The Silence of Design

Editor’s Note: The Silence of Design

by Stefano Serafini

Editor in Chief, International Society of Biourbanism, Italy



Marx and Engels were among the first to denounce the ugliness of the modern city. The notes by Engels on London as an expanded capitalistic plant that breaks human relations speaks for the urban absence of beauty to be, in reality, the symptom of an anti-human society (Engels, 1969). These early observations are enough to unmask the superstructural and naïve character of the romantic nostalgia for urban aesthetics that still survives—yet on a functionalistic basis and not without valid technical observations when it comes to quality of services and social engineering—in too many members of New Urbanism. Sure enough, the same accusation fits even better to most of the Modern Movement that, willingly or not, brought models of devastation into the European suburbia, especially in Italy after the Second World War (Serafini, 2010). New Urbanism, Modern Movement, and the several “–isms” that followed, from Postmodernism to Deconstructivism (and, to get rid of every justification: if your design is co-optable it is not good design), take for granted and propagate the stylistic perspective that reduces beauty (and often function) to a matter of taste—the individualistic, subjectivist, and in the end consumerist phenomenon of aesthetics. 

Now, it is impossible to sew up a lacerated social fabric by using the thread of aesthetics and buildings’ external features. It is the civitas (the people living within the city and their relations), not the urbs (the body of the physical infrastructures of the city) that is the real issue, despite the way we build the urbs surely has an important share of responsibility in the actual political dispossession of human communities. By the way, it is noticeable that very few of the contemporary efforts to produce aesthetics have accomplished something that common people would define “beautiful”. We need to operate on the social organism so that eventually bad urbanism (and bad architecture) lose their imaginative, economic, and ideological pedestal, and good design gets instantiated (Serafini, 2011). 

One may object that such a pompous proclamation should address politicians, not designers, who have other tasks to perform. The present issue of the Journal of Biourbanism, on the contrary, wants to show that it is up to biourbanists to set free the discipline of design from the decorative role in which modernity has caged it, and put it back in touch with the reality of life.

The acknowledgment of the effects of bad urban planning and architecture cannot be left to social scientists, academics, and political activists who often risk becoming impotent preachers and theoreticians without action. Mastering economics and biopolitics must be part of the skills of every designer. Acknowledging the actual role of power and the forces at play is one of the necessary steps for understanding and measuring the void that we have left behind in the run for a spot in the market, letting the world spoil. That void is a great space of possibilities for realizing biourbanism; it must be filled with our responsibility and a new attitude toward real action.

As a second step in the same direction, designers need to re-appropriate a knowledge that used to be theirs and that is often wrongly confused with “multidisciplinarity”.

Multidisciplinarity, in fact, is just a way of dealing with (and thus accepting) the breaking down of knowledge into disciplines, i.e. the epistemological frame of Enlightenment’s encyclopedism. I am here referring to the possibility of overcoming the limits of specialization by the capability of knowing reality from inside in order to be able to design from inside, as Prof. Sergio Los puts it in his magistral contribution to this current issue. The Mediterranean priests of Apollo of the sixth century B.C. (the most famous among them being Parmenides of Elea, the founding father of European rationality) were thaumaturges, poets, and establishers of laws and cities (Kingsley, 1999; Catalano, 1965–1966, pp. 299–300). They could perform those seemingly different forms of caring for the order because they were grounded on a solid episteme that encompassed the essence of all their activities. We live in the breakdown of the ancient henology uttered in the Poem on Nature by Parmenides—and this is exactly the reason for re-discussing the hegemony of fantasms that trapped us into its ruins (Schürmann, 2003). 

First of all, then, we have to go back to the fundamentals.

This present, special issue of the Journal of Biourbanism deals with one of these fundamentals; an important subject that most of the actual practitioners stopped considering—the epistemology of design.  

Epistemology means the reflection on the principles of our knowledge. When applied to design it refers to the intentionality embodied in our building, i.e. it deals with the origin, tools, purposes, and effects of our design activity.

Built environments and objects are fruits of culture and of civilization process and carry on the dynamic legacy of their designers’ intentionality. The way the designer sees, appreciates, and cares for the world—including his vision of human relations and their political, economic, and social issues—is written in the objects, buildings, urban spaces, landscapes, and even immaterial services that his hand has put into existence.

