Category Archives: New York

London’s NeoColonial Skyline

The Guardian’s architecture writers have been fretting for a number of years over the “jumble” of highrise office towers that have gone up in close proximity to each other.  The Guardian provides a flash interactive view here, built on a 3D model of London created by Vertex and currently shown on their homepage.  The focus is on sightlines at ground level.  However, missing is a more direct social analysis of the buildings and gardens high aloft the ground as inaccessible, private vertical enclaves.  Even the blocking of solar access will one day come to be seen as a major gap in the reporting.

This “tortured heap of towers” seems to be exactly a continuation of the ad hoc quality of the development of London over centuries.  The unifying elements of brick, building height and the twisting streets, were most disturbed in the the modernist mid-century. This is both good and bad.

In the twenty-first century, the shift in height and use of glass as building cladding is the most obvious provocation, not that they jostle together in a tight group.  The domestication of brute forms through nicknaming buildings in the media, such as the gherkin or cheese-grater, is a relatively unique London phenomenon amongst megacities.   Cute names elide the identity of building owners and builders who are amongst the worlds “least environmentally friendly companies” according to the Guardian and major purchasers of land globally.  In as much as cute names obfuscate the extraction and destruction of resources in one place and the creation of profitable facilities and environments elsewhere, the architecture of highrise office developments could come to be seen as a symbol of neoliberal economic relations that have a neocolonial quality.  It would be nice to see this level of analysis which spells out some of the implication.

The popularity of this naming distracts from the unifying idea of a skyline, however.  The skyline could be thought of as a kind of 4th dimension not captured in the 3D flyover.  New York promoted the skyline of Manhattan but is still coming to terms with the destruction of the World Trade Centre and the filling back in of this cavity in the vista.  In this sense, the buildings do overshadow London, not only physically but in the virtual world of media and place-images.

Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

City as Bicycle Space

Genre de Vie is about the senses, urban experiences and transit.  It documents how urban life is enhanced and empowered by the bicycle — a simple interface to experiencing and accessing the city.  Bicycling becomes attractive when it is safe and the fastest way to access the city.   These two requirements involve providing separate infrastructure for bicycles: physically separated lanes, convenient bike rental/sharing and integrated networks of bicycle routes throughout the city.  By bicycle, I can get across Paris in under 40 minutes, impossible by almost any other mode of transport.

Genre de Vie, filmed in Copenhagen and New York by Jorri Spoelstra and Sven Prince of Photobooth Works and Faithful to the Subject, offers insights on how we can make our own cities immediately more livable and enjoyable for ourselves.

IMG_1234-Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

Liveability and the Right to the City

 for the second year running, Australia’s political capital was named the best city in the world by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), a result that made northern hemisphere observers wonder if, down under, they were looking at the rankings upside down.

Canberra is a deathly place. It is a city conceived as a monument to the roundabout and the retail park, a bleak and relentless landscape of axial boulevards and manicured verges, dotted with puffed-up state buildings and gigantic shopping sheds.  (The Guardian 12 Dec. 2014)

“Liveability” and “liveable cities” do not have anything to do with the right the city, Lefebvre’s vision of cities as oeuvres or collective “works of art”.  The Guardian complains “The Economist Intelligence Unit puts Melbourne in first place, followed by Vienna, Vancouver, Toronto, Adelaide and Calgary. There is never any mention, on any list, of London or New York, Paris or Hong Kong. There are no liveable cities where you might actually want to live. ”  This is a common complaint, for liveability means public spaces that are in practice new, untroubled by historical memory, and often-times actually private property “lawns” and fountains in front of office towers, “lobbies without walls” as Oliver Wainwright sums up.

“Liveability” is a dream of an urban communion in the consumption of public spaces as a collective good.  Public sidewalks are privatised as outdoor cafe spaces to enhance the spectacle of enjoyment.  But the resulting urban environments are not platforms for self-expression, collective memory or political voices.  Contra apostles of “new urbanism”, bodies do not assemble here but pass through in a pedestrian transit vision of public space and social order or they pay to stay.   The architects protest that they are powerless, just following orders of capitalist owners.  But this total vision suits the paternal order that sets these bodies in motion, atomised and probably texting, at the feet of monumental buildings.  In Wainwright’s article, Gehl is quoted saying “It’s good for democracy if people can meet each other on the street.”  But people are discouraged from any collective encounter in these streets.  In this sense, is “liveability” totalitarian?

Totalitarian: Lacking rights to redeveloped urban spaces, has there not been a new enclosure of the urban commons?  Totalitarian: what sets limits or counterbalances a version of liveability that privileges a professional class of well-heeled “Bobos” that are “bohemian” only in their own eyes?  As consumption goes online and is thus increasingly individualised or enclosed in the “telephone booth-sociability” of online tweets and comments, these unpublic spaces become a key ritual site of belonging for inhabitants of the cities of OECD.  It confers on some the rights to these spaces and excludes others that are not “properly” active economically, bodies that do not comply, are disabled or disordered.

As consumption goes online and is thus increasingly individualised or enclosed in the “telephone booth-sociability” of online tweets and comments, these unpublic spaces become a key ritual site of belonging for inhabitants of the cities of OECD.  However, Occupy and the revolutions of the second decade of this century demonstrate that it is in the moments of political ferment when these spaces are occupied by people that there is a self-recognition by the public as a public and as citizens.

How about a liveability index based on the total number of park benches — ideally “sleepable” benches — the absence of loitering rules, and the number of public events and demonstrations held annually?

-Rob Shields, University of Alberta