Opinion

The City We Want

The fields of Eden
Are full of trash
And if we  beg and we borrow and steal
We’ll never get it back
People are hungry
They crowd around
And the city gets bigger as the country comes begging to town

(M. Jagger/K. Richards)

One could argue that humanity has come to a critical point when looking at our current and future way of habitation.  Industrial civilization is moving towards the destruction of our planet, there is overwhelming evidence of this everywhere. We live without ration and we take our current condition for granted as if it were normal and somehow “part of human nature”, whereas in reality, it is the opposite. Superstar philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek has a refreshing way to discuss this, here he talks about reaching the ‘zero point.’

the-city-we-want-destructive-planet

Additional to Zizek, there are lots of people who are working to make a difference, these people do not conform to the given social relationships that perpetuate inequality, injustice, scarcity and violence. For as long as there has been oppression there has been resistance and there are many of ways (theoretical and practical, or even both) in which we can all contribute to the struggle against our current self-destructive way of living.

Architects should have something to say about this, it concerns us, not only as inhabitants but also due of the social nature of our profession. A critical position towards what we are facing is needed. Since the turn of the 20th century a number of architects have considered these issues in a critical manner and  have theorised the role of architecture in times of economical, ecological and political conflict.

We don’t have to dig too deep to realise that architecture can be a relevant element in the conformation of a revolutionary discourse or strategy. We have the emblematic example of Albert Speer, the architect who was one of Adolf Hitler’s closest and most important advisors. In his book “The Anaesthetics of Architecture”, Neil Leach addresses the role that Speer played in Hitler’s regime and how architecture became not only a means of symbolising the Nazi principles and materialising Reich’s aesthetic preferences, but also a powerful tool for propaganda and ideology. We need to overcome the controlling, megalomaniac personality of the architect and instead make architecture an issue of social relevance; to demystify, socialise, and make architecture a tool for social empowerment rather than a tool at the service of the powers creating inequality.

With reference to this and to the current environmental issues we are facing, we can learn from a lot from ecology, and from a political point of view allow this to contribute and amplify our perspective on what we can start doing (and what we should stop doing) if we want to change the status quo of our cities.

15 years ago I became a vegetarian, at this time (in Chile) it was incredibly difficult to find a restaurant serving vegetarian food. However today, there are many stores and restaurants that cater for my no longer marginalised lifestyle. While this is not necessarily a ‘struggle against the system’ it does represent  and indicate how quickly public opinion and service sectors will adapt to new modes of living and how quickly something alternative and marginal can become mainstream.

Addressing ‘green issues’ and issues of ‘global warming’ is no different. 15 years ago this was also an alternative and marginal issue, today it is open for public discussion among all social classes. Not only do small organisations and individuals talk openly about these issues but also big companies, corporations and governments have integrated these issues (although very sui generis) into their services and policies. ‘Green Capitalism’ alone has created new jobs, certifications, service sectors and carbon credit markets.

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution people have identified flaws in the technological and productive progress of capitalism. The socialist and anarchist movements of the 19th century described with great precision the vices of the industrial revolution. More recently, Guy Debord in his essay entitled ‘A Sick Planet’ lucidly anticipated the integration of the environmental crisis into capitalism. He noted capitalism’s capacity to absorb these conflicts and to transform them into a different social and cultural matter. Consequently, at the time the environmental impact of urban living was a non-issue for most people.

Murray Bookchin, from a fairly different point of view, identified the same ecological conflict of the same era as “being addressed in the wrong manner by activists, who were missing the real core of the problem”. His critic to the ‘hippies’ and ecology movements of the 1970’s related to his perception of the crisis as a ‘spiritual movement’ and not towards the direct environmental, social and political implications of industrial production.

In his 1895 essay “The Evolution of Cities,” Elisée Reclus observes that “to look at our enormous cities, expanding day by day and almost hour by hour, engulfing year by year fresh colonies of immigrants, and running out their suckers, like giant octopuses, into the surrounding country, one feels a sort of shudder come over one, as it in presence of a symptom of some strange social malady”. And continues “…yet it is easy to show that this monster growth of the city, the complex outcome of a multiplicity of causes, is not altogether a morbid growth. If, on the one hand, it constitutes, in some of its incidents, a formidable fact for the moralist, it is, on the other hand, in its normal development, a sign of healthy and regular evolution. Where the cities increase, humanity is progressing; where they diminish, civilisation itself is in danger.”

The design and growth of the cities doesn’t depend solely on architects (and it absolutely shouldn’t either), but it is crucial that we learn to identify the difference between the city we want, and the city we are currently being imposed to, a city that destroys our environment and consequently ourselves.

the-city-we-want-over-populated

Reclus identifies a good way to understand the ecological crisis and track down its cause and  significance. He observes the history of our cities, how they have developed and how exponential growth coincides with the development of capitalism. You don’t have to be an architect or urban planner to realise that the burst of cities and the urbanisation of the world is one of the single most important events in recent human history.

Marxist Henry Lefebvre, who studied cities and it’s history, describes very precisely that space in modern society (all space that we inhabit) has become just another commodity that contributes to the flow of capital, and all social relationships that can be established in it are mediated by this condition of being a commodity. It is as a direct consequence of this objectification of space that we have real state bubble, speculation, urban segregation, car culture and denial of public space as a commonwealth.

We have no idea or control over “who gets to shape the qualities of daily urban life” and thus occupy movements, right to the city movements, urban guerrilla, and thousands of other movements around the world fight against this basic form of urban oppression that grows within the context of international capitalism.  David Harvey in his book “Rebel Cities” describes this as an “assault on the qualities of life.”

Harvey’s approach recognises the true damage to human social relationships and along with them our understanding of nature as a source of life; capitalism, in its logic of infinite progress, sees nature only as a source of inexhaustible resources that fulfils just another function in the means of production.