Goals, interests, rules, calculations, and ideologies may be both acknowledged and unacknowledged, conscious and unconscious; therefore, accomplished design embodies the intention of the author regardless of his awareness, within the constraints of the laws of physics and of the project’s technical, economic, and sociopolitical feasibility.

Among other things this means that, once launched, a project becomes an autonomous actor of intentionality, affecting the context, the environment, and the society beyond what the designer may have consciously planned. Because of such a complex dynamic, its effectuality is an expression of the known and unknown constraints of the extended socio-physical field rather than of the sole individual mind of the author.

The project of a road that connects place A with place B passing through place C in preference of D, E, or F, once performed, will determine a coercion of traffic fluxes that in turn will inevitably influence the wholeness of the system on its multiple levels. For example, the building of the Trans-Siberian train station of Novosibirsk had produced by the end of the 19th century the economic decline, the depopulation, and eventually reinforced the role of confinement town of the nearby city of Tomsk, whose river port soon lost its commercial relevance that once supported its economy and social life. The protesting people and authorities of Tomsk were told they did not understand the economic benefit of saving a few hundred kilometers of railway (Afonin, 2015; Fadeev, 1994, ch. 8).

The unpredictability of design’s effects has been the subject of discussions and studies related to the issues of complexity and democracy (Caperna, Giangrande, Mirabelli, & Mortola, 2013, pp. 7–25). Therefore, scholars have been opposing participatory processes and tools for foreseeing the scenarios of urban changes to stylistic choices since the 60s, coming to stress the civic relevance and appropriateness of communitarian design. Sergio Los, Besim S. Hakim, and Marwa Al-Sabouni, in their contributions to the present volume, seem to agree that design cannot be an individualistic process and needs a real connection to both the civic and environmental context. But their proposals are much more radical than the ones that use the classic participatory tools.

Prof. Hakim shows how communitarian design was once the normal and substantial way cities of the Mediterranean basin grew during the last 1,500 years. In one of his most important books, for example, he explains that according to the 14th century Maliki School’s urban rules the citizens of Tunis had the right to change the design of the cul-de-sac they inhabited. The only condition was that they reached a unanimous consent on change, and thus until even just one neighbor disagreed with the majority, they needed to keep discussing and coping with a solution capable of matching everyone’s need (Hakim, 2008, pp. 26–27).

This is what Prof. Los means when speaking of deliberative democracy as opposed to representative democracy in his contribution to the present issue. He noticed how the ancient and beautiful Italian built environment is the result of a civic dialogue—a dialogue that at the same time makes and is the city and the landscape itself.

The subject of discussion among citizens also became a principle of distributive justice, as Prof. Hakim exemplifies with the following quote by the 14th century builder and master mason Ibn al-Rami:

Usually it is only the richer owners who speak and demand the conversion of their cul-de-sac into a Driba for purposes of general protection and security from burglary, and the poor man is usually not afraid of burglars. Another factor is that fortification (i.e., the creation of a Driba) increases the value of the house within the Driba. For the above reasons funding should be allocated on a proportional scale based on the richest to the poorest owner of each house. (Hakim, 2008, p. 27)

The historical documentation provided by Besim S. Hakim witnesses that the form of the city in the traditional Mediterranean world depended greatly on socio-organic dynamics, without the mediation of a form of political or ideological representation. The Mediterranean civilization had found the way of directly connecting urban design to the real needs, desires, and decisions of the living body of its inhabitants—the civitas.

Looking at the impressive results of such an inspirational urban past, one could therefore be tempted to say that organic architecture and urbanism should ideally have no author, and that the best achievements may be reached by the very community who lives in that built space.

This is partly true. Nevertheless, in the system described by Besim S. Hakim, major infrastructures and decisions on a macro level necessarily required the intervention of the state. This is also an important point advocated by Robert Neuwirth in his sharp critique of UN-Habitat, given in the following pages, where the Author of Shadow Cities explains what slums really need from governments, i.e. infrastructure and the guarantee of not being evicted rather than “good housing” (of which they take care of themselves).

It is the emergence of a “middle-out” cooperation between rulers and citizens who operate respectively top-down and bottom-up on different urban scales for the benefit of the latter.

