Archis 2002 #1

Transurbi et transorbis

— by

POST

In retrospect, it must be said that the term ‘postmodernism’ used to have something reassuring about it, like all ‘post’ terms. ‘Post’ means no more than that something is undergoing rapid change with an unknown destination. No terms, or no new ones, yet exist for the outcome, so we have to identify the process by reference to its predecessor. However, what went before, modernism as in ‘postmodernism’, the city as in the ‘post metropolis’ and industrial production as in the ‘post industrial society’, indeed, all that is past, becomes in turn more comprehensible and tangible the further we leave it behind us. It also grows more glamorous.

 

Yet the clearer the past becomes in form, the more shapeless the present. All ‘post’ terms are by nature backward looking and hence tend towards nostalgia; at their best they lead to cultural criticism and deconstruction, and at their worst to desperation and a politics of ‘leave someone else to sort it out’. The maxim that he who does not know the past is condemned to forever repeat his mistakes, has a new counterpart here: he who knows only the past, is condemned to endlessly repeat the same tale of loss.

 

And this is why it has been bon ton for over forty years now among architects and urbanists to say that the city is disintegrating and vanishing owing to new modes of transport and communication. The four urban functions of working, living, leisure and transport which Le Corbusier once so elegantly deployed in his model of the city, can no longer be separated from one another either spatially or socially. Living and transport have become practically identical (viz. Paul Virilio’s account of the rail commuter who meets his friends and acquaintances in the train and merely passes the night in his dormitory city home).

 

Insofar as a house still has any function beyond a place to sleep, it derives from the amusement park like character of the surrounding neighbourhood (e.g. Walt Disney’s Celebration, gated communities or Amsterdam’s Canal Girdle). What was once a place, the city, has now become a brand, a logo, a ‘townscape’ which itself consists of clusters of brands and logos. The city has ceased to be a clearly localizable spatial unit and has transformed into what might be termed an ‘urban field’, a collection of activities instead of a material structure.

 

The contemporary urban experience is splendidly symbolized by the mobile phone: wherever your mobile works is the city, and anywhere else is the countryside. The Netherlands is consequently one big city, a region–city; and it is not all that vast in comparison to Beijing or São Paulo, cities which each have a population nearly double that of the low countries.

 

Grumbling about the disintegration of the city always contains an implicit reference to what the city used to be. There are two idealized archetypes which have some currency. The first is the medieval variant, the city as a tangle of narrow streets and little neighbourhoods, grouped around a central market square with a cathedral and a town hall, business, religion and politics, entirely surrounded on the outside by a wall marking the boundary between town and country.

 

The other archetype is that of the late nineteenth century, semi industrialized ‘boulevard and parks’ city, in which the former impenetrability and rigidity of the urban mass has been broken open, and the boundaries between inside and outside, and between politics and business have not so much been erased as blurred. The medieval city is associated with a pre-architectural era: no architect or town planner was ever involved in shaping it.

 

The nineteenth-century city belongs to the heyday of planning and targeted architecture, the former being military in character, the latter scenographic. The street pattern of the medieval city follows the logic of the labyrinth, and that of the nineteenth century city the logic of the grid. And so on. Once the ideal has been invoked, it becomes possible to portray the decline in vivid colours; to depict how the urban fabric has been torn and fragmented by the introduction of railways, cars, air transport, TV, computers, the Internet; how the antithesis between the market square and the town perimeter has been replaced by one between the city centre and the suburbs; and how nondescript satellite towns then arose, all looking the same but all pretending to be different, while the original centralized city has turned either into an authentic ghetto or a simulated open air museum.

 

TRANS

The best model of the world is the world itself. Reducing the world to a few images, slogans, formulas or lines of development does not make it easier to understand. ‘The city’ never existed in history; there were only ‘cities’. A city is not a machine for the production of goods, people and urban experiences; the only kind of change a machine is party to is wearing out or breaking down, after which we replace the faulty parts or consign the whole thing to the scrap heap. That’s not how it happens with cities.

 

A city is an unstable system, a living system which is in a state of continual decomposition, but which also continually reorganizes and rearranges itself, which expands and shrinks. One of the actors or ‘agencies’ in this process of selforganization is the urban population, including the city’s architects, urbanists and local government officials. Other ‘agencies’ include technical developments, the mass media and migrations. What is wrong with the various ‘post’ terms is that they describe the city from the outside, from the perspective of the past. But every description of a process is itself a product of that process.

 

Every cityscape is a function of the city imagined. If you want to understand a development, it’s no good standing outside the process; you have to wade into it. You have to allow yourself to be developed by the developments. From the outside, you see only the movements: what stands still, what shifts, what disappears. From the inside, you detect the transformations: what direction things are going in, what is changing and what new things are emerging.

 

Cities have not grown more formless than they were during the last forty, hundred or thousand years. There has been no increase in entropy, but rather an ever greater informedness and organization. Cities are growing increasingly complex, increasingly rich in internal and external linkages, increasingly comprehensive and concentrated, increasingly transparent yet incomprehensible. That’s obvious as soon as you abandon the ‘post’ position and move on to a ‘trans’ attitude, in other words, when you consciously go along with the developments instead of frantically trying to maintain a position outside them.

