Urbanism and Architectures of the Quantum Paradigm

1st Published in iA Bookzine #4: Quantum Architecture, Kas Oosterhuis, Han Feng, and Xin Xia eds., Jap Sam Books, Netherlands, 2011. 

Responding to complex cultural identities, liberated from mechanical thinking, inspired by complexity and emergence, emboldened by new conceptual languages, and empowered by technology and software, a new generation of designers and architects is beta-testing the next forms for our networked culture.

A generic duality: event and event horizon.

Fig. 1: A generic duality: event and event horizon.

Quantum Theory

Quantum theory, the science of the infinitely small, says that the subatomic world is made up of possibilities and tendencies, not of physical certainties.

Quantum particles – from quarks to electrons – 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 that happily break all deterministic notions of cause and effect.

Neither simply particles nor simply waves, these building blocks of our universe can only be described as hybrid particle~waves. They operate in potentiality fields whose processes are dynamically ruled by principles of uncertainty and of complementarity.

In the Quantum world, things can be at two places at the same time; one action can cause an instantaneous reaction at the other end of the universe –Einstein called it “spooky action at a distance”; a cat can be dead and alive at the same time; an electron jumps from one level to another without passing through the places in-between (“quantum leaps”), while a photon travels through all possible roads at once, and something (a whole universe) can appear out of nothing (a vibrant void).

These counterintuitive notions revolutionised the world of science, both philosophically and practically. Yet in spite of all its “weirdness”, Quantum theory is considered to be our most accurate theory ever, and its practical applications (lasers, television, computers, the internet, data encryption and someday teleportation) form the very basis of our current civilisation.

In stark contrast to classical Newtonian physics that preceded it and saw the world as a giant clockwork with absolute separation between time and space and humanity, Quantum theory describes a deeply interconnected world that recombines objectivity and subjectivity, mind and matter, into a unique model of reality.

The metaphysical and technological doors that it opened led to the “discovery” of even more extraordinary realms: DNA, complexity theory, the world of chaos and fractals, information theory, the science of emergence… over the last few decades, these ideas and their practical applications have been steadily transforming our relationship with each other and with the rest of the universe, shaping our world as much as our worldview.

In homage to that catalysing theory, this hybrid worldview has been called the “Quantum paradigm”.

Quantum Paradigm

It is obvious that the general paradigm we live in is independent from the self-conscious name we give it. We are after all, already living in a networked world more inter-connected than ever, where information transcends time and space and communication allows us to be in more than one place at once, and where action-at-a-distance is very possible and very real.

We have experienced first hand the complexity of nations and society and nature and our relations to it. We have also seen the world transform from a top-down to a more horizontal system of authority and order, and seen global change emerge from the individual actions of the many. We have witnessed the insanity of exclusivist, dualistic worldviews (the “with us or against us” vision) and are learning to accept the inclusive “both/and” experience.  We have become much more aware of the importance of ecology and our responsibility in shaping our future as a species, while at the same time accepting the limitations of deterministic predictions. Finally, we are living through the gradual shifting of world culture and economy from West to East.

We are in a time of fast change and crisis, in the Chinese sense of danger and opportunity, and we need to accelerate the rate of innovation in problem solving, in particular in the realm of urban studies.

The importance of naming a paradigm lies in the congealing effect branding has. By giving a name (and eventually a language) to their shared worldview, we help like-minded individuals and groups recognise one another, come together and collaborate more effectively.

Thus, we call the associated way of looking at the city “Quantum Urbanism”, and the organisation of its buildings, functions, and culture: “Quantum Architecture”.

Is it any surprise that the proponents of this new movement tend to be multi-cultural immigrants and expatriates trying to bridge between a western / Anglo-Saxon education and their own cultural specificities and subjectivities?

Quantum Culture

The paradigm in which we move is born from the iterative relationship between our science and our culture.