Citizens’ decisions were of a micro nature, with less discernible effects than the decisions of rulers, but their aggregate impact on the city was ultimately more significant, and affected the lives of most people directly. (Hakim, 2008, pp. 18–19)

The fundamental relevance of the above passage has been stressed in this issue of the Journal of Biourbanism by the contribution of the biologist, statistician, and complex systems’ expert Alessandro Giuliani, who exemplifies in methodological terms the living logic of a working communitarian design. A designer can enforce the methodology offered by Dr. Giuliani on several layers—structural, social, aesthetic, and environmental. This introduces the reader to the problem of the substantial homology between the physical and the intentional worlds, of which we will speak further. 

Prof. Hakim touches another important point when introducing his research: 

This aspect of the history of the city has been ignored by most contemporary urban historians, with a devastating effect on the theory and practice of the Modern Movement of Western architecture during this century. Since World War II this negative effect has spread to other cultures in the world, including the Arab and most Islamic countries. (Hakim, 2008, p. 19)

Arch. Marwa Al-Sabouni, a first-eye witness to the worst form of destructive power of a top-down approach to urban design, convincingly discusses this subject in her contribution and shows how the focus on external features in architecture is just a parody of tradition. It leads to a design failure whose effects can be catastrophic. After denouncing the crimes of modern urban planning in Syria, Arch. Al-Sabouni shows how aesthetics is being used as a tool that has more to share with market than with beauty, and it is rather another word for ideology. 

In fact, as Sergio Los wrote, quoting Konrad Fiedler’s Schriften zur Kunst (Fiedler, 1971):

“Many prejudices hinder the evaluation of the work of art, such as the moral, the historic, and the philosophical one. The aesthetic perspective is one of them.” 

The artist is said to work for the aesthetic enjoyment, for amusing people. Art is considered to be a luxury good, an extravagant activity that makes life more pleasurable—not the condition itself of life as conscience … When architecture is at stake, discussions about statics and economy are allowed, but the aesthetic problem is consecrated to silence. It is a matter of taste. What someone likes, it may well be indifferent to another. The artist is a clown, a clerk of leisure-time. (Los, 1967, p. 11)

Besim S. Hakim, Sergio Los, and Marwa Al-Sabouni are thus offering similar suggestions, yet from different points of view and in different contexts, to the problem of which criteria we should use when designing an urban environment. Their proposals are powerful and opposed to the stylistic and ineffective perspective chosen by the majority of academics and practitioners.

The practical, common, and long-lasting wisdom of referring design to human reality without interfaces such as aesthetics, ideology, or prescriptive laws, has vanished in a few decades since the beginning of the 20thcentury. With a certain melancholy, we welcome therefore the pale impulses emerging here and there in the “creative” design scene to cope with the oppressive constraints of a totalitarian capitalism that has become anthropological extermination, as Pasolini (a man who was never co-optable) would say. Arch. Angelica Fortuzzi, Arch. Elina Alatalo, and Prof. Ari Jokinen present here with their distinct contributions two significant examples of attempts to reconnect grassroots drives and design, i.e. the U.S. movement of Placemaking and the Finnish experience of Mushrooming. Both these phenomena show a genuine interest in a certain form of communitarianism, yet reflect the inevitability of a top-down approach due to the social condition in which they operate. The enthusiastic people who group around these commendable activities, in fact, can do it only after the figure of an enlightened “designer-catalyzer”. The latter can be substituted by his cybernetic creation/instantiation, like a participatory methodology with “laws” and rules, or the software of a peer-to-peer interface. Placemaking and Mushrooming “communities”, by necessity, are ephemeral such as the members of a sports club, the spectators who gather in a cinema, or a group of consumers who prefer the same brand or kind of product. This does not mean that positive human experiences will not likely emerge from Placemaking and Mushrooming; but they will not follow as intrinsic consequence of the designing action because both Placemaking and Mushrooming work within the conception of a word that is no longer shared and civic, but individualistic and commercial. It is not a primary need to push the children of Helsinki’s middle class into searching for a (precarious) job through the network of Mushrooming; nor the housewives and retired activists of the U.S. urban East Coast to make a piece of their suburbs “attractive”. In both cases forms of resourceful “squatting” are at work—of unutilized spaces and of opportunities left open by laws and regulation (Franck & Huang, 2017), and even of Facebook. Yet as their fashionable, advertise-like, and domesticated aesthetics suggests, these interfaced forms of desire for authenticity and participation stand as leisure goods for a specific form of urban anthropology as they integrate more and more into the normality of business and administration. 

