Identity Crisis and High-Speed Urbanism.

Form and Morphogenetic Process as Generators of

Design Identity


Dr. Thomas Fischer, MEd, PhD.

School of Design, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

Spatial Information Architecture Lab, RMIT.


Christiane M. Herr, Dipl. Ing., MArch, PhD cand.

Department of Architecture, The University of Hong Kong.


In this paper we reflect upon the relation between generative design and the identity crisis into which “Chinese high-speed urbanism” is presently forcing its architecture. Notwithstanding depreciating and polemic comments, China is creating accomplished facts and thereby writing the next chapter in the book of architecture at a breath-taking speed. Omnipresent extravagance creates its own type of uniformity and deprives its cities, buildings and inhabitants of their identity. With growing wealth, however, the masses of the Chinese population will adopt more demanding consumer attitudes. Design quality and identity in cities and buildings will be valued significantly higher in the foreseeable future than they presently are and new questions will have to be raised. What is the identity of a form that fails to relate to its context? What is the identity of a copy? What is the identity of an alien form amidst alien forms? From the perspective of western observers located in Hong Kong, we investigate the potential of morphogenetic processes and the resulting forms as generators of design identity and relate some perspectives and practices of generative design and contemporary Chinese architecture. The goal is to identify strategies for the generation of identity in environmental design at and within very large scales where development speed prohibits gradual processes of growth.

1. Introduction

As with other design approaches, generative design poses some difficulty to attempts at defining it. One reason is that design approaches often merely express aspects that are emphasized in form-producing processes or in resulting form without excluding other aspects. While it is often easily possible to identify design processes and forms that are based on a generative approach (or user-oriented, green, futurist etc. for that matter), it can be difficult to identify those that are not. We have defined generative design as a design approach that differs from other design approaches to the extent that during the design process the designer does not directly configure materials and forms in an immediate way but via a generative system whereas a generative system is a set-up based on abstract definitions of possible design variations capable of producing design products (or elements thereof) [5]. There are however no formal requirements regarding the nature and qualities of the generative mechanisms by which generative designers explore design variations. The generative design approach is for instance not restricted to the application of digital tools. Any form is “generated” one way or another. It is therefore possible to declare almost any form-finding process as involving generative elements, even where other aspects and intentions might be more dominant in a given case. In this paper we use this broader notion of generative design to investigate generative design’s potential to support the reflection of identity in Chinese built environments.

2. Form, Process and Identity

The generative approach sees designs structured in species or classes, of which concrete forms are members or instances [19]. The generation of new form involves inspiration from, or variations of, previous form. The implied analogy to natural evolution suggests the existence of a superstructure of species. Just as the forms of biological evolution have been charted into a hierarchy of genealogical descent and morphological variation, one might wonder what the superstructure of the forms of generative design species might be. Such a taxonomy of form does not necessarily follow the rules and hierarchical order of the scientific representation of natural evolution. In a constructive act, observers derive their perception of design identity from relations between attributes of form and its tempospatial and cultural context. Species and their relations are structured subjectively by observers who choose to focus on different design attributes and affordances [19]. A change in the observer’s perspective can result in dramatic changes within the assumed superstructure of design species. Species of furniture for example can be structured by different criteria that observers might choose such as functions, materials used, design style, age, origin or manufacturing methods. Designs, which might seem closely related in one structure, can have very little relation in another and vice versa. Consequently, perception of identity of form and taxonomies of archetypes are highly dependent on observer’s cultural backgrounds (see also [15]).

The generative approach emphasises the two-fold nature of design activity, which does not only conceive new form but also new processes of conceiving form. Identity perceived in design products is based on attributes of form and its context. But where form is expressive of its underlying process, design identity is affected by both, generative process and form. As an illustration, figure 1 shows experimental generative forms that – to some extent – express the morphogenetic logic and procedures by which they were generated.

Figure 1 from left to right: Two cellular automata growth structures, wooden soap bubble model and magnetic triangles.

The structure on the left shows growth patterns in a cellular automata system inspired by Schrandt and Ulam [17]. The second structure on the left is based on epigenetic processes coded decentrally into a virtual cellular tissue [7, 8]. The third structure shows a recent attempt of modelling soap bubbles using pinewood and bamboo and the structure on the right is a set of Perspex triangles with built-in industrial magnets. It can form manifestations of potential order dynamically based on its internal logic without top-down ordering influences.

