A Collection of Urban Favorites

Cities are collections of places within places — at the same time accidental, designed, and constructed through collective action. As 2010 comes to an end, it's a good time to consider the factors that shape urban experience. In this spirit, we present a list of momentary favorites with no requirement that they came about this year. It includes ours as well as those of others sent via comments and e-mails. The results contain insights about the kinds of experiences and actions that make great cities.

The questions called for favorite city-related music videos, places, books, movies, designs, and initiatives. We've collected the responses and organized them into the following groups: 1) places as indirect experience, 2) places as direct experience, 3) action and results (including but not limited to art, design, planning, advocacy, and development).

In retrospect, the questions could have been more clear and open-ended. This might have generated more diverse urban favorites, from public art to video game environments and who knows what else. Still the current results are fascinating. So, without further commentary, we present a list of favorites in 2010.

Places as indirect experience through music videos, movies, and books

Music videos

"Waterloo Sunset" by Corner Shop

"i just remembered this gorgeous video of cornershop playing the kinks’ 'waterloo sunset'. coincidentally, like siya siyabend’s video [below, movies section], this is also set during a sunset, but in london, on the thames. i’ll be honest and say that 'baby baby baby' by make the girl dance also came to mind." farangi.

Situating the Situationist International

From the effervescent streets of Paris 1968, to the reverberating image in the Television of cinema screen - and arguably the I-phone nowadays - the possibility of escaping the throes of capitalism and its omnipresent pulsating spectacle became a call to arms for a group of young thinkers. To carry out their project of critique a multiplicity of methods were employed, among them the Derive and the Detournment as methods of estranging space and place and opening up new doors perception, political positionality and radical possibility.

But as soon as the movement was born, it expired. Leaving behind a provocative set of actions, writings and statements for interpretation. Contradictions abound in the nature and composition of this group of privileged thinkers, who nonetheless were able to capture the imagination of radical change for the future.

Further Resources on SI:
Video of Situationist International from YouTube.

Heritage Buildings in the Modern Emerging City

Many years ago, a professor from Hong Kong University sitting beside me on a plane remarked that "Hong Kong is like a city without memory", its skyline replete with modern skyscrapers and a rich, complex history reflected through only a handful of ancestral villages in the northern territories or occasional rows of shophouses in older districts like Sheung Wan. The professor commended two cities in my home country of Malaysia -- Kuala Lumpur and Penang -- for their effort in preserving heritage buildings, albeit constantly negotiating the swinging pendulum of modernization with its local and global politics.

The business of heritage buildings (for it would be naive to overlook the economic value behind the intangible benefits of historical preservation) is a tricky one. For countries keen to propel themselves beyond the developing status (or negara membangun, as referred to in Malay), there is the irresistible, controversial, and many argue, misguided, notion that participating in a giddily modernist glass-and-steel extravaganza and an arms race of who-has-the-tallest-building are essential for a country's economic and political cache in the world (and countries like Malaysia often find themselves caught in these crossroads). In the same breath, we may well be overlooking some of a nation's most obvious and accessible infrastructural resources in economic development: its historical buildings. There's a lot you can do with carefully preserved heritage buildings (if not salvageable in entirety, then their facades) as genuinely compelling tourist attractions aesthetically and intellectually, and great consumer/commercial spaces that don't require wanton reinvention After all, would you rather be shopping in a soulless postmodern box or a pretty cool piece of national history that's more than five decades old?

Looking back as we move forward into the new year, here's a small sample of several historical or locally attuned buildings around Penang and Kuala Lumpur:

Credits: Photos from Min Li Chan.

Happy Urban Graffiti New Year!

It's cold and beautiful in Lyon, perfect for an end-of-year tribute to one of our favorite art forms, i.e. grafitti and its children, or anything we itinerant urbanists find scrawled, painted, stencilled, drawn, posted or scratched onto the multidimensional surfaces of our cities and those we visit. Here is a healthy and hearty sampler of the range of urban expression I have found over the past few years on the walls from Kuala Lumpur (and unexpected graf mecca!) to Lille and Lyon in France to the ur-walls of the NYC. Chosen more to reflect the range of style - stencil, tag, air brush, spray can, old school graf - and purpose - politics, anger, sadness, memorial, absurdity - than anything else, they are just a fraction of what exists out there, and what is yet to come. Thanks to all our Polis writers and readers from 2010, and see you in 2011.

San Francisco, 2007

Lille, 2006

Kuala Lumpur, 2009

Istanbul, 2009

Beirut, 2010

New York City, n.d.

