The 70-Year-Itch or the Dawn of the Quantum City

First published in THE PLANNED CITY? Proceedings of the International Conference, A. Petruccioli et al (ed.), Trani, 2003, vol.3, p.1006.
Published in CON.TEXT: (Theorising) History in Architecture, Elisabeth Tostrup & Christian Hermansen (ed.), Oslo, 2003, p.201.

The Ancient Egyptians built gigantic tombs to bury one man at great human and economic expense, the Greeks deployed immense effort to design temples of perfect proportions yet of no real function, the Romans imposed military grids on far colonies throughout their Empire… the early catholic church separated the City of God from the City of Man, building the sublime into the perfection of cathedrals, consciously leaving the rest of the city to rot in open sewers and disease. The Age of Enlightenment built whole cities as universities and devised the first utopias; the Moderns froze time, built cities as machines and hoped the atomisation of functions would automatically lead to a better society. Post-moderns reacted by splitting broadly into mutually exclusive isms, each looking for a re-integration of time into their space through different means…

The common theme throughout this string of civilisations and cultures, from the earliest agrarian settlement to the latest virtual utopia, is the constant dialogue between popular belief and city form.

What has really changed is the nature and source of this belief. Historically, belief has been built upon experience, superstition, religion, tradition, science, or ideology. Belief is synonymous with worldview: what we believe to be the forces that shape the world eventually affects –consciously and unconsciously- every action, reaction or relation we undertake, both as individuals and as a civilisation. This of course transpires through our methods of production, from cultural production to consumable artefacts to architecture and city form…

In other words, the worldview, once expressed as part of a collectively understood metaphor (or paradigm), becomes the interface between belief and city form.

We can see three broad paradigms containing our worldviews and cities in history: Age I: the Organic paradigm, Age II: the Mechanical paradigm, and Age III, what I call the Quantum paradigm. Following are some examples of these paradigms at work, with sub-periods defining the different worldviews within each age. It seems that, at least in the latter stages of civilisation, there is a recurring 70-year lag between the development of a paradigm-changing idea, and the actual widespread adoption of that change.

This represents the two to three generations required for people born in the same period as the new idea to grow up using its everyday technical and technological applications, being exposed to its effects in art and literature (the earliest adopters of new ideas), perhaps eventually taking up positions in education (the slowest adopter!). The next generations, for whom that original idea is merely common knowledge, then grow into positions of power and responsibility, allowing for the original shift to be given effective applications.

AGE I: the Organic paradigm

Sacred Ritual

Priests-planners of the Ancient World, Mesopotamians and Egyptians, Aztecs and Mayan laid out their cities in relation to astrology, the position of the planets, or the path of the sun. The Celts positioned their temples, houses and settlements according to invisible subterranean force fields they called ‘telluric fields’; Ancient Asians and Native Americans planned their settlements according to geomancy, a science based on the symbolism and powers of the geographic context and natural landscape elements. The belief was linked to superstition bred from experience, requiring them to respect the forces of nature, which only the priests and the magi’s, or the druids could comprehend. (Today, some of these beliefs continue in muted down form, e.g. Feng Shui)


The Greek civilization brought about the idea of philosophy as the true search for knowledge and meaning. The complementary ideas of Plato, the idealist, and Aristotle, the practicalist, were to shape this new world ‘in which individual and thinking man had arrived’ . Their temples and monuments showed ‘poise’ and ‘centeredness’, while their belief in the central importance of man to nature, both physically and mentally, led to the anthropomorphic systems of proportion being complemented by rational and philosophical systems such as Platonist geometry or Pythagorean harmonics.


The adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire by Constantine in 330AD, lead to the spread of a totally new worldview that needed to be given physical form. Hence the first basilicas appeared in Rome; the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Holy Sepulchre on Golgotha, and the church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem created physical bookmarks on the land of Christ. in the 6th century AD, St Isidore de Seville devoted himself to transforming St Augustine’s vision of a City of God into real glass and stone. While most cities of the Roman empire fell into ruin, blind faith in the divine power of the Church and its protective hierarchy allowed the growth and development of such cities as Paris or Milan… one of the responsibilities of the Church, to provide shelter, can for example be seen in the concept of the church building itself as sanctuary, separated from the rest of the urban fabric by a ‘no-mans-land’, or a locality of immunity, that would serve as buffer between the sanctity of the place, and the vile, awkward hinterland.


The period of turmoil that accompanied the first millennium of the Christian era, came to be seen by the intellectuals of the Quattro cento as quite a dark age. As a reaction, they looked at the revival of ancient Roman and Greek values, including an artistic/philosophical worldview that was again focused on the world of Man and Nature, instead of just the world of God. Inversing St Augustine dichotomy between the City of God and the City of Man, they went about redesigning their buildings and urban spaces as meaningful, beautiful works of art. In the Renaissance’s new quest for beauty, centered upon man’s mind and gaze, a new character developed: the multi-tasking, multi-talented genius. The Michaelangelos and the Leonardos became inventors and artists, engineers and urban designers. They lead the cultural production of the period through a strong belief in the importance of Technique as the true witness of human capacity for individuality and self-sufficiency. That is the age that invented chiaroscuro and perspective and used them to religiously shape all its artistic production.

The common theme that runs throughout this first age from Antiquity up to the 16th century, is one of a strong organic (even spiritual) bond between man and nature. In a way, nature was always looked upon as a nurturing mother whose sanctity was to be respected, in what we would call today an ecological or organic paradigm. We look back today at the cities built in those periods with a sense of awe and respect, and teach in our universities and our tourist books that somehow those cities were ‘better’ than the ones we built in the latter age…

In 1609, Galileo proved beyond doubt Copernicus’ hypothesis that the sun, not the earth, was at the centre of the universe, spectacularly discrediting both Bible and Church. The official worldview supported by the Church began to crumble in the face of a new paradigm shift that is generally called the Scientific Revolution. I believe this is a misleading name, since it implies that science was created only then. In fact, science is but another word for knowledge, and as we have seen above, knowledge, and hence science, could be based on ritual, religion, philosophy, and so on. I prefer to term this shift in the source of knowledge from a godly one, back to an experimental one, the Objective Revolution.

AGE II: The Objective Revolution and the birth of the Mechanical paradigm

Galileo eventually devised the methodology that would be applied with phenomenal success throughout modern science, i.e. the formulation of the laws of nature through the language of mathematics, based on experimental observation. It was the birth of Objective Science.

Since mathematics could only describe quantifiable properties, he postulated that “scientists should confine themselves to the study of the shapes, the numbers, and the movements of matter, while colour, sound, taste, smell and all ‘subjective mental projections’ ought to be excluded from the realm of scientific enquiry.” The momentum this gave his work helped cast the wedge between the objective and the subjective, between the body and the soul.

Excited by the early successes of the new approach, you could hear Francis Bacon for example using almost sadistic expressions to describe his own experimental methods: Nature had to be ‘hounded in her wanderings’, ‘bound into service’, and ‘made a slave’ as her secrets were ‘tortured from her’ .

What a phenomenal contrast with the earlier paradigm of nature as a nurturing mother! This almost anti-ecological worldview that was to shape so much of the further development of Western civilisation was to be sealed by the work of Descartes and Newton.

When Descartes famously declared that “all science is certain, evident knowledge”, he virtually single-handedly set into motion an entirely new worldview. We will see later how here, at the very outset, is where Descartes went wrong: relativity and quantum theory were to reveal, 300 years later, that scientific truth could in fact be relative and uncertain.

But meanwhile, the Objective method had set about a series of fantastic revelations about the nature of the world, in particular leading up to the definition of Newton’s Universal Laws of nature. Isaac Newton’s physics formalised Descartes’ thought into a handful of absolute and deterministic laws that seemed to define all the going-ons of the universe.

