Stan Allen on Landform Building

Oakland Art Museum by Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo (1961-1968). Source: Lebbeus Woods

"The contemporary city is a complex field that changes and evolves in advance of the discipline. Landscape and ecology, understood as dynamic, adaptive systems, offer productive models to understand the complexity of the city today. But the city is also a man-made artifact. Rather than loose organic metaphors, a new synthesis of architecture and landscape is needed to confront these new constraints and potentials in emerging urban sites."

Stan Allen, from "Landform Building: Architecture's New Terrain," 2010

This is part of a collection of quotes related to cities. They don't necessarily reflect our views, just topics of interest. We welcome you to add others.

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Past Life of a Construction Site

by Peter Sigrist

This is the site in the center of Moscow where Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recently decided to build a park. Each dot represents a crowd-sourced photo taken there and uploaded to, where you can move a sliding bar to focus on time periods of your choice.

This is the former Rossiya Hotel, which was built on the site in 1967 and demolished in 2006. The photo is from another brilliant crowd-sourced site (Wikipedia).

This is the Zaryadye neighborhood, which was demolished to make room for the Rossiya Hotel. The photo of a flood along the Moscow River is from a historical photo tour of the neighborhood, blogged by Alexander Ivanov.

This is part of a collection of featured places from around the world. If you’d like to share photos of a place you find interesting, please add them to the Flickr group or send them to and we’ll publish your feature. Video and sound recordings are also welcome.

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Sound Traveler

by Vivien Park

Source: RA

"Where I Am Now" is the debut LP of Chicago-based DJ and music producer Area (aka m50). A dark and driven blend of house and techno, the release was described by the artist as a sort of "geographical and emotional travelogue." The many cities where Area has performed — from Toyko to Zagreb — must have inspired these abstract soundscapes of moods and rhythms.

Colin McFarlane on the City as Assemblage

Source: Paolo Rosselli (via Mañanarama)

“As a relational process of composition, assemblage signals the emergence, labour and sociomateriality of the city, and the ways in which this process becomes structured and hierarchical through inequalities of power, resource and knowledge. Assemblage underlines the ways in which urbanism is produced as an unfolding set of uneven practices that are — while being more or less open or enclosed — never inevitable, but always capable of being produced otherwise. It signifies the city not simply as an output or resultant formation, but as ongoing construction.”

Colin McFarlane, from “Assemblage and Critical Urbanism,” 2011

This is part of a collection of quotes related to cities. They don’t necessarily reflect our views, just topics of interest. We welcome you to add others.

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Design to Occupy in Berkeley

by Hector Fernando Burga

What are the design lessons of the Occupy movement? In this interview, Robert Tidmore and Alex Schuknecht, landscape architecture students at UC Berkeley, discuss the protests, police brutality and floating tents at the university in November 2011. They share how the movement's alternative use of space led to a re-evaluation of their roles as students, designers and citizens.

How has the Occupy movement influenced your thinking on the practice of landscape architecture?

Rob: As designers of public spaces, I believe we have a mandate to uphold and defend the loftiest ideals of public space. This includes the ability to assert our first amendment rights by occupying and using public space for protest. The brutal police crackdowns on #OWS protesters over the past several months have made it clear that our rights to public space are far more limited than we previously thought. To me, this raises serious concerns about our society’s control of dissent. If the people do not have the right to protest in public, where will protest occur? Public space must be made available to all publics, and as designers we should use our creativity to ensure that this is the case.

 Prior to being involved in #OWS, I thought it was enough to simply create spaces that facilitated large-scale gatherings, promoted community and fostered civic engagement. My recent experiences have proven that this is not sufficient. We must take an active role in our communities and use our diverse skill sets to fight inequality and tackle the complex problems of our day. Landscape architects are trained to build attractive places, but we should do so much more. We are inherently problem solvers and have the ability to envision better worlds. We are uniquely situated in a field that bridges social, cultural and environmental concerns, and we should address these issues through activism in addition to design.

Alex: Many of us came to landscape architecture with the belief that the practice would be a good outlet for our idealism, and I’ve gotten a bit jaded at times learning that the design business is often much more reactive than it is proactive. In a development-based business, where the goal is to make money, your ideals can easily be shoved to the wayside. For me the movement reinforces that, while I believe in many of the merits of professional design practice, it is imperative that we examine why we do what we do, even at the most basic level. I’d argue that, for example, none of the projects you see today do anything to challenge the dominant economic structure — not that they should or even can — but it’s something we need to think about, and Occupy reminds us of that.

Wurster Hall at UC Berkeley, the home of the College of Environmental Design, occupied. 

Has it changed your perspective on design education?

Alex: We have a unique opportunity in our limited time as students to attack design in a completely creative and uninhibited way. The constraints of the market don’t necessarily apply, which means that we can spend our time doing strictly things that we feel good about. But what the Occupy movement and similar projects that I’ve been involved in have reminded me of, is that feeling good about your work is the ideal situation always. Design education is not just about how to design well, it should be about how to achieve your vision that in your way aims to make the world a better place, and all of the pieces that go into that. Good ideas are one thing, but the ability to navigate those ideas through business and politics is vital, because the market would just build the landscape around us entirely on its own terms if we let it. Learning how to design against the tide, and survive doing it, will be a big part of the remainder of my education.

Rob: Being involved in something like #OWS that was deeply meaningful and extremely rewarding. Students should be doing this as part of their education. I would strongly advocate for the inclusion of smaller-scale design projects that have local, real-world impacts. Students could partner with local community groups in a design-build exercise, or whole studios could be arranged around solving a particular design problem for a local nonprofit. Creative activism should be part of the core curriculum at all design schools.

