Lab Notes I

How Does a City Come to Be?

With research by Johanna Vandemoortele
Lab Notes I: Trends from the New York Lab | Retrofitting Urban Life

and then it became a city – bus interior

Public bus transportation as part of the exhibition and then it became a city, Shenzhen, China, 2011

Urbanization has increased rapidly since the middle of the twentieth century, and the number of new planned towns and neighborhoods has risen steeply in locations both expected and unexpected, from Asia, the Middle East, and Europe to remote locations in Africa and South America. Many of the new-town-turned-cities are currently undergoing rapid change: we see decline or growth, but somehow the ideal city we were made to believe in throughout the last century has almost always turned out to be far from ideal in reality.

This makes me think of a 1999 lecture by the Brit Paul Barker titledNon-Plan Revisited,” which I recently reread in the Journal of Design History. For years Barker was the editor of the progressive British magazine New Society, working with Cedric Price and Peter Hall, among others. In this particular talk, he looks back at their 1969 “Non-Plan” issue, which spoke up against the strategies of modernist urban planning. He recounts how no one had been “clever enough to know in advance, how cities will grow,” simply because: “You cannot tell which innovation will germinate and multiply a thousand-fold (like the mobile phone). Nor can we tell how people will decide to organize their lives, or how tastes in patterns of living will develop.”

As a result of our shameless twentieth-century ambitions and our still-apparent lack of understanding of cities, we are now driven to a steady stream of rezoning, renovating, and—currently the most popular word—retrofitting of the built environment. Let’s call it the Three Re’s of urban development (or should we say urban re-development?). Former industrial zones are being turned into tourist attractions, former rail lines into parks, and former red light districts into [fill in the blank] . . . you must know the drill by now.

You wonder why the manifold initial uses and later physical adaptations of urban space so rarely become part of the official documentation that architects and planners create of their work. In publications and lectures they often do not go beyond simple portraiture through maps and photos of newly developed neighborhoods taken right after completion. These usually capture no more of the area than a moment frozen in time, snapped just before it goes into actual development in real life.

In his talk Barker reflects on the concerns that the writers of New Society already had with this aspect of urban planning in the 1960s. He states: “So often, and this continues to be true, an urban plan was said to be fulfilled when it had only been completed. No one checked whether it did the job it set out to do.” It is discouraging to realize that we may have not advanced much in the 50 years since—or, for that matter, in the 13 years that have passed since the Barker talk.

Even though you would expect that our contemporary built environment and rapid changes in culture force us into the realization that urban space ideally needs to be more flexible, more accommodating to future change, our actual building and planning ideas still largely suggest the opposite. In light of this, I wonder if we have sufficiently exhausted the methods of analysis for the existing cities that we are forced to reenvision these days.

From its first issue in 1962 until it closed in the late 1980s, New Society advocated the position that what ordinary people wanted, how they would lead their lives, rather than what experts said they ought to want, was key to understanding cities. And with that in mind, I believe we cannot successfully move forward with the Three Re’s—or with new town planning—if we do not take the time to sufficiently learn from the past, current, and possible future users of these urban spaces about their ideas and desires.

I am starting to believe that we should not expect this type of analysis to come from architects and planners. Other fields could more effectively collect this information and feed it back into the design field. I am of the belief that analysis through the eyes of other creative thinkers can be incredibly valuable, and it is in this context that I have decided to make exhibitions and projects that look at the everyday experience in cities.

In addition to the BMW Guggenheim Lab, a good example is and then it became a city, a multiplatform exhibition project I recently curated for the 2011 Shenzhen Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of UrbanismArchitecture. For this show I commissioned six video artists and documentary filmmakers from around the world to create works analyzing the quotidian lives of ordinary people in six exceptional cities: namely six new towns under the age of sixty. I also invited a group of Shenzhen-based artists and architects to develop and lead tours and workshops on the same theme.

and then it became a city – workshop

 Workshop by Mary Ann O’Donnell and ATU, part of and then it became a city, Shenzhen, China, 2011

Instead of looking at the official documentation of architects and planners, and instead of going for documentation of the Three Re’s, each of the six video artists and filmmakers speculated what it takes to turn new towns into actual cities that feel like vibrant places to both inhabitants and visitors: Is it the number and the size of its trees? Is it the number or diversity of leisure activities? Is it in a multiplicity of architectural languages, or the role of arts and culture? Or is it traffic and commuting times, pollution, or crime rates? Or is it as simple as the passing of time?

Trailer for Chandigarh, India, 1953 – Tracing Bylanes by Surabhi Sharma (b. 1970, Kota, Rajasthan, India)

Trailer for Brasilia, Brazil, 1960 – Brasília by Cao Guimarães (b. 1965, Belo Horizonte, Brazil)

Trailer for Gaborone, Botswana, 1964 – When a Village Grows Up by Miki Redelinghuys (b. 1970, Paarl, South Africa)

Trailer for Las Vegas, USA, 1960s – Las Vegas Portrait by Sam Green (b. 1966, Detroit, USA)

Trailer for Almere, The Netherlands, 1976 – Creating Almere by Astrid Bussink (b. 1975, Eibergen, The Netherlands)

Trailer for ShenZhen, China, 1979 – A Circle is Drawn, A City is Born Shen Zhen by Wang Gongxin (b. 1960, Beijing, China)

The ambition here was not just to create wonderful city portraits that people would experience in an exhibition setting, but to take these portraits out into the streets and use them as a framework for discussions taking place between design professionals and city dwellers. Working with the local artists and architects, we installed the video pieces on a bus that provided free public transportation between the many different neighborhoods of Shenzhen and invited the inhabitants of those neighborhoods to share their ideas in workshop sessions with design experts. Many beautiful and unexpected stories unfolded.

I am not so naive as to think this is going to teach us what shape cities of the future need to take, but I do hope that it makes ordinary people think more about their relationship to their built environment and that it will inspire architects and planners to design with more extensive background knowledge.

Photos: © Julian Lin.

Lab Notes I is an eight-week series focusing on trends that emerged from the BMW Guggenheim Lab New York. Curators Maria Nicanor and David van der Leer, blogger Christine McLaren, and a prominent group of guest contributors will explore the forces and transformations shaping the future of cities. The series will focus on four successive trends; the fourth is Retrofitting Urban Life. 

  • atimoshenko

    A good planner/strategist/insert-better-name-here should be like a good gardener – occasionally interfering to give better shape to otherwise arbitrary and uncaring nature, but never trying to teach its plant the ‘right’ method to grow. For any given complex system, judicious use of (top-down) reason enhances (bottom-up) evolution – in nature it’s why humans have done so well with wheels, and fire, and language. Excessive top-downiness, however, quickly becomes too restrictive, backward-looking, and ill-fitting of the living, changing system.