The contribution by Sergio Los stresses the importance of the organic continuity of city and landscape. The rural emerges as a relevant issue between ecology and anthropology. Dr. Michael R. Rosmann, a psychologist and farmer, focused on farmers’ mental health, offers important considerations on the universality and the nature of the rural via his interview by Sara Bissen. The reader should notice that the possibility of a non-urban anthropology is a matter of scandalized silence among academics. A fortiori, why should urban designers be interested in things like the “agrarian imperative”? First, because cities cannot exist without the continuous economic, human, demographic, and cultural support by the productive churn of the countryside. Second, because the dwellers of the slums of today are the citizens of tomorrow, and they are rural in origin and anthropology. Third, because they possibly bear the key for reconnecting our design to life after a human desertification that endangers the whole urban civilization. The ruralist Sara Bissen allows for understanding these points in her interviews and in the review of Robert Neuwirth’s work on slums. She notes a significant relation between the observations of Neuwirth on squatters and the research on peasantry by Teodor Shanin.

On the other hand, Antonino Galloni—one of the most brilliant economists of Italy, feared by politicians for his capability of hitting the future—explains in his contribution on the history of cities that we need to understand the perversion of the economic and ecological relation between the city and its rural context as a paradigm of the ecological imbalance of our society, which could bring our species to extinction. His proposals have a peasant-like practicality—Neuwirth would recognize them as débrouillarde—and are about designing the economic value anew despite and within the void left behind by the financial folly of the latter, destructive phase of capitalism (Galloni, 2015). Squatting the ultra-ruins of capitalism seems a good image of Galloni’s ideas, a possible companion to the architecture of Marco Casagrande (Casagrande, 2013). 

Of course, we know that modern and contemporary cities strive to radically distinguish themselves from their rural context, both in physical and symbolic terms. The urban collective imaginary bans soil (the dirt, as soil soils). Poisoning land in order to kill every form of humble life such as weed and insects and covering it with concrete are the first steps of modern urbanization. Technology aggressively looks after the sun, wind, climate, and other intruders. The neo-city, with its exalted minimalist aesthetic, its heating and cooling engines, and its skyrocketing horizontal, vertical, and hyperspatial expansion aspires to the nirvana of total independence, and its metabolism passes through a process of distancing and hiding that leads to extreme consequences the symbolically marked social divide that Norbert Elias told on the “process of civilization” (Elias, 2000). The huge quantities of materials (especially food) transported into the city by ceaseless energetic fluxes are hidden in their form and origin no less than the waste running in the sewage system and its final destination (Pachirat, 2011). Seemingly, the city hides politely and secretively the dead, the criminal, and the insane—where potentially each of us can arbitrarily and all of a sudden fall under one of these categories, and be technologically disposed of.



It does not take a profession of faith in neo-Darwinian orthodoxy to reject the idea that human beings took off in the natural world like Athena from the head of Jupiter, and to accept that most of what we call “nature” has been deeply affected by human actions, i.e. that there is no such a thing as a total divide between culture and nature. Urška Škerl offers us some reflection about this subject in her contribution Paradise Design.

No doubt, though, that urban processes highlight very well the effects of design for reasons of scale and complexity. Density, economy, technocratic accumulation, and velocity of the city show to the highest extent the causal power of design, because it is in the city that it assumes an almost totalitarian character. Does that make the city an opposite to the natural world? Even without a single tree in town, the answer is no. Nothing can escape the laws of forms, in the end (Bettencourt, Lobo, Helbing, Kühnert, & West, 2007), and morphogenetic order can be spotted with predictive power within several phenomena of periodicity even in human behavior (Lima-de-Faria, 2014; 2017).

