Friday, September 04, 2009

Valparaiso: an Architect's Dream

Often I'd asked myself: how do I envisage the perfect city? Where could it be located? how could it evolve? What kind of dominant architecurtal style could it have?

On the matter of Urban Development and Town Planning, there are two things of notes that could lead to minor disasters:

1) Excessive regulations on the part of the city authorities always lead to monotony and boredom.

Aleppo is a very fine example of this. The first building manual was issued on 1972 (if I remembered correctly), it was a small booklet of 25 pages. By the year 2000, its amendments amounted to 400 pages. The strict building code was good to rein in the greedy builders, but it produced the most monotonous city ever built. Have a look here, and here. This is one of the affluent neighbourhoods. It's called New Aleppo. The building code allows for two floors. You see boxes clad in stone (beautifully ornate as it they may be), with balconies all around. The only window for creativity being how to throw around columns at the perimeter. Builders spend six month erecting the structure and then go on for years cutting, trimming, sculpting, beveling and embossing pieces of stone together in tacky intricate designs. It's unbelievably lame and uninspiring. Other areas, where the building codes allows for 5 floors, are even more hideous.

2)Lack of regulations, corruption, poverty or lenient enforcement of zoning regulations could lead to chaos, shanty towns and neighbourhoods with open sewer and unhappy children.

There are many evidence of this. Take the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon for instance. They started out as tent cities to host refugees, and when it turned out the stay would be long and the tents won't do, the haphazard building process had started. This is also true for many of the slums around the middle east and other developing countries. The outcome is unpleasant to say the least. The buildings are so bunched up together that natural light and ventilation are a rarity.

Usually, even when an architect like myself makes a statement that is, for some, deemed political (like the cruelty of living in slums and the need to get rid of them), we do acknowledge that the matter is much bigger than the realm of urban planning. Town planners and architect MIGHT be able to tell you what's wrong and what's right. Or how to make a wrong right. but we can't tell you how to get the funds to make it.

So is there must a compromise between heavy regulation and chaotic evolution? I believe there is. There are cities around the world that had developed with the least involvement of city authorities. I'm not suggesting that regulations will always have a negative impact, far from it. But the planner should allow for fair amount of creativity on the part of the architects. Decentralize municipal control and allow communities to organize themselves locally.

This is best seen in an organic development of a city. There will be a focal point, be it a seaport, an airport, a dam, an industrial complex..etc.. And around that focal point the city will grow. Now, imagine if that focal point is linear in shape, like a sea front, and that it takes a meandering course along one side of the city. Now, add to that an array of hills, canyons and winding ridges, all gently sloping down to the sea front. Let's also envision a breath-taking natural scenery of green forests that the city planners and residents are conscious not to utterly murder. Coincidentally, let's suppose that architects and residents are adamant on painting their buildings and houses in an endless spectrum of colors that defies order and challenge the scenery around it for the attention of the beholder.

Finally, imagine cable cares and the first public library in South America.

Imagine the great pacific ocean as an imposing background for all the above setting.

You get Valparaiso!


moryarti said...

A bit of progressive control isn't bad, but too much control will, like you said, make a city like something out of Huxly's Brave New World..

I like, for example, what the government does in Oman... Muscat's homogeneous landscape is very relaxing to the residents and visitors, in my opinion. It also helps maintain an identity.

Abu Kareem said...

Makes me want to visit Valparaiso; some of the pictures remind me a little of San Francisco, my favorite North American city. Sometimes, when the geographical setting is stunning, you have to try hard to screw it up.

DJ, I like your urban planning philosophy. You should be advising the people responsible for planning the future of Damascus.

Dubai Jazz said...


There will always be regulations. Total abandonment of regulations is fatal: like fuel-based power plants, according to most codes, should be at least 50 KMs away from the nearest urban development. Otherwise people will be severely hit with the pollution.

Now, notice that the above criteria isn't followed even in countries were there are regulations in place (but that is another story, it's a mixture of ignorance and apathy)

Dubai Jazz said...

Abu Kareem,

Welcome back, it's been a while.

Your observation is spot-on! in fact, Valparaiso is called, among other things "little San Francisco"

Not sure I'm qualified enough for a colossal job like future planning of Damascus. And anyway, not sure if I'd fit with the rest of the team either ;)

KJ said...

How does the 50km rule apply in the Dubai? I was coming back from the capital and passed by Dubai Marina where I saw the yellow fumes from the Jebel Ali plants floating through the buildings of Marina!

Dubai Jazz said...


But those aren't fuel based power plants, are they? or maybe they are but of a smaller scale. The one power plant near Aleppo (which was the reference point in this case) had gigantic chimneys..

BuJassem said...

Good to see u post about Architecture :)

Dubai Jazz said...

Bu Jassem,

Yallah, do we get an engineering post now?!

BuJassem said...

Looool an engineering post ya DJ?

I am so happy i got back to blogging, and an engineering post would cause what's left of my readers to evaporate hehe

ok, seriously, what topic do you want me to address?

structural dynamics? why do buildings need foundations? why do workers wear a hat? what are cranes for? why can't they build buildings faster? etc

or you can suggest a tobic!

alternatively i was thinking of a Part 2 to the driving post.. either add another 10 or 20 points or maybe a dedicated post to all those lovely women drivers.

when done with women, we can go for indians, then emiratis, then truck drivers, then pedestrians, then motorcyclists, then cyclists (like the pathan gardner that can balance a whole lawnmower on his bike).. no one will be left out.. don't worry :)

Dubai Jazz said...

Bu Jassem,

It was great enough to have you back in the blogging world. So I'm not going to be demanding. :)

be it as it may, I think engineering/architectural posts are not as boring as you might think. It's like science reporting (if I may use the comparison), the trick is in laying the harcore information for laymen to understand. I'm not saying I'm good at it though, it's just that I try, and at least people have not given up on my blog completely yet :)

BuJassem said...

mashkoor ya rayaaal..

khalas, i might write a more technical post about dubai metro then.. i been in love with the TBMs and the choice of route and the different probs they encountered below the ground that ppl have no clue about.

honestly, the easy bit of metro construction was building all the tracks above the ground.. the hard bit that no one notices or appreciates is all the tunnelling. and if they waited till another 10 yrs i'd say the metro project as we know it would be almost impossible. we love high rise which means piles which means basically no to tunnels.. you can only go under streets and as u seen they chose to go ABOVE streets.. coz u have so many services (M&E stuff) under streets etc..

Dubai Jazz said...

Bu Jassem,

Here you go!

You already got me intrigued. Waiting for this post.