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Chapter 7
An Experimental City in the Desert


Bedouins Can's Live in California-style Housing

Each Regional Culture Provides the Richest Life

The Symbiosis of the Most Advanced Technology and Arab Culture

A New Community Development based on the Philosophy of Symbiosis

The Symbiosis of History and the Future in Meandering Streets


Bedouins Can's Live in California-style Housing

One of the projects I was working on in 1979 was the design of a desert city in Libya. This proved to be an extremely interesting case of putting the philosophy of symbiosis into practice.

This town was planned for the Sarir region in southwest Libya. As a concrete example of the symbiosis of Arab and Japanese culture and of tradition and the latest technology, it was very important and interesting.

The start of my work in the Arab world can be traced back about twelve years. There was a plan then to build an international conference center in Abu Dhabi, the de facto capital of the United Arab Emirates. This was a plan on a vast scale and was to include a meeting place for the representatives of OPEC, a presidential residence, a national assembly, and a reception hall. In the international design competition for this international city to be built on landfill in Abu Dhabi, my plan was awarded first prize.

So it was that I made my way to Abu Dhabi for the first time, met a wide range of people, and began the preliminary preparations for the realization of the project. We even set up a temporary office headquarters there, but quite unexpectedly the whole enterprise went up in smoke.

The United Arab Emirates did not yet have an official constitution. As a result, its capital was not legally established. Though Abu Dhabi was the de facto capital, it was not legally so, and the neighboring state of Dubai was vehemently insisting that the country's capital should be located there instead. In the end, this political wrangling relegated the entire project to pending status.

Nevertheless, this served as a beginning for my involvement with the Middle East. Of my many experiences in that part of the world, one of the most interesting was when the leader of one of the emirates invited me to look at some housing that had recently been built. He explained that in their encouragement of the establishment of towns in the desert they had commissioned an American architect to design housing, but it wasn't working our very well.

As we all know, the United Arab Emirates is an oil exporter and has a great deal of money. Since its population at that time was only about 1.3 million, its per capita income was the highest in the world. The country was trying to encourage its Bedouin population settle down in towns and villages by providing free housing. The Bedouins were a migrating people who lived by hunting and by pasturing livestock. Though they built shelters of sun-dried bricks, usually they moved from place to place and lived in tents. This large migrant population made it difficult for the country to achieve the modernization its leaders desired -- the problem with providing a basic education to Bedouin children, for example, is easy to grasp. This was the reason for the policy of encouraging the Bedouins to settle down in towns and villages.

So I went with the government leader to inspect the housing built by the American architect. When we arrived at the site, a strange scene greeted by eyes. The housing was two-story concrete American-style residences, the kind one might encounter in California. Each unit was all completely air-conditioned and had an attached garage. And there they stood, in a line, in the middle of the Arabian desert.

But as we approached I saw that the Bedouins had set up their tents next to the housing and they had placed their sheep and livestock feed inside the units. I proceeded to investigate the reasons for this. The first problem, it turned out, was with the air conditioning. In the desert, the temperature rises to as high as forty degrees centigrade. Air conditioning has little effect in such temperatures, and of course it breaks down. When it does, you can't call a local appliance repairman to come out and fix it that day. Repairs take at least a month.

All that time, the concrete boxes are ovens. Not only that, but the heat that builds up in the walls throughout the day is released at night. Tough its already cool outside, the concrete is a powerful heater, roasting anyone inside the walls. Of course no one could live in this environment. That's why the owners had set up their tents outside and put their animals inside the California-style housing.

When I looked at their tents, however, I was struck by how well very suited they were for life in the desert. While the surface temperature in the desert rises and falls dramatically, there is almost no temperature variance from a point three meters below ground level. When the air rises to forty degrees centigrade during the day, it is only twenty degrees at three meters underground. And when the air grows cold at night, its still twenty degrees centigrade at three meters below ground. In desert climates, the air temperature drops to as low as five degrees centigrade at night; twenty degrees is very warm compared to that.

At night the Bedouins sleep on skins and rugs spread on the ground. During the day, when they sit in the shade of their tents, a cool breeze rises from the ground. At night, the warmth of the ground protects them from the cold night air. The Bedouins exploit their centuries of experience in the desert to achieve the most pleasant and comfortable life they can in their environment.

And to these masters of the desert, the American architect gave California-style suburban housing.

Each Regional Culture Provides the Richest Life

When I met the American architect who designed these buildings, I asked him why he had designed buildings that no one could live in. He replied that he didn't expect the Bedouins to be able to live in the houses from the start, but that eventually the peoples of the developing nations, such as these Bedouins, would have to turn in their camels for cars and their tents for homes and enter modern life. Since that was the case, it was important to teach them to do so as quickly as possible, and training them to live in that kind of housing was one step toward that goal.