New Orleans, 2010

Madrid, 2009

Lyon, 2010

Credits: All images by Alex Schafran.

A Beirut Field Diary: Between Two Reconstructions

Several impressions strike you when landing in Beirut; the majestic topography framing the city beyond the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean; the density of built fabric signaling a bustling metropolis; and the audacity of informal settlements encroaching into the coastline and into Hariri International Airport.

These initial images are negotiated with memories that encompass the range of an urban imagination profiling the city: Beirut the Paris of the Middle East versus Beirut the war-torn city. On my way to the hostel my taxi drove through the expressway connecting Beirut’s southern suburbs to the rebuilt central business district. This trajectory offered me an urban landscape whereupon my utilitarian dichotomy was deployed; an arrangement which informed and shaped my foreign gaze.

I had come to Lebanon to attend a conference on the “Utopia of Tradition” held at the American University of Beirut. My stay was short – only 6 days - and my movements through the city consisted on travelling from the eastern quarters of Gemmayze to Hamra on the Western end of the city. Given the brief nature of my sojourn, this post is a brief reflection on a city that leaves you with deep impressions and the understandings we use to make sense of it. At stake is an observation on the process of urban development driving reconstruction in a post-war urban setting and a commentary on the need to capture the discreetness of everyday life by residents who negotiate the realities of reconstruction.

The green line separating East and West Beirut and the location of Beirut's CBD.

At the epicenter of Beirut’s national reconstruction narrative lays the memory of the Green Line. This once emblematic boundary between the western Muslim quarters and the eastern Christian quarters parallels the North-South trajectory of the expressway from the airport to Beirut’s central Business district (CBD). Following the end of the Lebanese Civil War (1975 – 1990) the CBD has undergone an intensive physical transformation under the auspice of Solidere a public-private conglomerate heralding a paradigmatic model of post-war urban reconstruction.

Part of Rafik Hariri’s monumental economic and political legacy in post-civil war Lebanon, Solidere continues to embody his vision for a peaceful and prosperous Beirut open to foreign investors, following his assassination in 2005. Solidere’s complexities and contradictions can be analyzed in the multiple layers of new and old built fabrics that compose its evolving master plan. The reconstruction of the CBD was originally carried by Tabula Rasa erasing the memory of war. This meant the destruction of historic structures and the imposition of imminent domain within a neoliberal urban regime giving precedence to private enterprise and de-regulation. Following a number of mobilizations, archeological ruins dating back to antiquity and historic structures have been refurbished into newly designed public spaces and well-preserved places of worship, office space, housing and new retail.

Roman ruins and newly designed public spaces provide a sense of heritage and renewal.

In a metropolis, where institutional planning is set aside by the expediency of speculative development set in motion by episodes of ware and peace, a city within a city was built on the remnants of what used to be no-man’s war zone. This effort includes contributions by world-renowned star- architects. In less than a square-mile iconic structures by Steven Holl, Arquitectonica, Jean Nouvel, Rafael Moneo and Christian de Portzamparc, manicure a reconstituted past into live-work-play environments with the usual revitalization cocktail of livability, walk-ability and best practices. The vision of a harmonious urban identity by physical erasure and the strategic addition of urban fabric stands as one of the hallmarks of Solidere’s mega operation.

A model of Solidere's completed Master-plan

Less than 5 miles from the CBD, in the southern suburbs close to the airport, a very different city within a city takes shape revealing another dimension to post-war reconstruction in Beirut. Emerging from the 2006 war with Israel, Hezbollah deploys the Wa’d; the promise to rebuild the quarter of al-Dahiya – Hezbollah’s capital – in a manner “more beautiful than it was”. In the brutal bombardment’s aftermath the reconstruction plan set in place by the Lebanese government focused on compensating victims and enabling funding channels for foreign countries to “adopt” villages in southern Lebanon. The Hezbollah leadership, however, used its network of non-government organizations, local service providers, volunteer groups and cadres of supporters to circumvent the state and envision the re-development, design and master planning of Southern Beirut (1).

The bombing of Beirut's southern suburbs before and the Wa'd. "The Promise".

By adhering to a doctrine that de-emphasizes the role of the central state and empowers the private sector, in a rogue public-private partnership, Hezbollah has produced its own urban growth machine. With equally ambitious discourses proposing sustainable design solutions, the Wa’d engages the process of creative destruction by adopting urban reconstruction not only as a means to claim territory and produce memory but also as means to proclaim a political-theocratic ideological agenda. The fundamentalisms of capitalism and religion coincide between two frameworks of post-war reconstruction in Beirut.

