The Community Architects Network. I had the chance of work with them in Thailand and their methods are fantastic. Hopefully each region in the globe would have a group of commited practitioners as they are.
The Community Architects Network. I had the chance of work with them in Thailand and their methods are fantastic. Hopefully each region in the globe would have a group of commited practitioners as they are.
An old one (2010), but interesting to review regardin the last events in Europe and Middle East. Sadly, when an interviewer is biased and cuts the interview is hard to get the whole picture. Nevertheless, below the video you can read a clear column of Zizek explaining why he argues that capitalism and democracy have to split soon.
Slavoj Zizek: Well people often ask me how can you be so stupid and still proclaim yourself a communist. What do you mean by this? Well, I have always to emphasize that first I am well aware that let’s call it like this – the twentieth century’s over. Which means all not only communists solution but all the big leftist projects of the twentieth century failed. Not only did Stalinist communism although there its failure is much more paradoxical. Most of the countries where communists are still in power like China, Vietnam – their communists in power appear to be the most efficient managers of a very wildly productive capitalism. So okay, that one failed. I think that also and here I in a very respectful way disagree with your – by your I mean American neo-Keynesian leftists, Krugman, Stiglitz and so on. I also think that this Keynesian welfare state model is passé. In the conditions of today’s global economy it no longer works. For the welfare state to work you need a strong nation state which can impose a certain fiscal politics and so on and so on. When you have global market it doesn’t work. And the third point which is most problematic for my friends, the third leftist vision which is deep in the heart of all leftists that I know – this idea of critically rejecting alienated representative democracy and arguing for local grass root democracy where it’s not that you just delegate to the others. Your representatives to act for you, but people immediately engage in locally managing their affairs and so on.
I think this is a nice idea as far as it goes but it’s not the solution. It’s a very limited one. And if I may be really evil here I frankly I wouldn’t like to live in a stupid society where I would have to be all the time engaged in local communitarian politics and so on and so on. My idea is to live in a society where some invisible alienated machinery takes care of things so that I can do whatever I want – watch movies, read and write philosophical books and so on. But so I’m well aware that in all its versions radical left projects of the twentieth century came to an end and for one decade maybe we were all Fukuyamaists for the nineties. By Fukuyamaism I mean the idea that basically we found if not the best formula at least the least bad formula. Liberal democratic capitalism with elements of rebel state and so on and so on. And even the left played this game. You know we were fighting for less racism, women’s right, gay rights, whatever tolerance. But basically we accepted the system. I think and even Fukuyama himself is no longer a Fukuyamaist as I know that if there is a lesson of September 11 if other event is that no we don’t have the answer. That not only is liberal democratic capitalism not the universal model and is just a time of slow historical progress for it to be accepted everywhere. But again try now in Singapore and other examples of very successful economies today demonstrate that this, let’s call it ironically eternal marriage between democracy and capitalism it’s coming to an end.
What we are more and more getting today is a capitalism which is brutally efficient but it no longer needs democracy for its functioning. That’s my first point. My second point is that the problems that we are confronting today we can list them in different ways but my point is they are all problems of commons. For example, ecology it’s clearly a problem of commons. Nature our natural environment is our commons, something which shouldn’t be privatized because it belongs to all of us. It’s as it were the background or literally the ground of our being. And it’s clear for me that here we need to reinvent not local democracy but on the contrary also large scale solutions. The problem today is not local communitarian democracy. The problem today is how it regulates trends worldwide. Because even here I almost admire the – if I may use this old fashioned Marxist terms the ruling ideology, no. Like turning the cards upon us and making us individually guilty like did you separate all diet Coke cans. Did you separate all the newspapers and so on. I mean I find it ridiculous how not only are we made responsible. Instead of blaming not some person but the system as such how to reorganize our lives. But this solution also allows us an easy way out. Then as if you recycle, you buy green products and so on and you feel well, you did your duty.
And another example that I use again and again – Starbucks coffee and others. I think it’s something very ingenious that capitalists there. You know when you enter a Starbucks place they always tell you, you know, we take care of nature, five percent of our profits go for Guatemalan rainforest, for Somalian children, whatever. I think this is ingenious that when we are consumerists we feel bad. Oh my God, I’m just a consumerist. People are starving there. We are ruining Mother Earth. But here the message is our coffee is a little bit more expensive but the ideological price to do something for Mother Earth is included into it, you know. I even – that would be my idea, Starbucks you know, how they bring your bill when you pay check and then it says that – how do they call it this additional federal tax or whatever so much. I would love to have it where they would put it, you know, three percent for helping Mother Earth included, five percent for Guatemala orphans included. And it makes you feel good and so on. So what I’m saying is that, for example, this is one example of endangered commons where I’m not underestimating capitalism here. Of course one should use all capitalists and market tools like higher taxes for polluters and all of that.
