The future of harmony and cities #architecture

During the past month, Venezuelan architect Ana Manzo @anammanzo hosted a series about harmony on her blog The Place of Dreams. Mine was the 14th post. Who knew that architects, designers, contractors, and related folks could find so much richness in one word? You can read the entire series here.    

What is harmony?

My blogging friends defined harmony beautifully onAna’s blog. They found harmony in rock and roll, poetry, nature, relationships, ancient sacred ground, and architecture. Diverse elements cooperate into a completely new sound, different and more complex than the individual notes. Harmony is not a state or condition; it’s a perfect balance achieved by coordinating diversity. Through complexity, we find unity.

Ana said harmony is love. I think that’s right. Love sees us and accepts us as we are. The Greeks agreed. They invented the word – harmonia – to mean joint agreement or accord. It’s compromise, joining, and fitting together. 

My question is: are we becoming more harmonious? And how do we find harmony in cities? First, I want to add one more idea to harmony – rebellion.

Is harmony always good?

Are there times we prefer life beyond accord?  Foucault fretted over harmony, which he saw as oppression, pressure to conform. That’s the rebel’s voice. I would call that pushing limits, testing the edges of conformity. In harmony, the notes desire each other, respect difference, and create a new sound, unlike any single note. They seek a community of notes, joining the most extreme, and all are transformed, transcendent, into a richer, more complex voice.   

We need single notes too. They come first, the ingredients of harmony. And the further they push, the more complex, varied, intriguing harmonies emerge. Individual notes must be celebrated. Sometimes I wantMonk.   

How does harmony work in architecture?

Architects argue about harmony. Christopher Alexander believes that great towns and cities blend the parts into the whole. “When you actually get all those elements correct, at a certain point you begin to feel that they are in harmony.” Peter Eisenman claims that disharmony and harmony exist in the cosmos; we need both. He fights for individual expression.

Is it possible that these opposites are two sides of the same coin? These modern lions fight over the same terms. Disharmony and incongruity aim at order, as does harmony. Some choose to conform and others fight. That is a mindset, the either/or way of 20th century thinking.


Here’s true harmony to me – both/and.

Both compatible buildings and buildings that contrast. Exceptions prove the rule. Are Bilbao’s historical buildings more memorable next to Calatrava’s Zubizuri footbridge?


Do you

feel greater attraction to the Nelson-Atkins Museum thanks to Holl’s ultra-modern addition?


Does the

Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial open your eyes to the heroics of the neo-classical monuments? To me, thats the role of harmony to celebrate difference. And we still need powerful, single notes.

Too much conformity, you get suburbs or Disney-fake, like a one-dimensional painting. Too much clashing, you get single notes competing, Las Vegas-style. If single voices are never heard, if remarkable buildings are never seen, the city goes flat. 

What is harmony in society?

Harmony, you might say, begins inside of us and informs our relationship with the universe. It works through me to we, to things, to nature, to cosmos.

Claire Graves invented a developmental model of humans, societies, even civilization calledSpiral Dynamics. The nine tiers of self-awareness (color -coded) ormemes move towards greater harmony and connectivity – instinctive (beige), animistic (purple), egocentric (red), authoritative (blue), achiever (orange), consensual (green), integral (yellow), holistic (turquoise), next? (coral).

With more people, interconnectivity expands – or needs to. So we learn and adopt better models. It’s also what gives us hope – belief in a better future. With environmental problems and planet limits, our technological and social developments are barely staying ahead of our need to live together, our urge for harmony. Sometimes we fail catastrophically.

Plus you never forget those former memes; you incorporate them and add more parts, more skills and choices. You become more fully human. As societies, we are more connected than we possibly imagined. In short, we continually strive for greater harmony.


What is greater harmony in cities?

We started with caves and we ended in suburbs? Be still my heart! Surely we can improve on that. These one-note communities were just a stop on the way, an orange meme. Sometimes we really blow it, given too much power too soon, a baby with matches. And then we are forced to fix our errors, where the hardest part may be admitting it.

Jane Jacobs claimed, “Designing a dream city is easy; rebuilding a living one takes imagination.”

Here’s how I see these memes in cities. Beige – caves. Purple – primitive tribal villages. Red – Ancient Greece, Rome. Blue – fortressed cities, castles, cathedrals. Orange – industrialization, skyscrapers, suburbs. Green – new urbanism, sustainable design, revitalization. Yellow – living cities, restorative. Turquoise – adaptive, co-creating, biomimicry. Coral – too soon to know; biogenetics, nano, neurotech, transhumanism, singularity?


