WOUTER VANSTIPHOUT COLUMNS FOR BUILDING DESIGN 2011-2013
A publication by SS.COM
The columns in this publication were first published on bdonline.co.uk Version 2.0 Date of publication: 06 May 2013
WOUTER VANSTIPHOUT COLUMNS FOR BUILDING DESIGN 2012
Back to normal.
What’s wrong with managed decline?
Running the rule over charter cities.
Toulouse shows how everybody needs ‘good’ neighbours.
Which button should we be wearing?
Where are the left’s urban visionaries?
Loopy designs reflect our age of crisis
Architects are drifting away from democracy.
Shameful silence on riots needs to end.
How to unbuild cities for the future?
Now they’ll jail you for rocking the boat.
The most ruthless restoration in historY.
Money, not hand-wringing, saves buildings.
Argument for new terraced housing is easily demolished.
The art of making anything possible
A familiar idea stripped of its idealism
Back to normal published : 11 Augustus 2011
In November 2005 French President Jacques Chirac welcomed back normality, after weeks of riots in the French banlieues. Instead of 1,000 to 1,500 vehicles being burnt every night, it went back to 163, and then kept to the normal 50 to 150. Every night of the year dozens of cars are being set on fire in the French banlieues and this had been going on for years on end. What is normality to a French banlieue? It can mean that in the morning the elderly, women and children – and sometimes architects and historians looking for modernist housing projects from the sixties – can freely roam between the slabs and blocks, shop, play and look around. After that the unemployed young men appear from their bedrooms and take up their positions near the entrances of the apartment blocks and on street corners. The elderly, women and children scuttle back home and the tourists leave altogether. The young men whistle and sign to each other, taunt and threaten the belated visitors and the semi-militarised police that buzz by in vans. In many French banlieues, day turns into night around noon. Once, in one of these places, we approached a group of heavily armed policemen to ask for directions on the central square of a French housing estate. They looked around nervously and said we shouldn’t stand still for too long, because one of the gangs could start throwing rocks. They then said that we should really really be back in the historic city centre within the hour; it was 3pm. They themselves would be out of there at dusk, at the latest. This was between riots, this was normality. Normality is also the impossibility for a family to escape the ghetto, to find a house in a better neighbourhood, or for a young man or woman with a degree, but the wrong postcode and surname, to find a job above the menial level.
Chronic condition In many ways, the riots were “just” spectacular worsenings of a chronic condition, extrapolations on a permanent crisis lived by millions, but neglected by tens of millions. Something became visible for a moment, and then disappeared again, as a bad dream. Behind the scenes however a mechanism is in place that contains the badness, that keeps it from spilling over again, while making it inevitable that it will. As planners and politicians pay lip service to mixité, the banlieues and their inhabitants have been effectively abandoned. Thus a queasy stand-off exists, with the French upper bourgeoisie and the intellectuals living in the gentrified inner cities, the middle class in the automobile “peri-urbanité” and the immigrant poor relegated to the easily recognisable and containable grands ensembles. This is what the French sociologist Jacques Donzelot calls the “Three Gear City”, the urban condition that both spawned the riots and is its result. One person did well out of it, though: Nicolas Sarkozy, who as a minister of the interior fanned the flames by going on television, standing shoulder to shoulder with the riot police and calling the rioters scum (racaille) who would be wiped away; then rode the wave of popular fear all the way to the presidency, from where he invited a battalion of international starchitects (Winy Maas, Richard Rogers, Christian de Portzamparc…. okay, the B-list) to give back France its glory, by designing futures of the French capital, “Le Grand Paris”.
Violence in the UK Is this also the urban condition in the UK? A city of exacerbated segregation, heavily securitised and deeply paranoid, that as a smokescreen to hide the inner rot,
propositions architects to do urban projects of messianic proportions? What is “normality” in pockets of Tottenham, Enfield and Hackney? Postcode wars, daily attacks on shopkeepers and no-go areas for all but the hooded youths? Would we even be talking about these conditions without riots? In France surely not, but the French example also shows how quickly the possibility of a real debate and a rethink of urban politics can evaporate and be replaced by something as ridiculous as was the architectural circle jerk of
“Le Grand Paris” After the third night of rioting, the violence metastasised from London to other British cities such as Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool, thereby following the French “example” even more perfectly. Right now it has become very difficult to think of an urban politics, let alone an urban planning or design approach that would be able to take on the underlying problems of riots like the ones in the UK in a serious way. I do not think that the reason is that politics and planning have realised their limitations to shape society. I think that the reason is that urban politics and hence planning and urban design are too often treating the city with ulterior motives, instead of actually working for the city itself. The city has become a tool to achieve goals, political, cultural, economic or even environmental.
understood as nothing else than “nigger removal” by the black communities whose homes were demolished for highways, parks and modernist housing projects, and fed the rioting in Detroit, Newark and Los Angeles.
Urban politics It is much too soon to say anything about the relationship between the gentrification of Brixton, or the coming of the Olympics to London, and the current explosion of violent alienation. But if we imagine another kind of urban politics, one that does not take into account a marketable image of the city, but the reality of the entire community, it would probably have entirely different priorities. The first would be to work against the ever sharpening inequality of London, making it one of the unfairest cities in Europe, in poverty levels, education, crime and other indicators. But then the reality of urban riots is that they have always turned out to be the opposite of a learning experience for a city. Riots have nearly always resulted in politicians simplifying the problem even more, and citizens looking away even further. After a riot your average city will become more afraid, more authoritarian, more segregated, more exclusive and less tolerant. That is the real tragedy of the post-war western urban riot, first it shocks and terrifies us, then for a moment it makes us see flashes of the kind of city we should be working towards, which then fades away into the darkness. Back to normal.