The generation of form translates initial blueprints whereas, again in analogy to Nature, the design ‘blueprint’ ideally describes developmental opportunities rather than the developmental product, the resulting form itself [6, 9]. Not only the way in which a blueprint for a design is conceived but also the way in which a blueprint is interpreted during its implementation impacts variance on resulting form. This can be illustrated by the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur whose client commissioned two contractors from two different countries, each to construct one of the twin towers in a competitive environment. As a result, the two façades, which were designed to be identical and which shared the same blueprint, show slight variations in details and materials. The introduction of variance in form through varying interpretation of blueprints at the construction stage is typically minimised but it could also be seen as part of the generative process. The potential expressiveness of built structures about their underlying generative processes applies particularly to vernacular structures, which are typically not explicitly designed at all. Examples of unplanned urban vernaculars in the city of Hong Kong are neon advertisements of shops and restaurants protruding into Hong Kong’s streets and the (waning number of) “illegal building structures” [24], which Hong Kong residents attach to the façades of their building to increase their living spaces. These structures are representative of Hong Kong and express a very strong local identity, despite the fact that their shared identity reflected in their formal appearance has not been a design intention. In these two cases, bottom-up processes have created new design typologies with very strong identities and strong ties to their cultural contexts. Figure 2 shows some examples of illegal building structures in Hong Kong and the What-If Machine, a hardware parallel processor for simulating the growth dynamic of Hong Kong’s illegal façade extensions [13].

Figure 2: Hong Hong illegal building extensions (left) and the What-If-Machine [13].

Illegal building structures are a remarkable example of a bottom-up generative process of rule interpretation. Most interestingly, in breaking the rules of official building regulations, their builders seem to have followed rather strictly an alternative set of rules: Variation in illegal façade extensions is largely limited as to where and when they appear as well as to minor aspects of size and materials but not in terms of basic principles of form and construction. Similar observations can be made regarding Hong Kong’s neon advertisements and of many other vernacular structures in other parts of the world. In such process-driven expressions of individual or communal identity the inhabitants of vernacular structures invest their buildings with their identity and thus convert generic urban environments into unique dynamically adapting architectural form (see also [12]).

3. Identity Generation and Chinese Architecture

It has been noted that the generation of architectural identity ideally comes about in the form of an amplification of an existing genius loci [20]. Against this background, before discussing possibilities of generating architectural identity in present-day China, it is necessary to analyse the current state of affairs of the Chinese built environment. Challenges become apparent even at the superficial level of basic legislated preconditions for building. For example, since the middle of the 20th century, China's building regulations (in particular its fire regulations) have practically ruled out the construction of large timber structures. This single regulation alone effectively forbids the continuation of most of the country's traditional and vernacular architectural archetypes. This example demonstrates how prescriptive building regulations can threaten architectural identity at a very basic level and raises the question of whether more performance-oriented building regulations [16] would not only integrate better with generative planning approaches but also help in protecting architectural identity.


Contemporary “Chinese high-speed urbanism” [2] widely adopts modern approaches to planning and form. Modernist form, however, has been introduced to China rather abruptly, coinciding with a conscious discarding of most traditional typologies following an extended period of war and revolution. Modernist form was adopted as expression of a new identity, while traditional “design species” were seen as reminders of undesirable traditionalist values. With the fast development of China’s economy and continuous urban growth, the resulting Chinese modernism has become the prevalent architectural language in China. Since this new type of architecture did not result from a gradual development process, there seems to be a lack of variety in design species as well as a lack of specific consideration of local factors and materials in form. The consequences are seen as a national architectural identity crisis that produces superlatives of scale and quantity at high speed but which, in the eyes of many, fails to live up to China’s rich cultural identity. “Just as the country is lurching toward some blurry ideal of a quasi-capitalistic economy, so too it is groping for a sense of national identity in its architecture. Experimentation and grand dreams are encouraged.” [10] While prominent western architects are commissioned to design landmark experiments and grand dream projects, the country’s ongoing rapid urbanisation process results in the promotion of more than twenty rural areas to city status every year [4]. In this process, which will continue at its current speed at least until 2020, hundreds of millions of people will adopt a new urban life style and identity. Present approaches to accommodating this new urban population are limited to uniform cookie-cutter residential architecture. Variation within this architectural species is limited to ornament and, for those who can afford it, formal imitations of Mediterranean villa styles and similar decorative elements. Formal status symbols of this kind are used across the entire range of building scales from single-family residences (that are oftentimes replicated in vast grids) to housing estates for thousands of inhabitants. Diversity and “identity of character” were declared central requirements in the brief of the 2001 Shui Chuen O housing competition initiated by the Hong Kong Housing Authority [18]. While most entries concentrated on ways of creating identity in built form, the winning entry has little connection to local urban context and was, despite the brief, chosen primarily for economic reasons of construction efficiency (see figure 3). This choice illustrates how architectural identity still tends to be seen as a bonus rather than a necessary requirement.