Here we see a typical case of the dogma of Modernism, based on the values of the West. According to this way of thinking, the functionalism and technology produced by the industrial society of Europe has raised the quality of human life and is bound, sooner or later, to spread over the entire earth. All cultures -- whether China, the rest of Asia, or the Islamic countries -- are bound to advance under the banner of Western civilization. Their present states are merely early stages along their delayed path of development. But this way of thinking we already repudiated when Claude Levi-Strauss advanced his theories of structuralism. Levi-Strauss rejected the idea of stages of cultural evolution and insisted that the cultures of all people of the earth -- the Pygmies of Africa, the Eskimos of the far north, the Islamic peoples -- have their own autonomous value, and that all cultures share a structure. He was able to establish this fact by studying myths and family structures through the discipline of cultural anthropology. In this way Levi-Strauss showed that Western culture, too, is included in a larger structure, as one relative member of whole.

Of course, at certain times in history, one culture may be especially strong and greatly influence other cultures. At one time Egypt had a world-wide impact; later, China had an equal influence. Both Rome and England had their days. The power of the United States after the Second World War was enormous; and in the years to come it is possible that Japan may exercise the degree of cultural influence. But no culture can dominate the planet. We must recognize that in fact human life is much richer if each region has its own identity and culture, suited to its people, its climate and geography, and its history.

Different countries and people must recognize their differences, and then proceed to look for ways to cooperate with and to stimulate each other. The important question is how different cultures can sustain creative cultures in symbiosis. From that perspective, we cannot but conclude that the thinking of the American architect who built California-style housing for the Bedouins has been poisoned by Modernism.

I recognize that it is easy to criticize others; and I am not just a theoretician, but an urban planner and an architect who makes things and environments. From the time of that encounter in the desert, I continued to think about how I would meet the challenge of building a community in the desert.

The Symbiosis of the Most Advanced Technology and Arab Culture

Several years later the opportunity to put those ideas into practice came to me by chance.

The Sarir region is several hundred kilometers to the south of Libya's third largest city, Benghazi. Great quantities of underground water were discovered there. These underground channels moved as much water as a river, and a plan was devised to use them to farm the desert. There were also oil fields near Sarir, which employed many workers. The government of Libya decided to embark of a plan for a new city in the desert, to house the workers and engineers of the oil fields, the farmers and their families, and the Bedouins of the region.

I was asked to design the project. The first thing I did was to develop a sand brick. It was my idea to use sand -- an infinite resource in the desert -- as a building material. The Bedouins had been making sun-dried mud bricks from antiquity, but these were extremely perishable and not suitable for housing of any permanency.

After three years of cooperative research with a British scientific research center, we were able to develop a special process for making strong sand bricks that would last for several decades. Our idea was that the houses we design could be built on a "do-it-yourself" basis by the owners, using sand bricks.

The most difficult things for amateur carpenters would be the roof, the electrical wiring, and the plumbing. In particular, an arch-shaped roof of bricks would be very hard to build. So we decided that the roof should be a thin, prefab material that could simply be set and anchored on top the house. We developed a comparatively simple method of roof production, too; a hollow dug in the sand served as a mold, into which a mixture of concrete and glass fiber could be poured.

As far as plumbing was concerned, we decided to build a wall of service ducts -- all plumbing and wiring were placed inside this double walled unit. This also simplified maintenance. The builders had only to place the kitchen and bathroom next to this wall; otherwise, they were free to build whatever sort of house they liked. Unlike a public housing project, each home of this community could have the design and layout its owners wanted and could be different from its neighbors.

To find out if amateur carpenters could actually put together our design, we conducted an experiment. Some members of my staff who had never done anything but desk work stayed at the site for three weeks, and with the help of an English assistant, tried to assemble a house. The experiment was a success. Three weeks wasn't enough time to complete the construction, but aside from the final finishing, the house could be built entirely and properly by amateurs.

The houses I designed had one remarkable feature, a wind tower. This was a tower like a chimney, some fifteen meters in height. When the wind blew through the top of the tower, which was slotted, the warm air inside the house was sucked up and the cool air radiating from the floor was drawn upwards to cool the interior. In this design we exploited the natural air movement patterns of the desert, which the Bedouins put to such excellent use in their tents.

To put it rather grandly, the community in Sarir was the encounter between a person from an industrial nation with the latest in technological advances and the culture of the desert, the Arab culture. In it, the scientific know-how that produced the advanced technology which allowed us to make hard bricks out of sand existed in symbiosis with the ancient wisdom of the desert.

