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70 Viewpoints

function as neighbourhood centres and identifying surrounding street crossings appropriate? What
routes and pathways immediately around them that design elements might be added on the site to
seem to have poor connectivity; and examining improve its function as a plaza, square, green, or
clusters of activity spaces or other places that other civic space?
should have a high degree of interconnection. These are but two examples of how urban
A second example involves the urban design morphology is central to urban design that advances
idea that sometimes it is important for neighbour- sustainability and is incremental and pragmatic in
hoods to have centres places that provide a spirit. I believe that planners who use the intel-
common, centrally-located destination that not only lectual and pragmatic tools of urban morphology
provides needed services for people, but also will be the ones who help ensure that, in the design
functions as tangible evidence of the common bond of human settlements, fundamentals do not get lost
that people living in the same area share. Such like how to make a neighbourhood function well,
places may, over time, promote a sense of shared how to support social diversity through design, and
responsibility. how to make a place more civic-minded. With an
Again, an urban morphology-inspired analysis urban morphology orientation, they can be the ones
might involve characterizing the different kinds of ensuring that the creative process of urban design
centres already known to exist (schools, libraries, does not obfuscate fundamental considerations in
road intersections), and understanding how their favour of fashion.
character, functionality and design requirements
vary along dimensions of use, physical condition,
public access, and the character of surrounding References
thoroughfares. Is there good building frontage for
a sense of enclosure around the space, or are there Marat-Mendes, T. (2013) Sustainability and the study of
weaknesses that need to be mitigated? Is there one urban form, Urban Morphology 17, 123-4.
side on which to focus, and others to leave as they McGlynn, S. and Samuels, I. (2000) The funnel, the
are? Should some frontages be lined or wrapped sieve and the template: towards an operational urban
with more permeable, pedestrian-friendly frontage? morphology, Urban Morphology 4, 79-89.
Is there a good mix of uses at the centre (especially Sanders, P. (2013) Towards consonance in urban form,
public as distinct from commercial)? Are there Urban Morphology 17, 116-18.
uses that should be added, such as facilities or Scheer, B. C. (2013) The master plan is dead: long live
commercial spaces, or even parking? Could urban morphology, Urban Morphology 17, 48-50.
existing uses like parking lots be given dual Talen, E. (2009) Urban design reclaimed: tools, tech-
purpose? Are there well-designed entrances and niques and strategies for planners (Planners Press,
gateways to the centre? How do people from all Chicago).
points around the centre get to it? Are the

Consolidating urban morphology as an independent and

auxiliary discipline
Karl Kropf, Urban Morphology Research Group, School of Geography, Earth and
Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK and Built
Form Resource Ltd, UK. E-mail:

When I gave a lecture to the Urban Design Group professionals who value the contribution urban
(UDG) in London on the subject of urban morph- morphology makes to urban design practice.
ology, I started by stating my unapologetic deter- Comments over the years in the Viewpoints in
mination to use the term urban morphology. I felt this journal reinforce the perception that urban
that statement was necessary confirmed by the morphology is not well understood or actively used
audiences response because of the number of in planning and urban design practice. Indeed the
people who either stare blankly when I say what I ISUF Task Force on Research and Practice was set
do or who suggest it might be better to find another up to address this point (see Barke, 2013; Samuels,
term. The latter group includes urban design 2013).
Viewpoints 71

In support of the work of the Task Force and over the whole. How closely this scientific
with the prospect that a similar situation might aspiration is bound up with the creative and
apply in other fields in which urban morphology is imitative urges need not be dealt with in detail.
relevant, it is worth asking the question, how is Hence several attempts are found in the
urban morphology perceived? How big a task do progress of art, learning and science to establish
we have to raise the profile of the discipline in and develop a theory to which we should like to
urban planning and design and how might we go give the name morphology
about it? Central to the task is being clear what When we study forms, the organic ones in
urban morphology is about. particular, nowhere do we find permanence,
This to me is the essence of the discussion that repose or termination. We find rather that every-
has ensued from Michael Conzens reflections on thing is in ceaseless flux. This is why our
the role of meaning in urban morphology (Conzen, language makes such frequent use of the term
2013, 2014; Kropf and Malfroy, 2013). The Bildung to designate what has been brought
question of meaning in urban morphology is just as forth and likewise what is in the process of being
much about the meaning of urban morphology: the brought forth (Goethe, 1952, p. 23).
label and its contents. One of the points I take from
Conzens passionate arguments in his Viewpoint in Goethes version of morphology, with which
the previous issue of this journal and a point with Conzen accords, is profoundly synthetic. And it is
which I strongly agree is that unbundling urban explicitly a mental discipline a way of looking at
morphology as it has come to be constituted would and organizing phenomena. Strangely, that side of
be a profligate waste. Too much effort and energy morphology seems to have been lost in the trans-
would be lost, too many insights would be dissi- ition from natural history to biology. So we have
pated and stirred into the soup of larger fields. Goethes synthetic, inclusive, holistic method; the
But, at the same lecture that I gave to the UDG, analytical, exclusive, ancillary methods of current
one of the comments at the end was this. Having biological and linguistic morphology; and the
described the broad range of topics that fall within heterogeneity of actual practice. Some claim too
the remit of urban morphology, someone asked, much; some claim too little. I personally do not
isnt that claiming too much ground for urban think that it is a choice between one or the others.
morphology? As if to say, is it not hubris to We need them all.
suggest that urban morphology on its own can fully The way to integrate that broad church is
explain something as complex as a city? And what through some degree of specialization. It has its
about the other individuals and groups who use risks but it is the way forward for growth and
different concepts and methods under the label of development of the discipline. That should include
urban morphology: for example, Michael Batty, returning to and setting out in more detail the
Bill Hillier, Philip Steadman, Serge Salat, synthetic methods so that they can become a
Christopher Alexander and Nikos Salingaros. And shared, community practice subject to scrutiny and
if we keep a broader conception of urban debate.
morphology, what should we call the specific focus The principle behind this position is both
on the basic elements of built form, their structure Goethes identification of utilizers, fact-finders,
and relationships a common definition of morph- contemplators and comprehenders and the concept
ology in other fields? We could start by reflecting of differentiation as applied in education and
on the fact that geomorphology is the study of teaching (Gardner, 2006). This principle starts
landforms and the processes that shape them. But from the accumulated evidence that different people
I find it difficult not to return to the source: Goethe learn in different ways, and is rooted in the fact that
and his original conception of morphology different people have different cognitive strengths
keeping some flexibility of mind in carrying over and weaknesses. Some people find it easier to
the core principles from living forms to built understand numbers, others three dimen-sions, text
form. or kinaesthetic experience.
If we want to attract as many people as possible
The man of science has always evinced a to make contributions to the discipline of urban
tendency to recognize living forms as such, to morphology we need to provide opportunities for
understand their outwardly visible and tangible them to do so. That means providing different
parts in relation to one another, to lay hold of ways into the subject sub-disciplines and
them as indicia of the inner parts, and thus, in making contributions in different ways. It also
contemplation, to acquire a degree of mastery means being clear what ties all the sub-disciplines
72 Viewpoints

