the city we have – mammoth // building nothing out of something

the city we have

In a recent feature on Archinect, Will Galloway of Front Office (they have a blog here) discusses the predilection of architects for the wholesale urban renovation (which, despite the prominence of theoretical frameworks that intend to offer alternatives, remains the dominant tendency of designers, even those working within frameworks — such as landscape urbanism — which explicitly reject that predilection) as well as the refusal to confront the informal where it actually exists in the modern Western city, the suburb:

“The developed world’s version of ad-hoc urban growth – suburbia! – certainly doesn’t elicit the same marveling response that uncontrolled fringe settlements get from visitors to the developing world … I wonder, why don’t we look at our own cities with the same open eyes as we look at places like Mumbai or Medellín; searching not for failure and horror, but for potential? Is the unplanned city only valid if it’s dense and dirty? Why don’t we see our cities as legitimate landscapes from which we can build our future?”

I have a number of minor quibbles with Galloway’s article (for instance: I don’t think I’d agree that there is no ecological reason to promote density, though I would agree that the dry formula “density=good, sprawl=bad” is simplistic), but he does a commendable job of teasing out two important and contradictorary threads, which are that the informal city, whether in the developing or the developed world, is (a) pregnant with possibility and (b) problematic and in need of intervention.  Becker and I would, obviously, like to think that it is exactly those contradictorary threads we were addressing with our recent project/essay on fog farming in Luanda.

These contradictions also tie back into the observations Stephen made a couple weeks ago about the endurance of the city.  The permanence of infrastructures such as roads and property lines is the exactly the reason why tactical insertions aimed at altering the city through the modification of flows of capital, people, goods, services, water, etc. are the proper tools for the urbanist.  Observing the permanence of the city argues for flux-based interventions, not against them, as it is this permanence which renders the grand scheme inoperable and insufficiently pragmatic.  The significance of the recent projects in Medellin that Galloway takes note of is not that they fetishize the problems of the slums they are sited within (or refuse to confront them), but that they confront them without attempting to erase the existing condition of the city.   Improvement without demolition.  The master planner — whether a new urbanist, a landscape urbanist, or modernist — refuses to confront the exigencies of the city, both good and bad, preferring to imagine an idealized condition (which, when constructed, is much more likely to trend towards dystopia than utopia).  Learning to deal with the city we have, and, in particular, the informal city in guises suburban and slummed, is, as Galloway argues, an essential challenge.

[Galloway’s article via Nam Henderson, in a post on JG Ballard and Mike Davis]

6 Responses to “the city we have”

  1. […] agree with all this. Big Bang Urbanism – what a great term.  Those sort of ground up utopian visions are the lifted […]

  2. […] landscapes. The design of the mechanisms by which our tactical interventions (or unfortunate master plan extravaganzas) are funded has deep and profound implications, not just for the binary question of […]

  3. […] those options is best, but I will say that Stephen and I have been trying to develop a consistent argument that it is best to do architecture (even paper architecture) in a way that, at the very least, […]

  4. […] dollar stores, and Bridgett’s Last Laugh Karaoke and Fish Fry.” More evidence of the suburb as a locus for informality in the American city. See the full slideshow at Places, and a map of the locations Mann is studying in Phoenix and […]

  5. […] and “positive” (useful) categories, but it does serve to extend mammoth’s consistent argument that it is vital to work with the city we have, to not make plans which wish away the parts of the […]

  6. […] this is kind of an odd post, given our frequent arguments for the importance of understanding, working with, and valuing the American suburb.  We like to hold these things in tension — esteem for the […]