But you cannot control in this way real ecological catastrophes. Imagine Fukushima which happened an earthquake and all that in Japan. Now it would be a couple of years ago. Imagine the same thing just some – it’s quite realistic act of imagining – just some two, three times stronger which means that probably the whole northern third of Japan would have to be evacuated. How to confront this? Who will do it and so on and so on. We need a solution here and the problem is the commons. Next point. Finances. Everyone knows that some type of regulation is needed otherwise the way banks function today it’s simply even from the standpoint of let’s call it naively rational capitalism. It no longer works. Another thing – so called intellectual property. Jeremy Rifkin pointed out how we are already almost approaching there a kind of a weird communism. I don’t know how it is here with you but in my part of Europe, DVDs are disappearing. You download everything. It’s – I think – okay this is one phenomenon but I think that generally there is something in so called intellectual property, knowledge and so on which is communist in its very nature in the sense that it resists being constrained by private profit. It tends to circulate freely.
So again how to solve this problem? I don’t think that capitalism will succeed in privatizing intellectual property. Next point biogenetics. Are we aware what is happening today? I mean I don’t want to exaggerate and I’m not a panic monger. I’m not saying tomorrow we will be robots. I’m just saying that two things are happening which are more and more reality. A, that and this is something so tremendously important philosophically. Direct contact between the inside of our brain, our thoughts, and outside like we all know, for example, that today still at a very primitive level but we can directly wire our brain so that machine can read it direct – and, for example, Stephen Hawking no longer will have needed his finger. Now he was functioning with the finger just moving it a little bit. You think forward, your wheelchair moves forward and so on. Of course one of the problems here is that if it goes outside you just think about it, it happens, it also goes inside the other way around. So all this prospect of the biogenetically changing your properties directly wiring your mind and so on. How will this be used for social control? And, for example, when I visited China five years ago I got in a conversation with some big shot from their Academy of Biogenetics. I mean biogenetic department of their Academy of Sciences. And he gave me the program of goals of biogenetics in China. A kind of a programmatic text which pretty much terrified me.
It opens up the text with something like the goal of biogenetics in the People’s Republic of China is to regulate the physical and the psychic welfare of Chinese people. My God, what does that mean? Now I’m not here a conservative guy who is in panic. No, it’s a new field. Who knows but we have to be aware of the problem and it cannot be decided on the market. We need new forms of global control and regulation. And the last thing, new forms of apartheid. That’s the ultimate irony for me. Berlin Wall fell down, now new walls are emerging all around. The United States, Mexico. West Bank, Israel occupied territories to even the south of Spain how to isolate Europe from Africa and so on and so on. I think the paradox of today’s global capitalism is that on the one hand it’s global, free flow of capital but the free movement of people is more and more controlled and more and more we get new forms of apartheid. Full cities and those immigrants half excluded and so on. These are all problems we are confronting today. And the big question is can we cope with these problems within the liberal democratic capitalist frame. I’m a pessimist here. I don’t see – I’m really a pessimist because I don’t see a clear solution here. I’m certainly not an idiot who claims oh, a new Leninist party or whatever, will regulate it. No, that game is over. But I claim just two things.
A, all these problems are problems of commons. Biogenetics – our genetic inheritance is our humanity’s genetic commons with new forms of apartheid we are talking simply about commons as the common social space and so these are all problems of commons and how to confront them, how to deal with them because, you know, the paradox here is that on the one hand we are already getting elements aspects of communism like again with all the downloading and so on. New forms of circulation of knowledge even of commodities which no longer follow the market model. On the other hand I’m well aware that all this also brings out new problems which is why as I always repeat it, I support Julian Assange WikiLeaks. But not in the usual anti-American way. I always emphasize this. WikiLeaks should not be used for cheap anti-Americanism. Why not? Because there is a point in those who say that imagine someone like Chelsea Manning in China. There would not be a trial. She would just disappear probably together with the entire family or whatever. So why nonetheless we should also talk about United States even if the control is much worse in China, Russia and so on.
Because there is one problem and I can tell you I was in China and Russia. There people are well aware of the limitation of their freedom. Nobody in China has the illusion that they are actually free. You have local freedoms of choice, you know. You can do sexually whatever you want. You can more or less read books that you want. You can find a job if you find it of course that you want. But the general social network no democracy there also with us is getting worse and worse but that’s another point. What I want to say is that the importance of WikiLeaks for United States is that how here in the United States we can – our lives can also be controlled and regulated but without us being aware of it. We still experience ourselves as fully free. And this is for me the most dangerous unfreedom. The unfreedom which is not even aware of itself as unfreedom. Unfreedom which is experienced as freedom.