These reconstructions allow us to re-consider the material, social and political dimensions that provide a finer texture and arguably challenge the all-pervasive conceptual blanket that defines Neoliberal urban regimes. By exposing how disaster capitalism take different forms, mixes with local histories, acquires strategic and tactical exigencies and is carried out by a wide variety of contradictory actors, the outsider’s gaze is forced to re-consider essentialist dichotomies which give sense to the city.

Yet having said this, the most important voices remain absent in this account. The voices and perspective of local residents, who long after my departure, negotiate two reconstructions in an experience of everyday life. How do we capture the perspective of the local residents outside the foreign gaze? How do we value and make sense of the exemplars that represent reconstruction, illustrations of global economic processes and geopolitical narratives, and pay tribute to the discreet stories of daily life?

(1) Al-Harithy, H Lessons in Postwar Reconstruction: Case Studies from Lebanon in the Aftermath of the 2006 War, Routledge New york 2010

Credits: Image of Beirut Green line Aerial by almashriq.hiof.no, Image of Green line during the war by Wikipedia, Image of Ruins and public space by Hector Fernando Burga, Images of Solidere's Master-plan by Hector Fernando Burga, Images of Souther Suburbs before/after Google Earth, Image of Wa'd poster from ArteEast Online.

Christmas Street Lights: Public Space and Consumerism

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

Shopping streets and squares often are the most representative and lively spaces in any city, more so if they are pedestrian-oriented. They are designed to attract people (local and foreign) and to make shopping pleasant, becoming places for social dialogue and endeavour. As an European, where pedestrian streets are the standard places for shopping (as opposed to shopping malls), I always had a divided feeling about them during Christmas, a time when cities become dominated by a fever of impulsive consumerism, deliberately stimulated by a massive display of street lights and thematic music. I am personally against this kind of consumerism because I see it as an environmentally unsustainable economic model powered by an artificially created, often anxiety-powered, materialism that leads to fictitious happiness. On the other hand, one cannot deny that Christmas street lights make open city spaces romantic and homey, and make them really nice to walk through. I do not either deny the social and emotive value of exchanging gifts, when it is done in a moderate and genuine manner.

Despite the Vatican's disapproval, in most cities the religious meaning of Christmas street decoration has yielded to its commercial purpose and today it crosses religious frontiers, becoming common, for instance, in Singapore, Shanghai and Tokyo. Christmas street decoration can also be a way of enhancing the appreciation of open street commerce as an alternative to shopping malls and urban sprawl.

Credits: Image of Christmas street lights in London from the Mirror. Image of Singapore Christmas lights from Advertlets. Image of Christmas lights in Shanghai from Life.
Image of Tokyo Christmas lights from William Andrews/CNNGO.

Imaginary Value

Spending time indoors with family, I'm reminded of Frederick, by Leo Lionni. It's about a mouse who gathers memories of pleasant weather as his companions gather supplies for the winter. This seems irresponsible, even parasitic, until his stories brighten everyone's long wait for spring.

According to a summary, Frederick's stories help the other mice endure after their food runs out. My childhood memories of this story don't include the food running out. I'm not sure why the hungry mice wouldn't find Frederick's stories annoying, given that the food might not have run out if he would have helped gather supplies.

It seems the story would be better without the food running out, as this would be a less problematic reminder of the many different ways of contributing to society. The other mice generously accept Frederick and appreciate his contribution. This shows that there's more to life than basic survival, and that quality of life can be improved in unexpected ways.

In considering quality of life, questions of value are essential. How does value relate to individual and collective values? Is it best determined through markets? Are there other ways to add value creatively while making sure our food doesn't run out?

Credits: Illustration of Frederick by Leo Lionni.

An Urban Christmas Saga

As the wolf winter settles, the Swedes turn to home-felt traditions. Since 1975 we have watched the tale of Christopher's Christmas Mission on Christmas Eve, broadcasted by our public television and written by the beloved author and late film director Tage Danielsson. The short film tells the story of a young Stockholm boy who admires Robin Hood and his mission: To Take From the Rich and Give To the Poor. As in all tales, there is a message embedded. Whether that is on the irony of consumerism, the naivety of charity, the tragedy of city divides or simply the changes that can be made with a warm heart, is up to the viewer to decide. Enjoy the 23 minute piece here, and Happy Holidays!

Credits: Image from the film by illustrator Per Åhlin

Solving the Hardest Problems

by Anna Fogel

What would New York City look like without any homelessness? Rosanne Haggerty has been imagining this, and creating innovative approaches towards this goal, since the early 1990s. Through Common Ground, an organization she started in the 1990s, she has been heralded for her successes in housing the chronically homeless, those who are most vulnerable and difficult to house. One of her newest initiatives, 100,000 Homes, is creating a unified approach for housing some of the most vulnerable homeless around the country, with the ambitious goal of housing 100,000 chronically homeless by 2013.