Treating the city in this way means that we are constantly passing judgment on what the city should be, and who should be there, and what they should be doing, instead of trying to understand what the city actually is, who really lives there and what they are doing. This produces a dangerous process of idealisation, denying whole areas, whole groups their place in the urban community, because they do not fit the picture. Historically there is a correlation between large-scale urban projects and upsurges in urban violence. The attempts to demolish the grands ensembles through the Grand Projet de Ville policy in France, contributed greatly to the alienation and violent paranoia of their inhabitants. A similar relation existed in the US riots in the sixties, where “urban renewal”, despite its idealistic motives, was
What’s wrong with managed decline? published: 6 January 2012
The archives from 1981 revealed that the government debated evacuating Liverpool through a process of “managed decline” after the Toxteth riots of the summer. To Michael Heseltine’s proposal to spend £100 million on the economic regeneration of the city, Geoffrey Howe stated: “Isn’t this pumping water uphill? Should we go rather for ‘managed decline’? This is not a term for use, even privately. It is much too negative, when it must imply a sustained effort to absorb Liverpool manpower elsewhere - for example in nearby towns of which some are developing quite promisingly.” In the end Margaret Thatcher’s pragmatism prevailed; Liverpool was allowed to continue and £15 million was spent on regeneration. Should we be shocked by the callousness and extremism of the ideology of the Thatcher years? On the contrary: we should be surprised by the secretive atmosphere in which these ideas were discussed, by the apparent taboo of abandoning an 800-year-old city, and by the swiftness with which the idea was thrown aside. Compare that to how politicians in the US talk. Speaker of the house Dennis Hastert openly opposed rebuilding New Orleans after Katrina. And not just the hard-nosed right. Edward Glaeser, the cosmopolitan economist and author of Triumph Of The City, wrote in The Economists’ Voice of April 2005: “One of the biggest problems of urban decline is how to help those residents caught in a declining city. Perhaps, if significant funds are given to New Orleans residents to help them start life anew in some more vibrant city, then there will be a silver lining to Katrina after all.”
Even the leftist NGO UN Habitat, in its 2009 Global Report on Human Settlements, suggested that urban shrinkage also required planning, saying that properly managed decline could open up important opportunities, such as releasing land for urban agriculture.” What was once a Machiavellian ploy, whispered about by callous Tories, now belongs to mainstream policy debates. Cities are measured and monitored using objective criteria and accountable targets. When they don’t reach these targets, liquidation is an option, much as for companies or governmental institutions. Howe’s secretiveness betrays that in 1981 awareness existed of the city as a community with its own voice, and of the potential for political resistance. Nowadays, nobody really needs to feel embarrassed about taking a managerial approach. Surely, inhabitants are being counted, just not as democratic factors, but as economic entities that either yield or cost benefits. We could express our horror at the creepiness of the Tories in 1981, or bemoan the coldhearted managerialism of current urban politics. But one thing is for sure: Liverpool still exists and, as the summer riots proved, still can be unruly 30 years after Toxteth. So do countless other towns and neighbourhoods whose demise was deemed unavoidable 30 years ago. Let us be thankful that, in the end, the fortunes of cities are impossible to predict with numbers and statistics, and are stubbornly resistant to politics and policies.
Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Courtesy PA Photos /Landov.
Impression of Honduras‘ first “Model City.” Courtesy Future Cities Development Inc.
Running the rule over charter cities published: 3 February 2012
One year ago the Honduran parliament voted for an amendment to the constitution, which would allow for the building of a so-called charter city (“ciudad modelo”) in the department of Colón on the Caribbean coast. Charter Cities are the brainchild of the American economist and internet entrepreneur Paul Romer. According to Romer most of the world’s urban problems come from bad rules, lack of rules or rules not being enforced. Therefore he has proposed that developing countries like Honduras surrender sovereignty of 1,000 sq km of territory to a foreign well governed and well respected nation, say Norway or Canada. With such a nation as guarantor, he argues, a charter of good and clear rules will be established, guaranteeing rule of law and stability. A transparency commission is established to oversee the implementation of the charter, with the guarantor nation as its back up. In Honduras step two was taken last month when Honduran president Porfirio Lobo established the transparency commission, with Romer himself as chair. A charter city is an open city. It will grant access to anyone who will adhere to its rules, and if they don’t like it anymore, they can leave at will. Democracy as we know it is replaced by people voting with their feet. There is a “market” for charter cities: there are foreign countries willing to export good governance instead of money; there are the investors seeking safe and stable places to invest in; and there are 75,000 Hondurans who leave their country yearly in search of better living conditions and jobs. Globally 3 billion people will move from the countryside to the city in the next few decades. Will they board boats and trucks and come to us? Will they
add to the slums, favelas and barrios of South America, Africa and Asia? Or will they sign the social contract with one of the hundreds of charter cities that might be established over the coming years? What we are witnessing here is the equivalent of Ebenezer Howard’s first garden city in Letchworth, the village that launched a thousand new towns. Might we also see the same astounding metastasis and diversification of the original idea as we saw with the garden city model? Remember how Howard and Unwin’s vaguely Fabianist experiment in urbanism was very soon stripped of any specific political meaning and put to use for nearly every ideology and regime in the world, from Nazis in Poland to New Dealers in the United States. After we have overcome our initial knee-jerk shock reaction to the neo-colonial implications of charter cities, we are silenced by the desperate conditions of the inhabitants of the countries targeted by the charter city model, and give in to Romer’s relentless reasoning and campaigning. An important reason for his success is the procedural nature of his proposal, with technical details taking the place of political idealism. And this is exactly where we should be alert, even afraid. Because, as with Howard’s equally sophisticated model, political voids will be filled, but by whom, and for what reasons, and with what results?