Another point here is we all know what is going on now is something incredible. TISA, T – I – S – A and other negotiations which are incredibly important. They will regulate markets, exchange of data and so on neo-liberal lines so that they will radically define the basic coordinates of our economic lives even more. But the point is we don’t – these negotiations are all done in secret. So, you see, this is for me the problem of freedom today. Yes, we have freedom at the level of freedom of choice. You buy this, you buy that, you travel here, you travel there, whatever. But for me freedom has to be more. Actual freedom has to also be the freedom to regulate the very basic coordinates of your life. You have a choice between this and that but how is the entire field which offers you these choices and not other choices – how is it structured? At that level we get more and more secret agreements, we get less and less freedom. So freedom is a big problem today but it’s the struggle for what we understand with freedom.
Can you afford living in your city? Is it hard? Is it Easy? Check how the proccess has been followed in London, where diverse specialists are aware of the potential Bubble.
The London housing market has formed the world’s biggest house price bubble, according to the Swiss bank, UBS.
It said the ratios of property prices to incomes, and property prices to rents, have reached all-time highs.
And it warned that London house prices have become more “decoupled” from household earnings than anywhere else in the world.
More than any other big city, the capital now faces the risk of a “substantial” price correction.
However it was not able to predict when any such correction might occur.
In its Global Real Estate Bubble Index, UBS says any city scoring more than 1.5 is at risk of a bubble.
London had the highest score, at 1.88.
Hong Kong came second, with a score of 1.67.
Real house prices, after adjusting for inflation, have soared by almost 40% in London since the beginning of 2013, said UBS.
That makes London one of the most expensive cities in the world.
Amongst other findings in the report:
The demand for London properties was largely driven by foreign investors, but domestic buyers have also helped to boost prices.
UBS said the government’s Help to Buy scheme had stoked demand too.
On past experience, UBS said that a price correction of 30% usually occurs within three years of the index exceeding a score of 1.0.
New York, Boston and Chicago were among the cities at least risk of a housing bubble.
This article published on “The independent” challenges us to discuss something that is vital: What’s the reality of borders and how to rething territory from its current contested condition? Robert Fisk, who is specialized in international affairs, challenge the definition of current territories. Land has been always subject of war and struggle, the private property is an inherent condition of capitalism and that condition well deserves a review under the current reality of violence and cultural clashes.
Early in 2014, Isis released one of its first videos. Largely unseen in Europe, it had neither the slick, cutting-edge professionalism of its later execution tapes nor the haunting “nasheed” music that accompanies most of its propaganda. Instead, a hand-held camera showed a bulldozer pushing down a rampart of sand that had marked the border between Iraq and Syria. As the machine destroyed the dirt revetment, the camera panned down to a handwritten poster lying in the sand. “End of Sykes-Picot”, it said.
Like many hundreds of thousands of Arabs in the Middle East, for whom Sykes-Picot was an almost cancerous expression, I watched this early Isis video in Beirut. The bloody repercussions of the borders that the British and French diplomats, Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, drew in secret during the First World War – originally giving Syria, Mount Lebanon and northern Iraq to the French, and Palestine, Transjordan and the rest of Iraq to the British – are known to every Arab, Christian and Muslim and, indeed, every Jew in the region. They eviscerated the governorates of the old dying Ottoman empire and created artificial nations in which borders, watchtowers and hills of sand separated tribes, families and peoples. They were an Anglo-French colonial production.
The same night that I saw the early Isis video, I happened to be visiting the Lebanese Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt. “The end of Sykes-Picot!” he roared at me. “Rubbish,” I snorted. But of course, I was wrong and Jumblatt was right. He had spotted at once how Isis captured symbolically – but with almost breathtaking speed – what so many Arabs had sought for almost exactly 100 years: the unravelling of the fake borders with which the victors of the First World War – largely the British and the French – had divided the Arab people. It was our colonial construction – not just the frontiers we imposed upon them, but the administrations and the false democracies that we fraudulently thrust upon them, the mandates and trusteeships which allowed us to rule them – that poisoned their lives. Colin Powell claimed just such a trusteeship for Iraq’s oil prior to the illegal Anglo-American invasion of 2003.
We foisted kings upon the Arabs – we engineered a 96 per cent referendum in favour of the Hashemite King Faisal in Iraq in 1922 – and then provided them with generals and dictators. The people of Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt – which had been invaded by the British in the 19th century – were subsequently blessed with mendacious governments, brutal policemen, lying newspapers and fake elections. Mubarak even scored Faisal’s epic 96 per cent election victory all over again. For the Arabs, “democracy” did not mean freedom of speech and freedom to elect their own leaders; it referred to the “democratic” Western nations that continued to support the cruel dictators who oppressed them.
Thus the Arab revolutions that consumed the Middle East in 2011 – forget the “Arab Spring”, a creature of Hollywood origin – did not demand democracy. The posters on the streets of Cairo and Tunis and Damascus and Yemen called for dignity and justice, two commodities that we had definitely not sought for the Arabs. Justice for the Palestinians – or for the Kurds, or for that matter for the destroyed Armenians of 1915, or for all the suffering Arab peoples – was not something that commended itself to us. But I think we should have gone much further in our investigation of the titanic changes of 2011.