Floating tents in front of Berkeley's Sproul Hall, the day after the Occupy Cal camp was removed. 

Can you tell us about your experience working on the floating tents intervention in Sproul Plaza?

Rob: The floating tents project was literally conceived, built and unfolded on Sproul Plaza in less than 24 hours. It was partially a response to the forceful destruction of the Occupy Cal encampment (that I had been sleeping in) at 3 a.m. the previous morning by 120 police officers in riot gear, and continued violence against students. The same plaza that only a day before had been the stage for Robert Reich’s “the days of apathy are over” speech and home to the hopeful celebration of over 7,000 students was cleared by a front-end loader. Watching all of that energy, hope and determination being destroyed in the early morning was heartbreaking. Walking away from the empty plaza that morning, I felt very strongly that we needed to re-occupy the space and rekindle the hope and elation of the Occupy movement.

As the LA 203 studio convened later that day, our professor Judith Stilgenbauer urged us to respond to the recent events on campus, and an hour later the concept of floating tents and a floating banner was born. We sketched out the idea on scraps of paper, then made phone calls to locate the most important component: helium. The next morning we picked up two tanks of helium and spent the rest of the day crafting our piece: filling balloons, attaching guylines to the tents, spray-painting the banners and organizing a march to Sproul. It was designed as a quick intervention to intelligently challenge the administration’s policies, and I don’t think any of us anticipated that it would attract such widespread support.

Alex: There was very minimal research, and we had very few challenges. It was just a matter of doing, and the excitement and will to do it was there. The hope now is to continue to feed off that excitement and not let it wane into the humdrum of professional life.

Do you consider your intervention political? Artistic? Architectural?

Alex: All of the above, definitely. The intervention was an artistic response to the politics of space. The larger impetus for this was the burning need for a response to the violence that had been carried out against students and faculty by the administration and police. I watched kids take overhand baton swings to the face so that the police could tear apart three tents that sat in the grass at the side of Sproul Plaza — it was asinine. And a response from our department felt doubly important. As students of landscape architecture, we see ourselves as stewards and advocates of public space, and our role as architects, landscape architects and planners is absolutely political. If we’re not fighting to serve people — which often means challenging the status quo — then who are we serving and why bother?

Rob: I agree. Public space is innately politicized, as we saw in the administration’s reaction to the Occupy movement on campus. To make an impact in the plaza large enough to rekindle the hope and elation of the movement, we needed a statement that was spatial. And to fly in the face of the administration’s ban on tents, calling attention to the absurdity of the situation, called for an artistic reinterpretation.

Would you do this again? Why or why not?

Alex: This was a spontaneous intervention, so repeating it wouldn’t make much sense. But I would absolutely engage in any project that I felt added to the dialogue about public open space, justice and economics, food politics. In a very broad sense, I hope to do this again and again and again until I can look back and say I’ve made a career out of doing only things that I feel contribute to the common good. Maybe I’m naïve, but seeing my tent floating 50 feet in the air on the evening news gave me a week-long high, and reflecting on the experience has never made me question it. Absolutely something along these lines will happen again — the ideas are already rolling.

Rob: Without question. The absurdity of the events that unfolded on campus that week demanded an intervention. I certainly will continue pursuing projects that question the status quo, promote community activism and invite critical analysis of injustice and inequality. Activism and engagement have been key components of my experiences prior to coming to Berkeley, and a design education gives me the ability to pursue these values in even more interesting ways. I’m very excited about the possibilities that this opens up. There are already other projects in the works.

Credits: Photos from Robert Tidmore and Alex Schucknecht.

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Kazakhstan’s Bold New Capital: An Interview with John Lancaster

by Anna Fogel

The Baiterek monument and observation tower. Source: Manuel Capurso

John Lancaster is a veteran foreign correspondent and magazine journalist with deep experience in South Asia and the Middle East. In June 2011, he spent a month in Astana, Kazakhstan, with a photographer, Gerd Ludwig, to learn about and report on the city — “this capital in a box that had sort of appeared from nowhere on the steppes,” as he described it.

Astana was designated as the capital of Kazakhstan in 1997, when President Nursultan Nazarbayev relocated the capital from Almaty, 600 kilometers to the south. Over the last 15 years, Nazarbayev and his government have invested huge sums of money, partly funded by oil wealth, to build up a large, flashy city. The population has more than doubled from 300,000 in 1997 to 700,000 today. The city is dominated by buildings “that look like nothing else,” as Lancaster describes them in "Tomorrowland," which appeared in the February issue of the National Geographic magazine.

The rapid development of the capital, with its large buildings and larger budget, has attracted attention around the world. Polis recently had the opportunity to speak with John Lancaster about the development of the city, its striking architecture and reporting for "Tomorrowland":

What do you think President Nazarbayev has tried to accomplish with Astana over the past 15 years?

I think he had a couple of purposes. There were some physical limitations to Almaty: It is hemmed in by mountains, so there wasn’t much room to expand. Then there was a geopolitical reason – Kazakhstan was a former Soviet republic, and after the breakup of the Soviet Union, there was a lot of concern that Russia had territorial designs for the northern part of Kazakhstan.

The third reason was that it was a national branding exercise, which explains some of the architecture and dramatic effect that Nazarbayev was aiming for. Kazakhstan is a country that most people in the West know nothing about, and yet it has all of these energy resources and has aspirations to become a prosperous country. There was a sense that they wanted to show the world that they were this modern, forward-looking country with resources and technical skills. And what better way to do that than to build a city that looks like something out of the Jetsons? They wanted a splashy capital and wanted to make a statement.