Toulouse shows how everybody needs ‘good’ neighbours published: 30 March 2012 When the press interviewed the neighbours of Mohamed Merah, the young Frenchman who went on a killing spree through Toulouse and Montauban, leaving seven people dead, they talked to Julie, a 24-year-old art student. Her reaction was typical of the mentality of the inhabitants of this beautiful old university town. “Maybe we passed each other, maybe I said hello. It’s completely surreal. I had expected that such a furious madman would be from Le Mirail, not from a nice neighbourhood like this one.” What is this place that the Toulousains expect to be the home of Islamist child killers trained in Waziristan and Kandahar? Le Mirail is a satellite town of Toulouse designed by Candilis, Josic & Woods in the early sixties. Built as one single structure, its massive slabs of housing sprout like branches from the “stem”, a gigantic meandering pedestrian platform dotted with abstract concrete furniture. The architects thought their neo-humanist approach, with its arboreal metaphors, would inspire the same spontaneous urban behaviour as the medieval town centre of Toulouse, and become its perfect complement. But, after the typical honeymoon period that such schemes go through — with the first generation of dwellers attracted by the modernist lifestyle leaving for family houses in the suburbs — Le Mirail degenerated into a ghetto for poor immigrants from north and sub-Saharan Africa, with chronic unemployment, crime and urban unrest. Efforts to demolish most of it and rebuild it as a “normal” French town did not prevent it being one of the worst riot zones in the 2005 banlieue uprising. After 2005, the city largely gave up on Le Mirail. Families who wanted to move out were effectively excluded from affordable housing in the rest of the city, because of
pressure by the Toulousains to not allow any more immigrants in the “good” city. They would rather have all the “racaille” — as future president Sarkozy called the rioters in 2005 — safely in one place, than spread across the city, like one Mohamed Merah years later. Interestingly, Merah did come from Le Mirail. He was born there in 1988, after which his family moved to one of the smaller estates around the town centre, the equally grim Les Izards. After his parents divorced, and his mother moved back to Le Mirail, Merah drifted into petty crime, spent months in jail, where he possibly picked up his radical salafist ideas, and his contacts with Afghan and Pakistani trainers, and ultimately died in another estate building in Toulouse after a marathon police siege. What Merah’s story reveals is not just that Toulouse contains a deep undertow of resentment and fear, but also that the Toulousains have created a neat mental divide between the good Toulouse and the bad Mirail, which allows them to deny the deeply segregated urban society that they are. As with the riots of 2005, Merah’s killing spree will only intensify the deliberate demonisation to which Le Mirail, with its 15,000 inhabitants, is subjected. When Candilis, Josic & Woods created their parallel Toulouse, they could not have imagined that it would be transformed into a mythical dystopia, needed by the old city to keep up appearances.
Police patrol in Toulouse Le Mirail Courtesy Xavier Fenoyl, 2007
Buttons for the Design As Politics Exhibtion as part of the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam 2012. Courtesy Mike Emmerik.
Which button should we be wearing? published: 27 April 2012
Last week we opened a small architectural exhibition as part of the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam. Visitors to the show were offered a bowl with buttons to choose from. The buttons carried the title Design as Politics over the faces of figures such as Robert Moses, Jane Jacobs, Ebenezer Howard, Le Corbusier and Margaret Thatcher. There was also a button with the slogan “Blame The Architect!” After an hour or so it became very clear which buttons were most popular: some older intellectuals and idealist woman architects choose Jane Jacobs, naughty young students chose the “Blame” button, but the overwhelming majority chose — fought over! — the Thatcher and Le Corbusier buttons. Thatcher and Le Corbusier … radical free markets, retreating governments, no such thing as society, a house is a machine for living in, the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together under light … Actually current architectural developments in Rotterdam, the Radiant City of Architecture, could be understood as the disastrous meeting of the Thatcherite free-market superstition with the atavistic instinct of architects to drop masterpieces all over the place, whatever the circumstances or consequences. Project developers are building gigantic office buildings throughout Rotterdam’s centre, as if there never had been a crisis. The users are diverted from 20-year-old office towers in the centre with the promise of lower rents, rent-free periods, free swanky interiors or just bags of money for the boards of directors. The result is an absurd pyramid scheme of empty real estate, artificially high values and multiplying iconic new buildings by famous
architects covering a diminishing amount of square metres that are needed and used. But the city is not just a helpless victim: it plays an active and crucial role in the production of vacancy. The most spectacular and sad example of this is OMA’s Rotterdam building, one of the biggest buildings in Europe — 160,000sq m — containing hotels, apartments and thousands upon thousands of square metres of redundant office space. The municipality has done everything to get the investors and developers to build the monster, because doing so would confirm Rotterdam’s economic strength and resilience in the face of the crisis. In the end, the city promised to rent 25,000sq m itself and move the planning and engineering agencies there. But from where? From another supersized architectural icon: the Europoint Towers, which will soon stand empty, all three of them. Nearly 40 years ago they could only be built because the municipality promised to rent the three towers when they failed to attract the international corporations for which they were designed. From SOM to OMA, architecture provides the too-bigto-fail schemes that keep this perverse cycle turning. The invisible hand in this fake, free-market dynamism is the public money spent on bailing out the unwanted architectural icons needed to maintain the impression of a thriving city. Blame The Architect? Well…
