Amsterdam, Queensday 1972. Kids selling magazines and weed plants.
Amsterdam, Queensday 1972. Kids selling magazines and weed plants.
Neonlights reflecting off the rainy streets of Amsterdam’s Leidseplein, somewhere in the 1960s. Image by Frits Lemaire.
One of the most impressive films I’ve come across lately is “Lost in London”, by Michael Smith and Wojciech Duczmal. It shows a poetic stroll through London, based on Baudelaire’s flâneur, and beautifully illustrates that the experience of the city is an individual one. How someone perceives the city, depends on his/her memories, knowledge, ways of looking at and listening to things, previous experiences, sensitivity, how they make connections between these things, et cetera.
The short film also encouraged me to go out and just walk through the city more, even though it is rather difficult to take on a traveller’s perspective in your own city.
The book “Sense of the City - An Alternative Approach to Urbanism" is a great publication that also deals with the sensory experience of the city and might be interesting in respect to the topic of the video. It argues that the city’s representation consists of much more than only its visual aspects, and that sounds, smells, darkness, and other qualities that influence the ways in which we communicate with the city deserve more attention when we talk and think about cities.
Some of the best articles, videos, posts and other things urban I came across this week.
This is something for me to look forward to: a video game where you can wander around freely in a semi-realistic urban world. There is no mission, only a loose plot: you can tap into electronic devices because the protagonist has hacked Chicago’s central operating system. From there, you can get several objectives.
It seems like Watch Dogs combines the best elements of Grand Theft Auto and Blade Runner, because it represents a slightly dystopian reality where you can go wherever you like and complete some tasks whenever you like. I’m afraid this is going to hurt my productivity. The Guardian published an interview with the CEO of Watch Dogs developer Ubisoft last week.
How the City Hurts Your Brain
This is an article from 2009 that I ran into this month, in which Jonah Lehrer refreshes older theories by Georg Simmel and Richard Sennett, combining it with recent scientific findings. The city calls upon the brain, and the brain’s capacity is limited. This creates a trade-off between the unique benefits of the metropolis and the psychological damage it causes. Interestingly, the city’s complexity simultaneously triggers creativity and evokes cognitive exhaustion.
The Irrational Exuberance of Rem Koolhaas
One of the best long reads I came across lately, published on Design Observer’s Places Journal. In it, Ellen Dunham-Jones goes into Rem Koolhaas’ inevitable contradictions that are the result of him trying to marry art and capitalism, radicalism and pragmatism, and icon-making and city-making. She does a great job, by going from his early works and theories to his later products and thoughts. I have the impression that she doesn’t quite know what to think of Koolhaas, acknowledging his genius but despising some of his decisions.
La Maison Tropicale: From Failure in Niamey to Masterpiece in New York
For Failed Architecture, Isabella Rossen goes into the case of Jean Prouvé’s modernist prefab icon La Maison Tropicale. It was thought of as the future in the 1940s and 1950s, but turned out to be a symbol of colonialism and did not fit the African context. Today, however, the three prototypes that were once built are being hailed in New York, London and Paris.
How Cities Reshape Themselves When Trust Vanishes
Thanassis Cambanis shows how trust shapes the public realm and how violent acts can subtly, but radically change urban societies, by going into the cases of Boston, New York, Baghdad and Beirut. A fascinating article, illustrating that trust and security might be the key elements to urban livability.
This work from 1976 is displayed at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt. I was intrigued by it, not in the first place because it is a huge work, but because its geometric urban pattern comes across very intimidating and unfree but simultaneously as a technological marvel.
Thomas Bayrle often presents a personal tension between his fascination with and horror for at modern. This is something I can very much relate to. Much of his work is not about the city, but more about capitalism in society, systems of symbols, consumerism, advertising, and other things that have become more and more part of our world over the past 50 years.
In 2009, Frieze published a great piece on Thomas Bayrle by Dominic Eichler.
For the past two years, I have been working on a book. Francesca Miazzo and I have collected contributions and case studies and framed them within our own thoughts about the city’s networks, meanings and mechanisms, to show how food can be used as a tool for a more substantial urban development, today. It’s titled “Farming the City - Food as a Tool for Today’s Urbanisation”.