Harmony Tattoos

We are re-calculating, re-examining our lifestyles. How to become more harmonious, to live with seven, eight, or nine billion people? How to be in balance with the planet, to replenish resources rather than deplete them? And how to cultivate quality.

How do you love life? How do your clothes, home, city, your tattoos express that and feed your spirit?

The moderns (not in design, but in thinking) believe in an oppositional blue/orange mindset. My way or no way. Green thinkers want to cooperate, create communities, and build sustainably. Yellows adapt on the fly, see wholes and parts, and are comfortable with constant change, in other words, harmony. Different notes combine to express entirely new sounds while still celebrating you. 

Our cities need to be that way. I’d say the first harmonious cities will be yellow.  

Harmony is love and we grow towards it. Not harmony all sugar and sweet, pastoral utopias, but with all the tangs and twists of human nature wound together as separate strands for resilience. It’s the tattooed city, visibly expressing who we are and who we want to be.

  • What color is your city? What’s harmony to you?

Images, videos:  Thelonious MonkRound About Midnight; CalatravaZubizuri Foot Bridge, Bilbao, Spain; HollNelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, USA; Maya LinVietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington DC.


Where do you find happiness? Holl’s Museum Add’n in Kansas City, guest post for @Antony_DiMase #architecture

Antony DiMase of DiMase Architects  in North Fitzroy, Australia invited me to sharea place that makes me happy. Their blog series  Places That Make Me Happy was inspired by my Hilarious Cities essay. His firm does beautiful work, check them out. They constantly explore ways to help people see architecture differently and be a bit braver about design. You can find my original post here.


For decades, I grumbled about the complete lack of world class modern architecture in Kansas City. Great places make us better humans. When we see it and experience it every day, we become more creative, even visionary. Excellence breeds more excellence.  Call it the reverse of the “broken window theory.”

When the Board of Trustees for the 1933 Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art initiated an international competition to select the architect for the new Bloch addition, I leaped for joy. Of the six star architects, only Steven Holl defied the committee’s instructions to connect with the broad Beaux Arts entrance façade. Instead, his addition attached to the short eastern end of the building. Even more compelling, instead of an above-grade structure that would diminish the park-like setting, Holl buried the addition and mounted five channel glass “lenses” on the roof for daylight. His radical originality springs from these two acts of rebellion.

Those five lenses are among the most ingenious inventions of the last decade. Holl defines their counterpoint with the existing building as the stone and the feather. The massive heft of the original limestone structure sits solidly on the ground while the white channel-glass boxes seem to dance lightly down the sloped landscape. Their glow at night is pure architecture magic.

My favorite space, the Naguchi Gallery near the extreme end of the building, opens directly onto the main lawn. After experiencing a series ramps and underground galleries, a panorama of the original building bursts into your view, framed by an expansive window panel. The effect is sublime; it always brings tingles to my skin.

When I seek inspiration, I skip to the Nelson and visit Holl’s masterpiece. I am happy now.

  • What places make you happy?  

Images: interior, south lawn, distance shot Steven Holl Architects; connection detail Goldberger inThe New Yorker; at night w/ trees Washington Post. 

Ten Ways to Build Strong Communities – Notes from Free State Social

Last week, three hundred people experienced an energy tornado at the Free State Social. Thanks to the hard working Ben Smith and Whitney Mathews, folks from Kansas, Missouri and points beyond spent a couple of days with social media geniuses.

These folks blew me away. Two days of cyclonic SM. If cities used this gale of ideas, our communities would be knit tighter than Mayberry. Here’s my top ten for cities.


Jeremiah, Ben, and Chris

1.       Brogan’s Be Nice Club. Shawna Coronado, green gardening guru and author, said that’s all the advice Chris Brogan, New Marketing Labs, gave her. Be nice. Not just a feel-good platitude; it’s the core belief of social. The seed in the center of the fruit. “Do Something.” Don’t wait for people to ask. Go find them. Then give them whatever they need, tools, ideas, words, to make it happen. Communities flourish with hyper-focused, big-hearted nice. Contagious.