Housing from the Soviet era. Source: Archive of Affinities

The city certainly moves away from Soviet architecture and design. In the rebuilding and planning process, what became of existing Soviet buildings and city plans?

One should be clear that this wasn’t a blank space — there was a Soviet-era city there. The old part of the city is concentrated on the right bank of the river and has a very different feel. It’s not an unpleasant place – even though Soviet architecture has kind of a bad rep. There are trees, parks, the river in the center of the city, and to the extent that there is a street life and café life in Astana, it is most established in the right bank. There is sort of a human scale to this part of the city. Some of those handsome old buildings are being torn down pretty rapidly, and there are a lot of modern, high-rise apartment buildings going up.

One of the most lively places in the city is a Soviet-era amusement park. It’s kind of ironic that they built this huge new capital, and some people still gravitate to the old parts of town. The older part is really still an important part of the urban fabric of the city.

How would you characterize street life in the newly constructed sections of Astana?

It’s built on this grandiose and monumental scale. It’s really a statement, so there are a lot of big, daring buildings and plazas. The thing that saves it from being too totalitarian is that there is a slightly Disneyfied aspect to the place. They want people to have fun, too. For example, in front of the Palace of Peace and Harmony is this fountain that is designed to encourage splashing. A big shopping mall culture has sprung up, and to the extent that there is street life, it mostly takes place inside the malls — there are a lot of restaurants, movie theaters, things like that. It’s a pleasant place to stroll in June, but those big open plazas must be pretty bleak in January.

The Khan Shatyr entertainment center. Source: The Guardian

You mention the totalitarian aura of the city, and in your article, you talk about the dominance of Nazarbayev in controlling the design and construction of the city. Can you tell us more about his role in design and planning?

This is his baby, his project. He conceived the city, it was his idea to move the city, and he’s been intimately involved in the planning. Nothing big happens there without his stamp of approval. It even comes down to small details, like what kind of flowers they plant. He consults very closely with his architects, and he’s always throwing ideas out and sending his architects on these frantic scrambles to figure out what he wants. A lot of the major buildings, like the Palace of Peace and Harmony, were his ideas. He said, "We need a pyramid," and so they built a pyramid. The same is true with Baiterek, which in some ways is the most distinctive building. It looks like something out of the Martian Chronicles, and the chief architect says that Nazarbayev drew the design for this on a paper napkin. He is the unchallenged authoritarian leader of Kazakhstan.

It sounds like Nazarbayev is unchallenged in terms of the design of the city. Is there any challenge to his rule in Astana?

There is political opposition, but Nazarbayev is relatively popular. The economy has done well after a terrible period in the 1990s following the collapse of Soviet rule. There is a middle class and a sense of growing opportunity. The discussions are really about what happens after him, given that he’s already in his 70s. There is not an obvious successor in place, and democratic institutions are pretty rudimentary. There is a lot of enthusiasm in Astana, but there is an undercurrent of nervousness about what happens next and about whether this city and pace is sustainable.

Astana's population has more than doubled in the last 10 years. Can you tell us more about the urban planning that went into making the capital what it is today? How are they accommodating such a rapid population increase?

The short answer is: with difficulty. There’s no question that when they shifted the capital there in 1997 – it happened almost overnight – there was a very difficult teething period. They had these big government ministries thrown up in a hurry and not enough places for people to live. So there were a lot of people living in government dormitories and crammed into apartments, while their families still lived in Almaty. Government employees would stay in Astana during the week and go home on Friday night. It was very much a commuter culture for the first decade. That is changing, because residential construction has started to catch up. It’s becoming a healthier environment, and there are more families moving up there. People do talk about the lack of housing, though it seems to be improving.

New housing construction. Source: Jan-Peter Lamke

Besides housing, what other challenges does Astana face as a rapidly growing city?

There are environmental challenges, especially water. Astana does have a river that runs through it but there are a lot of demands on it. That will be a constraint to growth. During the Soviet era, Astana and the surrounding area was an agricultural center, so there was a lot of intensive farming that depleted the soil. They are doing a lot to try and hold the soil in place; they have big dust storms at times. I don’t know how successful they’ll be long-term, because the soil is saline, and there is a limited water supply.

They definitely have some growing pains. When you build a city in haste, some of the construction is shoddy. There is a Potemkin quality to some of the buildings. I stayed in an apartment building when I was there, and the elevator was always broken, and the roof leaked every time it rained. But many buildings are not like this. They acknowledge that some of the initial work was shoddy; they’re trying to slow things down and do it right now.

Despite the challenges, Astana has changed drastically in appearance and national importance in the last two decades. What do you think Astana will look like in 20 years?

In some ways it’s possible to extrapolate from what’s there now — the heart of the new city is pretty much completed. All of the main government buildings are in place. Now you see more of an emphasis on residential construction. But I think the feeling that you get in the central part of Astana, with these colorful buildings and dramatic sight lines, is the effect they’re aiming for and will preserve going forward. It’s not a finished city by any means – no city is truly finished – but in terms of establishing the style and signature, I think they’re done with that phase. Now it’s about livability, schools, housing, roads — the less glamorous and equally essential parts of the city. They’ve been quite successful in making a statement. Whether it succeeds as a city over the long term, no one can say yet.

