“The city is not prepared for the people, and the people are not prepared for the city”
– the Perez family; Caracas, Venezuela
In the last two years we have become urban explorers, wanderers of the city, recording the simultaneously timeless and time-bound experience of life in the street. The ideas presented in this essay were produced during collective brainstorming sessions while walking the streets of Asia, in search of appropriate conditions to consider and ideas for retrofitting the slum conditions of cities in the Global South. Our critical gaze is towards the political equator that divides North and South, and towards the horizon – the frontier of possibility – that constantly shifts as we move around the world. This particular view of the global urban panorama is what we call “Gran Horizonte.”
The work being conducted at Urban-Think Tank’s ETH chair in Zürich, Switzerland, includes projects that touch upon the profound structural transformation of many Asian cities. In the past decade we have witnessed the growing integration of Asian nations into a global market characterized by a flux of goods, services, investment, people, and knowledge, which are interchanged independent of the distance or language that separates one person from another. In order to begin our conversation about the contemporary Asian city, we need to establish a background for our observations. In calling the subject of the first part of this essay “Informal Asia,” we are both embracing and rejecting the standard definition of the city. The cities of Asia on which we focus are, indeed, not made according to any conventional prescription; but are they in fact “disorderly”? Do they lack form?
If one looks at Bangkok, Jakarta, Shanghai or Chengdu at a distance – in an aerial photograph – one sees sprawling, rhizome-like shapes; one searches in vain for an ordering principle, a clear beginning and end, for ways to separate the whole into comprehensible elements. It is clear to us that the rhizome-like expansion of these cities is the archetype of the Asian mega-city, and represents a new confluence of the physical, spatial, social, psychological, and economic. In turn, this requires new ways of conceiving and articulating the heretofore unacknowledged categories of urbanization.
We challenge the binary thinking – conventions of formal vs. informal, danger vs. safety, primitive vs. modern, poverty vs. wealth – that is ingrained in contemporary concepts of urbanism, is simply inadequate for capturing these newly emerging urban forms.
The type of city we are going to design does not yet exist; nobody knows what this 21st century city will look like. However, we believe that the urbanization of Asia will become the model of city evolution for the 21st century, and that Asian cities present an excellent opportunity to study the newly emerging urban forms that we speak of.
The city of Chengdu, which we analyze in the second half of this essay, is one prime example of the Asian 21st century city. Chengdu’s essential conditions are common to any Chinese city, and it embodies the interface – perhaps collision – between “developed” and “developing” worlds. It challenges one to question the patterns of late 20th century urban life and development, and to offer alternative approaches and solutions to complex urban issues. We tend to think of the world as one rapidly growing city of 7 billion. According to the UN-Habitat “State of the World’s Cities 2010/11” report, the world was 50% urban in 2010, and is predicted to be 70% urban by 2050. We have a huge, complex megalopolis with overlapping boundaries and we know that our research must be centered on making this dense urban area a sustainable, productive, fair and inclusive place to live.
It is our obligation as architects to ameliorate the quality of life for all humans living in substandard settlements worldwide.
As cities grow increasingly complex, administration and planning begin to malfunction. We are left with a city that has formed without deliberation. The unintended, “Informal City” is an ongoing creation, fuelled by the pulse of human needs, activities and aspirations, and framed by constant changes and insecurities; the hybrid city does not follow any prefixed model or common city type.
While the populations in the Northern hemisphere are shrinking, immense population growth is taking place in underdeveloped countries within areas that the United Nations agency UN-Habitat declares to be “slums”, a term originating in miserable workers’ districts in London at the beginning of the 19th century. Today, the names for “impoverished, self-built urban communities” – a description by Gwendolyn Wright – vary by region: “Geçekondu” in Turkey, “Compounds” in the Middle East, “Favelas” or “Invasões” in Brasil, “Barrios” in Caracas, “Bidonvilles” in the French speaking world, “Werften” in Namibia, “Tondos” in the Philippines, “Kampung” in Jakarta, and so on.
This list is impressive, and the differentiation by name likens urban territories to independent countries for good reason: one-seventh of the total world population lives in a slum – an immense market potential for every economist. The 1 billion slum dwellers worldwide represent a population comparable to that of China. According to UN-Habitat, as of 2010, 23.5 percent of the urban population of Latin America and the Caribbean, and 31 percent of the urban population of Southeast Asia, were living in slums. Slums inside megacities like Jakarta, Mumbai, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Lagos, and Shanghai represent the key drivers for the future global demand on energy and infrastructure.