Therefore, the critique of Chomsky’s Universal Grammar hypothesis by Sergio Los is about the lack of a specific, communitarian, and local roots of languages. The point of Noam Chomsky, in fact, is that linguistic behavior is universally highly structured on the basis of forms that forego and organize the process of learning any specific language (Chomsky, 1957). Nevertheless, the Universal Grammar is not a grammar but the possibility itself of any grammar; while possibility is at the same time a set of constraints, subrules, or subcodes, as we will see ahead, stemming from “meta-rules” like topology and physics. A general set of constraints then, does not mean the impossibility of locally rooted structures. What may sound odd is rather the foundation of such universality on selectionism, where forms such as the Fibonacci patterns that one can notice in language most possibly represent a phenomenon of isomorphism with the physical and mathematical morphogenetic processes that underlie it (Piattelli-Palmarini & Uriagereka, 2008, p. 210; Lima-de-Faria, 2014). I will try to show an example of it in the final section of this issue.

What counts here, though, is stressing that biourban, reality-connected design calls for a series of constraints to be acknowledged. These are natural/environmental/physical and intentional/cultural/
These two groups of constraints always tend to fit into each other (homology) because they originate from each other.

Mediterranean urbanism studied by Besim S. Hakim and envisioned by Marwa Al-Sabouni witnesses the possibility of building urban spaces out of the erlebniss of people’s sociality and everyday authenticity coping with weather, landscape, and need for water and food. The marvelous towns raised around the Mediterranean Sea for ages in different styles by different peoples and cultures could experience and bring to light the purpose of society in connection with natural necessity.

With respect to weather, Sergio Los’ bioclimatic design is highly performing. It can be defined as bioregional, because it adapts to place-specific life conditions exactly like local flora and fauna—in opposition to the International Style that imposes the same models and patterns in different regions irrespective of their environmental, cultural, and climatic conditions. One major example is the skyscraper, fundamentally a northern climate, light-catching structure that spreads crazily into hot deserts and tropical regions. But, such as the skyscrapers (no matter if in Dubai or Berlin) impose a feeling of estrangement to the visitor, so bioclimatic design, besides its energetic performance, puts humans in dialogue with the environment and the local culture, which with the environment is connected since the time of the first acts of farming, fishing, and breeding.

We could consider the above, after the term coined by Edward O. Wilson (Wilson, 1984; Kellert & Wilson, 1993), expressions of biophilic design i.e. design that matches our innate need for connection with life and life processes. Biophilia is not a matter of style but of structural connection, despite one can consider biophilic, for example, several Art Nouveau buildings for their strong, full-scale, and both internal and external bond with our perception of the space. In fact, most self-built and self-ornamented buildings all over the world, from vernacular constructions to shanty towns, exhibit such a quality. Christopher Alexander has devoted some research to test the effect of similar buildings on people with surprising results, where poor shacks turned out to be more capable of making people feel at home than celebrated works by famous designers (Alexander, 2002–2005, pp. 32–62; 64–78). The reason is that these buildings arise as concrete and fitting answers to real, specific, and experienced needs. Their design may be humble but it is based on exact local knowledge about the specific physical and cultural situation in which they have been constructed, such as living plants and animals.

Further, biophilic bioclimatic and traditional Mediterranean designs have remarkable effects on human health and well-being. Gayle Souter-Brown, in her paper The Theoretical Basis of Well-being as a Motivation for Design, offers a review of the related literature, referring to the thread of “salutogenesis”. I would stress the reason that makes salutogenic design work so well, to the point of being a guide for our architectural choices: it contributes to the flow of sensorial isomorphic feedback. Such a flow is normally unconscious but affects our emotional condition. Disturbance of such a flux produces stress, whose physiological effects have been the subject of much research since the classic work by Hans Selye (Selye, 1956; Rose, 1994). It is no surprise that design connected to natural and social structures reproduces nature-like and fractal features, displaying information, which is ordered economically according to algorithms that facilitate categorization (Rodermann, 1999; Parsons, 1991). We can therefore spot, in such a fundamental need for an isomorphic match between the environment and the cognitive processes, the basic principle for building according to algorithmic canons keen to the human measure and featured as proportions, scales, orders, and ornaments (Salingaros & Masden II, 2008). It is a matter of connection that feeds our neurophysiological system (Kellert, 2005; Kellert & Wilson, 1993; Orians & Heerwagen, 1992), and, e.g., entails the activation of the opioid system (Biederman & Vessel, 2006).