With its holistic insights, the quantum paradigm inspired many parallels with Eastern philosophy. The 1970s and 1980s were ripe with titles such as “The Tao of Physics” or “The Dancing Wu-Li Masters: an Overview of the New Physics”. Later works used and abused these ideas in multiple domains, from New Age populist exploitation literature and media (a quick search of the word “quantum” in Amazon’s Self-help department yields “Quantum Success: The Astounding Science of Wealth and Happiness”, “Quantum Tantric Sex”, even Charles Jencks, that most commercial of architecture writers, jumped on the quantum bandwagon with a completely disingenious “Architecture of the Jumping Universe”… ) to hardcore technical discussions (search in the Science department) that require a degree in advanced physics if you are to even understand the pictures inside.

Somewhere in between is very serious work on the history and importance of Quantum theory, and some of its more recent applications to the study of mind and consciousness (mainly in the Nonfiction or Popular Science departments, a treasure trove of inspiration). The typical curious, cultured readership of that segment includes artists and writers and filmmakers and creatives of all sorts, and “reflective practitioners” of architecture and urbanism.

They absorb popularized scientific ideas, first and second hand, including through film, gaming, and art – building up into a hybrid, science-aware but unscientific culture. In turn they disseminate new iterations through their work, and thanks to social, academic, and professional networking they are now coming together to bring about an emergent movement.

Quantum Generation

It is a generation at the threshold between two worlds, the Mechanical and the Quantum. Its appearance today was predictable and necessary, in a quite Hegelian sense: it is almost exactly 70 years since the development of modern Quantum theory and nuclear physics.

There is a consistent lag of around 70 years between the first appearance of a major paradigm-shifting idea and its palpable effect on the physical world. It is the time needed for technology to mature, while a whole generation grows up taking that paradigm for granted, and reach positions of power and responsibility, affecting in particular our built environment.

70 years after the first breakthroughs in electricity, the spread of steamships, the railway boom, and the 1850 World Fair extolling industrial design, Le Corbusier explicitly proposed the “house as a machine” and then “the city as a machine” vision. The Modern Movement of the 1920s-1940s epitomised the mechanical worldview; it atomised our lives and our cities, and that is one of the reasons of its failure on the urban scale. Functionalism was a typical result of the industrial reductionist project, itself the direct descendant of the Newtonian/Cartesian approaches.

Coinciding with the failure of Modernism’s social agenda, the highly symbolic destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in 1972 signalled the beginning of a post-modern period largely imbued with formal and intellectual relativism feeding on vulgar misinterpretations of Relativity theory, 70 years after Einstein’s first kick at classical science’s absolute vision of space and time.

It is thus now, 70 years after Quantum Electro-Dynamics, that the new techno-spiritual, ecological generation, soaked in the complex physics and metaphysics implied by the new sciences, gets to write the next chapter in the history of architecture and the city.

Quantum Metaphor or Quantum Model?

When non-scientific areas of research are inspired from scientific theories, they tend to approach theory either as a metaphor or as a model. In a fitting response to its own agenda, the Quantum Generation has taken both approaches simultaneously.

A metaphor borrows language and imagery to describe the subject at hand. A model requires a tighter, even literal mapping of ideas.

A successful model proposes strong self-coherent laws that should permit more or less accurate initial setup and predictions of the future states of a system, in particular in the context of controlled experimentation.

An effective metaphor is generic enough to permit fresh insights into existing setups and environments through the use of open analogies.

With that in mind, and in reaction to the deterministic urbanisms of the modern and post-modern utopians, Quantum Urbanism has taken the flexible metaphor approach. By clinging to an over-arching, generic language and conceptual framework, it avoids the pitfalls of dogma and instead forms the kind of transdisciplinary “urbanism as a state of mind” that Rem Koolhaas or Joseph Rykwert talk about.

In parallel, the Quantum Paradigm defines multiple models that inspire architecture. The praxis of architecture still calls for much more concrete products than urbanism. As such, it is evident that a purely metaphorical approach cannot satisfy architects, and they have naturally been attracted to more applied interpretations.