 

People do not change because they wish to do so, but because they allow themselves to be changed and, in doing so, themselves modify the broader process of transformation in which they are being swept along. The variant within postmodernism known as ‘posturbanism’ is urbanism minus the present: a design strategy characterized by the fragmentation of familiar material, by collage, montage and quotation. ‘Post’ though it may be, there is no escaping the great mistake of modernism, that the built environment, the walls and the ceilings, do not really matter and must therefore be made as transparent and functional (i.e. invisible) as possible.

 

The spaces created and the movements that are made possible within these spaces are primary. Those movements are informed by act of building; the buildings themselves are low in information. ‘Transurbanism’ is by contrast urbanism plus transformation. Transformation is the multiplication of information. Transurbanism is a theory of the transition of cities as they are now, towards a design process in which the highly-informed character of every built environment is used as a design resource by that environment itself.

 

CO

Cities have always been places for strangers to visit and live; their presence made it possible for the inhabitants to define themselves as autochthonous. The word ‘culture’ denoted a collection of images, customs, assumptions and peculiarities that were the concrete expression of the autochthony of the inhabitants. A city, a region or a country could be recognized by its building style, costume, festivals and mentality. To paraphrase Johan Huizinga, the culture is where the local population ‘enacts’ its identity.

 

The school around the corner from where I live caters for children of twenty-six different nationalities. My city has residents of ninety-five different nationalities, some of them concentrated in particular neighbourhoods but mostly dispersed around the urban area. The name of my city is irrelevant, for much the same applies to cities all around the world. All those nationalities, and within each nationality all kinds of subgroups which are not always distinguishable to outsiders, ‘enact’ their own culture. Sometimes they do so in order to distinguish themselves from one another, but often it is to reinforce connections or indeed similarities.

 

They each have their own sports, religious occasions, video shops, eating places, community representatives, music, TV channels, street habits, child raising methods and preferred vehicles; and these continually cross and intersect with the cultural networks other communities have woven within the city web. Nobody has a single culture any longer, but all participate in a multiplicity of ‘cultures’. What was once a homogeneous, low information monoculture has now become a high information, heterogeneous cultural process; the continual transformation process of temporary coalitions, collisions, hybridizations and migrations that we call ‘city life’.

 

The rule for participation in a culture is that you have to change so as to adapt yourself to existing cultural forms, over and over again; and you have to change the given cultural forms so that you fit in, over and over again. We are no longer present in a single place but we are continually co-present in many different places, not as soon as we step outside the house and enter the city context, but for example as soon as we turn on the computer or the TV.

 

The low-information home has similarly turned into a high-information node in a network of data and commodity flows. Within a radius of 100 metres around my house, you will find not only an Ethiopian, Turkish, Indian, Japanese and American restaurant, but also a greengrocer where in November you can buy Egyptian strawberries, mange-tout peas from Kenya, oranges from South Africa, et cetera. The homes of the vegetable and fruit farmers of Ethiopia, Kenya, Turkey, Egypt, India and Japan have moreover become just as information-rich as their counterparts in the West, and their occupants’ imagination is equally stimulated to visit this country as ours is to go to their countries: migration in one case, and tourism in the other.

 

As Arjun Appadurai has observed, the power of imagination, charged as it is by the mass media, has become one of the major social and political factors of our times. On the one hand, the media stimulate people to move somewhere else, in search of a better life. The ‘asylum seekers’ problem has become a permanent social state of affairs. On the other hand, those same media make it possible for migrants, having settled elsewhere for the while, to maintain contact with their home base – although within one generation the land of origin itself has become a place of the imagination.

 

A city is not really just a network of intersecting information and commodity flows, that would be too meagre a representation. The city is still localized as a place or a region, but ‘locality’ now means the feeling of being somewhere, of having a place in a context where your life has some relevance. A city produces a series of ‘localities’. It no longer is a single public domain but is a concatenation of a series of diaspora related public domains in which numerous ‘cultures’ or ‘contexts’ are settled but linked via the media to similar cultures and contexts elsewhere. ‘India’ is located not only in India but in the Gulf States, in London, in the Carribean and in my street. ‘America’ is to be found all over the world, although less and less often in the United States.

 

A ‘culture’ is a translocal, unstable system that blossoms forth, now here and now there, produces localities, goes into decline, metamorphoses, subsides once more and recovers. Instead of ‘cultures’, it might be better to speak of ‘cultural systems’ or of ‘translocalities’.
The philosophy of postmodernism recognized the downfall of the great narratives in which everything was explained as converging towards a higher consciousness of the present and the promise of a radiant future. Nobody still believes in progress, in the workers’ paradise, the Christian utopia or the engineered society.

 

There is no ultimate truth, everything is permitted, that’s the way it is. The only trouble is that the global restructuring process of postmodernism has reached the point where it has itself become another narrative in which everything converges, in which everything is explainable as leading to an awareness, sometimes inspiring but otherwise provoking resistance, of where we are going with our lives. The narrative is titled ‘globalization’, and the translocal cultures I referred to above are part of it. Transurbanism is urbanism in the era of globalization. The design challenge for architecture in this context is, instead of trying to create a single public domain, to create an atmosphere for the establishment and coexistence of a diversity of public domains.

 

TRANSCONTEXTUALIZE

You cannot design a city, but you can help a city organize itself as a living structure, not by breaking down all barriers to the streams of information and commodities, but by allowing specific obstacles, channels, retardations and accelerations to be designed for individual streams, and thus to be informed by the city itself. The apparatus that makes it possible to pursue this kind of design practice has matured in the last forty years. The technical basis underlying the narrative of globalization is, after all, the computer, the ‘great informationizer’, the ‘great interactor’.