Thoughts on urban planning, city design, architecture, the built environment, social issues, Seoul, Korea, and soon... London


Polarization through London regeneration 

The main lessons to be learnt from the London section of INURA's The Contested Metropolis are short and bitter.

Essentially, there are grassroots and local initiatives to regenerate parts of the city, as well as top-down initiatives implemented -- or at least voiced -- by the central and municipal governments. Aspects of each occasionally coincide.

The texts, mostly written during or just after the creation of the Mayor of London's draft London Plan, point to disappointments. Essentially shortness in funding and support from governments for neighbourhood efforts and the lengthy times development plans require to take off deplete energies and the glue of bonds at the local level, meaning private developers and landowners tend to win the most influence over a project with little or no consultation or participation from those most directly affected – the existing communities.

This, in turn, more often than not leads to rises in property prices in a neighbourhood (and increase profits for developers), and as areas targeted for regeneration are usually poorer ones, locals are displaced. Michael Edwards' contribution gives a good analysis of the workings that effect regeneration and development from the global to the local. His argument stems from the basic premise that the same forces creating wealth for London (or at least for some of its citizens and businesses) also creates poverty for London (for far more people than those gaining wealth), thus resulting in further polarization.


civic realism - eraser of difference? 

Peter G. Rowe in the first chapter of Civic Realism (1997) defines the two concepts that constitute the title and how they interact, and in particular, how they interact in relation to urban planning and what public spaces should do.

Using Sienna's Piazza del Campo as an example, Rowe defines a civic place as one that is “more than public” and “recalled fine moments from the past, and provided palpable guidance about what form of public behaviour was not only acceptable but preferred” (7).

A civic space is then one that historic (i.e. carries the past forward), but normalises behaviour -- not only guiding the behaviour of inhabitants of that space toward current norms, but also normalises and reifies what is considered as proper behaviour by the dominant cultural group (though this line of argument requires more development, I will not do so here, mainly due to a lack of time).

Rowe defines the real, in terms of architecture and urban design, as that which is “clearly understandable” (7). In the case of civic realism, and the exemplar Campo, architecture is to represent “civic life and expectations” (7). In other words, architecture and city design are realistic when they depict their physicality as it is and convey with clarity what is considered normal, if not ideal, public behaviour.

By extension, then, using civic realism as the basis and/or ideal for design means creating for either the status quo or an idealized version of public life.

Rowe’s notion of civic almost harkens back to the Enlightenment concept of civilisation, which, as Richard Sennett explained in The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities (1990), was the great eraser of social difference and identity. Back then, civilisation “was about the virtues of a certain kind of disguise” (Sennett, 79). Under the notion of civilization, people treated “one another without reference… to their identity” (Sennett, 80).

Upon first impression, the practice of civic realism then becomes the practice of pacifying the different behaviours of social groups that do not meet norms, of regimenting the system and of suppressing difference (this will have to be further qualified through further reading).

Rowe’s argument for civic realism leaves some room for optimism. If urban design has the power to influence behaviour in such ways, then it could be used to normalise behaviour not considered normal; that is, it could urban design could be a tool to counter and challenge conceptions of what constitutes normalcy and civilization, as well as to assert new ones.

As contemporary systems for designing and developing architecture and the city are usually most influenced by those with money and power, the responsibility may then fall to the designer her- or himself to create spaces that give “palpable guidance” about what forms of public behaviour, other than the norm, could be deemed acceptable.

I will revisit this issue upon completing the book.


The Willed City 

The city is willed. That is, the city is formed by the choices of its actors. And these choices are based on their values and corresponding motives. This is the point of the opening chapter of Kevin Lynch's Good City Form (1984). Through the historical examples he has selected, it is quite clear that the wills of those with more power have more influence on a city's form. However, these wills face limits in their influence, as they must contend with the wills of other power holders, those with less power, the physicality of the land itself and the "inertia" of existing city forms and structures.

The issue of value also arises in Richard Sennett's The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities (1990). In his book, the eye at once orders the city that is around us and is ordered by it, while those who most influence city form attempt to order the city according to their eye, that is to their values and morality.

Notions of morality, of good and evil, are messy business. One what person may think is good, just, proper or of value, another may think it is bad, unjust, unsuitable and useless. This may explain why cities, despite the intentions of some, are so messy -- as they perhaps should be.

In contemporary times, as most likely in previous times, urban design is most influenced by the wills of developers, governments (usually the friends of developers), certified professional urban planners and architects (who usually work for one of the former two), and to a lesser extend those who will potentially pay for (or consume) the designed spaces (i.e. usually the moneyed). This set of wills constitutes a rather small group when compared to the rest of the actors in a city, who may or may not directly engage in the designed space, but will be affected by it via is relationship to the rest of the city.

