The city is not something one simply builds. According to Ole Møystad and Hettie Pisters, the city is a living, intelligent system. Change is the defining characteristic of cities, and urban planning should understand projects as embedded in a variety of overlapping contexts rather than as a series of distinct objects.
The Metamorphosis Centre at NTNU and its students have been working to develop tools to handle and intervene in this complexity.

Contrasts in modern Datong. The picture is a snapshot of ongoing processes: Due to China's rapid development, 250 million people have moved from the countryside to the cities in search of work and a prosperous life. From the student project "Linked Earth Construction Group", 2012. Photo: Ragnhild Pedersen Foss.

The city is no longer something one “builds” according to a fixed plan or the imperatives of a centralized, politically determined public policy.1 The city is an evolutionary and intelligent system, emerging project by project from a complex interaction of public and private forces.2
The city as an intelligent system includes us, its human participants. We can use this pragmatic definition, loosely adapted from C.S. Pierce; “Intelligence is the ability to interact adequately with one's surroundings. Meaning is the consummation of such an act”. How, then, do we build, or rather develop, such an intelligent system – a city or town which can help us lead meaningful lives?

Meaning and Change

An object, let’s say a car, can be said to be more meaningful the less it changes. It's at its peak as it rolls off the assembly line, and it is subsequently degraded through use and wear until it is no longer meaningful as an automobile. Not so for cities; as urbanists we must understand meaning as fluid and dynamic, as an ongoing reflection of ourselves as citizens, as thinking, migrating, producing, and communicating people.

"As urbanists we must understand meaning as fluid and dynamic, as an ongoing reflection of ourselves as citizens."

Practice happens in time as well as space. A place is continually modified by its inhabitants and their projects. Professor Elin Børrud at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences discusses the relationship between plan and project in her doctoral thesis, and she develops an interesting model for how public building authorities can evaluate submitted project proposals on their urban merits.3 In one of her latest articles, she shifts her perspective to the project, discussing some of the classics of urban design and their contributions to the debates surrounding the relationship between plan and project.4 Of particular interest is her discussion of Christopher Alexander. Børrud demonstrates how Alexander launched the idea of “growing (urban) wholeness” based on the individual project's qualities, and makes the case for Alexander's relevance for contemporary urban development with four key points: “a) we build in a built environment, b) this city is constantly changing, c) it is composed as a collage, and d) we need the tools to patch new components into the pre-existing urban fabric if these components are to produce the kind of city we want.”5

Property development seems to have a dynamic which fits well, perhaps too well, with the slippage from plan to project which has happened in urban development. The contemporary division of labour still places primary responsibility for urban planning with public authorities, even as the capacity to invest is increasingly concentrated in private hands. Urban planning is about the big picture, maintaining public interests, infrastructure, and public spaces. Wthout capital to invest, however, the planning apparatus is disconnected from the actual capacity to act and to see projects completed.6 On the other hand, without the support of relevant planning, infrastructure, and predictability, private developers are disconnected from any responsibility for the urban context in which their projects take place, and free of any concerns for their long-term viability. While these concerns are no doubt something which many developers are happy to be free of, they also miss out on the potential growth of value of the project in its location, as well as the predictability of surrounding developments.7

Dealing with the Facts

In the last few years, architects have been increasingly concerned with the processing of data as well as its presentation in the form of graphs, timescapes, etc. If we accept the premise that we by and large build the city through a piecemeal transformation of its existant conditions project by project (from the “inside”, as it were), and that we aim to cultivate the city as an intelligent system, it should come as no surprise that a good deal of facts, information, reflection and knowledge goes into the process.

"In the last few years, architects have been increasingly concerned with the processing of data as well as its presentation."

In the film Fog of War, Robert McNamara is interviewed about leadership in general (he had experience from WW2 and the Ford Motor Company) and about his role as defence minister in the Kennedy administration during the Vietnam War in particular.8 Over the course of the interview, McNamara reflects on his own leadership, and implicitly on leadership in general, and talks about how to see large-scale projects through in unpredictable and rapidly changing situations.

McNamara speaks with the insight and candour that comes with experience and age. In the film, his experiences are summarized as “11 lessons from the life of Robert McNamara”. Lessons 6,7, and 8 are “Get the data”, “Belief and seeing are often both wrong”, and “Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning”.

