I was invited by the editorial team of the 3rd International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam to write a contribution to the catalogue of the Visionary Power Exhibition, published by NAI Publishers. In particular, I was asked to write an essay in the format of a glossary that would bring the main themes and insights of the exhibition together. To give you an idea I included some terms of the glossary after the continue-reading-link.
The design of cities that look like cities but on close inspection lack important parts of urban culture. Often these designs focus on one or two specific functions of a city and cater for one or two specific groups using and living in the city, but deliberately leave out the public spaces for interaction or confrontation between groups. Their borders are often hard borders rather than soft ones, which isolate rather than connect the design with the city at large. Its identity is not a continuous historic process of negotiating between groups, but top-down supplied by the designers, often through theming. Public spaces are often mimicked, – like the piazza’s in shopping malls – but are not true public spaces. Their use is often highly formalized and regulated.
The centrifugal forces that happen to move the city into your backyard, rather than concentrating its main functions in the (historic) city center. It is usually not visionary planning or utopian urbanism that produces this city, but rather plain practicalities. The backyard city is an ‘emergent’ form that arises from functional decisions taken by actors such as developers, city officials and retailers. Their amassed decisions concerning agglomeration advantages, profit maximization and market demands, creates the checkered, sprawling, polycentric, edge-city big box-landscape of supercenters, parking lots, office plaza’s and post-suburban housing estates.
Even fiberoptic cables and iPods are produced somewhere from something,
not to mention all the other luxury and everyday items that the digital economy allows its participants to acquire. Thus, even in the information age, manufactering matters, and many third world countries compete to turn their cities into giant manufacturing backstages, often offering companies willing to relocate special deals on land acquisition or exemptions from environmental or labor law.
With the expanding economies of amongst others India and China, demand for natural resources and prices for crude oil are booming. It is these petrodollars looking for investment opportunity, global esteem or legitimacy of power that finance the rising skylines from Astana to Caracas, and from Moscow to Khartoum, entering some of these formerly marginal cities in the international recognition race of global cities.
The design of cities as a way of resume building for bureaucrats. Ambitious plans are launched solely for the career advancement of city officials. Often leads to megalomaniacal monumental projects supposed to boast the aura of the city and its leaders who whish to show off their vigor. That the millions of dollars invested are often wasted, is usually only discovered after the official has been promoted to a higher position someplace else, leaving its former community with a hubris reflecting skyline of concrete carcasses and empty mirror glassed towers.
The revitalizing of a city and its cityness by interventions in social relations – the software of the city – rather than in its infrastructure of dwellings and piazza’s. When public space does not automatically lead to encounter and exchange, special programs – be it street barbecues or community art projects – are set up to foster recognition and respect between citizens. Sometimes these social measures are accompanied by minor adjustments to the physical hardware as well, e.g. the establishment of a community or youth centre.
When India and Pakistan were turned into modern nation states, the Indian prime minister Nehru needed a new capital for the now divided state Punjab. This new city would be, as Nehru claimed, “unfettered by the traditions of the past, a symbol of the nation’s faith in the future.” It needed to demonstrate that India now had entered modernity, and would look forward rather than lean on its traditions. The foreign architect LeCorbusier was invited for the design of this city. At the beginning of the 21st century many aspiring cities follow this same strategy: from Astana to Abu-Dabhi, international star architects like Norman Foster are invited to design iconic buildings or master plans that symbolize the embrace of modernity, and claim a position on the stage on which the international recognition race of world cities plays out.
Just like Chandigarh in India, Brasilia was planned to symbolize that Brazil had entered the era of modernity. However, no foreign architects were flown-in, the design and architecture were thought up by Brazilian architects and planners with different cultural backgrounds. They used local traditions and architectural histories (such as the pre-columbic and Spanish colonial planning) to localize LeCorbusier’s modernist theories and rework them into the Brazilian context. Could a similar approach of ‘continuist modernism’ be viable today as an alternative for the ‘Cities from zero’ or ‘Cities on the other side of the river’ being build in fast developing economies?
An updated version of Chandigarh modernism, fitting the demands of the information economy. Songdo is to be a new 120-million-square-foot development, with 60 million square feet of prestigious office space. It is build on a raised island near the Korean coast and connected with a 6.4 mile bridge to the Seoul-Incheon international airport. The developers not only design the iconic masterplan, but also set up the legal framework that turns this new city into a Free Economic Zone that relieves companies from Korean bureaucracy and taxes and rewrites land-ownership legislation, and make it both a national and a denationalized symbol of ‘faith in the future’.
