Tranquility in disorder.
Notes regarding Ecology, Planning and Laissez-Faire

Ido Avisaar

Alexander the Great : Is there any favour I might do for you?
Diogenes of Sinope : Yes, stand out of my light.
Alexander : Aren’t you afraid of me?
Diogenes : Who are you? good or evil?
Alexander : Good. 

Diogenes : Who shall thus fear good? 1
The liberal idea of Laissez-faire dates from 18th century Europe and the first decline of monarchic power. This economic and political idea is an injunction to governments not to interfere with transactions between private parties. According to it, if we leave individuals in total liberty, they will pursue their own interests with enlightenment, and will at the same time promote the general interest. Being more critical, John Maynard Keynes summarised its consequences as followed : « those individuals who move in the right direction will destroy by competition those who move in the wrong direction. This implies that there must be no mercy or protection for those who embark their capital or their labour in the wrong direction. It is a method of bringing the most successful profit-makers to the top by a ruthless struggle for survival, which selects the most efficient by the bankruptcy of the less efficient. » 2

We may also mention a spatial Laissez-faire. This notion refers at the same time to the impact of economic Laissez-faire upon physical environments as well as the attitude that seeks to reduce planning to a strict minimum. Spatial (or urban) Laissez-faire usually results in extreme fragmentation of urban space, in widespread discontinuity, in a dissolution and disappearance of public space. As architects and designers, but also as simple citizens, overwhelmed by the economic disparities which have become endemic in our contemporary societies, we can unfortunately only assess the damage of this phenomenon.

The compatibility of the Laissez-faire idea with Ecology creates an issue and presents an inherent paradox. It can be perceived as Ecology’s most ferocious enemy, for it allows an uncontrolled consumption of territories and resources by irresponsible and often irreversible developments ; it can also be perceived as the very idea of Ecology, considering that man is a part of his own natural ecosystem and that his frenetic agitation participates in the game of species. Keynes himself emphasised the inf luence of darwinist theories upon Laissezfaire economists, according to which free competition built London, free competition had even built man. 3 This paradox troubles the natural architectural tendency towards interventionist planning. Although contemporary territories prompt feelings of dysphoria 4, where apparent disorder materialises the failure of a spatial project, most of contemporary architects will agree with the idea that most of the time interventionist planning does not seem to work, in any case not in liberal societies.

In this coming together of economy and space, we are often victims of our cultural compulsion to distinguish Cosmos and Chaos, respectively in terms of absolute order et disorder, sense and nonsense. If, on one hand, planning expresses the desire to find a geometrical extension to the clarity of ideas, the Laissez-faire expresses itself passively, as a form of apathy receiving everything indifferently, without order nor hierarchy. In the effort of synthesis, that architects, planners, and other stakeholders do daily, we can notice a look for compromise, where the Laissez-faire is a part of the project that one has to give away, in sacrifice to the market, deprived of any aesthetic or intellectual value, a business issue and not an architectural one.

The following examples, will try to sketch some possible active values of Laissez-faire, without for all that advocate for it. In order to go beyond the simple rejection of an economic approach that have been dominant in the last thirty years, it seems important to put forwards the beauty and pertinence of it as a philosophical attitude that implies a certain relation to the world and to things. It’s not about judging the pertinence of the forces in presence, to whom we might laisser faire, but the philosophical attitude (the disposition) of the one that laisse faire, that is to say not to discuss the pros and cons of it as an approach, but its intellectual value for the project.

1. Summerhill

I believe that to impose anything by authority is wrong. The child should not do anything until he comes to the opinion – his own opinion – that it should be done. The curse of humanity is the external compulsion, whether it comes from the Pope or the state or the teacher or the parent. It is fascism in toto. 5

Alexander Sutherland Neill was a scottish psychoanalyst and pedagog who founded Summerhill school in 1921. Summerhill gave children total liberty, renouncing on the way all discipline, all direction, all suggestion, all moral training, and all religious instruction. Its fundamental idea was that any practised authority, on behalf of the parents or the teachers, was only repressing the child’s natural capacity for autonomy and auto-regulation and producing a deep and irrevocable unhappiness. This authority is usually the consequence of the parent’s fear of the future : « this fear, oddly enough, shows itself in the desire that his children should learn more than he has learned. This kind of parent is not content to leave Willie to learn to read when he wants to, but nervously fears that Willie will be a failure in life unless he is pushed. » 6

