MArch Unit 19: Stranger Attractor: Non-Specific Urbanism 2.0. John Bell & Simon Miller

There is nothing more poetic and terrible than the skyscrapers’ battle with the heavens that cover them. Snow, rain, and mist highlight, drench, or conceal the vast towers, but those towers, hostile to mystery and blind to any sort of play, shear off the rain’s tresses and shine their three thousand swords through the soft swan of the fog.”

– Federico Garcia Lorca

“No matter where you go, there you are.”

– Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension


In major cites across the world there has for many years been a growing fictional population, one which hides behind masks of seeming urban engagement, mixing more or less effortlessly into their polycultural multifarious environments. This population does not work, neither does it create meaningful communities: it does however produce considerable wealth. This para-population, present in all significant conurbations has become indispensable to the life of metropolitan centres. Without it, many such areas will cease to function as we currently understand them and decay and decline will surely follow. This population appears to be made up of citizens; many even look like residents, ready to defend old urban values, but they are not. They are doppelgängers whose role, wittingly or not, is to facilitate the termination of ‘old city urbanism’ by deception. Their presence disguises the flight of commerce and industry. They are a form of camouflage that hides urban emptiness.

We can now say that everyday city life has become co-extensive with theme park fantasy urbanism: the authentic historic city has ceased to exist – it has been replaced by a simulacrum. Your task, should you choose to accept it, is to design that simulacrum.


The fictional population is, as you will have surmised, is one composed of tourists of one kind or another. We have to accept the desire to travel is not going to change – whether by plane, train or Carbon-neutral yacht, the rise of the doppelgänger is inevitable. How can this desire be married to urban programmes which have the capacity to serve both real and fictive populations?

Metropolises consume huge amounts of resources: supply grids are already becoming strained. In these hyper-dense environments, a rational response is to look to localised production and to sustainable material and energetic cycles. Architectural and urban design then becomes explicitly linked with the ecological, or metabolic. We will consider density and verticality within a network of relations which entrain many aspects of dwelling, consumption and production, so as to speculate on the gaining of a measure of urban autonomy. We will see socio-commercial aggregation as tending toward the symbiotic rather than parasitic and seek to develop proposals which respond to both the spectacular and the quotidian.

Non-Specific Urbanism

It is neither a duck, in the Tufte/Venturi sense nor is it Architecture Parlant, it is distinct in that it’s primary function is to excite interest, to engender a sense of wonder, to be the opposite of ordinary. The attractor object is seldom if ever site-specific, it is a celebration of self, hermetic and figural. Always morphologically extravagant, however this in itself is no longer sufficient, in our view. Rather than merely catering to the fictive population’s transitory interest, it must also be of worth to the real population in some regard, for whom otherwise the edifice soon becomes no more than a tired joke.


The Near Future, Downtown Anywhere… In order to begin, we will develop heuristic models of near-future dynamic urban systems, focusing on opportunities for greater responsiveness, flexibility and programmatic diversity alongside forays into the ludic, extravagant and bizarre. These models will then be used to inform organisational, architectonic and urban strategies for hybrid, strange attractors.


The Tulip (will probably return…) London, Fosters – Funded by Safra Sarasin, a Swiss private bank.

The Vessel, Hudson Yards NY, Heatherwick’s $150 million staircase to nowhere that owns your photos.

The Garden Bridge, London – a bullet dodged…

ArcelorMittal Orbit – London Anish Kapoor/Cecil Balmond get knotted.

Dongdaemun Design Plaza, Seoul – ZHA + Samoo parametric blobscape.

The Ring of Life, Fushun: originally intended to include a bungee-jumping platform, but the plan was cancelled when the ring was found to be too high to jump from.

Tianzi Hotel, Hebei – a slightly dodgy one this – in many ways…One of many buildings Xi Jinping would rather did not exist…


Of the 42 million overseas visitors who came to Britain last year, half did not leave London. In effect the city welcomes double its native population in visitors every year, and at peak holiday times nearly half the population of the central area will consist of ‘fictional’ citizens from overseas. Today tourism exerts a powerful influence over urban policy in Britain. It has prompted government measures to expel beggars from city streets – as a result of opinion polls that show that a high percentage of foreign visitors are disturbed by their presence. It also forms foreign policy. Although long since amended, thanks to the persistence of information on the internets, we can discover that the 1997 edition of ‘Britain an Official Handbook’ published by the Central Office of Information explained which kind of tourist is desired, and which is not. ‘One high-spending US tourist outweighs a coach full of day-trippers from across the Channel arriving with packed lunches and an itinerary of free attractions who merely clog up the streets and end up costing the country more money than they bring in.’

A rare moment of institutional candour…


We will design hybrid urban visitor attractions+.  We will go on a unit trip, time and destination tbc.

Entering the Evolo Skyscraper Competition is an option.