Dilemmas in the evolution of the city
16 January 2006
Rem Koolhaas, founder of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, talks about the balance of power between public and private space.
Introduction to the key speaker at the CABE conference
Designing the future, a conference for those working for and with CABE, was held in January 2006. It was addressed by Rem Koolhaas, who as founder of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, and author of books such as Delirious New York and SMLXL, has been an influential figure for decades.
Koolhaas's talk (see transcript below) sets out some of the challenges he feels cities face. He discusses the balance of power between public space - that which is truly open - and private space, where the public are excluded or their behaviour is controlled.
He chronicles the rise of the 'resort city', such as Dubai and Singapore, where the demand for leisure dictates the form of the city. And finally, Koolhaas turns a critical eye to recent trends in England. Are we too risk averse? Is there too much control in our public spaces? Do we design and manage our public realm in a way that excludes significant portions of the public?
This is not easy territory, and Rem Koolhaas acknowledges that he does not have all the answers, but CABE hopes that his comments will give new momentum to the debate.
CABE has previously considered the role of risk in public space. You can find a link to our publication, 'What are we scared of? The value of risk in designing public space', at the end of the transcript below.
Dilemmas in the evolution of the city
by Rem Koolhaas
Without wanting to give a presentation that is in any way didactic or triumphalist, I would like to share with you a dilemma around the evolution of the city, in which we, as architects, as well as you, are caught, and which presents a number of fiendishly complex issues, for which I largely have no response.
The Ancient Greeks
This is one civilisation that created its monuments as a community, that had a collective responsibility for the public realm, and that was very clear in terms of the relationship between public and private. This civilisation has generated an architecture and urbanism that is still, for almost all of us, the dominant model - we still think in terms of public and private in the same way - but, in the last 15 years, a very important phenomenon as taken place.
The ¥€$ regime
Waning public power; increasing private power
The speaker from Demos said that every generation needs to define its own relationship with globalisation; if one puts the yen, euro and dollar signs next to one another, one creates the word ¥€$ . The essence of this ¥€$ regime is that the power of the public has been waning, and that of the private has been increasing. At the moment, we are living in a period of intense negotiation around the two, and one of the main areas where this negotiation is taking place is architecture in the city; in other words, your domain.
Commercial pressure forces eccentricity and extravagance
Before this final phase of globalisation and privatisation developed, I think that a building like Frank Gehry's in Bilbao would never have been built, because where buildings could previously be content in being absolutely neutral and dignified - as in the case of the Parthenon - the simple commercial pressure behind almost every building these days forces eccentricities and extravagance on even the most earnest designer.
Exploding and shrinking cities
Another important phenomenon that has an effect on regenerating the city is the fact that globalisation is not homogeneous, but is a process that intensifies in the different zones of the city, leading to two completely different conditions: the exploding city and the shrinking city, with almost nothing in between.
Absence of utopian drive
There used to be a period in which all of us knew exactly what to do: many of us would write manifestos, declaring what we were doing, and some of us were successful in realising sections of those manifestos. However, as part of the shift in culture in the last 15 years, and because of our own mistakes, that belief in manifestos, and that confidence that we knew what to do, have completely collapsed. Nowadays, we no longer write manifestos; at most, we write portraits of particular cities, in the hope, not of developing a theory of what to do with them, but of understanding how cities exist currently. In other words, this kind of confidence is now completely absent, and it will take a long time for anything like it to return. A considerable percentage of people in England - and I know about your anti-utopian tendencies, since I studied here in 1968 - would say 'good riddance', but the absence of utopian drive is perhaps almost as serious as an overdose of it.
Diminishing public participation in the definition of cities
In this dilemma is left a particularly cruel situation: if we compare the rate of organisation in America and Europe , which saw a fairly steep decline from the 1970s, with the rate of production of architectural manifestos by Americans and Europeans, we see that we have reached a plateau where we have stopped thinking. This point coincides exactly with the moment when the Asian organisation curve rose much steeper than we had ever witnessed or had to negotiate. For me, this is a tragic situation, because it means the final apotheosis of the city. We all know about the statistics which state that the city has become the dominant environment in which people live. At the moment of this triumph, our thinking has stopped, and the public sector's participation in the definition of cities has diminished.
