January 7, 2014 | 8 Comments

Magnasanti (Vincent Ocasla)

From the curators: Filipino architecture student Vincent Ocasla used the urban-simulation video game SimCity 3000 to create and optimize his ideal city, named Magnasanti. To design this virtual city of six million, he applied extensive calculations and modeling experiments. SimCity ostensibly encourages generative rather than destructive play. However, Ocasla wished to explore the slippage between an optimized SimCity and the dystopian virtual community produced by the strict regimentation required to sustain it. Inspired by experimental documentary filmmaker Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Ocasla highlights a brutal dichotomy: “Hidden under the illusion of order and greatness [lies] suffocating air pollution, high unemployment, no fire stations, schools, or hospitals, a regimented lifestyle—this is the price that these sims pay for living in the city with the highest population.” As the debates that surround the legacy of architects such as Le Corbusier attest, it is difficult to separate the benevolent from the coercive when planning an ideal community, either on paper or digitally.

I once designed the perfect non-gated gated community in Saudi Arabia. It was commissioned by an enlightened developer who wanted a mold-breaking project: a new residential typology for middle-to high-income Muslim families that is neither high-walled private villas nor paranoid expatriate ghetto compound, models that make up the bulk of the real estate market in that country. Yet it had to offer at least some of the “quirks” of the typical models, such as sociability being a purely internal/domestic matter.

The result is inspired by traditional Arab, Mediterranean, and Islamic urbanism. Clusters of rooms and protected terraces form blurred buildings around lush courtyards and gardens.

SAUDISANTI is composed of:

  • Only four apartment types, their structure and services designed with front-to-back, side-to-side, and rotational symmetries, create a Rubik’s cube system with an incredible number of possible four-story building configurations (8^4 = 4,096 to be exact)
  • Each apartment has separate entrances for “male only” and “family;” sliding partitions to change the configuration from “family time” to “men visiting mode;” and at least one large outside room/patio to allow for the occasional breakout from air-conditioned utopia. It is protected from the elements and the gaze of the neighbors by wood screens inspired by traditional mashrabiyas.
  • Five community gateways
  • Four gardens
  • Three mineral parks
  • One clubhouse
  • 31 total lift and vertical circulation cores only (33% more efficient than a typical development), serving…
  • 47 blurred buildings, each unique, which house…
  • 188 families

Parking is achieved using underground car parks, so surface vehicular circulation is minimal;
No streets, but pedestrian-priority mineral parks;
No backyards, but communally controlled children’s playgrounds (parents inside, children outside with the help);
Only 5% of all apartments share their floor lift lobby, so 95% of all residents can consistently avoid having to greet a neighbor.

Some more figures and stats:
Two international design awards
One international real estate award
100% modular construction and development system
100% dwelling mode adaptability
100% respect of its social and cultural context
100% flexibility for developer
100% privacy*

*3-D simulations are a great way to visualize sightlines in a project. I built in—against the developer’s knowledge and probably against his will, but not necessarily to his detriment—perfectly positioned gaps in the walls and in the mashrabiya screens to allow disruptively voyeuristic social sightlines between neighbors.

What makes a great community, and how much of its greatness is based on top-down design and regulation?

  1. January 14, 2014, 2:37 am


    The Best Laid Plans

    Well, if only the designer of Magnasanti had realized that with the time and effort he spent creating his Reich he could have gone out and created something with a real impact…

    “The coercive” in this case is a polite term for what I would suggest ought to be referred to as fascism or dictatorial control. I’m not necessarily arguing that totalizing master-plans with grand narratives are inevitably domineering to the point of sucking the will to live out of their subjects. Rather that they would aim to be but that the flame of resistance is far too strong in the human soul.

    So sure, fantasizing about the perfect city is fun, but its the messiness of life that makes it worth living. Its the *unplanned* “disruptively voyeuristic social sightlines between neighbors” that really make things interesting.

  2. January 15, 2014, 2:21 am

    Nara Hohensee

    the totalitarian dream

    I like the juxtaposition of these two architects’ seemingly conceptually opposite work: one demonstrates a technocratic approach to planning, driven by aesthetics and ideology (“order and greatness”) and that ignores the needs of its residents, while the other takes a user-driven approach (“a new residential typology for middle-to high-income Muslim families”). Both, however, still hold on to the Enlightenment-based hope that architecture — and, by association, architects and planners — can successfully shape human behavior (this is the irony of Arida’s little “joke” with the sightlines — he still assumes that he, as designer, is making voyeurism happen in the complex).