Summerhill school welcomes 75 children, from 5 to 16 years old. 7 The children are divided into three age groups and live two, three or four to a room. Lessons are optional. Children can go to them or stay away from them according to their will. Neill was inf luenced by the ideas of Tolstoy, who condemned the master-pupil intrusion, refusing the « forced inf luence of one person on another, in the aim of shaping a man that will fit with one’s standards », to such an extent that he denied « the right to educate ». 8 Neill therefore founded Summerhill around the idea of noninterference with the growth of the child and non-pressure on him, estimating that children do not need education as such, but rather love, comprehension, approbation and liberty to come out healthily. This radical permissiveness might be perceived as an obstacle to the child’s intellectual evolution, but Neill refused this vision : « Summerhill is a place in which people who have the innate ability and wish to be scholars will be scholars ; while those who are only fit to sweep the streets will sweep the streets. But we have not produced a street cleaner so far. Nor do I write this snobbishly, or I would rather see a school produce a happy street cleaner than a neurotic scholar. » 9

The word authority stands for the power to act on one other. Parental authority, which is nowadays often considered as a necessary frame for the child’s evolution is categorically rejected by Neill as oppressive power. « Why should a child obey ? My answer is : He must obey to satisfy the adult’s desire for power. » 10 The child’s obedience is necessary, according to him, for commodity reasons, so that the parents can have some peace, as evoked by this too familiar phrase : go and see what baby is doing and tell him he mustn’t.

Neill was nonetheless not an anarchist theoretician, but a practitioner educator who had to daily cope with dozens of frenetic children for more than 50 years. Obedience is necessary at Summerhill as everywhere else, but it’s a courteous obedience, « it must come from within – not be imposed from without ». 11 Following this idea further, Neill puts a clear limit between liberty and anomie. 12 Thus, Saturday evenings are reserved to general assemblies. During these meetings, presides over by an elected pupil, children expose their problem and issues, debate, elaborate common rules. In this assembly, neither Neill’s voice nor any other adult’s one weights more than a child’s voice. Similar activities, like theatre, help to maintain a strong social structure without using authority.

Alexander Neill went much further than Montessori, Decroly or Freinet. His attention was turned towards the child, but also towards the adult, and the work he needed to accomplish upon himself. He required from parents something extremely difficult, to renounce on what they considered to be as the most important for them, but it’s only through renunciation that they will find, according to him, life, progress and happiness: « Parents must renounce. They must renounce hate that is disguised as authority and criticism [...] Let the child be himself. Don’t push him around. Don’t teach him. Don’t lecture him. Don’t elevate him. Don’t force him to do anything.» 13

2. Wu-Wei 

Practice non-action
Work without doing
Taste the tasteless
Magnify the small, increase the few
Achieve greatness in little things. 14

Wu-wei, Non-action, is one of the most fundamental notions in Taoism. Non-action represents ultimate wisdom : try not to thwart the natural movement of the sky and the earth. Unlike western cultures, in which dominates the moral ideology of the will, of willing (to posses, to dominate, to live, to impose one’s truth, etc.), Taoism is a pegan philosophy of weakness : the taoist wise man does not struggle. He avoids using his intelligence, his wisdom, his knowledge, or he uses it to the minimum, within the limits of a pure concern for protection, for prudence. 15 As the world follows the rule of alternation, it is not just useless, but dangerous to thwart this rule, « therefore the sage goes about doing nothing, teaching without talking. Ten thousand things rise and fall without cease. » 16 This specific form of Laissez-faire, one of radical restraint, is different from other western expressions, like in example the Greek sceptics or cynics, where we find a propensity to reason and to discuss, as always in Greece, which is infinitely distant from the great taoists. 17

