Quantum Environments: Urban Design in the Post-Cartesian Paradigm

Thesis Conclusions, 1st PUBLISHED IN URBAN DESIGN International, Vol. 3 No. 3 Sept 1998, Routledge, UK.

An Antipodal Landscape, the Need for a Synthesis
The Cartesian Paradigm
A Post-Cartesian Paradigm: the Quantum World View
A New Conceptual Language
The Society-Space-Time Quantum Continuum and the Role of the User’s Mind
Implications for Urban Form
A Multi-level Framework


Incomparable scientific and technological development has transformed our culture and our lifestyles in ways we fail to comprehend totally. Differential development has dug a deeper chasm between the First and Third worlds, while conversely, communication technology has brought humans closer than ever. Migration and counter-migration has hybridised our cultures and our environments, and globalisation is slowly homogenising the planet.

At the same time, scientists and sociologists are predicting radical changes in our behavioural and thought patterns, to a great extent due to advances in practical technology.

With the approach of the Millennium, the City is undergoing increasing stress to adapt to the new modus operandi of its inhabitants, while retaining a sustainable future. It is the role and the responsibility of the professionals of the urban realm to think and produce – or permit the production – of environments that respond to the expectations, both conscious and unconscious, both current and future, of their users.

Faced with unforeseen new problems and bitter past failures, urbanism seems to be at a loss of a common ground upon which to root its theories. Instead, urban professionals, from planners to designers, and from architects to historians still fall into antipodal dogmas that insist on determinist theories as fail proof solutions to ever changing problems.

The Council of Europe addressed the situation in the ‘European Charter for the City’, better known as the Florence Manifesto of 1992:

Research no longer intends to be a general strategy to be applied on vast subjects – the territory, the city and architectural planning; it’s becoming sectorial with regard to functions, bureaucratic with regard to constraints and regulations irrespective of theories, nostalgic and mimetic with regard to historical problems, formalistic with regard to problems of architectural space.

Research has taken the form of immediate answer to emergencies, avoiding to clarify the general horizon, fearing innovations and increasingly emphasising details, separated from general models.1

After noting “the inadequacy of [current] urban design as an instrument to re-create order”, the Florence Charter calls for “a conceptual “metamorphosis” to meet the complexity of the territory with similarly complex hypotheses, where the interface of planning with real society is as fluid as possible”. Thus, it not only stands in flagrant opposition to the Modernists’ Athens Charter, but also clearly defines the root of the problem as a need for a new conceptual language. This paper is an overview of a recent thesis that proposes to base this new conceptual language on a hyper-metaphor based on quantum theory.
An Antipodal Landscape, the Need for a Synthesis

Looked at in broad terms, theory and practice have split into two camps, both of which, at least in terms of declared positions, see in the Modern period the roots of all evil when it comes to designing urban space. While the Modern agenda focused on its “now” as the sole context of its concerns, post-modern reactionary theory splits between traditionalists and futurists.

The former looks at past traditional forms as the forgotten miracle cure for all the ailments of today’s society, while the latter, like a child blinded by so many new toys, finds in the new imagery and technologies hints of a cyber-future that is bound to happen, a future where real urban space plays a secondary role.

In such a context, architecture and urban design students are forced to choose between two visions: a postcard city frozen somewhere two centuries ago, and a “Sim-city”2 made up of fleeting virtual images possibly inhabitable two centuries from now.

Once out of school and into the world of professional practice – out of the pan and into the fire – these visions become a landscape of bland sub-imitation of ‘traditional’ form in repetitive commercial projects, and a showcase of architectural objects with no urban cohesion in the global arena of corporate image.

Within such a complicated context, our research set out to find a common denominator that could be used as a background theory to both education and practice. One that would permit the coexistence of opposing models, that would learn from the past and still make sense to an (un)certain future, and one that could accommodate change and chaos, while sustaining an evolutionary order.

As Pritzker Prize winner French architect and urbanist Christian de Portzamparc reminds us, there is no point in ignoring the Modern period as if it were a parenthesis in the history of the City. Its mark is here to stay, whether one likes it or not, and its artefacts are part of most European landscapes. Similarly, past forms do not necessarily make sense to today’s user, and even less so to her grandchildren.

Good urban space makes sense to its users, i.e. it relates to them and they relate to it and this mutual interaction happens at both conscious and sub-conscious levels. Space and form are the product of their contemporary culture, but so are users and their culture the product of their social and physical environment. The challenge, then, is to find a stance that mends the urban landscape, at both physical and theoretical levels.

The Cartesian Paradigm

Western culture, unfortunately, has developed, ever since Descartes and Newton, a world view in which Man is totally independent of his environment, where his Reason and his Feeling are totally separate, and body and soul have nothing in common. This world view is referred to as “the Cartesian paradigm”.

