Transurbanism - Day 2: report

Report by Sandra Fauconnier about the second day of the Transurbanism symposium.

Bart Lootsma opens the second day of the Transurbanism symposium with a short introduction on cities as networks -- not only in the infrastructural, but also in the social sense. New typologies constantly emerge, in order to accommodate the many diverse subcultures that become increasingly mobile through the influence of the media. Lootsma describes two case studies for this phenomenon. The gay community in the Netherlands is an example of a subculture where its members travel long distances in order to meet at places with very specific detailing (bars, saunas…). The media play an essential role in programming such places; in a sense, the media 'attack' architecture here, through a strong bottom-up approach.
The inland of Australia with its extremely low population density, as a second example, could be described as a city with ultimate diffusion. There is a welfare system with airplanes and radio stations; people communicate via radio, speak an 'urban language' (as demonstrated by linguists) and call each other neighbours. This laboratory-like situation is rather unique; within older cities the situation is more complex, due to various traditions influencing urban life.

Lecture by Mark Wigley

Mark Wigley contributes to the symposium with a polemic and sceptical exposé centred on the historical precedents of the 'new' concept of transurbanism. He starts by emphasizing his expertise on 'the species of the architect' -- he is not an urbanist -- and by attacking the lecture by Edward Soja; he warns the audience in a tongue-in-cheek way that his opinion is the exact opposite from Soja's.

Wigley sums up the characteristics of the so-called 'new' type of city in his fast, eloquent style -- all agree upon the fact that the city now consists of overlapping media streams, and that this transformation is now threatening the figure of the architect. Wigley humorously describes the whole 'industry' of conferences and publications devoted to this theme and strongly states that, in his opinion, one should look backward in order to move forward.

The idea that the city has lost its physical limits, Wigley states, is not at all new, but dates back to the 60s, where authors such as Marshall McLuhan and Melvin M. Webber already described the phenomenon of the global village, the city as a cybernetic system and as a maze of subcultures, characterized by complexity and diversity instead of chaos. These essays were written in the early 60s -- almost 50 years ago, that is -- and Wigley jokingly wonders whether, 50 years later, architects will still declare that 'everything is new!'
Wigley describes how the idea of the map or the plan loses its significance, and how planning departments, especially in the United States, are getting rid of architects in their team. We are moving to a post-space world; this evolution has, equally, been described since the 1960s, with authors such as Charles Moore ("You have to pay for the public life", 1965) and Robert Venturi ("Complexity and contradiction", 1966), and exemplified by the numerous hardcore architectural experiments (Cedric Price, Archigram, Superstudio…) in Europe that describe cities as computers or dispersed systems. Even as early as the 1920s or 30s, Buckminster Fuller and the Russian disurbanists predicted the collapse of the European cities.

According to Wigley, all this talk of dispersal of the city can be explained by an image that we all have in our heads -- the image of a medieval, walled dream city with a roman base; an image of the domestication of the wild, while the contemporary city has lost its stable quality and has become undomesticated wilderness. Wigley tries to demystify this image by criticizing the utter reverence one usually has for those medieval times ("No-one criticizes a gothic cathedral") and by pointing out that architects apparently dream about a place -- this medieval city -- where architects played no role at all.

Wigley then describes the city as a decision, referring to the strong influence that the military has usually had on city layout; architecture can be considered as threat management from this point of view. He ends his lecture with a last comment on the time lag in our thinking about the city -- almost fifty years at this point.

Lecture by Roemer van Toorn

Roemer van Toorn emphasizes the political aspects of our society in transition, in a lecture enhanced with photographs of contemporary cities around the world. We currently live in the transition from one society to another, where a new political stance is needed in order to be able to deal with the multitude in society -- the "society of the And"; this political stance can, according to van Toorn, be achieved by learning from narrative techniques in cinema and theatre.

Van Toorn shows a few examples of architectural ideas and projects that show the confrontation with the multitude: the USE group (the Uncertain States of Europe) who engage themselves with the uncertainty that could transform into innovation; Xaveer De Geyter's design for the 'Carrefour de l'Europe' in Brussels; the ideas of the Situationists that alienation in our contemporary society could be overcome; an idea opposed by van Toorn, who states that no overarching solution can be found, only a multitude of interventions. He then demonstrates how the multitude is very often hijacked by the market. All the images of the September 11 disaster in New York were reduced to the image of the American flag and the slogan "America under Attack"; the Dutch pavilion at the Expo 2000 in Hannover by MVRDV Architects shows us that collaging reality together is clearly not enough.

The practice and theory of film and theatre can help us to overcome opportunism, by focusing on scenarios and stories (not on objects); filmmakers use visual techniques and sequences of time -- the motion of one image to another.