The book was officially published April 10 under the flag of CITIES, with TrancityˣValiz publishers, during a big launch event in Amsterdam with a full programme.
The aim of the book is to show how food can play a pivotal role in the organization and development of our urban societies and how it can be used as a tool to approach the many challenges inherent in contemporary urban life from a human, locally-oriented perspective.
The book aims to trace a path towards a socially, culturally and economically resilient society; a place where inclusive, locally-oriented modes of production are not only possible, but preferrable.
In order to clarify this, we have invited leading and inspiring thinkers and activists to write about the ways in which innovative food initiatives can contribute to our cities. Thirteen essays by artists, urbanists, policy thinkers, architects, activists and sociologists (a.o. Carolyn Steel, Kevin Morgan, Jennifer Sumner, Derek Denckla, Chris Berthelsen, Jared Braiterman, Jess Mantell and Jan-Willem van der Schans.
Next to that, 100 pages of the book have been dedicated to exemplary projects that we have come across in the past couple of years. Here, 35 projects are showcased to illustrate in what ways food is already changing our cities, today. We see this chapter of the book as an ode to the citizens, entrepreneurs, organisations and public officers that use food as a tool to re-interpret contemporary notions of urban living, working and collaboration. This visual showcase with basic descriptions has been included as an inspiration for the readers.
Food instead of creativity
The final section of the book is an epilogue, in which we roughly argue that the same framing, governmental interest and support should be applied to the “food field” as happened to the “creative field” in the past decade. The creative clustering has proven to be a succesful way to revive cities, strengthen identities, promote new industries and develop cultural scenes. However, the creativity field has also been used as a panacea for urban challenges, directing investments to creativity based on false rhetoric, often having negative implications such as displacement, social polarization and ‘distinctive’ urban fabrics and cultures that end up looking alike.
Instead of promoting an economic sector that revolves around symbolic value, redirecting the focus to the food field can have much more substantial impact, because at its core is one of the necessities of life. The impact, therefore, implies health, social ties, livability, job security, local business opportunities and awareness, contrary to the more superficial benefits of solely investing in creativity. This is not to discredit the creativity sector. In fact, creativity can also play an important role in the various layers of the food field, for example by bringing it to a larger audience and thereby reinforcing its impact.
There’s much, much more in the book. On April 10 during an event in Pakhuis De Zwijger we shed a light on the contents of the book and set the agenda for urban food policies, with Carolyn Steel, Dickson Despommier, Culinary Misfits, Lufa Farms, Trädgård på Spåret and other great people and projects.
We thought it would be nice to put edible flyers in every book, so that there is actual ‘food’ in there.
This week’s most interesting books, articles, blog posts and videos.
Failed Architecture: Game Over for Architects?
Michiel van Iersel speculates on the future of architecture and asks some serious questions. He sketches radical developments in the availability of design tools, in construction technology and in dealing with intellectual property.
With technological innovations and processes of democratization, what will be the role and relevance of the architect in shaping our cities? And what if algorithms and ‘big data’ will gain importance, who ‘pushes stop’ when all systems fail? Questions we need to start thinking about.
Atlantic Cities: Is It Time to Move Past Urban Studies and Toward Urbanization Science?
Interesting piece at The Atlantic Cities about William Solecki, who argues that urban studies should evolve into more scientific approaches that can decipher the genetic code of the organisms we call cities. More scientists are working on this, such as Geoffrey West. I think this is a highly interesting field, with findings that show parallels between cities (i.e. social organizations) and the biology of mammals. I believe that large aggregations of people can demonstrate similarities with organic systems, but that many urban issues should be approached from the ‘softer’ social sciences (sociology, geography, etc).