We have dangerously oversimplified our environment, and as a result we have built cities that grow far from any kind of rational idea of development, sustainability or well-being (or Sumak Kawsay as they say in Latin America). The gigantic extensions of concrete and steel that we have raised and saturated with all kinds of contamination provide a danger to our health and is an outrage to human dignity, especially for those millions of people that live in poverty. There is a beautiful and powerful late 1930’s documentary by Catherine Bauer and Lewis Mumford entitled “The City” that portraits this in a surprising, although sometimes idealising, contemporary manner.

Cities demand transport, infrastructure, cleaning, maintenance and above all food. Everything that supports the city is industrialised including the production of food. In his book “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought,” Murray Bookchin describes this is “not to reduce human toil but to increase productivity and efficiency, to maximise investments, and to exploit the biosphere.” Furthermore “ the terrain must be reduced to a flat plain—to a factory floor, if you will—and natural variations in topography must be diminished as much as possible. Plant growth must be closely regulated to meet the tight schedules of food-processing plants. Plowing, soil fertilization, sowing, and harvesting must be handled on a mass scale, often in total disregard of the natural ecology of an area. Large areas of land must be used to cultivate a single crop—a form of plantation agriculture that lends itself not only to mechanization but also to pest infestation. A single crop is the ideal environment for the proliferation of pest species. Finally, chemical agents must be used lavishly to deal with the problems created by insects, weeds, and plant diseases, to regulate crop production, and to maximise soil exploitation.” Cities need to be fed, and we do this at the expense of our environment.

the-city-we-want-poverty

So maybe cities are not exactly the place we want them to be, but rather the place people have decided them to be in order to make money and establish controlling structures. I believe we desperately need to find a way to rectify this and the longer we wait the deeper we sink.

In this sense, I believe urban agriculture can be very useful when it turns critical urban theory into practice. Urban agriculture has the potential to raise a series structural questions about the relationship between the city and production. It is capable of suggesting a new manner to inhabit the city and understands its development no longer in terms of quantitative growth and accumulation, but in a manner that increases human and sustainable relationships with nature. Urban agriculture also creates a critical consciousness about space in cities; how we conceive green areas, design public spaces and the general organisation of our neighbourhood.

It is not a historical characteristic of the city to produce its own food, so the fact of subverting this basic principle itself stands out as a provocative idea. We need to keep reminding ourselves that what really comes into play is our social relationships within the city. Even when we talk about ‘means of production‘ we are addressing a determined form of understanding social relationships, so the political and social component as an origin should never be left aside.

The Atelier d’Architecture Autogeree (AAA)  addresses this while maintaining a critical approach to the question about ”what architects can do.”  Their work is rooted in political and social responsibilities relevant to the architecture profession. The AAA is a collective platform founded in 2001 by Constantin Petcou and Doina Pretscu. Since 2001 they have been active in Paris and throughout greater France, researching and creating projects that relate to urban mutations and emerging practices, focusing on issues of self-organisation and the self-management of collective spaces.

The design and implementation of their work involves the greater community, and mostly takes advantage of leftover spaces that will eventually become self-maintained centres for cultural, political and social activities by the community. Most projects also consider urban agriculture to be a central design component.

Atelier d’Architecture Autogeree-R-Urban

Atelier d’Architecture Autogeree – RUrban (Urban Agriculture Project)

From 2001 to 2006 Ecobox (below) transformed a disused industrial space into a cultural centre and community garden.  They used recycled materials; tearing down portions of the existing perimeter wall so that the space was open and visible for the passerby. They made a garden from recycled pallets also serving as modules for the organisation of open space and constructed mobile furniture by working with groups of students and designers. At Ecobox, the community was able to cook, watch movies, have gatherings and workshops. It was active venue for all kinds of exciting social, cultural and productive activities.  When the project came to an end, local residents immediately started looking for a new site.

Atelier d’Architecture Autogeree-ecobox

 

Atelier d’Architecture Autogeree – Ecobox

Passage 56 (below) also the work of AAA is a passageway between two existing buildings. The site was transformed into a location for producing urban agriculture; entirely autonomous in terms of energy, passage 56 also recycles the majority of its waste. The community rather than architects, using recycled and local materials, built the project. Passage 56 is still in progress and community members have an active role in its maintenance, funding and organisation. With very few elements the project successfully shifts the spatial configuration of a formerly abandoned and obscure space, consolidating it as a site for agriculture, recreation and social gatherings.

Atelier d’Architecture Autogeree-passageway

Atelier d’Architecture Autogeree – Passage 56

Ecobox and Passage 56 highlights that subtle design rooted by social consideration has the capacity for enormous benefit on urban territory, empowering people and giving them tools to stop depending on government authorities and corporations. The work of AAA allows the architect to act as quiet observer and facilitator in design process. The role of the architect here is not of a single visionary determining how everyone will live, but more of a citizen with specific knowledge and sensibility towards how space is designed and built, and can contribute to the construction of these spaces as we really want them to be.

We have many projects, people and organisations both past and present to learn from. Architecture can contribute to this and in lieu of ‘business as usual,’ it is up to us whether we want to start working and organising ourselves to create new social relationships based on autonomy, freedom and care for our environment. As Zegota used to sing “it’s a matter of paths to choose”.

The above article is written by a wonderful friend from across the globe Rodrigo Barros. Rodrigo and I connected this year through the ethics of punk and anarchist organisations. Rodrigo is an architect, musician and activist from Valparaíso, Chile.  He is a member of the NGO “Cultivos Urbanos”. You can connect with him via email

Discussion

2 comments for “The City We Want”

  • marlene rama

    This is really interesting and very well written!

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