Interview with Besim Hakim: Mediterranean Codes and Sociogenerative Design

by Antonio Caperna

We’d like to thank Professor Besim Hakim for this interview and for his participation to the ISB’s Summer School in Neuroergonomics and sociogenesis that will be held in Artena (Rome), July 13th-20th 2014.

Besim S. Hakim (FAICP, AIA) is a consultant in urban design and an independent scholar. He is Fellow at the American Institute of Certified Planners, Member of the American Institute of Architects, and a Harvard graduate in Urban Design.

He has been researching and writing about traditional urban management and related codes from the Mediterranean region since 1975. He has articulated how those management procedures and codes shaped the traditional built environment.

The purpose of his research is to provide lessons and models for contemporary and future architects, urban designers, lawyers, city administrators and officials who are involved in formulating or revising codes and related implementation strategies.

He has practiced architecture and urban design and also taught those disciplines for over two decades, and has lectured widely in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East.

His publications include books, Arabic-Islamic Cities: Building and Planning Principles, and Sidi Bou Sa’id, Tunisia: Structure and Form of a Mediterranean Village, both of which are currently available in paperback.

His next book Mediterranean Urbanism: Historic Urban / Building Rules and Processes is expected to be published by Springer this year.

A.C. Professor Hakim, you have done several works on Mediterranean architecture. In these studies you stress that we need to learn from the experience of previous eras and cultures that managed to produce habitats and neighbourhoods of a better quality than those produced after the World War Two. What is wrong with built environment today, and what can we learn from traditional environments?

B.H. The phenomenon of the pattern of sprawl (primarily associated with the demand that car access should be available to every plot of a single family home) started to spread to many countries since around the mid-20th century. A great deal has been written about this, including its negative impacts on social relations of those living in such environments, as well as the cost of energy to maintain it and its many unsustainable features. The traditional pattern, due to many reasons, evolved as being compact and pedestrian friendly, and was very responsive to the positive and negative aspects of its natural settings, occasionally producing innovative solutions to difficult constraints. This was also made possible due to flexible rules that evolved to control developments from a bottom-up level while respecting local customs that proved to be effective based on their longevity.

A.C. What about the traditional Islamic environments today? Has the Islamic tradition lost the principles derived from its past?

B.H. In most Islamic countries today we find that ideas and practices that are viewed as being modern and therefore desirable have replaced intelligent practices of the past. Only memories, in the minds of the elderly, remain of life in traditional neighbourhoods. This is compounded by a lack of utter ignorance of the nature of the processes that produced those traditional patterns of development. It is also compounded by the teaching of modern ideals and practices to generations of young students whose professions are related to the development of the built environment.

A.C. A significant fact that strikes out from your studies is the importance of relationships between neighbours. Can you please explain how the traditional built environment affects this issue?

B.H. Compactness of the built environment necessitates that good relations is maintained between neighbours. This is especially important for proximate neighbours whose properties are adjunct to walls that separates them. Sometimes such walls are shared and sophisticated rules were developed for the management of changes that might occur. Other issues related to proximity are also addressed by the rules.

A.C. Your analysis of towns building laws has identified the underlying process that generates the common complex morphology of the Mediterranean area. According to your experience, what is the most fundamental aspect that is shared between Mediterranean cultures?

B.H. Since the early civilizations of Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, Byzantine and Islamic, rules were developed that specifically addressed change and growth in the built environment as a natural phenomenon that was recognized and dealt with. Due to the nature of the compactness of traditional built environments, that were common in the territories of those civilizations, the rules addressed issues pertinent to compactness, and to the manner in which responsibilities were allocated among people and property owners whose decisions impacted the pattern of development and changes that might occur across time.

A.C. Another interesting aspect of your research concerns the identification of proscriptive and prescriptive rules for building. Please explain us in a few words what they mean and how they act in the urban environment.

B.H. Proscription is an imposed restraint synonymous with prohibition as in “Thou shalt not”, e.g. you are free to design and manipulate your property provided you do not create damage on adjacent properties. Prescription is laying down of authoritative directions as in “Thou shalt”, e.g. you shall setback from your front boundary by (x) meters, and from your side boundaries by (y) meters regardless of the local site conditions.

A.C. Professor Hakim, if we compare the ancient rules and the actual ones, what is the substantial difference? And may it explain the loss of these old traditions?

B.H. The ancient rules were, in most situations proscriptive in nature, allowing flexibility and interpretation of application at the local level. Whereas modern rules are in most cases, and in most countries today, prescriptive top-down strict codes that are not responsive to local micro-conditions.

A.C. Professor Hakim, I would like to know your thoughts on the developing of digital/smart cities, which incorporate telecommuting and information technology. Have you thought about how this will affect urban morphology?

B.H. Although people have alluded to the fact that digital technologies will encourage fragmentation and further sprawl in the built environment, I believe that this technology should be viewed as an asset and is independent of people’s desire to live in compact built environments. In other words one can benefit from the social interactions of living in compact environments and also benefit from digital technologies that allow people to communicate instantly across distances and countries.

A.C. Today there is a sort of “skyscrapers fever”. Every Country wishes to build skyscrapers as symbol of modernity and power. Professor Nikos Salingaros affirms that “the era of skyscrapers is at an end”, and that they are “an experimental buildings typology that has failed”. What is your opinion about it?

B.H. I am afraid that absent in-depth understanding of the nature of good built environments by politicians and rich client entities, the desire to compete by building higher than the previous skyscraper will probably continue into the foreseeable future.

A.C. Professor Hakim, Biourbanism explains that organisms, buildings, neighbourhoods, and cities share the same general rules governing every complex hierarchical system. Thus, for the sake of a new human oriented architecture, it is necessary to make a synthesis of the latest scientific developments and our cultural roots. What do you think about it?

B.H. I agree with this statement. Traditional built environments are closer to the behaviour of natural systems than contemporary, “modern”, practice. All the recent scientific findings related to complexity theory and the phenomenon of emergence corroborates practices and processes that produced traditional built environments as following similar principles discovered by science in their formation, change, growth and decline.

A.C. Thank you very much, Professor Hakim

Several articles that cover many of the issues discussed in this interview are available in his website: