There is interest among planners in autonomous behaviour and non-linear processes supporting urban development. Self-organization has attracted attention as a potential driver for urban transformations. This paper aims to explore the mechanisms behind urban land use patterns resulting from the interdependence of self-organization and institutions. Our argument is based on an empirical study of two land development cases in urban Beijing. The paper argues that urban land transformations include characteristics of symmetry breaks, self-organizing processes, unintended collective behaviour and spontaneous patterns while simultaneously being institutionally framed. The interdependence between self-organization and institutional rules builds upon a circular causality framework at various spatial levels.