Why the Ziggurat Pyramid will fail


The Ziggurat Pyramid, Dubai

The Ziggurat Pyramid is another monument to excess and decadence planned for Dubai, land of the gold bar ATMs, in-door year-round skiing, and ridiculously tall buildings (can you say “compensating”?).  It’s intended to be a single, self-sustaining complex capable of housing one million people in non-drone-like conditions.

Honestly, it’s just the latest incarnation of Paolo Soleri’s Arcology concept (dating back to 1969), so it’s not some kind of modern intellectual breakthrough.  While I think it’s important that we keep searching for better ways to live in “urban settings,” I don’t think the Ziggurat Pyramid will be a long term success.  And I can sum up my concern in a single word: modularity.

The one problem that I see in every city I’ve visited, in every urban concept I’ve ever read about, and in every book I’ve read is that cities are not designed modularly.  Just look at the grief that results from something as simple as a burst water main; look at what happens when large buildings need major renovations; look at how streets and subways and the electrical power grid is constructed – and you’ll see what I mean.

Cities last a very, very long time.  It used to be that we didn’t realize how quickly things could change, so city builders adopted a basic attitude that time didn’t matter, that a city would in several decades not really need to change that much.  These days, most sensible urban planners recognize how wrong that attitude is, but they haven’t yet realized that they’re still building on the notion of a city’s inherent permanence.  In the meantime, the world keeps changing faster and faster, and that is putting ever more stress on our urban systems as they inherently resist those changes.

What’s needed is a complete shift in the way we think about cities.  And the shift, in my opinion, has to be based on the concept of modularity.

Modular design is based on the notion that one should be able to swap functional units easily and quickly, so that the whole is (a) very adaptable and (b) very easy to maintain, compared to its non-modular cousins.  The summary at Wikipedia on modular design is not a bad source for an overview of the concept, although it is of course far richer than that article might suggest.

What I do not mean by modular design is the kind of approach taken by, say, modular building.  In typical modular buildings, spatial elements – usually box-shaped sections of a structure – are prefabricated off-site and assembled on-site.  Those sections come complete with electrical, hydraulic, and other systems already installed.  This is not functional modularity.

I’m talking about being able to change an entire window or toilet in 10 minutes, or swapping an old furnace for a new one in 15 minutes.  I’m talking about being able to change the electrical wiring in your home in one day, without opening any walls.  I’m talking about breaking down the structure of building along functional lines rather than where structure goes.

Functional modularity already exists – computer hardware and power tools are great examples.  There is a significant body of knowledge in this area already (try this Google Scholar search), but it is largely focused on smaller products.  What we need is to start thinking bigger, to start thinking of how whole cities can be designed in functionally modular ways.

If we could do this, then cities would become more adaptable and maintainable because we could swap out all kinds of elements quickly, economically, and with less societal and environmental impact. Imagine being able to fix a water main by opening (rather than digging out) a roadway, and simply swapping pipe modules as easily as one changes batteries in a TV remote.  Imagine updating the insulation in your home’s walls by just swinging the wall open as one would open a refrigerator door. Imagine reconfiguring a warehouse into low-cost housing in a month by simply adding the necessary modules.  Imagine changing the configuration of your house to accommodate a new nursery for your first child by just moving existing walls around.

It sounds like science fiction, but it’s not.

The most important part of modular design, the part that many people still seem to miss, is that how a given module works internally is (or at least should be) entirely irrelevant to the larger structure of which the module is a part.  The most important part of a module is how it connects to other modules – its interface.  So long as it can be connected to other modules so that its inputs and outputs are sufficient for overall operation, the internal functioning of the module can be whatever is best for a given case.  That’s what functional modularity is all about.  And that’s why it’s perfectly feasible with existing technologies today.

Here’s the thing: I don’t see any evidence of modularity in the Ziggurat Pyramid.  While I do see repeating patterns of structure, I don’t see the functional connectivity that will allow the structure to change/grow/shrink as times change, and I don’t see the means of providing for easy maintenance. Because of this, I suspect that – if the Ziggurat Pyramid is ever built and inhabited – it won’t last long before parts of it start to decay or just become unusable.


