Transition of the global city | EXPODIUM (NIKOS DOULOS, FRISO WIERSUM, BART WITTE)

August 19, 2014

 

[1] Introduction
Everybody knows that since a few years more than half of the global population is living in cities. This degree of urbanization is something new: seen in the light of history as well as on the ground for all new city dwellers. The rise of the percentage of people living in cities will, as predicted by the United Nations, continue until 2050 when more than 70% of the global population will be living in cities. Naturally, such changes in patterns do invite many thinkers, scholars, activists and planners to dream of new utopian horizons. In this article, as much as in our practice, we hope to counter those dreams of better cities, and take the already existing circumstances as a starting point for a human approach to the challenges ahead of us.

pic one - urbanization patternsurbanization patterns

[2] Former East, Former West.
When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 the West felt like it had won an ideological battle. The ‘evil of communism’ had proved not to be a system which was able to fulfill the needs of the people in whose name it was reigning. Now the world would be ready for democracy and free markets in the way the [neo]liberal Washington Consensus was ‘selling’ it. The IMF and the World Bank practically took over in some of the countries of the Former East. It seduced Francis Fukuyama to publish his widely read thesis on The End of History and the Last Man. In the article, and later on in his book, he argued that now the world would be a safer place, with all countries striving to have McDonalds, Starbucks and all those other great examples of open economies. As a famous example ran in those days, wars would cease to happen, as countries with McDonalds in their streets would never fight each other in wars anymore.

How he proved to be wrong. Not only does history, as a series of acts, never stop, history as a series of ideological struggles never stops either. The world will always be in change, as will cities. We saw a first example of that fact in the wars in former Yugoslavia, where countries that had a McDonalds in their capitals fought a bitter war. We could see it in the protests against a world driven by economical thinking alone: remember those happy festive demonstrations in Seattle, in Cancun, in Genua? The alterglobalization movements already showed that our world could not be designed from the drawing table only, let alone be governed by those who believe it could. But surely the biggest bang to counter Fukuyama’s thesis was 9/11. Apparently not everybody in the world was waiting for the Washington Consensus to shape their lives. The West lost its victorious feeling, and some even speak about the Former West these days to indicate that the modernistic modus of planning doesn’t suit the world anymore. Problem is: do the policy makers in the West know?

They should. These days with Western economies in recession and new markets emerging, it is obvious there are more models and roads to development. The successes of, firstly the so-called BRIC countries [Brazil, Russia, India, China] and secondly the MIKT countries [Mexico, Indonesia, South-Korea, Turkey], proves that the West is a former West and that the globe is changing rapidly. It is no longer up to a handful of countries in the Northern hemisphere to decide what the world looks like.

It is true however that many of these countries did adopt economical models that look a lot like those of the Former West: free markets, liberalization of tariffs, privatization of formerly national institutions. In what did that result? In the ruling of global brands. Apple is a phenomenon everywhere. We all drink Coca Cola. We all buy clothes at H&M. And we live in houses filled with IKEA furniture.

[3] Globalization
This globalization is actually no real globalization, with influences steadily making it, bottom up, to a global scenery, but rather the domination of a few powerful mega-companies, wishing to erase local differences, in order to enlarge their possible consumer markets. We see this same mechanism in the way cities are planned. No longer do local historically grown circumstances decide what our future cities will look like, but models of an almost faceless modernity. No longer do people build their own houses, and thus cities, but leave that task to some project developers, operating globally. But as the example of Fukuyama made clear, we are not living in a world that can be controlled top down, from behind a desk, with a general idea defining all actions. We all should carefully watch and learn from what happens on the ground in all those cities that are emerging, that are expanding, that are becoming the megacities of our future. What happens there might teach everybody a lesson, the planners and thinkers in the Former West as much as their counterparts in the new economies; the new city dwellers as much as those in living in cities for generations.