In my own reporting of the uprisings, I attributed them to increased education and travel by the Arab communities throughout the Middle East. While acknowledging the power of social media and the internet, something deeper was at work. The Arabs had woken from a deep sleep. They had refused any longer to be the “children” of the patriarchal father figure – the Nassers and the Sadats and the Mubaraks and the Assads and the Gaddafis and, in earlier years, the Saddams. They awoke to find that it was their own governments that were composed of children, one of whom – Mubarak – was 83 years old. The Arabs wanted to own their towns and cities. They wanted to own the place in which they lived, which comprised much of the Middle East.
But I think now that I was wrong. In retrospect, I woefully misunderstood what these revolutions represented. One clue, perhaps, lay in the importance of trade union movements. Where trade unions, with their transnational socialism and anti-colonial credentials, were strong – in Egypt and Tunisia – the revolutionary bloodshed was far less than in the nations that had either banned trade unionism altogether – Libya, for example – or concretised the trade union movement into the regime, which had long ago happened in Syria and Yemen. Socialism crossed borders. Yet even this does not account for the events of 2011.
What really manifested itself that year, I now believe, was a much more deeply held Arab conviction; that the very institutions that we in the West had built for these people 100 years ago were worthless, that the statehood which we had later awarded to artificial nations within equally artificial borders was meaningless. They were rejecting the whole construct that we had foisted upon them. That Egypt regressed back into military patriarchy – and the subsequent and utterly predictable Western acqiescence in this – after a brief period of elected Muslim Brotherhood government, does not change this equation. While the revolutions largely stayed within national boundaries – at least at the start – the borders began to lose their meaning.
Hamas in Gaza and the Brotherhood became one, the Sinai-Gaza frontier began to crumble. Then the collapse of Libya rendered Gaddafi’s former borders open – and thus non-existent. His weapons – including chemical shells – were sold to rebels in Egypt and Syria. Tunisia, which is now supposed to be the darling of our Western hearts for its adhesion to “democracy”, is now in danger of implosion because its own borders with Libya and Algeria are open to arms transhipments to Islamist groups. Isis’s grasp of these frontierless entities means that its own transnational existence is assured, from Fallujah in Iraq to the edge of Syrian Aleppo, from Nigeria to Niger and Chad.
It can thus degrade the economy of each country it moves through, blowing up a Russian airliner leaving Sharm el-Sheikh, attacking the Bardo museum in Tunis or the beaches of Sousse. There was a time – when Islamists attacked the Jewish synagogue on Djerba island in Tunisia in 2002, for example, killing 19 people – when tourism could continue. But that was when Libya still existed. In those days, Ben Ali’s security police were able to control the internal security of Tunisia; the army was left weak so that it could not stage a coup. So today, of course, the near-impotent army of Tunisia cannot defend its frontiers.
Isis’s understanding of this new phenomenon preceded our own. But Isis’s realisation that frontiers were essentially defenceless in the modern age coincided with the popular Arab disillusion with their own invented nations. Most of the millions of Syrian and Afghan refugees who have flooded into Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan and then north into Europe do not intend to return – ever – to states that have failed them as surely as they no longer – in the minds of the refugees – exist. These are not “failed states” so much as imaginary nations that no longer have any purpose.
I only began to understand this when, back in July, covering the Greek economic crisis, I travelled to the Greek-Macedonian border with Médecins Sans Frontières. This was long before the story of Arab refugees entering Europe had seized the attention of the EU or the media, although the Mediterranean drownings had long been a regular tragedy on television screens. Aylan Kurdi, the little boy who would be washed up on a Turkish beach, still had another two months to live. But in the fields along the Macedonian border were thousands of Syrians and Afghans. They were coming in their hundreds through the cornfields, an army of tramping paupers who might have been fleeing the Hundred Years War, women with their feet burned by exploded gas cookers, men with bruises over their bodies from the blows of frontier guards. Two of them I even knew, brothers from Aleppo whom I had met two years earlier in Syria. And when they spoke, I suddenly realised they were talking of Syria in the past tense. They talked about “back there” and “what was home”. They didn’t believe in Syria any more. They didn’t believe in frontiers.
Far more important for the West, they clearly didn’t believe in our frontiers either. They just walked across European frontiers with the same indifference as they crossed from Syria to Turkey or Lebanon. We, the creators of the Middle East’s borders, found that our own historically created national borders also had no meaning to these people. They wanted to go to Germany or Sweden and intended to walk there, however many policemen were sent to beat them or smother them with tear gas in a vain attempt to guard the national sovereignty of the frontiers of the EU.
