that it is a reflection of the human elements available for input and so, theoretically, will reflect the very needs and ambitions of those engaging with the process. Thus, with greater engagement, across a broad spectrum of human groups and agencies, P2P can potentially address the need for reconnection of the urban environment at a human scale whilst offering progressive alternatives to urban sprawl and monoculture through Alexander’s designs; a potentially true reflection of us in the environment within which we reside. With Bristol’s burgeoning IT-centric industry, the potential a concept like P2P has to illicit a desirable trend of urbanisation, one which fosters a reconnection between people and place, is great.

Jinu Kitchely states, in her 2015 article on Fractals in Architecture, that “architecture as an art form enjoys the privilege of spatiality in addressing human perception and sense.” A complete biophilic environment would be one which fully addresses human perception and sense, “architects who have responded to this instinctive need, by going beyond structural constraints and catered to the emotional needs of the user, have historically achieved much more than the creation of mere shelters.” An obvious source of inspiration for the biophilic environment is nature, with many architects and designers “probing vehemently into the nature of natural forms and organisms to identify and understand the great concepts of the master designer.” 

A key concept of the biophilic principle, as applied to architectural design, is the incorporation of nature’s morphology iteratively in the urban re-shaping process. I have previously spoken about how complexity arises from fractal systems, the basic quality of fractal geometry being that it is iteratively-defined – it must be described in terms of steps involving the result of previous steps. Over infinity, fractal generation is recursive and so, in theory is infinitely complex. Benoit Mandelbrot stated in his seminal book ‘The Fractal Geometry of Nature’ that the physical manifestation of this theory, of objects substituting themselves for copies of themselves, can be seen all around us and is the basic process that underpins all living things. Christopher Alexander’s analogue for this is that of a bone’s form which, evenly distributes structural stress across its surface, emerges as a result of a biological program telling cells to add bone mass where stress is likely to be greatest and so is an example of physical and structural feedback shaping the object.
Analysis from Richard Taylor’s research suggests that eye patterns traced from observations of Jackson Pollock’s paintings (left) elicit a significant physiological response in the posterior of the human brain that reduces stress through pattern recognition (right) (source: blogs.uoregon.edu).

Professor of Physics, Psychology and Art at the University of Oregon, Richard Taylor has created an interdisciplinary team that investigates the physiological response of humans when they observe these fractal patterns. Termed fractal expressionism, using work produced by Pollock and Escher, Taylor’s team has found that the format in which people examine these patterns can elicit a positive physiological response, one which reduces stress as the fractal structure of the human visual cortex resonates with the fractal image identified. From the discovery of fire by early humans to the evolution of contemporary artistic concepts, neural and physiological sense and response to natural, iterative patterns of the world around us has been influential in directing the evolution of the human brain and its emotive response system. From this understanding, it seems logical to assume that the structures we build in the environment around us possess the potential to have an impact on this system too.

Connection & disconnection



Images of the Heygate Estate, Elephant and Castle, London taken in 2014 pre-demolition, post-expropriation. (source: top middle by Tom O'Shea. Bottom: LDNGRAFITTI.co.uk

Now, as this colloquy reaches a coda it feels important to illustrate some examples of successes and failures in respect of that which is written above. The images directly above, taken of the Heygate Estate in London once all residents had been removed from the large estate complex; some forcibly others under enforced willingness – as their lifelong homes were subject to a compulsory re-purchase at 40% of their actual value. The images depict discontent and anger, indeed more damning than the enormous displacement of a strong community under duress, is that the majority of flats and houses built on the land of the Heygate have been sold to overseas investors for a price vastly above what the old flats were purchased for. It is clear that this style of urbanisation is one which fosters a disconnection between people and place.
The iconic Trellick Tower, Westbourne Park, London. Considered an eyesore in its early days and symbol of failure for the utopian architectural ideals of the ‘streets in the sky’ movement of the 60’s. The brutalist structure is now credited as a glowing success of how distinct architectural style can connect a community (source: architectsjournal.co.uk).

Just one and a half miles away from the Heygate is Trellick tower. Ernö Goldfinger’s brutalist 70’s masterpiece, designed as a positive response to the ‘architecture of doom’ employed by the Nazi’s during WWII. The tower employed biophilic facets of utilitarian materials and purpose to create an iconic aesthetic that emphasised robust and reliable living spaces for residents with community as a centrepiece. In the years since its completion, the tower has had a fair share of criticism but has since emerged as an iconic element of the London skyline, an aesthetic centre-point of the city’s urban fabric and one which is now seen as a triumph of biophilic ideals. Much like Corbusier’s Chandigarh and Bofil’s La Murilla Roja, Trellick made the needs of the human scale a priority, with form and function evolving from there. Chandigarh is consistently seen as the standard of how biophilic ideals can be applied to planned cities, Corbusier’s design for the city was based on the human body, and Bofil’s La Murilla, a community housing project in Alicante, looked to connect the residents with the cliffs into which it was built and the sea below, whilst providing a stimulating and iconic aesthetic to foster the sense of a unique community.

Images of La Murilla Roja (top) and The Palace of Assembly, Chandigarh (bottom) (source: Wikipedia).

These iconic buildings and cities contain unique community characteristics, and this is because they incorporate a consideration for just that. As British cities expand to cope with demand and greenfield sites are increasingly developed to provide affordable housing, the concepts discussed above, and examples highlighted throughout, must be considered with a view to sustainable progress. Trellick tower, Chandigarh and the like provide an iconic representation of a time and a place in our relationship with the built and natural environments, they can provide inspiration for what is possible. 

Concepts like Salingaros’ P2P urbanism offer an inclusive approach for the future development of cities, currently or due to be, undergoing great change; like Bristol. Ultimately, systematic social vulnerability is a complex convolvulus of interactions on a vast spectrum of scales, addressing it should be a priority and opening the avenues of investigation outlined above is one way to begin.

Sir Denys Lasdun, said of the architect’s job as being “Not to give a client not what he wants but what he never dreamed that he wanted; and when he gets it, he recognises it as something he wanted all the time.” By considering how to connect us with our urban environments more, through the conduit of nature and the biophilic, the author believes that the process of urbanisation can afford us with a sense of place far beyond our dreams and more importantly, one which we should have had all the time. Failing this, follow the advice of the billboard below and enjoy the gifts of nature before they are consumed by the belligerent grey beast of indifferent urbanisation.
Billboard #3 from London is Changing project (source: londonischanging.org).
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This blog was written by Cabot Institute member, Thomas O’Shea, a Ph.D. Researcher at the School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol. His interests span Complex Systems, Hydrodynamics, Risk and Resilience and Machine Learning.  Please direct any desired correspondence regarding the above to his university email at: t.oshea@bristol.ac.uk
Thomas O'Shea


Read Thomas' other blogs in this series:


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