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A blog post about architecture, city planning, structure, the adjacent possible and a term coined by Bruce Sawhill called "E- plumbing"

E Plumbing & The Architecture Of Meaning- Nncy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Sometimes the links between things are more important than the things themselves. This is a key aspect of the concept of the Adjacent Possible. 

Incorporating newness into a system, whether that is one’s own life or something “out in the world” like an engineering project, involves incorporating newness into what is already there. It’s not enough to come up with something novel, it has to be something relatably new. 


The Brasilia Effect & The Adjacent Possible


One of my favorite examples is what I call the ‘Brasilia Effect.’ The designers of the capitol city of Brazil decided they wanted to build a majestic capitol city from scratch in the 1950s. The head architect, Lúcio Costa, was a student of the visionary French architect Le Corbusier.



Grand Plan for the capitol of Brazil



Since there was no existing city to adapt to or be constrained by, this was a rare sterling opportunity for massive creativity. A truly blank canvas.

But what happened was different than what was conceived. 

Indeed, many of the planned grand edifices were built.

But many of the people who built them couldn’t live on a skyscraper construction site, so they built “temporary” housing nearby, square miles of ramshackle favelas (slums) at a distance from the showpiece center city.  

The housing the was part of the original plan in the center city was often criticized as cold and sterile, massive blocks in the arc structure below.



Center of Brasilia



It took a long time to build Brasilia.

So the “slums” eventually needed electricity, plumbing, schools, businesses, etc.

In time, the unplanned surrounding community became larger than the core of the city itself.

The designers of the city had thought more about the buildings than the structure that connected them with future developments.

The aphorism “Life is what happens while you make other plans” certainly applied here.

Future developments happened organically and found a way to thrive. They just didn’t look like the original plan.



Brasilia favela, largest slum in Brazil



Pierre Charles L’Enfant


In contrast, another French architect, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, designed Washington DC in the 1790s, but mostly designed the street layout rather than the buildings themselves.

He created the structure, the network, that future architects would fill in.

His vision remained and has given a strong and persistent graciousness to Washington, grand boulevards meeting at large circles full of greenery and statues and fountains. 

In modern language, we might say that L’Enfant’s plan was “algorithmic,” specifying procedure but not content.

A less specific and ultimately more robust strategy.



Layout of Washington, DC from Pierra Charles L’Enfant, 1792


If Cities Were Language


If cities were language, the buildings would be the nouns and the unifying structure would be the verbs. 

In the world of software, I have observed that connecting different pieces of code is often more complex that creating the individual pieces themselves.




In an analogy with plumbing connecting buildings to a common system, Bruce Sawhill coined the term “e-plumbing,” tying information systems together with code.

In a networked world, the individual pieces may appear, disappear, or morph, but the network remains.

The “buildings” may come and go, but the “street network” persists and grows.

E-plumbing comes up whenever one wants to have one piece of software talk to another.

A protocol for communication has to be established as well as a protocol for change, meaning that changing one element does not require changing the whole system.

You can rebuild one “building” without redesigning the whole “city.” This is an algorithmic process.

In our own lives, we seek to incorporate new knowledge and experience into our existing worldview. Things have to be able to be made sense of.

One foot in the known, one in the unknown.

In this stepwise fashion, one can travel great distances.



With gratitude from our studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce


Take Your Art Somewhere New- Nab your copy of our newest book: The Adjacent Possible: Guidebook & Stories Of Artistic Transformation. 

There are lots of concepts from exclusive exercises Nancy developed for the Artist’s Journey Masterclass in the book, including: Combinatorics, Zero To One, Six Maquettes, and more.

Get your copy HERE.

Click on the arrow above to watch the video.

Get your copy of the book HERE.


Or, get the suite of books in The Art of the Possible Book Series



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