Photo: Yiran Wang

Photo: Yiran Wang

During one of my USC studio classes, my instructor Alexander Robinson asked our class to take a look at the cut section of a red cabbage. He directed our gaze to this common vegetable to take note of the fascinating and intricate pattern hidden within, a fractal.

A fractal is a geometric pattern evolved from one statistical character and grown into a complicated structure through repetition. This magical geometry is found everywhere in nature: in plant leaves, lighting, mountain ranges, streams, and as I discovered after cutting a cabbage in half, in some of our food as well.

Image: CC0 Public Domain

Image: CC0 Public Domain

In a fractal system, certain patterns repeat through different scales, and as the structure evolves in continuity these basic patterns lead to an immense structure of chaotic complexity. In landscape design fractals exist also; functional public landscape project contain repetitive patterns of self growing nature with ties to the general context of the site as a whole. A landscape architect’s mind always shift between different scales – as big as the global ecological environment and as small as one person. Or even a single plant. We always seek to discover a core pattern or language embedded in elements across all scales to communicate  “the big concept”, whether it be the orientation of paving materials echoing circulation needs, or planting choices responding to the programming of the site.

The mathematical characteristics of a fractal pattern has inspired a great many urban design  methodologies. And with the aid of modern computing technology, it is no surprise what machines tell us about our future cities: unpleasant and dystopian patterns made up of unlimited repeating dwelling cells. We might have already started upon this path.  However, in time a truly perfect fractal system may generate into a form complex chaos still following the basic pattern at the cellular level. The future might not be as “simple” as the machine could imagine, but as complex as human mind could design.


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