The Instant City


Nicolai Ouroussoff’s contribution to the New York Times‘ Magazine special issue on building the "next city" focuses on the design challenges posed by cities today. His point of departure is Rem Koolhaas’s concept of the generic city. He begins with something that Koolhaas told him 20 years ago. "Don’t tell anyone," Koolhaas said while driving through Manhattan, "but the 20th-century city is over. It has nothing new to teach us anymore. Our job is simply to maintain it."   Indeed, reading through recently published discussions about the future of the city one is struck by how irrelevant premier 20th-century cities like New York and Paris have become.  The focus is now on the boom cities of Asia and Africa. Ouroussoff looks at Shenzhen (photograph above, taken by Sze Tsung Leong for the New York Times) and Dubai, two cities that look like they just came out of a microwave oven: dry and gray, with a faintly noxious smoke emanating from them.

Architects are flummoxed about how to design for these places, leaving one to wonder how one actually lives in these instant cities.  The situation architects face at the beginning of the 21st century recalls the situation architects faced during the 19th century.  At that time, architects were also designing for instant cities on the edge of nowhere such as Chicago and St. Louis.  Furthermore, a loss of faith in Renaissance humanism and 18th-century Enlightenment rationalism led to an aesthetic crisis as one form of historical revivalism competed with another.  The crisis was exacerbated by new building types that had no clear historical precedent.  Most notable among these new building types were the railroad station and the skyscraper, neither of which the Romans built.  Finally, there was new money in town: rich industrialists commissioned buildings that glorified the source of their wealth.  The dehumanizing aspects of the Industrial Revolution led to a humanist counter-reformation led by William Morris and John Ruskin, each of whom espoused an historical revivalism of one kind or another–leading architects right back to the place at which they began.

Similarly, contemporary architects have no clear model about how to deal with the brute fact of the enormous size of the 21st-century generic cities.  With no clear hierarchy between center and margin — they are equally dense everywhere — it’s difficult to know where to begin: should I build a downtown modernist tower or pre-Modernist garden suburb?  The grand gestures of Modernist urbanism are lost when everything is big, when a city contains a dozen Rockefeller Centers. "We are in a condition we don’t understand yet," Koolhaas remarks.

But if modernism clearly isn’t the perfect model for these new urban conditions, postmodernism has nothing to contribute.  What possible meaning could playful historicism have in Shenzhen, a city barely a generation old?  Architectural postmodernism, for all practical purposes, is dead.

Perhaps the most interesting observation in the article comes from Steven Holl, a New York architect with several large projects in China, including Linked Hybrid, a series of modernist slabs linked by pedestrian bridges, something movies have long been telling us is on the way, but has never arrived in American cities. He tells Ouroussoff,

In America, I could never do work like I do here. We’ve become too backward-looking. In China, they want to make everything look new. This is their moment in time. They want to make the 21st century their century. For some reason, our society wants to make everything old. I think we somehow lost our nerve.

A loss of nerve in the West and giddy optimism in the East pretty much sums up the current state of the global economy–band, to a significant degree, the current state of architecture in the United States.

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1 Comment

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