Monday, May 2, 2011


When Antonio Gramsci chose the title for his short-lived periodical La città futura, the future city, he wasn’t actually referring to urban development, but using the word city as a synonym for society. This might strike us as an odd choice, given that Italy in 1917 was still largely rural, but it is consistent with the etymology of the word, which – as it does in English – derives from civitas, meaning ‘a community of citizens’, as opposed to the older Latin noun urbs, from which we get urban and means a city proper. Nowadays in most Western countries – and many non-Western ones as well – the synonymity is all but an empirical fact, and so to imagine a future city means also to imagine what life will look like thirty, fifty, a hundred years from now.

Auckland 2000, by Bernard Roundhill (1956)

I am not nearly well-read enough to state this with confidence, but I suspect that in Western culture these imaginings were a lot more common in the first half of the last century than they have been ever since. A read through of the history of the future section at Ptak Science Books makes this hunch seem more plausible, with its wonderful gallery of inspired, inspiring and occasionally weird visions: floating suburbs, giant blocks of skyscrapers tightly packed together, railroads coiling into the sky; but so does reminding oneself of the great social housing projects of that era, which held the promise of a fundamental reinvention of the city and of the attendant notions of community and citizenship without recourse to science-fiction tropes.

Whether the shrivelling of these visions means that we are resigned to the classic 20th century grid, and to cities that sprawl either horizontally or vertically, but always subject primarily to the flow not of people but of motor cars; or whether it is a subset of a more general incapacity to imagine social, political and economic alternatives to the status quo, I do not know (although projecting the status quo into the future produces ruptures of its own – more on which at the end of this post). But especially in New Zealand as we contemplate, for now as spectators, the reconstruction of Christchurch, as well as public investments in the economy that are almost exclusively geared towards roading, this lack of imagination is brought into much sharper relief.

In Christchurch of course it was nature that was the philistine, nature that destroyed or condemned places of memory, history and character, causing the loss of ‘Christchurchness’ wonderfully described by Cheryl Bernstein. But there remains the significant challenge of what to restore and what to build anew, and according to which vision of the future city. Even at this early stage it’s hard to feel optimistic about the eventual outcome of this process, what with a government for whom the word “progress” is synonymous with “more roads” (a historical obsession already lamented over half a century ago by WB Sutch), and a transport agency with a penchant for bullying local administrations and seemingly unable to leverage its multi-billion dollar budget into the ability to locate Patricia Grace’s number in the phone book. A bumbling, piecemeal development modelled on conservative views of economics and social relations is what recent history teaches us we should expect, and it will likely take a significant effort of imagination and persuasion to change that particular script.

However, and again, this is not to say that the phenomenon is peculiar to New Zealand, and reading Owen Hatherley’s Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (now available in trawl form) is also an education on the failure of the age to produce liveable cities – a failure that contrasts with the neurotic sophistication of our personal designed lifestyle: our gadgets, our clothing, our homes, for which the market is flooded with solutions. Whereas the city, and, by extension, society, remains a problem. Thus your home becomes an escape (if suburban/exurban) or a retreat (if you live downtown).

The Ideal City, c. 1480-1490, sometimes attributed to Piero della Francesca

The digital networks are another such escape. Or rather, the place where work, society, lifestyle and the new architecture of the world’s knowledge come together. They are a place inside the home, or increasingly they permeate the city and its hubs (the airport, the library) thanks to the omnipresence of wi-fi. But what I want to put forward is that in fact the internet is the opposite of the city: a place with no geographic coordinates that connects us instantly with the close-by and the remote alike, and where it makes no sense to say that you are neighbours with somebody; a place without roads – the fortunes of the highway metaphor notwithstanding – or a road code or utilities; a place where community can mean any arbitrary grouping of people, and where the idea of citizenship isn’t bound by anything other than the means of accessing the space. In fact the internet can become a city only when it is explicitly imagined as a city (as in Second Life, or Neal Stephenson’s Metaverse).

Yet the problem of how to do future-oriented architecture applies to both the internet and the city equally. Both of these places can and in fact should be where our social imagination primarily takes shape, but instead, it seems to me, both are preoccupied more often with subsuming the past into the present. Don’t just think postmodernism. Think of the perpetual now of Venice, or how the humble Foxton recycles its heritage simultaneously as lived social history and historical fiction to be consumed by the tourist; and on the internet side, think of the remarkable popularity of sites like How to Be a Retronaut, where the past is stripped of its context and endlessly mined for its reserves of timeless fashion iconicity or as an object of ironic reinvention. And while serious urban speculation is certainly alive on the web – as a layman I find BLDGBLOG of particular use – it hasn’t spread into the popular imaginary to nearly the same extent as these past-oriented mash-ups and games.

Poster for the inauguration of the second line of the Milan underground, 1969

When I was a teenager in Milan the city was plastered for several years with posters informing us that the third line of the underground transport network was being built. La linea 3 avanza, the third line marches on, was the slogan. It was the only instance I can recall of a public, visible statement on the future of the city, and it referred to something that was going on below street level. It’s not that change wasn’t happening – it was, and was generally awful – but it strikes me now that we both lacked the vocabulary to describe it and the lucidity to oppose it, even as we periodically steeled ourselves to defend the centri sociali from harassment and closure by the police. And so it took three decades for the municipality to replace the old, disused Alfa Romeo factory next to the house where I grew up with the ghastly exhibition centre that still carries its name, Il Portello, and yet our opposition to that civically derelict project was as confused and disorganised as its planning.

Perhaps an answer to these failures of the imagination is to write the future onto the city itself. There are a couple of examples that have recently intrigued me. Firstly, the tsunami safety demarcation lines that the Wellington City Council put in place in Island Bay earlier this year, just one week before the earthquake in Christchurch and eight weeks before the devastating tsunami in Japan.

The lines were met with some local opposition, although the fear that they might affect property prices soon gave way to the very stark sense of their usefulness to the community. Besides its practical value, however, the project is remarkable for how it allows you to visualise a possible future of the city: on one side of the lines, safety and the preservation of the historical character of one of our most picturesque suburbs; on the other, images destruction that are sadly very familiar to us at this time. But even more evocative and powerful were the lines projected last year onto the cityscape of Bristol by Chris Bodle in his Watermarks Project.

Image from the Watermarks Project (h/t Bldgblog).

Bodle’s idea was to concretely visualise the high tide and flood watermarks that are predicted to occur should the entire Greenland ice shelf melt, based on the artist’s key insight that
[t]he future of our cities and landscapes and our responses to rising sea levels should not just left to scientists, politicians, engineers and the built environment professions, but emerge from as wide a base as possible with participation and involvement from all sections of the wider community. Ultimately the mitigation and adaptation measures will be social and cultural as much as scientific and technical.

I don’t think it’s an undue leap to suggest that such concrete imaginings would be of great value also to visualise alternative futures that don’t hinge on the likely effects of natural catastrophes. Imagine if we could model in such a direct and accessible way the outline of downtown Christchurch ten years from now, and the kind of public meetings and discussions that could be had on the very sites that are due to be restored, rebuilt or transformed. The internet, for its part, needs more virtual spaces where cities can be manipulated and played with in this way, tools like HyperCities, except designed to allow for the future to be crowdsourced, and not just the past.

The title of this post being a play on the name of this excellent blog.

Unrelatedly, here's an essay I wrote for Letting Space on Tao Wells' art project The Beneficiary's Office.