In his “six memos for the next millennium”, Calvino quotes an introduction to the Chomsky/Piaget debate which lists two metaphors for the emergent development of life forms: The crystal, representing invariance, and the flame, representing stability in motion. The two, he claims, converge in the metaphor of the city: “The invisible cities … a singular symbol concentrating all my reflections, experiences and hypotheses”.
|Ersilia, the most cited invisible city, standing for internet relations. (C) Delavega, Ephemera + Lascarr|
I am a huge fan of using urbanism as a model for software systems. The examples of using houses to illustrate relationships between components are just too static, representing at best the crystal. Often, leaky abstractions are drawn (like decorators to ornaments), adding no real value to the discussion.
One could argue that even the metaphor of a city is incorrect and we should rather rely on pure emergence within benevolent dictatorship. In my opinion this would just be the flame* (Not Nero’s hopefully). Viktor uses the Bonsai as a model for software architecture. Small decisions lead to a final picture – what Smolander calls the decision process in his four disciplines of architecture (the others being the blueprint, the literature and the language). I’d like to be free in the decisions, like the flame, but limited in its dimensions, like the crystal. What I like about the Bonsai model though, its reference to Ikebana, in Garr Reynolds words: “Empty space is as important as the positive elements […] Space allows other elements to […] connect”. Japanese cities are built differently from European ones. More central planning is applied, districts are clearly separated, but on the other hand the city is built in harmony with nature. Tatami mats are the traditionally used not only to cover Japanese floors but to actually define the floor plan. Japanese cities are complex patterns, defined by simple rules for spaces and floor plans. Applied to large software systems this would mean we take into consideration environmental qualities and turn them into simple rules, like Haiku poetry. Or, as Calvino says “Poetry is the great enemy of chance”.
Recently at the Prado it was fascinating to see how the style, e.g. of Tizian, of paintings was preceded by renaissance architecture. The other day it struck me in an exhibition on Paul Klee’s influence on Japanese architecture. Buildings like the Sendai Mediatheque reference his paintings in their dynamic structure – both the flame and the crystal. There is no reason why architecture cannot come out of art, it does not always have to be the other way around.
*) Interestingly, the Netherlands are very well known for planning cities top-down. In this context of the blog post it would make perfect sense to discard the metaphor.