Issuu on Google+

We use the word ownership when referring to the degree to which city dwellers feel a sense of responsibility for common interests and can take action on them. So just what are these common interests? Who is responsible for them and under what conditions can ownership take place? In order to answer these questions, it is useful to first make a distinction between three forms of owner­ ship, namely res publica, res privata, and res communis, the latter being of most importance in the context of this study.1 Res publica (public issue) refers to public services for which responsibility has been passed to a single legitimate authority. In many cases this is the govern­ment (res publica is also the etymological root of the word ‘republic’). Increasingly, public tasks such as security and infrastructure are being outsourced to private organiza­ tions. City dwellers neither need nor want to take owner­ ship of each and every aspect of urban life; traffic light management and the laying of underground fiber-optic cables are typical of the sorts of activities we would rather leave to the government. Res privata relates to exclusive ownership rights. In most cases it is obvious when a possession is private – who wants strangers in their home or back garden, for example? Processes of appropriation also take place in shared public space. This may involve groups of people who temporarily ‘colonize’ a space for private ends or privatized squares and streets owned by businesses. This process is facilitated by media technologies; examples

Res communis, or the commons, refers to com­munal resources, which are managed by multiple parties. It is difficult to exclude other people from the use of res communis – and in this respect it contrasts with res privata. The distinction between res publica and res communis, however, is more subtle and is often over­ looked. One difference lies in the extent to which individual use has an impact on the resource as a whole, affecting how other individuals can make use of it. To return to the example of traffic lights we used when defining res publica: it makes no difference how many people use this resource, it must be present – and preferably in the hands of a single institution. In the case of a res communis park, however, it does matter how many people use it: overuse is undesirable, as is underuse. How do people make use of this resource? Do they dispose of their rubbish in a bin, play loud music, and have a friendly bearing towards fellow users? The ability to direct people’s attitudes to the commons from above is very limited. This require­ment for a substantial degree of self-control is another factor that distinguishes res communis from res publica.2 When should we consider something to be a com­ mons issue? Defining the commons in absolute terms is problematic. Shared gardens with limited accessibility and gated communities in which residents withdraw into collective privatized neighborhoods are privately owned (res privata), but their management and use is a com­ mons issue (res communis). And if an illegal activity were to take place there, it would become matter of public

What Is Ownership and Why Does It Matter? In today’s cities, our everyday lives are increasingly shaped by digital media technologies, from smart cards and intelligent GPS systems to social media and smartphones. Can digital technologies enable citizens to act on collectively shared issues? Can principles from online culture help to form new collectives around communal resources in an urban context? Can media technologies bring about a sense of place and connection among urbanites, and a feeling of ‘ownership’ over their environment?

include the regulation of admission to buildings and infra­ structures using RFID chips and interlinked databases, CCTV camera surveillance in public and semi-public spaces, or the holding of private mobile telephone con­ versations in public space.

V30_FINAL_RED.indd 40

concern (res publica). We have therefore taken a prag­ matic approach, defining the commons as coming into existence when people form collectives around specific issues they consider important. More often than not this means taking positions that conflict with the interests

Volume 30

Martijn de Waal and Michiel de Lange


7/02/12 20:12

Volume 30 41

of other groups or institutions. An example might be the creation of a communal garden at the cost of parking spaces or a playground. It is impossible to give a definitive answer to the question of who is responsible for management of the com­mons. One complicating factor is that commons issues (and controversies surrounding them) take place at var­ious levels. Some issues are global, such as environ­ mental health; water, food and energy supplies; and social equal­ity. Other issues have a specifically local or regional character. At community and street level, people are faced with issues such as litter, accessibility, or loitering youth. In regions outside the Netherlands’ only major con­ urbation, the Randstad,3 towns and cities are faced with an increasingly ageing population and urban exodus. The authors of the report ‘Burgerschap in de doe-democratie’ (Citizenship in the Active Democracy) identify four national social issues between macro and micro level: lack of social cohesion between various population groups, consumerist and antisocial behavior, social exclusion, and the gulf between citizens and government.4 In general terms, however, we are able to formulate a number of conditions for the creation and management of the urban commons: shared access to collective serv­ ices; the opportunity, knowledge, and skills to initiate one’s own actions; and reciprocity based on mutual trust between fellow users – in the assumption that everyone is dedicated to the common good. But here too, a prob­lem arises. In an influential article in Science in 1968, biologist Garrett Hardin describes the problems that arise when several farmers allow their livestock to graze on shared ground. For each farmer involved, the individual eco­nomic benefit from allowing more of his cows to graze on the commons outweighs the collectively shared ecological degradation of the field that this causes.5 In other words, the pros are privatized and the cons are socialized. Hardin’s ‘tragedy of the commons’ opens up the question of what organizational form is needed to manage shared resources in a sustainable way, with the ben­ efits being reaped by the community. Can it best be achieved through regulatory bodies such as the government? Or should it be left to the free market? Or is it perhaps possible to come up with alter­ native forms of organization – forms in which new media could play a role? Using the concept of ownership, we can choose to approach urban issues as commons issues.6 Although this is by no means the only possible approach, its ad­van­tage is that it allows us to define specific kinds of urban problems, while also offering a possible course of action. In con­ trast to the res privata-res publica paradigm and the exclusive/passive rights to ownership it assumes, res communis is all about inclusive and active ownership. Furthermore, issues concerning urban commons con­sist­­ently involve complex net­works of actors. In the first place there are the citizens themselves, but these net­works also include local authorities and policymakers, housing corporations, a wide array of social organiza­tions and knowledge institutes involved in urbanist affairs, as well as local and other businesses. We believe that e-culture producers and institutes can play an active role in such networks by contributing to research and iden­tifying opportunities and obstacles when it comes to urban problems – and to the development of

