Transparency & Complexity

Taking R. Ewing’s “Eight Qualities of Pedestrian- and Transit-Oriented Design” as a starting point, I examine numbers 4 & 5: transparency & complexity.  Applying these concepts to Nagano’s Chuo-Dori, I demonstrate their usage in describing walkability, and think about ways in which they can be further improved.

To start with my conclusions:
From a walkability perspective, the key value of complexity lies in preventing walking from being boring.  Because a place with people active outdoors will rarely be boring -regardless of architecture- complexity becomes a more useful concept if it explicitly describes only the condition where human activity is absent.

One conclusion of this theory is that complexity is least important in areas with constant human activity (e.g. major “station-cities” such as Shibuya and Sannomiya), and most important in areas with little human activity (low density residential streets or semi-abandoned downtown areas).


Visibility of (human) activity behind the facade + activity in front of the facade (assumed to be 100% visible).
In other words, the amount and intensity of visible human activity.

Transparency refers to the degree to which people can see or perceive what lies beyond the edge of a street [i.e. the building facade] or other public space and, more specifically, the degree to which people can see or perceive human activity beyond the edge of a street or other public space.
But transparency can be subtler than that. What lies behind the street edge need only be imagined, not actually seen. Allan Jacobs (1993) says that streets with many entryways contribute to the perception of human activity beyond the street
The ultimate in transparency is when internal activities are externalized or brought out to the sidewalk (Llewelyn–Davies 2000).
The expert panel suggested that courtyards, signs, and buildings that convey specific uses (for example, schools and churches) add to transparency.
~R. Ewing’s “Eight Qualities of Pedestrian- and Transit-Oriented Design


Complexity refers to the visual richness of a place. The complexity of a place depends on the variety of the physical environment, specifically the number and kinds of buildings, architectural diversity and ornamentation, landscape elements, street furniture, signage, and human activity.
[emphasis added; I believe “human activity” should be removed.]

In Life between Buildings, Jan Gehl (1987, p. 143) notes that an interesting walking network will have the “psychological effect of making the walking distance seem shorter”
~R. Ewing’s “Eight Qualities of Pedestrian- and Transit-Oriented Design

APPLIED to Chuo-Dori, Nagano

Starting at Showa-Dori, and proceeding north-wards.

Depth lowest depth lowest transparency
Above (Left Side):  zero transparency, low complexity (light sconces, posters and columns).
Above (Right Side):   zero transparency, very low complexity (light sconces, random metal square).


Depth low depth and highest depth
Above (Left Side):  wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling glass has high transparency when lit up at night,  but fairly low transparency in strong sunlight (it becomes reflective).  Very low external complexity, but medium internal complexity visible when lit up at night.
Above (Right Side):  an open garage door creates a very high level of transparency, day or night.  Very low external complexity, but medium internal complexity visible when garage door open.

The awkwardness of describing multiples sets of complexity (complexity during daytime vs. complexity in the evening vs. complexity before and after business hours) highlights the awkwardness of including human activity in complexity.

Additional complexity valuations below are all for the after-hours condition, and include no bonuses for human activity.

Depth medium and high depth

Above (Left Side):  The effect of half-height window ads is low transparency for shorter people, high transparency for taller people.  Very low complexity, despite lots of (uninteresting) text.
Above (Right Side), close up Below:  Medium-high transparency: although the interior of the restaurant  is not visible in strong sunlight, there are some dimensional decorations/furnishings in front of the windows (a sandwich board and a small chair).  High complexity, due to the steps, outdoor furnishings, interesting door, and relative uniqueness of the “Joy Guru” signage.
Depth Joy Guru

Depth Sunrise BuildingAbove (Middle):  Low-medium transparency in daylight, high transparency when lit up at night.  High complexity, owing to objects visible in window, and complex roofline.
Note the shaded benches on the #widewalk.

Depth next to parking lot.pngAbove (Middle): Medium-High transparency, due to high frequency of open doors.  Medium complexity, owing mostly to cornice details.

Depth corner shop
Above (Middle):  High transparency (open door and bright lighting inside).  Medium-high complexity (various dimensional decorations in front, and relatively unique second floor facade).

Depth Sharemon House

Above (Middle):  High transparency; the extensive outdoor display almost blurs the line between indoors and outdoors (the open door also helps).  Medium complexity, due to the fashionable mannequins (presumably the outdoor display is put away after hours).

Depth two storiesAbove (Middle):  Medium transparency in sunlight, high when lit up at night.  High complexity (noren 暖簾 entrance-curtain-signage, interesting doors, interesting second floor windows, lots of potted plants).

Depth bike in front
Above (Middle):  Low-Medium transparency in sunlight, high when lit up at night.  Medium-High complexity (angled timber-frame facade with objects visible in window).

Depth all glassAbove (Middle):  Low transparency in sunlight, high when lit up at night.  Low complexity (visible structural steel provides the only visual interest.

Depth SDF
Above (Middle):  Low transparency (zero in literal terms, but it is easy to imagine the interior, based on the large signage).  Low-Medium complexity (unique signage).

Depth tower mansion.png
Above (Middle):  Low transparency at this tower mansion; would be very low, but the setback entrance should move some lobby activity outside the doors to the sheltered area.  High complexity (mainly the extra trees, but also the second floor balconies – within interaction distance of the #widewalk).

Macro-scale: transparency and complexity vary considerably along the street, but considered together, the high granularity (over a dozen storefronts within a 2 minute walk) gives the street as a whole a high level of complexity.

200 meters of Nagano Chuo Dori.png

In the Gehl Facade Scale, this street qualifies as “vibrant”.


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