At some point in mid-May, my Twitter feed got populated with tweets and re-tweets of photos of an enigmatic hand-drawn city that was taking shape on the wall of a room at Bartlett. Finally, we are able to learn all the details about the project from a fascinating essay called “The Incomplete City”, which was published on Medium by Dan Hill.


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In a previous essay called “The social and the democratic, in the social democratic European city” (also on Medium), Dan Hill reflects on how to design a city from “small pieces, loosely joint”, rather than always only thinking about how to scale-up promising ideas. An “Incomplete City” is one where small-scale projects are designed for the situation at hand, rather than through the traditional “Field of Dreams” model of urban development (“build it and they will come). The core concern of the latter is building large scale aspirational infrastructures (designed with a future vision in mind). The “Incomplete City” futures (in the design sense) not by a coherent vision but through the adaptability of what is left incomplete (my words, not his).

“How do we design an ongoing “Incomplete City”, where each stage of evolution is resolved and purposeful, and yet is open to adaptation, calibration and further growth?” (Dan Hill)

The studio experience with MArch Urban Design students at Bartlett that Dan Hill organised with Joseph Grima, and with the participation of Mark Smout and Marco Ferrari is a prototype of what might happen in these design processes.

In the Incomplete City studio, a fictional city for about 12.000 people that was created through the emergent coordination of small scale ideas that are initially developed at the neighbourhood scale.

In the two-weeks process students drew a collection of urban elements (that formed a library of components), built and described neighbourhoods starting from the individual components, and finally merged all the neighbourhoods in the city on an isometric grid.

Until the final stage of the project (when the city was assembled on the grid), each group of students worked on individual neighbourhoods. Rather than thinking about buildings and infrastructures, students were asked to think about people and ways of living, and how urban elements can be assembled to support these narratives. The resulting neighbourhoods are a reflection of the diversity and complexity of experiences, aesthetics, possibilities that constitute the city. The city emerges from the way these neighbourhoods are assembled and refined through negotiation processes that involve cutting, compromising, creating, and integrating.

There is an element of “I work on one bit, you work on your bit, and then we see how they go together” going on. This reminds me of something I experienced recently during a workshop on Collective Imagery Weaves lead by Priscilla Chueng-Nainby at DRS2016. During the workshop we built 3D structures as a way of collaboratively generating design solutions to a mobility problem. The making of the structures allowed us to develop individual part of an emerging system, rather than struggling to find a coherent shared vision from the very beginning.

Collective Imagery is creative imagery shared by co-designers for conceptual structuring in which the structural connectedness of ideas and data give rise to creative emergence of design concept (Chueng-Nainby & Gong, 2013). It is a theoretical framework informed by practice based workshops based on the Geneplore model by Finke et al’s (1992) which identifies preinventive structure of creative imagery as divergent insight that drives creativity. The basic concept is that “Creative ideas can be structured without being predetermined…some degree of ambiguity in the structure allows new, unanticipated insights to emerge…structural connectedness does not mean that the ideas will be entirely predictable or devoid of opportunities for creative discovery.“ (Ronald A. Finke, 1995, p. 304)
(from Priscilla Chueng-Nainby’s Website)


Mobile structures at DRS2016

The Incomplete City at Bartlett is an experiment, a sort of a prototype, and it is very likely that it won’t be replicated in a professional setting. But it surely is an inspiration for alternatives to the narrative of the “city as an efficient machine” that still dominate the debate in many of the city-related events I have been to in the last couple of years.

The studio is part of a series that Dan Hill and Joseph Grima intend to conduct at Bartlett. I am very curious to see how the concept developed in this first iteration will be developed (or perhaps challenged?) in the next future.




featured image by Diego Ortigoza