It is, therefore, no surprise that, in this simultaneous absence of dogma and speed of construction, there is an entirely new kind of city, where the major intersection to it is less than 400m away from rice fields; in other words, the metropolis and ante-metropolis are in previously non-existent proximity. Of the vast repertoire of topologies, only the skyscraper and the hovel remain; this shrunken range of topologies is arranged in a seemingly chaotic field of development.
In Dubai , the desert is being turned into the city. The need for a city used to exist as a result of a vast number of people wanting to congregate in a single location; this is not the case at all in Dubai , where there are diminishing returns from oil exploration, which has to be compensated by an increase in development. There, again, we are simply witnessing a situation in which the reason for a city is completely new and not measurable with the same standards. In 1990, there were too few local residents to inhabit the city, leading to an influx of foreigners. Dubai consists, basically, of sea, desert and urban development; that urban development is being increasingly projected onto the sea, producing a language of the city that is more ornamental and dedicated to pleasure than used to the reason for the city, which was an exchange of roots and ideas.
We are seeing that the city is no longer built mostly of substance that is necessary for our survival, but of substance that we essentially do not need, and for which different metaphors are becoming applicable. It is, therefore, no surprise that, in the ground floor of the business centre, we now have the language of the resort, which informs the public realm, rather than the exchange of ideas. For me, the word 'resort' is very important, because our model for life in the city is, conceptually, shifting from work to leisure and, therefore, the aesthetics of the city are increasingly shifting from serious enterprise to resort conditions. A resort is not somewhere where one lives, but where enjoyment is the main activity, and where there are no obligations such as maintenance, or other forms of contribution.
A large number of urban events have been eliminated. The irony that cities and resorts are becoming interchangeable is very evident in seaside cities in Florida , where the city has been the metaphor for the resort. It is interesting to contemplate whether people's lives in this setting are richer than someone living in New York 30 years ago.
We have to remember that the city used to be a big piece of machinery, and the public realm used to be territory for confrontation, exchange and, perhaps, adjustment. Now, through the shift from public to private, it is no longer that kind of territory, and we want our confrontations to take place elsewhere. In the same vein, we can no longer bear emptiness or neutrality in the city, and every single inch of the city is scripted and forms a scenario, so that we now have an overwhelming intricacy around how cities are organised. Singapore now has an aesthetic of resort, combined with the reality of a city.
We not only do this on the scale of the city, but on every scale. For those of you with a political bent, Berchtesgaden - famous for its connections with Hitler - is now a resort, demonstrating how we systematically eliminate remnants in the name of history and memory, and replace them with more palatable devices for memory, so that their suffering disappears, leaving behind only a reference to it. On the one hand, art is becoming inflated but, on the other, perhaps less effective. Protest, of course, is completely contained.
The cleaner the new public realm, the more perfect it is and the more likely it is that suffering and the pressure between the two worlds happen at its edges. An incredible amount of claims are made in words and rhetoric, whereas we used to do it with architecture. We have turned the city into a surface where no square inch is left unspoken for within the context of some kind of vision. In settings such as this, we are not supposed to misbehave, to die, to beg, to fight, to be drunk etc.
Potsdamer Platz , Berlin
Last year, for the first time, we worked with developers, so nothing I say distances us from the dilemmas. Potsdamer Platz is configured as a city; however, looking at the components, it is really a collage of privacies. There is no evidence of work, but an enormous amount of evidence of leisure. In terms of how the same place functioned previously, the first vision alone gives a much vaster range of presence and a more chaotic population.
Lagos is an incredibly dense, but structured city; it is also clear that people living there have a much wider range and repertoire of possibilities and expression.
In terms of cities of old, we were able to cope with and inhabit them, and we did not necessarily suffer as a result; now, however, the city is the opposite of a critical mass, centred on leisure. This draining of the city and some of its lifeblood is, perhaps, nowhere more clearly articulated than Las Vegas , where there was, first, a simulation of the city of Venice , then of New York and, finally, the denaturing of the city, where one of the themes of Las Vegas has become the city itself. In Las Vegas , there is a section of metropolis where all the wildness and unpredictability of the city has been not so much tamed, but completely removed.
