CITY BREATHS

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Nocturnal City

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Today I came across a piece on Guardian Cities titled ‘Cities are losing their smell' by Oliver Wainwright. It reminded me of the fascinating book  (and catalogue to the similar-titled exhibition) Sense of the City (edited, and curated by Mirko Zardini). The book is divided in chapters about alternative ways of experiencing and managing the city, using other senses than just vision. Next to interesting chapters about a.o. the seasons, the sounds, the surface and the air, the part about the nighttime in cities really stuck with me. Here’s the introduction to that chapter. The image is from Paul Morand’s book ‘Paris de nuit: 60 photos inédites de Brassaï’.

The city has long been dominated by the eye. Our urban experience, even our memories, are rooted above all in images. The predominance of vision has been accompanied by the systematic banishing of odours and sounds, so that we rarely associate our urban experiences with the scent of a plant, the smell of food, the noise of a harbour, or the sound of a language. On the contrary, the harder we work to create a visually varied and interesting urban environment, the more we imagine it as silent and devoid of smells.


Even the night, traditionally a time of darkness and silence, has slowly been colonized by the eye. We have been able to cross the frontier of darkness with the help of artificial lightning, which offers us an illusory sense of security. So dependent we are on vision that it is only by prolonging it into the night that we feel secure in our ability to understand and control our surroundings. We may, however, overlook the fact that the electricity which makes it possible for us to illuminate our cities today, and thus to see clearly around the clock, also powers the close-circuit television cameras that permit the city to keep us under constant observation.

Hence the same physical space of the city forms the backdrop for two parallel urban realities which are similar, but different: the daytime city and the nocturnal city. The city that is revealed to us at night is a more abstract place in which unexpected vistas of streets, parks, buildings, or details emerge, while similar ones suddenly vanish. The extension of vision throughout the night has gone hand in hand with an extension of urban life to a 24-hour cycle - exceeding the organization of our days into 8-hour shifts which was the ambition of the modernists.

Thus, lightning has slowly eroded the unique conditions that darkness offered us - the ability to hide, the silence, the oblivion. Yet only through darkness, through the temporary blindness produced by the fading of the light that enables sight, are we able to recapture the experience of the other senses. In the darkness, noises are suddenly amplified, odours are intensified, and we even rediscover the sense of touch. So perhaps there is an alternative strategy for experiencing the nocturnal city. Instead of colonizing it for the eye, we might take advantage of the darkness for a time, forgetting about vision and rediscovering and remembering other sensorial experience.

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City vs. Urbanization

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An interesting passage from the great book ‘Brussels - A Manifesto. Towards a Capital of Europe’, about the difference between city and urbanization, civitas and urbs, and the citizen member and the individual.

"With the development of infrastructure as the primary core of modern cities, the understanding of the human settlement as urbs -as simple aggregation of disconnected units linked together by the controlled flows of mobility - has used the city as an outlet of economic development where social practices are exclusively devoted to the cycle of production and consumption. Today the notion of urbs must be solely considered as the matter of fact of the city - as its indisputable productive machinery where technology is the neutral ground of city development towards the better. The emphasis on urbanisation as the only precondition for “cityness” must be understood today (especially as a symptom of the limitation of the meaning of inhabiting the city) within the horizon of economic opportunities with no space left for what must be seen as the potential main antagonist force to economy: political action. In opposition to the concept of urbanisation as the ultimate fate of the city, we raise the concept of civitas. Civitas is the symbolic agreement of a community to share space, thus developing civic coexistence. If as matter of fact, civitas and urbs can and should coexist as balanced factors of the city; as matters of concern, they must be intended as opposing meanings of human inhabitation. The opposition between civitas and urbs, between city and urbanization, is represented by the potential opposition between citizen and individual.

The apparently “old” distinction between the bourgeois and the citizen can be seen today as the difference between the individual, who seeks his expression in urbanization, and the citizen member, who consciously participates in a collective way of living. Yet even more bluntly, this distinction is carried by the sharp difference between urbs and civitas, individual and city, urbanization and city.

The individual inhabits urbanisation by the pursuit of his or her desires of self-satisfaction and mobility, without any consideration for the collective dimension of the city in which cohabitation demands responsibility and confrontation. The citizen defines his desires by taking into account the space of human cooperation and solidarity, seeing it as the ultimate meaning of city coexistence - as what city means precisely in opposition to urbanization.”

