CITY BREATHS

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Six of 2012’s Best Books About Cities

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Six books published in 2012 that taught me something about cities

The shops where I spend most of my time are definitely book stores. Especially those with an ‘urban affairs’ section or something similar to that. Amsterdam had two of those (as far as I know) until Stedelijk Museum reopened this year. The museum now houses a bookstore run by the renowned German Walter König Buchhandlung. The other two are Architectura & Natura and Athenaeum.

Here are six books that I bought this year and that I have given me new perspectives on aspects of urban life, politics and design.


1. Hans Ibelings and Powerhouse Company - SHIFTS: Architecture After the 20th Century (The Architectural Observer)
Architecture is known for not always being very self-critical. That is why this little book came as a great surprise to me. Powerhouse Company, known for some very high-end architecture, teamed up with architectural historian Hans Ibelings. Together they did a great assessment of the current state of architecture and looked at the future of the profession. SHIFTS explores the deep causes of the scars that are starting to become visible in architectural culture. And it is not just the recent financial recession. Structural global trends are having enormous impacts on architecture, which means that we cannot expect the future to be a continuation of the recent past. The West is no longer in charge, with demographic, economic, social and cultural power relations to shift, and the architectural bubble about to burst. The great thing about this exploration, is that Powerhouse has made physical models that represent these pressing world dynamics, which made up an exhibition that was at display at the Architecture Foundation in London and Cityscapes Gallery in Amsterdam. For example, “Sinking and Rising” is a wooden block with the world map on top. Countries are elevated or lowered, according to their ‘trade balance’ – the difference between the monetary value of exports and imports of output in an economy over a certain period.

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Sinking and Rising

Another model is “Bubbles”, showing the evolution of economic bubbles and the fact that they only increase in size and frequency, with most of them in the last two decades and the current global crisis being a couple of hundred times as large as the 2000 “Dot Com Bubble” or 1987’s “Black Monday”.

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Bubbles


2. Anna Minton – Ground Control (Penguin Books)
Originally published in 2009, an updated version came out this year, including a new chapter about London’s 2012 Olympics. Ground Control is about the privatization, securitization and shinification of urban space in British cities. The book’s subtitle is Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-First Century City. It explains how urban space is increasingly owned by private corporations, watched over by CCTV and designed for profit. In many ways, you can see, feel and smell the fear for disruption, for crime, filth, chaos and – most of all – for capital loss. This results in standardized urban spaces that end up looking and feeling alike, all across the UK. These spaces (that often don’t deserve to be called places) are impersonal, anonymous, hostile and not inclusive.

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Cardinal Place, London. An exemplary case, according to Anna Minton


3. David Harvey – Rebel Cities (Verso Books)
There is always struggle in our cities. You can call it a battle for the right to the city, or a struggle for the have-nots to prevent the haves from taking their turf, their status or their amenities. For decades, David Harvey has been writing about the inherent relationship between capital growth and urbanization. Capitalism, requiring perpetual growth, is continually seeking opportunities for profitably investing its surplus and employing excess labour. Capital frequently – and more and more – locates these opportunities for investment in urban development and transformation. In Rebel Cities, Harvey focuses on the revolutionary potential of urban spaces. Drawing on the 1871 Paris Commune and the Occupy movement, but also the Arab Spring and the London Riots, he asks how we can cities can be organized in a different way, not (solely) based on capital accumulation. One of the most striking messages Harvey tries to bring across, is that we should see the power of urban life, and measure social success according to the development of human capacity, instead of the capital growth rate.

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Paris’ 1871 rebellion


4. Owen Hatherley – A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain (Verso Books)
Similar to Anna Minton’s Ground Control but more angry, Hatherley’s new book basically is a continuation of his previous one, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain. He takes up his arms against the ‘urban disasters’ he runs into on his architectural road trip through many of the UK’s cities. Hatherley sees a painful landscape that is the expression of the social and political state of the country, and he hopes it will rise from its neoliberal ruins, becoming a more equitable society. Although cynical and uncompromisingly Marxist (and therefore perhaps not too constructive), Hatherley’s books are perhaps the best travel companions when visiting urban Britain.

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London’s The Shard, according to Hatherley, is “
a grotesque imposition, just an enormous slab of city fucked into south London”


5. Neil Brenner, Peter Marcuse and Margit Mayer (eds) - Cities for People, Not for Profit: Critical Urban Theory and the Right to the City (Routledge)
A tougher read, but absolutely crucial material for people who want to understand how our cities work nowadays. Neil Brenner always amazes me, managing to capture and connect structures, dynamics and relationships that make up the city, being one of the greatest geographers. Marcuse is almost a living legend (84 years old), having written much in the field of urban studies. The book critically examines the urban present and future. The possible ways of economic, social and environmental collapse of cities is discussed, most of which within the ‘Right to the City’-framework. It deals with subjects such as urban protest, neoliberalization, gentrification, colonization, architecture and political dynamics. One of the articles I like most is the one written by Stefan Krätke, in which he deconstructs the “creative class”, the group of people seen as the magic potion for our cities to flourish. Also Justus Uitermark’s piece is great, assessing the ‘Just City’ concept. Mentioning just these two almost feels disrespectful to the authors of all the other great articles, so I urge you to go and get the book if you are into the socio-spatial-political dynamics of the world that we call the city.

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A cricital take on the ‘creative city’ by Creative Class Struggle. A topic also tackled in “Cities for People, Not for Profit”


6. Zadie Smith – NW (Penguin Books)
Yes, fiction. This book beautifully illustrates that cities, or places, consist of people. Cities are people. Different people with different thoughts, varying personalities and perceptions are the main reason for cities to be dynamic and to never be the same. Moreover, there is no such thing as the city. One city is many cities to many people, all using and experiencing the city differently, in a very personal way. By writing about the daily lives, thoughts and behaviours of four main characters of different race, class, and ideals in north west (NW) London, Zadie Smith perfectly illustrates the diversity and fluidity of cities. If you want to learn something about cities, but don’t feel like going through any theoretical reads, this book should be on your list.

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Camden, part of London’s NW, where Smith’s book is situated

Happy reading.

Filed under Peter Marcuse Neil Brenner Zadie Smith Books Anna Minton Owen Hatherley David Harvey Powerhouse Hans Ibelings urbanism