In extreme situations, such as McNamara's wartime experiences, ignoring these principles for relating to facts can have immediate and disastrous consequences. But the consequences can be serious even in the more peaceable pursuits of developing urban or rural space, even if those consequences are often delayed.


In Børrud's words, we need “...the tools to 'patch' new components onto the existing urban fabric if these components are to result in the kind of urban environment we're hoping for.“ We need tools and methods that enable us to collect data, and to map and organize it so as to analyze it and uncover patterns and intersections. Plans, cross-sections, and facades are not necessarily the appropriate means for such an undertaking. Enter infographics, diagrams, and multi-media. Technological development in the last few decades has equipped us with a vast array of digital tools.

This is not a new field. In an architectural setting, it is typical that landscape architecture was at the forefront of using infographics and timescapes. Landscape architecture is closely tied to nature's own processes; it has always needed to collect and utilize data regarding geography, topography, soil conditions, water, and so on. It has also had to relate to constantly changing conditions; a garden that does not change is not particularly meaningful. Landscape architecture has a long history of interdisciplinarity, as well as variegated approaches to the collection and presentation of data, such as the layering of illustrations. The interest in infographics is now widespread, but its development and use are still concentrated in the fields of urbanism and landscape architecture.9

We can extract some lessons here and apply them to architecture, particularly regarding sustainability. Sustainable environments are environments that form the preconditions for civilized human life over time. This is how simple and how complex we need to understand the concept of “sustainability” in order for it to be meaningful.

Smart Project Development, Down-Up

The city, including its inhabitants, is an intelligent system, and any intervention, every object inserted into the city, is an act which unfolds over time. The shift from plan-based development to project-based development opens a window onto a more dynamic and complex urban fabric. But it also opens the urban system up to the dynamics of financial markets, making it more difficult to base planning on shared ideals, negatively affecting the prospect of creating urban environments rooted in shared values. Democratic control and popular participation in the planning process may also become more difficult. On the other hand, this shift in perspective opens for greater project autonomy, more bottom-up smartness, innovation and intelligent project management. At the same time it should be emphasised that today’s highly bureaucratic and kafkaesque ways of public planning processes do not really facilitate any real public participation either. On this note, one might argue that an intelligently visualised and well-communicated project development process might be more conducive to real democratic participation than the current labyrinth of public formalities.

The shift in perspective in urbanism is a fact; welcomed by some and disapproved of by others. The problems are readily apparent; “property developers run the show”, ”capitalism rules”. In the following we will showcase some of the projects where NTNU students have explored the possibilities of infographic tools and approaches, to study how project development can be used as strategically in urban development. Metamorfose, the Centre for Real Estate and Facilities Management at the Faculty of Architecture and Fine Art at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), runs courses every autumn semester where these perspectives feature prominently. Project-driven urban development has been an area of focus for Metamorfose for nearly a decade. This work is documented on Teaching has continually been geared towards independent inquiry, and the students themselves have developed the tools and methods needed for the program's assignments. During the last three years, the work has taken place in Xi'an, China, where the Faculty has a branch office. Two of the projects showcased here are set in Xi'an, while interestingly the third, set in Kirkenes, demonstrates that the approach works just as well in Norway. The methodologies are the same, demonstrating their versatility.

Looptopia- Kirkenes

Stud. Arch. Mads Nermo and Jostein Breines

Looptopia by Mads Nermo and Jostein Breines. Overview of mining resources systems.

In anticipation of the opening of the oil fields in the Barents Sea, local politicians in Kirkenes sketched out scenarios for what this could imply in terms of population growth and urban development. They then proceeded to draw up a new municipal plan for land use on the basis of this prognosis.

Students Mads Nermo and Jostein Breines chose Kirkenes as the topic for their Master's thesis project at the Faculty of Architecture and Fine Art at NTNU in the spring of 2012. As they worked through the mountains of collected material, a discrepancy between the local dreams of job creation, increased immigration, and new housing on the one hand, and the economic, ecological, and demographic realities of Kirkenes and Sør-Varanger in general on the other, became increasingly apparent.

A giant approaching Kirkenes: The FSO, Floating Offloading and Storage vessel, _Belokamenka_. Photo: Jonas

Predicting the future is as formidable a challenge in Kirkenes as it is anywhere else. Kirkenes has always experienced waves of growth and shrinking. The fisheries are one of the most important economic activities in Sør-Varanger. Fishing has always been subject to fluctuations between years of great plenty and punishingly lean years. Another important economic activity is mining, which is also vulnerable to fluctuations in global steel prices. When prices are high, the local mines are a source of valuable iron ore, but when prices are low they are reduced to worthless quarries. There is little to indicate that the oil industry will be more stable. The ebb and flow of Sør-Varanger's demographics closely track the price of raw materials and the access to resources.

Breines and Nermo decided to lay the municipal draft plans to one side. Instead, they started mapping what kind of resources were available, in what quantities, and with what degree of continuity, as well as their potential in domestic and international markets. They mapped resources across business supply chains, or “systems”. Every system is based on a natural resource (ecology) and the system's economic potential. Taken together, these two perspectives constitute an eco-system, an economic base for a given a number of people, on a permanent or temporary basis, as part of the demographic development of Kirkenes.

The collected information consisted of different data, numbers, and diagrams, as well as processes of change, organisational models and supply chains. The identified systems were reindeer husbandry, marine industries, agriculture, recycling of sulphuric acid from Russian nickel emissions, the oil industry, fisheries, mining, and logistics. The study did not result in a new and better urban plan, in the conventional sense of the word. The end result was a map (an architecture of information?) of the local natural, economic and human resources, combined with a list of project proposals based on this resource-map; a strategy for a project-based, sustainable development of Kirkenes. The final submission for this architecture of information was eventually presented as a website:

Urban Villages in Xi'an

The following two projects are the result of the co-operation between Metamorfose/NTNU and the School of Architecture at Xi'An University of Architecture and Technology (XAUAT). After the revolution, China received extensive assistance from the Soviet Union; also in the field of urban planning. Soviet models of urban planning were imported and applied on a large scale with efficiency and top-down methods. However, given the increasing speed and scale of urbanization, combined with the relentless market liberalism of contemporary China, the Soviet models have proven problematic, to say the least.

Xi'an, China. Photo: Ole Møystad.

The NTNU courses have therefore explored the possibilities for giving the initiative to smaller, bottom-up projects and approaches. The studies pursued windows into the urban development placed low enough to ensure access to smaller property owners and local initiators. One such point of access is the Chinese phenomenon of “urban villages”.10

The Chinese cities are growing so quickly that they swallow not only surrounding agricultural land, but surrounding villages too: buildings, villagers, ownership structures, social networks and all.11 As a result, urban China is dotted with urban villages. Within Xi'an, there are about 80 of these, more or less intact, now forming the seeds of an alternative urbanity within an otherwise homogenous ocean of modern, monofunctional urban fabric.

In their projects, the students examined how the urban villages could add intelligence, skills, and complexity to the new city, and thus replace the livelihood they lost when their farmland was urbanized. The coursework investigated strategic interventions and possible projects, based on existant or emergent chains of human and natural resources.

"In their projects, the students examined how the urban villages could add intelligence, skills, and complexity to the new city."

Linked Earth Construction Group

Stud. Arch. Eivind Fasting, Peter Kleven, Anders Elias Tschernutter, and Nicolai Sixten Stavelin

Linked Earth Construction Group, student project from 2012. Can the resource relationship between city and country develop a better balance?

The “Linked Earth” project takes as its starting point that the rural villages contain both natural resources and human capital that are absolutly essential for the new cities. The rural parts of the Shaanxi province lend itself particularly well to the production of mud bricks and rammed earth. As a result of this well-established local tradition, people in the area are adept at producing these materials. Architects such as Mu Jun, professor at XAUAT, have developed methods for deploying these materials in modern construction projects. For many migrants making the move to Xi'an, rammed earth construction techniques are the only skills they bring with them. The majority of these migrants also end up working in the construction industry.

Linked Earth chose a site close to one of the new transport hubs in the north west of Xi'an, where a new metro line crosses an older railroad, ensuring good communications both to the rural districts and the new urban transport network. Linked Earth proposed developing this site as an educational and showcasing centre for an industry rooted in rammed earth construction techniques. This centre would in turn be connected to a series of smaller, traditional production units in the surrounding countryside. The idea is to form a synergetic system where materials, skills, and labour power can be funnelled into the city, while investments and innovation flow in the other direction. The aim is that this exchange, over time, can contribute to a revitalization of rural areas and slow down the process of urban migration to a more sustainable level.