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Decades ago, the city was the theatre of political debate and class conflict; whereas today, as the middle class grows, it is a dumb backdrop to mass servitude towards the apolitical democracy imposed by the market. Facing this reality, we need to reformulate an image for the city form against the totalizing space of urbanization.
Brussels - A Manifesto. Towards the Capital of Europe (p.33)
The Berlage

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How Long is the Life of a Building? Tallinn’s Linnahall

linnahall_1 Fading appreciation, changing values and demands, associations with troubled pasts, structural decay, rampant property development and other trends can lead to the abandonment, neglect and disappearance of architectural legacy, even that of an entire era. Such was the starting point of the 2012 Estonian contribution to the Venice Architectural Biennale, asking the question ‘How Long is the Life of a Building?’. It explored the abandonment of various modernist buildings from the soviet era in Estonia, showing remarkable and daring designs which were the architectural highlights of the soviet era in Estonia. However, most of them have fallen victim to changing times and struggle with new realities. Failed Architecture also led a research workshop on one of the country’s most well-known architectural icons from late 1970s. The catalogue of the Estonian contribution in Venice is a broad collection of perspectives dealing with the lifespan of architecture, ranging from topics such as structural decay, the re-appreciation and re-use of formerly neglected architecture, the heritage potential of modernist architecture and the importance of time and life in Japanese (re)building habits, to critique on the production of urban space. The complete catalogue is accessible online. The focus case study of ‘How Long is the Life of a Building?’ was Tallinn’s Linnahall, an enormous and monumental former concert hall on a prominent location right by the sea. Completed in 1980 for the Moscow Olympics’ regatta as the ‘V.I. Lenin Culture and Sports Palace’ (it never hosted sports events, only major cultural events), it is currently almost completely abandoned apart from being used as a training ground for policemen and narcotic dogs, and it has a helipad for the city’s helicopter connection with Helsinki. Linnahall’s spatial setup and severe decay make it resemble a Mayan ruin from the outside, but its interior still reflects some of the 1980s soviet glory. Photographer Ingel Vaikla captured the anachronistic object in modern-day Tallinn for ‘How Long is the Life of a Building?’ and generously shared the photo essay.

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Is the Architectural Profession Still Relevant?

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Automated design processes, critique on the profession’s culture, DIY-design and wider trends put pressure on the social and public relevance of the architect. On the other hand, architects are crossing boundaries, taking up new roles and experimenting with other approaches, while other professionals reinforce the importance of architecture. Melbourne-based architect, researcher and broadcaster Rory Hyde explored these developments in his book “Future Practice”, by interviewing a wide range of people that observe and practice new strategies for making cities work. I talked to him about these individuals, the architectural profession and other forces that shape our surroundings. Will architecture dissolve into other professions or will it be able to recalibrate itself?

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Filed under urbanism Architecture

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“In the Glasgow media the death of a high rise is marketed as progress”

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Plean St Flats, Yoker.  ©www.chrisleslie.com

Early 2012, I visited Red Road, an impressive housing estate consisting of eight high rises in the north east of Glasgow, built in 1967 to house about 4,700 people. They were once the highest flats in Europe. By the time we were there, two of them had already been emptied and party stripped, awaiting demolition. The other six are to be torn down by 2017, as part of Glasgow’s larger regeneration plan. Red Road is not the only part of the city on death row. The regeneration scheme will bring significant change throughout the city, especially to eight condemned areas that are seen as outdated and problematic. Glaswegian photographer, filmmaker and visual artist Chris Leslie started documenting the disappearing buildings, areas, communities and stories in 2007. This resulted in The Glasgow Renaissance, a multimedia project with a large emphasis on the current and former residents and the memories of the places that have to go. I talked to Chris Leslie about his project and Glasgow’s regeneration.

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Definition of a City #12

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Bosporus, Istanbul Landscape by Gijs Kast (from the book Başıboş).

"Cities are—and have always been—highly differentiated spaces expressive of heterogeneity, diversity of activity, excitement, and pleasure. They are arenas for the pursuit of un-oppressed activities and desires, but also ones replete with systematic power, danger, oppression, domination and exclusion. Mediating the tensions between this dialectical twin of emancipation and disempowerment has of course been the bread and butter of urban planners, designers, social engineers, architects and an assorted array of visionaries since the earliest days of urbanisation."

   - Swyngedouw, E., & Kaïka, M. (2003). The making of ‘glocal’ urban modernities. City7(1), 5-21.

Kindly shared by Francesca Miazzo, Director of CITIES.

This is part of a series of definitions of cities featured on City Breaths. The aim is to collect definitions from different perspectives. The definitions will tell us something about what the role of urban space is in sustaining human life, the way we experience and perceive urban space and the sensations it creates in us. You are welcome to add more interpretations. The other definitions can be read here.