Where are the left’s urban visionaries? published: 25 May 2012
If we accept that urban projects are the most visceral expression of public policy and political positions, then it is a tragedy that we find it impossible to imagine what a truly progressive, collective urban agenda would look like. This points to a disturbing emptiness at the heart of leftwing politics. But it also leaves us without any alternative to how we have been doing things for the past 30 years. Yet, elections all over Europe -from France to local council elections in England- are causing left-wing pundits to hail a new dawn. Finally, it’s claimed, there will be an end to austerity and to neo-liberal politics. Finally justice, equality and progressive politics will come back. Despite Europe’s economic implosion, there’s a suppressed euphoria: if things have become so bad, surely they can now only get better. Let’s just assume that they will. That there will be a new left consensus that will lay the groundwork for a Europe of proudly progressive and collective nations. Let’s just disregard the left’s deep rifts, and imagine that the various factions will get together and actually reform our cities and countries with the same élan and certitude as did their forefathers in the late forties and fifties when the welfare states in western Europe were constructed. But what would the left actually do? And how would it be different from what we are getting right now? The problem with left-wing politics is that over the last 30 years they have been reduced to a reactive, derivative position of softening the blows or spreading the damage a little bit differently. If we look at how left and right distinguish themselves on an urban or architectural
level, we see only small, gradual differences, often merely rhetorical. Left-wing mayors and ministers have probably been even more active than right-wing ones in promoting a happy capitalist paradigm of trickle-down urbanism and architecture, throwing themselves behind the Olympics and massive regeneration projects that swiftly degenerate into gentrification and public private partnerships. Yet, whatever we might think of London’s Canary Wharf or any of its descendants in dozens of European waterfront and gentrification projects, as a heady mixture of post-sixties non-plan models, postmodern neoclassicism and hardcore Milton Friedmanesque ideology, it really did offer another model. It really did destroy the past and bully itself into the future. And what can the current left come up with that is truly “different”? Urban farming, do-it-yourself architecture, pop-up urbanism — slight, temporary, hipster incidents for a tiny elite. That is not enough; worse still, it does not bode well for the seriousness or the inner coherence of a progressive agenda for our cities that this is all there is. There might be some hope for the left-wing renaissance if architecture could come up with something just as ideologically rigorous, just as aesthetically specific, just as reckless as the neo-liberal planning of the early eighties, but then completely different.
Rooftop farm in Brooklyn/Queens New York. Brooklyn Grange.
Anish Kapoorâ€™s ArcelorMittal at the Olympic Park
Loopy designs reflect our age of crisis published: 22 June 2012
On television it looked like a live action version of a crude political cartoon. Spanish bankers scurrying in and out of the country’s Bankia headquarters, refusing to answer questions about the imminent bank run and all the euro havoc that this would entail. The potential collapse of one of Spain’s largest banks, which could cause the eurozone to fall over, represented by an immense steel and glass tower leaning over the plaza at a precarious 15 degrees. The Bankia tower was designed in 1989 by Philip Johnson and John Burgee as one half of a monumental ensemble of two mirrored towers, leaning towards each other and thus forming the Puerta de Europa. But since the cameras only focus on the one tower housing the bank, Johnson’s neo-classicist concept is replaced by an apocalyptic allegory of the euro in mid-topple. In his lectures at the Collège de France, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu taught that the state’s monopoly of violence does not limit itself to the physical realm but extends to symbolic violence too. “Symbolic violence” may be one of those French philosophical notions that are difficult to grasp, until you start seeing iconic art and architecture in its terms. For example, the tangle of red steel in Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Olympic Park sculpture has never really been explained except in terms of “London needs its own Eiffel tower”. If this meaningless symbol represents anything, it is the corporate state’s monopoly on creating symbols of this magnitude. There is a violence in this sort of randomness, a bullish arrogance in its wilful emptiness. To the cheesiness of Johnson Burgee’s “gate”, and the randomness of Kapoor’s sculpture we might add the difficult, avant-garde angularity of Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV building
in Beijing, which has recently been completed. The loop of “transparent” and therefore public spaces (or vice versa?) through the building introduces a seed of openness into the closed culture of state propaganda, or so claims the architect when defending the morality of the brief. The fact that such a convoluted, idiosyncratic explanation would never convince anyone but the already convinced gives this building the same emptiness of meaning as the former two examples. Its impressive, awe-inspiring dimensions only underline the already crystal-clear monopoly of symbolic violence that the Chinese state maintains. But Johnson Burgee’s leaning tower also shows that the weaponry with which the state exerts its monopoly of symbolic violence is of a volatile nature. Especially in times of economic and political upheaval, shapes that are empty of meaning will take on meanings of their own. Suddenly, the bland diagonal of Bankia became a pitiless parody of the failure of Europe’s financial politics. Similarly, after the Olympics have gone and east London is left with a legacy of broken promises, the writhing steel of Kapoor’s Orbit might come to represent the slippery, snakelike, great regeneration swindle, purported to bring the games to London. Finally, Koolhaas’s loopy, perspectivity-defying CCTV design could turn out to be the perfect postcard image of the Kafka-esque labyrinth of state oppression, in which this building plays such a key role.