Our own shock – indeed, our indignation – that our own precious borders were not respected by these largely Muslim armies of the poor was in sharp contrast to our own blithe non-observance of Arab frontiers. Saddam was among the first to show his own detestation of such lines in the sand. He cared nothing about international law when he invaded Iran in 1980 – with intelligence help from the Americans – or Kuwait in 1990, when he tore up the old frontier of the emirate and claimed it as an Iraqi province. But the West has now launched so many air strikes across the Middle East’s borders since the 1991 liberation of Kuwait that we scarcely need to search for precedents now that Arab air forces are regularly criss-crossing the Middle East’s national boundaries – along with our own fighter-bombers.
Quite apart from our mournful Afghan adventure and our utterly illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq, our aircraft have been bombing Libya, Iraq and Syria along with the aircraft of various local pseudo-democracies for so long that this state of affairs has become routine, almost normal, scarcely worthy of a front-page headline. The Saudis are bombing Iraq and Syria and Yemen. The Jordanians are bombing Syria. The Emiratis are bombing Yemen. And now the French are bombing the Syrian city of Raqqa even more than they bombed the Syrian city of Raqqa two months ago – when President François Hollande did not tell us that France was “at war”. The point, of course, is that we had grown so used to attacking Arab lands – France had become so inured to sending its soldiers and air crews to Africa and the Middle East to shoot and bomb those whom it regarded as its enemies – that only when Muslims began attacking our capital cities did we suddenly announce that we were “at war”.
There were no code reds or code oranges in Arab capitals. They existed in a permanent state of code red, their people cringing beneath “emergency laws” imposed by dictators supported by the West, legislation even more iniquitous than those our European political masters now wish to impose on us. Of course, since the Iraqi catastrophe, we like to use local militia forces to do the dying for us. So the Kurds become our foot soldiers against Isis, or the Iraqi Shia militias or the Iranians or – though we must not admit this – the Syrian army and the Lebanese Hezbollah.
Isis has weirdly replicated this gruesome policy. However many atrocities in Europe have been committed by men who have supposedly been “radicalised” in Syria, the killers have usually been local proxies; British Muslims in the UK, French Muslims who were citizens of France or residents of Belgium. The significance of this – that Isis clearly intends to provoke a civil war within Europe, especially between France’s huge Algerian-origin Muslims and the police and political elite of France – has been spoken of in whispers. Indeed, much of the media coverage of the Paris massacres has often avoided the very word Muslim.
Just as any incomprehension we express about the borderless world into which the Arabs think they are moving carries no reference to that most borderless of Middle East nations, Israel. Arthur Balfour’s declaration, which gave the UK’s support to a Jewish homeland in Palestine during the same war that Mr Sykes and M. Georges-Picot were plotting to divide up the Arab world, anticipated new frontiers within Palestine itself, borders which, to this day, are largely undefined. Israel’s internationally recognised frontiers are ignored by the Israeli government itself because it will not even say where its eastern border lies. Is it along the old Jerusalem frontline? Is it along the grotesque Israeli wall that has effectively stolen West Bank Palestinian land? Does the state of Israel include every Jewish colony built on land thieved from the Palestinians of the West Bank? Or does it run along the entire length of the Jordan river, thus destroying any Palestinian state that might ever exist? When Israelis ask their critics to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist, they should be requested to state which particular Israel they are talking about: the legal one recognised by the UN – or “Israel proper” as we call it – or an Israel that includes the entire West Bank, or “Israel improper” as we assuredly do not call it?
Our support for an Israel that has not told us the location of its eastern border runs logically alongside our own refusal to recognise – unless it suits us – the frontiers of the Arab world. It is, after all, we who are allowed to draw “lines in the sand” or “red lines”. It is we Europeans who decide where civilisations begin and end. It is the Prime Minister of Hungary who decides exactly where he will draw up his forces to defend “Christian civilisation”. It is we Westerners who have the moral probity to decide whether national sovereignty in the Middle East should be obeyed or abused.
But when the Arabs themselves decide to dispense with the whole fandango and seek their future in “our” lands rather than “their” lands, this policy breaks down. Indeed, it is extraordinary how easily we forget that the greatest frontier-breaker of modern times was himself a European, who wanted to destroy the Jews of Europe but who might well – given his racist remark about Muslims in Mein Kampf – have continued his holocaust to include the Arabs. We even have the nerve to call the murderers of Paris “fascislamists”, as the great French pseudo-philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy has just written in the press. Nazis Isis undoubtedly are – but the moment we utilise the word “Islam” in this context, we are painting the swastika across the Middle East. Levy demands more assistance to “our Kurdish allies” because the alternative is that “no boots on their ground means more blood on ours”.
