• Urban Cosmography

Ekistics, by C. A. Doxiadis

The problems and science of human settlements

Interactions between humans and their settlements generate countless socio-spatial combinations, at various scales. The discipline dealing with this whole spectrum is the Ekistics and its creator was the Greek architect Constantinos A. Doxiadis.

To discuss Ekistics, the most comprehensive referene is the book Ekistics: an introduction to the science of human settlements. There is also an entire series of magazines called Ekistics: the problems and science of human settlements published from 1959 to 2006 by architect Doxiadis Associates and editor Jacqueline Tyrwhitt.

From Man to Ecumenopolis

The word ekistics was coined by Doxiadis in 1942 and it refers to the human act of settling. The term is derived from the ancient Greek adjective οἰκιστικός (oikistikos) “regarding the settling”, which in turn comes from the nouns οἰκιστής (oikistes) “settler” and οἶκος (oikos) "home". Ekistics is a science, defined to meet the crisis of human settlements started in the XX century. It’s a discipline which encompasses all the overlapping fields concerning human settlements, such as geography, ecology, design, education, art, technology, psychology, politics, economy. And one could add more to this list. To understand Ekistics as the outlined science of human settlements, we first need to put this “human act of settling” into Doxiadis sharp and methodic perspective.  

Human settlements are, namely, the settlements of men. Thus they consist of two main components: man - or plural, society - and the container hosting human activities, natural or man-made. The degree to which man leaves his imprint on nature, where and how he dwells, determines different scales of human settlement. Ideally, they span from a room until an urbanized region, and more. In fact, the largest possible container for humanity is the whole surface of Earth. When it comes to human settlements, Doxiadis challenges the concept of boundaries, as each settlement is always part of something bigger: from house to neighborhood, to village, city, metropolitan area, etc. He invented the concept of ecumenopolis to call a hypothetical planet-wide city which clearly expresses his tendency towards increasingly larger sets of human settlements, and also his fundamental holistic approach. Since human settlements are ultimately a big unicum, his lense of inspection was rather focused on the spatial relationships of their components at different scales.

On whatever scale we examine a human settlement, be it a small house, a village, a minor city or a major region containing a metropolis and other cities, we will discover that the entire area constitutes a human settlement.

Ekistic relationships

To highlight what he believes was the main criticality in the study of human settlements, Doxiadis broke down the two components - man and container - into five further elements: 1. Nature, the first and essential foundation for our life; 2. Men, who aggregate and form 3. Society; 4. Shells, the buildings and covered space; and lastly 5. Networks, the facilities that serve the functioning of the settlement, i.e. water supply, roads, etc.

What happens frequently is that the study of human settlements is approached under its physical elements only (nature, shells, networks) with a three-dimensional view. In fact, according to Doxiadis, there is a fourth dimension, that is time, crucial for how men, society, and their related functions change. Man needs time to live and his functions need time to take place. Although they are not physically visible, time and functions are the dynamic elements that bring any human settlement to existence because they create interrelation between man and its container. To efficiently study the human settlements one must find the spatial interplays between nature, man, society, shell, network, in time: each one of these possible combinations defines a different ekistic relationship of the elements.

Although in practice the study of human settlements is often limited to either contents or the container, this is wrong, since the essential nature of human settlements involves both elements, and the proper study of human settlements is the study of the interrelationship of these elements.

An ambitious laboratory

As we said, Ekistics was conceived as science to respond to the human settlement crisis. When in the ‘40s Doxiadis came up with his theory, human settlements were unsatisfactory for their inhabitants, anywhere in the world. Economically, politically, technically and aesthetically, the man of +seventy years ago was not in balance with the elements of his settlements: lack of social cohesion, lack of contact with the physical shell, enormous inequalities and the loss of nature were generating a sense of alienation, decay, stress, displacement. If we remember the general and comprehensive perspective of Doxiadis, this global view does not seem exaggerated. In fact, we are living the same problems in 2019.

The causes for such crisis are to be found in the tremendous increase of population and rate of urbanization of the last century. Fast changes and development made it often impossible for men to adjust and adapt in new urban environments. Urban wealth went off the rails of economy and social changes.

To be better understood, Ekistics must be seen in relation to other sciences. [...] Human settlements contain elements of both natural and socio-human sciences.

The lack of a systematic approach towards the urban problems and particularly the need of coordination of all the intersectional fields related with human settlements, lead to the creation of Ekistics. Doxiadis figured that the only way to guide a more fair development was coordinating knowledge and ideas in a systematic, methodical, and structured way.

The work done by Doxiadis and his group on a subject such complex as human settlements was immense. Starting from the analysis of hundreds of human settlements, he investigated their evolution, pathology and diagnosis of their problems. Often drawing from his design practice - he was involved in several programs and plans of settlements, the most known is that of Islamabad - he shaped the body of the Ekistic theory to explain the causes of such urban crisis. Following the tendency of those years towards progressively larger and more complex conurbations, in 1963 Doxiadis founded the Athens center of Ekistics where he worked on attempts to foresee the settlements of the future.

The following photos are taken during a conference about Ekistic organized at the National Technical University of Athens, last December. They give an idea on the wideness of topics covered by the magazine Ekistics: the problems and science of human settlements published monthly for almost 50 years.

Achieving a synthesis

The legacy of Doxiadis work on the discipline of Ekistics is inestimable. The official "Constantinos A. Doxiadis Archives" are hosted at the Benaki Museum of Athens and, thanks to a generous donation, several volumes of Ekistics the magazine can be found at the Library of the Architectural Department of the National Technical University of Athens.

Ekistics is a call to action for all professionals, especially those in the field of spatial design such. We, architects, have long failed in being involved in the solution of human settlements problems, giving minimum contribution with very limited influence. We have confined ourselves in designing (few) buildings, and we seldom contribute to a better human habitat as a whole.

The deductive approach of Doxiadis - solving big problems will fix smaller ones - and his view of a total settlement - like he said "an anthropocosmos" for a global society - constitute today a precious reminder on the importance of sharing knowledge and taking action.

I am now convinced that what is basically wrong with human settlements in our era is that we can conceive neither a way of life nor its expression in a total settlement. If we can solve this problem we will find the road which leads to the solution of all partial problems.

#ekistics #magazine #Doxiadis


Constantinos A. Doxiadis Archives

Ekistics: an introduction to the science of human settlements", Constantinos A. Doxiadis, Hutchinson of London, 1968

Ekistics the magazine on Jstor


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