In urban design, then, it is important to give 'voice' to a wider variety of wills than is common practice in order to create a city that is "good" for the majority. This then leads to the issues of participatory planning: the time and costs involved; who will pay for those costs; who gets to participate; whose voices are loudest; issues of knowledge among nonprofessionals; incorporating the views (eyes) of those who willingly do not operate within the system (for example, anarchists, some homeless); and others.

Though this will certainly make the process of designing messier, the resulting forms may be considered "good" or "better" by a wider range of people (and by extension perhaps allow them live in closer accordance with their wills). The efforts of participants in the International Network for Urban Action and their affiliated groups are good examples to look at to see ways of making messy planning productive.

City living and city making should be messy, because without it they'd be banal and unlivable.


A new conscience 

In The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities (1990), Richard Sennett outlines the history of the dominant conceptions of that conscience in the West and how it has been transposed into the physical and social realm of the city. Moreover, he problematises this history and its effect on the life and design of the city, while suggesting some ways to move toward a new conscience of the eye that will induce a more humane way of urban dwelling.

My only complaint is that Sennett offers few concrete examples of how this can be done through design (but then he is neither urban planner nor architect). His historical account suggests that more than design is required; huge philosophical, ethical and social shifts are needed. Though to have real strength and impact this shift would probably have to take place throughout Western culture, I think Sennett with this book is calling on planners, architects, developers and others involved in designing cities to make such a shift in conscience first, which will propagate itself through the built environment, or the urbs, to the civitas.

Cities should be designed for exposure, Sennett argues. Urban spaces/structures are to expose urbanites to contemplation, (a calm) contemplation of differences, and expose urbanites to each other (mutual exposure). Urban forms are to expose through differences, displacements and discontinuities. This, Sennett says, can be achieved through designing mutations, overlays of differences, weak boundaries (not walls) and spaces that are simply constructed to enable flexibility and permit alteration.


New Urban Living Design Experiments in Seoul 

Seoul over the past year has seen the (high) rise of a new living and urban design experiments. These experiments are about a square kilometer or two in size, containing a variety of singular and clusters of similar apartment towers (some of the tallest buildings on the Korean Peninsula), with a few office blocks thrown in for good measure. Each area is largely designed and built by one developer (inevitably a chaebol -- a family-owned and operated conglomerate). Two examples are Dogok (Samsung) and Omokyo (Hyundai).

The experiments through the design of the individual apartments, the buildings and the urban layout intimate a new, Western -- and therefore "modern" -- lifestyle. This is all the more apparent when they are contrasted with the dominant form of apartment complex design (and therefore living) that has been, and continues to be, erected en masse since the 1960s by the very same developers (i.e. chaebol). These older cookie-cutter cement slab apartment buildings composed of identical apartment units dominate every South Korean city today -- sometimes built row on row, sometimes in fours facing each other, but almost always with the space in between filled with parking lots. The usually 10-20 storey blocks, though bland, economical and severe, did attempt through form to accommodate mainstream Korean lifestyles.

The most obvious of these are ondol, under-floor heating, and the veranda, that each of these older apartments has. Ondol is conducive to life at floor level, where most Korean living customarily has taken and continues to take place. The verandas are not usually used for tables, lunching or leisure; they most often serve a place for performing daily household chores, including laundry and food preparation. Moreover, they are the clearest definer of the apartment blocks’ facades.

What is most noticeable about these new living experiments is the loss of the veranda. The activities that belonged to the veranda now belong to modern convenience: combination washer-dryers replaced the need for space to hang clothing to dry (by far the most common use for the verandah in the older-style apartments); food can be bought prepared and packaged, meaning the end of laboriously washing, cutting and fermenting vegetables (Korean staples) on the balcony. The main living space, or “living room” as it is known in North America now opens directly to the outside. Ondol is still there (which is perhaps for the best, as it is an economical and efficient heating method).

The buildings themselves tend to live up to certain current prescriptions for good design, particularly mixed-use and varied apartment floor plans. However, the inhuman scale from the street, the uniformity in tenants (the well-off aspiring for Western-style living) and commercial focus on upscale food and restaurants is not creating a lively neighborhood. The streets are dead, the commercial spaces not well patronized. The monumental scale of the buildings, most with a three-to-five-story base for a shopping mall are domineering, leaving no place for people to want to stop. Even the plazas created between the buildings are so controlled that they are cold, void and unattractive. Given the expensiveness of the stores and restaurants and the uninviting streets, people from outside the area are rare to venture in.

The experiments have thus in part achieved their goal: Western living -- that of a static haughty North American suburb made vertical.

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