Shenzhen, China. Image by Sze Tsung Leong for the New York Times.
This past weekend the New York Times Magazine was devoted to architecture and urban design, and the issue was entitled “The Next City.” I was crestfallen to see that the title of our project here had been scooped up. I was certain that we had been rendered obsolete – surely the NYT would get great journalists to talk about all of the issues facing the next city, and they would do so in a provocative and insightful way. They would spend time, and column inches, talking about making cities, even new and exploding cities in the developing world, sustainable and green and fit for their burgeoning populations. I was really bummed.
Until I read the magazine. At first I was puzzled, and then, as I began to reflect on what I had read, I started to get angry. Really angry.
The cities we live in, whether east or west, whether giant and new, or older and suffused with history, are simply not sustainable. We must address this, in all of its complexity, and we must do this now. We are burning through the earth’s resources at a breathtaking rate, (especially we Americans), and as population increases, and the east develops so very quickly, it is absolutely clear that we are on a path to cataclysm. Does the NYTM’s Next City talk about any of this? Shamefully, it does not.
Half the world’s population now lives in cities. By 2050, most scientists (and the NYTM) tell us that 75% of the population will live in cities. Clearly, cities are the best laboratory for searching for, and we hope finding, the best next forms of habitation, piece by piece, neighborhood by neighborhood.
So what do we get from the NYTM? Starchitects. Celebrities. A highbrow version of Access Hollywood. Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl, Bernard Tschumi, Herzog & de Meuron and many more. What a waste of paper and pixels!
Nicolai Ouroussoff, the NYT’s architecture critic, writes the most dazzlingly, stupefyingly wrongheaded piece of all, entitled “The New, New City.” He investigates exploding cities like Shenzhen, Dubai, Beijing, cities without precedent of any kind, he says, and he muses about what approach poor architects like Holl and Koolhaas should take when they are working at huge scale and blazing speed. Where shall they go for inspiration, guidance, context in these placeless voids where they are work? He says: “…the notion of finding “authenticity” in a sprawling metropolitan area that is barely 30 years old seems absurd.” Oh?
(Think of this: as America urbanized in the 19th century, the national population doubled, from 38.6 million in 1870 to 76.2 million in 1900, and from 25.7% urban to 39.6% urban. U.S. cities went from inchoate miasmas to real urban centers in this 30 year period).
Get rid of the cars, figure out which way the wind is blowing, track the sun, gather the water, make shelter from the heat, or cold. Start there. Make buildings, and urbanisms, that find their basic humanity in trying to create the gentlest and most sustainable places imaginable. Shaded places, sheltering places. Stop talking about modernism (mentioned five times in the piece) and modernists and the Voisin Plan and Corbusier. This is now nearly completely irrelevant.
Ouroussoff never uses any of the following words: green, sustainable, sustainability, environment, energy, climate, sun, wind, rain, community. The New York Times is irresponsible in letting this drivel reach its hundreds of thousands of readers. Get rid of this guy, and stop talking about architecture and urbanism as if it were fashion. There’s too much at stake.
Steven Holl’s “Linked Hybrid,” under construction in Beijing. Ouroussoff says: “…one of the most innovative housing complexes anywhere in the world.” Image by Virgile Simon Bertrand.
If Holl’s Beijing project is leading the way, I don’t want to go. As a long time Chicagoan, the Linked Hybrid image reminded me of Presidential Towers, in that city’s West Loop. You can look it up. Not reviled exactly, but certainly not a path to the Beulah land. (Amy says Presidential Towers looks like the Dakota compared to Holl’s ‘Linked Hybrid.’).
But don’t get me wrong – there were a couple of nice pieces in the New York Times Magazine. Jim Lewis wrote a very strong piece entitled “The Exigent City,” which examines ‘temporary’ cities, refugee camps, and displacement. He points out that increasingly, refugee camps are less and less temporary. And he concludes that, at the moment, “The world is short a billion homes.” And he actually uses the word ‘green.’
An interview with Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota, Colombia has a great quote: “A sidewalk is a symbol of equality.” He got cars off the sidewalks in Bogota, and built more sidewalks, and nearly paid for it with his life. Go figure.
An interesting article about the Dutch practice called MVRDV. They (MVRDV) get what really counts in making cities, even though the article seems a bit too interested in their starpower and their relationship with Brad Pitt. Oh well.
And an interesting piece about yet another trendy practice, Lot-Ek (low-tech), a NYC based practice run by two Neapolitans who are interested in making buildings, and urbanism, from found objects. Their Urban Scan, a database of the industrial and the found in the landscape, is really terrific.
In the end, I wish that the NYTM had taken the time to seriously look at the challenges facing the Next City, and I guess I could live with being scooped. No matter what I do, I will never have a million readers. They do every week. They could help to advance the discussion about future urbanism and the next city, but this time they really, really failed.