V30_FINAL_RED.indd 41

solutions. Media makers can stake a claim for this active role because new media are themselves bringing about shifts in urban commons issues. New media and shifting ownership

The emergence of new media in the urban landscape is bringing about change in ownership. These changes comprise (A) new forms of commons; (B) new forms of shared management; and (C) new stakeholders or ‘publics’. (A) The city as a platform for the data commons

One current development is that of the ‘city as platform’, which involves the city being viewed as an information generating system. A wide range of technologies collect an enormous amount and variety of data. These are then exchanged, reacted upon, visualized, and interpreted. Examples include: the speed and concentration of cars on ring roads; points saved on loyalty cards by consumers; observations using GSM transmitters of user distribu­ tion; measurement of air quality or sound pollution; and details of city dwellers’ everyday lives through social networks. Consciously or unconsciously, citizens con­ tribute to the accumulation of data on the use of all manner of products and services. These collections of data are a new resource containing valuable information for urban planners.7 We can describe these combined collections as a ‘data commons’. Scarcity takes on another meaning in this context because what we are concerned with here are not finite physical goods and services (such as Hardin’s common land), but infinitely replicable digital data. Conditions for the creation of the data com­ mons include the availability of, and access to, open data and the skills citizens have to use the data in a meaning­ ful way.8 This raises issues of ownership: does the data commons strengthen possession rights of a limited num­ ber of players (particularly governmental authorities and private companies), or is it possible for it to foster owner­ship by citizens? The data commons offers poten­ tial opportunities for the design of interventions involv­ing individual use that improves the commons rather than depleting it. In the field of biology this principle is known as mutualism. In contrast to Hardin’s farmer who is ‘para­ sitizing’ on shared resources by introducing an extra cow to the meadow, mutualism requires that all parties involved benefit from collaboration.9 These conditions are demonstrated by the example of users calling up local traffic information services, thereby contributing information about the density and flow of traffic; using the service improves the service. ( B) Collective action, co-creation and self-organization

Digital media have created new mechanisms for manag­ ing the commons and coordinating collective action. Traditional commons suffer from a lack of information leading to less than optimal decision-making. Using mobile and location-based media, people can share more infor­ mation more quickly and base adaptive decisions on it. One example is the exchange – in real-time – of informa­ tion about air quality using portable sensors and mobile networks. Online communities have been managing collective activities successfully for some time now. The terms ‘co-creation’ and ‘crowd-sourcing’ are applied to processes characterized by common issues being tackled and managed collaboratively – with new partici­ pants having an active role. This concept lies behind

7/02/12 20:12

(C) New stakeholders and publics

The drawing of citizenry into the process of urban devel­ opment has been taking place for several decades. Town planners, for example, operate according to the ‘placemaking’ principle, characterized by local people having their say within a community-driven process.11 And policy­ makers, housing corporations, politicians, and knowledge institutes have also been engaging with the subject of citizen participation and control for some time now. Devel­opments emanating from digital media technologies and the hybrid city have led to a reshuffling of oppor­tu­ni­ ties and responsibilities. One of the first internet initiatives in the Netherlands was ‘The Digital City’ (De Digitale Stad), set up in 1994. This online network of Amsterdam residents had a distinctly bottom-up approach.12 Five years later, local authorities started to take over the role of city-related IT developments.13 These experiments with ‘knowledge districts’ were often top-down in nature. At the same time, national and local government funds were being used to set up ‘digital playgrounds’, community centers where occupants learned to work with computer technology, gained new skills, and got to know each other better, thus boosting the social capital of the local area.14 At a national level there were governmental ini­ tiatives aimed at fostering ‘e-participation’. The ‘Citizen Link’ (Burgerlink) program, for example, was set up to, “use information and communication technology to more closely involve citizens in the improvement of public ser­ vices, civil administration, and social cohesion.”15 Mean­ while, citizens themselves were setting up websites and local WiFi networks for their local communities, creating new methods of maintaining contact with present and future neighbors.16 This was the emergence of ‘networked publics’, groups that were no longer organized according to predetermined locations, times, or social categories. Instead, they used new media to gather around specific shared interests.17 One consequence was that the design of the urban living environment was no longer reserved for professionals in design disciplines such as architec­ture and urban planning, or for institutions such as estab­ lished power structures and housing corporations. The field of influence shifted, and technically minded amateurs found themselves able to intervene in the urban living environment.18 It is impossible to draw a sharp distinction between top-down participation approaches initiated by institu­ tionalized parties, on the one hand, and citizen-run, bottom-up community initiatives, on the other. Policy organizations, knowledge institutes, housing corporations and so on are also made up of ‘ordinary citizens’. And the reverse is also true, because through institutions, citizens can engage in debates about the design of their city. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, it is an illusion to think that bottom-up participation can run by itself,

V30_FINAL_RED.indd 42

with­out the support of institutions. The question is whether – and if so, how – new media can feed the creativity and ideas of non-institutional citizens into existing stake­holder structures. ‘The city as platform’ is a new play­ground for four emergent models of social organization that do not acknowledge any distinction between bottom-up and top-down approaches. Terms such as ‘wisdom of the crowds’, ‘crowd-sourcing’, ‘collective intelligence’, and ‘swarm intelligence’ are used to demonstrate that the sum of individual actions can give rise to more or less coherent forms of knowledge, understanding, and behavior. Trade and industry is also increasingly taking upon itself an ownership role with respect to issues of the commons when it comes to corporate social responsibility and sustainability. And major technology companies are active in the area of ‘smart cities’.19 The opportunity therefore seems to exist for collaborations to take place between governmental authorities, trade and industry, citizens, and media makers, that will unite socially responsible enterprise and new business.