People from Amsterdam know photographer Ed van der Elsken. He documented the city’s life for decades. He made the video on the left in 1983, driving through Amsterdam on an early morning. It gives a great picture of what Amsterdam looked like in 1983. In 2011, artist Jan Rothuizen captured literally the same image, 28 years later. The difference is striking. Amsterdam was relatively deurbanized in the early 80s, and only started growing again (and being invested in) a few years after this film. In 2011, you see a neat inner city which is clean, organized and safe. The increased affluent population was accompanied by a neutralization of urban space and added convenience, a development that really kicked in in the 1990s. “Amsterdam isn’t what it used to be in the 70s and 80s”, is what people who have lived there during that period often say. Did it change for the good or the bad? You decide.
Farming the City - Food as a Tool for Today’s Urbanisation
On April 10, this book by CITIES will be published worldwide. A preview is already online on ISSUU. The book asks the question “how can food work as a tool for urban development, today?”. Rather than sketching out future visions for food policies, economies and technologies, CITIES looks at what is already happening right now. They did so by asking a bunch of leading writers and researchers to write down what they are seeing, but also by showcasing 35 projects from around the world that they consider to be exemplary for innovative ways of using food and of shaping cities through food.
Spike Lee - Love vs Loyalty
Spike Lee goes schizo in this great video. His two selfs - the New York Knicks fan and the Brooklyn lover - argue over what team to cheer for, now that the Nets have moved from New Jersey to Brooklyn. Is it about loyalty for the team you have always supported or about love for the borough that shaped you? A great watch, with beautiful shots and historical material.
I wrote this article originally for polis, one of my favourite websites on urban issues.
Locally owned shops were once cornerstones for products, services, employment and social networks in urban neighborhoods. The rise of automobiles, franchises and Internet shopping has forced many out of business or into niches that don’t correspond with the needs of their local communities. However, in some cities they’re seeing a resurgence due to creative initiatives that link grassroots activism with public- and private-sector resources.
The Van der Pek neighborhood in Amsterdam. Source: Design as Politics
In February, a special kind of shop opened in Amsterdam’s Van der Pek neighborhood. It is called the Wisselwinkel, meaning “shift shop,” because it hosts a new local entrepreneur every six months. If this trial period goes well, the entrepreneur receives assistance in setting up a more permanent location in the neighborhood.
Louise Went. Source: Amsterdam Museum
The Wisselwinkel is the brainchild of a young activist collective named Mama Louise. Their identity is a tribute to Louise Went, an influential advocate for public health and social justice in Amsterdam’s working-class neighborhoods during the 1920s. Mama Louise organizes D.I.Y. summer markets and other events where people make things, give performances and exchange goods and services. The events strengthen community ties and offer opportunities for entrepreneurial residents to earn income. Mama Louise is now working to create a more permanent platform, and the Wisselwinkel is the first tangible result.
The Van der Pek neighborhood is absorbed in a process of gentrification and large-scale restructuring that threatens to displace many current residents. To help counter displacement, Mama Louise invests in people. Their aim is to uncover the neighborhood’s hidden entrepreneurs, connecting local skills with local needs.
There are several conditions for entrepreneurs who wish to set up shop in the Wisselwinkel. They have to live in the neighborhood and show a desire to start or formalize a business. Once running, the shop has to be open at least five days a week and adopt high-quality marketing collateral developed with help from Mama Louise.
Inside the Wisselwinkel.
Designed and constructed by MOS Collectief, the Wisselwinkel interior is flexible so that different startups can use it according to their needs. Along with the storefront, entrepreneurs receive practical guidance in connecting with support organizations, fulfilling legal requirements and attracting customers. Mama Louise also provides a website, a logo, canvas bags and other material with help from Waarmakers design.
After six months, the entrepreneur moves out of the Wisselwinkel to make room for the next venture. Local housing association Ymere helps viable startups find another location in the neighborhood. Associations like Ymere — which are no longer public entities in the Netherlands — are often criticized as focused primarily on maximizing real estate profits. However, Mama Louise found that Ymere staff took to their initiative with entusiasm rooted in genuine care for resident wellbeing.
In working with Ymere, Mama Louise might be criticized for putting low-income entrepreneurs at risk of taking on insurmountable debt after the trial period. However, they help the Wisselwinkel’s tenants become self-sustaining and attract investment. They channel the resources of organizations with a stake in Van der Pek’s future toward opportunities for current residents to successfully weather gentrification.