But that’s what George W Bush and Tony Blair told us before marching into the graveyard of Iraq in 2003. We are always declaring ourselves “at war”. We are told to be merciless. We must invade “their” territory to stop them invading ours. But the days are long gone when we can have foreign adventures and expect to be safe at home. New York, Washington, Madrid, London, Paris all tell us that. Perhaps if we spoke more of “justice” – courts, legal process for killers, however morally repugnant they may be, sentences, prisons, redemption for those who may retrieve their lost souls from the Isis midden – we would be a little safer in our sceptered continent. There should be justice not just for ourselves or our enemies, but for the peoples of the Middle East who have suffered this past century from the theatre of dictatorships and cardboard institutions we created for them – and which have helped Isis to thrive.
The remarkable intellectual Deyan Sudjic, has challenged us to define what is our role and how theory is dealing with urbanization processes. I would recall Lefebvre and question: Are we cynical complices of Capitalism effects or are we social catalysers pursuing the common good? Sadly, the evidence demonstrates that is or one or the other, never both.
Outside the echo chamber of religious fanaticism of all descriptions, this is not a moment in which the world is much given to declamatory statements about how things should be. Thinking about the future of the city, we are so traumatised by a century and a half of prescriptions for urbanism that have had only disastrous results that we have become cautious about making any kind of commitment to ideas or manifestos.
We are certainly more sceptical than the generation of modernist architects of the 1930s who retreated to a cruise liner sailing across the Mediterranean to lay the ground for the Charter of Athens, the document that codified a city made up of parallel slabs of housing rising out of parkland, and where work, home and leisure were divided by functional zoning.
And yet, 43 years after the dynamiting of the Pruitt Igoe social housing project in St Louis – an event that was widely seen as emblematic of the end of certainty about how the state could address the needs of the city – there is a hunger for a more positive approach to what cities could be.
The rapid growth of new megacities in Asia, Latin America and Africa, and the urgent need to revitalise European and American cities, has left no option but to find ways of addressing the wider questions facing urbanism. How can cities accommodate more people without destroying the very qualities that make them attractive to people in the first place? How can they offer more social justice and opportunity?
The Urban Age programme was born 10 years ago in the belief that the time had come to do more, in so far as such things are possible in the scrupulous world of academic research, than simply to reflect and observe. Working with its partner, Deutsche Bank’s Alfred Herrhausen Society, LSE Cities set up the Urban Age as a kind of mobile think-tank: the idea was not simply to gather data to map what the city was becoming, but to bring together all the players who so rarely find themselves in conversation with each other, yet who collectively represent the multiple and often conflicting directions of the forces that shape cities.
It is a project based on the belief that the city is shaped not just by the thinkers – the academic planners and theorists, the sociologists and demographers – but also by the politicians and developers who get their hands dirty building to win votes and make a return on their investment, along with a third group: the professionals – the architects, planners and engineers. In this last category, we should not forget the police and the judiciary who try, and sometimes fail, to keep the city safe and incorruptible.
The way that cities are governed relies on legal systems as well as political boundaries. Keeping them moving relies on the insights of traffic planners, and transport commissioners, on economic analysis infrastructure investment and waste management policies. All of these interact, and social justice depends on all of them aligning. In itself, this idea that the city is the product of such different groups is probably the biggest single ideological statement represented by the Urban Age.
In the course of the past 10 years, the urban landscape has changed radically. We have duly fulfilled the United Nations predictions contained in successive State of the World Population reports; we are indeed a majority urban species for the first time in human history. Now we must face the consequences in the increasingly divided cities of the rich world. In New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, housing has turned into an investment asset with a resultant, highly destructive impact on the vitality of city life.
The “smart city” concept may have turned into a banal marketing tool, but digital technologies really are changing the way that cities work. On the positive side, initiatives such as Transport for London’s decision to make its data on the position of every bus and train on its network available free in real time has made possible such game changers as the City Mapper App, that makes us understand the cities in which we live in ways that were never previously possible. On the other hand, one of the essential qualities of urbanity is privacy and anonymity. The indelible digital trail left by a GPS changes all that.
Cities are also the first places to feel the results of the migration from conflict zones. They are subject to waves of anxiety about their security, challenged by terrorism, civil unrest and continuing racial tension.
When the Urban Age staged its first conference in New York in February 2005, the language used to discuss cities was already changing. The Republicans had decided there were no votes in the inner cities, and had abandoned them. But after decades of decline, New York was bouncing back from its low point of near bankruptcy. Rem Koolhaas, the acerbic Dutch architect and theorist, managed to upset a room full of New York activists by suggesting that this was not an entirely welcome development. Jane Jacobs’s pioneering challenge to big picture planning had, he suggested, ended up with squeaky clean denatured streets. It was, he asserted, the ultimate irony that she had become the intellectual underpinning for Disneyland.
There were urban success stories to explore, and not just the inevitable case of Barcelona. Enrique Peñalosa, charismatic mayor of Bogotá, reflected on his traffic-taming plans for the city that reclaimed the streets for the poor, and investing not in heavy rail commuter systems that were beyond his resources, but in dedicated bus lanes.