1 See David Berry, ‘The Commons as an Idea—Ideas as a

Commons’, At: (February 2005). 2 Alternative terms are non-exclusiveness, subtractability,

and self-governance. See Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990). 3 The Randstad consists of the four largest Dutch cities: Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht. 4 See Ted van de Wijdeven and Frank Hendriks, ‘Burgerschap in de doe-democratie’, 2010, p. 11. At: dsresource?objectid=161879. 5 See Garrett Hardin, ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, in Science, vol. 162, no. 3859 (1968), pp. 1243–8. At: 6 The idea of viewing the urban environment as a resource is certainly not a new one. The concept was suggested by early twentieth-century urban sociologists of the Chicago School as well as by more recent thinkers, including Adam Greenfield. 7 We use the broad term ‘urban developer’ here to describe anyone engaged in urban design and organization, including architects, planners, local policymakers, housing corporations, as well as media makers working in an urban context. 8 One important point here is the non-exclusiveness of the data commons. To what extent does everyone have access to the data concerned and also have the knowledge to exploit this resource? 9 Examples from nature include cleaner fish who feed off the skin of larger fish, and plants whose root systems offer a safe environ­ment to bacteria, which in turn supply nutrients to the plant. 10 Examples from the internet include reputation management, moderation by fellow users, and sanctions ranging from reprimands by respected members to permanent IP bans. 11 See Wayne Beyea, Christine Geith and Charles McKeown, ‘Place Making Through Participatory Planning’, in Marcus Foth (ed.), Handbook of Research on Urban Informatics: the Practice and Promise of the Real-Time City (Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference, 2009), pp. 55–67; Bernard Hunt, ‘Sustainable Placemaking’, 2001. At: about.htm. 12 See Manuel Castells, The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business, and Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001); Reinder Rustema, The Rise and Fall of DDS: Evaluating

Volume 30

the development of open source software and the online encyclopedia Wikipedia as a knowledge commons. It would be an illusion to view these phenomena as exclu­ sively bottom-up processes, because these commons also require their own sets of rules, ones that are often based on alternative forms of supervision and sanctions enforced not by top-down institutions, but by distributed means organized by the users themselves.10 What can we learn from online forms of commons management such as these? Is it possible to take the principles of selforganization and collective action found in e-culture and apply them to urban commons issues?


7/02/12 20:12

Volume 30

the Ambitions of Amsterdam’s Digital City (Unpublished Masters thesis, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, 2001). 13 One example of just such an urban IT initiative is the Cyburg project, in which the inhabitants of Amsterdam’s Zeeburg neighbor­hood were encouraged to acquaint themselves with the technology and each other. See kenniswijk. 14 See Joeri van den Steenhoven, Michiel de Lange, Steven Lenos, Toekomst van de trapvelden: een digitale injectie voor sociale kwaliteit in de wijk (The Hague: SQM/KCGS, 2003). At: sociale_kwaliteit.pdf. 15 See eParticipatie.html. 16 See Minouche Besters, Internetgemeenschappen in de buurt: een zoektocht naar succesfactoren (Amsterdam: Stichting Nederland Kennisland, 2003). 17 See Kazys Varnelis (ed.), Networked Publics (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008). 18 Examples include Wireless Leiden, which saw local residents setting up their own wireless network in Leiden (see http://, and the Geluidsnet (Soundnet) project (, which involved people living around Schiphol airport carrying out sound measurements using cheap technologies because they did not trust the official figures. 19 IBM, for example, provides ‘city management services’ that they claim increase transparency and, by extension, public confidence. See: solutions/index.html. The jury is still out, however, on whether top-down approaches such as these truly lead to increased citizen engagement. Critics also point to potential ‘green­washing’: profiteering by presenting a green image.


V30_FINAL_RED.indd 43

7/02/12 20:12

returns to her home in the protected zone of Little Venice. On her free Saturday Chao wears a blue track­suit and com­fort­ able trainers. Though small in stature, her force­ful presence suggests that, as director of an energy company, she is used to issuing orders. In 2007 Chao moved with her husband, a manager in the car industry, and son to Little Venice. She still In 2009, Michiel Hulshof and Daan Roggeveen founded works in her old home of Laodi, a threehour drive from here. During the week the Go West Project – an independent and multi­ she lives there in an apartment, and spends disciplinary think tank tracking the development her week­ends in Little Venice. Chao be­ of China’s emerging megacities. One such megacity, longs to a growing group of af­fluent people not satisfied with an apart­ment on the Changsha, is seeing the establishment of a growing fifteenth floor of a com­pound. In Little moneyed elite, who, in their desire for a certain kind Venice she can afford her own private of accommodation and lifestyle, are having a signif­ piece of the planet. She walks along the street with her icant impact on the city’s development. dog on the leash and explains what she enjoys about her home. “We used to have a flat on the seventh floor in the city. Now Michiel Hulshof and Daan Roggeveen we live in our own house with a garden. The air is cleaner here, there is no noise, and we have plants, flowers, fish, and a dog. I think that is what many Chinese dream of.” Changsha is the capital of Hunan, the birth province of Mao Zedong. More than six million inhabitants live in the metropolitan region, of which three mil­ lion live in the urban core. Changsha lies about one thousand kilometers north of Guangzhou and the Pearl River Delta. Since the opening of the new high-speed train line, this has become a journey of about three hours. The Phoenix Hotel is the opening act for an even greater For a long time, the city was known as the place where spectacle. Just past the car park the road veers to the left Mao started his political career. Nowadays the young and ends in a roadblock reminiscent of military checkpoints Chinese associate Changsha especially with Hunan TV, in the Gaza Strip. The four grim sentries guard­ing the China’s most talked about TV station, whose talent com­pe­ double barriers wear green camouflage uni­forms. All that is tition Super Girl and dating show Take Me Out captivate missing are automatic weapons. Behind it starts the habitat the entire country. The city administration takes numerous of Changsha’s well-to-do: Little Venice, an artificial island measures to enhance its reputation as China’s ‘Entertain­ment containing 2,000 detached villas and town­houses with City’. One of the most remark­able initi­a­tives was the gardens, designed in a ‘European Style’. declaration of ‘special entertainment zones’ in 2009: three Her dog Coco barks, as Mrs. Chao gives the guards narrow, long pedestrian streets in the center where entre­ a friendly nod before she enters the villa district. After preneurs starting bars could operate tax-free in the first two a morning walk through the Phoenix Hotel garden, she years. With predictable results: in no time at all scores of