Another way of looking at it is through the city’s own “scale problem”. Applying a model approach at the geographical, historical, and social scales of the city – as has been proven with the Mechanical model – is inefficient at best, and dangerous at worst. Applying it at the scale of individual architectures gives welcome granularity to the theoretical, practical, and formal fields.

Underneath the umbrella movement of Quantum Urbanism, is where discrete models applicable to specific contexts can develop. The multitude and diversity of such possible models, or Quantum Architectures, make for a self-regulating, self-healing theory.

Quantum Urbanism

Quantum Urbanism encourages a non-literal conceptual language based on the quantum metaphor. It helps go beyond deterministic thought patterns and formal expressions. In fact, the new language can trigger the imagination into different directions. Let us consider a couple of basic examples from the book “Quantum City”, where Quantum Urbanism was first established.

Particle~Wave Dualities, Events, Event Horizons

In quantum theory, every little primordial element that makes up the universe has two aspects: a particle-like aspect, that we can measure physically as having finite size and shape and position in space at a particular moment in time, and a wave-like aspect, that permeates space and time. One aspect is quantifiable, the other is more like a vibrational field that we can only describe qualitatively in terms of intensity at a particular point.

Imagine a pebble (particle) thrown into a pond, where it creates a propagating ripple (wave), or think of a sound speaker (particle), producing sound (wave). In both cases, the pebble or the speaker have very specific shape and size, but their “wave” is variable: the angle and force of the throw, the viscosity of the water, will mean bigger or higher ripples; the speaker could play speech or song or music, rock or classical, with different volume, treble, or bass settings…

Quantum Urbanism sees the whole city as being made up of such particle~wave dualities, and it calls them events [fig.1]. Each event is defined by its “particle” (wave source), its different “waves”, and each wave’s “event horizon”, which is the boundary of the event’s actual effect. In the case of the pebble~ripple, it is the edge of the pond for example; in the case of the speaker~sound it is the sound-proof walls of the room…

In the city, the simplest example of a duality is a building.

Any building is particle-like, it has a physical shape that we can measure and pinpoint geographically. We can even describe its height, materials, etc. all architects do that, all urban designers work with that aspect.

But most buildings also have wave-like aspects that are more qualitative than quantitative: they have a function – a house, the parliament building, a school, a church; they have subjective meaning: my girlfriend’s house, the seat of authority, my first kiss, that scary priest; that meaning is different for each individual, so what to someone is “just a house”, to me is “home”; and so on.

Interactions between events happen when their event horizons overlap and effects similar to interference start to appear [fig.2]. Add more sound speakers, and their sound-waves will fill the room and interfere together, so that in certain points they give the impression of stereo or surround sound…

Overlapping event horizons and interference.

Fig 2: Overlapping event horizons and interference.

Events also interact together to form new, higher-level particle~wave events. Clusters of buildings form a neighbourhood: its is particle-like, but it also has its own wave-like layers of meaning: “my ‘hood”; “the red-light district”, “china-town”, etc; Neighbourhoods interact together to create a city: particle-like. But it is associated with many wave-like qualities: “the Capital”, “where the jobs are”, “most romantic city on earth”; cities together form  a country: particle-like. Its waves: “anglo-saxon culture”, “francophonie”, “old europe”, and so on.

Each time, thanks to the “wave-like” aspects, it is clear that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, that beyond the collection of particles is a larger picture with emergent qualities that do not exist if we cut it down to pieces and forget the waves.

The Russian doll-like examples are endless, but what is more exciting, is that those “waves” are almost always linked to us as humans recognising them: we are the actuators of the meaning of the environment [fig.3]. It is a notion very relevant in the quantum paradigm where the observer and the observed are in a dialectic relationship very different from the absolute, objective relationship prevalent in the classical worldview.

Aren’t we after all, the perfect example of particle-wave dualities: body-soul, mind-matter, flesh-memory, individual-group, solo-team, friend-friendship, etc.