18 thoughts on “Why the Ziggurat Pyramid will fail

  1. Out of all the designs I can think of, this one strikes me as one of the most modular. Enough space for the living and working areas of 1 million people, with floors the same height, and all the basic interiors of the building identical, the potential for modularity is enormous. Sure the windows might stay the same, but everything about the internals of the building can change quickly and easily like office blocks of today.

    • You point out several characteristics of modular construction, but they are superficial ones in the sense that one can build an entirely non-modular structure that exhibits the exact same characteristics. Modularity really shines during the use/maintenance phases of the structure’s life-cycle. Truly modular construction would let one swap out elements quickly and easily without disturbing the overall integrity of the structure. It is not at all evidence that the Ziggurat exhibits this kind of modularity. If you have evidence that it does, I would welcome you sharing it with me here.

      • I’m not sure you understand how office buildings work. Between the concrete floors, anything can be installed and removed without anyone on any other floor (or even on the same floor) realising what is going on. Internal parts of such large buildings are almost never structural.

      • I assume you know my background? 25 years in engineering design research, teaching, and practice. Yeah, I understand how large structures work. With sufficient funding and time, yes, you’re right. However, if you look at truly modular structures, you’ll see things are completely different. Consider something simpler, just for the sake of argument – like a house. It is possible with current technology to, for instance, replace a water heater, a furnace, or even windows in 5 minutes. However, that doesn’t happen in “real life.” It should be possible to open walls and reconfigure electrical & plumbing without ripping walls out, but it isn’t in “real life.” All these things requires relatively large amounts of money and time, and tend to disrupt the house’s operation significantly for long periods of time. All this kind of modularity scales to larger structures.

      • Of course, modularity is annoying in real life. But the criticism of Ziggurat specifically for not having modularity is disingenuous, unless you also want to say “Ziggurat AND (even more so) all current cities and suburbs will fail because they aren’t modular”. The modularity potential goes:
        suburban homes (with lots of custom designs)< varying offices spaces in current cities < highly repetitive structures like Ziggurat.

      • Actually, modularity is not annoying in real life, it’s quite brilliant. And my critique of the Ziggurat stands independent of what I may think about other structures. Indeed, it’s disingenuous of you to think that one can equate a new structure, like the Ziggurat (that is supposed to be the epitome of modern building techniques), and all the existing buildings, most of which are very much older and born in contexts where sustainability and environmental concerns were not a significant factor. I have no idea what you’re on about with your partial ordering of modularity, unless you’re just parrotting what reality is like rather than what we could make it be like.

      • How can you not understand that standardisation aids modularity? I mean if every floor of every building has that same scope to work with, the ability to plug and play all sorts of parts is increased. That’s why all computers use the same voltage, same USB be connectors etc. You should be lauding Ziggurat for its potential for modularity, not criticising it as somehow an anomaly in terms of lack of modularity.

      • How can you not understand that standardization isn’t enough? Your analogy to computers is useless. Standardization of computer parts has nothing to do with the use/maintenance aspects. I could easy design a computer made entirely out of standardized parts that has permanently attached cables, drives, etc. That is the direct comparison to the way modular construction of buildings is done today; a computer made of standard parts that requires significant effort and cost to change during use/maintenance. Is that modular? In name only.

      • The analogy is apt. I’ve taken out singular parts of my desktop, and replaced them with a choice of hundreds of differnt yet interlocking and interoperable parts, all because of standardisation. The maintenance advantage that standardisation gives you in a PC is why I have a desktop PC instead of a Mac, which doesn’t have standard parts. Sure, you weld them in, you take away from that advantage. But why would this development make itself any less modular than modern office blocks?

        What would you suggest would be the ideal way to make such a development modular?