Photos Michiel Hulshof and Daan Roggeveen

In a suburb of Changsha stands the famous Pont Neuf. It is flanked by two white victory columns topped with golden statues of Pegasus, the winged horse from Greek mythology. On the other side of the water looms the Phoenix Hotel, an immense neoclassical building with an imposing facade, apparently constructed from sand­stone, surrounded by a palm tree garden. Four Black Audi A6 cars with tinted windows are parked in front of the en­trance. They belong to local party officials amusing them­selves in the hotel’s luxurious karaoke bar. The hotel’s furnishing can best be described as eclectic. The entrance leads to a domed hall with an enormous gold chandelier. From there run marble-tiled corridors decorated with paintings of Italian urban scenes. The vaulted ceiling depicts frescoes with angels that look as if they have flown in straight from the Sistine Chapel. A thick carpet with Chesterfield sofas covers the lobby.

V30_FINAL_RED.indd 62

Volume 30

Millionaires in Little Venice


8/02/12 14:46

Volume 30

cafés, eateries, and live music bars opened their doors to the public, making the policy a massive success. As in all Chinese cities, the introduction of a market economy encouraged the establishment of a growing moneyed elite. Research by the Hurun Institute from 2010 shows that the province has an estimated 11,000 in­habitants owning over 10 million yuan (1.5 million dollars). For China as a whole the number is over 900,000 inhab­itants. A vanguard of four hundred super-rich Chinese even possess more than one billion dollars. Villa districts such as Little Venice testify to the wealth of the happy few. In all burgeoning megacities you can find similar ‘European areas’, where Big Ben or the Campanile di San Marco toll for hours on end. There is nothing so strange that can’t be found: Dutch canals, German Riegelhäuser, Canadian mansions, Italian palazzi and French chateaus. They also show how China’s cities are developing more and more inward-looking, largely self-sufficient gated communities wherein everything is privatized. One of the first things standing out in Little Venice is the universal emphasis on security. The walkie-talkies of patrolling guards sound every­where. Chao and her dog pass guard huts every fifty meters or so. From lamp­posts CCTV cameras record everything and anything that moves. Large signs warn residents that the enemy doesn’t just lurk


outside. “Be careful with gas! It can be dangerous!” Chao chuckles at the patronizing message. But she sees the ‘military cordon’ around the villa district as a necessity. “As soon as people know I am a rich woman, they might want to steal something from me.” Who might not know better, could think that the strong emphasis on security means that mur­der­ing and pillaging armed gangs are running amok, targeting the property and lives of Chinese citizens. Numbers contra­dict this. Compared

V30_FINAL_RED.indd 63

to South American or African me­trop­olises, cities such as Xi’an, Chongqing, or Zhengzhou appear extremely safe. Though the comparison of inter­national crime statistics often collapses because of differences in definition, the Chinese murder rate is one of the lowest in the world. Nor do Chinese cities have the no-go areas found in many other developed countries. At the same time the fear of crime in Chinese cities is great, and often linked to the pres­ence of large groups of migrant workers. “The ster­eo­type of rural migrants is that they are uned­ucated, ignorant, dirty, and also have high pro­pensities to be crim­inals”, write researchers Wang Feng and Zuo Xuejin. In a major study in Shanghai, 81 percent of the respondents responded that the decrease in security was the largest problem con­nected to the presence of migrant workers in the city. Since former leader of the communist party Deng Xiaoping famously appropriated money-making as a social­ist strategy by quipping “Socialism is getting rich together”, differences in income have increased to huge proportions. The richest one per cent of the Chinese pop­u­ lation own 41 per cent of the nation’s wealth, a situation comparable to the United States. This makes the dif­fer­ences between rich and poor in China so huge that, for the time being, there is absolutely no question of ‘getting rich together’. The effects of the unequal distribution of income can be seen in the barbed wire and 24 hour patrols in Little Venice. Just out­side the gates of the villa district, tucked away under an exit of the Pont Neuf, the Hotel Phoenix Staff sleep on dozens of bunk beds in a dark warehouse. Chao accepts the incon­ven­ ience of living in a panopticon. Dur­ ing her afternoon walk the private guards, hired by the service com­ pany of Little Venice, regularly ask her where she is going. Chao answers them patiently. Like the ubiquitous high-rise residential com­pounds in China, the residen­tial island consists of several sectors accessible only to residents. Chao accepts these re­ stric­tions to her freedom of move­ ment with­out grumbling. While Coco disappears into the bushes wag­ging her tail, Chao explains how visitors can reach the island. Friends or rela­tives present themselves to the guards at the Little Venice entrance, the guards phone a check­ point further down the neighbor­ hood. A second guard then walks to Chao’s house and rings the doorbell. “He asks if we are expecting visitors, what their names are, what kind of car they are driving and what the license plate number is.” After she has answered all the questions correctly, the guard returns to the checkpoint to signal the all clear. Then she can turn on the kettle. The flight of China’s rich into the compound dis­plays strong similarities to last century’s trek of American and European families into suburbia. The motive is the same: the middle class leaves the busy, chaotic, but above all unsafe city en masse to perch in green and safe havens of peace and quiet.