To discuss Wu-wei, which is close to a form of apathy, Lao-Tze often uses the metaphor of water : « man of superior virtue is like water. Water brings wealth to people and never struggles » ; and also: « everywhere and always, it is the soft that wears away the hard (water wears away stone). That which has no substance enters into that which has no opening. From this I know the benefits of non-action. » 18 The wise man lets himself be tossed by any waves whatever. He, himself is inert, but he lets himself drift along chaotic forces surrounding him. This subtle image evokes a contradictory immobility in movement, an individual apathy towards chaos. This image is also used by Zhuang Zhou : « He was ready to follow everything ; he was ready to receive everything. For him, everything was in destruction, everything was in construction. That’s what one calls tranquillity in disorder. Tranquillity in disorder means perfection. » 19

Other evocative image of Non-action is that of a mirror. Not the mirror in its western connotation, as a symbol of the ego, but in its weak form : « The perfect uses his mind as a mirror ; he doesn’t accompany things back when they leave nor does he go toward them when they arrive (as politeness would demand) ; he replies to them without retaining them. It’s what makes him able to carry all things without them damaging him [...] To the one who stays within himself without things remaining in him, things show themselves such as they are ; his movement is apathetic as is that of water, his immobility is that of the mirror, his reply is that of the echo. » 20

The idea of nonintervention in the course of things has, needless to say, a social and political significance. First, regarding education once again, Tao manifests a natural suspicion towards it, close to that of Tolstoy or Neill. It contests the Confucianist vision according to which man is perfectible. Taoists maintain that the most important for man is to return to natural simplicity, or even better, to maintain it inside of him. A similar suspicion is expressed towards the idea of governance. Taoists tend towards avoiding the acceptance of potentially authoritarian functions, 21 but, if necessary the taoist statesman seems to have little to do. He rather holds the role of a regulator, a role that requires a perpetual activity in non-activity. 22 From an economic point of view, following a rather quick historical shortcut, this position might be assimilated to ultra-liberalism, because neither production, nor consumption, nor exchanges mustn’t be subjected to any regulation. Hereunto, Jean Grenier emphasises a fundamental difference between Adam Smith’s and Lao-Tze’s liberalisms : « the first relies upon Nature in order to increase to volume of exchanges, the second relies upon Nature in order to decrease it. If taoist politics takes the liberty to intervene – very indirectly – it will be in order to repress excess and to train a moderating inf luence, unlike the victorian statesman. » 23

3. Non-plan

I think more architects should keep the words clarity, coherence, mood, quality, conviction, presence and power to themselves. 24

In March 1969 the English review New Society publish an article cowritten by Reyner Banham, Paul Barker, Peter Hall and Cedric Price under the title Non-Plan : An Experiment in Freedom. The article is a manifesto against the very idea of skilful or scientific planning and its presumed benefits. It maintains that the use of the word planning is dissimulative and hypocrite, for it hides physical arrangements that are guided by value judgements and prejudices, and that interventionist planning is, most of the time, aristocratic and oligarchic in its methods as in its goals. Planners should research and try to know instead of impose, but unfortunately, they do not seem capable of just laisser faire things around them in a natural and ordinary way : « Somehow, everything must be watched ; nothing can be allowed simply to happen. No house can be allowed to be commonplace in the way that things just are commonplace : each project must be weighed, planned, approved and only then built, and only after that discovered to be commonplace after all. » 25

The article was published three years before Learning from Las-Vegas, at the same time as when Venturi, Scott-Brown and their students examined and photographed every corner along the Strip. It was illustrated mainly with night-time photographs of illuminated signs in and around London : for petrol stations, launderettes, supermarkets, burger bars. It clearly manifests an aesthetic fascination for the american city invasion to Europe : « if you drive down the French Rhone valley motorway – not so planned as ours – one of the most memorable sights is a Total petrol station, writing the letters T-O-T-A-L huge across the valley, with a f lutter of f lags underneath. Stay in Moscow, and you end up yearning to see an Esso sign. » 26

However, beyond some clear similarities with the pop culture of the 60’s, this sensitivity also ref lects a premonitory vision of the increased role of mobility and it’s capacity to jeopardise spatial planning. They noted that « as people become richer they demand more space ; and because they become at the same time more mobile, they will be more able to command it. They will want this extra space in and around their houses, around their shops, around their offices and factories, and in the places where they go for recreation. To impose rigid controls, in order to frustrate people in achieving the space standards they require, represents simply the received personal or class judgements of the people who are making the decision. » 27 This coexistence of mobility and individual liberty on one hand and the call for restraint on the other, seems close enough, once more, to that of tranquillity in disorder.