Screenshot of the Wisselwinkel website customized for Rathu’s bike shop.
The first entrepreneur in the Wisselwinkel is Rathu Gunawardana, who started out repairing bicycles for friends and neighbors in his backyard. Mama Louise supported his proposal because there was no bike-repair shop in the neighborhood and residents have expressed strong interest in having one. Through the city’s Department of Work and Income, Rathu received a micro-loan for welfare recipients interested in starting their own businesses.
Business has boomed for Rathu, who also sells restored bikes and gear. After a few days, his shop became a popular gathering place for local cycling enthusiasts. A teenage boy asked to help and now takes care of smaller repairs. Other informal entrepreneurs have started visiting the Wisselwinkel to apply for six-month residencies and offer their goods and services.
Mama Louise is now building a map of formal and informal businesses in the neighborhood. Upcoming projects include a salon run cooperatively by local hair dressers, masseurs and other service providers. Each initiative is focused on developing commerce, employment, amenities and social ties to assure that current residents share in the benefits of gentrification.
Mark Minkjan is an urban geographer who works as an independent researcher and writer. He is part of CITIES and Failed Architecture, and runs City Breaths.
Paris, by lenscapbob
“‘The City’ is not a framework but a social practice in constant flux. The more it becomes an issue the more it is a source of contradictions and the more its social manipulation is linked to the ensemble of social and political conflicts.”
- Manuel Castells (1972) “Urban renewal and social conflict in Paris" In: Social Science Information Vol 11. p.93-124
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 definitions. The other definitions can be read here.
This week, I was in Frankfurt because t was invited to give a talk at TEDxRheinMain. We also visited the Städel Museum, which is one of the best museums I have ever been to. It has a great collection of contemporary art with all the big names there. Part of it are works that have to do with cities and architecture, including works by Gordon Matta-Clark, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth and others.
I found the image above quite impressive. Measuring 2 by 2 metres, it is quite large. You can only see the townscape (which is Richter’s interpretation of Madrid from above) when you look at it from a distance. Up close, the depiction dissolves in abstraction and all you see is white, grey and black strokes. What Richter says about this painting is “a spot of paint should be a spot of paint, and the motif needn’t have a message or allow for interpretation”.¹
¹ ’Work Overview’, 1968 in: Gerhard Richter: Text, p. 53
Yet another great publication (after e.g. Ecological Urbanism) from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, edited by its Dean and professor Mohsen Mostafavi.
In the Life of Cities is an impressive book that takes different perspectives on urban life. It explores the relations between the city’s form - its design - and the life this brings about.
Not only does the book try to define the relations in the form of texts by knowledgeable contributors (such as Arjun Appadurai, Nasser Rabbat and Charles Waldheim), it also beautifully captures the interactions between human behaviour and the built environment in photo series by famed photographers including Iwan Baan and Michael Wolf.
What I like most is that the contributions (both texts and photographs) are all based on specific cases to illustrate the “mind, flesh and stone” interaction. They range from the re-appropriation of post-soviet urbanism and the life inside office towers in Chicago to the difference between exceptions and what a city actually has to offer, and the production and consumption of the city through film. And over twenty fascinating topics in between that, flying across the globe from Tokyo, via Cairo, Buenos Aires, Detroit, Houston, Tel Aviv, Johannesburg, Bucharest, Paris, Moscow, Baku, Jakarta and Caracas to Mumbai and more places.
Not only is it the book a beautifully done publication (by Lars Müller publishers), it is an exceptional collection of perceptions, experiences, acts and movements that show us that a city is actually made up of infinite personal cities.
“The suburb developed over the last century and has survived successive generations of technological development producing no more than a flaccid urbanity which sorely disappoints Ebenezer Howard’s original assertion. A place that aspires to embody both town and country becomes neither.
Terrace after terrace of speculatively built cottages, replete with faux-pastoral ornamentation and pre-fab DIY sheds, establish the ultimate template for individual expression — each man an island, each home a castle — each contributing to a wasteland of monotony, where a lack of density destroys any sense of collective .”
This week’s most interesting articles, blog posts and books.