Filed under urbanism

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Citizen Urbanism in Madrid

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Madrid is officially a city I would want to live now. I was overwhelmed by the atmosphere and the things the city has to offer. But also its urban development is interesting. The combination of modern features and historical barrios is a delight. Not to mention the exceptional cluster of world-class museums, my favourite being the Reina Sofía Museum of modern art (not in the least its fascinating Situationists section).

Madrid has been a political center for almost half a millennium, with some brief interruptions and under various regimes. Therefore it is full of architectural grandeur and wide avenues. But the things I enjoyed most were in the fine-grained neighbourhoods that were often right behind it. There is much life on the streets, which are occupied by a very diverse population that’s generally very open to interact.

imageThe morphology of Lavapiés

The Lavapiés barrio is one of those lively ares. Although subject to a clear gentrification process, it is still regarded an immigrant neighbourhood with very diverse demographics. One feature of this is La Corrala, a tenement block with long communal balconies built around a central courtyard where the social life of the local community takes place. At night, the patio is crowded with adults lounging and kids playing. Most buildings of this typology haven’t survived (only some 500 of them are still left in Madrid) modernisation waves, because most apartments used to be no larger than 30 square metres and neighbours had to share toilets, but this typical form of Madrilian architecture is increasingly protected and regarded as heritage.

imageLa Corrala, Lavapiés

The most interesting thing I came across was El Campo de Cebada in the La Latina neighbourhood. Previously (since the late 19th century) the site was a roofed municipal market, and therefore a social hub for the area’s residents. Halfway the 20th century, the market was rehoused on the same site in a heavier concrete building because of hygiene reasons. The rest of the site was taken up by a municipal sports centre. At the dawn of this century, Madrid’s City Council came up with a plan to redevelop the area, rebuilding the market and the sports centre and handing over the management to the private sector.

The sports centre - being the only one in the area - was demolished, but there were no investors to be found to take up the development of a new one. The result was a fenced-in wasteland of 5,500 square meters, as a concrete articulation of troubled economic times.

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On Google Earth, the sports centre (grey roof) is still there.

During La Noche en Blanco in 2010, an event taking place one night only with the aim to transform the city and bring citizens together through temporary interventions, the site was transformed into a rain forest with an open pool. This remained for ten days and stirred up a lot of dynamics, local pride and a shared ambition to do something with the abandoned space.

The presence and subsequent dismantling of the temporary installation struck a nerve with local residents. To them, it didn’t make sense for a location to be unused and abandoned. Especially since it was the result of decisions of the City Council. From here a community started to form under the name of El Campo de Cebada (The Barley Field), consisting of a wide variety of people from all ages and different backgrounds. Using meetings, online discussions and black boards on site, proposals for the use of the space were discussed.  

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El Campo de Cebada (©Davilú)

After a plow through the regulatory process, the City Council agreed to explore a new way to develop the site. They helped providing some basics for the site, including water and electricity, and basketball and football goals. From there on, volunteering locals and artists painted and decorated the space, furniture was created out of recycled materials and a structure was created to provide shade (Madrid summers can be hot) and sitting areas. Several inflatable pools are occasionally deployed and mobile gardens have been created which are the responsibility of locals. Moreover, a variety of events and festivities take place at El Campo de Cebada, from plays and tai-chi classes and lectures to open-air film screenings and concerts.

imageEl Campo de Cebada (©r2hox)

When I visited, people who had brought their own lunch were picnicking under in the built structure while a basketball match was going on which was passionately cheered by a crowd of some 30 people. Street vendors were walking around selling beers for one euro while kids raced around on their bicycles and others just enjoyed the place reading a book or taking a siesta in the shade.

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This way of grassroots urbanism clearly connects to the demands of local residents, connecting their needs and wishes to an unused space in an area they know best. The result is a well-functioning social hub (in a way returning to the times when it was a local market), where a variety of people comes together for different reasons, simultaneously feeling responsible for the public space. The space is public in the most purest sense, because it is maintained and managed by the people who use it through a form of direct democracy. El Campo de Cebada is the result of collective intelligence, working well as a place shaped by the same people who use it.

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El Campo de Cebada (©Guillermo de la Madrid)

Thanks to Olga López Hidalgo for introducing me to the place and checking this post for factual accuracy.

Filed under urbanism Madrid

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Wonderfully Ordinary New York City

Great video by The Color Machine for the Municipal Art Society of New York.

It’s refreshing to see a video about a city that’s not tilt-shifted, stop motion or filled with iconic cityscapes. This one is a celebration of the small, the average, the ordinary and most of all the people. It beautifully illustrates how a city is a concentration of people with endlessly divergent needs, ambitions, habits and movements, all living in one place. New York is not one city, it is a sum of all the personal cities of its 8 million residents. This is (again, just like one of my previous posts about Strelka’s new education programme) something very much in line with Michel de Certeau’s way of looking at a city in “The Practice of Everyday Life”.
By showing this diversity, the filmmakers portray New York City as an inclusive city, the city of all of these people. They also show that liveability is about opportunities and quality of life for as many citizens as possible.