Secondary cities are of equal importance in this conversation. Most secondary cities have between 500,000 to 3 million inhabitants, but are often unknown outside of their national or regional context. Secondary cities in the Global South will undergo massive expansions in the next few decades, comparable to city growth in Europe and North America one to two hundred years ago.
As cities and their populations grow, everything else grows with them: wealth and creativity, as well as traffic, criminality, disease and pollution.
“Formal” and “informal” city-making procedures already inform and influence each other, each representing equally valid urban realities. Thus we must ask fundamental questions that shake up our preconceptions: How can Northern, European high-tech infrastructure upgrade informal living in the Global South? How can the communicative activist competence gained during the past decade upgrade the living conditions in the North? How can we translate mismatching perceptions of reality on both sides, so that we turn our findings into fruitful building practice and transferrable knowledge? How can we, as architects, move from form-oriented to process-oriented design?
Un-learning Las Vegas
1972 marked the publication of Denise Scott Brown, Robert Venturi, and Steven Izenour’s influential book “Learning From Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form.” One of the book’s seminal points was clearly stated in its first chapter: “Learning from the existing landscape is a way of being revolutionary for an architect. Not the obvious way, which is to tear down Paris and begin again, as Le Corbusier suggested in the 1920s, but another, more tolerant way; that is, to question how we look at things.” In particular, Brown, Venturi, and Izenour looked at the Las Vegas Strip, what they called “the example par excellence” to challenge architects unaccustomed to “looking nonjudgmentally at the environment,” and who “have preferred to change the existing environment rather than enhance what is there.”
Written at a time when modern, minimalist, form-follows-function mentalities were dominant, Learning from Las Vegas pushed the architectural community to incorporate the old city in their visions of the new. While wandering the streets of Chengdu, over thirty years after the initial publication of Learning from Las Vegas, we happened upon the construction of a 20km strip leading out from Mao Plaza that could only be likened to the infamous archetype of Las Vegas. Amongst flashing lights, and signage glowing on every building, we thought back to the words of Brown, Venturi, and Izenour, looking for some productive guidance in the midst of a chaotic meditation. Learning from Las Vegas advocates a suspension of judgment, but judgment cannot be suspended indefinitely. Symbolic architecture is inherent to Chinese culture, we had to remind ourselves, but in this context, it has been taken to the extreme. We have looked long and hard at the new Asian city and we conclude: the adoption of the Las Vegas model must be curtailed.
Alfredo Brillembourg was born in New York in 1961. In 1993 he founded Urban-Think Tank (U-TT) in Caracas, Venezuela. Since 1994 he has been a member of the Venezuelan Architects and Engineers Association and has been a guest professor at the University José Maria Vargas, the University Simon Bolívar and the Central University of Venezuela. Starting in 2007, Brillembourg has been a guest professor at the Graduate School of Architecture and Planning, Columbia University, where he co-founded the Sustainable Living Urban Model Laboratory (S.L.U.M. Lab) with Hubert Klumpner. He has over 20 years of experience practicing architecture and urban design. Additionally, he has lectured on architecture at conferences around the world such as GSD in Boston, AEDES in Berlin, UCV in Caracas, UMSA in Miami, Berlage in Rotterdam, FAU in Sao Paulo, and UCLA in Los Angeles. Since May 2010, Brillembourg has held the chair for Architecture and Urban Design at the Swiss Institute of Technology (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule, ETH) Zürich in Switzerland.
Hubert Klumpner was born in Salzburg, Austria in 1965. In 1998 Klumpner joined Alfredo Brillembourg as Director of Urban-Think Tank (U‑TT) in Caracas. Starting in 2007, Klumpner has been a guest professor at the Graduate School of Architecture and Planning, Columbia University, where he co-founded the Sustainable Living Urban Model Laboratory (S.L.U.M. Lab). Additionally, he has lectured on architecture at conferences around the world such as GSD in Boston, AEDES in Berlin, UCV in Caracas, UMSA in Miami, Berlage in Rotterdam, FAU in Sao Paulo, and UCLA in Los Angeles. Since May 2010, Klumpner has held the chair for Architecture and Urban Design at the Swiss Institute of Technology (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule, ETH) in Zürich, Switzerland.