Looking back at the historical development of city form, and charting it along that of scientific and philosophical thought, produces a consistent observation: most if not all environments considered as examples of “good urban space” have one thing in common: they did/do not conform to a Cartesian paradigm: the most celebrated examples of good urban space in the Western world have been designed before the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. Conversely the worst disasters of Modern urbanism were made in the name of the “world as a Machine” metaphor…

Eastern cultures, on the other hand, continue to produce urban form that is congruent to their view of a unified universe – of course as long as western-style market forces have not overrode millenary customs – such as Chinese Feng Shui (Ko, 1998).

In all cases, current scientific knowledge should provide the background to any world view, as by definition a world view is the popularisation of scientific and/or religious beliefs.

Interestingly, there seems to be a lag of two or three generations between the date of a major scientific discovery, and its palpable effect on the world view. Ash Hartwell3 proposes that it might have to do with the conservative nature of most educational institutions. The last half century corresponds to this “incubation period” of radical discoveries in science and biology: relativity theory (1905-1925), quantum theory (1930+), DNA, chaos and complexity theories (1950+).

The conjunction of the effects of all these theories with the malaise brought about by the mechanical metaphor, has made many authors (Capra 1982; Prigogine 1984; Zohar 1990,1995; Jencks 1995; Hartwell 1997; Alexander 1997, …) detect a strong paradigm shift, from a Cartesian/Mechanical to an organic/spiritual one.

A Post-Cartesian Paradigm: the Quantum World View

Physics’ “most successful theory ever” (Kaku, 1994), Quantum theory, stands out with the most bewildering philosophical implications to ever hit western scientific objectivism. It throws out all Newtonian determinisms and atomisms in favour of a world made of waves and relationships, rather than a world of solid matter. It brings in subjectivity into the fortress of Cartesian reason, and insists on the role of the human observer in the creation – beyond mere perception – of experimental results.

It is by remembering this role of the users in the creation of their environments, both real and imagined, through objective perception and subjective cognition and re-cognition of space, that new solutions can be reached.

Quantum physics speak of local, contextual reactions to observation methods while at the same time recognising non-local, holistic properties that transcend time and space, and link all elements of human, artificial, and natural space into patterns of dynamic interference.

Transcribed into psychological and sociological models, the quantum world view reunites body and soul, form and meaning, man and nature, intellect and intuition.

It provides a bridge between the social sciences and the natural sciences, or what some term the “soft” and the “hard” sciences. Furthermore, it shows uncanny correspondences with Eastern philosophy and science, and hence hints at a possible new form of universalism that is more ecological than its Newtonian counterpart, which is purely mechanical.

Inspired by the successful adaptation of the quantum metaphor as a model for mental processes (Penrose 1990, 1994), psychological and social behaviour (Zohar 1990, 1993), and enterprise management (MGTaylor, 1997), this research tests the relevance of the quantum world view to the current situation of urbanity, and finds in it a close description of the uncertainty, heterogeneity, non-local globalisation, and dynamic contextualism in society, space and time, of the city at the dawn of the 21st century.

Table 1. The Quantum world view as a synthesis of dualisms
thesis anti-thesis synthesis
particle wave particle/wave duality
Newtonian physics relativity quantum physics
Architecture Planning Urban Design
‘thingy-ness’ ‘relating-ness’
building function
user community
individual society
solo team/group
physical space cognitive space
quantity quality
function art
left brain right brain “Quantum Environments”
space time
design by foresight design by hindsight
utopia retrotopia
Modern Postmodern/deconstruction
Postmodern Pastiche Critical Regionalism
‘Man’ first ‘Nature’ First
determinism acausal nihilism
private public
objectivity subjectivity
analysis intuition
linear random
local global
form meaning
mechanical spiritual/purposive
body soul
physical mental
res extensa res cogita res publica
urbs civitas city

A New Conceptual Language

Western culture recognises the immense power of language – in the beginning was the Word – and therefore, one of the aims of this thesis was to develop a semantic extension to our conceptual language, based on constructs characteristic of quantum physics.

The main and most important quantum construct is the particle/wave duality. Very similar to the Yin-Yang concept, a duality replaces Cartesian antipodal dualism. Instead of the either/or logic of the latter, a duality is based on a both/and logic of complementary aspects: it is both a particle, a wave, and an emergent construct which is the particle/wave. In that sense, it is qualitatively more than a duality, since it is three things in one4 .

The state of a duality is measured through its interaction with other dualities, or more accurately, the interference of its probability wave with that of other dualities. Therefore, it is not possible to isolate a particle anymore as an independent system: each constituent part is more or less strongly linked to each and every other part, any change in its configuration affects and is affected by other elements.

