Karl Sharro







Re-imagining the City


The urban age is upon us! This year marked the transition: for the first time in history more than half of the world’s population will be living in towns and cities. But the significance of this moment is purely symbolic: there is such an extreme variation in the living standards of urban dwellers around the world to undermine the claim that we are living in an urban age. The UNFPA estimates that about 1 billion people live in urban slums. Many of the fastest growing cities are suffering from the worst problems: congestion, pollution, crime and joblessness. There is no doubt that we are witnessing a phenomenal level of movement towards cities, but the way in which we think about and build those cities is still out of synch with the scale of the demographic change. However, rather than presenting migration to cities itself as a problem, as most Western commentators seem to be doing today, we ought to rethink how the cities of the 21st century could be designed and built to accommodate the large influx of people arriving in them and provide them with a decent standard of living and mobility. In other words, we have to re-imagine the city. In what follows I will argue how this could be done.

First, a word about the contemporary attitude to cities. This is no where better expressed than through Urban Age, the London-based cabal that has almost monopolised discourse on the city and given it credibility through its partnerships with various cities around the world. Through publications like The Endless City, Urban Age expresses the themes that characterise contemporary urbanism: sustainability, localism, density and various other concepts that are taken for granted. But what this discourse also illustrates is the deep anxiety that professionals and politicians feel today when they attempt to deal with cities. The Urban Age mission statement expresses this anxiety and the fear of attempting to control the city: ‘…in this rapidly changing context, we need to understand the after-effects of this unprecedented urban shift. We need to come to grips with the social hangover that will result from a sustained investment in the physical restructuring of cities worldwide to avoid the disastrous human consequences of so much planning over the last 50 years’.

So much planning? The problems facing cities today are certainly not the result of too much planning, but the exact opposite. Yet, policy makers and planners in the West no longer have the appetite for grand schemes and experiments, and their counterparts in the developing world lack the resources and skills, for the time being, to engage in such ventures. There are glaring exceptions of course, such as cities in China, the Arabian Gulf and to a lesser extent, in India. The magnitude of urban growth in some of those cities is phenomenal and, where the political will and financial investment are available, so is the scale of infrastructure works and development. One thing seems to be lacking however, even in the most daring examples such as Shanghai and Dubai: a radical new vision of what the city could be like.

What we observe in such cities today is a phenomenally intensified form of urban development, but one that still relies on the model of the modernist city and the assumptions it was based on. The difference is primarily one of scale, but in essence transportation, housing, zoning and urban codes still follow a modernist rationale. There have been many critiques of modernist planning, particularly when it comes to strict functional zoning and the separation of pedestrians from vehicles for example, leading to a tendency towards mixed-uses and better pedestrian spaces. At the core however, the modernist city still survives and is being reproduced the world over - albeit in different architectural styles.  So in emerging cities such as Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Doha for example, the ‘ideological’ aspirations of modernism have disappeared, but its principles of conceptualising the city survive through technical and legal frameworks.

When Le Corbusier drew up his vision for a ‘Contemporary City’ for three million inhabitants he envisaged a new city unlike anything that had ever been built before. Yet, his vision was not pure fantasy. Le Corbusier understood the potential of technology to transform the city, and predicted the impact that the automobile could have on individual mobility. His designs built on those possibilities and produced an entirely new vision of the city. Several decades on, it could be observed that his vision was realised with minor exceptions. Yet we shouldn’t overestimate the role of architects in this process; the modern city has been shaped even more by figures like Haussmann and Robert Moses. Le Corbusier’s vision gave the modern city a concrete form because it was in synch with the aspirations of the political classes at the time. This did not prevent this vision from being abused by politicians, some of whom reduced the transformative potential of modernism to strictly economic processes of repetition and rationalisation, producing dreary living environments.