8/02/12 14:46

V30_FINAL_RED.indd 64

Classics like Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Franz Kafka’s The Trial adorn the bookshelves. The table has been set for a French five-course meal, with cutlery for fish and meat and two wine glasses per seat. Pasta and plastic croissants stand at the ready in the kitchen. You can hardly describe Little Venice as a faithful copy of a European neighborhood. The houses contain a profusion of elements from classical European architec­ture, but districts or villas such as these are nowhere to be seen in Verona, Basel, or Amsterdam. The French philos­opher Jean Baudrillard would describe the houses in Little Venice as bearing “no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum.”1 In the same way that Starbucks is not a copy of an Italian espresso bar, but a typically American coffee chain, Little Venice is not an imitation of an island in the Laguna Veneta, but an authentic Chinese villa district. Many critics dismiss this type of deco­rative layer as tasteless kitsch. “He who pretends to be more elevated than he is, is a fraud and subject to general contempt, even if it harms no-one. But what if someone tries to achieve this effect with fake stone and other imitations”, wondered architect Adolf Loos.2 He was not speak­ ing about Changsha in 2010, but about the houses of the Viennese petty bourgeoisie in 1898. The pre­ fer­ences of the upper middle class in the nineteenth century Habsburg Empire seem very similar to those of Changsha’s upper crust more than a hundred years later. “If it were up to the specu­lators”, writes Loos, “they would plaster the facades from top to bottom. That is the cheapest option. It would also be the most truthful, most correct, and most artistic solu­tion. But no one would want to live there. To be able to lease his property, the speculator must nail down facades that look like this and no different. Indeed, nail them down, because even the materials from which these renais­sance and baroque palaces have been made are not what they seem.” Architectural historian Li Xiangning of the Shanghai Tongji University is less of a moralist. He compares China’s themed neigh­borhoods with those in the United States and sees many parallels. “Europeans perhaps consider this kind of archi­tec­ture as historical imitation”, he says, “but Chinese and Americans mostly see some­thing exotic, some­thing foreign. Home buyers will sooner buy a house that has something special, and property devel­opers are well aware of that.” In the United States Li visited Alpine Village near Santa Monica and Solvang, a Danish theme town near Santa Barbara. “Venice near Los Angeles is the most famous example. It was built as a mock-up with an Italian theme. A hundred years later it is one of the most pleasant neigh­bor­ hoods in L.A.” With their desire for symbols Changsha’s new rich celebrate the end of enforced uniformity, which held the country in its grip for thirty years. Between the 1950s and the 1980s communism in China got rid of orna­men­tation in Chinese archi­tecture. The modernist housing blocks, factories, and govern­ment buildings were indeed ‘plastered smooth from top to bottom’, a representation of communist ideals cast in concrete. With every column, caryatid, or fountain that mil­lionaires add to their villas, they move further away from that policy of equality. Lacking contem­ porary Chinese symbols of wealth, they choose elements from other coun­tries or other ages, and

Volume 30

Little Venice and the real Venice may both be islands, but that is where the similarities end. Changsha has no canals with gondolas, but instead large family cars driving along narrow, winding asphalt roads. Each villa has a small plot of land, with a parking space in front of it and a garden at the back. The ‘European style’ mani­fests itself in red roof tiles, decorated flowerpots, and the abundance of symbols referring to European archi­tecture, such as balcony railings resembling classical pillars. Although the villas are prima­ rily made of con­crete, the appliqué of natural stone tiles and plastered columns aim to convince that the houses have been built brick by brick. Workers are still building the last part of the area, due to be completed next year. Close to the barrier stands a model home for potential buyers. The fully furnished villa shows buyers how to decorate their new homes according to latest fashions. The furniture follows inter­national trends in domesticity, directly taken from maga­zines such as Jia Zhuang Jia Ju (Home and Interior) or the Ikea catalogue.


8/02/12 14:46

in China. Even though they are at most three years old, the villas on the island show signs of decay. Rusting fences, peeling paint, loose tiles, leaky air con­dition­ing, the layer that pro­vides the district its identity is not only shallow, but fragile as well. The fact that forty percent of the houses are empty enhances the crumb­ ling at­mos­phere. Chao: “Many of our neighbors bought it as an investment. They live somewhere else and hope it will be worth a lot of money in a couple of years.” Little Venice suffers not only from visual degener­ation. Constant plumbing leaks forced Chao and her family to live in the Phoenix Hotel for two months last year, and they are not the only ones, even though Chao had selected Little Venice because of Guangdong property developer Country Garden’s good name. The company, established in 1997 by former construction worker Yang Guoqiang, success­ fully builds similar villa districts throughout China. When the founder trans­ferred most of his property in 2007 to his 29 year-old daughter Yang Huiyan, Forbes promptly declared her the wealth­iest woman in Asia with assets worth 16 billion dollars. “We had only heard positive stories about Country Garden”, said Chao. Behind her glasses her eyes spit fire. “But what can you do?” she asks, “something like this can happen to anyone.”  This article is an excerpt of How the City Moved to Mr Sun – China’s New Megacities by journalist Michiel Hulshof and architect Daan Roggeveen (Amsterdam: SUN Architecture 2011). See also

Volume 30

1 Jean Baudrillard, ‘Simulacra and Simulations’, in: Mark Poster (ed.), Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings (Stanford:,Stanford University Press 1988), pp.166-184. 2 Adolf Loos, ‘Potemkin City’ (1898), in Spoken into the Void: Collected Essays 1897-1900, trans. Jane 0. Newman and John H. Smith (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1982), 95-96.


