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.