When these laws successfully predicted the movement of falling objects, of planets, and of cannonballs, it wasn’t long before the new objective science became as powerful as any religion. The universe was declared to be a giant clockwork, a machine were everything had its place, and were every cause had a predictable effect, every effect a source cause.

The wave of change, based on this notion of mechanical determinism soon swept through the rest of the human disciplines. Chemistry and biology modelled life as a mechanism, and philosophy and politics modelled society and economy as predictable entities, linearly moving through history once their initial states were setup.

The city responded with the development of the idea of Utopia, where a perfect city form and method of production would lead to a perfect society… As objective science preached the cutting up of any problem into small separate parts to better solve it, politics and ideology created methods of production based on rationalisation and the social division of labour, and inevitably lead to the industrial revolution.

An unprecedented boom in urbanization, exponentially raising the density of cities, required new ways of dealing with the exploding population. When Industrialization and Modernist thought met, the Mechanical paradigm was given physical form.

In an admittedly reductive reading of the Modernist agenda, it is easy to recognize the affinities between the ‘world as a machine’ vision of Newton, the ‘city as a machine’ of the industrial age, and the ‘building as a machine’ of Le Corbusier, who – 70 years after the Great Industrial Exhibition at the Crystal Palace – called for the embrace of machine production and aesthetics as the correct expression for modern man.

Corbusier’s fanatical positivism, totally adhered to the Newtonian mechanistic worldview. Functionalism, or the total segregation of all the functions of the city into zones is a typical result of the industrial reductionist project, itself the direct descendant of the Newtonian/Cartesian approaches.

The International Style advocated by the Modern movement can thus be read as a consequence of man’s independence from nature and context, from time and space, and the superiority of his intellect that has so successfully found the underlying universal laws that govern all nature.

Like positivist science, most projects of the period were fascinating in their formalism, sometimes graphically hypnotizing, but the over-simplified view of the world they represented was almost naïve in its optimism. Once it was applied to the non-critical realities of commercial development, Corbusier’s vision of a ‘radiant city’ degenerated logically into impersonal landscapes of repetitive tower blocks that gave no sense of orientation for their inhabitants.

Eventually, the Modernist project started to show its misconceptions. The philosophical and existential schism between man and his environment that resulted from Descartes and Newton’s ideas had taken a physical form: segregated cities, vague open spaces, impersonal, rigid and over-rational housing projects attempted to bring order into the life of the masses, with general failure to touch their souls.

The symbolic demolition of the Modernist Pruitt-Igoe housing scheme in 1972 marked the conventional starting point of what some called the postmodern or the post-industrial age.

The destruction of Pruitt-Igoe was a powerful image mostly because it acted as a catharsis for an age that saw two world wars and two atomic bombs and continued social plight in spite of all the promises of the Modernist agenda. Yet another reading significantly places the incident 70 years after the most important catalyst of what I call the Subjective Revolution in science: Einstein’s relativity theory.

Age III: the Subjective Revolution and the dawn of the Quantum paradigm

Albert Einstein introduced radically new theories in 1905 and 1915, setting in motion the Subjective Revolution in science. That was an initial blow to the absolutism of Newtonian notions of space and time, reunited into the spacetime continuum, itself variable in qualities relative to the observer looking at it…

As Einstein’s ideas propagated through the metaphoric words of non-scientists, they catalysed a profound cultural change . The typical average 70 years of resonance between science, the arts, culture and education, seem to have given birth to the revival of relativism that has characterised the postmodern period.

The second blow, much to Einstein’s own dismay, it must be noted, was to objective and linear science in general. His work on the nature of light led in the decades that followed to the discovery of incredible phenomena at the heart of matter.

These phenomena were so unexpected, so revolutionary, that most scientists, including the great man himself, refused to accept their implications on science. Those who did dare question these implications developed quantum theory.

