TransUrbanism (Introduction)

Introductory essay by Arjen Mulder for the publication "TransUrbanism" (2002).

TransUrbanism (Introduction)



In retrospect, one can say that the term "postmodernism" had something reassuring about it, like all "post-" terms. "Post-" means nothing more than that something is undergoing rapid change with an unknown destination. No terms, or no new ones, yet exist for the outcome, so we have to identify the process by reference to its predecessor. However, what went before - modernism as in "postmodernism," the city as in the "postmetropolis," and industrial production as in the "postindustrial society" - indeed, all that is past, becomes in turn more comprehensible and tangible the further we move beyond it. It also grows more glamorous. Yet the clearer the past becomes in form, the more shapeless the present gets. All "post-" terms are by nature backward-looking and hence tend toward nostalgia; at their best they lead to cultural criticism and deconstruction, and at their worst to desperation and a politics of "letting someone else do the dirty work." The maxim that he who does not remember the past is condemned to forever repeat his mistakes has a new counterpart here: he who knows only the past is condemned to endlessly repeat the same tale of loss.

And this is why it has been bon ton for more than 40 years now among architects and urbanists to say that the city is disintegrating and vanishing because of new means of transport and communication. The four urban functions of working, living, leisure and transport which Le Corbusier once so elegantly deployed in his model of the city can no longer be separated from each other either spatially or socially. Living and transport have become practically identical (viz. Paul Virilio's account of the rail commuter who meets his friends and acquaintances in the train and merely passes the night in his dormitory-city home). Insofar as a house still has any function beyond a place to sleep, it derives from the theme park-like character of the surrounding neighborhood (e.g. gated communities, Walt Disney's Celebration or Amsterdam's Canal Girdle). What was once a place, the city, has now become a brand, a logo, a "townscape" which itself consists of clusters of brands and logos. The city has ceased to be a clearly localizable spatial unit and has transformed into what might be termed an "urban field," a collection of activities instead of a material structure. The contemporary urban experience is splendidly symbolized by the cell phone: wherever your mobile works is city, and anywhere else is countryside. The Netherlands is consequently one big city, a region-city, and it is not all that vast in comparison to Beijing or São Paulo, each of which has a population nearly double that of the entire Netherlands.

Grumbling about the disintegration of the city always contains an implicit reference to what the city used to be. There are two idealized archetypes that have some currency. The first is the medieval variant, the city as a tangle of narrow streets and little neighborhoods, grouped around a central market square with a cathedral and a town hall - business, religion and politics - entirely surrounded on the outside by a wall marking the boundary between town and country. The other archetype is that of the late-nineteenth-century, semi-industrialized, boulevard-and-parks city, in which the old impenetrability and rigidity of the urban mass has been broken open, and the boundaries between inside and outside and between politics and business have not so much been erased as blurred. The medieval city is associated with a pre-architectural era: no architect or town planner was ever involved in shaping it. The nineteenth-century city belongs to the heyday of planning and targeted architecture - the former being military in character, the latter scenographic. The street pattern of the medieval city follows the logic of the labyrinth, and that of the nineteenth-century city the logic of the grid. And so on. Once the ideal has been invoked, it becomes possible to portray the decline in vivid colors; to depict how the urban fabric has been torn and fragmented by the introduction of railways, cars, air transport, TV, computers, the Internet; how the antithesis between the market square and the town perimeter has been replaced by one between the city center and the suburbs; and how nondescript satellite towns then arose, all looking the same but all pretending to be different, while the original centralized city has turned either into an authentic ghetto or a simulated open-air museum.



The best model of the world is the world itself. Reducing the world to a few images, slogans, formulas or lines of development does not make it easier to understand. "The city" never existed in history; there were only "cities." A city is not a machine for the production of goods, people and urban experiences. The only kind of change a machine is party to is wearing out or breaking down, after which we replace the faulty parts or consign the whole thing to the scrap heap. That is not how it happens with cities. A city is an unstable system, a living system which is in a state of continual decomposition, but which also continually reorganizes and rearranges itself, which expands and shrinks. One of the actors or "agents" in this process of self-organization is the urban population, including the city's architects, urbanists and local government officials. Other "agents" include technological developments, the mass media and migrations. What is wrong with the various "post-" terms is that they describe the city from the outside, from the perspective of the past. But every description of a process is itself a product of that process. Every cityscape is a function of the city imagined. If you want to understand a development, it is no good standing outside the process; you have to wade into it. You have to allow yourself to be developed by the developments. From the outside, you see only the movements: what stands still, what shifts, what disappears. From the inside, you detect the transformations: what direction things are going in, what is changing and what new things are emerging.