It has been 30 years since we have known that built environments featuring natural geometries or allowing for contemplating directly or indirectly natural sceneries contribute to the reduction of pain perception and the acceleration of healing processes in hospitals (Ulrich, 1984; Frumkin, 2001; Tse, Ng, Chung, & Wong, 2002). Interior designers have been the first ones to care for such positive effects, after the transcultural researches by Grant Hildebrand on people’s architectural preferences (Hildebrand, 1999). This is where the evidence-based design (EBD) took off to focus on designing hospitals that care for the physiological and psychological effects of architecture on patients, medical staff, and visitors, showing the relevance of reproducing natural features and avoiding stress-triggering signals in the built environment (Wise & Leigh-Hazzard, 2002).

Unfortunately, these researches have been often used in a trivial and shallow way, pointing at “handbooks” of ready-made “biologically effective” forms to be applied in design. It should therefore be clear that biourbanism is not what has been called “biologically inspired design” (Dong, 2010); an attempt to give scientific justification to a superficial style, is not much different, in principle, from the fashion of adding as many green plants as possible on top of buildings (De Chant, 2013). Biourbanism has been born as a critique of the actual, unsatisfactory situation of urban design, where polluted and congested market-driven cities of loneliness hinder human health, and substitute human communication, freedom, political activity, and citizenship with their simulacra.

Biophilic design is therefore just a “subcode” of true biourbanism. Not by chance biophilia is already referred to as a tool for enhancing productivity in workplaces (Terrapin Bright Green, 2012, a publication recognized with the Environmental Design Research Association 2014 Achievement Award), and thus for the sake of companies’ revenue rather than human happiness. Building according to “the criterion of real human being”, hence, may easily turn into a slogan that follows the mainstream discourse, which loudly and constantly spreads a vision of human beings as consuming/producing parts of a meaningless “system of signs” whose only goal is persisting and accelerating.

We cannot have a criterion disjointed by human purpose in design; geometric disconnection is a consequence of social disconnection.

Of course, not only designers, but the whole Western and Westernized culture is in need of a criterion because it has lost its telos (Husserl, 1954, pp. 3–9; 15–17). Why are we living and designing, and on the basis of what? Where are our life and design heading? Are we meant to give up and accept the role of “decorators”, “clerks”, and “priests” that not only the job market but the entire current economic system propose to us—and “have a party”, as a famous archistar wittily and honestly had to say a few years ago? Or should we accept the challenge that Edmund Husserl left as a heritage for the “European sciences”, the challenge for the purpose, and rediscover the meaning of humanity in the built world? Should we ourselves, in other words, come back to inhabit design before expecting others to inhabit the objects that we design?

The dissolution of the purpose of design, as one can egregiously notice in the effects of urban and architectural works on the social body, is a blatant form of nihilism that spans from the physical destruction of the environment to the substitution of the world with signs—an ideologically-mediated form of Baudrillardian hyperreality (Serafini, 2011b). Noise, fullness, utterances, and unending reality are all specific features of the urban (Marra, 2016). The consequent confusion (spaesamento) is a metropolitan character that makes people uprooted, separated, and incapable of seeing what matters. The city steals from us silence, void, sleep, darkness, and space where the mind can rest and meditate. In the city, we focus on things, events, and facts so that we miss the wholeness, the meaning, and the purpose. This is as true on the existential scale as on the cognitive level (Levitin, 2014).

Despite this was evident only in the most advanced Western metropolises until a few decades ago, the universal semiological meaninglessness rages with its mechanical repetition all over the planet nowadays, unleashing an iconoclastic self-reproductive fury. The advent of alienating artificial forms on global scale that characterized the last 70 years has given birth to a second, post-industrial urbanization, i.e. the deepening of a qualitative separation between man and his natural environment, his culture, his fellow humans, and himself, with its symptoms of social and health issues from criminality to psychoses (Rose, 1994; Galea & Vlahov, 2005; Riley, Fitzmaurice, & Spackman, 1981).

Reconnecting sign and meaning, form and content—the meaning of signing to the meaning itself—is a task that passes through re-experiencing the fullness of life beyond any bias, including individualism and collectivism.

