Stefano Serafini on the Emergence of Biourbanism

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Excerpted from an interview with Stefano Serafini, Director Gruppo Salingaros and Research Director of Biourbanism in Rome conducted by Nicola Linza and Cristoffer Neljesjö during August 2012.


As director of the Summer School in Neuroergonomics and Urban Design at the International Society of Biourbanism in Rome, how is the methodology and epistemological background of your programme very different from what one usually finds in Architecture schools?

The fundamental difference is: “The design is out there already.” Follow the force of gravity. Follow people’s needs. Creativity is not about a “genius” who finds great ideas in his head or in books and then fights to impose them on reality. On the contrary, creativity means flowing smoothly with the very structure of what exists – human physiology, nature, society, culture – and unfolding it at its best by recognizing needs, constraints, and conditions. Reality is smarter than you are, even if you are racing for the smartest-guy-playin’-design prize. Now, unfortunately, the urban mainstream produced by our individualistic society along the last two centuries doesn’t care too much for listening to reality. Think of the very concept of Urban planning, a paradigmatic instantiation of the top-down approach. Think of the ideology brought on by such renowned theoreticians as LeCorbusier abstractly considering the urban environment just a huge flow space between “machines for inhabiting”.

In fact, our Summer School has been an inceptive lab towards a paradigm shift in urbanism and architecture. We call such a shift paradigm “biourbanism” fundamentally because it’s rooted in a revolution occurring in the Life Sciences, but also because biourbanism brings a vision of cities as living organisms, according to the latest emerging idea of what an organism is.

What is this biological revolution about? At the beginning of 20th century, authors such as Geddes proposed an organic model while referring to cities. But what was an organism to him and to his generation? Nothing more than a complex machine planned from an external force, yet he seemingly was saying the exact opposite. Such an external force could be the elàn vital, God, or Darwinian natural selection – no matter. Organisms, like cities, were considered products of an Agent separated from them, a model that at the very end fits into our capitalistic production system.

Allometric scaling, complexity, self-organizing processes, small worlds, laws of forms, epigenetics, constructal law, systems biology, and other interesting cues, have been showing gradually during the last years that the very nature of “organic” beings, such as cities or animals, is just one with the reality they emerge from. Rules and constraints governing structures are written in forms, and these forms shape structures. On their side, forms and structures are intertwined with the environment and the so-called “surrounding conditions.”


Outstanding authors such as the mathematician René Thom, the geneticist Lima-de-Faria, or the engineer Adrian Bejan gave us the tools to understand structural reality from this “internal” point of view. Our difficult task is transferring this mindset into Design, which shall result in a better orientation towards human beings’ reality, and not to an abstract ideal of what a human being “shall be”, e.g. according to market, ideology, or other dogmatic visions. We want design for humans – not design humans.

That’s why, in fact, we deal essentially with epistemology, i.e. with reconsidering critically, not urbanism in itself, but the cultural frame that makes modern urbanism what it is, a failure. As you know, several theoreticians have spoken about the centrality of human beings in architecture, since the very Vitruvius (1st c. BC), to LeCorbusier. Many have considered cities as organisms, for instance Geddes, Muratori, Howard, Mumford, etc. But the real point is: in which sense human beings shall be the unit of measure of urbanism? What a human being is? And what an organism is?

As architects are not acquainted with epistemology, neurophysiology, and biopolitics, and time was not so much, and part of the academic staff was new to the architecture world, our school’s methodology resulted to be a bit tiring. Yet, our group took courageously part in a hard three full-days brainstorm, and tried to absorb/communicate a lot of information about the last frontiers of neurosciences, complexity, and theoretical biology. Such a bunch of data was meant to challenge the mindset of last centuries’ architectural and urban planning practice. We are talking about a vision of the world shared not only by architects, of course. The paradigm shift that is going on among practitioners has a lot to say, for example, to psychologists, physicians, economists, and so on."


Architecture cannot just be opinion so what relationships do you find most relevant in changing the course of architecture tomorrow to address the real needs of people?

The relationship to ourselves, on different scales. Connecting to reality, or to others, or to communities’ needs is impossible if one is not connected to himself. And one can start doing it, through body. This means awareness and respect of your own bodily feelings, despite what others say, e.g. the academy, fashion, market. If a huge skyscraper is without scales or a connection to the context, it makes my stomach tense or makes me feel insignificant. I don’t care about what architecture journals say about its “geniality” and “beauty”. I care about its real effects on me. Not on my mind, my culture, my aesthetics – on me and in the first place on my body. That’s the main term of comparison I can use to evaluate the impact of such a building on other people, on a community, on a city’s economics, etc. Then, of course, more “objective” measurement must take place: data collecting, medical and sociological literature, interviews and analyses etc. But the core of the process is the human being, and I don’t mean here only the planner, but the citizen. We have no time to speak about a seeming oxymoron we have worked on – peer-to-peer urbanism, a bottom-up process for people to plan cities and communities, where the professional planner’s role is reduced to just a technical support.

As there is no scientific basis for how the so-called Star architects approach their work, what are in your view the most dangerous aspects to their lack of sustainability and the timelessness of their architecture?

We live in a society of the spectacle. Starchitects are just the emerging toe of a huge iceberg. There’s a fantastic business machine beneath them. Global corporations’ way of imposing their own interests on the world. It’s always the same, regardless of whether we are talking about pharmaceutical industries, military and weapons trade organizations, eco-mafia, or concrete. Even the insolence is the same. “ the context” is more than a designer’s boutade. That motto synthetizes the spirit of the time." (