2.       Blog early and often in multi-media. Make your posts short and fast (whoop, that’s advice I need!) Shawna says accessible words, shorter sentences and paragraphs, with personal touches. Then parlay one idea into two, three, even four posts, using texts, pictures, podcasts and videos. Mix it up. Ramsey Mohsen’s (Digital Evolution) video of the opening of the first downtown KC grocery story in recent memory attracted his most viewers and was picked up by the news media. Community videos tell the story of people and place.

3.      Live and die by your database. Chris says don’t just know their business address; know everything you can about who they are, what they like. Jeremiah Owyang, web strategist with Altimeter Group, says future growth is tied to CRM (Customer (for cities, say Citizen) Relations Management); his “New Rules” details strategies. Knowing people as individuals turns a city into a community. You can give them what they need. Connect people with common interests. That’s the magic of turning cities into highly engaged communities.

4.       I know the greatest (fill in the name). Promote other people’s stuff 12 times as much as you talk about yours. That’s Chris’s rule for stirring up a storm of connections. Twelve times! Here’s how it works every day. If we have two hours for social media, spend 30 minutes replying to others’ blogs, 30 minutes on twitter or another networks, and 60 minutes on your own blog. Half content, half networking. Communities who look after each other first forge long-term bonds.

5.      Propose boldly. PR expert Sarah Evans, Sevans Strategy, leverages would-be water cooler conversations into watershed promotions. Within two hours of Chicago’s rare earthquake in 2008, Sarah had tweeted and blogged a sensational story, “sounded like a train,” with fact links that landed her and her company on CNN and the front page of the New York Times. She of course sent her blog to folks she already knew from SM. Similar deal: Shawna sent a proposal to Mexico government for a green eco-tour and got a week’s vacation for her family. They were ready, at the right place, saw an idea, and submitted a proposal. Cities, communities, each of us can leverage our assets, be ready, engaged, and then ask. Miracles happen.


Sarah and Shawna, being good sports.

6.      Create something useful. Sarah invented #journchat that brings together experts on twitter for high speed conversations. Last March, she made a twitter follower list of Academy Award nominees that was picked up by news services globally. She is sourced regularly by big media. Jeremiah asks for people’s career changes and regularly publishes the list. Under his Freemium business model, he shares his major research as free reports. Zena Weist, H&R Block, co-founded the Social Media Club of Kansas City and generously introduces folks better than anyone I know. We connect to Sarah, Jeremiah, and Zena because they are unbelievably warm people who make friends readily and generously share knowledge. They create value that builds communities.

7.      New location rituals. Social media is rapidly invading our every move via rich touch screen mobile devices. Scott Raymond, Gowalla, saw a parallel in Samoa greetings. Not “how are you?” They ask, “Where are you coming from?” and “Where are you going?” Location is key. Ellyn Angelotti, Poynter Online, says Four Square helps folks track shorter ticket lines at stadiums. We have immediate local information from a trusted source. No longer are we traveling alone; we carry our entire network in our pocket, per Jeremiah. Every hungry traveler shares the same information as the native. Every city becomes our stomping grounds. We adopt new places; places would be smart to adopt us.

8.      The one-two punch: causes and money. The blog posts that say how to save money and also be green get far and away the most views, Shawna found. Good cause and frugal. For #beatcancer, Sarah helped raise $160,000 in three weeks! Ramsey hosts an annual Ugly Christmas Sweater Party that has raised thousands of dollars for KC charities. SM and causes are like peas and carrots. People grow enormously generous in strong social networks.

9.      Be the provocateur. Tony Botello’s contrarian views make his blog the highest read in Kansas City. Commenting on the Free State crowd versus the Hispanic community he writes for, “There’s a lot more laptops here than in my Westside meetings.” Shawna called her book “Gardening Nude” with a photo of her… yup, in her birthday suit. She catches our attention to sell books; I remembered her immediately on twitter, it works. Communities can distinguish themselves and attract others by creating a unique, memorable perspective.

10.     Where Do We Want This All To Go? Make It Simple. Chris’s last advice closes the deal. Figure out the GPS of your community, business, yourself. Can you say where your community is going? Do you know what you want out of your city? Where do you want it to be in 10 or 20 years? Is that where you will be? Give directions – make it simple.

Are you a community builder? How do you do it?


Free State Social has a blog, bios, and links.

Ben Smith @benasmith shared his pics.

Eric Melin at Spiral 16 posted an excellent recap.

Jeff Smith @jeffisageek gave insights and speakers videos.

John Kreicbergs @patchchord gave his excellent “firehose” synthesis.