Part 2: NYC and Systems of Nature

New York City Bespeaks of a Negation of Nature

Nothing moves. The architecture is there. It stands; it controls; it is. You might say that the buildings have taken over for the life of the people. This is the ideal world to which the ruling men of the Renaissance aspired. In this world the activities of everyday life were of as little importance as they were to the Greeks. What mattered was the perfect order they could create in place of both nature and those lives. – Aaron Betsky, Erecting Perfection

The ancient Romans created architecture of pure order. Building arrangements followed rules of proportion derived from the rigid formality of Vitruvian arrangement. The Renaissance Italians too created regulated architecture by way of art and visual control. As one of the “greatest innovations of Renaissance art,” perspective became an operative method of rendering three-dimensional reality on a two-dimensional surface. In art, an artist could place a grid over reality to “subject it to an ordering system. The grid, which Alberti suggested you create by stretching strings within the frame, gave everything and everybody a place…This meant that the value and reality of all things depicted existed in the grid itself and no longer in the objects”. This is perspective: a grid that can delegate a space for people and buildings, a grid that dissects reality into a series of squares, a grid that demands artists, architects and inhabitants to behave properly within allocated, proportioned lineaments. Perspective codifies a world where humanity can be subjected to law and order; architecture is meant to maintain such a rule.

Manhattan likewise embodies perspective in physical reality, negating the random and nonlinear dynamics of nature by its design. Etched throughout the entirety of the landscape are near-parallel and perpendicular streets and avenues in what is known in city-planning as the grid-system. The increasing street numbers from south to north and east to west harkens back to the Romans and their constructions of buildings that suggest movement in a predetermined direction. New York buildings themselves are usually rectangular or square, providing perfect 90 degree angles that slip smoothly into gridded blocks of real estate. The voids in between the gridded architecture are dedicated to roads for cars or sidewalks for pedestrians. There are perfect lines in which to walk and drive; there are distinct stopping points for both man and machine to alternatively give way to one another’s moment of traffic. New York City, in such a plan, should be ideal. New York City should be a city of perfect control and rationality, but is is not. Far from having buildings taking over the lives of people as Betsky’s ideal city proclaims, in Manhattan the people seem to take over the city. How can a city that has been designed with such geometrical rules find its circulating human population at such disarray? How does order beget disorder? Finally, how does the irrational unordered personality of nature surface in such confined spaces and lines?

Thomas Hobbes postulated one representation of human existence in which the state of man was that of a socially independent individual, called the “State of Nature”. In this State of Nature, “a person’s only aim is the maintenance of the individual self, as he or she competes with all others for the means of subsistence.” While individuals are equal, without restraining rules or laws of reason, individual behaviors and competition can give rise to conflict and disorder. Hobbes regarded this existence as a barbaric condition that preceded the emergence of law and order, of some social structure. The State of Nature could not compatibly exist with human existence, for human existence is only possible with the introduction of reasoned limits. Laws allow the State of Nature to be dominated by a state of social organization. When the structure of society breaks down, State of Nature resumes.

New York in turn is a paradoxical city of seemingly irreconcilable realms, as deemed by Hobbes. Its laws and grids are meant to dominate the State of Nature so that nature does not reign over humans. Although the city has social and physical regulations it nonetheless is subsumed by individual break downs of traffic laws and fractious conduct. Does New York pedestrian traffic dictate an ultimate return to unruly Nature, or are we merely finding the evidence of sidewalk as case in point that man cannot cut the umbilical cord from nature which it negates? Hobbes proclaims that human existence cannot exist in nature. The city, in its attempts to rationalize space, grid reality, and ultimately bring order depreciates the value of the systematic randomness of the universe. New York City planning negates nature by enacting social structures that should ensure the impossibility of coexistence. However, the sidewalks of the city claim otherwise; nature can exist in the urban where it has been shunned.

Simple vs. Complex Systems

It can be said that the attempt to institute the city into geometrical and gridded order is not only an attempt to rationalize human behavior (and more specifically regulate the flows of moving bodies). Rather, by claiming a perspective of urbanity as civil and systematic, and Nature as chaotic and unpredictable, another duality set is brought into discussion. Elizabeth Grosz defines dualism as “the assumption that there are two distinct, mutually exclusive and mutually exhaustive substances, mind and body, each of which inhabits its own self-contained sphere. Taken together the two have incompatible characteristics.” Implicit in this is the notion that no only are mind and body incompatible, but that nature and humans are incompatible as well. The new paradigmatic duality that needs to be considered when analyzing pedestrian behavior is that of simple versus complex systems.

The simple-complex dichotomy separates nature and humans in a contradictory way. By splicing notions of existences within our physical reality, we are engaging in a reductionist approach to the world. To claim that supposed inferior force (nature) opposes a supposed superior force (man) is to exhibit habits of a simple-complex abstraction. Man is more rational than beast, the mind is more capable than the body, control is more effective than anarchy–these are all dichotomized cells of thinking that are configured with intention to simplify complexities. In other words, the reduction of two complex existences, man and nature or body and mind, to perceptions of one as notably “better” than another is a simplifying tactic. It does not compromise the complexities of each, found at the micro-level, and rather subjects it to incomplete generalities.

In much of the same vein, another consideration that needs to be injected is that the planning of New York City is not just about organizing architectural systems of order; it is about simplifying the complex chaos of human nature. Indeed, human nature is chaotic; it is not innately rational. To reiterate, this is because human nature cannot entirely separate from nature; it is still a part of nature and thus is subjected to the same natural disorderliness that is has tried so hard to negate.

Scientifically speaking, an understanding of simple and complex systems can be facilitated in the following identifications: Systems that include a limited number of ordered components or distributed elements subsumed under a few formulaic concepts (such as Newton’s reduction fo the universe into three components–force, mass, and acceleration) are said to be “isolated in thought from the rest of the concrete universe and are conventionally regarded as closed systems”. As such, the system is “fully defined” by core characteristics and this is “ideal”; it represents reality in its simplest form. It ignores the possibility of external complicating factors and thus engenders a simple system.

A complex system, on the other hand, compromises an infinite number of randomly distributed elements that vary and often interact with one another and their environment with differing degrees. “Not all factors that determine the state of the system are identified,” and hence the complex system is that of an open, partially defined, and non-ideal mode of reality.

The dualist approach to bifurcating man and nature in simplistic terms renders it a simple system with only two concepts acting: good (man) and bad (nature). Even physical ordering of the city works in a simple system interpretation whereby grids, sidewalks, stop signs, cross lights and zebra lines for pedestrians simplify the city into an ideal, closed system of allocated order. Let us re-interpret this space and use of sidewalks to understand that human agency is disqualified as a complicating factor. chaos and nature are implicit in urban behavior, regardless of regulations enacting upon humans, and once we can conceive of the city as a complex system we can acquire an understanding that human existence can allow for a State of Nature.

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