Architects are drifting away from democracy published: 20 July 2012
Are architects not into democracy? Civilian interference in the design process isn’t exactly welcomed by the profession. This ranges from moaning about interventions by non-professionals that complicate new projects to admiring the Chinese government for “getting things done”. There was the grimly funny story of Zaha Hadid Architects laying off architects because of “unforeseen events in North Africa”. While she was cooing “yes I said yes I will” to the Arabian kleptocrats commissioning her icons, Hadid didn’t foresee citizens taking to the streets and shutting the country down for freedom of speech, the rule of law and free elections. Clearly, there is a conflict of interest between the upper echelons of our profession and the people of North Africa, the Gulf States and the Middle East. The Democratic Audit, an independent research project at the University of Liverpool, reported on the state of democracy in the UK. Researchers found that the UK is heading towards “long term terminal decline” when it comes to involving British people in major decision-making, and in how fairly the system reflects the people it serves. Two trends are particularly worrying. First, the “unprecedented growth in corporate power” that could “undermine some of the most basic principles of democratic decision-making”. Second, the disengagement from politics has been very unequal, with the higher educated and wealthier classes better represented than the lower classes, and the political system dramatically in favour of the fortunate classes, whether they vote leftwing or right. There is an eerie resonance between the withering of our democratic system and the moral ambivalence of
the architectural profession. Architecture veers wildly between subservience to corporate power and neo-anarchist bottom-up experiments with participation. The political basis for architecture and planning -the design of public space and facilities- is disappearing from portfolios, taking the moral legitimacy of architecture with it. Like the political system, architecture is drifting further away from a position where it could broadly represent the interests of the British people. And this does not just refer to its “rightwing” corporate leanings, but just as much to its progressive “critical” side. My fellow columnists and I have reflected on what could be a truly progressive urban agenda for architecture and planning. To me, this does not lie with a partisan choice for one type of party politics but with a more fundamental cause: the re-engagement of architecture and urban planning with public decision making, involving the maximum number of civilians. This means the upscaling and institutionalising of what are now incidental experiments with participation, crowd-funding and other such methods, so that spatial decision-making becomes a real authentically democratic process. It also means drastically opening up the closed, professional, jargon-laden debate about architectural quality and legitimacy to public, even popular, debate. While the lack of public interference with the designing of buildings and spaces might be a relief to some architects, the lack of popular engagement, if left unchecked, will ultimately destroy the profession.
Anti Mubarak protestors at Cairoâ€™s Tahrir Square (2011)
Olympic/Riots street art in Broadway Market East London
Shameful silence on riots needs to end published: 10 August 2012
A year ago, I wrote an article in BD about the riots that were raging across UK cities.
riots, and especially what they have revealed of London and other British cities.
I expressed my fear that, just like in Paris after the uprisings of 2005 and Los Angeles after 1992, after a brief moment of reflection about the inequality and segregation that fuels urban unrest, urban politics would revert back to normal.
The Economist noted that it now seems as if the riots were just a “bad dream” that never happened, but also pointed out that nothing has been done about the underlying causes and how ominous is this silence.
“Back to normal” seems a faulty prophesy now that the Olympics have turned London into a festival of 24/7 ecstatic global TV presence and a daily parade of the best, the strongest, the fastest and the most gifted people of the planet against a backdrop of surreal architecture. The “Olympic” vision of Britain as created by Danny Boyle in the opening pageant presents an isle with a shared history of industrial revolution, immigration, the welfare state and an exhilarating diversity, with each British athlete representing the “extraordinary resilience” of East London, Birmingham, Manchester or wherever they grew up. It is something of a simulacrum however: an ideal image so strong that it is better than its underlying reality, but also subverts serious engagement. In a way, all the elements of Boyle’s vision were already present in last year’s riots, but only in their dirty reality version. There was the virtual reality of events being permanently reproduced by social media and phone cameras, the amazing force of thousands of ethnically diverse youth stampeding to a soundtrack of grime and of course the melancholic absence/presence of the welfare state. The cathartic loudness of the Olympics contrasts with the shameful silence that now surrounds the debate about the
The final report by the Riots Communities and Victims Panel seems to reduce the riots to a problem of poor management, faulty communication and low self-esteem on the part of the communities, thereby excusing the government from taking responsibility and doing something about the enormous underlying structural problems. London is still a city that owing to its extraordinary inequality is ripping itself apart along the lines of deprivation versus opulence. The Olympics will not remedy this; it will possibly even exacerbate its inequality. London’s problems are structural and profoundly public in nature. They have to do with unemployment, affordable housing, accessible education but also with democratic participation. Politicians, but also planners and architects, seem to shirk away from their classic responsibility for the city as a public good, preferring the giddy pleasures of city marketing and the reassuring tone of managerial recommendations. It would be a good idea if, after waking up from the good dream of the Olympics, citizens decide that playtime is over, and drag politicians, planners and administrators back into the streets and force them to engage with the reality of their city. Back to work, I say.