In an era in which media and transportation networks have uprooted the link between geographic place and identity, theming has become a popular way of ascribing identity to certain places. This is an age old process – Thomas Jefferson purposely choose the neo-classical theme of columns and timpani to grant the 18th century New England towns of the newborn republic a respectable identity and have their architecture resonate the ideals of democracy. Disneyfication
takes this process one step further. It does not only provide a fictional and often nostalgic identity, but – its critics claim – also is purposely designed to break the contingency of public space that is characteristic of urban culture, replacing it with a domesticated family friendly scenography of – often commercially controlled – pseudo-public spaces.
The redesign of parts of a city in order to be accepted in the Unesco World Heritage Program. Usually this means preserving or restoring a slice of the city that is considered a picture postcard perfect cutout of history. This might be an attractive strategy to preserve history and to attract tourists. By some it is also seen as a form of ‘urbicide’, since it freezes the city in history, in effect arresting the cumulative process of exchange and encounter that has shaped the city through the ages, and possibly halting further innovation or development of the city.
Whereas urban theory often focuses on the importance of public space and encounter, for many middle class citizens ‘dwelling’ is their number one priority. For many all over the world, the American style gated suburb of single detached houses cum garage, garden and white picket fence is sold to them as the ideal place to live, status marker and investment in the future. In countries like China, new real estate developments are often marketed as “authentic” copies of American suburbs, e.g. the Beijing suburb of ‘Orange County’ prides itself on being an exact copy of a Californian gated community. Many of these suburban developments are uniform zones, both architecturally, culturally and economically. Underlying forces are processes of parochialization in which people with shared identities spatially flock together. There is also a financial logic driving the development of Californian Dreams all over the world: when sinking their live savings in real estate, prospective buyers are looking to secure their investment. Themed projects aimed at particular target groups with low levels of contingency and high levels of control are thought favorable for this.
The structural demolishment of historic buildings. We can distinguish between ‘ideological nowification’ and ‘market nowification’. In the former, the ideology represented by the architecture of certain buildings has been deemed outmoded by or averse to the current regime. Remembrances of the past are erased in an Orwellian fashion, to make room for buildings that celebrate a glorious and prosperous ‘now’ and promise an even better future, ‘brought to you by’ current powers. These sometimes refer to the demolishing process as the ‘pulling out of rotten teeth’. ‘Market nowification’ is the process in which architecture is promoted in a fashion similar to technology gadgets: there is a continuous urge to update to the latest version, to continuously update to the culture of the present now. In ever shorter lifecycles, buildings with outdated amenities are demolished to make room for new developments that celebrate the branded lifestyles of today.
The re-appearance of a cottage industry of home-based entrepreneurs, albeit more likely based in the garages of sprawling exurbia and sheds of metropolitan shanty towns, rather than in some pastoral countryside. In some countries this idea is hardwired to a paper-boy-to-millionaire myth in which determined self-made inventors knock up the new new thing from their garages, ousting the ossified ‘dinosaurs of big business’ who ‘just don’t get it anymore’. Here, informal ingenuity trumps the formalized, creativity-strangled bureaucracies of big business.
In other places, it is rather a survival strategy or way of life, focusing on small niches or hyperlocal services neglected as too risky or not lucrative enough by big business. For instance, in Mexico City, many suburbians turn the garages of their masterplanned estates into workshops, small restaurants, hair salons, or the base for permanent garage sales, resembling the grey economy of the informal settlements that surround them., breaking the clear separation between the formal and informal economy.
The barrio – aka the slums, the favelas, the shanty towns, the derelict inner cities, the banlieu’s – are often described as antagonistic to the official city – and thus everything the ‘official’ city is not: no social institutions, legal framework, monuments, jobs, public spaces, or state monopoly on violence. However many of these informal settlements, such as the Caracas barrio of Petare, have become permament destinations for its settlers, and developed their own institutions, social relations, job markets, neighborhoods, identities and even political base, sometimes parallel to, sometimes extra juridical from, sometimes overlapping with official society, creating a way of life that partially takes place outside the legal frameworks of official society, but certainly not outside any political, cultural or economic framework.
On sundays, the Hong Kong financial district – the territory of the blackberry-crowd for the rest of the week – is turned into a giant picnic ground / open air church for Philippino housekeeping maids. After the recent Israeli-Lebanese war, white refugee tents appeared in the gentrified and recently commercialized down town of Beirut, its residents seeking both refuge from the war and publicity for their protests. At other times an archeological research site and tourist destination in central Rome is usurped by marchers against some cause or another. In all these examples, tThe function of city spaces is produced through the performance of its inhabitants. , and all types of spaces are regularly They have the power to ‘squatted’ all kinds of spaces for recreational, countercultural or political usage., thus producing the city through bottom-up social processes rather than through top-down planning.