preferably both. In their search for new symbols of wealth and status they are setting the trend for 1.4 billion Chinese. Their extrav­agance finds followers in malls, restaurants, offices, and government buildings all over China. The result is a new reality where anything goes, with­out the heavy burden of a discussion on good taste. A Chinese temple on top of an eighty-meter skyscraper? Fine! The Villa Savoye, but upside down? Great idea! An Egyptian sphinx in a Chinese city park; a Louis XIV chateau with a gold leaf façade; the re­constructed birth­place of Salvador Dali; a concert hall shaped like a grand piano; and a transparent guitar? Go for it! Mrs Chao’s house stands at the end of a short street. An earthenware Alsatian in the front garden guards the parking space. A gravel path leads to the back garden, con­ taining a set of rattan furniture with a parasol. The cast iron fence with decorative lions enclosing the property continues behind the neighbor’s back yard. “We chose it together.” The quality of construction only partially cor­re­sponds to the illusion of grandeur, something increasingly observable

V30_FINAL_RED.indd 65

9/02/12 14:09


V30_FINAL_RED.indd 146

Volume 30

Photo Caroline Bos

long-term structural alternative that can be ap­plied to situa­tions and pro­cesses outside the field of housing? The principals of self-organization and professionalization To me the shift of pow­ er and the initiative seem to be at odds – especially in the world of architecture. from the public to the While self-organization has been lauded for its ability private or individual to create buildings where no capital investor would dare, stake­holder is a com­ plex issue, which I see professionalization is seen as rigid and inflexible. Can as closely related to the two find a compromise? Caroline Bos, co-founder the phenomenon of pro­ fes­sion­alization. While of UN Studio, sees professionalization not as inherently Alicia, after many antagonistic, but potentially a useful counter-balance years of per­son­al dep­ to self-organization. rivation, managed to unite within her person a unique and, to her, Caroline Bos deeply satisfying and empowering balance of private and col­lec­ tive inter­ests, those of us engaged in Western practices do pro­jects. As professionals, we are engaged on a short-term skilled basis; our commit­ment Some years ago, as part of a study group organized by is confined to the bound­aries of our expertise. Even our Luuk Boelens, I visited Villa 31, one of the oldest and bestundoubted self-interest is linked to professional pref­erence known informal neighborhoods in Buenos Aires. This is and expertise; we hardly depend for our survival on a par­ where we met Alicia, an immigrant from the north who had ticular project in the same vital way as a favela inhabitant lived in the Villa since 1974 and had moved incrementally depends on her self-built shack. Within this context, the through various layers of self-organization.1 As a new professional involvement in renovation incentive projects inhabitant she had initially participated in the construction or neigh­borhood-oriented building can be seen simply as of her own self-built house and services, such as water, a form of specialization. sewage, and electricity, fulfilling her most basic individual needs. As time went on, Alicia became involved in com­ munity projects; a flourishing subsidized canteen had later Professionalization made way for sponsored computer programs. Thus her selfThe professionalization of architecture, like that of other interest became mixed with com­munity interests and she professions, has developed according to patterns iden­ti­fiable, had learnt to liaise with various donors. Finally, Alicia had though not completely identical, in many different to some extent participated in the management or the gov­ ernance of the Villa. At this level, her original self-interest had expanded and developed to encompass a more com­ prehensive approach and understanding of shared benefits. As the example of Alicia shows, self-organization can never be wholly separated from self-interest. There must be clearly discernible benefits to be gained for in­habitants such as Alicia if they are to engage in any form of selforganization. At the same time, it is extremely rare for an individual to possess such pressing needs so that they engage in self-building and self-organization, for such a long stretch of time, allowing them to develop new skills and insights along the way, and moreover, nourishing a Amelia and some of her initiatives in Villa 31, willingness and ability to build up a sym­bio­tic relationship Buenos Aires. between their individual needs and collective needs. Currently, a great interest in self-organization can be found. Parallel groups of students and researchers from all over the world could be encountered at other slums and favelas, all eager to learn from amazing indi­viduals such as Alicia. The tendency toward privatization pertains to all areas. Public authorities retreat; the market takes over. Where does this leave the architect and urbanist? Smallscale initiatives, particularly in the field of housing and temporary usage of post-industrial locations for the creative industry, explore collective private patronage as an op­tion to shift the balance of power and initiative from the public authorities toward the individual. But is this a realistic


