Details and Totalities



Presentation / discussion and Selection


Abstract, Paper / artefact, and Poster


Landscape architecture and Urban design
Exploring the Dialectic of Epistemic Reciprocity
Otto Paans

Files: abstract, poster, full paper

Fragments from proceedings (‘paper submission’)’:


This paper presents a sustained reflection on two large urban design experiments. The reflection describes an emergent effect named “epistemic reciprocity”. The latter part of the paper grounds its description in a body of design theory. The design experiments were carried out in Pendrecht/Zuidwijk (Rotterdam, NL) and Hellersdorf-Süd (Berlin, DE). Both areas are post-war urban expansions that are in need of an update in terms of urban sustainability. The design experiments were devised to explore and document the spatial possibilities of urban renewal and the epistemic potentials of architectural design. The reflection for this paper deals with the oppositional interplay between details and totality; large visions and tiny details; structural decisions and local details. This dialectic between the details and their totality can be couched in epistemic terms. Between the two opposites, an emergent effect of “epistemic reciprocity” occurs. Without details, the design proposal seems void; yet, it cannot be reduced to a collection of details. Dealing with totalities and details can be done in such a way that different scales of a given proposal reciprocally support each other. Knowledge from one level triggers insights on adjacent levels. Prudently switching between detail and totality enables these moments of “epistemic reciprocity”. The movement of zooming in and out on an idea is not only useful for defining details but is indispensable for developing parallel tracks of thought.


design theory, architectural design, epistemology, research through design, urbanism

/…/ it follows that totality and detail exist on the same ontological plane. It also follows that knowledge production is not confined to fact-finding but can consist in other forms of insight. These insights are enabled through systematic design experimentation unfolding at multiple levels in parallel. This parallel development is a way to bring detail and totality together in ways that fit a situation. Yet, thoughtful detailing adds – at its own scale level – coherence and intelligible meaning to the totality. Designing, then, develops the many scale levels of a future world in parallel. Overall design ideas (totalities) intersect on user interfaces (details), creating insights that could not be obtained without a multi-level, conceptional process of making. In this process, in-formation becomes information. The knowledge derived from the searching process can be used for inferential reasoning, discursive practices and reflections on such topics as everyday usage, atmosphere, construction or ecology.