How to unbuild cities for the future? published: 28 September 2012
We built that? This was my initial reaction after reading Carl Nightingale’s shocking book Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities. The book is a wake-up call for anyone who might think that the composition of the typical contemporary city as an archipelago of different lifestyles, ethnic communities or economic classes is an unplanned, sort of natural situation: a default setting for urban development. Because it’s not. The segregation of cities into different zones for different people is an engineered mutation, developed over hundreds of years by generations of planners and politicians. Nightingale’s first exhibit is a 1711 map of Madras, in which the city is divided into a White Town and a Black Town, using racial epithets that were then very recent, and that signify a burgeoning, pseudo-scientific belief in a hierarchic taxonomy of humans. He also shows that it was the experience of colonialism that “forced” the rulers to confront the coexistence of a white minority with a black majority, which led to all sorts of innovative engineering, planning, financing and legal instruments to keep the blacks away from the whites, while still having them close by to do the menial work, and to trade with. Colonial urbanism was therefore a huge laboratory for segregation-based urban planning, from Madras in the 18th century, up to Delhi, Rabat and Leopoldville — as Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was then known — in the 20th century. As it developed, “city-splitting” was fed with more and more advanced techniques and arguments, involving social Darwinism, miasmatic theories and hygienism. The development of town planning — from Ebenezer Howard and Patrick Geddes to Robert Moses and Constantinos Doxiadis — into a scientifically based, broad spectrum
form of social design, also provided an indispensable tool for the forced separation of citizens. It is the section on American cities in the 20th century, however, that is most shocking. In the century after the abolition of slavery, battles were waged in courts over what were admissible tools with which to separate whites and blacks. Legally and politically it became harder to explicitly support segregation. “Camouflaging the colour lines” became the way to go. By promoting the theory that mixing poor with rich (ie black with white), was bad for real estate value, and by determining the size, type and density of housing in land-use plans, the segregation of blacks who could not afford suburban housing and whites who could, was deeply embedded in the financial and legal mechanism that drove urban development. This mechanism still drives the development of our European cities. We should be aware that the genealogy of urban planning is deeply interwoven with the attempts to split cities. The ultimate success of this system is that it has cloaked its original motivations, so that it might survive in an era when naked racism is no longer accepted. But if we actually built it, if urban segregation is in no way “natural”, then could we not also deploy the same dogged scientific determination and unbuild it? Is that not a brilliant challenge for the coming decades, even centuries, of town planning, to re-scramble the egg?
Map of Madras (1710)
Boat Race protester Trenton Oldfield
Now they’ll jail you for rocking the boat published: 26 October 2012
So Britain joins the ranks of powerful countries that lock up intellectuals and activists for defiling things that are held to be sacrosanct. Russia locks up Pussy Riot for blasphemous acts inside a church, China locks up Ai Weiwei for criticising the state over human rights violations, while Turkey is the world leader in jailing journalists for writing critically about the suppression of the Kurdish minority. Oh yes, and there’s the Netherlands, where in 2010 a disturbed protester threw a tealight-holder against the golden carriage that carried Queen Beatrix and her offspring to her annual speech from the throne. He was institutionalised for a year… and recently locked up again just in time for this September’s speech. If you are going to violate human rights, take away freedom of opinion, mobilise the bloodlust of the tabloids, politicise the judiciary, even politicise psychiatric care, at least do so because of church, state or Queen. But a boat race? Urbanist and critic Trenton Oldfield jumped in the water to protest against inequality. He chose the race because of its association with the two universities that produce “70% of government”, and the surroundings that are one of the most privileged and powerful urban landscapes in Britain. But what Oldfield has really revealed is that sporting events have become so sacred as to merit a level of repression formerly reserved for blasphemy or treason.
gards to the sacrifices they had made or for their rigorous training when you swam in their paths”, and because he had taken away the rights of a million-strong public to enjoy the race. (The Boat Race, by the way, was restarted 25 minutes after Oldfield was fished out of the water. Then the rowers, without any activist intervention, managed to run their boats into each other, tangling up their oars, which just confirmed the race’s long tradition of farce: over the years there have been six sinkings, one crash with the umpire’s barge and one mutiny of American oarsmen.) There is an idea that public space is a zone where everyone and everything should be able to express their differences, and that the state should use its monopoly of violence to protect it. This is the logic behind American policemen protecting the rights of religious fanatics to protest at soldiers’ funerals, holding signs saying “God Hates Faggots”. This idea is now being replaced by one where the public space is rented out as a platform for carefully staged and centrally co-ordinated events. The state’s monopoly of violence is used to ensure that things run smoothly. The sentimentalisation by the judge of the “sacrifices” of the sportsmen, and of the interests of the public who missed out on their event (for 25 minutes), are part of this. What used to be the public has become merely an audience, and the exchange of ideas in public space has been replaced by a spectacle of sentiment and sacrifice. This is serious and this is about us.
The judge who gave him six months, along with the tabloid press, criticised him most strongly because he had spoiled an event for two teams of sportsmen “with no re-
The most ruthless restoration in historY published: 23 November 2012
In last week’s column, Owen Hatherley reported on his visit to JJP Oud’s Kiefhoek. This beautiful little neighbourhood became famous when it was featured in Philip Johnson’s International Style exhibition, where — as Hatherley notes — it was stripped of all the social and historical relevance it had; relevance that it still appears to have today when visited in its real setting, in the deprived and multicultural South Rotterdam. One of the things he did not note, however, is that every one of the little modernist rowhouses of the Kiefhoek has two front doors; or rather, next to each front door is a front-door-shaped window. This is the result of its restoration in the early nineties. Since the restoration was so thorough, becoming in fact more of a reconstruction, the Kiefhoek dwellings had to be made to conform to current housing standards. This meant that one home was made out of every two, causing the doubling of the doors. By coincidence, around the same time as Hatherley was visiting Rotterdam, I visited Brno and got to see another highlight from Johnson’s International Style book: Mies van der Rohe’s Tugendhat Villa from 1928. The Tugendhat was also subjected to an extremely thorough restoration, costing about the same amount of money for one single house as all 300 in Rotterdam. The Villa had first been home to a rich Jewish family, with two servants to every member of the household. When Czechoslovakia was occupied, the family fled and a Nazi officer took over the house. He bricked up the famous translucent onyx wall, but the cherry wooden boards and many other sybaritically expensive elements were taken out and reused by the German army. After the liberation the house was used as stables by the Red Army, with hors-
es standing in the famous living room, enjoying the view over old Brno, while they and the soldiers more or less destroyed everything else. During communism the house became a children’s hospital and daycare centre, and in the early nineties the division treaty between the Czechs and the Slovaks was signed here. Then someone found $10 million. Now the house is reconstructed with an obsessive attention to detail and materials that is quite disconcerting in itself. Waiting lists for guided tours that take two and a half hours are half a year long. The “moth room” has been rebuilt, a subterranean pressurised space for Frau Tugendhat to keep her fur coats free from moths; the cherry panels were found in storage in the Brno law school canteen, resteamed, rebent, repainted and remounted; the mechanism that lowers the windows into the floor has been reconstructed, as have precise colour schemes. The most evocative space is the coal room — its roof, floor and walls densely matt-black tiled. Step in and you are absorbed by a massive, charcoal-like block of anti-matter. Visiting Kiefhoek, Hatherley refound some of the social context and history that Johnson had erased in 1928. In Tugendhat, every trace of the violent and tragic history of this house since 1928 has been erased with a manic precision never witnessed before. The absence of history has, however, created a haunted house, shimmering and throbbing with memories forever out of reach.
