Friday, June 3, 2011

Urban Editing

Heraclitus said, you could not step twice into the same river, for other waters are ever flowing. All things change; our cities are no exceptions. The question is how to understand the changes and how to define the role of design in the process of urban evolution. The latest issue of MONU Magazine "Editing Urbanism" tackles this topic with full power, introducing diverse views from architects, landscape architects, artists, politicians, researchers and theorists. Once again, MONU proves itself to be an interesting and relevant platform for urban discourse.

The term "editing" implies intervention. In the realm of design intervention, we've seen alteration of use and consequently the trajectory of development, like the reactivation of the High Line mentioned in Sean Burkholder's contribution, and OMA's light but powerful revision of the platform in the Bordeaux House. Another type of editing can be to adjust the speed of change. Governments in China and Dubai speed up urban transformation to show their lively visions and ambitions. On the other hand, the fear of dying makes us want to slow down urban decay, prevent any type of changes, or even reverse the flow of time.
The High Line turns an elevated train track into an elevated park.
A large pillow transforms a work space into a relaxation area after the death of the former owner.

We could go quite intensive about this. In The Naked Lunch: A Stark Honest Discussion On Renewal, members of UNION3 talk about overbuilding in Spain and the Netherlands. We can see this in China and Germany as well. Since German reunification, more than 180,000 new residential units have been built in Berlin. But in 2008 the vacancy rate in the city was as high as 10%. This "urban bubble" materialized itself from the optimistic assumption that the new capital could lure big money and rapid population growth.

Another extreme is Venice. Ippolito Pestellini of OMA talks about his experience of working on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi renovation in Extreme Demolition and Extreme Preservation. In Venice, any kind of minor intervention could be against city legislation. This extreme preservation turns a once vibrant city into a touristy "museum" of empty shells - the lack of standard modern urban facilities simply makes it unlivable. What's more worrying is that this extreme preservation trend is spreading throughout the world. According to OMA/AMO's calculation, 12% of the world's surface is now blocked from any potential changes.

OMA's contribution in MONU #14

The purpose of preservation is to prevent disrespectful or careless alteration. But if it gets to the extreme like Venice, rigid regulations would rule out healthy progressions as well. We know cities adapt and evolve through time. Why do we freeze the moment and stop any type of transformation? Jarrik Ouburg argues in his contribution that the World Heritage status of Amsterdam's canal district may potentially kill the energy of this unique neighborhood. "The city of Amsterdam is praised by the UNESCO because of its town planning and engineering of the past, but will be punished for having the same ambitions for the future." The only future for the preserved district is to be what it was before. This paradox is wonderfully illustrated in Beatriz Ramo/STAR's In the Name of the Past. If the current logics of preservation were applied centuries ago, many of today's monuments, like the Duomo of Florence and the Eiffel Tower, would not even exit.
If UNESCO had existed in 1059, the Duomo of Florence would not be there
because it would obscure the views to Baptistery of St. John. (c) STAR

OMA/AMO brings up another paradox: what if something was designed to change? Kurokawa's Capsule Tower in Tokyo, for example, is facing the danger of demolition. Trying to get the historic landmark status seems to be the only way to save this early 1970s masterpiece. But static preservation is against the original design concepts of the Metabolism movement. Should we respect the abstract ideas or their concrete manifestations?

The biggest contradiction of preservation, in my opinion, is restoration - it reverses the passage of time! STAR compares this operation with the Photoshop retouch of Madonna's Vanity Fair cover. Former Superstudio member Adolfo Natalini further ridicules restoration practices by digging out a surreal image of flooded Florence created in 1972. "If you really want to restore the situation, why just restore to the 19th century? Why not restore the Renaissance situation?" Why not Medieval, Roman, or even Pleistocene situation? "In the Pleistocene situation, Florence was a lake!"

Madonna and her restored youth.
Flooded Florence by Superstudio

Obvious, the notion of decay and death is center to the struggle. As Natalini says in the interview Deadly Serious, "the reason we don't like our physical changes is that they remind us that we are moving closer and closer towards death." In Eternal Ise, Ouburg points out that the interesting rebuilding cycle of the Ise Shrine in Japan may be UNESCO's antidote. Since 690 AD, the shrine has been rebuilt every 20 years. The site is divided into two halves: one is the current building in use and the other is where the shrine was 20 years ago and will be in 20 years. This life and death cycle is like the rebirth of phoenix - a dynamic eternity. But of course, the reborn building is too new to be a World Heritage according to UNESCO's standards.
The self-replicating Ise Shrine

With all the struggles and paradox, the role of architects has become less and less significant in reshaping our built environment. Starchitects who make flashy icons are prominent within the profession, but very few of them are regarded as credible public figures. OMA/AMO points out that since Philip Johnson in 1979, no architect has appeared on the cover of Time magazine. In fact, I found it extremely ironic to see Zaha Hadid in the category of "thinker" alongside Steve Jobs and Sonia Sotomayor in the 2010 Time 100.
The public credibility of architects

In order to regain leadership in guiding urban transformations, UNION3 advocates for a new role of urban curatorship. Designers should understand the life of city and architecture and manipulate it with the right tools and forward thinking. This reminds me of Constant's New Babylon. What the designer provides is a completely re-arrangeable platform instead of a fixed settlement. It's a "dynamic labyrinth" where the inhabitants drift around, endlessly reconstructing the atmospheres of the spaces according to the moment of life. The continuity of a network allows mobility and its open-endedness (or open-mindedness) fosters spontaneous urban editing. As Burkholder argues in What not to Do: A Case for Design Neglect, "in a dynamic system, doing nothing is doing something." Designers can just "present signals of human intentionality and let the system do the rest." At the end, I guess the Taoist paradigm was right: to govern by doing nothing.
New Babylon by Constant

1 comment:

aly said...

quite fascinating. i've always been disturbed by beijing's/china's current 'extreme demolition' approach; hadn't really thought about there being many examples of highly detrimental 'extreme preservation' mindsets around the world as well.