Incomplete City: Michigan Edition

An experimental workshop on urban spaces, interactions, and institutions

Bryan Boyer
18 min readJan 19, 2020

Looking out at the skyline of Manhattan, my father (a Texan at heart who had not been to NYC before) remarked in reverence, “look at all those bricks… all that work!” Cities are a matter battle of bricks and concrete and glass and steel and asphalt and bikes and people and trees, and they are each an unceasing work of art.

It’s not the bricks that make Copenhagen different than Detroit though, it’s the way those cities make decisions about their respective piles of bricks: who uses them, how to use them, who gets to be involved in deciding how they are used, and how often all of those decisions are revisited. Decisions are the skeleton upon which the materials of the city are hung. Change the decision-making, and you change the city.

To understand city making as an art of collective decision-making is to worry about agency, equity, ideologies, values, process, institutions, how these things inform material outcomes, and eventually how a feedback loop from material outcomes informs future decision-making. The field of strategic design is concerned with how one operates conscientiously in this space, and it overlaps heavily with the fields of architecture and urban planning. As much as schools of architecture and planning ask students to consider these aspects of their practice, it’s hard within an educational environment to truly test out the complexities of decision-making without some kind of simulation. “Decisions” without true independent counter-parties are just speculations, so how does one bring the chaos and mess of city making — the unavoidable negotiations and unexpected collaborations — into the studio?

The Incomplete City workshop offers a methodology to bring live decision-making into a studio environment where students are able to simulate city making as a negotiated art, and to do it in a way that brings immaterial decisions to life through an intensely visual (and physical) experience. Or in plain english: it’s like having a debate by playing a very slow game of SimCity, drawn by hand, with 30 other people.

Friends and collaborators Joseph Grima, Dan Hill, and Marco Ferrari initiated the Incomplete City workshop at UCL Bartlett in 2016 and I borrowed their method in my role as Eliel Saarinen Visiting Assistant Professor of Practice in architecture at the University of Michigan. Dan came over from Stockholm to lend his expertise and experience with the IC workshop, Marco Skyped in from Italy, and a group of 25 graduate students in architecture and urban design signed on to spend 2.5 days in November building a city from scratch.

The completed Incomplete city, approximately 30ft x 8ft

Those two and a half days resulted in a 30ft x 8ft hand drawn city for ten thousand people, give or take (here’s a link to the image above in its full 22mb glory if you want to zoom in). This Incomplete City is hemmed in by mountains to the west and borders a large body of water to the south. Two train lines connect it to the outside world, and it would seem that this IC may have one of the highest per-capita ratios of aeronauts.

Dan’s original essay on IC goes into all the details, but as a short recap the rules of the game are as follows:

  1. Draw by hand
  2. Ignore the buildings (we used blank rectangular boxes as stand-ins)
  3. Fixate on “urban elements” that are “smaller than a building, bigger than a cellphone”
  4. Start small and grow over time (in terms of drawing scale, population size, and group size)
  5. Work together

Before the start of the workshop the participants developed an atlas of 300+ urban elements and assigned themselves to make 1:50 drawings of each element in 30º isometric view. Basic instructions can be found here, if you’re interested in a refresher. Doing this in advance allowed us to jump right into the city making, which we did with a short talk from Dan brain-dumping a variety of contemporary perspectives on urban life and Marco, via video link, giving a history of drawing.

L: The atlas of urban elements was a little light on key infrastructure such as water and power, but we made up for it later on in the workshop. R: We filled a wall with these “sticker sheets” that were used as a shared resource for the group, to be duplicated on the copier as needed.
Dan doing his typical Dan thing where he manages to cover 60 examples in 30 minutes.

Groups of 4–6 formed to work on the first neighborhood, a place for 100 people drawn at 1:100 scale. We pushed the participants to get as specific as possible when choosing who they would design their neighborhood for. One group designed for children who live without their parents; another for farmers and anarchists; a third for veterinarians, architects, and business people.

Seeing the assumptions baked into these first neighborhoods was a useful point of discussion. A few groups designed places that reflected and perhaps concentrated the biases of today’s market economy. There were some bleak places emerging! We reminded teams that in this workshop they had no path dependence linking them to the decisions of their parents, grandparents, and other ancestors whose cities and societies they have inherited.

Those first neighborhoods each nominally supported 100 people and expressed a peculiar and narrow set of values as an urban morphology. Note how powerful the edge of the rectangular paper was in shaping ideas of what a “complete” neighborhood for 100 should be. In future iterations I would ban the use of large rectangular sheets of paper.