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The Language of Space

by Andrew Wade

Coastline in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Source: Jeddah on Twitter

Cities may be seen as systems that, at their best, foster symbiotic interactions and equitable transactions that efficiently distribute resources. To achieve this, planning spaces that enable encounters among individuals to take place is paramount. The discipline of urban design recognizes the importance of these factors, but it has typically failed to develop a common template to address them in a consistent way.

To fill this gap, London-based strategic consultants Space Syntax are leading the foray into evidence-based planning and design, based on the idea that "each place has a unique spatial signature." They believe that this signature can be read through mathematical modelling of connectivity and pedestrian movement through buildings and open public spaces. This not only tests hypotheses explaining existing variation in security and mobility within urban areas, but also provides hard data for design proposals. With this tool, urban designers can test the efficiency of various spatial layouts by obtaining an accurate estimate of the interactions they would encourage or inhibit.

Axial Map of London. Source: Space Syntax

Space Syntax is taking this model into new territory with projects in informal settlements and marketplaces in cities such as Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Strategic planning proposals are more complex in such informal or "unplanned" contexts. This demands a more hesitant approach  one that recognizes that any system of analysis, and certainly one based on lines of sight and movement, only captures one of many layers in the urban palimpsest. Space Syntax's model can, however, be a new window into appreciating the underlying logic of informality.

In many instances, cities such as Jeddah have developed with residents adapting built form and public space  incrementally, enhancing mobility, connectivity and interaction outside of formal planning mechanisms. The point of tension comes when cities with such a rich history are subject to high levels of injected capital and rising land values  the conditions that spur rapid change and mega-development proposals. In these instances, the work of Space Syntax can not only highlight the inherent spatial logic that has developed informally through citizen participation, but also predict the ill effects of despatialized development complexes before they are built. Now the question remains whether such technical methods of analysis can be applied in the Global South with a critical understanding of society as well as space. Without this, appropriate interventions will remain elusive.

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Civic Commons: Frank Lloyd Wright and a Jail

by Min Li Chan

The Marin County Civic Center in the city of San Rafael, Calif., is a striking sight. At once stunning and curious, it was the hyper-modern backdrop to the 1997 sci-fi film Gattaca. For the architecture enthusiast, this National Historic Landmark and UNESCO Heritage List nominee is most recognizably the work of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright near the end of his career. Just as much of Wright's work aspires to harmonize the man-made with its environs, this brilliant, gold structure was designed to "melt into [California's] sunburnt hills." Even as Wright's rare take on a government building embraces the lush hillside, the Civic Center ultimately breaks from the hilltop in a golden, sky-piercing spire and pillars, as well as horizontal lines festooned with geometric shapes.

For the visitor who stumbles upon the immediate neighborhood of the Marin County Civic Center on a Sunday morning, its buildings and spaces, taken together, unexpectedly represent both the joys and challenges of an operating society. At its heart is the Civic Center, administrative seat of the local government. Nearby there is a hall for arts and performance events, as well as a farmer's market brimming with fresh local produce and gourmet food for a largely affluent population, along with informal opportunities for concerned individuals and activists to talk to passersby about a range of issues.

Then, visible just beyond the grounds of the farmer's market and recessed into a hill: the Marin County Jail.

Source: AECOM

According to the firm AECOM, its design of the Marin County Jail seems to take on some of the principles of Wright's Civic Center:
The project adjoins Marin County’s hall of justice and Civic Center, a national landmark designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. To preserve the character of Wright’s architecture, the facility is recessed into the hillside. The facility consists of 222 medium-security, direct supervision cells arranged in six pods, or clusters. Unique design features include the use of gray water for flushing and landscaping, and the elimination of cell windows. All natural light is provided by skylights and clear lights in the cells. Pod configurations include three general population male pods of 41 cells each, one general population female pod of 35 cells, one pod of 14 protective custody and 14 administration segregation cells, and one medical/mental health pod of 36 cells.
This convergence — of the governing and the governed; the free and the incarcerated; the legislative, judicial and market-driven — brings into relief the vicissitudes of civic life. It reminds the observant visitor not to forget those living at the periphery of our daily lives. Perhaps this setup hearkens back to a time when most cities were much smaller and more observable — a time in which we may have been more aware of the interplay between the state, markets and civil society.

Credits: Photos by Min Li Chan unless otherwise noted in the captions.

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Class and Race at Carnival

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

View of the Carnival party in Salvador in Bahia, Brazil. Source: De Brasil para el Mundo

It's Carnival time. This is when millions leave their worries behind and go with the flow of the world's largest collective parties. Brazil's Carnival events are the most notorious. While the most famous one is in Rio de Janeiro, cities in the north of the country celebrate differently. In Salvador, in the state of Bahia, Carnival is less about costumes and more about music. The party lasts six days — from Feb. 16 to Feb. 22 this year — and it all happens on the city streets.

The parade in Salvador is dominated by the trios elétricos, densely decorated trucks with music celebrities from Bahia playing all night along the carnival route. This tradition was started by two musicians, Dodo and Osmar, in the 1950s. Following trucks are the blocos, people who paid to be inside the cordao, or area around the trio elétrico. Unlike Rio's Carnival, where different social groups and classes gather in the "Sambodromo" and street parties, participation in Salvador's parade is exclusive. It discriminates against those who cannot afford the cost of being part of a bloco; the cordao has become a socio-economic division.

The bloco Ile-Aiye parading in Salvador. Source: Osbastidores

Salvador's Carnival is not only about the massive party. This time of year is also about using public space to celebrate the origins of the great majority of its inhabitants. Some of the most interesting blocos are the "afro-blocos," which aim to recognize the Afro-Brazilian community and their African roots and music. Ile Aiye and Olodum are the best known. Another key expression of this is groups playing afoxê, a genre of music following the tradition of candomblé and its African roots. The first afoxê demonstration took place at Carnival in 1885, three years before slavery was abolished in Brazil.