Traditionally, Chinese architecture has emphasised the preservation of inherited standardized architectural form rather than on innovative variation by individual designers. In contrast to painting and calligraphy, architecture was not considered a fine art, but a craft. Buildings were planned, built and maintained by craftsmen who passed down highly prescriptive building blueprints and rules of construction from generation to generation. Buildings were not considered individual design achievements and consequently, while producing numerous famous poets and calligraphers, classical Chinese history did not produce famous architectural designers. The Chinese language did not have a word for architect until the beginning of the 20th century. Variation in design species appeared only gradually through new materials, structural inventions and foreign influences, until the Ming and Qing dynasties, when existing typologies were frozen and codified and exchanges with foreign design cultures were cut off. Acceptable building form was defined in official treatises such as the Qing dynasty Official Manual on Constructional Engineering drawn up by the Ministry of Works of 1734 [25], which listed architectural typologies as well as sizes and types of elements. Roofs, for example, were limited to 27 different types, with each type associated with a specific role and use in the court hierarchy. For hundreds of years, official building typologies remained the same, while architectural ornament and vernacular building typologies continued to develop with little restraint. This traditional rule-based approach in Chinese architecture has some parallels to generative design, which seeks to generate variance within the limits contained by the characteristics of a species. It should be noted that one of the first classic papers in generative design research investigates Chinese ice ray lattices as a case study for the generation of variety while maintaining identity within a traditional typology [21].


Figure 3: Winner of the 2001 Shui Chuen O design competition for public housing in Hong Kong [18].


The continuity maintained within the Chinese architectural tradition was disrupted by the Cultural Revolution, which branded traditional form as a dangerous reminder of traditionalist values and as opposing the reinvention of Chinese society. As a consequence, most traditional architecture was destroyed throughout China – Hessler [14] describes how the surroundings of the city of Fuling had more than 300 pagodas and temples before, and less than ten after the Cultural Revolution. The ensuing focus on the radically new caused the discontinuation of most architectural traditions, resulting in the disappearance of design archetypes without comparable replacement. New architectural form was based on modernist examples, initially mainly adapted from Russian influences. When China started its ongoing development from an agrarian to an urban society, identity at the levels of cities, buildings or even individuals was hardly a consideration in planning for new economic and cultural challenges. Most traditional building types had been rendered obsolete by new needs, and only few traditional morphologies continued to be used - in a different context. Joined with modernist morphologies, hybrid typologies began to appear that assumed form without much concern for the coherence of rather unrelated elements. In Beijing and elsewhere in China, typical modernist glass-and-concrete buildings are topped with traditional tiled roofs, with the design intention to assert Chinese architectural characteristics. Similar to the traditional approach of maintaining existing typologies, architects tend to rely on reproduction of physical form found in existing architecture rather than on generative processes of reinvention and transformation. In this process of reproduction of form, new architecture is not only modelled on existing Chinese archetypes, but also frequently on western morphologies, ranging from stereotypical elements to the exact replication of entire buildings as shown in figure 4. Hong Kong and Macao were under colonial rule for most of the 20th century. Here, it was also modern architecture that replaced many traditional archetypes and rapid increase in population sizes and densities caused discontinuities in building culture that can be compared to those in Mainland China. Today, architecture in Hong Kong and Macao shares much of China’s preoccupation with novelty expressed in superficial decoration and formal imitation.


Figure 4: Le Corbusier’s Chapel at Ronchamp (left) and a building in Zhenzhou (right).

