Form follows Flow

Anuradha Chatterjee, Sydney Correspondent

On 14 March 2012, Michael Neuman (newly appointed Professor of Sustainable Urbanism, at the Built Environment, University of New South Wales) delivered the Fifth Annual Paul Reid Lecture in Urban Design: ‘Sticks and Stones Will Make My Bones: Durability in Design’. The lecture set out to interrogate the following questions: How do we know when a city is truly sustainable? Is it even possible for cities in a global age to be so? How can professional practices retool to be sustainable urbanisms? Urbanists design forms, traditionally. Yet in nature as in cities, humans, other species, and ecosystems live, evolve, and adapt through processes. There were three aspects to the lecture: material sustainability; sustainability as similar to the thermodynamic system; and the city as a sustainable system.

Neuman explains that ‘sticks and stones’ are the natural materiality developed over time, ‘make’ is what designers create and produce, and ‘bones’ are the infrastructure that supports everyday life – ideally synthesized into one. Durability is connected to sustainability principles such as resilience and flexibility. Hence, using ‘natural’ materials like wood, bamboo, iron, or steel is sensible, because these materials can be reprocessed, have low life cycle cost, acquire other qualities over time, are resistant to heating and cooling as they have evolved from nature. Using the image of a cliff face, Neuman argues: “Form is understood as the interaction between nature and culture. In nature, processes convert flows to form, and in culture, processes convert materials into meaning.”

Neuman then goes on to explain sustainability through the laws of thermodynamics. He argues that urban practice and theory is spatial only and it does not engage time. While it does engage the theory of thermodynamics, it only does so partially. It thinks only of conserving energy and matter, entirely bypassing the concept of entropy (irreversible dissipation and decay of matter and energy over time). Hence, the inability to grasp the constant input that cities need to maintain life, proportional to the size and complexity of the city. Neuman advances a (new) view of sustainability based on flows – natural, topographical, human, digital, information, financial, and so on. Flow and form are in a constant bi-directional or reciprocal relation, evident in the manner in which nature sustains itself. Neuman states: “Flow determines form. Form follows flow.” He suggests that by using the thermodynamic concept of entropy and rate process theory, sustainability can be mapped using a formula such that it is a measurable and objective practice.

Neuman then uses the analogy of the tree to explain sustainable urbanism, which is when cities are understood as systems. The tree is regarded as the paragon of ‘permanence and continuity’, as the archetype of the web of life. Neuman suggests that trees are ‘open systems connected to other open systems’, complex yet resilient, a repository of knowledge and intelligence. ‘Sustainable urbanism is networked urbanism’, argues Neuman, because they are open and interconnected networks (of processes and not just forms).

The lecture presents ideas that are innovative, complex for the right reasons, applicable to a range of scales, from the material choice to infrastructure. It is objective and at the same time aspires to better design and planning practices. Rod Simpson’s closing of the lecture brings out the idealities in Neuman’s propositions against the conservative business models in current practice, which disallows quick or palpable change. Simpson also suggests that facts generated by formulas can gain agency only through informed political processes, activism, community engagement, and communication, and that it is only through these complementary processes that sustainable urbanism can even begin to become a reality.

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