For further information, see the website

"The aim is that this exchange, over time, can contribute to a revitalization of rural areas and slow down the process of urban migration to a more sustainable level."

Urban Farming Village

Stud arch. Ragnhild Pedersen Foss, Jone Nordland, Asbjoern Hammervik Floe, Bjoern Inge Melaas, Tomas Aasved Hjort, and Per-Leif Bersvendsen

Urban Farming Village, student project from 2012. The project looks at migration to the big Chinese cities.

Urban Farming Village chose one of Xi'an's urban villages as its focal point. After losing their agricultural land, the villages would have to either find a new economic basis, or sell their remaining land and accept the transformation to a part of the modern city. Given their recent loss of land, perhaps urban farming could be an alternative? Or urban fish farming? Perhaps the detritus of the surrounding city could provide opportunities?

"Given their recent loss of land, perhaps urban farming could be an alternative? Or urban fish farming? Perhaps the detritus of the surrounding city could provide opportunities?"

The project proposes a range of new economic cycles and production chains, and highlights the potential for further urban development, and possibly a gentrification within the existing village infrastructure; an “Urban Village 2.0”, as it were.

_Urban mining_: The waste of today's consumer societies is a resouce to be mined. Here from Austria. Photo: from the blogg

The internet presentation is a mix of media; illustrations, photo, film, animation, and diagrams. The project closes with a question; what if the Food Factory goes viral? With 80 urban villages in a medium-sized city like Xi'an, and given that arable land in China is being paved over at startling speed, this is surely a question worth considering.

For further information, see the website


Since the late twentieth century, the concept of field has become an increasingly important model for understanding landscape and urbanity.12 Let us consider this idea in light of some of the examples above. The city-plan is a representation of the urban field. The individual project is a point or constituent object of this field. The Kirkenes project is a challenge to the conventional urban plan: it sets off from McNamara's imperative: “Reconsider your reasoning”. This is achieved by shifting the focus away from the plan, towards the preconditions which form the field (Sør Varanger) as it stands. From here, the project identifies individual project systems, and seeks to modify the field by acting on these projects.13

In the Chinese examples, one directly approaches the existing plans as well as the ongoing urbanization. Without attempting to change anything on the transcendent, political level, or indeed replacing one plan with another, the students search for and locate concrete points of intervention: rammed earth, ecosystems, supply chains, waste management, urban industrial food production, human resources, traditional knowledge, micro-economics, etc., effectively mapping urban fields and their complex networks of features. In turn, existing contexts are located within these fields, opening possibilities of creating new supply chains, systems, and projects.
The projects in China contribute to accelerating changes through food production, waste management, and the sustainable use of building materials. Conversely, they also serve to slow the velocity of change by strengthening the immanent urban values of village life by emphasising traditional skills and impacting migration patterns.

Meaning is created through practice, and practice unfolds over time. If change happens too rapidly, custom and tradition will be unable to keep pace, causing the collapse of one of the pillars of urban intelligence. This is a particularly salient challenge for urban planning in China. Action is tied to the project and to project development. The capacity to act is the primary strength of the individual project, but it is also this action or activity which is at the root of the problem.

Perhaps we should understand urban planning more as an exercise in the construction of historical narratives than as a projection of potential futures. Could the individual project be cast as an accelerating agent in the process of change, innovation, and urban development, while traditional urban planning, alongside cultural heritage management, serves as a brake?

"Meaning is created through practice, and practice unfolds over time. If change happens too rapidly, custom and tradition will be unable to keep pace, causing the collapse of one of the pillars of urban intelligence."

At the root of contemporary creative and forward-looking practice are the experiences of the past, and contemporary practice is rapidly inscribed into memory and history. As such, both urban planning and cultural heritage are crucial components of urban intelligence. These two fields are probably more closely intertwined than is usually assumed. If we understand the city, broadly speaking, as our architectural environment, it must be not only an intelligent, but also a living system, alongside us that shape and inhabit it; it is a part of nature. It is this complex interweaving of space and practice, the urban fabric, which constitues the lived experience as documented by historians, planners, philosophers and poets. And this is the focal point of reflection, the point to be cultivated and acted on through the architectural practice of shaping spaces and developing projects.