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Going Underground in Mumbai

by George Carothers

Source: George Carothers

During my first visit to Bombay Underground, a community library, bookshop and exhibition space in Mumbai's trendy Bandra neighborhood, I was led through a gateway into an apartment complex, then through a small construction site and around a corner. There, in a small garage, was a hidden world. The walls were splattered with images of revolution. The atmosphere was somewhere between an art gallery and philosopher’s office.

Bombay Underground, officially located at Garage No. 5, Luisa Apartments, is a space for “art, expression and creative social exchange,” where visitors can engage with an exciting collection of literature, art and ideas. The project was initiated by Mumbai-based artist Himanshu S, a veteran of Mumbai's art circuit and familiar face at URBZ, who combines artistic installations, participation, activism and teaching. Bombay Underground is part of WETHEPPL, a collective of artists, designers and thinkers who conduct "people-centered" creative experiments through fashion, creative installations and festivals, among other things.

Considering the limited amount of space, Bombay Underground has a substantial collection of books, newspaper clippings and other literature for a variety of ages and audiences. The books have been sourced from Mumbai's famous but increasingly marginalized street bookwalas, who are found on the sides of roads throughout the city, surrounded by blue tarpaulins and mountains of classic and contemporary literature. As Mumbai's streets and buildings undergo a process of "world-class" upgrading, the bookwalas, like many others occupying "informal spaces" in the city, have found themselves pushed aside. The collection at Bombay Underground — both library and bookshop — helps further its philosophy of amplifying connections between “art, culture, ideology and power.”

Source: George Carothers

Aside from being an interesting place to visit, Bombay Underground is a breath of fresh air compared to other "creative" spaces in Bandra and other parts of Mumbai. Located in a neighborhood peppered with exclusive clubs, high-end shopping and London-priced restaurants, Bombay Underground reinforces the connections in a world dominated by dislocations, both social and physical.

Source: Bombay Underground

While many neighborhoods in Mumbai are undergoing physical and social "purification," separating those who belong from those who do not, Bombay Underground is attempting to instill cohesion, solidarity and harmony in the imaginations of local residents.

Bombay Underground also engages in a variety of mobile activities around the city, including a traveling book stall that typically pops up on Hill Road in Bandra on weekends. If you are ever in the neighborhood, stop by Bombay Underground and send warm regards from Polis.

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Mohsen Mostafavi on Ecological Urbanism

"Wheatfield —A Confrontation" by Agnes Denes, 1982). Source: Stroom

"We need to view the fragility of the planet and its resources as an opportunity for speculative design innovations rather than as a form of technical legitimation for promoting conventional solutions. By extension, the problems confronting our cities and regions would then become opportunities to define a new approach. Imagining an urbanism that is other than the status quo requires a new sensibility — one that has the capacity to incorporate and accommodate the inherent conflictual conditions between ecology and urbanism. This is the territory of ecological urbanism."

Mohsen Mostafavi, from "Ecological Urbanism," 2010

This is part of a collection of quotes related to cities. They don't necessarily reflect our views, just topics of interest. We welcome you to add others.

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Barcelona (Re)photographed

by Melissa García Lamarca

Rephotographed panoramic view of Barcelona from Monjuïc. Source: Barcelona Centre Universitari

An exhibit recently opened at the Barcelona Photographic Archive that uses photography as a tool to understand urban change through time. Titled "Working across Time: Rephotographing Images of Place," the exhibit is the culmination of a series of workshops and a conference exploring "rephotography" organized by the Archive and Arqueologia del Punt de Vista with American photographer Mark Klett.

Rephotographed Via Laietana. Source: Melissa García Lamarca

Rephotography is a technique in which a scene previously photographed is shot again to show the passage of time. The process involves thorough research and a selection of historic material to enable someone to place the camera exactly as the previous photographer did. Rephotography thus mediates between the original photographer, his/her successor and the viewer who observes them both.

The "Resistance and Repression" exhibit appeared in Plaça Catalunya during Fall 2010. Source: Melissa García Lamarca

This exhibit reminded me of another way we can use photography to interact with time and space, on a different scale and with an outright political tone. In late 2010, the "Resistance and Repression" exhibit in Barcelona placed twelve life-sized photographs of acts of repression and resistance under Franco's dictatorship across the city, where they had occurred. This  enabled the viewer to engage with these historic displays of power and his/her current experience of the place.

Rephotographed Via Laietana. Source: Melissa García Lamarca

Although less interactive, the rephotography exhibit nonetheless illustrates fascinating changes in Barcelona’s urban fabric since the 17th century. It is on display until May 19 at the Barcelona Photography Archive.

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Podcast: A Beloved Boston Food Truck

by Alexa Mills

Source: CoLab Radio

Love at (and for) the Food Truck” is a conversation with Tiffany Pham, third-generation owner of the Momogoose food truck in Boston. Tiffany shares stories of romance, competition and service (free of charge at Occupy Boston). We appreciate the role of food trucks in urban street life. Here's a chance to learn more about their world.

The Polis Podcast on CoLab Radio is a series of recorded discussions, debates and interviews on a wide range of urban topics.

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Bi-City Biennale on Urban Transformation in China

by Natalia Echeverri

The 2011 Hong Kong & Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism \ Architecture, which started in December, is in its final week at two Shenzhen locations. In its third rotation, this show was curated by Terrence Riley. As expressed in the Biennale's mobius logo, the exhibition reflects on the endless and intertwined relationship between architecture and cities. It brings together local and international architects, urbanists and thinkers and gathers an international array of projects — from Ghana and Bahrain to the Netherlands and China.

