Carlos Sant’Ana (S’A): I would like to ask you what are the main cultural differences you found when you arrived in London. From a cultural background in Beirut into a British way of living. How can that affect your work, both positive and negative….
Ayssar Arida (AA): i think the main difference i would say in this case, to relate it to design and architecture, is the difference between the physical order of both places.
Beirut is one of the most chaotic urban fabrics you will ever encounter, andLondon is one of the most predictable. and as a first impression, most people would say London is better urban space than Beirut . my reaction was that this is not necessary at all, because in spite of all its chaos, Beirut was a much more liveable city.
In the introduction to Quantum City [web or pdf], I tried to define how this cultural clash between the different values given to physical order has affected my understanding of public space, in particular when you confront Beirut to London, and even more extremely, to Oxford, where i spent the first year of living in the UK.
The main difference functions on the level of the ‘social’ fabric, which is where the city – or ‘citiness’ – really is in Beirut , while in London and many western cities, ‘citiness’ is much more present in the ‘physical’ fabric.
S’A: can we talk about the differences between the Latin & Arabic urban space, VS. Anglo-Saxon cities. Chaos VS Order, Sensuality VS Rationalism?
AA: well, one example i always like to give is that in Arabic, the word for “neighborhood” is “hayy”, and this word “hayy” is also the exact same word for “living” or “alive”. if you compare that to European concepts, of “quartier” which is almost purely a geometric word, or a physical word, it feels as if in the Mediterranean/Arabic city, there is a total equivalence between the place and the people. it is not “the people who live in the quarter” it is the “people/hayy”.
S’A: we can say that the city is what the people are…
AA: this translates in many ways into the physical aspect of cities, where we have a much more organic relationship between space and people leading to looser boundaries, and much more permeable territories and definitions. And these apparently loose territories follow in fact their own rules and definitions, that are not necessarily comprehensible to the non-local eye.
What i am trying to say, is that what we call chaotic space is not necessarily bad- it just follows much more human rules: those of the community that lives in it- while the more ‘ordered’ space, i believe, follows the rules of a mechanism that is government. So in the Anglo-Saxon/planned city, you end up with gates and fences and NO-TRESPASSING signs and all kinds of physical hard demarcation edges, as an artificial way to create territory.
In the Mediterranean/non-western cities, most delineation is psychological, perceptual, and sensorial- and the territories are defined by human and social relations.
I believe it all comes from a way of seeing the world that requires these breaking things up into clear defined parts- it is the worldview that came with the Scientific Revolution and has been with us for 3 centuries. Most civilisations that have not gone through the scientific revolution and the creation of the “mechanical wordlview” of Descartes and Newton , never forced their cities into these unnatural moulds.
S’A: That NO TRESPASSING attitude is counter balanced by the RIGHT OF WAY regulations. Meanwhile, the “Chaotic” city, more Human, more free is Self Regulated. These are both paradoxical points of view….
AA: absolutely. The key word is: self-regulation.
S’A: but the scientific revolution was introduced in Europe by Arabic Culture…. mainly in the South, for sure, but the mathematical intelligence spread all over the world…
AA: well i need to make it clear that what i mean here is what i call the “Objective Revolution in Science” really, because i do believe that science has been with us since the dawn of civilization.
So yes, Arabic culture has bridged the eastern and western worlds of knowledge, but it wasn’t until Descartes that science became “scientism”, i.e. when it was declared that the object of science should be limited to purely measurable and quantifiable things, leaving out every subjective notion, including feelings, smells, taste, images, etc.
It worked for a while, you know, it became easy to calculate the trajectory of a cannon ball, but after a while we missed the humanity of science.
S’A: don’t you think that now we getting back to a more humane science?
AA: absolutely, science has almost come a full circle: in the beginning of the 20th century, the advent of quantum theory really kicked subjectivity back into science (i call this the beginning of the “Subjective Revolution”), since then, science has begun to change radically.
