Tag Archives: cultural construction

Big Road Architecture

In Asia, the megaprojects that have been celebrated as symbols of human progress are preceded by the road. Prior to the road there is no architecture. As the Thames defines London; the Seine, Paris; the Hudson, New York; so too the road grants not only the place to architecture but also meaning and experience. In the first instance, waterfronts are geographic givens, discovered by explorers keenly sensitive to the attributes that constitute a natural harbor. Only later do waterfronts undergo the dramatic transformations of land “reclamation,” dredging, and expansion that creates much of the most highly valued real estate in the world. [Singapore, Rotterdam] In contrast, big roads in Asia take form in the abstract on maps, not on the ground. Their paths are determined neither by prior roads, nor topography, nor geographic features. Rather the abstractions of planners and land values are the forces that drop big roads into position. Successive ring roads at certain approximate radii from the Central Business District generates a zone within which the actual trajectory of the road is pinned down through a calculus of land values, ownership rights, and the geometry of travel at 100 kilometers an hour.

Motivated by and experienced from the road, the meaning of modern architecture in the emerging cities of Asia is inextricably tied to the forces behind the construction, maintenance and expansion of major roadways.

The great streets of Asian cities have created some of the great experiences of Asia. [Maliaboro, Shanghai, Orchard Road, not Century Boulevard, Kyoto, Shinjaku, the Great Streets of Asia, Solo-Jogjakarta Ring Road induced travel, Japanese aid World War Two reconstruction and reparations, Bangkok, Manila, Jakarta, Banda Aceh]

Green house gas emissions is the number one problem. But the white elephant in the room is that the largest single source is untouchable. “The American way of life is non-negotiable.” Just as no politician would survive a proposal to limit then decrease the income levels of her constituents, nobody is likely to declare a freeze on the historic rise in annual kilometers traveled per capita. For a vast majority of the worlds population poor and rich alike, mobility is prosperity. The exception is the extremely rich who can afford to hunker down in luxury and stay put. One response is accessibility over mobility. But this is likely to prove as false as the prediction that the telephone would eliminate the need for face to face communication. Instead it had the opposite effect: it increased communications in general including the face-to-face. The other response is to increase mobility while decreasing its impacts. For better or worse, the impact of automobility is so great, that it is not a difficult goal to achieve.

For better or worse, what America does and does not achieve in terms of sustainability matters only to the extent that it influences the success or failure of efforts in China, India, Indonesia, and the rest of the developing world. The achievements across the continent, not only in Beijing but throughout the vast constructed geographies of Asia, are undertakings of great mass and expense. The driving force was to assert a place on the global stage, an identity worthy of international respect, etc. As massive as the concrete, steel, glass, earth and asphalt remain, there is a corresponding lightness to the lessons available in the wake of 20th century modernism in the west.


MEGA project-informal CITY: Reflexivity of Cities

Popular portrayals of megaprojects too often stop short of examining the supporting role played by all that is not the megaproject: the vast pools of construction and service labor that will travel too and from, but never live in, the new city. To neglect the role of the informal city in making the formal city possible runs the risk of leaving many of the most cavalier assumptions embedded in megacity discourses unchallenged. From mid-20th century Brasilia and Chandigarh to 21st century Abu Dhabi and Dubai, informal cities and megaprojects exist in an uneasy symbiosis of mutual dependence. A remarkable recent proposal for the redevelopment of the informal city of Dharavi at the heart of Mumbai, India offers a vivid demonstration of the possibilities for breaking the mold of megaprojects of the past that ignore any connection to the informal city. It’s ambitions to acknowledge and promote the agenda of the traditionally underserved populations featured in the international blockbuster “Slumdog Millionaires” while also presenting a new model for megaproject development is instructive as the exception that proves the rule. The example of Dharavi Redevelopment Project is the basis for an examination of the complex relationship between market driven commercial property development and the social agendas of the majority of urban citizens. Whether or not the Dharavi project eventually delivers on its promises, scholarship of the megaproject will be moving towards a more explicit relationship to its hidden twin, the informal city.

At the core of 2oth century urban crises is the attempt to construct cities according to overly simplistic diagrams of modern urbanization. An inability to adjust to changing circumstances is the common thread that can be traced wherever cities have failed to satisfy the basic needs of its citizens. Instead of delivering us from the whims of chaotic natural forces, the scientific city imposed a structral rigidity that enfeebled the historic mechanisms that would otherwise have been mobilized to restore balance. The capacity for responding to changing conditions in a more or less self-ordering and dynamic manner has been usefully identified as “reflexivity.” It is this characteristic of reflexivity that has made market based economic systems so successful in practice and so attractive in theory. At the same time, institutionalized late capitalism has magaged to establish its own heirarchal rigidities in pursuit of competetive advantages. Once established, individuals and firms are rewarded for weakening or dismantling the reflexive actions of markets through monopolistic practices. It is in this way that capitalism can preach the gospel of free markets while actively undermining its operation through its actions.

As formal political and economic systems continue to be plagued by the pitfalls of structural rigidities, it is interesting to note that the most reflexive systems are still to be found in the informal operations of local societies and communities throughout the world.