[4] People adrift
What we have seen happening in the history of urbanization doesn’t make one very hopeful for the (near) future. The growth of cities in the West has been characterized as urban sprawl, with the examples of the American suburbs as a nightmarish example.

pic two - urban sprawl, Austin, USA
urban sprawl, Austin, USA

We see rows and rows of houses that don’t differ from each other at all. Houses in which people sleep, perhaps work out, watch television, but not live in, as the surroundings of the house actually declare life to be a monofunctional thing. Life is what happens elsewhere. Your house becomes your castle, including alarms, CCTV, and the ensuing alienation between neighbors. It might be said this is exactly what some of the planners want – alienation breeds fear and people living in fear don’t tend to question their surroundings, or the powers that design their surroundings. Boredom and an overestimation of the self are the result. Think of movies as American Beauty, or think of the teen spleen as expressed in in the lyrics of bands such as Nirvana [“Here we are now, entertain us”]. Other examples could well be the outskirts that surround many of the romantic French cities: in the so-called banlieus, many of the excluded live together. Not being included in the regular society, they tend to shape their own lives, more often than we wish, in antagonism towards the surrounding society. A great example of how housing structures define social patterns is the French cult movie la Haine. The modernistic dream of anonymous high rise buildings proves to be a bad dream, and in many countries these premises are being renovated, or demolished to make place for low rise houses, enabling contact between people that know each other.

The architectural firm MVRDV, and the think tank connected to them, the ? Factory, researched this phenomenon in South Eastern Asia. In what they have labeled as the ‘block attack’ on the organically grown ‘urban villages’, they see an Asian way of top down planning, destroying all what once was part of a society: knowing your neighbors, sharing the public space and looking after one another. If they had been to the newly built city of Song Do, the striking image of new flats hiding behind the omnipresent CCTV might have moved them to change the title of their research and following exhibition from The Vertical Village, to Welcome to the Vertical Village.

pic three - Song Do CCTV

Song Do CCTV

[5] Dystopian presence
All these stories and examples made the Belgium thinker, scholar, poet and architect Lieven de Cauter to formulate his thesis of ‘The Capsular Civilization’: a society in which fear causes us to lock ourselves up in our homes as castles, use private cars for transport and put plugs in our ears in order not to have to deal with others, strangers, anymore. From there it is a small step to the joke which circulates on the Internet: “George Orwell’s 1984 was not supposed to be an instruction manual”. In this dystopian time, things like meeting another and sharing workspaces are replaced by things like walls, surveillance patrols and the stocking of abundant labor forces in ghetto’s. The French sociologist Loic Waquant dubbed the word ‘hyperghetto’ to define the zones where the socially excluded live together, dwelling in their parallel societies, having no function in society anymore, not even as the cheapest available labor force for the global economy. There are numerous scholars who defined the 2011 London Riots as a call to public attention by those who are surrounded by the images of the global brands, but are never able to participate in the global economy that produces these commodities.

Is everything sad and depressing than? No. Like shown above we could also look at the current developments in a different way. This is what the Canadian born journalist Doug Saunders did in his book Arrival City. He travelled all corners of the world to research those neighborhoods where the new inhabitants of cities arrive. These migrants tend to stick together, based on family or clan relations, or a shared regional or national background. These people didn’t come to the city to stay poor and powerless. They arrive with hope. Hope for a better life for themselves, or at least a better life for their children. They start informal economies, run small businesses and eventually make their way up on the social ladder. What Saunders argues is that these ladders tend to be stopped by the glass ceiling – the floor on which those fully participating in the global economy are living. He found evidence that the French Revolution was started by new settlers that made their way in Parisian society, but were refused entry onto the glass floor and saw no other way than crushing that same glass floor, and totally change the way in which society was organized. Saunders is of the conviction that many of the protesters who started the Tahrir Square revolt in Egypt acted in the same manners. It is a combination of shared ambitions, the feeling of being excluded and seeing no refuge in the hyperghetto. If we want to prevent our future from becoming the ‘Capsular Civilization’ Lieven de Cauter is warning us for, we might want to take the examples of arrival cities, of practices within these squatter cities as oppositional strategies to the top down planning that is now ruling the global spatial planning discourses.

