Today, I wanted to share with you this image from “S,M,L,XL” by OMA, Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau, called “Asian cities of tomorrow”:

scan_of_SMLXL_OMA-RemKoolhaas

"Asian Cities of Tomorrow"

Beautiful image; love the level of complexity!

Obviously, this image made me think to the images of Asian developments we see today. And I felt there is something in this image that has never made it into the real world – “UTOPIA”. The image above has some sort of “utopia” – an overriding idea of a “better place” – at its core. The images of Asia today – don’t.  In what image are the cities being built today? What is the ideal? Is there any? And should there be any? We hear a lot that we had enough of utopias and don’t want any any more – we “know” they don’t work anyway. But there seems to be a need for some sort of a plan..

Today’s major cities, on the contrary to that, seem to be more about “disaster management” than anything else. Can true cities be anything else, but disaster management at a certain time of their development, or is it exactly what makes a city – a disaster?

Bird's eye view of Tokyo City

To understand and control the modern city like Mumbay or Tokyo (above), one needs to give up any hope of being able to “Design” or “Plan” a city. That time is over. A modern (mega) city needs to be controlled from a different level, one or two above the “Masterplan” approach, which has lost all relevance by now. The new level is the one of “programming”, scripting and making use of a “error”; letting the city generate itself with just some minor “pinches” from your side.

And this is how conventional “Urban Planning” dies…

“Living in the Endless City”

This city can amalgamate anything into its fabric without ever even noticing.

The scale of New York makes any of the “great architectural marvels” just as generic and mundane as the true generic. Everyone is within the grid, everyone and anyone can be accommodated in this city. There is no “contextual” in this city, as there is no one context. Of cause there are certain areas where some particular style has historically attached itself. In general, though, there is no one style you can cling to and proclaim it “suits the context” of New York. In this sense, in this city, my project for the Roanoke Architecture School would be just as contextual as any of Mies’s scrapers. Everything goes.

It often strikes me how easy it is to pass by a work by a great architect and not even see it in this city – there are just too many of them – both pearls and cr*p around them. The pearls are so numerous, but scattered, that in a while they are just assimilated into the omnipresent cr*p and seize being “the one and only”. From this, a question arises: what do you build here? How? The answer is – anything. I guess I am building on Koolhaas’ian ideas of Bigness and “Manhattanism”: Manhattan swallows all. In its context, a development, in order to be noticed at all, has to either be totally huge, or totally new in some ridiculously new way, or to be a piece of infrastructure – the be-hated (but still really cool, to my mind) Port Authority Bus Terminal is quite a good example of all of the above.

New York can swallow anything. In contrast, Tallinn can’t, although it’s a relatively big town. What you build in Tallinn matters aesthetically. What you build in New York – basically doesn’t.

The Situationists' psycho-geographical map of Paris

One’s perception of the city is fragmentary. In a city of such a bulk as New York it is almost impossible sometimes to relate between places. For example, Broadway in the 20’s has nothing to do with Broadway in the 30’s. Even if you walk all the way down Broadway, along the way from A to B your mind loses track of your previous positioning and its relation to where you are now.

The underground adds a whole different level of abstraction to all this though. If it is different to navigate on the ground sometimes (without a map, that is), when you enter the underground you lose any sense of real space whatsoever. Landmarks that you would have navigated by otherwise, become just names on signs and arrows. You are forced into trusting that whatever is written or told is true; you cannot make paths – you follow them. It’s like flying a plane in the fog, being guided only by your flight-control systems and the voice of the dispatcher: you see nothing, you can independently navigate by nothing, you only do what you are told and hope the systems are correct. The distances become measurable in minutes, because there is nothing that would remind you that you are actually traveling through space: all you see from the window of your car is blackness, all you feel are random accelerations and decelerations; the stops are scattered in pure black space and bare no real relation to anything but themselves, the way hyper-space portals are always depicted in the movies. You might just as well be standing still, and the world were moving around you, rather than vice-versa – you really don’t know.

It is only when the train starts running above ground, in some sections, that you start to realize how immense the distances you cover are and that you are actually moving between real physical locations. As the subway almost never runs on the surface in Manhattan, this phenomena is mostly applicable to other boroughs, such as Brooklyn, which I know the best. A sea of houses. And kids. There are so many kids in this city. And many of them don’t really know where they live. Manhattan is just as distant a sound for them as it is for us, tourists and visitors, if not further. It is a land they know they’ll never reach.

Exactly because of all this fragmentation, taking a cab can sometimes be such a rewarding experience in this city: suddenly the path you otherwise take blind-folded under ground, becomes visible with all the buildings and places that are otherwise substituted by signs. On the other hand, taking a cab also changes the scale thus making the “fluidity” of cityscape more accessible. You suddenly can relate to the “bigger picture”. The map becomes less clear and detailed, but much smoother. Try it – it’s fun.

The city does not have a soul. It has people.

All the lyrical and poetical that we attribute to the city – myself included – is actually… a misconception. We make a mistake when we consider a city a thing in itself. A city is not a living organism. It has no brain, nor vascular system. Our metaphors and the fact that our human brain cannot think outside metaphors – make the city animate in our imagination. But in fact – it ain’t. Simply The System, especially in cities like this here, becomes so massive and is filled with so many errors – human, technical, whatever – that both its (mal)functioning and unpredictability make us think that it becomes alive. It is just a complex system of interactions that purely by the merit of its own complexity seems to be alive – like with some beautiful examples in cybernetics – whenever our mind can’t grasp the complexity of A Thing it just says that that Thing is alive. But it ain’t.

We fill a city with ourselves. Itself, a city is nothing. It’s an exoskeleton, a framework. In this sense it is not more alive than the termite mounds: every mound is different, because it was built by a different family of termites in different conditions. But the physical city is an inanimate exoskeleton, a container, necessary for sustaining a population. A city is a habitat. It is a tool. It is NOT a romantic, animate, soulful creature that lives and breathes by its own will.

All the buildings are manifestations of someone’s will. Monuments to one-self. A collection of personal Babylon towers. When I look at the towers of the Financial district – I see people. People in the sense that each and every one of those towers have been conceived by someones mind and paid for by someone’s money. At the same time, it is fascinating to me, how different those things are from humans themselves and how sometimes unnatural and uncomfortable they seem…

Manhattan might seem like a creation of Gods looking at it from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, just like Ur used to seem the same way to the ancients, but it is not. It is nothing but a creation of minds of humans. The city did not and does not build itself – it was and is being built. By us.