Mies van der Roheâ€™s Villa Tugendhat. Brno, Czech Republic.
Preston Bus Station in Lancashire.
Money, not hand-wringing, saves buildings published: 21 December 2012
A lot has been said on the listing or the demolition of Preston Bus Station in Lancashire. Very recently the council decided to demolish it, because restoring it would cost £23 million, and demolishing it, just £16 million. The people in favour of listing it then said they doubted the numbers and produced even more evidence of its cultural and architectural value in a last-ditch attempt to save it. What is universal in this debate is the asymmetry in the arguing. On the one hand we have a group of people who wear their ideological and aesthetic heart on their sleeve, stressing the architectural imperative to save this building, out of reasons of dignity, history and culture. On the other hand we have councillors, accountants and developers who “do not take sides” but “simply” present us with the budgetary effects of the choices. The decision they make is then presented as an inevitability. Preston City Council simply cannot afford not to demolish the immense bus station and this we should accept as a fact. It is also a fact, however, that if there is one thing that has proven elastic, ideology-driven, fluid and volatile, it is budgets for real estate projects, especially those in which local government is entangled. Since councils all over Europe are playing the double role of both the democratically legitimated arbitrator, and the risk-taking co-investor in project development, budgets have lost all connection to any accountable reality. This is exacerbated even further by the near surreal complexity of real estate financing, in which interest rates and speculation are much more important than any intrinsic costs or value, but are also subject to constant manipulation.
sense. Budgets can be endlessly tweaked by subtly altering expected visitor rates, maintenance costs or taking out different credit default swaps to protect against interest changes, causing exponential increases or decreases in the budget. On top of this we have the political volatility of councils, whose rhetorical common sense tends to give in to political pressures, and is replaced by actions based on public perception. Saying “the council’s numbers are wrong” does not cut it, however; they may by accident just be right. What should be addressed is the credibility gap. Because while the “simply economic” argument of politicians is obfuscating something that is a political choice, the arguments of conservationists are often so vague, metaphysical and genteel that they are ineffective in attracting support. For a serious debate about questions of conservation, urban development and renewal, we need councils to stop mixing up their roles of arbiter and player. But we also need architects and conservationists to present a compelling case, both narrative and economic, both cultural and functional, preferably even by entering the fray themselves as co-developers. When public support is needed to conserve — or build — something that is outside mainstream taste, putting your money where your mouth is, is more convincing than a unilateral appeal to our obligations to architecture.
In the topsy-turvy world of semi-public real estate projects, demolishing a functional building can save money; building vacant office buildings makes financial
Argument for new terraced housing is easily demolished published: 01 February 2013 People who live in high-rise accommodation are more likely to suffer from temper tantrums and less likely to learn how to dress themselves or use the lavatory age-appropriately. Oh, the power of architecture. In the latest advice by the thinktank Policy Exchange, Nicholas Boys Smith and Alex Morton argue for the bulldozing of most of London’s multi-storey housing estates, to replace them with terraced houses arranged on streets. Around 260,000 houses could be built using the brownfield sites liberated by this massive demolition. In such a way they would solve the “overwhelming housing crisis” in London but, more importantly, they would redeem Londoners from the ruinous effects of multi-storey dwelling. The case against the flats is presented as irrefutable, undeniable with a mix of statistics that demonstrate the correlation of high-rise with all manner of social and physical ills, and theory by the likes of Alice Coleman, Space Syntax and Oscar Newman. The blizzard of evidence is almost quaint in the way debates from the seventies and early eighties are rehashed without any new insights, or any criticism of the critics of high-rise estates. Alice Coleman has been severely debunked for taking her type of “spatial determinism” much too far in claiming that high rises are intrinsically criminogenic, and the Space Syntax research, which claims to prove a causal relationship between high-rise and the summer riots of 2011, was just the sketch of a research — a mere hypothesis. The statistics show all manner of correlation, but in no way answer the age-old question of whether it is the social disadvantages of high-rise dwellers that cause problems, or the fact that they live in the kind of homes that they do.
In short: the science is thin, old, selectively used and partly past its use-by date. It is a shame that this potentially useful thinktank adds so little to the housing debate. Precisely because of its conservative political identity, its contribution could be of value in a field where state planning and mass housing are “toys” for social democrat politics, with the right wing usually dismissing it out of hand. What would a serious conservative housing policy look like? This question remains unanswered. What we have is unserious, one-dimensional, easy attacks on a building typology, with a huge gaping hole in the middle of the argument, which is: who would actually pay for the demolition of the housing estates and for the rebuilding with streets and terraced housing? We can be pretty sure it is not the state, and pretty sure that the brownfield sites would have to earn money for the market. This would effectively mean expelling nearly all of the current dwellers of the high-rises from London. Now, is this a barefaced call for expelling the poor, with all their social and physical ills, from the city, or is it just a hopelessly naïve attempt at curing London’s problems by cutting away the architectural tissue where they are concentrated? In other words: is this a particularly dumb example of confusing causation with correlation, or a cynical “modest proposal” for the economic cleansing of London?