[6] the Other
The first step in doing so is shaking off our fear for the ‘Other’. When the ancient Greek Herodotos firstly used the word ‘Other’ to describe non-Greek speaking tribes along the coasts of the Black Sea, it was a synonym for barbarian. As for him the language of those others sounded as “bar bar bla bla bar”, all non-Greeks were suddenly labeled as barbarians, as fearsome Others with whom one should not intermingle. The Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, for decades the sole Polish correspondent in the wars of decolonization, was a fervent reader of Herodotos’ Histories. Not only to remind himself he was travelling in the footsteps of travelers before him, but to remind him never to treat the other as the Other. All others for him are people like himself. People that love, people that care, people that share their lives with him. His books read as instruction manuals for dealing with differences, for accepting the fact that life is a mess sometimes, and as a fierce reminder history knows no end.

pic four - Ryszard KapuscinskiRyszard Kapuscinski

Just as city planning knows no end. Cities tend to reshape themselves everyday, thereby mixing functions, mixing people and inviting the future to take over the present. Because migration to cities is a phenomenon to stay with us for some decades to come, we’d better find humane ways of dealing with it. One way of dealing with it is to be found in Turkey. Similar to other countries, Turkey has a few big cities -Istanbul might even be called a megacity- to which the migrants flock. They need to live in neighborhoods that bustle with life, with informal economies, in surroundings that mix functions: sleeping, working -socializing, in short- that share a public space. So these migrants don’t come to live in the high rise buildings that are built miles out of the city, but they come to live in the urban villages, slums if you want to label them as such, that sprout up spontaneously. Or spontaneously – urban villages, which are not designed by the city planners behind their desks, but that, emerge and grow organically. In order not to have daily battles accompanying the destruction of these arrival cities, Turkish authorities found a middle way in the practice of gecekondu.

[7] Bottom up
Gecekondu is a word that has many meanings to it. In this case however it means that when a newcomer is able to build a house overnight, authorities have no right to demolish it. And imagine what a forceful thing building a house in one night is: one has to collect friends, or at least people that help you, one has to collect materials, one has to negotiate with already installed neighbors, one has to determine the exact good spot to build a house: in the surroundings of work, near people one knows. All this work is not done behind a desk, but in open exchange with others. One might also call it a political action. But more important, the practice of gecekondu accepts the temporality of planning. In an arrival city, building a house is the first stop, and the first step on a social ladder at the same time. This bottom up approach can well be compared with the practice of squatting in many of the countries that we have decided to call Former West. In more than one country, squatting is seen as a criminal offense. In the Netherlands it used to be allowed as long as the premises were not in use for twelve months. Squatters tend to mix functions in their squat houses: small economical functions, meeting places for neighbors, centers of education, next to offering a shelter to those who live there. Squatters, in the Netherlands, are responsible for maintaining the widely loved characteristic neighborhoods around the Amsterdam city centre. The planners of the 1970’s had decided to tear those neighborhoods down and have the ‘block attack’ take over, rendering the city into an anonymous capsular city. It is due to actions of normal people, regular citizens like you and me reclaiming their right to the city, that the Washington Consensus of modernistic city planning didn’t dramatically alter the city. And it is here that the words of the great Jane Jacobs, author of numerous books on city planning, come to mind: “Cities have the capacity of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when they are created by everyone.”

pic five - Jane Jacobs graffitiJane Jacobs graffiti

EXPODIUM is a collective of three [Nikos Doulos, Friso Wiersum, Bart Witte]. Through a variety of methods of artistic research, we generate vital information about urban areas and at the same time activate those areas and their users. We are a satellite at grass-root level; framing local developments in global discourse. We document, archive, contextualize and frequently publish information and knowledge generated through our practice. We work unsolicited and we are for hire. We work with an international network of artists, architects, academics and the likes for mutual brain-picking. We collaborated with and worked for housing corporations, local governments, museums, universities, festivals and art institutions. We stroll and awe.

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