One of the most interesting aspects is the comprehensive approach to the solution, which includes community leaders, residents, government and non-profit organizations. Within each community, the solution relies on a local team of community members to identify and quantify the demand for housing, government entities and non-profit organizations to supply housing and supportive services and to organize these services, the initiative of the recipient to move into housing (often along with strong encouragement and support) and a range of services to keep people in their homes. In his New York Times article, David Bornstein discusses how the 100,000 homes program has gained traction partly because of its argument that chronically homeless should be considered a public health emergency – a population with significantly shorter life expectancies and victim to numerous illnesses, many of which cannot be treated when living on the streets. This pulls in additional resources and entities and further widens the approach to solve chronic homelessness.

This will not end homelessness in New York, or any other city. The chronically homeless are a minority of the homeless population around the country, and there will always be emergencies that result in people losing their housing or ending up on the streets. But the hardest people to house, and to keep housed, are this population, who uses a disproportionately large percentage of government resources over many years. Housing 100,000 of the most challenging people in 3 years would be a huge accomplishment, and can only be done by galvanizing communities, governments and innovative leaders. As of tonight, they have housed more than 7,043 people, with high retention rates of 80 to 90 percent. Track their progress on their website – 100khomes.org – or join their team, in one of the 64 communities that has joined their cause across the country.

Credits: Image of 100,000 Homes model to end homelessness from 100khomes.org.

John Reader on Cities

“Rise and fall. The cycle of growth and decay was rapid in some instances, in others it covered many human lifespans. Some have flourished and collapsed completely, as in Sumer [Mesopotamia]. Others have collapsed, the subsequently have risen afresh, like Rome. This has been the pattern, across the millennia and around the world. Indeed, the pattern has been so prevalent that the history of great cities has a discomforting effervescence about it. Cities appear to rise like bubbles from the surface of the earth, swelling, bursting – some dying altogether, others healing themselves and rising again. At the beginning, the world’s large cities seem almost to have replaced one another, as though compelled to maintain a degree of equilibrium, but since the turn of the nineteenth century cities have been growing in unison – and at an accelerating rate, like metastasing cancers.”

John Reader, from Cities, pp. 69, 2005

This is part of a collection of quotes related to cities. They don’t necessarily reflect our views, just things that may be interesting. We welcome you to add others.

Credits: Image of Mexico City from termometroturistico.es.

RIP San Francisco Fast Pass

San Francisco’s Fast Pass has been deemed too slow for our digital age. The city jumped on the high-tech train in 2009 by launching Translink, a fare card that could ping you in across the city’s five transit agencies. In 2010, it was re-branded as the niftier Clipper Card and rolled out en masse. As of last month, all adult passengers have had to trade in their paper passes for the plastic card, and seniors and youth will have to make the switch by January.

Although I can’t deny that Clipper has its conveniences (Fast Passes always seemed to be sold only in the most obscure corner stores; now I have automatic reload), I can’t help being nostalgic for the bright paper passes. Apparently I’m not the only one.

Since I was a kid, I’ve loved their elegant design and the surprise of what funky color combination I’d get that month. If nothing else, they made beautiful bookmarks. And you could only get them in San Francisco.

Like the psychedelic logo of the San Francisco Municipal Railway (MUNI), Fast Passes were a local artifact. Part of the city's culture since the 1970s, I would venture to call them iconic (check out some real oldies here http://blog.unionmadegoods.com/collections-muni-fast-pass.html). Why is it that efficiency often has to feel so boring?

Send images of your own beloved bus passes and train tickets, rendered obsolete by plastic successors, to info@thepolisblog.org.  

Credits: Fast Pass collage by Katia Savchuk. Image of Translink and Clipper cards from Sfist.

A Call for Urban Favorites in 2010

Rather than posting only our favorites for the year, we'd like to try a collaborative list. Below are five questions that we invite you to answer if you'd like, and we will post the results. Feel free to skip any of the questions. Also, your favorites don't have to be from 2010.

1. What are your favorite music videos with urban settings or themes?

2. What are your favorite places in any city?

What are your favorite depictions of urban space in books and movies?

What are your favorite designs related to cities?
(This can be anything
that has been designed and somehow relates to cities. It might be a building, a gadget, a park, a form of transportation, a website, a policy, an event, etc.) 