The Stock Exchange by OMA/ Rem Koolhaas. Source: szhkbiennale

"Shenzhen Builds" and "8 Urban Projects" exhibit contemporary projects that express emerging urban and architectural models in China. Projects include Shenzhen's Airport terminal by Fuksas, Shenzhen's Stock Exchange by OMA/Rem Koolhaas, the Quinhai masterplan by Field Operations, a masterplan in Hangzhou by Steven Holl and Shenzhen's own "Urban Eye" project by OMA and Urbanus. These projects exemplify China's continued interest in architecture, the importance of branding in city-building and new formulas for ecological planning. All of them showcase the optimism and bullishness of one face of China's growth.

Informal China exhibition wall. Source: szhkbiennale

"Informal China," curated by Jiang Jun and Su Yunsheng, covers the wall opposite from Koolhaas and Holl and shows a very different side of China's urbanism. Building on the work of Urban China Magazine, the exhibit is described "as a magazine 'remixed' in a form of wallpaper." Through text, photos, archival images, diagrams and figures, Jun and Yunshen explore society architecture, politics, and economics, unrolling a compressed but compelling history of China's urbanization. This is a history torn between the ad-hoc and the planned, between the formal and the informal, "between systems of control and laissez-faire."

Blowup of Informal China exhibition wall. Source: Natalia Echeverri

Counterpart Cities Exhibition. Source: Milkxhake, courtesy of the University of Hong Kong

Perhaps following the Biennale's "Bi-City" theme most closely, "Counterpart Cities" explores the relationship between Hong Kong and Shenzhen in their shared context of the Pearl River Delta. The exhibit curators — Jonathan Solomon, acting head of Hong Kong University's architecture department, and Professor Dorothy Tang — asked each of six participating teams to envision three systems of interdependency over the next 50 years: potable water, port infrastructure and wetland ecosystems. Teams were asked to reflect on ways in which each system may impact urbanism in the future, especially amid sea-level change, population growth and political reunification. The visions of the six teams —which were split between practitioners and educators from Hong Kong and Shenzhen — veer between poetic practicality and grandiose subtlety.

Counterpart Cities Exhibition. PRD SEA: Pearl Rivel Delta Special Ecological Area, model. Team Leader Stefan Al, Team Members: Jason Carlow and Ivan Valin. Source: Chris Zhang

"Counterpart Cities" opens in Hong Kong on Feb. 18. Other exhibits open in Kowloon Park on Feb. 15 under the theme "The Tri-Ciprocal City: The Time, The Place, The People."

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On View: ‘The Empty Plaza’

by Vivien Park

Source: Coco Fusco

Political events and public protests are often held in large communal spaces such as town squares and plazas. But what do these places hold and represent after the public leaves? In "The Empty Plaza/La Plaza," artist Coco Fusco depicts an empty Plaza de la Revolución in Havana, Cuba, as a meditative space of revolutionary promise and memory. Presented mainly as a documentary of Fusco's passage through the civic space, cinematic scenes of architectural details occasionally intersect with vintage footage of post-revolutionary Cuba. The video is narrated in Spanish, with text by acclaimed Cuban journalist Yoani Sanchez describing what is being shown, and what isn't.

Coco Fusco is an interdisciplinary artist and writer. She has performed, lectured, exhibited and curated internationally since 1988. Her first solo show at Alexander Grey Associates will be on view from Feb. 22 to Mar. 31.

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How Should Architects Approach Urban Informality?

by Andrew Wade

Aerial photograph of Chimalhuacán, Mexico. Source: arquitectura 911sc

On Feb. 9, the Architectural Association in London held a symposium on urban informality titled “Design as Political Engagement.” Hosted by the Informal City Research Cluster, the event drew speakers who gained prominence through their extensive architectural work in Latin America and critical reflection on their practice through academic channels. The event did not divert the spotlight of design operations toward urban informality so much as intensify its nascent focus, amplifying a tide of attention that has recently included exhibits at MoMA and the U.N. headquarters in New York. Architects Josè Castillo, Felipe Hernández, Jorge Jauregui, Franklin Lee and Alfredo Brillembourg presented their work and perspectives and discussed the inherently political nature of design.

Architects have engaged with informality for at least the past 40 years, since John Turner’s research in Lima, Peru, highlighted the capacities of the urban poor to house themselves. But the topic has taken on a new urgency and magnetism in recent years, in part due to the urbanization of the planet.

The speakers saw informality not as the negation of planning but as a variegated form of it — a resource to be shaped and directed, not eradicated in the ethos of tabula rasa planning. However, within such recognition, there is a tension between isolated, site-specific interventions and the scalability and wider potency of such practices. For instance, the practice of “urban acupuncture” implies the existence of a wider urban organism in which it is strategically employed to deepen connectivity, mobility, responsiveness and sustainable growth. The challenge in such cases lies in the successful transcription of micro-interventions into coordinated strategies for development that address the complex realities of urban space and society.

Rendering of the bus rapid transit system in Neza-Chimalhuacán, Mexico, with integrated bicycle lanes. Source: arquitectura 911sc

The trend toward architecture and design consciously re-engaging with social and political realities has the positive effect of diverting attention to the multiplicity of factors, scales and connections at play in urban development. Since the social ills of Modernist design became apparent in the disjuncture between form-making and lived realities, architecture and spatial thinking have been noticeably absent from issues of development planning and poverty reduction strategies. Thankfully, there is now a strong case — with implemented projects as supporting evidence — to argue that architects can and should be integral to such planning, albeit with an expanded toolkit and broadened contextual understanding.