Trellick Tower by ErnĹ‘ Goldfinger. North Kensington, Londen
An architect-developer debate from the Fountainhead. Courtesy Warner Brothers
The art of making anything possible published: 15 March 2013
A hundred and fifty years ago, Otto von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor, told an interviewer: “Die Politik ist die Lehre vom Möglichen” (“Politics is the art of the possible”). The quote has always been understood as exactly the sort of hard-nosed pragmatism that stands in the way of a politics based on ideals and morality. Yet here was a man who managed to bring together all the different states into what became Germany, who introduced old age pensions, health and disability insurance, unemployment benefits and universal male suffrage. Now, a typical affectation of the architectural profession is a deep disdain for politics, because of its opportunism, its banality, its cynicism, its mediocrity. That architecture is very close to politics is widely accepted, but only as an association that turns most people off from architecture in the first place. Architecture and politics? That’s Albert Speer (père and fils) building giant structures for dictators. Politics and architecture? That’s the minister of education banning curved walls from new school buildings. But I would hold that “art of the possible” is a distinction that architecture should claim for its own. Like politicians, most architects are aware of how utterly at the mercy they are of all the networks of finance, legislation, logistics, welfare and commerce. But like politicians, they should realise that their only hope to survive within this jungle of technocracy and special interests, and to get something done, is to engage the will and the support of the people — and use it as a battering ram to break open the status quo.
synthesizing images, concepts, ideas and visions that the constituents can rally around, be it a unified Germany or universal healthcare or localism. Or in the case of architects, a better alternative for an awful housing scheme, or more ambitiously, a real housing policy for London. Politicians are able to transcend the dark matter of administration exactly because of their precarious dependence upon the public. They are forced to project a personality and to polish complex policy proposals into lapidary one-liners that allow them to sometimes achieve momentous transformations of the world we live in. Similarly, architecture is on the one hand desperately dependent on policy, market forces and regulation to get anything done. But does that mean architects should themselves take on the properties of these forces? Be as commercial as the developers?As bureaucratic as the regulators? As tactical as the administrators? Should architecture become process instead of form? Absolutely not. Because architecture is so singularly associated with the realised building, because of its devotion to the act of construction, but also because of its art-school idiosyncrasies and its bohemian futurism, architects have a unique — if much neglected — pathway straight to the collective desires and fears of the people. This, once harnessed, can be used to make real that which was deemed impossible. Its “artsiness” is sometimes seen to be architecture’s biggest weakness. I think it is the one thing that will help it survive.
And that is exactly where “die Lehre”, the art, lies: in
A familiar idea stripped of its idealism published: 26 March 2013
By a meticulously arranged coincidence, I am writing my last column for BD at the very moment that we are opening our first exhibition in the UK. In fact, the headquarters of the RIBA at Portland Place is seeing the second date of a travelling show that started last summer in the Venice Biennale and is now travelling via London to Russia, Brazil, Denmark and China. The Banality of Good: Six Decades of New Towns, Architects, Money and Politics is its title and it tells the story of how new town planning in the 20th century became a global phenomenon, to which nations of nearly every ideological hue, using the same basic hierarchical diagram, added hundreds of towns, capitals, villages, even entire regions: from the pioneering English new town of Stevenage, through the postcolonial port city of Tema planned by Constantinos Doxiadis in Ghana, to the sprawling, state-planned Dutch suburb of Almere. After that, however, we see how new towns disappeared from the centre of architectural attention where they had basked for 25 years. Seemingly under pressure of postmodernism, contextualism, general anti-technocratic relativism and of course the halting of industrial growth, new town planning became outmoded, nostalgic even, a quaint hold-over from the time we believed in Vorsprung durch Technik. Actually — and this is the subject of three of the six triptychs on 20th century new towns in the exhibition — new towns are still being built, in greater quantities than ever before, using the same diagrams and structural forms as 30, 40 years ago, but to entirely different ends, with different parties involved, and with architects in a humiliatingly marginalised role.
Of course we know the Foster-autographed renderings of Masdar City, and the stream of unbuilt OMA master-plans, but right now new towns all over Russia and Asia are being built by international engineering consultancies, with money provided by equally footloose investment funds, in special economic zones cut out from national territories by regimes of a questionable political nature, for inhabitants who are either fearful ex-pats or local upper-middle classes who want to be protected from the grime of the masses living in the real cities. It is interesting that a model developed by architects and planners, one that represented their most lofty ideals for how to provide an alternative for the city, were taken up by a post-war generation of nations as a tool to reorganise and sculpt society as a whole. It is tragic that it was abandoned by both public administrators and right-minded architects, and was then picked up from the roadside by a new generation of state capitalists, project developers and engineering consultants who used it to ends that are the polar opposite of the original. Architecture and democratic politicians no longer “believe” in the state-sponsored masterplan as a way to reshape society. The private sector, however — without any democratic legitimacy or accountability — is now using this discarded part of our public design toolbox and filling in the huge gaps left by the public sector – and indeed the architectural profession.
Venice Biennale 2012: The Banality of Good: New Towns, Architects, Money, Politics by Crimson Architectural Historians. Courtesy Nico Saieh
Publication of Wouter Vanstiphout's Columns for Building Design, 2011-2013