Saturday, July 26, 2008

The City Building Industry: Just Like Teapots

This article in the Wall Street Journal discusses the recent emergence of cities being designed by starchitects. This trend seems to be resulting in developments that are more of a brand image than actual cities. While the designers tend to at least pay lip service to ideas of street life and community, I'm not entirely convinced. Of course, even in places like Dubai, such large projects take decades to completely build out, so the jury will be out for some time. As a result it will be many years before we'll be able to determine whether these new cities are a panacea or a disaster. My fear is that we are returning to the Corbusian idea where one visionary designer shapes the entire city. By definition, in my opinion at least, good cities must be developed and evolve over time. It's the mix of things being built over time that makes cities rich. Dennis Frenchman, director of the city design and development program at MIT, believes that we are seeing the emergence of a new industry. "It's not real-estate development; it's not architecture; it's not city planning. All I can do is name it 'the city-building industry." And this new industry seeks out the services of name brand architects because they make the product more sellable. As Frenchman says, "It's just like teapots."

Is it possible for one person to design an entire city? Can the built results ever live up to the glossy images? Are the results going to be lively neighborhoods or vacant gated enclaves? What happens when cities are conceived as products?

Projects mentioned in the article:
Kartal, Istanbul, Turkey - Zaha Hadid (pictured above - photo from
Waterfront City, Dubai, UAD - Rem Koolhaas/OMA
Riga Port City, Latvia - Rem Koolhaas/OMA
Downtown Orestad, Copenhagen, Denmark - Daniel Libeskind
Fiera Milano, Milan, Italy - Daniel Libeskind
Segovia, Spain - David Chipperfield
Zorrozaurre, Bilbao, Spain - Zaha Hadid
Lille, France - Rem Koolhaas/OMA
One-North, Singapore - Zaha Hadid

Also, the WSJ includes two pages on the history of City planning. 1 and 2.


Orhan Ayyüce said...

those are very good questions at the end.
as far as i know hadid's project in istanbul also involves some very questionable gentrification and land rights transfers. and that is only the real estate side of it.she says the development will allow other architects to develop parcels but that is just a political move on her part to not create any domestic oppositions from the architectural community there. but there is already a lot of critical views to her plans.
what she says is hardly possible. it is easy to see that her plan only belongs to her.
i am all opposed to all this one person designs all type of cities. what is this? are we living in middle ages? as if there isn't enough egocentric architects now they also want to design entire cities. what a grandiose...

Phillip M. Crosby said...

Hi Orhan!

You bring up another very good question about these types of developments in regards to the gentrification and land rights issues. Most of the "sustainable new cities" are being built under totalitarian regimes where relocating tens (or hundreds) of thousands of people is not really an issue. I'm specifically thinking here of the new Chinese cities like Dongtan and Ningbo.

One issue that I am interested in is how these supposedly sustainable city designs can be applied in the democratic world, specifically in the US. Is it even possible? And, can some of these principles be used to retrofit our existing cities?