Orphanage and sports field underneath a highway overpass in Caracas, Venezuela. Source: Urban-Think Tank

Despite these advances, a true confluence between design and development has yet to be found. Entry points are either seated firmly in development discourse, with a dash of undercooked spatial critique, or vice-versa, with architects continuing to distance themselves and their built products from the communities they must engage. Design in informal settlements tends to simply expand the target market of architectural products to include the swelling informal settlements of cities in the Global South. Instead, designers could embrace the complexity and uncertainty inherent in these locales and focus on linking their buildings to existing uses of space.

In impoverished communities, how can spatial interventions not only provide a stronger physical fabric but also transform inequalities of influence, income, mobility and the future production of space? Sharpening the focus on design’s engagement with political realities is a leap in the right direction. But rather than using this moment to elect the new starchitects of "favela chic," architects would be wise to work more modestly with the public sector, private sector and community groups in order to inject an essential dose of spatial expertise into well-intentioned but often dislocated plans for urban development.

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Planning in Kabul: An Interview with Pietro Calogero

by Hector Fernando Burga

In central Kabul, new businesses stand beside the historic Deh Afghanan ("village of the Afghans") settlement.

For many of us, it is difficult to imagine Afghanistan without thinking of the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, ethnic divisions and political upheaval. The American invasion of Afghanistan has dominated our political imagination since 9/11. Originally considered a necessary incursion to halt al-Qaida, the invasion quickly turned into a project of nation building. More than a decade later, questions remain about the justification and outcome of this intervention.

In 2008, Pietro Calogero arrived in Kabul to do fieldwork for his dissertation in City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley. He spent the year studying planning, urban informality and the introduction of international development practices as part of the American deployment. He currently teaches urban studies at San Francisco State University. He shared his perspective in an interview with Polis:

How do you do fieldwork in such difficult conditions?

I think that in any fieldwork, trust is a crucial issue, but this is especially important in a place of elevated violence and uncertainty. I had an advantage because I have known members of the Afghan-Californian community since 1987, so already had connections within a society that relies on character, references and reputation (this is the case in Afghanistan just as much as the U.S.).

But I also made a strategic move: I affiliated with the Engineering Faculty at Kabul University, to teach planning at the same time that I would be researching planning. That made it very easy to be completely transparent about my position and my agenda: both at the transnational and very local scale, I was identified as an academic interested in researching how Kabul was being planned. Becoming an instructor at Kabul University had two other unexpected benefits. First of all, I could compel suspicious agencies to meet with me, because I would arrange site-visits for my students. The municipality was very suspicious about Westerners — and for good reason. But they wanted to argue the case for their style of planning to the next generation of Afghans. The second unexpected benefit of teaching at the local university was the tremendous respect that I got from Afghans at all levels, because I was teaching the next generation.

The Jemal Mena district in southwestern Kabul was shelled flat during the civil war (1992-1996) and is being rebuilt, mostly by Shi'ites. The mosque in the center is one of the major Shi'ite mosques in the city.

What did your research teach you about planning in Kabul?

I arrived in Kabul immediately after working for nine years in the San Francisco Bay Area. My immediate impression was that Kabul was being planned. That reaction clashed sharply with the reactions I got from both Afghans and international aid workers. Both groups seemed to hold an idealized view of how planning worked "in the West," whereas I had seen how chaotic, inconsistent and corrupt the planning of San Francisco is.

So the first thing I learned was what Jennifer Robinson has said so eloquently: Kabul in particular, and cities in the Global South generally, are judged by a double standard against Western cities. Is there a problem with corruption in the planning of Kabul? Yes — but that means it is like American cities, not unlike American cities. Second, I did find a lot of political disruption in Kabul. The city has been occupied by foreign superpowers in two separate decades (1980-1989, 2001-2012), which compromises the sovereignty of the national and municipal regimes, both of which are situated in this capital city.

There are profoundly different expectations about the meaning and methods of planning, from Soviet/Robert Moses-style, command-and-control planning to a more neoliberal, profiteering and generally ineffective form of communicative planning. Trying to sort through this complex situation was challenging. Eventually I settled on political rationalities as the lens to use on this situation. But the choice of that lens was driven by what I observed in the field.

Municipal engineers prepare a plan for southwestern Kabul. Government planners integrate new infrastructure with irregular settlement, preserving as much as possible.

What kind of ethical challenges did you encounter as both a researcher and practitioner working in Kabul?

One of the primary ethical dilemmas was the idea of building my academic career on the backs of extremely poor people. I was pretty blunt about this problem and presented it to Afghans as well as the internationals I worked with. Foreign consultants get paid very well in Kabul — often $250,000 per year — and I find that unconscionable. I tried to get paid as little as I could afford and still be there, on the rationale that I was being paid in career development. As long as we all understood that, I found that interviewees were much more comfortable talking to me.

While teaching at Kabul University, I also had to be very sensitive to the quid pro quo of my role. I had 12 students in the fifth-year architecture class. As an American, I could open doors at the U.N. and other foreign agencies and get my students into a position to request job interviews. I got major, career-starting jobs for four of my 12 students, and we all understood that as fulfillment of one of my core obligations as a foreign instructor.

A professional scribe drafts a legal document for two elders, while a female relative looks on. The sidewalk in front of the Ministry of Education was known as a place to hire scribes before it was walled off to prevent terrorist attacks in 2007.