    My own understanding of how cities tend to work is that the lines between aesthetics, function, and actual uses — be they practical or representational — are not nearly so direct. The complex relationships between designers and institutions, politicians, developers, and the economic realities of any society (even a totalitarian one) mean that architects have only the slightest say in how a community looks or operates.

    It seems to me that the best kind of community is one that balances these various forces, while allowing opportunities for all kinds of “voyeurism,” planned or not.

  3. January 15, 2014, 6:11 pm


    A few random thoughts...

    In response to DP: There is a long and glorious tradition of artists frittering away the years on works that make more or less banal or provocative points or have ‘real impact’ so I’m not sure if that’s the most productive line of attack on Magnasanti. Ocasla successfully demonstrates that the capacity of SimCity for verisimilitude and the degrees of freedom it offers in building a virtual city are extraordinary, but to me that’s about as far as it goes. Ocasla’s work is all about the in-world mechanics of the game. As good and cool as SimCity is, the relationship between virtual and real is still so vast that I can’t see it saying much of interest about mass politics or urban planning in theory or practice in the real world. On the other hand, in the YouTube video Ocasla seems to have quite a bit of tongue planted firmly in cheek and certainly an awareness that it’s *just* a game (see the whole preemptive denial of cheating), so perhaps he’s one step ahead of me and pointing at the critic/historian’s impulse to over-determine everything.

    As for Arida’s work, it seems like good, responsive design that also raises some interesting questions. On the one hand, the values to which the development responds are repugnant (the inherent misogyny, not the Islam per se). On the other hand, the development is just so ‘normal’ (I can’t wait to see it showcased on House Hunters International). I can’t help but feel that the bourgeois lifestyle (albeit tweaked) that it projects represents an incremental but not-insignificant step away from the repression that still dogs Saudi society (ok, ok, I know a bourgeois lifestyle comes with repressions all its own, but I find it easy to imagine the women who inhabit Arida’s apartments driving, showing their faces in public, and maybe even sharing a room with a man who is a husband, brother, or uncle). In this context, I find Arida’s secret voyeuristic sight lines to be too cute by half, and I think they represent a lack of good faith and honesty between architect and client that is problematic. On the other hand, maybe Saudi society has it coming, so it’s complicated.

    As for the larger question, I agree with Nara that in most cases the architect has a vanishingly small role in creating community, for better or worse. However, I’ll take the side of top-down law and order and say that the quality of a community is overwhelmingly determined by regulations. In the best cases, those regulations are determined through democratic processes and administered by technocratic, professional bureaucracies. Of course, there are examples of both of those going off the rails to produce crappy communities, but I think it’s undeniable that the best cities, the cities where, in spite of their flaws, people still flock, are the result of a great deal of regulation of the development and building process. Inherent in those regulations is going to be quite a bit of coercion by the state of individuals and sometimes severe limits on individual freedom. Arguments over whether any given regulation is too lax or strict are really only nibbling at the margins.

  4. January 20, 2014, 5:01 pm

    ayssar arida

    architects are obsolete

    Hmmm… Nara you’re a bit unfair there. Before I realised how tongue-in-cheek Ocasla was (you need to look up his interview talking about this project) I was wondering if the post shouldn’t be yet another “top-down planning is bad, good cities are chaotic” piece, but those are a dime a dozen now (including all my old stuff at

    Instead I chose a (mostly lighthearted) reflexive look upon my own practice, a part of which involves designing gated communities. The inside joke of creating voyeuristic sightlines was never imagined as planning or “making voyeurism happen”, indeed, almost by definition the traditional mashrabiahs or privacy screens were voyeuristic by design: there is always someone hiding and watching someone else in the open (read for example Jalal Toufic’s take on A Thousand and One Night’s story of King Shahryar and his Brother….). But in a project like the one I described, everybody would be hidden, there would be nothing to watch! Placing bugs in the system, could help re-introduce the *possibility* of voyeurism. For all the starchitects talk of being responsive to culture, eg paying lip service to “a modern interpretation of arab architecture” without understanding the social history and dynamics is little more than camouflaged racism. Which brings me to SLS’s comment, and excellent questions.

