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City lost, regained ... or should we even make the effort?

Byline: Egil Niclaes Reksten

Summary: The UN Habitat agency estimates that this year, for the first time in history, more than half the world's population, or 3.3 billion people, will live in cities. Clearly, these migrant masses affect the city in ways not only quantitative but also qualitative. In this changing global context, three renowned architects came together last Thursday.

BEIRUT: The UN Habitat agency estimates that this year, for the first time in history, more than half the world's population, or 3.3 billion people, will live in cities. Clearly, these migrant masses affect the city in ways not only quantitative but also qualitative. In this changing global context, three renowned architects came together last Thursday for a roundtable discussion on "The new ways of living in the city." Organized by the Cervantes Institute and hosted by the American University of Beirut, it featured celebrated Spanish architect Juan Herreros and art critic Javier Maderuelo along with the enfant terrible of Lebanese architecture, Bernard Khoury.

Presenting three architects with this gargantuan task of commenting on the city seemed akin to giving three horologists the sun, and telling them to carefully pick it apart. However, Herreros bravely tackled it, kicking off the discussion by posing several pertinent questions.Aa

"Where are the architects in the production of the city? When it grows and changes, when new buildings rise and streets are formed, how do they participate?" he asked.

While recognizing the limited influence any one architect can have on a city, he went on to challenge his peers to find the central and strategic points in a city and concentrate projects here for maximum effect. With great optimism, he outlined a project of social architecture answering to the new needs of city dwellers, increasingly young individuals and single parents unable to afford a spacious city apartment. Using examples from his own work in Paris and the Spanish cities of Madrid and Las Palmas, he presented small (30-40 meter square) apartments that offer access to common spaces for work and leisure shared with the other inhabitants of the building, to make up for a lack of elbow room.

This approach, he concluded, allows people to live in the city, making it into more than just a place that one visits for work and the occasional leisure activity. Cities should not be landscapes we ourselves have given up on living in, he insisted, by ceding urban space to commerce and other interests. Herreros dismissed the "ideal of bourgeois living outside of the city," claiming instead that "man's role today should be in the center, and he should live in the city."

Javier Maderuelo, the oldest among the three, summoned the past to the table. Speaking through a translator, he brought forth a notion of the city as the product of a collaborative effort across generations. He invited the audience to see the city as a complex phenomenon reflecting the dwellers' interests over time: "It's an artificial and collaborative crystallization of ideals, frustrations and power to a commonly expressed work of art, and through [experiencing] it we can discover these things."

But today this romantic picture is spoiled; according to Maderuelo the very concept of the city is in crisis. He listed a series of violations that have been committed against it: the invention of cars, the prevalence of commercial billboards and the spreading of what he calls "no-places," the urban wastelands of exclusively commercial space.

His remedy against these violations is the protection of public spaces through laws and regulations. He also prescribes extensive building of public monuments in order to regain the "symbolic places" of the city. He says this will not solve the problems, but will help to dignify the city, and to some degree "alleviate the aggression toward it."

As he finished, all the lights were conspicuously switched off, and a slideshow projection began, accompanied by a bodiless voice. It was Bernard Khoury, dressed in black and obscured by darkness, boldly declaring "I am not interested in pursuing this topic." He went on to explain that he didn't want to use big words and judgements of good and bad when talking about such a broad phenomenon as cities.

After this apparent wholesale rejection of the discussion's premise, he went on to present several of his fantasy machines, such as a device for liberating prisoners of war. The POW 08, of which a working model, complete with radio and video transmission, was produced, is a contraption forced upon prisoners by their captors. The prisoners are then allowed to crawl over into friendly territory. Deaf and blind inside the device, the POWs depend on radioed instructions from enemies, for whom they simultaneously gather precious information through video footage, to get safely across to the other side. At the speed of a crawl, the prisoners obtain freedom, but become traitors in the process.

Khoury paused to ask himself: What does this all have to do with the new ways of living in the city? "Speed," he answered. The speed of man, from the lightning quickness of Internet communication, to the inertia of confinement, is what determines construction of the city today, and also shapes how we perceive it. Buildings are designed to be perceived at driving speeds along highway axes leading in and out of the city. And these same highways running endlessly in all directions make it impossible to see where the city really ends.

He went on to say that, unlike the other two participants, he is quite happy as an architect in this era. As for the present turmoil in the city, he added: "You can either deal with the masochistic pleasure of being in the present, or you can go to the desert ... As an architect you don't have the power to stop it." Reproached by an audience member for his cynicism, he described his position as "not necessarily accepting the situation, but realizing rather than denying it."

Khoury also pointed out that "the construction of public architecture amounts to less than 1 percent of the total "constructed area" of the city - so why bother with it? Why should such an enormous effort be put into these minuscule spaces?" His rhetorical quizzing could also be seen as an attempt to vindicate his own practice, as his Beirut-based studio is best known for constructing shopping malls, nightclubs and villas for the rich.

Addressing all the architects in the room, he pointed out the futility of the effort put into public architecture.

"While you were busy designing public libraries, the city was being built without you and despite you," he said.

Herreros, up until then an unflinching optimist, conceded Khoury his point. He agreed that city seafronts all over the world had been colonized by commercial architecture, while most well-meaning architects were turning their attention toward public monuments.

He refused, though, to sit back and watch this take place any longer. He concluded the discussion by turning to the audience of young and aspiring architects, and pleading with them to hold on to their ideals; to not lose confidence in their potential to play an influential role in making cities better places to live.

What lessons, in the end, can be drawn from this discussion for the city of Beirut? It is hard to say, since in the flurry of seemingly endless reconstruction efforts, thoughtful planning seems to have fallen by the wayside. The Spanish tradition of social architecture of which Herreros is a proponent seemed so distant as to belong to an entirely different political reality than that of Beirut.

Copyright 2008, The Daily Star. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:Nov 5, 2008
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