In the movie "Festen", Thomas Vinterberg rejects the model of the nuclear family and allows liberation, through the introduction of an element of absurdity (an incest story), not in order to put this on the political agenda but as a tool for liberation. Similarly, the Guggenheim museum in Las Vegas, designed by OMA, prevents commodification through the introduction of a raw 'jewel box' for the artworks. In both examples, roughness and trucage were used as aesthetic techniques against the hijacking of the multitude.

Lecture by Rem Koolhaas

During his lecture, Rem Koolhaas exemplifies OMA's attitude towards the contemporary city and the media, by showing examples of their recent work. He shows a few recent research projects (a.o. in Lagos and a design for Prada stores) where branding is treated in a way that is often perceived as offensive; the slogan "The Regime of ¥€$" acts as an umbrella for OMA's activities in this field.

AMO, the mirror office for OMA, engages in thinking and research, and wishes to describe the way in which the city is changing and to discuss the phenomena within the city. Their recent books, "Great Leap Forward" and "Harvard design school guide to shopping" describe how shopping invades all activities; Koolhaas shows how culture starts to resist this phenomenon through protests and terrorism and even abandons his own value-free mode of speaking to complain about the effects of shopping on space.

Shopping affects space through several fundamental conditions -- most important is the (air)conditioning of space, through which space finally becomes conditional; escalators cause infinite diffusion and imprecision in architecture; all styles of the past are mixed in order to create a quasi-public space with only one purpose: making money.

Apparently, there's only one answer to these brutal onslaughts on architecture: the masterpiece. Koolhaas shows a few so-called 'masterpieces' (the Guggenheim in Bilbao, a few designs by Norman Foster) and criticizes them; as a contrast, he shows OMA's design for two museums in Las Vegas, where the artworks from the Hermitage are 'protected' and made autonomous through the creation of a box of steel. In their design for an extension of the Whitney in New York, the OMA architects emphasize the museum as an event space.

Finally, Koolhaas shows a few OMA projects where commodification is questioned even further. The OMA architects have 'reworked' two magazines -- Lucky (dedicated to shopping) was dismantled and combined with 23 other magazines in order to form the ultimate "Über Shopping Bible"; Wired (dedicated to the burst of the Internet economy) is criticized by contrasting the magazine's contents with a few themes not touched by them: levels of software piracy, the average age of people in the world… In a proposal for the layout of the campus of the university of Harvard, OMA even proposes to change the trajectory of a river in order to re-establish a qualitative river view for the working class city quarters south of the campus.

Lecture by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer

In this lecture, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer presents his so-called 'Relational Architecture' projects: large-scale installations in public space. His work, he says, is not site-specific but relation-specific and is called 'relational', as an alternative term replacing the worn-out notion of interactivity.

In 1994, Lozano-Hemmer presented his first project in which the term 'relational architecture' was used -- the installation "Relational Space" where two visitors moved in separate rooms, but were aware of each other's presence and location in the other room. Lozano-Hemmer then compares his own work with that of Krzysztof Wodiczko, which has a more destabilizing, deconstructing and moralizing tone, and of Jochen Gerz, the artist who conceived an anti-fascist memorial in Hamburg, consisting of a high column that gradually disappeared into the ground.

Lozano-Hemmer then describes a few tendencies he finds annoying in architecture -- default buildings that only exist in order to accommodate the optimisation of capital, vampire buildings or buildings that are idealized and not allowed to have a honourable death, and virtualisation. His relational architecture projects focus on an alien memory, search for new behaviours for architecture, encompass the virtual, are relation-specific and anti-monument.

In 1997, Lozano-Hemmer presented "Relational Architecture #2", consisting of large image projections on the castle in Linz; the project referred to cultural icons of repression (the emperor Maximilian vs. Moctezuma). In 1999 then, he developed the famous "Vectorial Elevation" project on the large Zócalo Square in Mexico, where large light beams could be controlled by visitors to his website. In 2000-2001 he showed a small-scale project in Cuba -- small LCD-screens showed series of computer-generated questions, but people were allowed to insert their own comments in an almost invisible way. "Relational Architecture #6", established in Rotterdam in the autumn of 2001, introduced a monumental shadow play in which the visitors of the Schouwburgplein could freely interfere.


10.30: opening words Bart Lootsma

11.00: lecture Mark Wigley
12.00: lecture Rem Koolhaas

13.00: lunch break

14.00: lecture Roemer van Toorn
15.00: lecture Rafael Lozano-Hemmer

16.00: tea break

16.15: panel discussion
17.00: end

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