    Great job at spotting the mysoginistic implications – but you missed the inherent racism and classism I tried to imply in the text, and the fundamentally flawed requirements of this anti-social bourgeoisie (children and the help outside, while the parents “enjoy” the wonderfully aircon’d interiors and their sliding walls, and luckily never have to meet a neighbour or even put their nose outside, their cars being conveniently located underground at the end of an elevator).

    I loved SLS questioning what this means for the architect-client relationship, maybe someone else can answer?

    Finally, I agree with you both that architect’s role is very small. But to be honest, it’s still a bit larger than it should. It is true that the architect has little say in how a community operates, but they still have a a larger-than-necessary say in how it looks. They also can be very much guilty in limiting the operation of a community, especially if they are good at responding to a client brief to the letter (and if you re-read above, we’re not talking about cities here, and what am saying is that this project is anti-communal by client brief, if not by design!).

    I’ve said it before, in an urban planet, architects are obsolete, they are not at all trained to deal with the city, so don’t blame them !

  5. January 22, 2014, 12:49 am

    Nara Hohensee


    Thanks for your thoughts, Ayssar. My point probably wasn’t nuanced enough: sure, you’re creating “possibilities: or “intentional bugs” rather than dictating behavior, and the majority of your design enables and *responds* to the existing social needs of the community rather than dictating them. Perhaps that connects to SLS’s point about planning. If, as we hope it does, good planning is done by those who have the good of the community in mind and are — this seems important — beholden in some way to that community (either politically or economically or both), then the regulations that dictate a lot about our urban landscapes function and look.

  6. February 4, 2014, 2:06 am

    Nick Tanzman

    Where's the Art?

    I was amazed to see this “piece” as an exploration of violence in design. Here we see an architect has meticulously thought out the details of an entire city through the lens of the simulator Sim City 3000. I find this especially interesting because during my stay at Cornell University’s summer program for Architecture in 2010 we were spoken to by the dean of admissions at the time who very sarcastically noted that essays applying to the school mentioning childhood memories of Lego blocks or Sim City would be quickly tossed out.
    As for the piece, I’m not sure if this constitutes art, or art through the lens of violence at least. I don’t believe the artist’s true intentions were to reference Le Corbusier, Baron Haussmann, or any utopian control methods. Despite the mathematics and very in detail planned sketches the artist created, I would think about what this really is. The artist has done what I and many fans of the Sim City franchise have already done. Because this video game’s primary audience is adolescents and not a true urban simulation program the level of difficulty for one to build an average city is fairly easy. But when you become an enthusiast or long time player of the franchise it is not very uncommon at all to try and build absurd utopian cities, of pure boredom and also to exploit the not-so-hard to understand program logic behind Sim City and it’s limitations. I would note that Sim City 3000 was released in 1999 and that even more recently Sim City 4 in 2003 with a more complex system of logic that determines the outcome city. It would be impossible for me to express the the simplicity and ease of exploiting of these games engines without you simply having played it.
    I would say I’m left confused with this piece. I don’t believe the artist himself deserves recognition for something many have toiled with during childhood, in a very similar though undocumented process, but with strikingly similar exploitation of the game’s shortfalls and unrealistic mathematic representations of buildings. The MoMA must be very removed if it considers this particular in-game setup a good study in urban conversation. The curators must have picked this specific because its creator is a student of architecture, was meticulous and makes reference to Arab urbanism and Godfrey Reggio. Beside that I don’t see what separates this display from the many Sim utopias posted on youtube. There are many.
    Aside from my criticism of this piece standing alone, I understand how this study is a very good illustration of understanding control and intimidation through lens of design. As Simcity is an icon of early 2000’s computer pop culture I would say this is a fine sample in the sociology of design and how simulation games can be an outlet for such. I would broaden this search though. While this is just one example of a player creating utopia in this game, he is not the first and will not be the last. What he has done here is not vastly unique. What is unique though is the effect of these city simulation games. Why is it that after playing the game repeatedly, a many of the players of this game resort to designing a utopia? Me not finding this particular piece to be that interesting isn’t an attack on this artist, I simply find that this situation is not unique in any way, in fact occurring all the time with the players of this game. But why is it that we all strive to create utopia? Is it perhaps because true utopia can only exist in a simulation game of mathematics and defined statistics where culture, squalor and public order are removed?

  7. May 12, 2014, 7:06 am

    Jason Dalrymple

    Love your work

    I’d be very interested to see you take this concept and apply it to a game “clash of clans”

  8. February 8, 2016, 6:02 pm


    If you're reading th

    If you’re reading this, you’re all set, pandrer!