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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Endless Cities, Infinite Paradoxes

Designing for the urban age

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  Cities are like organized religion: richly layered, often paradoxical and uniquely qualified to bring out the best and worst in humankind. A new book edited by Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sudjic, titled The Endless City (Phaidon), conveys the oft-contradictory nature of cities, including their innate ability to both quell and incite social and political conflict.

  At least, that’s the salutary subtext of the book. Its more arrant objective is to lend fire-and-brimstone urgency to the sharp rise in the world’s urban population within the past century. Even the book’s blazing orange cover, inscribed with eye-popping statistics (75% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050!) is used to convey the apocalyptic immediacy of its appeal.

  The Endless City is the culmination of a series of international conferences held by the Urban Age project, a multidisciplinary investigation into the future of the world’s cities led by the London School of Economics and Deutsche Bank’s Alfred Herrhausen Society. The opening line, “In the beginning was the city,” sets the tone for the strange blend of religious reference and Darwinian positivism that pervades the introductory chapters. The problems native to cities that rapid population growth is likely to exacerbate are outlined, as well as some of the new dilemmas facing today’s cities. The authors assure us that the continuing rise of the urban population leaves us no choice but to construct a new archetype for the modern city. That the foundations for this new paradigm rarely stray from the popular canons of urban planning—notably the writings of Jane Jacobs—doesn’t seem to perturb them. In fact they continuously avow their debt to the late great urbanist.

  Laying the groundwork of this discourse is a series of essays exploring the genetic makeup and growth patterns of six cities—London, New York, Shanghai, Mexico City, Johannesburg and Berlin. These essays seek to illustrate the measures that planners and policy-makers have taken to deal with issues like housing shortages, escalating crime, public transport and the potential of these cities to accommodate future growth.

  Though these essays offer some savory insights into some of the world’s most fascinating cities, the kernel of the book lies in the section curtly titled “Issues.” A variety of authors (including architect celebrities like Rem Koolhaas, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron) have contributed essays that address various aspects of the urban experience.

  The best of these invest new meaning into timeless truths, such as Richard Sennett’s “The Open City,” or, like Sophie Body-Gendrot’s “Confronting Fear,” forge credible connections between the contemporary urban experience and the pressing political and social concerns of our age. The worst examples treat cities as agglomerations of issues without a human face, and to make matters worse are weighed down with indecipherable academic jargon.

  Despite the fact that some salient issues are touched upon, such as the real and imagined threat of terrorism, the shrinking middle class and the growing strain on the world’s natural resources, there are a couple of remarkable omissions. One is the city’s role as a platform for religious harmony and dispute, which in the light of events of the past decade is an unpardonable oversight. Another is the way technological developments have affected the demands we make of public space, and the extent to which actual public space competes with virtual space, especially for the younger generation.

  However, the weakest section of the book is the one devoted to interventions that illustrate successful policy-making and/or planning. The majority of the examples are so obscure that one craves the heroic gestures of past epochs, however misguided or heavy-handed their intent.

  Ultimately, though, Endless Cities represents a valiant effort to turn an impending crisis to our advantage. We can even forgive the authors for the occasional lapse into hyperbole. The book avoids the obvious pitfall of drawing rudimentary parallels between the various cities visited, and in fact celebrates the endless paradoxes the city represents. After all, like religion, it’s partly this ability to contain contradictions that represents a city’s greatest strength and ensures its survival.

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