together which takes us to theory. What is the independent science and as an auxiliary physio-
mutual role of the different aspects of form in the logical science. As a whole, it is based upon
formation and transformation of human settle- natural history, from which it extracts phenomena
ments? for its own purposes; it likewise rests on the
Malfroy and I have suggested that there are anatomy of all bodies and especially zootomy
benefits in seeing meaning as a distinct aspect dealt (Goethe, 1952, p. 88).
with in a sub-discipline (Kropf and Malfroy, 2013).
We maintained, however, that meaning is central to In this light, urban morphology may be regarded as
the social process that results in the formation and both an independent discipline and an auxiliary
transformation of settlements, not least in the ideas one. As a whole, it is based on urban geography
that are the basis for the creation of form. In order and urban and architectural history, from which it
for those ideas and meanings to help reinforce and extracts phenomena for its own purposes (where
extend the discipline of urban morphology as a would we be without, for example, the period-
whole, they need to be seen not in terms of an ization of architectural history?). It likewise rests
isolated narrative but in terms of the common on typology and configurational analysis of indi-
concepts of the discipline. Local histories, for vidual elements. Each sub-discipline uses a slightly
example, need to be investigated to see if they different set of methods, making use of develop-
might be instances of a more general recurring ments in related fields, rather than seeking to invent
process using the categories, terms and identified them all from scratch. All these then contribute to
regularities of the discipline. That means shifting the broader aims of the synthetic theory of built
the focus from the specific meaning of a particular form and the discipline that seeks to explain built
object or set of objects to the role of the elements form in terms of the processes of its formation and
and agents in the process. transformation.
Knowing the meanings of the shapes used in
Queens Square, the Circus and the Crescent in
Bath, as understood by their builders, helps us to References
understand how and why they came to give that
part of Bath the form and character it has. For that Barke, M. (2013) Some thoughts on the first output of
knowledge to contribute to a wider understanding the ISUF Task Force on Research and Practice,
of morphological processes and regularities, we Urban Morphology 17, 134-5.
also need to shift to looking at the more general act Conzen, M. P. (2013b) Substance, method and meaning
of borrowing and using forms for the purpose of in urban morphology, Urban Morphology 17, 132-4.
signification and the recombination of elements Conzen, M. P. (2013a) Experiments in cross-cultural
from different sources. To use somewhat old- urban morphology, Proceedings of the Joint Meeting
fashioned language, there is a balance to be struck of the International Seminar on Urban Form and the
between a focus on particulars and a focus on European Association for Architectural Education,
universals. That is to say, in addition to acknow- Delft University of Technology, Delft, The Nether-
ledging that there might be distinct sub-disciplines lands, 16-19 October 2012 (School of Architecture,
within urban morphology, it is worth acknow- Delft University of Technology, Delft).
ledging that there are different levels of abstraction. Gardner, H. (2006) Multiple intelligences: new horizons
In the end the goal of this discussion is to (Basic Books, New York).
consolidate and strengthen urban morphology as a Goethe, J. W. (1952) Goethes botanical writings, trans.
field. Far from seeking to impose strict separation by B. Mueller (University of Hawaii Press,
of sub-disciplines, I strongly advocate a catholic, Honolulu).
inclusive and collaborative approach something Kropf, K. and Malfroy, S. (2013) What is urban morph-
that is not in principle exclusive of specialization. ology supposed to be about? Specialization and the
Such an approach necessitates adopting an abstract growth of a discipline, Urban Morphology 17, 128-
and flexible view of borrowings and analogies but 31.
at the same time requires rigour in putting them Samuels, I. (2013) ISUF Task Force on Research and
together for different purposes. In Goethes words: Practice in Urban Morphology: an interim report,
Urban Morphology 17, 40-3.
Morphology may be regarded both as an