The Future That Is Now – Essay by Stan Allen

This essay, as a history of contemporary architecture and its theoretical base by Stan Allen, is particularly interesting to me as I am currently reading William Gibson’s book of essays “Distrust that particular flavour” – Gibson, who has been one of my seminal influences, is relevant to the discussion of the recent past as his concepts of a futurity rooted in the present, ( “the futures already arrived, it’s just not evenly distributed yet”) is the inevitable fate of architectural and most built environment design which must fit into the current reality and by the time it is built, designed in the recent past yet its influence will be felt it the near and somewhat more remote future, as it is rather persistent in both its successes and its inevitable and much publicized failures, from this perspective its  “navel gazing”, theorizing,  of its recent past  seems laughable. From The Design Observer

Architecture studios at Harvard University, Princeton University and Cornell University. [Photos by Lou HuangShih-Min Hsu and Adam Kuban]

And it’s always interesting, I think, to see how the future, or rather the forward-looking form of any discipline, always carries within it the seeds of its own triteness.
— William Gibson [1]

Among the participants in the first ANY (Architecture New York) conference, organized by Peter Eisenman and Cynthia Davidson in 1991, was the novelist William Gibson, author of the cyberpunk classic Neuromancer. Published in 1984, Neuromancer captured the anxieties of a dystopian world in which technology has penetrated all aspects of everyday life. In Gibson’s early novels, unprecedented physical mobility and the fluidity of personal identity enabled by digital technologies reshape individual subjectivity and the physical space of the city alike — which is perhaps why the author found himself in Los Angeles at the beginning of the 1990s speaking to the group of architects, philosophers, literary critics and architectural theorists assembled by Eisenman and Davidson. Like the film Blade Runner two years earlier, Neuromancer had become an early touchstone for imaginative speculation on the urban and architectural consequences of digital culture.

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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

WHY COMPLEXITY IMPROVES THE QUALITY OF CITY LIFE

A  paper by Richard Sennet of the Urban Age Project ‘s recent conference in Hong Kong restates the need, expressed by many urbanists, that the real purpose or value of cities is to allow locals and strangers to intersect in a way which increases the available choices or opportunities for the maximum number of its residents and not that of the control of its inhabitants by an elite. This is at variance with the current spate of “livability” and “happiness”  indexes as published by many influential and elitist magazines such as Monocle magazine, Forbes, Mercer and The Economist, previously critiqued here Liveable v lovable and  City Rankings: More Harm than Help? These articles laud cities where difference is reduced to enticing “new” experiences for the voyeuristic satisfaction of a moneyed and sophisticated global elite bearing little or no relationship to the lives of the local population who are not able to partake of this lifestyle and are in fact actively prevented from even being part of the scenery ,which they helped create, that made the relelvant districts and places what they currently are, in much the same way as “undesirable elements ( read non-consumers”) are excluded from elite shopping centers and urban renewal precincts the world over. This extreme “Disneyfication” is the subject of the second article by Author William Gibson, where a similar theme is explored.

“I want to explore the concept of ‘quality of life’ in cities. My own view can be stated simply: the quality of life in a city is good when its inhabitants are capable of dealing with complexity. Conversely, the quality of life in cities is bad when its inhabitants are capable only of dealing with people like themselves. Put another way, a healthy city can embrace and make productive use of the differences of class, ethnicity, and lifestyles it contains, while a sick city cannot; the sick city isolates and segregates difference, drawing no collective strength from its mixture of different people.”

This simple concept of urban ‘quality of life’ has informed my writings and my design practice through my entire career; it first came to me as a young man attending a conference somewhat like this one, held in Washington in the late 1960s, discussing mental health issues among poor urban residents. The conference focused on alienated, often violent, adolescents, at a time when many of these young people were rioting. Perhaps because most of the professionals at that conference were psychiatrists, they focused on individual psychology. The objection I had was not just that impersonal conditions shape personal sentiments, but more that the city shapes personality in a particular way. The process of human maturation, particularly the passage into adulthood, requires that human beings learn how to deal with situations beyond their personal control, and with persons who are strangers to them, strangers who are ineradicably different, and difficult to understand. America’s racially segregated ghettoes offered no such opportunity to learn this, nor do isolated ghettoes today, anywhere in the world. Continue reading