A New Community Development based on the Philosophy of Symbiosis

When I made the master plan fir this desert community, I gave greater importance to streets than to plazas. As the illustration shows, these streets were not laid out in straight lines. For the past twenty years I have taken every available opportunity to advocate the superiority of streets to plazas as public urban spaces. A town that is pleasant to live in is not one organized along the western model, centered around a plaza, but a town that has pleasant streets. When Japanese visit Europe, one of the first things that impresses them is the plazas. Facing the plaza is a church, town hall, and a market -- all impressive structures, and this always strikes the visitors as quite grand. But the other side of the coin is that the back streets of European cities are dark, dangerous, and without charm or interest. Unfortunately, it is the very bustle and grandeur of the plaza that creates those dark back alleys. European towns have a back and a front.

But in the Japanese tradition, the street is the front. In contrast to centralized European cities, which concentrate their glories around the central plaza, in Japan it is the streets, gently unfolding from house to house to house, which are the source of the city's enjoyment. I wanted to allow that Japanese-style street as facade to exist in symbiosis in the community in Sarir -- which was really not such a tall order, since the concept of the street or marketplace (in Japanese, tsuji) as a public space was already firmly established in Islamic cultures as the souk, or bazaar. This is the shopping district in Islamic cities. In French movies you often see a criminal dashing into the streets of the bazaar and disappearing in the crowd -- that crowded, seemingly confused maze of streets and shops is what I am talking about. There I found a conception of public space identical to Japan's tsuji.

Maze-like streets in a town set in the midst of the desert have the advantage of blocking sandstorms and winds, and they also create much needed shade. At the peak of summer's heat, you can walk comfortably through the well-ventilated, shaded streets.

In Sarir, my philosophy of symbiosis could be realized on a wide range of levels, from the conceptual to the most practical. But the scale of the project was quite large: we were talking about building an entire and enormous city from scratch in the middle of the desert. It is still not finished. And with the recent drop in oil prices, the construction and the project have been suspended. But this was no castle built on sand. Eventually, slowly, this sand-colored city will rise from the desert, and then, just as eventually, it will return to the sands from which it came.

The Symbiosis of History and the Future in Meandering Streets

The construction of the Shonan Life Town in the north part of the city of Fujisawa in Kanagawa Prefecture is proceeding. This is one of the town planning projects that I have designed -- this particular project some twenty years ago. It designed for a population of forty-five thousand. At present some thirty thousand are already living there, and gradually it is acquiring the lived-in feeling of a town.

Before construction began, about five hundred farming families lived in the area, mostly cultivating paddies. The farm houses have been preserved, and fifty percent of each paddy area has also been allowed to remain. One of the aims of the project was to allow the symbiosis of urban dwellers and the farming community, the present and the past. This necessitated organizing the parcels of land that became available at widely separated locations according to district and exchanging farm plots for housing lots throughout the development.

In a farming community there is always a woods or a sacred mountain. To preserve the natural environment and this traditional topography, we adjured leveling all lots and building straight, perpendicularly laid out roads. That would have been a destruction of the history and the environment of the area. Carefully choosing paths of equal elevation, we built winding, meandering roads, leaving as much greenery as possible, together with the historical appearance of the farming village. As a result, this Shonan Life Town is a great success as a symbiosis of farm and town, with roads as twisting as you are likely to find anywhere.

At the time, the Ministry of Construction, which was the government agency overseeing the project, objected to the meandering roads and, because they were supplying the funds for the preparation of the site, issued an order to revise our plan. But we stubbornly held to the original plan and were able to carry it out. Twenty years later, this community development has finally come to be recognized as a model for the development of new communities in the future. I am glad.

Publicly we emphasized that the preservation of the farming economy was important in the design of the Shonan Life Town, but in fact what was a presupposed condition of that preservation was the preservation of the historical community -- the human relationships -- of the area. Brasilia and Canberra are both regarded as very poor examples of new communities. In Japan, the Tsukuba Academic City is another example of this rather unfortunate sort of planned community. What is wrong with these new cities?

Many complaints are voiced. They are one-dimensional, dominated by the automobile, separated from other cities, and isolated. They are cold, their populations lack variety, there is no community. To sum it all up, these cities all lack symbiosis. Put another way, they have no history. In fifty years, one hundred years, they will accumulate their own histories. But even so, is that any reason why they must be unpleasant to live in for a century? Is there no way to allow these new towns a symbiosis with history from the start?

There is. As in the Shonan New Life Town, new communities must be built by insuring, as much as possible, that they exist in symbiosis with the already existing historical community or town. Nor should the entire city be planned in advance. One part of it must be put aside and allowed to develop in a natural way. Such natural development always results in a maze. New communities that possess their own mazes, that live in symbiosis with history, will be communities that people will find attractive and enjoyable to live in.