Looking back over the 10 years, it’s remarkable how much the host cities (after New York, Shanghai, then London, Mexico City, Johannesburg, Berlin, Mumbai, São Paulo, Istanbul, Chicago, Hong Kong, London again, Rio and Delhi) have changed, and how much the challenges facing them have developed.
The congestion charge was still a novelty in London in 2005, having been introduced just two years earlier. Michael Bloomberg had just been elected to the second of his three terms in office, and failed to win the backing of New Yorkers to bring the charge to Manhattan. Heathrow’s Terminal 5 had yet to open. Now Britain is paralysed with indecision about a new runway for London.
Standing on the roof of an art-deco wedding cake on Shanghai’s Bund, after the end of the second Urban Age conference of 2005, Pudong’s skyline was still missing two ultra-tall high rises more than 500 metres high that now define the cityscape. As the conference broke up, news came through that London would be staging the Olympics in 2012, followed shortly after by the reports of a suicide bomb attack on the Underground.
Urban Age was established to find new ways to think about cities. It was based on the idea that urbanism was both physical and legal, about economics and politics, and also about the market. The issue was that these were groups of people with little in common, and indeed without much respect for each other’s point of view.
The conferences set out to get these people talking. They got Ian Blair in the same room in Berlin as Angela Merkel when, as Metropolitan Police commissioner, he defined London’s boundaries as stretching as far as Jamaica and Baghdad.
Now the conversation continues with a series of five special events at the LSE, starting this week with Nick Stern leading a panel that, in the build-up to the UN climate conference in Paris, seeks to understand the crucial role cities play in addressing the threat of climate change.
Over the years, the Urban Age agenda has crystallised. It offers a multifaceted view of what constitutes a city, based on government and economics, law, sociology and planning, but with an injection of architecture and urbanism – and seeks to create an accommodation between all these actors.
It is a process that created tensions. The moment that Richard Sennett asked Johannesburg’s authorities to consider how they might make the city’s suburban trains a less dangerous place was a confrontation the politicians had not expected.
Indeed, you could see politicians everywhere getting anxious about architects who tried to tell them how useful as an urban model the underground passageways of Tokyo were, when they knew perfectly well that their electorates would see them as nothing short of monstrous.
The Urban Age has long argued for an understanding, and a better integration of the multiple layers of government – city- as well as borough-wide, national as well as regional. In so many places, the mismatch between these various layers leaves permanent scars, and discontinuities.
And it continues to explore how best we can work with our cities, whether to retrofit or rebuild, to centralise or devolve. There are always different answers to these questions – which shows how important it is to keep asking them.
Urban Age is a worldwide investigation into the future of cities, organised by LSE Cities and Deutsche Bank’s Alfred Herrhausen Society. Its 10-year anniversary debates are held in conjunction with Guardian Cities.
The Chilean architect, Alejandro Aravena, explained to The Guardian (UK) what is his critique to contemporary architectural practices. Please read and comment, and share.
hen we first meet, Alejandro Aravena is sitting in a New York cafe, sketching in a journal and nibbling on a cheese omelette. Architects tend to straddle the line between art and engineering, and the blend plays out in the pages of Aravena’s journal, where cryptic notes and equations sit with scribbles and sketches. Here there’s a drawing suggesting the line of a roof or the arch of a doorway; there a page of notes and comments.
But Aravena’s plans extend far from the standard considerations of building and line, into theories of social organisation and civic engagement. He’s designing buildings, but he’s also designing cities they will occupy and the livelihoods of the people who will live in them. This becomes clear as, from time to time, Aravena flips through the book, noting something, sketching an idea, then laying it aside.
As previous interviewers have pointed out, Aravena bears no small resemblance to the comic book character Wolverine. His salt and pepper hair evokes the trademark Wolverine flip, and the intensity in his grey eyes brings to mind the character’s feral energy. Excitement and intensity pour off him as he discusses the place of design in society, and its ability to change lives.
In fact, Aravena’s friendliness creates a moment of cognitive dissonance. This, after all, is one of the world’s leading architects, a man who has won some of the most prestigious architecture prizes in the world, including the Marcus and the Erich Schelling, and is on the jury for the Pritzker prize. He has taught at Harvard, and his high-profile buildings have been erected all around the world, to great acclaim.
Given the opportunity, many architects would steer conversation toward their most prestigious work. And, certainly, Aravena has more than enough celebrated architecture to discuss: his current and recent projects include an innovation centre in Santiago, corporate buildings for Novartis and Vitra, and a proposed stock exchange in Tehran. But, rather than talking about his prestigious commissions, Aravena wants to talk about social housing.
Much has been written about Aravena’s social housing projects, which combine innovative architectural design with a social framework that encourages personal investment on the part of the inhabitants. In fact, his company, Elemental, tries to evenly divide its work between social housing, large-scale civic construction, and private contracts. While these three elements may seem contradictory, Aravena revels in the contradictions, which, he argues, fuel his practice.
