Last week, I found myself in an almost endless queue of people hopeful to see a panel of international urban dons assembled at the London School of Economics to celebrate the launch of the book Living in the Endless City. This follow-up to 2007′s The Endless City is again edited by Deyan Sudjic and Ricky Burdett and charts the work of the Urban Age Project over recent years, bringing together the sometimes disparate communities of what Sudjic calls “observers, shapers and professionals.” The blockbuster line-up of academics, mayors and architects who write on Mumbai, São Paulo and Istanbul were represented on the panel and assembled in congregation.
Over the course of the evening, a unifying theme — or, perhaps, a unifying language — emerged despite the broad range of speakers and disciplinary approaches: specificity; the differences between cities as opposed to their commonalities. The globe-trotting group, who might be accused of “seeing cities from thirty thousand feet,” all honed in on what they called the DNA of the individual city: the built, social and economic variability of a particular place. It felt like a departure from the tired categorizations of mega, global and world cities and Burdett illuminated the quantitative distinctions with a succession of typically hard-hitting statistics which never fail to make his narrative powerful. Although he prefaced the evening with the customary cautionary tale of the rates of urbanization and prospective densities, there was an uncustomary tone of compromise or reconciliation. He asks, riffing off the old saying: “Can you build a place like Rome in twenty years? With its accumulated complexity and sense of accretion? The answer is No.” The built response to the demand placed on city-making is necessary and compromising but, as the opening line of the book suggests, “Cities are political programs made visible” and therefore always up for debate and subject to alternatives.
Joan Clos, a former mayor of Barcelona six months into his new role as executive director of UN-Habitat, chose to speak not about one of the cities or indeed continents presented in the book. Instead, he took the opportunity to pose what he feels is one of the most burning questions of the moment. Speaking on sub-Saharan Africa, he asked, “How are we going to deal with a continent that is going to double its urban population without industrialization in the next 15 years?” The uniqueness of this particular instance of mass urbanization, one unaccompanied by the industrialization that has traditionally instigated it in other historical contexts, proved a very interesting point to reflect on. Clos distinguished between the agrarian shift taking place in China and the migrants that arrive in the African city with no promise or even real hope of a job. Newcomers arrive to the informal city not as a platform from which enter the formal city but because the slums themselves represent urban opportunity. In the context of the continued urbanization of poverty, Burdett and the book emphasize the potential — and responsibility — that planners and urban shapers have in giving these cities a form that recognizes its impact on the ecology of the planet and the social well-being of the people who live there.
Professor Caglar Keyder was invited to speak on Istanbul, a city whose cliché tagline of bridging East and West he immediately re-spatialized as one which in the 1980s regained its role as a central place in the region, a centrifugal urban force upon the former Soviet States, the Balkans and the Middle East which surround it. “It’s Istanbul (Not Globalization),” as Hashim Sarkis’ contribution to the book is titled, is a nice phrasing of the particular type of social and economic transformation the city has undergone. Keyder says that, while in its penultimate transformation Istanbul was a third world metropolis, with 60% of housing “illegal” and the majority of the economy informal, now a successful formalization of the built environment and economy has taken place. While being a city of considerable size before, it has increased by 1300% in the last century through previously informal and more recently formal ways. However, he suggests that Istanbul is succumbing to the homogenizing typologies of speed and a “Violence of Change,” as Asu Aksoy sets out in the book, which tells a familiar global story.
Saskia Sassen’s comments on the evening provided an economic twist on the homogenization of built form. She says of the office typology of central cities: ‘There is a homogenization of the visual order. No matter how brilliant or original the architect’s shaping of a building, you smell the homogeneity and there is no way around that.” She suggests that the “office” typology with “office work” out-sourced to back offices at the edge of the city hides the nuanced and specialized differences that occur inside. She proposes that the deep economic history of a place actually matters and that this should be made clear not just in the form of the city but in how cities compete. In a global or even national order the economic or productive differences should be a bartering tool to ask more of multi-national companies and sustain a real politics among cities.
Gareth Jones gave a compelling presentation on the associational life of young people in São Paulo and Latin America through their relationships in and to the city and representations of it. In his research he seeks out the dramatic variability of the social life of the city and implores that the impulse or event of originality in the city must be maintained even if its potential for change is as yet uncertain. Richard Sennett extended Jones’ argument and suggested that the money that accompanies most styles of development result in over-determined form of the high-rise type, and that this form impairs the originality that Jones admires. He asked how more complexity and more depth can be afforded to the act of making. His closing comments were in some way a response to the time question on Rome which Burdett posed at the beginning. Sennett noted a paradigm shift in what we mean by design and what everyone thinks of as design in the city, moving away from the notion of finished objects to an ongoing process of making and re-making: endless city-making.
Living in the Endless City. The Urban Age Project by the London School of Economics and Deutsche Bank’s Alfred Herrhausen Society
Published by Phaidon 2011
Speakers: Dr Joan Clos, Dr Gareth Jones, Professor Caglar Keyder, Professor Saskia Sassen, Professor Richard Sennett
Chairs: Ricky Burdett, Deyan Sudjic
Claire Mookerjee is an artist and urbanist living in London.
All photos courtesy LSE Cities.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.