Cities have not grown more formless than they were during the last 40, 100 or 1,000 years. There has been no increase in entropy, but rather an ever greater informedness and organization. Cities are growing increasingly complex, increasingly rich in internal and external linkages, increasingly comprehensive and concentrated, increasingly transparent yet incomprehensible. That is obvious as soon as you abandon the "post-" position and move on to a "trans-" attitude - in other words, when you consciously go along with the developments instead of frantically trying to maintain a position outside them. People do not change because they wish to do so, but because they allow themselves to be changed and, in doing so, themselves modify the broader process of transformation in which they are being swept along. The variant within postmodernism known as "posturbanism" is urbanism minus the present: a design strategy characterized by the fragmentation of familiar material, by collage, montage and quotation. "Post-" though it may be, there is no escaping the great mistake of modernism - that the built environment, the walls and the ceilings, do not really matter and must therefore be made as transparent and functional (i.e. invisible) as possible. The spaces created and the movements that are made possible within these spaces are primary. Those movements are informed by act of building; the buildings themselves are low in information. "Transurbanism" is by contrast urbanism plus transformation. Transformation is the multiplication of information. Transurbanism is a theory of the transition of cities as they are now, towards a design process in which the highly informed character of every built environment is used as a design resource by that environment itself.



Cities have always been places for strangers to visit and live; their presence made it possible for the inhabitants to define themselves as autochthonous. The word "culture" denoted a collection of images, customs, assumptions and peculiarities that were the concrete expression of the autochthony of the inhabitants. A city, a region or a country could be recognized by its building style, costume, festivals and mentality. To paraphrase Johan Huizinga, the culture is where the local population "plays" its identity. The average school today caters for children of 26 different nationalities. Any city around the globe has residents of 95 different nationalities, some of them concentrated in particular neighborhoods but mostly dispersed around the urban area. All those nationalities, and all kinds of subgroups within each which are not always distinguishable to outsiders, "play" their own culture. Sometimes they do so in order to distinguish themselves from one another, but often it is to reinforce connections or similarities. They each have their own sports, religious occasions, video shops, places to eat, community representatives, music, TV channels, street habits, child-raising methods and preferred vehicles, and these continually cross and intersect with the cultural networks other communities have woven within the city web. Nobody has a single culture any longer; everyone participates in a multiplicity of "cultures." What was once a homogeneous, low-information monoculture has now become a high-information, heterogeneous cultural process; the continual transformation process of temporary coalitions, collisions, hybridizations and migrations that we call "city life."

The rule for participation in a culture is that one has to change so as to adapt to existing cultural forms, over and over again; and one has to change the given cultural forms so that one fits in, over and over again. We are no longer present in a single place but continually co-present in many different places - not just when we step outside the house and enter the city context, but when, for example, we turn on the computer or the TV. The low-information home has similarly turned into a high-information node in a network of data and commodity flows. Within a 100-meter radius around a city hall, you will find not only Ethiopian, Turkish, Indian, Japanese and American restaurants, but also a greengrocer where in November you can buy Egyptian strawberries, snow peas from Kenya, oranges from South Africa, etc. The homes of the vegetable and fruit farmers of Ethiopia, Kenya, Turkey, Egypt, India and Japan have moreover become just as information-rich as their counterparts in the West, and their occupants' imaginations are as stimulated to visit our countries as ours are to go to their countries: migration in one case, and tourism in the other.

As Arjun Appadurai has observed, the power of imagination, charged as it is by the mass media, has become one of the major social and political factors of our time. On the one hand, the media stimulate people to move in search of a better life. The problem of asylum seekers has become a permanent social state. On the other hand, the same media make it possible for migrants, having settled elsewhere for the time being, to maintain contact with their home base - although within one generation the land of origin itself has become a place of the imagination. A city is not really just a network of intersecting information and commodity flows; that would be too meager a representation. The city is still localized as a place or a region, but "locality" now means the feeling of being somewhere, of having a place in a context where your life has some relevance. A city produces a series of "localities." It is no longer a single public domain but a concatenation of diaspora-related public domains in which numerous "cultures" or "contexts" are settled but linked via the media to similar cultures and contexts elsewhere. "India" is located not only in India but also in the Gulf States, in London, in the Caribbean and in your street. "America" is to be found all over the world, although less and less often in the United States. A "culture" is a translocal, unstable system that blossoms forth, now here, now there, produces localities, goes into decline, metamorphoses, subsides once more and recovers. Instead of "cultures," it might be better to speak of "cultural systems" or "translocalities."

The philosophy of postmodernism recognized the downfall of the grand narratives in which everything was explained as converging towards a higher consciousness of the present and the promise of a radiant future. Nobody believes any longer in progress, in the workers' paradise, the Christian utopia or the engineered society. There is no ultimate truth; everything is permitted: that is the way it is. The good thing is that the global restructuring process of postmodernism has now reached the point where it has itself become another narrative in which everything converges, in which everything is explainable as leading to an awareness - sometimes inspiring but otherwise provoking resistance - of where we are going with our lives. The narrative is titled "globalization," and the translocal cultures are part of it. Transurbanism is urbanism in the era of globalization. The design challenge for architecture in this context is, instead of trying to create a single public domain, to create an atmosphere for the establishment and coexistence of a diversity of public domains. Transcontextualize. You cannot design a city, but you can help a city organize itself as a living structure - not by breaking down all barriers to the streams of information and commodities, but by allowing specific obstacles, channels, retardations and accelerations to be designed for individual streams, and thus to be informed by the city itself. The apparatus that makes it possible to pursue this kind of design practice has matured in the past 40 years. The technical basis underlying the narrative of globalization is, after all, the computer, the "great communicator," the "great interactor."



© 2002 Arjen Mulder / V2_

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