Humans carry the effect of otherwise independent events in their memory and consciousness.

Fig 3: Humans carry the effect of otherwise independent events in their memory and consciousness.

The Society-Space-Time Continuum

By looking at the human user as another duality, another “event” in the city, urbanists can take on issues of meaning and memory, issues of gender and race and cultures, and make them part of the realm of study. Quantum Urbanism in fact defines three general classes of dualities, the Human (people and the non-physical events they create), the Artificial (any physical creation), and the Natural (landscape, fauna and flora).

These oscillating construction blocks interact within a new multi-dimensional construct called the “Society-Space-Time Continuum” that integrates social, spatial, and historical contexts into a unified, organic realm. The ultimate goal of Quantum Urbanism is to make better urban space by changing the way we think and express our relationship to it.


Quantum Urbanism steers clear of the complicated yet simplistic “qualities” and “principles” checklists of other contemporary theories, and limits itself to one deceivingly simple caveat, that “Good urban space optimises diventity”. Diventity is a powerful concept that links diversity, density, and identity, and is defined as such:

“Diventity allows identity to recursively emerge from the density of diversity, when that density reaches a critical mass.”

It is beyond the scope of this piece to delve into the details of this definition, but suffice to say that because the concepts of identity, density and diversity are themselves generic and scalable, diventity itself is scalable enough to allow comparing otherwise unrelated systems (e.g. the ethnic composition of London City versus the ethnic composition of Cheltenham), and generic enough to address a wide range of indicators (e.g. environment, geography, demographics, events, aesthetics, socio-economic class, ethnicity, volume, patterns, sensorial stimuli, functions, landscape, morphology, meaning, typology, texture, choice, …)

With advances in computation power and data sensing and storage technologies, new algorithms can be developed to measure and compare diventities across systems based on continuously updated data streams.

Quantum Architectures

I insist on the plurality of Quantum Architectures as it is an enriching notion that leaves room for playful adaptation through many aspects and dimensions.

Yet all quantum architectures should share a certain set of properties – let’s call them attitudes – that makes them relevant to the quantum paradigm, instead of bogus first-degree applications of a trendy tagword (I am looking again at Jencks’ version of quantum architecture as “wavy forms”, including his garden fence made of wavy fer-forgé!). The following is a proposed unordered list of such interconnected and mutually balancing attitudes, their description is terse to permit interpretation – feel free to edit or add to this list at the quantum city wiki:

Physical is secondary: interface and information architecture

Can be tangible or intangible or both. Architecturing of knowledge and shifting of perception can lead to the same project objectives without expensive construction.

Quantum does not mean virtual

Even intangible architecture must interface with the real world.

Architecture as (subjective/collective/knowledge) memory storage media

Archives or embodies our current worldview in all its aspects: relational, holistic, ecological, technological, spiritual, indeterminist, complementary, networked, etc.

Transdisciplinary and collaborative

Consciously transcends disciplinary, cultural, departmental borders.

Fundamentally contextual to society, space, and time: appropriatable by end users

The architect is LIFO (last in first out), the architecture~user system is self-healing on the long run.

Relational before formal

Emerges from the relationships defined between its elements, between it and the end users, and between the end-users.

Open, open-ended and evolutive: up-to-date and updatable

Fiercely contemporary yet accepts the dynamic effects of time and error. As theory, praxis and product, adapts to changing conditions formally and/or functionally and/or meaningfully.

Contextual yet hyper-local

Adapts to locality but learns from the network.

Disruptive and engaged

Consciously questions the role of the architect and architecture in its current definition.

Intelligent / Interactive / Agile / Emergent

Inspired by living organisms and their self-regulation.

Made for diventity

Responds to density, manages diversity, creates identity.

Mass, void, organism

Accepts the balance and equivalence between presence, absence, and life processes.

Intuitive and technical

Confident in informed intuition as the most natural source of creativity.

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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.