Since then, we have had new theories emerge: DNA, fractals, chaos, complexity theory, self-regulation, emergence, etc… and all these are little by little helping us re-unite with the world, and understand nature from a more ecological perspective again. As opposed to the mechanical/objective notion of cutting it all to little pieces we can measure, we are now more willing to watch nature do its thing and understand it as it is…
S’A: i once read in a Greg Lynn book that a Dog can calculate the trajectory of a Frisbee, and catch it in the air. He called that as a perceptual Calculation. The dog doesn’t know complex mathematical formulas, but can calculate the arc of it “on the fly”….i think that “Scientism” is also “Subjective Science”…
AA: i like that idea, but i an not sure i understood what you mean by scientism is subjective science. science is knowledge: so if a dog can know what a Frisbee does, then definitely it is a form of science. In fact, it is intuition, or a built-in set of perception that allows any animal (including us) to comprehend space
S’A: I meant Scientism VS. subjective science. Tell me about your book and the Quantum Theory
AA: the bottom line is, if science itself has accepted subjectivity back into its domain, then isn’t it time for us as designers and city-makers to do the same?
Like the dog catching the Frisbee, we shouldn’t spend our time calculating how to build a city, but trust our intuition- intuition builds better cities, but only if intuition is better informed.
S’A: i like that idea….
AA: and that is the theme of Quantum City: i found that once i read and learnt about the extraordinary new way of looking at the world that quantum theory and the other “new sciences” of the 20th century showed, my whole relationship with space and people and the city was changed…
It felt as if i understood them better, without really having to know exactly how they functioned: i started recognising that the city was made up as much of relationships as of forms, and that allowed me to make peace with a lot of apparent contradictions in my environment.
So in Quantum City , I tried to develop a metaphoric language that could serve as a background with which we can bridge the gap between professional Urban Designers, and the normal citizens – who are in fact the real designers of urban space.
In a lot of ways, my point is that it is impossible to learn about the new knowledge that science has discovered in the last decades without that affecting our way of seeing the world, and hence, of designing it.
And since most of us are never taught anything about all this fascinating world once we’re learning architecture or urbanism for example, I thought a book dedicated to architects and designers talking about the history and philosophy of science and how it has shaped our cities over the centuries might be a good excuse.
S’A: You work with other architects. How do you manage to share your methods with different people, in different projects, and be able to maintain the quality of your work?
AA: an interesting question… well, i generally found that it is much easier to collaborate with people who are familiar with these themes (and if they are not, i tell them about them, and it usually creates a great basis for collaboration).
One of the main themes of QC is the need to find more generic languages to use in multi-cultural and multi-disciplinary collaboration. So in a sense, my ‘style’ changes a lot from one project to the next, because it is never a form i am looking for, but a living organism that would develop into what it wants to be once you put in people. This makes it I think easier for me to collaborate with other architects, but it is also always great to bring non-architects into a project because it always means new perspectives – so it isn’t uncommon for me to brainstorm with film makers or landscape architects or historians when i am doing a competition …
S’A: In my projects I try to work with Strategies and Processes rather than with Formal Approaches. I call it Genetic City (as with the Koolhaas text Generic City ). It’s an Identical approach to yours….
AA: yes! and this is more and more of a trend, which is a good thing! The only problem with it, is that it isn’t really part of our professional culture yet- but it is on its way.
S’A: What did you think of (Manuel de Landa’s) “Thousand years of Non Linear History”?
AA: i thought it was great in showing there could be radically new ways at looking at things- as a call for a change in perspective, it is perfect… as for the text itself- after a while it became repetitive and i lost interest – but I keep promising myself to give it another shot.
S’A: it showed the same strategy in four different areas…
AA: i love these kinds of works – even in literature books or cinema – where you have the same subject treated from different points of view or perspectives), i think they are very important, i just lose interested when they become too self-absorbed.
S’A: I read a lot about Genetics…quite interesting….
AA: i think our generation is the one that will finally break the mould of form and get back to a relational architecture – architecture in the most generic sense: the organisation of information. and that is, in a way, exactly what genetics is about, isn’t it!