The first neighborhoods, designed to house 100 people each

As the workshop progressed, we expanded the population requirement for the neighborhood. First from 100 to 200, then 400, 800, and eventually pushed the group to add density to brought the city’s total population towards 10,000. In previous IC workshops the scale of the drawing shrank to accommodate the increase in population. But, true to the spirit of the workshop’s focus on giving participants a chance to navigate situations beyond their control, things don’t always go to plan…

Working out a Plan B that would not rely upon our dead copy machines

In our case, the university’s data center went down, leaving the network connected copy machines unable to reach to their login servers, and thus useless hunks of plastic. Instead of shrinking the scale we stayed at 1:00 the entire time, so the drawings became unruly quite quickly.

Instructional slides were made and revised on the fly

Eventually the first neighborhoods were merged, with two places for 100 becoming a single place for 200. The teams stitched together two urban fabrics, two groups of residents, two sets of values and ideologies. Negotiations began in earnest. Drawings were were cut, erased, and altered as the act of developing a new commonality demanded urban inventions. More housing, more workspace, and more ways to get around — yes — but also more overlap of intentions, more intersections of needs, more reciprocal infrastructures. For instance, the kids-only neighborhood and a neighborhood for construction workers found their common ground in the form of a visiting center where parents are ‘tricked’ into doing laundry as the price of admission for being able to check on the wellbeing of their children. These were fun discussions.

As the doubled-up neighborhoods grew in intricacy and clarity we complicated everyone’s work by adding new population influxes and a unique surprise for each neighborhood. One was forced to content with sea level rise, another with the relocation of Google to their emerging CBD. The rest are lost to history unless Dan took better notes than me.

I have a soft spot for the expedient clutter of a design studio. Hectic processes produce these lovely piles and clusters as a bulwark against the complexity of converting thoughts into images: Display stands reused as trash cans, tables sacrificed as scrap heaps, impromptu boxes crafted out of paper, charging corners and bottle stations—all of them altars to productivity, shrines to creation.

The sun sets on day two

Day three started with a migration of four individual neighborhoods onto a single wall. Now transformed into a site, this wall became a place for us to collectively imbue with geography. A lake (or sea?) emerged. We imagined who might be across that body of water, and who’s over the mountains. Now inhabiting a defined space for the first time, the act of making became more physical as well.

Not only were bodies competing for space along a single wall, the drawings themselves took on a physicality by virtue of their size, layers, and floppiness. What could earlier be managed by one pair of hands now required two, three or more to be relocated. The wall was constantly being touched by a ballet of hands, straight edges, and drawing implements—somewhat frenzied but never a scrum.

As we entered the final hour of city making, we pushed the teams to add density while considering a set of critical questions. In this hour a subway appeared, mountains were drawn (with mountain goats and hikers), energy infrastructure was shored up, housing was expanded, and parades were drawn in. And, of course, lots of photos were taken.

Ride your cargo bike to an ocean view
Drone delivery ports high up in buildings
In honor of our proximity to Detroit Robocop is strongly represented in this city, but at least he is solar powered
Lovely things like a horse on a pier are hidden throughout the drawing

After counting down to the stop time, we collectively spent 5 minutes to review the wall in (relative) silence. At the end of this viewing period, participants lined up next to a portion of the wall that they found interesting, and we moved from one side to the other, hearing and discussing their thoughts as we went.

If you’re going to ignore all your other schoolwork just before finals and work like crazy for an intense weekend, it helps that there’s at least a good photo opportunity at the end of it. Are the smiles on their faces because they’re deliriously tired or justifiably proud?

The Incomplete City, concluded after two and a half intense days of collaboration

As a professor I want to help my students grow as citizens of the world who will practice good judgement, contribute to the city and society they are part of, and are empowered with particular skills in architecture and urban design to help them do so. To do this, I believe that it’s critical to build a reflexive practice where one is able to be analytical and thoughtful about their own perspectives and methods, so we ended the workshop by taking a moment to do a written question and answer exercise.

Students each wrote a single question or comment on a piece of paper and dropped it into a box. We then shuffled the questions and gave them back out, so everyone received a question from one of their peers without knowing who wrote it. They were asked to reply in whatever way they felt appropriate. Some folks answered the question they received definitively, others extended it or complicated it. The answers were pinned up on a wall, which we read as a group, had a short discussion, and then concluded the workshop with a hearty thank you.

A wall of Q&A’s

Doing this reflection exercise on paper was a way to moderate the emotional ramp down from an intensely social experience into a more individual mindset as we departed, but more importantly it was designed to level the playing field between the extroverts and introverts. I think it worked, and will continue to explore methodologies like this.