If we define a particle as a localised entity limited in space and time, and a wave as a non-local notion covering unlimited areas of time and space, then it is easy to draw parallels between the (particle:wave) couple and (individual:community), (private:public), (mass:void), (form:function), (man:context), (building:city), (local:global), and so on.

If we take it further, and think of a particle as a quantity, and a wave as a quality, then (particle:wave) compares to (space:society), (artefact:meaning), (place:memory), (stones:culture), (urbs:civitas)5 , (res extensa, res cogita)…

It is clear that in a Cartesian dualist paradigm, each couple represents incompatible and mutually exclusive categories. Even if, intuitively, we recognise no clear separation between these notions, our scientific framework and analytical language limited us to systematic dualisms. Not so in the quantum paradigm.

The quantum metaphor replaces dualism with duality: the (particle:wave) couple becomes one complementary dual-aspect construct: the particle/wave duality.

With the new language, the constituents of a system stop being either particle or wave, and become both particle and wave. The two aspects complement each other, and any system can be described as both, whereas the degree to which it presents itself overall as either, is a probabilistic statistical variable.

This is a difficult notion to get used to by our brains trained by years -centuries!- of dualist logic. But once this new construct is adopted, the description of the urban realm regains its unity, and the full spectrum of intermediate states can be accessed.

Urban space is no more private or public, it is private/public; a user is no more an individual or a community, the user becomes the individual/community duality; a settlement is urban/rural and its patterns of order are spatial/social.

Similarly, no artefact is separated from its inherent meaning, and no meaning exists independently from its context; we are body/soul, and we belong to a place/culture; thanks to modern telecommunication technology, we are local/global and we spend our time in the real/cyber world…

With the re-introduction of the subjective dimension as an inherent quality of all matter, the “memory of place” and issues of cultural identity are reinterpreted as resonances that build up in the mind of multiple users, which then act as “vessels for non-locality”, cognising and re-cognising their environment in different society/space/time contexts.

The Society-Space-Time Quantum Continuum and the Role of the User’s Mind

That same acknowledgement of the social and temporal dimensions of space allows us to introduce the society-space-time continuum as a relativistic construct, a stage for urban life. The S-S-T construct permits – obliges – the designer to think in a way that addresses all the dimensions of the urban realm. It encourages the collaboration with professionals and experts from other disciplines, namely sociology and psychology, history and philosophy.

Another important aspect of the quantum metaphor is the role of the observer’s mind in the creation of the environment. This brings back man into the scheme of things: the urban designer ceases to be an “onlooker” from above, an “overseer”, and becomes more like a professional flâneur involved in the interaction with fellow professionals and users. This is presented through the concept of quantum multi-disciplinary teams, and scenario planning, in one part of the research, and through a new definition of “good urban space” in another part.

The user himself is implicated in the design of urban space, as “good urban space” is defined through a single axiom, as that which “approximates arousal levels to a contextual optimum”, based on the notion that the human mind responds to quantum processes to store memory and meaning. Thus, – in the words of Peter Anders (1998), “Our spatial environment is not only a product of thought, it augments our thought processes. We use space to make us smarter.”6 Good urban design resonates with the mind of its users: it makes sense to them.

Table 2. Relation between the three main oscillators and the three dimensions of the society-space-time continuum. Bold crosses signify most characteristic dimension.
Dimension /
Society Space Time
Human x x x
Artificial x x
Natural x x

Implications for Urban Form

The implications of the new language for urban form are many. By definition, the background hyper- metaphor does not provide guidelines or rules of thumb, as it is based on the concept of uncertainty. It proposes instead some possible interpretations, based on the postulates of a “quantum analysis of the urban realm”.

The most important implication is the inter-penetration and permutation of the three dimensions of the urban realm: society, space and time, and the three constituent elements that represent them: the human, the artificial, and the natural oscillators, or dualities. By admitting that the most important aspect of the human psyche is its recognition and need of a sense of time, and that two elements enclose time and space more than any other: ruins and natural landscape elements, issues of memory, post-war reconstruction, sustainability and landscape based planning can be tackled within a unified framework.

Interestingly, this also provides new insights as to the reason why true traditional environments are invariably more attractive to the city user than modern ones. In other words, if the user’s true sensitivity is to the embedded representation of time and not to form, then alternative ways to embed the sense of time in a new setting might be equally valid: the new metaphor has room for traditionalists (time in form), ecologists (time in landscape elements) and post-structuralists (time in narrative).