Husserl taught us that everything has a historical character, because everything has an internal structure of meaning, which implies the past and the future, a dynamic direction. Unfolding such direction is a task of design. Structuralism was aware of the sense of history as many architects are in front of their subject; but like structuralism, they cannot see—and in fact deny—that the present has a meaning and thus an intrinsic, never-ending novelty to be discovered.

From an epistemological point of view, this historical character of things speaks for the unity of everything with the meaning of life. It calls for the knowledge of the whole, i.e. the capability of reading the intentionality of things, their vectoriality, or the dynamic structure that tends toward an often invisible and to-be-created (in the sense of bringing to the light of consciousness) purpose, which involves meaning and thus cannot be arbitrary. This scope necessarily goes beyond techno-sciences and the mere sum of disciplines, and requires a leap into a wisdom that can make because it knows how to find causes and goals. It is the telos only that can structure the “multidisciplinarity” and avoid it to crumble in a methodological farce that is both a failure and a forgery. The science of intentionality—of which a bio-designer has to be master—can really use biology, engineering, poetry, and politics, as shown by two cross-disciplinary designers such as Melissa Sterry and Rachel Armstrong in their insightful writings. Words and things must be seen through, and bring us to the real Logos (the meaning, the vectoriality of the action of the word) that often expresses itself in void and silence.

The Israeli poet Michaela Lamdan proposes to the Journal of Biourbanism her poems and a reflection on the value of void as cradle of the meaning and purpose of every poetic architecture. We know that in a building and in an urban space it is the void that holds sense, it is the void to host life, as silence does in music. “Bios” is the lived experience of human beings listening to the word of that specific piece of world they are called to bring to life by unfolding its space and possibilities, the voice of the people that speaks silently and thus cannot be turned into a fake interpretation. Design is born from lebenswelt.

This form of active, fertile silence may well meet the meaning of the energetic invitation to “stop designing by Arch. Urška Škerl on the edge of nature and culture in her note, and the bittersweet universe of paradoxes offered by the paper From Hell to Babel: Creating Value in the Ecocene, where Prof. Arch. Rachel Armstrong envisions the upside-down underground of urban design by seeping into a special kind of void—the fullness of matter with which we build and separate the relations of space. The synchronicity that I experienced editing Prof. Arch. Armstrong’s proposal of a self-building bio-brick seems to me in line with the message of the present issue, as on the same day Prof. Marie D. Jackson and colleagues disclosed the forgotten secret of the cement used by the ancient Romans for building ports that has lasted millennia—a design that relies on a principle of self-organization of the matter (Jackson, Mulcahy, Chen, Li, Li, Cappelletti, & Wenk, 2017).  



Space is always performative, because its organization determines modes and times of bodies’ interaction. The urban space, however, has a political connotation because it stems from and feeds back on a concentrated and connected community, which, in principle, can change and even subvert the social field. Hence the modern obsession for the urbanism of control and public order, from Hausmann’s boulevards to the spread of CCTV cameras as brilliantly discussed by important authors (Foucault, 1975; Agamben, 1995).

Active control through design has always been an urban phenomenon par excellence. Nowadays it deals with the infosphere that has become our a-dimensional, global “city”; but it still reminds us of the spectacle machines of the Latin urbs. The places of circus, gladiators, and horse races, usually built immediately next to the palaces of power survived the decline of the forum (where politics used to take place) in their control of the energies of crowds at least until the fall of Constantinople. Never completely gone, they surge today as newspapers, radio, cinema, TV, and finally Internet, i.e. the media that modulate the capitalist totalitarianism of social relations—the “spectacle” according to Guy Debord (1967), transcended by the following “abolition of the spectacular” when “the confusion of the medium and the message” took place (Baudrillard, 2016, p. 30)—that is the end of the material dimension of the city space.