More than anything I could write, the Q&A is a great testament to the participants’ ability to bridge between the material questions of the city they drew to the conceptual questions of the city they imagined. Here they are, in no particular order:

  1. Q. Who is missing from the planning stages/design of cities? We are a group of architecture (& urban design) students participating in this workshop — what would the incomplete city look like if other disciplines were involved? Engineers, artists, corporations, politicians, carpenters, NGO’s, climate scientists, farmers … etc. are missing. The city would look wildly different with much more push and pull between space allocation and a breadth of knowledge regarding economic constraints and common desires.
  2. Q. If we plan to create cities without cars (more public transport) will there be a need for cities with large streets (as seen on the left side of the mural; the right doesn’t follow as much of a grid…) I think there may be a few larger builds hosting major transit networks. For example, Tokyo’s street planning of a few large alternates supporting personal verticals, but the robust subway network allows not very narrow neighborhood streets in the heart of the city.
  3. Q. What’s the architect’s role in urban design? I think there’s no clear boundary to say that you are not an urban designer, as long as you are considering how the architecture interacts with/responds to improve urban environment. Urban design is a flexible realm [where] any urban impact can affect the whole. New building forms, elements, interfaces can all be on an architect’s shoulders.
  4. Q. How to build a livable temporary community with limited money and time? Community could be composed of many parts, hardwares & softwares, so there’s physical infrastructure & activities/events taking place, near, inside, outside the built environment. With limited amount of money, residents often could hold self-initiated activities/festivals/events that activate the community. It’s by the people & for the people.
  5. During the workshop, we created interesting urban space without much design of single building. Does that mean that when we’re doing an urban design project, the architecture things are not so important compared with designing public spaces?
    An answer: For building design, most times, the site is given and it responds to the surrounding area, so we already assume the city (larger context) comes first. The workshop was more about thinking about that context which is needed for building design.
  6. Q. How to deal with relationship of industry boundary and residential area? I think industries & residences may seem to be opposite in spatial types to each other but they are symbiotic in that residents may work in their industries & their industries provide goals & financial resources for the people (really). Maybe it is a matter of making a gradient of spaces to moderate their differences & being intentional in the adjacencies & supporting programmes such as eateries, parks etc. to give breather spaces to these relationships.
  7. Q. This workshop amongst designers created a relatively fantastic urban space without strict zoning/design rules, so is concrete urban planning dangerous to diversify landscapes?
    Yes. Euclidean zoning is obsolete.
  8. Q. It came as no surprise we had Google in our neighborhood. At the time, they took 30 units, approximately a quarter of our city. How do we welcome infrastructure and tech without bending over backwards for them? How might we prevent the gentrification and creep and potential outright takeover that occurs with new tech? Use tech to solve this issue. Tech companies modify surroundings, it’s time they modify their own arena. Every new bold move has pros and cons. Look at the bright side and try to come up with ways of modification and improvement as a design. Also can Google employees make a hologram office where every employee’s home can digitally convert to an office, so they never use 30 units? Something to think about!
  9. Q. Beside the basic requirements for public space/outdoor space, what kind of element can directly show efforts [to create more] public/outdoor space? How to meet the needs of certain groups of people? Or to show the unique characters?
    I don’t know what is the extent of basic requirements. I think putting experimental space, maybe [empty space], and bringing people, new tech or other things in and see what happens. I believe different conditions generate different solutions or possibilities.
  10. Q. How can we have a development that is not profit-oriented? Try to figure out designs more affordable and mixed-use. Even if someone is earning profit, there [can still be] great benefits provided for public or minorities.
  11. Q: How will the people living here respond? Is the place they call home changed? What will they do when it goes beyond their control (Probable) answer: There is no “one” solution to this problem. It’s nice that there is no one answer/solution as then it allows for people to choose where they would like to “park” themselves in this complex, complex world.
  12. Q. No government, legislative or executive institution in our city. Can it be done? Spiritualistic or deep non-religious ? motivations can band people together or create behaviors that are mindful of actions and reactions.
  13. Q. How can we as designers not design too much in the process of trying to solve all the problems that exists around us today? To the second part, we were given several problems along the way. We solved it incrementally and with people who had vested interest. All problems should be solved that way! To the first part, I’d be very careful on that logic. Design needs thought in the process. A lot of our spaces were based on joy, seemingly. Places, spaces, objects we would want to see if our neighborhood. Design for that, for the community’s joy, and the rest will be easier to answer (hopefully!)