      • Uh, Macs have standard parts too. I swap them out all the time. Indeed, it is far easier to swap parts in a Mac than a PC. And don’t even think about arguing with me on that because I’ve been mucking about with computers since before the PC was even invented.

        You can’t replace a window in a building as easily as you can replace a drive in a computer. You can’t reconfigure walls in a building like you can reconfigure directories in a computer. You can’t swap out a furnace in a house as easily as you can swap out a power supply in a computer. Scale is not an issue. The technology exists to do all these things in buildings.

        I have no idea what the “ideal” way to make a building modular is. Nothing is “ideal.” The question is can we do it better. And for that, the answer is a resounding “yes.” One can design buildings to have swappable elements. Heck, there’s even technologies to let one swap out insulation in walls without ripping out the wall. No one is even trying to do this these days. And again, there is no evidence that this was considered in the Ziggurat, even though it should have been – assuming it’s supposed to be this paragon of modern building practice.

      • So let’s work through this logic:
        1) Modularity is an issue not unique to Ziggurat
        2) Ziggurat is not that modular
        3) Current city buildings and suburbs are even less modular
        4) Ziggurat will fail because it is not modular
        5) Current city buildings and suburbs will fail even harder

        Tell me at what point you disagree.

      • More than willing to let you know everything about me, http://jamesjansson.com/

        Mathematical modeller, political party leader.

        Now please tell me where I trip up in your logic. Which point did I get wrong?

      • Are you kidding me? Any fool could easily fake an internet presence like yours, including the google citations. In fact, one already has, and it got so bad he even made veiled threats of legal action against me.
        Did you look at my home page? See how much more robust it is as a reliable source of information about me?
        You appear quite young. And even if you are very good at math modelling, you appear to have no expertise whatsoever in the area.
        That you would pursue with such arrogance a position that you know better than me quite frankly scares the shit out of me. If this is what the young folks are like, then humanity is truly screwed.

        As for you errors:
        Step 3 is wrong in that you are confounding the influence of lack of modularity with modularity itself. The problems of modularity scale exponentially with size. That ruins your entire argument.
        Also, pro tip: if you’re going down the route of a deductive chain, you need to distinguish your premises from your intermediate steps and conclusions.

        Now, I don’t give private lessons. If you want to learn about this stuff, go check OCW or some MOOC somewhere. Post here again and I’ll block you, you insolent pup.

      • I have papers published on google scholar. I’m a member of staff at UNSW. http://kirby.unsw.edu.au/people/mr-james-jansson Seriously, stop being so paranoid.

        I don’t know why you are getting so angry. Because I pointed out how your reason for a design becoming a “failure” is a reason that any other structure or city would become a failure? Go on ban me. Show the world how you can’t take criticism. One person decides to engage with your blog and you delete them. Ok that’s cool.

        The issue of modularity does not scale poorly with size if all the buildings are identical, as is the case. Repeatability makes maintenance and modularisation much easier. But even if it does scale with size, how will this scale worse than, say, enough suburban houses for 1 million people?

  2. Individual suburban houses are not part of one interdependent structure. You can change anything you want at your house without having to block off the street. You can repave as much of the street at one time as you desire, it won’t cause the whole neighborhood to cave in (barring sinkholes). There is no comparison… This is a 3 dimensional city, and you’re comparing it to a 2-dimensional neighborhood.

    Smaller buildings are inherently more modular because you can implode one and the next one just gets a nice dust bath at worst. Try that in the “Ziggurat Pyramid”, or any arcology…

    I’m published on facebook, and I used to “design” buildings when I was 11.

    • What you say is true only assuming standard building technologies, which haven’t changed in, like, forever. If you consider truly modern building tech, not to mention extrapolating what will be possible in the next 20-50 years, your arguments become less and less relevant.

      For instance, why would you want to “implode” a small building? If it’s truly designed and constructed in a higher modular way, you can easily disassemble it for reuse, remanufacturing, recycling, etc with far less risk than would happen with an “implosion.”

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