Smart cities represent the latest step of this transformation/dematerialization of the political and economic relations based on globalization, a representation of the hyperfinancial, collateralized way undertaken by the actual phase of capitalism (Galloni, 2015, pp. 81–85). Globalization has given birth to both the phenomena of urban financialization and gigantism since the early 90s. Cracks opened wide into such a gigantism are the answer to the diffused, resulting periphery where humankind has been thrown (Caperna & Serafini, 2014). Urbanized Chinese and Indian peasants who smash the asphalt to grow their food under the shadow of huge concrete buildings and eviction threats (Casagrande, 2013); Syrian and Kurdish refugees who revive the abandoned historical guts of Istanbul despite the huge, financial-led urban renovation carried out by the State (Morvan & Logie, 2014; Bilgici, 2016); even the socio-cultural ferment occurring in the abandoned ancient towns of Italy (Serafini, 2013), and the phenomenon of California’s working homeless (Har, 2017)—stealth urbanism of what Robert Neuwirth calls “shadow cities” seems to be the most important, actual, and efficient paradigm architects should study. Outsiders of what the dematerialized polis has become, the squatters of the world do not protest—they build and inhabit. Their political silence sounds like the best answer to the absence of power that is nowadays substantiating the anarchy in charge of urban design, planning, and policies where even a UN official document proposes to bring bike lanes and fashionable practices of placemaking into shantytowns without latrines, as outlined by Neuwirth interviewed by Sara Bissen. 

The deterioration of all power is irresistibly pursued: it is not so much the “revolutionary forces” that accelerate this process (often it is quite the opposite), it is the system itself that deploys against its own structures this violence that annuls all substance and all finality. One must not resist this process by trying to confront the system and destroy it, because the system that is dying from being dispossessed of its death expects nothing but that from us: that we give the system back its death, that we revive it through the negative. End of the revolutionary praxis, end of the dialectic. (Baudrillard, 2016, p. 24) 

Such a blessed, active weakness of design reaches out to the chances left for the non-strategy of life to weedy squat the casemates of power (Gramsci, 1996). Ruralization of the urban (Bissen, 2014, p. 43), which Marx did not consider possible at the time of the first industrialization (Marx, 1973, p. 479) is the way biourbanism is inhabiting the rubble of industrial urbanism.

It seems to me that this is how biourbanism words are oozing out across the world, through the cracks of urban activity and academia’s conservatism (“cities are living organisms”, “a city without trust is a walking cadaver”, et cetera). We need to let it happen what the Authors of the Urban Emergence Manifesto say in the final section of this issue: “A city is an infrastructure for love”, and beyond—a body of life; of episteme.


Biourbanism—and the Journal of Biourbanism with it—has come of age. I am very grateful to everyone who has supported this process and walked together along a common path, first of all my fellow International Society of Biourbanism co-founder, Prof. Arch. Antonio Caperna, president, who shared with me the pains and joys of a project becoming reality. Great thanks to the first editor of the journal who managed it with resiliency for four years since its very foundation, Prof. Arch. Eleni Tracada. Our honorary president, Prof. Nikos Salingaros, who has supported us with ideas, open spirit, positivity, and generosity. Our vice-president, Prof. Arch. Marco Casagrande, and relevant authors and friends such as Dr. Alessandro Giuliani, Prof. Arch. Jaap Dawson, Prof. Arch. Sinan Logie, and the several other collaborators and authors who cooperated with the Journal during these years represent an authentic treasure. My most deep gratefulness, though, goes to Sara Bissen, ruralist, for her constant, energetic, competent, and thorough support for the last three issues of the JBU. Without her wonderful support, the history of the Journal would have been much more troubled and much less valuable. My wish is that the present issue may represent a useful landmark for new steps forward into a design that is able to make our common life more meaningful, just, and peaceful.




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The special issue of the Journal of Biourbanism devoted to the epistemology of design is out. 

Editor in Chief, Stefano Serafini

Contributions by Stefano Serafini, Sergio Los, Marwa Al-Sabouni, Besim S. Hakim, Alessandro Giuliani, Antonino Galloni, Sara Bissen, Michael R. Rosmann, Robert Neuwirth, Michaela Lamdan, Melissa Sterry, Rachel Armstrong, Gayle Souter-Brown, Angelica Fortuzzi, Elina Alatalo, Ari Jokinen, Urška Škerl, Davide Barbieri, William Arthurs, James Wilson, Manuel Acevedo, Ciro Lomonte, Ruth Pérez-Chaves, Sinan Logie, and Andrea Haenggi.