Table 3. Main oscillators at initial state of three main development types. Note: negligible oscillation is simplified as none.
main oscillators /
development type
natural setting none none yes
tabula rasa none none none
regeneration yes yes none
“good urban space” yes yes yes

A Multi-level Framework

The quantum metaphor is truly rich with potential: it submits to an important caveat of a good model: using a limited, simple to grasp language, it permits the tackling of a wide variety of subjects. From issues of multi-cultural education, inter-disciplinary collaboration, to composition and management of functions, issues of identity and memory, post-war reconstruction and large scale development phasing, small scale sensory stimulation to global culture… it permits the coexistence of clashing models and theories, and works well at all levels of theory, education, and practice.

The new language proves highly flexible. Therefore, it is a valid option for a background theory. Since it does not imply form, but rather new ways of thinking of form (it provides the vocabulary and the grammar… the style and story are left to the author), it can be used as a universal mending and mended framework for thought.

We have to describe and to explain a building the upper story of which was erected in the nineteenth century; the ground-floor dates from the sixteenth century, and a careful examination of the masonry discloses the fact that it was reconstructed from a dwelling- tower of the eleventh century. In the cellar we discover Roman foundation walls, and under the cellar a filled-in cave, in the floor of which stone tools are found and remnants of glacial fauna in the layers below. That would be a sort of picture of our mental structure.7

Jung uses the metaphor of a layered building to describe our mental structure. How interesting it would be if it turns out that the same metaphor that actually rules our mind accurately describes our cities.

If the human brain truly functions according to quantum processes, then a “quantum theory of the city” might be exactly what is lacking to describe man’s most ambitious artefact.


A new paradigm is taking shape through the bringing together again of natural and social sciences. Slowly but surely, a new world view is being disseminated through popular and academic literature. It is now the role and responsibility of urban designers to translate this new world view into real places, that involve their users in a new creative dialogue with their environment.

Our research has laid down the first step towards a series of urban design theories and models that use the quantum paradigm as a background metaphor. it is hoped that the basic work undertaken here will be adopted and built upon in future research. The quantum metaphor is pregnant with possibilities that can only be partially addressed here. Its implications on philosophy are tremendous, and it is bound to shape the 21st century just as the Cartesian paradigm has shaped the 20th. But far from any Hegelian interpretations, it must be stressed that unlike previous world views where the current metaphor was unconsciously bred into each individual’s education, the dissemination of the new language should be actively and consciously adopted. Each organised activity or discipline should participate in the creation of a unified framework for thought.

At the time of this writing, Christopher Alexander is putting the final touches to his three-volume, thirty- years-in-the-making work titled “the Nature of Order”. It focuses on the new world view based on the new sciences, and will be the first major work published by an internationally recognised architect in the dissemination of the new language. Critics already claim it “may prove to be one of the most consequential works Oxford has published in all its 500 years”8 . Our own research aims to be a small participation from urban design in an agenda that – hopefully – might soon become commonplace.


1. Council of Europe, Centro Internazionale Di Studi Sul Disegno Urbano, 1992, European Charter for the City.
2. SimCity 2000 is a popular computer simulation game whose aim is the building and management of a city.
3. Ash Hartwell, “Scientific Ideas and Education in the 21st Century”, the 21st Century Learning Initiative, available electronically [http://www.newhorizons.org/ofc_21cliash.html]
4. A very interesting alternative to Cartesian dualism is presented in Roger Nifle, 1996, “La Trialectique: Sujet – Objet – Projet” , available electronically, [http://www.institut-coherences.fr/ECRITS/TEXTES/DOCUMENT/trial.htm]
5. Saint Isidore of Seville (ca. 560-636) traced in his Etymologies the origins of the word city to different sources: the urbs, or stones of a city, laid for “practical reasons of shelter, commerce and warfare” – and civitas, “the emotions, rituals and convictions that take form in a city” (Sennet, 1990, p.11). Thus, the urbs and the civitas could also be defined as the physical and the cultural (or political), or, in the language of quantum theory, as the particle and the wave aspects that make up the city. Peter Anders, Cybrids, in Convergence, Spring 1998, vol. 4 no 1, p.87.
6. we define the “building blocks” of the urban realm as three main types of oscillators, where oscillator means duality in the sense that each oscillator has a “particle” aspect that acts as a source of “wave” aspects, oscillating between complementary extremes.
7. C.J. Jung, Contributions to Analytical Psychology, quoted in Architecture and Urbanism, June 1994, p.23.
8. William McClung, special project editor for Oxford University Press, former senior editor of the University of California Press. Quoted in Salingaros, available electronically [http://www.math.utsa.edu/sphere/salingar/NatureofOrder.html#reviews]








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This started as the companion site to Ayssar Arida''s first book, Quantum City. It now includes a growing set of the author''s writing and his blog.