Brooklyn, image by ms.flux
New Republic: The Real Problem With Gentrification
You might have already seen this article coming by, because a lot of websites and platforms have referred to it in the last couple of days. It argues that the diversity discourse - based on Jane Jacobs’ ideas - that has been dominant in urban planning since the mid 1990s, is not really creating diverse cities but rather a sterile form of monotony. Inga Saffron says that planners are abusing Jacobs’ vision to create a picture perfect kind of urban fabric that in fact has little to do with diversity. A well-timed and highly necessary critical piece.
NextCity: When You Can’t Afford Affordable
The affordable housing discussion in New York has been going on for a while. In this article, NextCity reports that two thirds of of New York’s affordable housing units built since 2003 are too expensive for the residents’ earnings. This finally sheds some light on the affordability discussion, that has been relatively vague so far. Apparently, the scheme is not really providing housing in the city for those at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum.
A Lego version of Detroit, image by DecoJim
Shareable: Detroit Spirit
Dominic Nanni criticises the apparently “universal notion among Americans that Detroit is a city without morals, safety, humanity, and civility" and the ruin porn that many engage in by looking at those over-the-top images that portray the city’s decay. He blames the media for "fueling a false narrative about the city”. Nanni wants to tell the real story about Detroit, which is not as dystopian as often thought.
Xi’an City Wall, image by TRANSFORM
Failed Architecture: The New Wave. Or: why we drift towards the shores of simplification
Architect Jan Loerakker argues against the tsunami of flashy renderings and thin concepts of the young generation of Danish Architects that have become superstars in the past decade.By far the best line from the article: “In an architecture scene where the admiration of Koolhaas became so BIG, that we don’t see that a concept without its genius is just an empty shell”.
Rory Hyde - Future Practice
In this book, Rory Hyde explores the frontiers of architecture. He looks at the edges of architecture by interviewing people from the fields of policy, activism, community projects, research, history, architecture and more to examine new directions of spatial practice in times where the relevance of architecture under discussion. These include a.o. Bruce Mau, Wouter Vanstiphout, Indi Johar, Todd Reisz, and Liam Young. An inspiring book, showcasing pioneering actions and progressive thoughts about cities and people.
New York in the 1980s, image by Steven Siegel.
Urban and architectural decay often appeals to the imagination. While some consider the unfinished parts of the city as ugly or disturbing, others feel they make an area more interesting than the picture perfect urban fabric. The city’s scars are stimuli for the mind. They raise questions, about memories and imaginations of a foregone past, and of potential futures. They visualize the passage of time and the inevitability of collapse. On a smaller level, they show traces of faded lives, moved communities and shrunken economies. The voids provide space for the observer to interpret them as he likes, to fill them with imaginations and meanings. Decay provokes thoughts and actions and is the creative inspiration for many artists and writers.
Joseph Gandy’s depiction of John Sloane’s Bank of England as a ruin, 1830.
Not a new thing
The fascination with these spaces is widespread and perennial. Decaying structures, derelict places, abandoned lots and other urban imperfections have been the inspiration for many artists and writers since long ago. This goes back to Piranesi’s depictions of Rome and Hubert’s one of the Louvre’s Gallery as a ruin in the 18th century, was present with Joseph Gandy who painted the Bank of England after its fictional destruction, in John Ruskin’s writing about historic preservation and that of Sigmund Freud in Civilization and its Discontents, and continues with Walter Benjamin using ruins as allegory, and Rose Macaulay’s The Pleasure of Ruins. These are only a handful cases in which decay influenced well-known writers and artists.
Brian Dillon’s “Ruins”.
21st century literature
But the obsession is not something of the past. In recent years, much literature about the topic has been published, trying to explain why the ruin prompts such instinctive responses in us that are filled with melancholia, nostalgia and imagination. Examples are Christopher Woodward’s In Ruins, Brian Dillon’s Ruins, Julia Hell and Andreas Schönle’s Ruins of Modernity, and single articles, such as the recently published Reckoning with Ruins by Caitlin DeSilvey and Tim Edensor. In general, the literature shows a gradually shifting attention from the classical ruins to modern ruins. These are roughly the ruins that emanate from industrialisation and urbanisation from the 19th century onward.