5. What are your favorite urban initiatives?

You can list your answers in the comments section or send them to info@thepolisblog.org.

Credits: Opening image from the collection of photos at CoLab Radio.

The World Below Chinatown: A Photo Essay by Maureen Lin

The use of space in New York City's Chinatown is always fascinating to me, especially the basements. There are workshops under workshops, underground markets, spas, conveyor belt highways, and endless other combinations of the practical and imaginative. Here are some entryways into these places.

Credits: Photos by Maureen Lin.

Behind the Scenes at National Geographic: Depicting Gaudí's Vision

Barcelona's Sagrada Família basilica is notable as much for its protracted construction (it has been in the works for 128 years and will not be finished until 2026) as for its paradigm-bending architecture based on organic forms.

In this month's issue,
National Geographic unearths the roots of Antoni Gaudí's iconic design, inspired by his devotion to religion and nature.

Deputy art director Kaitlin Yarnall and senior graphics editor Fernando G. Baptista set out to depict the final form the building would take — not a simple task when no accurate model of the completed church existed. After fourth months of research and design, they created an illustration that they say is the most complete visual representation to date of what the finished Sagrada Família will look like (they also composed the above graphic to illustrate Gaudí's use of organic elements).

In an exclusive guest post for polis, Yarnell and Baptista tell how they researched and portrayed Gaudí's vision.

“My client is not in a hurry.” Antoni Gaudí’s famous words referencing the still-unfinished Sagrada Família church in Barcelona did not, unfortunately, apply to our version of the project. Tasked with illustrating the wonder of Gaudí’s masterpiece for our readers, we began our work in early June.

The process began with preliminary research. We read, viewed, and absorbed as much as we could about Gaudí and his work. We quickly discovered that the key to understanding the Sagrada Família lay in understanding the architect himself. His deep faith, respect for nature, and unique ability to see and express the world three-dimensionally drove all that he did. He considered the Sagrada Família to be the culmination of his vision and used other works as test grounds for the church.

Armed with a basic understanding of Gaudí and his unique style, we traveled to Barcelona in late June, to spend a week in, under, and on top of the church. Aided by the architects, we began to document and absorb all aspects of the church. We had a basic idea of the information we needed for Fernando’s illustration, but had no idea how challenging it would be to gather these references.

Featured Artist: Anthony Hernandez

Some people ask, "What's so important or compelling about taking pictures of such unpleasant subjects like city dwellers?" . . . My work may be beautiful or it might not be, that just isn't what I am concerned with. I try to be open and face the city. . . . To me it's not unpleasant or unbeautiful, it's just life--which has to be threatening sometimes if it is going to be interesting." —Anthony Hernandez

Paris's newest photography venue, Le Bal, is tucked away down a passage just off the Place de Clichy. Like so much of Paris, it does an incredible imitation of Paris, as if everyone were actors in a great mis-en-scene, and you catch yourself checking your scarf in the mirror to see if you fit in. Their opening exhibit, Anonymes, L’Amérique sans nom: photographie et cinéma, is ironically an extremely candid if sparse view of the past half century of America and the attempts by photographers new and old, iconic and unknown, to capture a slice of American life.

Despite the cliched fascination of some reviewers with the hipster decay porn of found crime photographs about Detroit, the urban highlight of the show is Anthony Hernandez's stunningly subtle yet brutally frank photographs of a subject matter an outsider might imagine did not exist — bus riders in Los Angeles. Hernandez avoids unneeded drama and glamour, finding meaning in a mundane yet profound picture of an old LA — the photos are from the 1979-1983 — but one which is still very real.

His images capture a slice of the race and class divides of Los Angeles, the largely ignored story of people who ride buses in the world's first true auto mecca. Captured alongside his riders are is a hint of Los Angeles' deep diversity, including snippets of what will soon be Koreatown, bits of Mike Davis's Fontana before the housing boom, a taste of the desolation that pockmarked Los Angeles before the condo booms and the current version of Los Angeles's long love affair with real-estate frenzies.

There is a quiet dignity in the simplicity of his black and white depictions, a dignity which does not mask but which makes the viewer work and think to see the bigger urban picture. Perhaps it is this work that is critical in avoiding the pitfalls of exploitative urban art — much like in cities, good work is a collaborative effort between the artist and viewer, or between the city and its citizen.

Credits: All images from Anthony Hernandez, originally published in Waiting, Sitting, Fishing, And Some Automobiles (los angeles, photographs of). These images culled from excellent photoblog posts on Hernandez - Horses Think, American Suburbs X, - and the JP Getty Museum, where the opening Hernandez quote comes from.