The MA Architecture + Urbanism course is the Manchester School of Architecture's taught postgraduate course which conducts research into how global cultural and economic forces influence contemporary cities. The design, functioning and future of urban situations is explored in written, drawn and modelled work which builds on the legacy of twentieth century urban theory and is directed towards the development of sustainable cities.

Wednesday 11 April 2012

Steven Holl: Urbanisms - Working with Doubt (2009)

A précis by Ochuko Edewor

Steven Holl, who is an American architect, stated that today working with doubt is unavoidable; the absolute is suspended by the relative and interactive and that instead of simple and clear programmes we must engage in contingent and diverse programmes.
He says we should aim for architecture that is integral: landscape/ architecture/ urbanism; architecture of deep connection to site, culture and climate, rather than an applied signature style. Working with openness and doubt at the outset of each project can yield works engaged on levels of both site and culture: many different urbanism, rather than a single urbanism. In the book, he states eleven (11) factors that he believes should be fundamental in the achieving a successful urban space.

He talks about Venus which is the Earth’s nearest planetary neighbour and close equivalent in size. Venus once had water but it’s now steam. It has no moon. “His theory is that it once had a moon just as it once had water, both victims of greenhouse heat (effect)”; and that every constructive mark on the Earth’s crust, in relation to natural landscape should be scrutinised.

Few planners speak of the important phenomenological characteristics determining the qualities of urban life - spatial energy and mystery, qualities of light, colour, sound, and smell. The subjectivity of urban experience must be held in equal importance to the objective and practical. Constructed in walls of glass, concrete or brick, the city is as much a subjective experience as it is an objective reality. This synthesis of subjective and objective ought to be central to urban design from the outset. Time, light, stone, history, and urban geometry intermesh to form a unique impression. The intermeshing of these phenomenal aspects yields a visceral, intellectual, and physical experience that demands descriptive words such as amazement, wonder, poetic revelation; words not found in planning documents.

Space is defined by the interrelationship of light, colour and atmospheric conditions. In a slight mist space is liquid. At the Pratt Institute School of Architecture in Brooklyn, shadows of students moving about in the drafting studio can be seen from the glowing light of the entrance court. The projection of light in this new courtyard is a soft wash rather than the regimented light of a streetlamp, a new urban courtyard with a golden penumbra. Urban space at night may have a veiled charm and mystery.
A rural spatiality of night requires restoring darkness. The suburban light pollution is rapidly erasing the stars from our night skies negatively affects animals and migrating birds.

Porosity is the inexhaustible law of the city, reappearing everywhere. The pedestrian can change direction in seconds; the pedestrian is not blocked by large urban constructions without entry or exit. This freedom of pedestrian movement can be envisioned in different ways for the 21st century.
For larger urban projects made up of several buildings, porosity becomes essential for the vitality of street life. Beijing Linked Hybrid, a project of eight towers ranging from twelve to twenty-one stories, linked by bridges with public functions, is an experiment in urban porosity. Passages from all sides leading into the central space are lined and activated with shops.

The 19th century has flat-footed-ground space; 21st century metropolitan space is more active in section (use of elevators/escalators).
Invigorated urbanism of the 21st century has moved beyond the usual ‘X’ and ‘Y’ dimensions. Today the ‘Z’ dimension of the development of buildings yields new experiences in space, light and perception. As urbanists and architects we must think first of the urban sections in our sections. The section can be 50 times more consequential than the plan, especially in metropolitan centres such as Manhattan, Shanghai, Tokyo and Hong Kong.


Our experience of a contemporary city is one of partial views, fragmented and incomplete. A fantastic spatial energy resides not in the building as object in itself, but in its relationship to the urban environment.  A revalued understanding of the experiential dimensions of urban design moves beyond the norms of individual architectural intention, toward the indefinite properties of urban assemblage. Enmeshed experiences merge foreground, middle ground, and distant view through partial views.

This deals with the exhilaration we find when we walk into the space between or inside certain buildings and it produces a kind of psychological space. The psychological effects of sound must be considered as well as other temporal fragmentations. In this regard, architecture produces desire.

The constant flux of information, materials and products dissolve and disperse. This readily influences the metropolis. Open architecture which can adapt to change- like a rock canyon in which material is eroded by the river flow- calls for an architecture of duration rather than one of throwaway space. For example currently most American universities construct 100 year-span buildings for their campuses.

The fact that explosive urban growth yields banalization without architectural quality is no surprise. What is surprising however is the attempt of the current generation of urban theorists to write apologetically for this flattening banality as if we could be immunized to its effects via charts and data.
Our aim is to realise at least some constructions of exemplary qualitative power. Constructed with a plurality of meanings, an intense urban architecture of quality can be an instrument of abstract thought: unforeseen, resistant to banalization, and capable of changing and shaping urban life with phenomenal experiences.

Negative capability is a positive capacity. Negative capability is to be able to take in all the problematic aspects of the surrounding world, to see and acknowledge, to entertain uncertainty and still be able to act. As an architect you go to a site to study every angle available; intuitively you create. Regardless of how unfortunate and difficult elements accumulate in our daily lives, as architects and urbanist it is important to aim with optimism at a long term view.

The fusion of architecture/ urbanism/ landscape can be realised in city fragments when all aspects are conceived integrally. This integration should carry over into texture, material, colour, translucency and reflection. Landscape design ordered as an afterthought cannot effectively fuse with architecture and urbanism.

Working with doubt on an urban scale can allow for action, construction, experimentation and enable all involved to think experience and rethink the new problems and challenges. Especially in rapidly urbanizing cultures such as China, whole city sectors containing everything needed for living, working, recreation and education can be realized at once. This multiple building construction is something beyond architecture but not quite urban planning; it is in between.
The 21st century metropolis shouldn’t aspire to be master planned; rather it should be a connected system of inspired fragments.



  1. Steven Holl's architectural brilliance seamlessly intertwines innovation and artistry. His designs are a testament to his unique ability to merge form and function, creating spaces that inspire awe and elevate the human experience. Holl's commitment to sustainability and thoughtful integration of natural elements further distinguish him as a visionary in the field. His work continues to shape the architectural landscape with a harmonious blend of creativity and functionality, leaving an indelible mark on the world.

  2. Hey fellow architecture enthusiasts! I stumbled upon a fantastic tool that's been a game-changer in refining architectural visuals. If you're tired of background distractions in your images, check out this BG Remover tool at It seamlessly eliminates unwanted backgrounds, allowing your designs to shine. After reading through the insightful discussions on urbanism in the thread, I thought this tool could be a valuable asset for fellow architects. It's all about enhancing the visual narrative of our designs! Feel free to share your thoughts, and let's elevate our architectural storytelling together.


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