To the western observer, this approach is reminiscent of form-duplicating architectures found in theme parks and themed hotels and casinos [23]. Buildings resulting from this approach to architecture retain recognizable forms, but run the risk of failing to express their connection to tempo-spatial and cultural context. The challenge is: How can strong identity and contextually sensible innovation be produced and maintained at a development speed that prohibits gradual growth? Forced freezing of archetypes seems to yield as few answers as forced discontinuation of archetypes does. While built form might be easily copied, identity attributed to form easily eludes attempts at reproduction.


Identity is not only perceived and valued by local residents, but also gains importance in urban economies that profit from attracting tourists. Thus, planners and architects in cities like Hong Kong increasingly seek to create forms that are unique yet characteristic for a local environment, both in standardised housing and in large-scale monumental architecture. This new search for identity, however, differs from gradual developmental processes in that identity is designed in a top-down way in an attempt to cope with increasing speed of development. As a result, the products of top-down efforts at creating identity are often unconvincing compared to the richness of complex vernacular form. One example of such efforts in Hong Kong is the daily light show illuminating the harbour front of Hong Kong, aimed at attracting tourists and creating local identity. In contrast to Hong Kong’s streetscapes characterised by typical neon advertisements, however, Hong Kong’s light show seems contrived since it does not build on local context but seeks to invent entirely new ways of creating identity (see figure 5).


Fascinating foreign observers, Chinese cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai and the dynamics of their populations seem to have abundant potential for bottom-up organization and form finding processes. However, planning and policy-making in these cities rely almost solely on top-down regulation. Hong Kong’s bottom-up generative process and ever-changing forest of neon signs and bamboo scaffoldings seem to produce much more local identity than the top-down designed “Symphony of Light” [3], which could possibly be transplanted to or copied by any major city in the world without losing its effect.



Figure 5: Hong Kong’s skyline with its every evening “A Symphony of Lights” show [3] and a Hong Kong street with typical neon advertisements and bamboo scaffoldings.


Accelerating the development of design morphologies disrupts the continuity of processes of transformation and reconfiguration and reduces variety of design species. At the same time, demands for increased production of characteristic yet unique form do not allow for lengthy development processes. In this context, generative design offers an approach to the problem of identity that enables designers to create variety while maintaining continuity within a design species. Confronted with China’s current speed of development, architects cannot keep up with the demand for high quality architecture, sacrificing architectural quality for increased quantity. Generative design, as any other design approach, does not guarantee good results, but promises a way to cope with combined demands for quantity and variety. To create identity, generative procedures must be open to aspects of developmental influences that are not predictable at the outset of design generation. By incorporating forms and development patterns not included in the initial design species, generative design can avoid limitations imposed by relying on fixed repertoires. In addition to attributes of form, continuity in local identity can also be derived from the characteristics of existing planned and vernacular processes involved in the expression of form from an initial blueprint. Process characteristics can for example include geometric transformations or rules of composition that relate individual forms to their larger context.

4. Conclusion

The speed and scale of urban development in China make it very difficult to achieve the expression of gradually grown structures and local identity. However, with growing wealth, the Chinese population is bound to demand such qualities from their built environment in the future. Planning approaches based on formal imitation and ornamentation with little relation to design context or to its inhabitant's identity will fail to satisfy this arising need. Offering possibilities to define identifiable design species, which, codified in non-deterministic blueprints, can develop to integrate with local conditions and needs, generative design must learn from (and ideally accommodate) vernacular dynamics as well as similar identity-generating and contextualising processes. With this ability, generative design will have a strong potential to offer alternatives to form-dominated ad hoc design at large planning scales with the power to achieve non-uniform design at high definition at high speed.

5. Acknowledgements

We gratefully acknowledge the feedback and support from our colleagues at the Spatial Information Architecture Laboratory at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, at the Department of Architecture at The University of Hong Kong and at the School of Design at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, in particular Timothy Jachna, Eric Wear and Thomas Kvan. The image of Le Corbusier’s Chapel at Ronchamp on the left of figure 4 was reproduced from [22], p. 17. The image on the right of figure 4 was reproduced from an online architectural discussion forum [1]. The small telephone switchboard image shown in the upper left for figure 2 was reproduced from [11], p. 123.

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