At the outset of Cities, a conversation on the future of urbanism hosted by Columbia’s Studio-X and Lapham’s Quarterly at 92Y Tribeca, moderator Mark Wigley toasted to forging new friendships in a coming era of dynamic, if uncertain, city design. Considering the cumulative intellectual power behind the panel table, it was definitely a friendship worth celebrating — Lewis Lapham, National Correspondent for Harper’s and founder of Lapham’s Quarterly, NPR’s Robert Krulwich, GSAPP Professor of Historic Preservation Andrew Dolkart, and Jeffrey Inaba of C-Lab gathered to discuss what makes a city and how traditional tropes of urbanism will evolve in the contemporary metropolis.
Themes of science, myth and politics played out over the course of the evening, encompassing myriad approaches to the concept of the city. Though speculative and forward thinking, the panel turned to history, often personal histories, in answering questions levied by Wigley, BLDGBLOG’s Geoff Manaugh and audience members. Indeed, Wigley began the conversation with a glance to the past, asking if thinking about the city’s future today is akin to imagining the moon in the 1940s and ’50s — a project that necessarily combines speculative fiction with contemporary reality.
How does one build the future? Is it with lumber or the intellectual foundations of academics and critics? Lapham’s response set the tone for the ensuing dialogue. “The future is urban.” “The city is an act of imagination.” “The past is the lumber from which we build the future.” His poetic remarks are not completely novel, but they are essential and valuable points of departure for projective thinking. The appropriately architectural metaphor of course invites the question: how does one ‘build’ the future? Is it with lumber (or, more realistically, concrete and steel) or does it rise atop the intellectual foundations of academics and critics? One could say it is a synthesis of the two, but the panel ultimately suggested it is something more personal than that. Cities are experiential. And though they are defined by their critical mass, they are understood through their impact upon the individual. As Robert Krulwich pointed out, the city is consumed in personal ways and lived through private rhythms, and it is hard to see this reality changing.
Cities, Wigley proposed, will demand new types of research and new universities, a comment that seemed to consign today’s institutions to the same fate as the arguably outmoded medium of the print newspaper. Studio-X, with its research labs in in Beijing and Rio and Amman, may well be at the vanguard of new sites and institutional forms for the presentation of urban thought. But the conversation it curated was refreshingly old school, resisting the new media allure that has bewitched urbanism discourse lately. The atmosphere was convivial and boozy, and proceeded with such mild-mannered intellectual self-deprecation that I half expected Woody Allen to pop up. The event was, as Wigley announced, an homage to Lapham and a tribute to Lapham’s method: a sifting through of voices, distilling pertinent perspectives across a gamut of expertise. The panel assumed that the city, always relevant and unwieldy, cannot be pinned down nor assuredly predicted. No one is certain of the future of the city, hence the necessity of a conversation concerning it. Furthermore, the city, as such, is no one’s niche. Drawing upon a variety of sources enriches our exploration of what it means to be urban. Each panelist approached the topic from a different angle. Lapham is concerned with the city as it is represented; Dolkart, the architectural historian, looks to how its forms are documented; Krulwich sees it through the stories of individuals; and Inaba as a subject of research.
Corralling such varied commentators under one roof provided a moment to pause and reflect upon what the city has meant to us historically, how that is changing and how it will continue to change. The city has its own momentum. It does not need planners and theorists in order to adapt, but by considering recent history and commenting upon the contemporary city, the discussion was an intervention into developments already underway. Bringing together the gravitas of traditional media figures while keeping blog-based discourse in mind, the conversation artfully trod in both tangible media forms and the viral realm of online information.
The breadth of the topic and the celebration of the event’s urbanity in and of itself, however, may have hindered probing analysis into issues currently plaguing many cities. Panelists shied away from questions about divided cities, turning from a discussion of design and war to more general metaphors of diversity in the urban milieu. When an audience member compared divided cities that foster mixing to ones that exist separately and in parallel, such as the Palestinian city he was from, Lapham and Dolkart both dismissed his question as “political.” Political it obviously was, but when has a city not been? The polis was formed as a political entity and given the political climate of the world today designers will clearly need to reconcile division to move the city forward economically. What will cities of the Middle East, centers of capital unfettered by architectural traditionalism, look like if they are conflict torn? We can’t just consider Amman as a paradigm, we have to look at Baghdad too.
Similarly, the discussion skirted an examination of what panelists dubbed the “failed” city. Krulwich compared growing cities like Rio and Beijing to contracting ones like Detroit and Cleveland. In neglecting a deeper study of a city’s “failure” he missed an opportunity to make a prognosis for the shrinking city. Such cities cannot be written off and forgotten. In light of the talk’s historic tack, it was surprising that guests did not dig into the past in efforts to bring fallen cities up to speed. China and the Middle East may be the locus of growth, but urbanization is not confined to their high rises and transit rails. Inaba, in explaining the C-Lab-run Metropolitan Research Institute, touched upon the need to find incentives, often non-infrastructure-based, to bring culture and amenities to the recession city. Underlying the evening was the idea that, given the knowledge and resources the history of the city offers us, today’s urbanists are charged with resuscitating and renovating its forms. Though this point may have been eclipsed by an affectionate narrative of the city and city life, with new friends made and the future at hand, it can hopefully be the topic of a conversation to come.