According to quantum theory, the subatomic world is made up of possibilities and tendencies, not of physical certainties. Neither simply particles nor simply waves, the building blocks of our universe can only be described as complementary, hybrid particle~waves… They operate in potentiality fields whose processes are dynamically ruled by the Uncertainty Principle…

Quantum particles randomly break the boundaries of spacetime… They are not fixed, dead matter, but responsive units that only ‘decide’ which aspect to show us at the instant we look at them, and happily break all notions of cause and effect… Quantum theory reconnects the world and somehow recombines objectivity and subjectivity, mind and matter, into one model of reality, clashing with all that classical western thought believed the world to be. Quantum theory even forces questions that are more metaphysics than physics: does reality exist outside our psychological space?

In spite of the seemingly irresolvable paradoxes quantum theory brought up, as a model, it has proved to be physics’ most accurate theory ever, and its practical applications have radically shaped our world, and eventually our worldview: television, the laser, computers, and the internet, are all applications based on quantum physics. Even quantum teleportation technology à la Star Trek is now theoretically feasible!

In addition to the popular and consumer effects of these applications, computers have allowed breakthroughs in science hitherto impossible: the last half-century corresponds to the ‘incubation period’ of radical discoveries in science and biology: DNA and the Genome project, chaos, fractals and complexity theories, synergetic and information theories, have been steadily transforming our relationship with each other and the rest of the universe – our whole worldview.

In the 70 or so years since the first developments of quantum theory in the 1930s, the shift in the paradigm from the deterministic mechanism of the industrial age to a dynamic, almost organic paradigm are beginning to take form.

You could even read it in Rem Koolhaas’ words:

“If there is to be a ‘new urbanism’ it will not be based on the twin fantasies of order and omnipotence; it will be the staging of uncertainty; it will no longer be concerned with the arrangement of more or less permanent objects but with the irrigation of territories with potential; it will no longer aim for a stable configuration but for the creation of enabling fields that accommodate processes that refuse to be crystallized into definitive form; it will no longer be about meticulous definition, the imposition of limits, but about expanding notions, denying boundaries, not about separating and identifying entities, but about discovering unnameable hybrids; it will no longer be obsessed with the city but with the manipulation of infrastructure for endless intensifications and diversifications, shortcuts and redistributions – the reinvention of psychological space.” [our emphasis]

I believe that quantum theory, which seems to describe a world of complementary dualities, of both/and values, of uncertainty, of choices at all scales, of interactive relationships, emergent qualities and of sustainable vibrant ecologies, holds a language that eloquently describes the complex artefact that is the city: the urbs and the civitas, the stones and the emotions…

The language needed to describe the chaos, uncertainty, complexity, heterogeneity and subjectivity of life in the city is at hand. In fact, it had been there all along. Scientists had been forced to create it decades ago, as the only means of describing what their empirical experience at the heart of matter was showing them, but we had never been taught this language…

At a time the disciplines of the city seem at a loss in dealing with the complexities of the new millennium, there is a powerful language already in use in science, to describe how the universe itself is shaped. Surely, the universe is a far more complex conundrum than a mere city!

I have attempted, in my book Quantum City to develop one possible –metaphoric- reading of that language, and I must admit, that once I tried to apply it to urban analysis, I was myself taken aback by its wide adaptability.

In my research I found that other disciplines, from sociology, psychology, to economics and business management, had also adapted the amazing eloquence of quantum theory as a modeling language. Could a shared metaphoric background, or a meta-language, be the key to increased collaboration between different disciplines?

It has been 70 years since the development of quantum theory. Another 70 years from now, different paradigms could be moving us. Teleportation might be a reality, as could be widespread artificial intelligence. We might be colonizing Mars. We could have discovered the secret of creation, or at least of life itself. What would that do to our worldview and to our cities? I do not know. But until then we have this powerful quantum paradigm to work with, so let us.

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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.