7/02/12 21:45



Volume 30 147

countries. An important characteristic of pro­fes­sion­ali­za­tion Stakeholders versus Ownership is that it entails standardized training; another vital trait When UNStudio first became involved in Arnhem Central, is that the authorization to practice is regulated through the the masterplan for the station area of Arnhem, the location membership of professional institutions.2 Today’s experts had already been the subject of many studies and plans. We took the opportunity to start over and investigate what no longer see profes­sionalization as static and normative; was actually happening at the location. A surprising finding the process is never completed.3 In the fields of architecture was that the railway station area, the grounds of which and urbanism we can distin­guish opposing pulling and were co-owned by the municipality and the NS, the Dutch pushing forces when it comes to the establishment of pro­ national rail­ways, could more justly be defined as a mixedfessional directives. Some ten­den­cies are towards greater use transfer area. Of all the visitors passing the loca­tion on control and uniformity (certifi­ca­tion, European regulations), an average day, fewer than forty percent were going to and while others point to the culti­va­tion of competitive mar­ket­ from the railway sta­tion. The re­main­der would be changing able distinctions. Both tenden­cies result in an under­standing from one bus to another, or switch­ing be­tween bus, bicycle, of profes­sional identity as increasingly specialized and foot, or car. The question we there­fore posed to the muni­ci­ restricted. In sum, the still ongoing process of the profes­ pality was: who gets to decide what happens at this location? siona­li­za­tion of architec­ture entails the inter­nalization of There were two majority owners. One of these, the NS, more and more distancing strategies and constraints. To me, was used to exercising certain institutional power. From the therefore, if the public domain between private enclaves lies mid-nineteenth century onward the railway station has taken unclaimed and ne­glected, this is not entirely due to a lack a central place within the urban constel­lation as an easily of self-organizing capacities or ideological analpha­betism recog­nizable, on the part of any particular stakeholder, but is really at least busy, and iconic partially caused by the suc­cess­ful framing of competencies. mani­fes­tation Since proposing to become less professional does not of mass mobility. present a credible solution, the way for­ward is to develop But should this alternative tactics to heed the gaps. Such strat­egies are tradi­tion be con­ dedicated to the uncovering and uti­li­zation of overlapping tinued? Was an interests, rather than the maxi­mi­za­tion of singular interests. iconic NS station As Paul Hirst has shown, “space is configured by power really necessary? and (…) becomes a resource for power”.4 I would like to If so, the city suggest that archi­tects often do not sufficiently realize that would have to they possess an exclusive agency on the potent substance wait for it until of space with their pro­fessional skills. Hirst pays particular the NS were atten­tion to Foucault who gave shape to his conceptuali­za­tion good and ready, of power by means of particular spaces and buildings: which, as the NS the prison, the fortress, the madhouse.5 Seen in this way, made clear, was the intimate and detailed knowledge of space that architects going to take possess gives them an opportunity to at least participate some time. The in the proportioning, design, and to some extent distribution current station, of power. How does one handle that power? The architect built after the needs to understand the essential contested nature of space, Diagram of passenger flows in Arnhem’s public transport hub. Diagram UN Studio, 2001 previous one had and then offer solutions that take into account the many and been destroyed partly conflicting interests associated with spatial occupa­tion. in the Second World War, was generally deemed inadequate. The best way to do this is by con­nect­ing to a network. The The city was ready to take over the initiative from the NS. network offers a greater security from the risk of societal Strength­ened by our analysis, which showed that occupa­tiondamage – caused by the tipping over of one particular selfwise the NS did not re­pre­sent the majority interest at the interest at the expense of others – than individual good will. location, the desir­ability of an NS icon became question­able. I therefore would pro­pose that a techno-spatial innovative Should the railway station take the same prime, almost approach, devel­oped and realized within a network of spe­ monumental position in the city as it did in the nineteenth cialists, contains the most likely and prom­ising strategy century when, really, today there is nothing more to be within our pro­fes­sionalized society. With UNStudio we have found inside than some automated ticket machines and long sought to make this our professional specialization; convenience shopping? there is no club or association for it yet, but I would argue Of course, as the subsequent history of Arnhem that our relational approach can be seen as the pro­fes­ Central shows, this decision led to a process that was far sional counterweight to self-organization. from plain sailing. We have been working uninterruptedly on this project from 1996 onwards and there have been Expansive Strategies quite a few setbacks. But meanwhile, an integrated transfer Visionary schemes and scenarios have their use as zone has been realized incrementally, which includes an beacons, shining a light on dark and hidden spots. A expansion that generates 80,000 square meters of office lot of the time, however, architects work with clients, space, 11,000 square meters of shops, 150 housing units, de­tailed briefs, and deadlines. Yet, even within that a new station hall and bus terminal, a fourth railway plat­ reality there are numerous ways to explore the areas form, a railway underpass, a car tunnel, storage for 5,000 where common concerns occur; where the brief and bicycles, and a garage for 1,000 cars. even the budget may offer space for a double reading. The bus terminal and train station create an inte­grated I will describe two different situations, each with their public transportation area that has replaced the local icon­ own specific strategy aimed at expanding the selficity of the railway station with a contemporary, more organizing powers of the architect. The first situation dif­fuse and diverse identity. This identity finds expression involves stakeholder relations; the second focuses in a landscaped solution, in which pedestrian accessibility on the public within private space.

V30_FINAL_RED.indd 147

7/02/12 21:45

Model of Arnhem’s new public transport hub. Design UN Studio 1996 – 2014

is the common denominator and determin­ing factor. The intersection of different traffic systems is reduced to a mini­mum to optimize pedestrian access to all facilities. Light falls through from above onto the lower entrances to the station, garage, and offices, and creates long and clear sight­lines, aiding pedestrian orien­tation and wayfinding. Pedestrian movements, transport systems, light, built form, and the distribution of the program are twhus fused in one continuous landscape. The final project may be eval­uated in different ways, but there is no doubt that at its root was a stake­holder analysis that was not an immediately obvious preliminary step to a masterplan study, yet was feasible within the competence of the architect. Public within Private Space

The debate about the privatization of public space has largely been confined to American critics, var­io­ usly taking the form of an accu­sa­tion, a lament, or a caution.6 This compelling critique of the modern city to a new critic might

Masterplan Arnhem Central

Municipality of Arhem

issue an invitation to formulate a counter cri­tique. To the networked pro­fes­sional it presents a different chal­lenge. What are we to make of this situation? Do we simply go along with it, or can there be more to it? In 2004 UNStudio was com­ mis­sioned to design a new façade and interior for an existing depart­ment store in Seoul. Subsequently we de­ signed two other depart­ment stores in Asia.7 In each case we made a point of re­versing, or expanding on, the critical prem­ise of the pri­va­ti­za­ tion of public space and re­claimed the public space within the pri­va­tized one. The public space of the depart­ ment store in our view consists of two ele­ments: the public cir­culation system and the eleva­tions. The pub­ lic circulation sys­tem is the frame­ work holding the shop-in-shops. These indi­vid­ually branded shops represent the com­mercial value of the store and are designed by the brands them­selves. The public space sur­round­ing them has no in­trinsic economic worth. It is es­sen­tially interstitial space, and can be filled-in architecturally in any way. This is of par­tic­ular significance in South East Asia, where depart­ment stores are used by people as places to meet, eat, drink, and both shop and window shop. As the department store is such a popular social and leisure destination, the architect really needs to confront the social and cultural ex­perience of the vis­itor. While it is unde­niably true that the underlying goal is to attract visitors to the store, meaning that an over­arch­ing com­mercial interest drives the client, it is also significant that these buildings are freely accessible and are used exten­ sively in South East Asia as urban leisure space. The point here is that the architect needs to actively search for oppor­ tunities to expand on the public potential by look­ing beyond the brief. A bottom-up approach or a partic­i­pa­tory design process is out of the question, but this does not mean that the architect, again within the network of specialists, is sur­ rendered to a single stake­holder. An awareness of relational space en­sures that there is a constant professional obligation