Banham, Barker, Hall and Price were not fully satisfied with having a critical position. They were conscious that the posture of opposition and negation might be perceived as a non-productive counter culture, without any real interest for real life. As taoists, they affirmed nonaction as action and the non-project as a project : « This is what we’re now proposing : a precise and carefully observed experiment in nonplanning. » 28 Thus, Laissez-faire attitude is joined by observation, taking the place of authoritarian action. They chose three regions in England on which they operated spatial speculations that tried to evaluate what would happen if we laisse faire. At Lawrence Country, it is the forces, already strong, of dispersion and mobility, that would create more regularly scattered and less geometrically tidy patterns of urbanisation : « it would not look like a planner’s dream, but it would work». At Constable Country, named after the romantic painter John Constable and notorious for its important historical and landscape value, they did not take any particular precautions, and criticised the attitude of planners who try to contain the impact of urbanisation : « Constable-type country is supposed, by bodies of opinion as like the Architectural Review, to be able to absorb practically anything that is not taller than a grown tree [...] it [the result] might be quite graceful to the eye ; certainly more so than the quasi-regimented squalor of our present suburban industrial concentration camps». And finally at Montagu Country : « with Non-Plan, industrial sites would be likely to spread more freely along the coast west of Southampton/Fawley. So would housing. But there would also be a spread of pleasure. It’s cut out to be a zone where work-life and recreation intermingle : the Forest, the boats, the Isle of Wight... » 29

We might today reproach Non-plan, as A.S. Neill, for a certain libertarian naivety, not devoid of arrogance, characteristic of the European left of that period : « The characteristic tone of the 60’s was that of overweening confidence : we knew just how to fix the world. It was this note of unmerited arrogance that partly accounts for the reactionary backlash that followed. » 30 We might equally note, as Benjamin Franks,31 the numerous shared features between Non-plan and the economic theories of Friedrich Hayek and the New Right despite the four authors’ left wing affiliation. Nevertheless, the experimental spirit that Non-Plan brought out seem to have been disappeared from our contemporary universe while probably we would highly need it today.

4. Chaosmos

In his essay, The End of Laissez-Faire, Keynes does not entirely reject liberal thinking. However, he doubts the capacity of liberalism to find solutions in a period of economic and social insecurity, because « insecurity breeds fear – fear of change, fear of decline, fear of strangers and an unfamiliar world – is corroding the trust and interdependence on which civil societies rest. » 32 In his economic writings Keynes focused on the problem of uncertainty. The most difficult role of public authority, according to him, is to know where one should intervene and where one should laisser-faire : « the important thing for Government is not to do things which individuals are doing already, and to do them a little better or a little worse ; but to do those things which at present are not done at all ». 33 Keynes insists on the fact that his interventionist propositions are not, in any case, incompatible with what seems to be for him the principal motor of the economic machine, namely individual’s desire to make money. Their necessity, however, lies on ethical needs as much as on economic ones. Instead of searching for a synthesis between liberalism and socialism, Keynes tries to think both of them simultaneously as a dynamic opposition, potentially complementary.

The interwar years, during which Keynes wrote his text, resembles the period of uncertainty that we live through today. An uncertainty that forces us to think the two ideas, apparently opposed, at the same time. It’s precisely at the moment of coexistence of abyssal public debts on one hand and ethical interrogations on the other, that we might meditate radically, experimentally and non-ideologically upon Laissezfaire and planning, soft and hard.