"Imagination Station Detroit", image by Andrew Moore.
Also in arts the preoccupation with urban voids has increased, not in the last place in photography. Everyone at least knows someone who is active in urban exploration, secretly entering abandoned structures, and capturing them in photo. Photographers have made it to the reputable museums and galleries with series depicting abandonment, decay and emptiness, showing the collapse of the futures of the past and the metaphoric resonances of voids (and sometimes being accused of engaging in “ruin porn”). These photographers include and Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre who became superstars with their work on Detroit, Andrew Moore, who shot the decay of New York, Detroit and other places, Simon Marsden who captured ruins as haunted sites, Steven Siegel showing New York’s decay in the 1980s and Shaun O’Boyle who documented America’s 20th century flip side.
Ballroom, American Hotel, Detroit. Image by Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre.
Also in arts, a growing interest in ruins and leftover space is manifest. The notion of failed modernist utopia is not seldom a topic in contemporary works of art. Artists such as Karin Kihlberg and Reuben Henry, and Cyprien Gaillard refer to decay, transience, destruction and ruination in their work.
Cyprien Gaillard’s “La grande allée du château de Oiron”. Gaillard dumped crushed rubble from a demolished tower block on the main alley of a Renaissance Castle. Image by Cyprien Gaillard.
Cyprien Gaillard’s “Pruitt-Igoe Falls”.
The importance of voids for interpreting the city
Italian-born architect Simone Pizzagalli has an interesting take on the notion of decay, leftover space and voids. In his Archiprix-winning essay Space, Poetics and Voids, he underlines the narrative importance of voids. In the essay, he draws the parallel between language and space (via cinema), in order to show that the city can be interpreted as an arrangement, a sequence, in which the void has an important place. In language, silence is an meaningful component that carries culture, history and tradition. Pizzagalli writes that in spoken language, “silence becomes a space more than a real void, a pause that is absence of sound but enriched by a tension of meaning, in itself as silence, or in relation with what was before and after”. In written language, voids between words, lines, paragraphs and chapters, the reader can fill in his own meanings and realities. He quotes Italo Calvino who writes in Invisible Cities that Kublai Khan likes to wander through the voids not filled with words, “become lost, stop and enjoy the cool air, or run off”. He connects the thoughts of Roland Barthes, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Albert Camus and others to support his own.
"Building cuts", works by Gordon Matta-Clark.
Isolated vestiges from the work “Office Baroque” (1977) as seen in one of the pictures above, taken from a building in Antwerp that was demolished after Matta-Clark worked on it. On display at Hamburger Bahnhof, image by Mark Minkjan.
Pizzagalli eventually ends up at space and the built environment, where voids are not a lack, not nothing. They are important elements that help us interpret the space around us. He has a particular interest in Gordon Matta-Clark, who did not just use the void as a building block in his works of art, he created voids himself as an act of preservation. He physically cut buildings that were about to be demolished. By creating the void, Matta-Clark charged the structure with a certain tension, leaving an impression in the mind of the observer and by doing so, preserving the building.
Hotel Ballymun, images by Hotel Ballymun.
A somewhat similar act was done by the artist Seamus Nolan work at Dublin’s Hotel Ballymun in 2007. In the month prior to the demolition of the Clarke Tower, one of the last remaining high-rises in Ballymun, its 15th floor served as a hotel, offering nine hotel rooms. Simultaneously, a programme of art, performances, debates and social events took place. The project encouraged the visitors and spectators to reconsider the building, making it leave an impression and go out with a bang instead of quietly disappearing.
In his essay, Simone Pizzagalli says: “void contains in itself all the potential of the space, all the relation not written and experienced. [..] Void is the place of tension of something that will be, a space in power, but also the only place where the recollection of reality, the composition of the parts, fragments, of life can happen.”
These imperfect, incomplete, broken and illusionary fragments of the built environment are important components in narration and relate people, places, histories and futures. They will surely remain the creative inspiration for many.
I originally wrote this article for Failed Architecture.