Filed under urbanism

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Food as an Urban Connector

am sure you know Monocle magazine. Not everyone is aware of the fact that Monocle also does radio. I have been a longtime fan of one of their podcasts in particular: The Urbanist, a weekly show about urban affairs, featuring a diverse range of themes in a fresh tone of voice and with great content.

Something I did not know yet, is that Monocle also does films. I was notified by Gillian Dobias, the executive producer of Monocle broadcast, that they just finished a film titled City Farming.
What I like about the film, is that it is a great visual illustration of a book I recently made for CITIES
Farming the City. It’s nothing new that food is a connector. But what we wanted to show and explore in the book, is that food can also function as a connector on the level of the city. It can play a pivotal role in the organization and development of our urban societies and can be used as a tool to approach the many challenges inherent in contemporary urban life from a human, locally-oriented perspective.
Monocle’s film features three inspiring projects in the US, Japan and Norway. New York’s Brooklyn Grange is fairly well-known, but I think the others are less so. I had never heard of the one in Tokyo. 

Monocle’s City Farming film is edited by Henry Albert. The contributing journalists are Richard Grehan, Elaisha Stokes and Aleksander Solum.

Here’s an earlier piece that I wrote about the backgrounds of Farming The City - Food as a Tool for Today’s Urbanisation and why we wanted to write it.

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At Strelka, The Practice of Everyday Life in Practice

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The Strelka Institute in Moscow has a fascinating new educational programme coming up. The 2013-2014 theme is ‘urban routines’, which I think is great – at the same time highly realistic but also very ambitious. Connecting daily urban habits and activities to larger frameworks and design challenges is something that’s essential in planning, design and governance, but at the same time often missing. Michel de Certeau’s “The Practice of Everyday Life” has been one of my favourite books about the city for a couple of years. Simultaneously, I always find it hard to translate his writings into thinking about the city at a planning or governance level. That’s why Strelka’s programme is so interesting, and so important. How do people use space, both public and private? How do they commute, move around the city? In which places are their daily lives articulated? The answers to these questions connect the social, economic, and cultural fabric, and other spheres of urban activity. Students from different backgrounds and nationalities can apply for the programme.

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The spatial distribution of mobile app developers in the Netherlands. Over 40% of them is located in Amsterdam.

The Urban Routines of Dutch mobile app developers
For my MA research in 2011, I focused on the spatial orientation of people working with creative technologies in cities (mostly app developers). How do they use urban space? What kind of dwellings, work spaces and third spaces do they use and prefer? It was basically to test popular theories about creative, footloose urban professionals and the location factors that influence their settlement choice on different levels (which city to live and work, what neighbourhood, what kind of office or café, et cetera). It turned out that some of the theories do apply to them: they do tend to cluster in cities and in temporary clusters (one-day events) where knowledge is exchanged in an informal setting (and in online communities of practice). Moreover, generally they prefer specific urban environments with cultural amenities, a historical makeup, young people, etc. They do, however, tend to stick to regular 9-to-5 times and work in a traditional office, as opposed to a high use of ‘third places’ such as coffee bars and the flexible working hours. The most important reason for this is the spatial proximity to colleagues and people to spar with – communication technologies are no more than complementary to this. So it turns out they are less ‘footloose’ than expected. The situation of creatives like mobile app developers is often idealized, reasoning that a laptop plus internet connection is sufficient for them to do their work. Even these supposedly archetypical ‘footloose’ creatives, tend to behave similar to more traditional economic actors. Next to the importance of face-to-face contact, the routines of the economic arena they play in determine their behavior – if their clients and other actors work 9-to-5 and expect to be welcomed in a neat office, they tend to adjust their location and behaviour accordingly. These findings are important in a broader urban sense in multiple ways, from understanding needs for office space, urban amenities, proximity to others in the same field, good mobility, and many other things.

Strelka programme
The case about mobile app developers in The Netherlands is just a minor example of a subgroup that exists next to thousands and thousands of other subgroups in cities and whose urban routines make up the urban fabric (maybe even more so than the physical makeup of a city). That’s why the 2013/14 Strelka programme is so interesting, especially in a city like Moscow, which has a more top-down development tradition than other cities and therefore the daily lives of Russian urbanites can easily be overlooked from a planning and design perspective. But also because urban space can only to a certain extent be shaped by its design – its use, how it is included in urban routines of city dwellers, also makes up a large part of what urban space is. I’m looking forward to seeing the results of the programme in a year from now.

Filed under urbanism