Chaosmos is a portmanteau word invented by James Joyce to simultaneously evoke chaos and the organised world (or cosmos in greek), disorder and order, movement and immobility. In his novel Finnegans Wake, these notions are not opposed but are part of a long continuum. The book, known for being one of the most difficult, even unreadable, works of fictions of the 20th century, leaves to the reader to do his own work and establish his own connections. The novel does not make sense, but a a multiplicity of sense. John Cage, who often referred to Finnegans Wake, evokes an analog notion that he calls a tremulous non-figure or multiple unity : « it’s not the unity of a multiplicity or diversity [...] You don’t revert to a duality of figure and background, or determinacy and indeterminacy, etc. You remain between one and two. You can’t choose, because everything comes at once – there is temporal simultaneity. » 34

And as for Diogenes, and his Stand out of my sunlight, a sort of temperamental and selfish Summerhill child, he resists to Alexander, but through him he also resists to a philosophy that tries to put things in their place. Neither Socrates nor Plato can deal with Diogenes, according to Peter Sloterdijk, because he answers the imprisoning language of abstract concepts with a terminology of f lesh and blood. 35

1. quoted by Diogenes Laërtius.
2. John Maynard Keynes, The End of Laissez-faire. (Marseille : Agone Éditeur, 1999), 17.
3. Ibid., 9.
4.opposed to euphoria, dysphoria describes a state of psychological unease, dominated by the feeling the things are not in place.
5. Alexander Sutherland Neill, Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing. (Oxford : Hart Publishing Company, 1960), 80.
6. Ibid., 29.
7. Summerhill school still exists and functions today ; it is actually headed by Zoe Readhead, A.S. Neill’s daughter.
8. Jean-Claude Filloux, Tolstoï Pédagogue. (Paris : Presses universitaires de France, 1996), 87.
9. Neill, 14.
10. Ibid., 104.
11. Ibid., 105.
12. anomie is the disintegration of norms that regulate human behaviour and insure social order.
13. Neill, 115, 185.
14. Lao-Tze, Tao Te Ching. (Paris : Gallimard, 1967), 122.
15. Roland Barthes, The Neutral, Lecture Course at the Collège de France, 1977-78. (New York : Columbia University Press, 2005), 176.
16. Lao-Tze, 12.
17. Jean Grenier, L’esprit du Tao. (Paris : Flammarion, 1973), 116-117.
18. Ibid., 169, 175.
19. Ibid., 68.
20. Barthes, 182.
21. Yang-Tchou enacted the rules of behaviour (based on Wu-wei) : Do nothing evil, for fear of being punished ; do nothing good, for fear, having acquired a good reputation, of being charged with time-consuming and dangerous functions... Act as if you were good at nothing.
22. Grenier, 142-143.
23. Ibid., 140-141.
24. Cedric Price, Life-Conditioning in AD, october 1966.
25. Reyner Banham, Paul Barker, Peter Hall, Cedric Price, Non-Plan: An Experiment in Freedom in New Society n° 338. 20 March 1969, 435.
26. Ibid., 437.
27. Ibid., 442.
28. Ibid., 436.
29. Ibid., 438-441.
30. Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land. (New York : The Penguin Press, 2010), 21.
31. Benjamin Franks, New Right / New Left in Non-Plan, Essays on Freedom Participation and Change in Modern Architecture and Urbanism. (Oxford : Architectural Press, 2000), 32-43.
32. Judt, 26.
33. Keynes, The End of Laissez-faire, 30-31.
34. John Cage. For the Birds. (Londres : Marion Boyars, 1976), 198-199.
35. Adam Kirch. Against Cynicism in New Republic, 19 Juillet 2013. (www.newrepublic.com/article/113387/peter-sloterdijksphilosophy- gives-reasons-living)

This article was originally published in San Rocco # 10, «Ecology», Winter 2014.

Ido Avissar is the founder of LIST (www.list-oia.com), a Paris-based architecture, urban planning, and research office founded in 2012. Working mostly on large scale and territorial questions, LIST is in permanent search for a neutral position. Neutrality does not mean compliance but maximum receptivity. A quest for an accurate interaction with the present, attentive and non-arrogant.

Avissar previously worked for several years for Bernard Tschumi architects and l’AUC. He is also a former co-founder and partner of Grau (www.grau-net.com), a regular contributor to the San Rocco magazine, and is currently teaching at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d'Architecture de Versailles and at The Berlage in Delft.