What lessons that you learned in Kabul can you bring to the U.S.? For example in terms of housing, property ownership or planning?

I learned two important lessons. First, democracy is a means, not an end. If there is any sort of general political claim around the world, it is that people desire government accountability at both the national and the local level. As Americans, we tend to collapse democracy and accountability together as the same thing; in practice, the former is only a strong incentive towards the latter, and technical democracy is no guarantee against regime impunity. This is a problem for poor Afghans in relation to an urban elite in Kabul and for all Afghans in relation to the Americans occupying their city. I have become much more committed to the idea that regimes must be held accountable by any sort of effective means, and I have become alarmed about how ostensible democracy can be subverted and perverted away from promoting accountability. One of the greatest expressions of this failure at the urban level is the persistence of urban informality in democratic societies.

The second lesson is the idea of property rights as human rights. In American jurisprudence, property is typically described as a "bundle of rights" whose inter-relationships are under constant negotiation. In Marxist analysis, these are generally grouped into "use rights" and "exchange rights," with the assumption that "use rights" align implicitly with human rights and the overused buzz-phrase "right to the city." I think we need to be more careful about that analysis. Some of the "exchange rights" of property claims are a means to realistic access to livelihoods. Whereas Marxists might be skeptical about the idea of wealth generation, my skepticism is more about confiscatory wealth generation. So I am very concerned about Hernando de Soto's advocacy of extending the "free" de-regulated market to informal housing, but my concern is that urban villagers retain some right to security of tenure, as well as access to income in the city. To make this argument, I think I need to reject the "use right"/"exchange right" dichotomy and evaluate what it means to call property rights a human right.

Credits: Photos by Pietro Calogero.

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Resisting Occupation

by Peter Sigrist

Source: CBC

My support for the Occupy movement has changed. I still find it inspiring that people around the world are prioritizing democracy and human wellbeing over profit maximization. My reservations are centered on the idea of "occupying" public space.

The name strikes me as discourteous, calling up associations with military occupation. And despite all the eloquent words about tents as symbols that connect the movement with people in squatter settlements around the world, and the need for urban agoras where dissent can be staged, it isn't really fair to take over public space indefinitely, making it impossible for others to use it as they did before.

It's time for a different approach — one that demonstrates an improvement that resonates for people outside the movement. Convincing the public is essential, and the Occupy strategy doesn't offer a compelling vision. Camping in public squares draws valuable attention, but doesn't present a working alternative to the present situation. In the Occupy camps, people have accomplished remarkable feats of organized public service; the capacity exists to turn them into more practical ways of living.

Instead of trying to articulate a common demand, perhaps we can just keep developing and modeling public service that attracts, rather than alienates, those who aren't currently part of the movement.

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Andrei Goncharov on ‘Crowdsourced Moscow’

by Peter Sigrist

Andrei Goncharov presenting at the Strelka Institute last July. Source: Strelka

In a post on modeling open source cities, Polis featured a video about "Crowdsourced Moscow 2012: A Public Space Game" by Andrei Goncharov. However, we didn't include much detail on the project and its creator. A recent article in Planning and Technology Today looks at Crowdsourced Moscow more closely, and we've conducted a brief interview with Andrei on his work, related initiatives, Vladimir Putin's plan to build a park in the center of Moscow, and ideas for implementing technology-enabled approaches to participatory urban development.

Video introduction to Crowdsourced Moscow.

Former Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov. Source: Urban Christian

Andrei, how did you come up with the idea for Crowdsourced Moscow?

I was interested in participatory planning after growing up during the era of former mayor Yury Luzhkov, who majorly transformed the city through top-down and nontransparent measures. The idea crystallized through the collective work of a research team at the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design last year. We intended to find a way to spread information about possible mechanisms for governing public space, using data on existing practices in Moscow and abroad.

An overview of "Urbanflow: Building an Operating System for Everyday Life."

Based on this experience, what initiatives have you found most inspiring?

Many new developments in urban planning and citizen engagement have appeared here in the last year [including the reconstruction of Gorky Park and the Moscow Urban Forum]. The fact that they're not only private enterprises, but also government initiatives, makes me think that we're at a turning point. However, enticing visions of the future are still rare. Projects like NYC's Road Map for the Digital City and Urbanflow Helsinki, for example, allow people outside professional circles to participate in the discussion and develop new ideas.

News report on the history, removal and projected future of the Rossiya Hotel.

In light of Putin's recent decision to turn the site of the demolished Rossiya Hotel into a park, do you have any recommendations for approaching this project?

For me the most interesting question is not what the park should look like, but how to build something in the center of the city that is accepted by local citizens — how to set up a dialogue with the city. The park could be an opportunity to find a format for this dialogue. It might be easier to do this if the dialogue is not about a master plan that is defined once and forever, but rather a flexible set of rules that allow for continuous update of the territory based on citizens' feedback.

Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin. Source: БГ

What are some of the most important steps that municipal governments can take to approach the kind of civic engagement that you envision in Crowdsourced Moscow?

First they can facilitate input from local communities in planning decisions via online and offline platforms. Social media can be used to make activity transparent and create opportunities for public participation. I would also like to see high-quality data shared openly so that citizens can make informed decisions on the establishment and improvement of public amenities. People are calling for more democratic governance, and this is a good starting point.

Pro-democracy demonstration in Moscow on Dec. 24, 2011. Source: The Australian

For more information, you can visit Crowdsourced Moscow on Facebook or contact Andrei directly at goncharov at strelkainstitute dot com.

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