Elements of Venice – Actor Network Theory applied to historical urban design?

Guilio Foscari’s book Element of Venice, while modelled on a process described a being similar to that of Rem Koolhaas’ at the Venice  Biennial , appears to me to be, in the vein of Bruno Labours Actor Network Theory (ANT), an  examination of the city’s history,  in urban design and architecture in terms that show how the city we as tourists see and take of granted as being “real” a 16th century authentic historical  city, is in fact an assemblage and pastiche, not much  different to the shopping centres so popular in the post-modern era of the nineties such as Canal Walk in Cape Town’s Century City.

I remember seeing how the famous Roman churches used faux marble paint effects above the dado rails and real marble below, where it could be touched,  these are the standard  “theming ” techniques of any restaurant or five star hotel establishments decorative chicanery , so denounced by the authentisicm   of contemporary architecture.

From ArchDaily by Guilia Foscari

The following is an excerpt from Giulia Foscari’s Elements of , a book that applies the dissection strategy  explored in “Elements of Architecture” at this year’s Venice Biennale. The book aims to demystify the notion that Venice has remained unchanged throughout its history and addresses contemporary issues along with strictly historical considerations. Read on for a preview of Elements of Venice, including Rem Koolhaas’ introduction to the book. 

FROM THE FAÇADE CHAPTER: Pedestrian Reform.

Courtesy of Lars Müller Publishers 
Courtesy of Lars Müller Publishers 

The new pedestrian streets cut into Venice’s ancient urban fabric (in which the old walkways connected the insulae without guaranteeing the same capillary reach of the current network) would have appeared with brutal evidence had the construction of new buildings along the sides of these streets not acted to “cauterise” the incisions made by the numerous demolitions. The pedestrian reform, put to motion in the early 19th century, was the result of a substantial shift in governance of the city.

New power structures, such as banking and insurance, and new public institutions, such as the chamber of commerce and the postal service – alternatives to those of the mercantile oligarchic Republic of the Serenissima – called for the construction of new representational buildings. New buildings were thus erected facing onto new streets, which, in turn, marked the discovery of “traffic” as a powerful tool of urban control in the hands of a “ruling class interested at once in political and commercial power”. At the expense of a traditionally compact urban fabric, the new government created, with public money, “urban voids” that were to become catalysts for representative buildings,commercial thoroughfares and modern infrastructure (such as electrical wiring).

Millions of tourists reaching San Marco from the Accademia or Rialto Bridge are thus deceived. The urban landscape they see as a striking testimony of ancient Venice is actually a particular collection of façades designed by 19th-century (academic and eclectic) architects, each responsible for designing a cluster of buildings along new circulation axes. Among these are projects by Giovan Battista Meduna near the ponte del Lovo in San Fantin, by the architect Pividor near Campo San Vio, by engineers Fuin and Balduin near San Moisé and on the Riva degli Schiavoni, by engineer Calzavara in the Frezzeria, and by Berchet and then Ludovico Cadorin at San Trovaso. All devoted to the notion of “revival” and “reusing of architectural styles” (Bellavitis, Romanelli, 1985) these architects could be grouped according to two separate tendencies: “the party using terracotta, emphasising on polychrome solutions with reference to late central-Italy and Lombard Renaissance style (practised by Cadorin, engineers Calzavara and Romano, for example); and the party referencing to severe Lombard architecture of the quattrocento, featuring Istrian stone and scarce use of ornament – Meduna, Fuin, Trevisanato” (Giandomenico Romanelli,1998).

There are no longer banks or institutions in the buildings flanking these pedestrian thoroughfares, which are now described as “Venetian bottlenecks”, given the density of persons found in these very streets at any given time. Fashion boutiques from the world’s most famous brands have taken their place. This is yet another example of how Venice has gone from being the capital of the mainland area of Padania, as it was still at the end of the 19th century, to being a capital of global tourism.

Reciprocal Contamination. Icons.