Alexander, Christopher (1987): A New Theory of Urban Design, Oxford University Press, New York 1987
Andersson, Cecilie (2012): Migrant Positioning: In Transforming Urban Ambience Urban Villages and the City, Guangzhou, China, PhD, NTNU 2012
Børrud, Elin, (2013) “Kontekstualisme som strategisk mellomposisjon”, KOTE 2013; vol 2. 19-23 UMB
Børrud, Elin (2005)a: Bitvis bytvikling: møte mellom privat eiendomsutvikling og offentlig byplanlegging. Arkitektur- og designhøgskolen i Oslo 2005 CON-TEXT (Avhandling 17)
Børrud, Elin (2005)b: “Den prosjektstyrte byutvikling - kjennetegn og utfordringer.” Byggekunst 2005; Volum 87(2) s. 36-43
Hulshof, Michiel; Roggeveen, Daan (2011): How the City moved to Mr. Sun. SUN, Rotterdam 2011
Lussac Fayolle, Bruno; Høyem, Harald; Clèment, Pierre (red.) (2007): XI’AN – An Ancient City in a Modern World, Evolution of Urban Form 1949 – 2000, Èditions Recherches/IPRAUS, Paris 2007
Møystad, Ole; Pisters, Hettie (2011): “Architecture is A Verb 20x11.” 20x11, What is the Question; 2011
Møystad, Ole (2010): “Fields and Forces.” CONDITIONS magazine 2010 (4)
Møystad, Ole; Pisters, Hettie (2009): “Growing Infrastructure.” CONDITIONS magazine 2009 ; Volum 01. (01) s. 42-45
Møystad, Ole (2008): “Brå endringer og kulturelt vakuum.” Arkitektur N 2008 (08) s. 40-47
Møystad, Ole (2007): “Urbain par implication - Commentaires sur la globalisation et l'urbanisme au 20e siècle”. I: DYNAMIQUES DE LA VILLE - essais de sémiotique de l'espace. L'Harmattan, Paris 2007
Pisters, Hettie (2002): Landscape Architecture and the Challenge of Nature, PhD dissertation, AHO 2002

  1. At the time of writing, 90% of all development plans are proposed by private developers, or public developers operating along similar market parameters. This is a 180 degree turn in the relationship between plan and project. In Norway's case, the implications for urban development are enormous. According to Statistics Norway, 90% of the Norwegian population growth is currently taking place in urban agglomerations (“byer og tettsteder”)(not the largest, but the fastest growing in Europe), in which 80% of the population are already living. 

  2. This perspective is more thoroughly developed in Møystad 2009, 2010, and 2011, and in Pisters, 2002. 

  3. Børrud, Bitvis byutvikling: Møtet mellom privat eiendomsutvikling og offentlig byplanlegging, Oslo School of Architecture, 2005. 

  4. Børrud, 2005b, 2013 

  5. Alexander 1987, Børrud 2013, s.23. 

  6. Møystad 2007. 

  7. When the plans for the conversion of the Aker Brygge area, an old shipyard, to a high end commercial district were finalised, property advertisements for the surrounding area no longer used the name of the old worker’s neighbourhood “Vika”, but referred to it as “close to Aker Brygge”. 


  9. Pisters 2002. 

  10. Andersson 2013, Lussac Fayolle, Høyem, Clèment 2007. 

  11. Hulshof & Roggeveen 2011. 

  12. See “Fields and Forces” (Møystad/Pisters 2010, 2011). A field in this sense is meant to signify that any given point contains all the characteristics of the whole. It is also characterized by the fact that a field can only be acted upon indirectly, by manipulating or elaborating one of these points. The implication is that our architectural surroundings should be seen as an architectural field rather than a city or town. Analogously, our architectural surroundings are best modified by manipulating the objects (or points) which constitute this field, or by manipulating the conditions which shape the objects. 

  13. It is an endless source of frustration for architects to embark on projects where the conditions have been determined in advance by lawyers, economists, and politicians completely lacking any architectural expertise. All that remains is the drudgery of erecting a building. If architects are to win back the right to define projects, they need to enter the development process at an earlier stage. For landscape architects this irony is still more pronounced. Landscape architects are often only brought into the process once the architects have established the parameters and situated the building, after which landscape architects are called in to slap on the turf.