The power of contradiction emerges as Aravena tells a story about a social housing project he recently built in the north of Chile. The project, located near the centre of a city, replaced a slum largely occupied by people who worked for the city’s richest citizens. After completion, Aravena toured the project with the CEO of Chile’s national gas company, one of the wealthiest men in the country.
They came across a woman who was moving into one of the units. When they asked her how she felt about the new housing, she was effusive, and proceeded to tell them about her four children, two of whom were in college, one of whom was in Chile’s top high school, and one of whom was in the second year of law school. The CEO, surprised, pointed out that his grandson was in the same law school programme. They soon realised that the two young men were in a study group together.
The key to this story, Aravena emphasises, is that the location of the ghetto, and later of the social housing project that his company built, created opportunities for the woman and her fellow workers. “A typical housing project wouldn’t be in the best part of the city,” he notes. “It would be two hours away. If she lived there, she could forget about sending her kids to college. Forget about being in contact with the rich grandson. Forget about having access to the best high school in the country. So her daughter, who was about to leave high school to go to medical school, would never have had access to university.”
This story gets to the heart of Aravena’s concept of cities, and architecture as a tool for social change. “Inequalities are not just an economic issue,” he explains. “They’re a cultural issue. The role that cities can play in creating or not creating those opportunities, it’s irreversible.” If designed properly, he says, “cities can be a great tool for the efficient amelioration of quality of life problems”. “They are a great shortcut for creating equality.”
The key, Aravena argues, is that cities, and architects, must not shy away from the stresses created by competing forces like poverty and wealth or public and private construction. Rather than argue about whether to design cities for the needs of their poorest citizens or the egos of their wealthiest, Aravena posits, the answer might be to do both. At Elemental, he says, “we do not fear that, in this initial entry to the problem, we have forces that may seem contradictory. If you trust the synthesis of design, you don’t fear contradictory forces.” Of course, good design isn’t cheap, “it requires time and it requires effort,” he says.
This synthesis of disparate elements is borne out in Elemental itself. The company is co-owned by three groups: the private architects who work for the company, a Catholic university, and Chile’s largest oil company. Aravena notes that the combination of these stakeholders, each with a very different agenda, helps his company to maintain its relevance, and its connection to the broader society. “One of the biggest mistakes in architecture is that we’re expecting society to be interested in the specific problems of architecture.” Instead, he argues, architects “need to adjust to what society is discussing. We just provide the forms that can translate their problems into solutions.”
In the case of social housing, he argues, one problem is that many of the architects translating resources into solutions are either unskilled or unengaged. “One of the crucial factors we found that makes social housing so poor is that nobody is paying to think about it better. Good design costs money, but social housing is either done pro bono, or by people who couldn’t find jobs in other places.” This lack of resources and engagement leads to poor results, which can often be felt for generations. “This is equivalent to brain surgery. If you make a mistake, it’s irreversible. If you screw it up, you screw it up for thousands of people, over multiple generations.”
One reason that top-level architects shy away from social housing is the lack of resources. In his social housing projects, Aravena routinely works with a hard cap of $10,000 (£6,120) per unit, a sum that has to pay for both the building and the land it sits on. But, while many architects would shy away from such constraints, Aravena argues that the “discipline of scarcity” leads to a clarity of vision and quality of design that would be impossible under other circumstances. Designing social housing, he claims, has taught him to “leave out what is not strictly vital. Be precise. Avoid arbitrariness.”
This precision, Aravena notes, is borne out in the name of his company. “An elemental project is your best. Period. It is something that goes to the most essential core of something. This is something that is desirable, no matter how many resources, or how much freedom you have.”
This elemental process works both ways. While Aravena’s notion of precise, clean social housing design informs his higher-profile projects, the professionalism of those undertakings also influences his social housing designs. “Novartis requires the best possible design. Building their headquarters has trained my designer muscles to their limit.” This, in turn, plays out in his social housing: “When we do social housing, we enter it as designers, not as policymakers, not as an NGO. If I’m going to make a difference, I’m going to do it as a designer. That’s why I need my muscles trained.”
Ultimately, Aravena argues, cities may be the best tool that planners can use to extend economic opportunity to the less privileged, without resorting to heavy-handed tools like income transfers, and without “guilt or paternalism”. The key, as with any other form of design, lies in synthesising disparate elements, embracing contradiction, and realising that, in the end, cities must balance human rights with human responsibilities.
Regardless of the energy source for cars in your community, the biggest mobility challenge in cities is about the massive amount of space that cars demand. Space to drive in, and space to park in. Space for cars even when the cars aren’t using it – dedicated space for “potential cars.” It’s staggering really, how much of a city is set aside for cars, and how unwilling we often are to even share that space with other uses and users. Electric cars do nothing to address this space issue.