Our contemporary world, in which forms quickly dissolve into one other, is thirsty for icons. Each tourist – the common denominator of a mass phenomenon – is hunting for images, travelling the world without letting go of his camera, his smartphone, his iPad. Icons are not histories or phenomena. Thus a tourist does not know, is not interested in knowing, the history behind the city’s pedestrian reform, or distinguishing an ancient building from a 19th-century construction. He does not wonder whether tourism helps or harms the city. He is searching for images. One such icon could easily be the Doge’s Palace, or St Mark’s bell tower, or the Rialto Bridge. Even lesser things suffice: gondolas, winged lions, pigeons walking, horses held high in the air. Even masks. By propagating her symbols, Venice has reached the entire world and has become a commoditised image. Enterprising managers – perhaps better than intellectuals – have understood and seized the (conceptual) reality of this contamination, reproducing Venetian icons on a vast scale, as if they were masks of their own identity, to use on their casinos and on customers visiting shopping centres, the special fascination created by the allure of entering an imaginary world (a “fantastic mutation of normal reality”, as Thomas Mann would write in Death in Venice) and leaving – if for a while – the at times oppressive contingency of reality.

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The invention and reinvention of the city: interview rem koolhaas

An interview with Rem Koolhaas from  World Policy Blog via World Landscape Architecture

The following interview is an excerpt from the Journal of International Affairs spring/summer 2012 issue, “The Future of the City,”

As cities grow in importance, so too does architecture. Architects are playing a leading role in thinking about the future of cities and building structures that will define urban life for hundreds of years to come. Rem Koolhaas is a leading urban theorist and a Pritzker Prize–winning architect who is engaged in building projects around the world. He co-founded OMA, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, which is receiving international attention for its recent completion of an enigmatic new headquarters for China Central Television in Beijing. In an interview with Paul Fraioli of the Journal of International Affairs for its latest issue “The Future of the City,” Koolhaas discusses how the economic and cultural changes of the 21st century are transforming world cities and also the practice of architecture.

Journal of International Affairs: Globalization is making it easier for corporations and developers to do business in cities around the globe. Is this having an effect on the practice of architecture in cities or on the kinds of projects that clients are demanding?

Koolhaas: The question is so pertinent that it is almost unanswerable. Things are changing enormously in almost every sense. The effects of globalization have been positive and negative. My generation of architects is the first that could work almost anywhere in the world. We had the option to repeat the same building everywhere or to push ourselves forward, to create an encounter between ourselves and the local culture. This has been incredible for OMA because we have had a deep encounter in China creating the CCTV building and another in Qatar. It is a three-dimensional anthropology lesson and I think our entire office has been transformed by these encounters. If you take architecture seriously and assume your responsibilities, exchange can be a very rich thing. The downside is that profit-driven repetition is so common.

Journal: How do major urban architectural projects impact the national and cultural identity?

Koolhaas: This repetition I just mentioned causes anxiety about identity. There is a natural reaction from citizens and from governments when their cultures are not reflected in urban building projects. This often comes up in the Middle East. So many international architects make it their business to be contextual. As a result, their projects will feature doves, camels, falcons and other first-degree symbols of local history.

This issue is fascinating because if you look back a hundred years, you find that there was still such a thing as Indian architecture, Thai architecture, Chinese architecture, African architecture, Dutch architecture, and Russian architecture. But now, almost all of these languages have disappeared, and are subsumed in a larger and seemingly universal style. The process has been like the disappearance of a spoken language.

Remnants of these differences still exist. For example, a high-rise in Singapore is inhabited in a very different way from a high-rise in the suburbs of Paris or a high-rise in China. Each of these cultures, which once had its own form of speaking, is not trying to resurrect its old language, but is interested in defining and asserting its uniqueness again.

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Examining Rem Koolhaas’ prologue to Singapore Songlines

A recent post on [polis] led me to reread Rem Koolhaas’ seminal text and a critique of it in QRLS, which reminded me how when we first visited Singapore in 1986 I noticed how compliant and alienated the populace appeared , with the young people withdrawn in their headphones and sequestered in blank blocks of high rise apartments with washing hanging from ropes strung from the balconies and amazed at how, though the city ran smoothly and everything appeared absolutely perfect, there seemed to be an undercurrent of dis-ease, only once we ventured away from the main streets did we find  “real” people  of many nationalities as vendors of  foods and artifacts from the surrounding regions diverse ethnic groups. While buying some cloths and puppets from Indonesia and Sulawesi we chatted to the vendors who still lived in shophouses clustered together in streets by their nationality we discovered that they were soon to loose their homes to upgrading and “theming” – just like we saw had already been done in the Chinese and Indian quarters.

