The Anywhere City

I love architecture. I love buildings — the art, the engineering, the design, the culture and history of them, and how they form en masse actually places that people recognise and form emotional attachments to; the design of cities, their growth, evolution and (perhaps sadly) eventual decline are all utterly fascinating to me. So I sometimes write about architectural stuff here, as it has a kinship in my mind with the design of type and lettering. I should warn you, this post is a bit of a rant, and because of the subject matter is a tad more political than normal. So, with that out of the way, we can proceed.

I follow a fair few architecture-related sites, one of which (and the most regularly and rewardingly updated) is Arch Daily. It’s basically a pretty damn fine site if you’re into architecture, featuring thousands of projects, new and old, innovative and traditional, and so on. One important thing I’ve noticed is that most of the larger projects being planned and built have a lot in common with each other, with innovation and traditional technique alike apparently reserved for the smaller projects. I’d actually go further and say these large projects are not merely similar but all subscribe to the same blank, unrelenting anonymity — an utterly uninspiring (if glittering and crystalline) mediocrity. Look at the renders below (from this article on New Chengdu City Center on Arch Daily), they could be anywhere in the world:

chengdu
LA? Seattle? Tokyo? Osaka? Johannesburg? Frankfurt? Moscow? Almaty? Seoul? Beijing? Taipei? Mexico City? Sydney? Bangalore? Buenos Aires? Santiago?

We’re not talking about adherence to some new International Style here — these buildings subscribe to no ethos, no design principle, no philosophy. They are the safe, neutral buildings guaranteed to be approved by conservative planning departments wanting the skyline of New York, Chicago or Hong Kong at any cost, ignoring the culture, history and sense of place of the city they’re supposedly ‘improving’, and with little to no apparent understanding of the conditions that gave those cities their skylines. Oh sure, they’ll package up some significant buildings, a monument here, a couple of streets there, and they’ll be prettied up and photographed for the ‘culture’ section of tourist brochures, and meanwhile vast swathes of the city will disappear under motorways (labelled ‘boulevards’), office blocks (sorry, ‘towers’) and shopping malls (or ‘pedestrian-friendly traditional streets’) and dreary dormitory estates (‘upscale residential developments’). Then they stick some thin screed of greenwashing over the top and invoke the holy acronym of LEED and declare themselves satisfied.

At this point I probably sound like some arch-traditionalist, railing against the depredations of the modern world and all it brings, but that’s not my intention, or my point. My problem with these developments is that they’re being sold to rapidly-expanding cities around the world and aren’t being designed with the long-term life of those cities in mind. Cities like Chengdu have ancient histories and in some cases still have some of their original structure and urban fabric intact — architecture firms, planners, and most importantly, citizens need to recognise what’s valuable about the best and even the worst areas of their cities and think long and hard before approving any large-scale improvements. If this sounds like western cultural imperialism, the jumped-up western opinionist telling people desperate for an improvement to their lives that they should keep their barrios, their slums, their favelas and their cramped hutongs then perhaps it is. But then, I’m not the only one to say it and this isn’t to say those slum areas should stay slums, that they can’t improve or change on smaller, community-level scales. There doesn’t have to be an overarching project to demolish and replace them with some glittering arcology, instead, a longer-term effort to support the communities within them and prevent their control by gangs, just like what’s happening in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, including the infamous City of God itself:

For decades the favelas have been a deadly battleground, where thousands died in the turf wars of rival gangsters and drug lords. But two years ago - in anticipation of the football World Cup in 2014 and the 2016 Summer Olympics, the government launched a new initiative. Since then the Police Pacifying Units (UPP), have moved into 12 favelas, freeing 150,000 people from the control of the gangs and bringing a new calm to embattled neighbourhoods.

You can watch the full report, ‘Peace in the favelas’ on Al Jazeera’s site.

While the Chengdu development appears to be built at the edge of the metropolitan area, giving perhaps the possibility of the city’s core remaining intact, there are a whole new set of problems as the city expands into wild areas and farmland. Earlier this year Václav Havel explained some of the problems this kind of expansion can cause, citing his experience of the changes to Prague in recent years:

What was until recently clearly recognisable as the city is now losing its boundaries and with them its identity. It has become a huge overgrown ring of something I can’t find a word for. It is not a city as I understand the term, nor suburbs, let alone a village. Apart from anything else it lacks streets or squares. There is just a random scattering of enormous single-storey warehouses, supermarkets, hypermarkets, car and furniture marts, petrol stations, eateries, gigantic car parks, isolated high-rise blocks to be let as offices, depots of every kind, and collections of family homes that are admittedly close together but are otherwise desperately remote.Václav Havel at Forum 2000, October 2010

You can see the effect of this round many British cities; instead of a boundary, the place tails off with business parks, warehouses, big-box stores, and strange areas of empty land, prevented from becoming wild, not used for agriculture, not built on, just waiting. There is nothing about these hinterlands that gives you any clue to where you are, not just which city, but which region and (road signs aside) even which country. Governments bang on about growth, endless growth, but very few people seem to ask what kind of growth it is we want. The kind of growth that turns our cities into this kind of anonymous emulsion of steel, glass and concrete doesn’t seem to be the growth anyone would choose, but the consequences of any individual action that bring it about are so far removed that effectively our choices are abstracted to boardrooms and cabinet offices, where we have little say. When faced with the Anywhere City, should you just shrug and accept it?