  14. Q. Can the city always predict that what kinds of people will live a specific area and fulfill their needs? Geographies, topography, proximities can most times predict kind of people or occupation that will occupy a certain or specific part of cities. But beauty of a city being a designer is designing a fabric that could be used by different people and could age and transform with time.
  15. Q. How to develop efficiently without tearing down present residential buildings or occupying farm lands? It’s always difficult to find vacant land that’s valuable. The change of land use and buildings are necessary in the progress of urbanization. The most important is to do the evaluation before you tear down a building or occupy farm land. Is it worthy? Sometimes you can also move farm land to other places to get more room for cities to grow.
  16. Q. How do we collaborate as designers with other multi-disciplinary fields to form or synthesize a beautiful city? The city is a connection of many of its pieces, which come together to create an urban fabric for all. As designers how could we make this workshop into a real world practice. Normalizing… holding monthly community participatory workshops and global professional workshops/seminars that include key players in city planning on all goals
  17. Q. What’s the relationship of impact between living factors and people’s behavior? Factors emerge because of people’s needs or they shape people’s behavior. I think factors emerge based on people’s needs. But all people don’t have the same needs. So the people without common needs get shaped by the factors. This is a network of emerging factors and shaping factors, which are different for different people.
  18. Q. How can an urban designer visualize the multi-scalar details of a city catering to a diverse citizenry? All the way from mobility to signage? All natural landscapes to fire hydrants? The dimensions of these scales are mind boggling. Working more closely with other designers → example how do we incorporate interactive designers, graphic designers, industrial designers, etc. into the built environment more intentionally? Urban design + arch + planners need to be willing to work with other expertise.
  19. Q. We have so many different groups of people to serve. How do we meet all their needs cohesively and [in an integrated way]? By starting with the citizen and designing with them as well as for them.
  20. Q. How do we design for conflicting interests? A) Realizing a middle ground that appeases both sides. B) Design for the “popular” opinion at risk of alienating the other party?
  21. Q: I found this exercise enlightening while still very challenging. There were so many forces we were asked to consider in designing the city & with every new prompt, frustrations in how landscapes needed to change. We were so annoyed by ripping & replanting table paper, imagine having to rip out solid, physical infrastructure. Can an exercise such as this be utilized in community engagement meetings as a way to quickly & effectively deliver methods of spatial agency? (Or possibilities). This could go beyond architects. Totally. I myself haven’t had any experience in urban design but I enjoyed this exercise very much. People who don’t have design experience can also enjoy this process if they are interested in building communities. This will be a good tool for community engagement and [encouraging] people to think about a city.
  22. Q. It seems that cities can emerge from the acts & decisions of its people. How much to what extent should a designer exert his/her authority in defining it? It depends on how efficient the infos go from the bottom to up.
  23. Q. As designers and architects working for the future, should we start working with forces disrupting our lives, rather than working against them? Is that a better way of resolving conflicts? That’s not a yes or no question. Designers sometimes need to make choice for users and the key point is that the design needs to improve lives and be ready for future development. That’s why we do pre-research on sites and then make [a] vision for it.
  24. Q. How much say does the citizen have in how they get to live in their city? Citizens have influence on public space. Their daily life can shape the scene in the city. And the city offers food, energy, and heating… to citizens.
  25. Q. Is it sufficient to make a difference by existing traditional elements and plan/reconfigure them differently? Or new design element has a larger impact? (i.e. new types of building) Absolutely not, traditional elements are a part of human history which lays a foundation of our past.
    Innovation on top of this mitigates the problems which [are] ever present. It is a continuous cycle.
  26. Q. Can there realistically ever be a new form of governance that allows for sharing to become mainstream? Let’s hope. What institutions stand in the way of this/what institutions need to be restructured to allow for a new form of mainstream sharing?

Hosted at the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Michigan, November 2019

Participants: Madeeha Ayub, Shihua Chen, Jiayao Chen, Karun Chughasrani, Eddie Falkowski, Shourya Jain, Julia Jeffs, Da Eun Lee, Linda Lee, Yaqiao Liao, Yu-Cheng Lin, Beiyi Ma, Abirami Manivannan, Andrea Marquez, Yixin Miao, Yousun Nam, Marco Nieto, Rinika Prince, Harshwardhan Saini, Victoria See, Asya Shine, Tristan Snyder, Yuli Wang, Victoria Yu

Thanks to college leadership, including Jonathan Massey and McLain Clutter for supporting this workshop; Laura Brown and William Manspeaker for assisting with logistics; Marco Ferrari for his brilliant lecture on the history of drawing; and Dan Hill, as ever, for making effortless (and somehow also tireless) work of it all.