Orchard Road Xmas 2011

The critique of Singapore by Rem Koolhaas in S,ML,XL is directed at this loss, not of a historic district worth saving in itself, but the loss of the roots of the people who make the city what it is, this same erosion taking place in our cities casts a shadow on our modernity, how will we retain our roots yet make space for the ‘now’ and the ‘just now’?. 

From [polis] “Taking Singapore’s Orchard Road as a linear slice of urban fabric, it may be read as representative of both the city-state’s remarkable capacity for economic development and complete disregard for historical strata. In an awkward attempt to impose a blanket of elite market-driven exchange without the frayed edges and individual liberties of Western urban models, Singapore has stirred heated debate over its cultural authenticity. What is the genuine essence of a city that functions in a constant cultural grey zone, importing multinational corporations and citizens from abroad?” 

Singapore’s tabula rasa developmental logic has subtracted any perceivable contextual background, adding only glamorous foreground. The Potemkin Metropolis of Singapore — more harshly described by William Gibson as “Disneyland with the Death Penalty” — is a model for rapid urbanization in a part of the world where priorities diverge from those established in other global cities. Food poverty, defective infrastructure and destructive flash floods continue to shape the reality of countries in the region. Singapore developed by betting on qualities that rarely push cities to greatness in Europe and North America. It implemented a rigid, authoritarian ethos that appealed more to immediate conditions than to the cosmopolitan lifestyles of New Yorkers and Londoners. The city-state renowned for its prosperous economy, the banning of chewing gum and effective strategies against crime remains the odd man out within a broader geographical context accustomed to hardship and scarcity.

“It is shown with pride, not shame. They think there will be no crime. We think there can be no pleasure.” (Rem Koolhaas) Continue reading

Strelka Institute: Urban Design vs. Dystopia – Rem Koolhaas

Within the framework of a Russian “urban renaissance” a continuation of the critique of current  architecture and its lack of urbanity now radically implemented in a research and and educational program led by Rem Koolhass and OMA amongst other luminaries of the ‘architecture’ profession somewhat ironically in that the critique of complicity in the depletion of meaning in the face of individualistic and materialistic control should find a place in contemporary Russia where the intensity of oligarchic materialism seems at  a peak! This is well worth watching if you are at all interested in relevance and social impact of our design interventions.

Here an exposition of its intent or context in a video of  and in the expanded article from [polis] on the work of this institute

Introduction to Strelka

Jiang Jung, Strelka instructor and chief editor of Urban China, presenting a study of geopolitics and urbanization in Russia and China.

Strelka is located on the Moscow River in an adapted section of the former Red October Chocolate Factory. It was conceived during a casual conversation among friends at the Venice Biennale 2009, based on shared concern over the course of urban development under former mayor Yury Luzhkov. This group of design and media luminaries — including Alexander Mamut, once known as “the Yeltsin family banker” — inspired Rem Koolhaas and OMA/AMOto develop and implement an educational program aimed at preparing designers to address complex problems in Russia and around the world. The institute was announced at last year’s Venice Bienniale and the first group of students began in October.

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Switching on: Africa’s vast new tech opportunity

A somewhat dated article on Africa’s technological rebirth which has been the subject of numerous posts in this blog and in other observant media and net channels for some while now, is still interesting in that the innovation and action found in African Cities which can be seen beyond the surface “noise”  that usually lmakes European and American observers cry out “hopeless” and look no deeper. The late 20th Century project by Rem Koolhaas’  Harvard Project on the City resulting in 2005 DVD of LAGOS which I only recently saw is a fitting contrast even though Rem points out in it how over the 4 years of their project they could see deeper into the City and saw how it was changing ,  By Pete Guest  on Wired.co.uk

In 2011, visitors to Africa looking for war, famine and pestilence have to dig a lot deeper than in the past. At Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, hardened missionaries have been replaced by gap-year students clustered around iPads, and on the streets the bad old days have given way to another holy trinity: Premier League football, Toyota Hiace minibuses and cellphones.

Isis Nyong'o, Nairobi

Africa’s national economies have grown consistently over the last decade. Even in the depths of the financial crisis, GDP growth exceeded three percent: more than in any other region of the world. Improvements in security, Chinese investments and soaring commodity prices have all played a part in transforming the continent’s prospects. Continue reading