In this idyllic sense of all of us knowing how to design a city, and in our subconscious idolatry of and confidence in design, rather than utopia, we are faced with the ineptness of many regimes of control, as well as the unspoken and, usually, invisible people who do not participate in this idyll. All the recent images of New Orleans were unambiguous and clear in that sense. It is no surprise that the Mayor of Las Vegas chose the new urbanism to restore it. This is precisely the par excellence architecture which is not hesitant to claim competencies and that declares that the city as it was is the best panacea for our condition.
In terms of who is left behind in New Orleans , the drastic experience we are left with needs to be thought about by everyone involved in the city. We do things more subtly, having surrendered vast sections of our privacy to protect and maintain the public realm. We introduce political campaigns that are undoubtedly intended to instil more confidence in the public realm and to eliminate certain known pests that make the public realm complex and difficult. We might also question whether sheer elimination is the answer, and whether there are more modern and less excluding emblems to be defined than those we have seen so far.
Accommodating difference but exclusionary and unwelcoming
England has had an amazing track record in accommodating difference - racially and culturally - partly because it is so non-theoretical about how people live together. In terms of the aesthetics that are developing - and I heard about John Prescott's unhappiness at the proliferation of Ikea stores - we have to realise that the language and aesthetic that we generate are unbelievably exclusionary and unwelcoming to the waves of immigration that England has undergone.
Blurring of public and private language
What I find problematic currently is that the language of the public and that of the private are becoming interchangeable. There is very little difference, for example, in the rhetoric of CABE and that of developers. It is wonderful that CABE takes so much care in the production of its marketing folders, and it is incredible that we can see ageing hippies as a benign police force, but if I were not white, I would be more sceptical of the benefits of this condition. If this kind of environment is what is advocated, this overt and emphatic Englishness also needs to be questioned.
What we have lost
In order to establish what the city is, and what we lost, we took a harmless picture of the Isle of Wight 40 years ago and looked at everything that would no longer be possible. It starts with the canopies, which would interfere with CCTV cameras; the wantonly parked delivery trucks; the religious symbolism in the public realm; and the suspicious raincoats being worn on a clear day. In other words, at first sight, this is a picture of utter harmlessness, but ultimately turns out to be comprised completely of things that we no longer tolerate. For me, that is an important statement, and we have definitely lost something.
Political and private collaboration
It took me a very long time to learn to love London ; one of its greatest virtues is that it has deficient planning, enormous amounts of bad or indifferent architecture, and areas of colossal indifference that are inhabited by all. As a result, it is the antithesis for which we are professionally equipped to resist, yet we are involved in its transformation. Having worked on White City , we are very impressed at how politics have recently found ways to collaborate in the private sector, and at certain demands that are creating larger guarantees that things can be improved.
Abstraction of the generic
However, in terms of the King's Cross project, the ultimate dilemma in the relationship between the private and the public is that the public can create entities that are specific. The public sector will be able to say, 'We needed a Parthenon, so we built it here'. Now, the public can impose certain demands on the developer, but they are systematically generated, since the public no longer has the money to finance what it needs and wants, so it can say that it needs a swimming pool or a sports centre, but it cannot force the creation of a special and unique environment from generic ingredients. That eerie abstraction of the generic haunts us, and is also translated into a nomenclature that perpetuates the language of stylishness and quality without being able to deliver the reality of it. In that sense, therefore, there is a 'virtuality' to our current relationship with the city that is extremely hard to overcome.
Just another chaotic piece of the city
In terms of White City , we can create control and order, or plazas and parks, but my real hope for the project is that there are various conditions and connections to the neighbouring realities and that we are open to being infiltrated by what should not be there, becoming ultimately just another chaotic piece of the city.
This Full Transcript was produced by Ubiqus Reporting (+44 (0) 20 7269 0370)
What are we scared of? The value of risk in designing public space
In What are we scared of? CABE invited four distinguished thinkers to look at how risk is dealt with in public space. They argue that tolerance of risk is a necessary stimulus in order for to understand, enjoy and deal with the urban environment.