Province of Gelderland City Region Arnhem/Nijmegen Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Env.

NSP Arnhem Public Transport Terminal

Delegated client Prorail

Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and Environment Ministry of Infrastructure (Roads, Rail and Water)

Arnhem Central

Railways in Arnhem

Client Prorail

Municipality of Arnhem

Province of Gelderland

NS Poort

City Region Arnhem/Nijmegen

Ministry of Infrastructure (Roads, Rail and Water)

Offices in Arnhem Central

Stakeholders in Arnhem’s public transport hub.

V30_FINAL_RED.indd 148


Volume 30

(NS Poort)


7/02/12 21:45



Photo Christian Richters

to the public interest. At first glance, these projects ap­pear very limited, but a focus on the issue of the distri­bution of space loosens the commercial constraints at least to an ex­tent. An expanded interpretation of utility beyond effi­ciency and profitability is thus at the heart of the design of the public space within these privatized spaces. The façades of each of the three department stores also were primarily treated as urban objects. Advertising space was minimized, even though from Times Square to People’s Square commercial surfaces tend to be fully

are continuously aware that space, being so strongly cor­ related to power, is a highly contested resource. Prac­tically every square meter on the planet is coveted, fought over, and claimed.8 The architect needs to be considerate of con­ flicting interests. Any identification with just one stake­ holder contains a risk. Sometimes, as in Arnhem Central, visualizations of the stakeholder positions can generate groundbreaking insights. Even then, the archi­tect needs to remain careful in choosing alliances. A rela­tional approach, entailing a focus on overlapping inter­ests, offers the potential to distribute space more equitably. Finally, returning to the question of selforganiza­tion; is there any way an architect or urban planner can realistically aspire to the wisdom of an Alicia? After all, it took thirty or more extremely difficult years for her self-interest and col­lective interest to evolve into one and the same thing. In the Netherlands, experiments with self-building and collective private patronage, while interest­ing and worthwhile, in­volve intermediate parties such as social workers or profes­sional project managers to assist these individuals and groups with the lengthy and com­plex building process. The pro­fes­ sion­ali­zation of the design and building industry has made a more direct form of self-organization impossible. In fact, as Arend has argued, profes­ sionalization char­ac­terizes the conduct of all participants in many pro­cesses relating to spatial planning. If you want to have a say, you should ex­pect to play by the rules and know the game of give and take.9 Thus, each stakeholder, from the project devel­oper proposing a new shop­ping center to the member of the local environ­men­tal group, has become a sort of professional in a densely woven network. My conclusion would be that this is a good thing and that our alter­native to self-organization is taking part in that network of professionals, which jointly takes care of the balance of stakeholder interests.

Volume 30

Interior of the Galleria Centercity, Cheonan, South-Korea. Design UNStudio 2008 – 2010.


plastered with neon signs. Also similar in all three façade treatments is the choice to break up the scale of the buildings. From the outside, legible floor heights are ab­sent. Instead, patterns, different ones in each case, have been chosen that present the building as an urban arti­fact as a whole. These patterns are made up of mixed media: a combination of slats, lamellas, screens, fins, or disks with lighting and anima­tions on top, resulting in dif­ferent effects by day and by night. Again, the designs UNStudio has come up with may be judged positively or negatively, but the point is that the opportunity to appropriate space to the public domain was discerned and an expansive design strategy ensued. The examples from UNStudio’s practice show that we

V30_FINAL_RED.indd 149

5 6

7 8


1 Caroline Bos, et al. ‘Moderne Diaspora en Kracht­ wijken, Referenties uit Sao Paulo en Buenos Aires’ in: Research Journey 3 of The Urban Connection Programme (Utrecht: University of Utrecht 2008). 2 Rolf Torstendahl, ‘Introduction: promotion and strat­ egies of knowledge-based groups’, in: R. Torstendahl and M. Burrage (eds), The Formation of Professions (London: Sage Publications 1990). 3 Sonja Henriëtta van der Arend, Pleitbezorgers proces­ managers en participanten: Interactief beleid en de rol­verdeling tussen overhead en burgers in de Nederlandse democratie (Delft: Eburon 2007). 4 Paul Hirst, Space and Power Politics, War and Archi­ tec­ture (Cambridge CA: Polity Press Cambridge 2005). Ibidem. D. Mitchell ‘People’s Park, Definitions of the Public, and Democracy’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 85, No. 1 1995. see also: (M. Davis City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, (Verso 1990, 2000), C. Boyer, The City of Collective Memory (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1994). Galleria Department Store, Seoul, 2005. Star Plaza, Kiaohsiung, 2008. Cheonan Galleria, Cheonan, 2010. Stephen Graham and Patsy Healey, ‘Relational Concepts of Space and Place: Issues for Planning Theory and Practice’, European Planning Studies, Vol. 7, No 5, (1999). Sonja Henriëtta van der Arend [see note 3 above].

7/02/12 21:45

Volume 30: Privatize!