A couple of weeks ago, MovingCities received ‘Pressures and Distortions‘, published by The Research Program of Rafael Viñoly Architects. The book has the ambition to “look at the design, building, and interpretation of cities from the point of view of their residents”. Discussing cities in China [Shanghai 上海 and Shenzhen 深圳], Indonesia [Banda Aceh] and Latin America [Bogotá and Mexico City; along with short sections covering Lima and Rio de Janeiro]. We were left wondering about this book’s audience and how to analyze and/or further its content and findings.
The subtitle of ‘Pressures and Distortions – City Dwellers as Builders and Critics: Four Views’ – shows the book’s ambition to zoom in how residents respond creatively to environmental disaster, poverty, housing shortages, and surging urban population. They also show how governments, international relief agencies, architects, and planners can shape better urban environments. Throughout, residents present their experiences in their own words and through careful documentation of their living environments.
There is nothing wrong with putting city dwellers at the center of the urban debate and to focus on their problems, challenges and desires to modify their surrounding urban habitat. There is nothing wrong with talking about displacement, disaster, high-speed urban development, the destructive forces of real-estate development or even documenting very precisely the political changes in one given city [such as is the case with the chapter on Bogotá] in order to explain a certain point about a specific form of urban transformation. On the contrary, it is necessary: with all the talk about cities, for sure the “city dweller” is an enigmatic and elusive protagonist in the debate. The problem, so it seems, is how to publish most intelligently, pro-active and clearly about them.
From the blurb:
The book represents the culmination of a three-year research process organized and funded by the Research Program. In it, four teams of researchers analyze how residents are designing, building, and interpreting cities in the face of wrenching transformations. […] Pressures and Distortions began in 2008 with the Research Program’s international call for proposals. A competitive process selected four teams, with researchers based in Mexico, Colombia, China, Australia, France, and the US. Each team received a research grant from Rafael Viñoly Architects and worked independently.
In his foreword to the publication, editor Ned Kaufman talks about the “people-centered approach” that is central element to all the different case-studies. Another, he writes, “is the search for the origins of design problems in social organization, economics, and policy rather than in aesthetics or technique. Further on he identifies a third term one: the powerful role played by land and land-ownership in shaping responses to change”.
These topics are best brought forward in ‘Donor-Driven Housing, Owner-Driven Needs: Post-Tsunami Reconstruction in Aceh, Indonesia‘, a contribution by Iftekhar Ahmed & David O’Brien about the rebuilding process in Aceh – after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, killing more than 160,000 Indonesians and making a further 500,000 homeless. In their contribution the authors focus on the traditional housing culture, discuss the effect of the tsunami and outline the recovery process and, finally, move into analysis of a series of modifications made by residents to improve their houses. In essence the story deals with the move from using traditional timber, to a recovery process – building in brick and concrete. While their research framework is laudable, the extended case-studies seldom go beyond describing the aesthetics and techniques involved to enlarge the original small houses (36 to 50 square meters) to double or even triple their size.
In ‘The Recuperation of Public Space: A Closer Look at Bogotá, Colombia‘, a contribution by Nicolas Tixier, Ida Assefa, Camilo Cifuentes, Sandra Fiori, juL mcOisans and Céline Rouchy, the opposite seems to happen: the case-studies are clear, investigative and do say something about how people experience space and place-making. But the written contribution drifts constantly between generic political ambitions, exhausting investigations into the local regional planning lingo [the so-called POT or Plan de Ordanenmiento Territorial] and the explanation of bureaucratic building philosophies. A more people-centered than political centered approach might have made this chapter definitely more worthwhile reading. The text is somewhere a mix, and not a very engaging one, between a PhD, World Bank and/or McKinsey report. It surely talks about the necessity of reform, of social interaction, public space and mobility – but a lot of it could have been better explained by using timelines, diagrams and other methods of visual representation. The Bogotá case-studies are compelling – using the notion of ambiance to map architectural environments – but also shows the limits and relevance of it.
Overall, the problem might be the strange need to use citizen comments to create of a critical discourse on the city – in the case of the Bogotá -contribution the authors state they used the technique of “we would like to know your personal perception of this place” – which quickly, and overall, turns out to be a problematic point of departure. Problematic, because city dwellers, so it shows in this publication, are not the builders, nor the critics of the city.
Despite the many voices, in different conditions and cultures, there seems to be few variations when it comes to understanding the mindset of the contemporary city dweller [at least as portrayed in this publication]. What becomes clear is that the contemporary city dweller is a contractor, a constructor, a citizen, sometimes a crook and accomplice in architectural crimes, someone immersed in the world of continuous urban and architectural change [subject/victim or hero of climate, disaster, real-estate development, socioeconomic transformations]. It also becomes clear that the city-dweller – as represented in this publication – aren’t critics, they are commentators, participants, victims but also adapters that change rapidly of opinion, insights and motives. Their ambitions are based on personal and pragmatic preferences, seldom taking the public good into account. City dwellers are in the middle of this movement, they do not stand outside of it, trying to understand the mechanisms outside of their own sphere of interest [that is shelter, survival and labour]. All of the researches seems not to have been able to abstract/extract themselves from/out this condition, and more than often their merit is to be able to ramble on and along with the residents.
Sometimes, the publication just makes clear that city dwellers seem to have no idea about the precarious planning system that is exploding above their heads and lives. What it reveals, is that the urban condition is much more dramatic and disastrous than we can image. We can’t, so it seems, only blame the politicians, or the planners and investors, for today’s problems related to urban development but we should also start incorporating the people when “pointing fingers”. Maybe unintentionally, but that is what this set of informal exchanges (derived from a few interviews, visual impressions and on-the-ground investigations) reveal about the research done. By not analyzing this situation/position, one of the weak points of the publication is revealed: it does not assist, through architectural/urban design or discourse, in bridging the gap between what makes a place and what the people make out of it.
With over 400 pages, ‘Pressures and Distortions’ is a multifaceted publication presenting decent results. It is although advised to consume it in small doses, to draw your own diagrams and conclusions. It is a document that is in need to be challenged by a broader community of city dwellers, those that construct, criticize and/or consume the contemporary city. Even by those that live in multiple cities at the same time. The publication lacks conclusions, an external vision that is able to connect the at once delicate and city-specific threats with worldwide cultural and urban wisdom, history and fore- and insight in this field. For MovingCites, if we want to know understand better a people-centered approach, we take a copy of ‘Architecture with the people, by the people, for the peoples‘.
After this three-year period of research and training opportunities offered by The Research Program of Rafael Viñoly Architects – a firm living/working/publishing with “the belief that the essential responsibility of architecture is to elevate the public realm” – is seems only logic that the program invest as much time in a creating collaborative efforts in elevating the public perception of the city dweller. This publication explains their position, now it is time to engage with its public.
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