Rather than denouncing modernism for those failures, we should produce a radical vision of the city for our own age. The power of Le Corbusier’s ideas is not necessarily embodied in specific design ideas – after all some of them have been proven to be unworkable and today seem ludicrous. Rather it is in the extent to which he dared to imagine a break with the past and the conventional and outdated approaches to building cities. Many planners and architects today seem as if they want to turn back time and revert the city to an earlier model that is essentially pre-modern. This is a cowardly retreat, what we need is a new vision for the city that takes to the future. 

How could that be achieved and what form would the city take? Le Corbusier’s drawings provide a hint. What was distinctive about Corbusier’s images is the bold utilisation of space: taller buildings, elevated walkways and airplanes that could travel from one skyscraper to another. For much of the 20th century, skyscrapers have been built predominantly as vertical extrusions from within a defined plot. This has begun to be challenged in recent years, predominantly in theoretical works but there have been a few built examples as well. The possibilities of utilising three-dimensional space to create buildings that expand in space and connect at various levels are infinite. We are constantly told by environmentalists that land is a limited resource, but there are no limits to space. We are only limited by the way in which we can utilise space, and this takes the form of technological and legal restrictions at the moment, both of which can be challenged.

The first daring example of how a building can challenge the traditional extruded form of the skyscraper was Spreckelsen's Grande Arche at La Défense. This opened immense possibilities in how buildings could be shaped in space that are yet to be explored fully. OMA’s CCTV building in Beijing is an even more daring example because of the large cantilever at the top which stretches the limits of engineering and construction methods. However, those two projects are self-contained buildings that aim for a sculptural effect, reinforced by the large free space around that is reminiscent of the modernist tendency towards seeing buildings as monuments. However, there is a yet unexplored potential to experiment with how such gestures could be produced at an urban scale, allowing buildings to be connected at various levels and allowing various uses at different heights.

Of all Le Corbusier’s ideas, probably the most despised is his notion of ‘streets in the sky’. However, this is predominantly because most examples of such streets were elevated walkways that were generally unanimated and very infrequently utilised. Wherever those were designed properly, they were very useful. In the Barbican centre for example, the residents have resisted several attempts to demolish some of those connections because they are very useful to them. Proper ‘streets in the sky’ that are inhabited by activity have a big role to play in the way we utilise space in a city.

This is not a fantasy or a sci-fi notion; one of the limitations that every city suffers from is that most of its circulation occurs at the ground plane, inevitably leading to congestion. Aside from underground trains and few examples of elevated railways, most cities are restricted to ground plane circulation or, if they are located next to a waterway, some form of commuting by boat. This is a limitation that is yet to be challenged on a larger scale; the possibilities in relieving congestion and allowing for more individual mobility are enormous.

Working prototypes of magnetic-levitation devices that could move three-dimensionally, instead of over a track, have been produced in Japan. Although not yet implemented anywhere, the potential for this technology to revolutionise transport is immense. Capsules around the size of a lift car could be whizzing around, moving both vertically and horizontally allowing movement across space without being restricted to the ground plane. Such technologies, together with recent experiments in ‘dynamic buildings’ that have movable parts, for example to maximise exposure to the sun, present radical possibilities for how we build cities in the future. Combined with buildings that are freed from the extruded shape of the plot and animated streets in the sky, they can liberate the city from the rigid structures that it has so far relied on and could allow us to utilise space in ways never experienced before.

Sadly, it appears that today our ideas about the city are being pulled in the exact opposite direction. To start with, a new form of agrarianism is on the ascendant. This year’s MoMA/P.S.1 Young Architects competition was won by Work AC for their proposal for a ‘public urban farm’: ‘a magical plot of rural delights inserted within the city grid that resonates with our generations’ preoccupations and hopes for a better and different future.’ This is a high profile example of a much wider trend towards such proposals in architecture schools and among young architects that is becoming prevalent both in Europe and in America. Rather than radically re-imagining the city as a vision for how we want to live in the future, architects in the West seem to be drawn more towards the familiarity of a mythical agrarian past. This betrays a hostility towards modernity and progress that the rest of the world cannot afford to adopt.


Karl Sharro 2008


First published in Urban Design magazine, Issue 109, Winter 2009.