Trans-urbanism: Fiction or Reality?

In late November, V2 held a two-day symposium devoted to ’trans-urbanism’. ‘The city’s substance is hardly material/architectural anymore. Public squares, market places, the lay-out of the streets seems no longer relevant to how the city is experienced,’ the flyer announced. And though this statement was not the topic for discussion, a number of speakers wondered whether one could really speak about a new urbanism.

Architects, artists and researchers were asked to consider what methods might be developed and deployed to give form to new urbanism. According to Edward Soja (Professor of Planning at the University of California), physical segregation will increase if public managers relinquish control of urban planning. Further inequality between people will be the result, and this in turn will lead to further excesses. The lack of a sense of security will itself lead to further segregation. To halt this downward spiral, Soja advocates a form of regional planning that draws on the expertise of various disciplines. He would, if he had the power, exclude architects. Why? Because to him architects can only work at the scale of single buildings, while the city is more than a grouping of buildings. Architects should address the social dimension of their discipline: the development of quality, innovative and affordable social housing.

According to Soja there is a fundamental breakdown in communication between architects and the 'rest of the world'. The language spoken by architects, he continued, is becoming increasingly hermetic and can only be understood by fellow architects. After lectures by architect Lars Spuybroek and artist Christian Hübler (Knowbotic Research), a slightly shaken Scott Lash (Professor of Sociology at London University) remarked that both had given pretty 'wild performances'. His advice to them was to adopt a more restrained approach to their work. Coming from Lash, this was remarkable advice indeed, since he himself admits to being partial to some verbal fireworks.

Lash argued in his lecture that human contact is still important and will always remain so. Why else, he reasoned, would V2 spend so much money getting all these speakers to Rotterdam? And since the need for contact remains, people will continue to inhabit cities. An important development signalled by Lash is that social contact within various groups remains constant, while social contact between groups is decreasing. He saw a need to create space where contact between the various groups can take place and perhaps be bolstered. These are the possibilities that must give us hope, according to Lash. Architecture should no longer be symbolic but 'real'.

'If Soja's lecture could be turned on its head – 'yes' replaced by 'no' – you'd know my views and I could just go home.' Thus began Mark Wigley (Professor of Architecture, Colombia University) his lecture. For the sake of politeness, he declined to respond to the content of Soja's lecture. All he would say was that he disagreed completely with Soja and thought his views passé and old-fashioned. Ever since its inception, Wigley pointed out, the city has been an arena for excess, and this has never brought about its downfall. By that stage Soja had already left, so there was no prospect of an exchange between the two.

As Wigley sees it, architecture and planning parted company in the 1960s. The separation occurred because people were of the opinion that architects were only concerned with the object and made no real contribution to the more abstract field of planning. In Wigley's view, architects have been responsible for this misdemeanour. Many architects thought – and still think – that the city would disappear or would alter dramatically under the influence of developments in technology. Rather than thinking about the future of the city, architects try in vain to define what the city actually is. Architects, opined Wigley, see themselves as 'friendly aliens'. 'There's chaos on earth,' he continued, 'a spaceship lands, architect climbs out, gives the plan which will solve everything, and zoom he's gone.' The images produced by architects may have changed, but the words they use are the same as they were forty years ago, concluded Wigley.

Yet despite this observation, Wigley remains convinced of the positive contribution that architects, as providers of vision, could make to the planning process. As no clear answer to the question posed by V2 was offered, and since the very premises of the symposium was questioned, the symposium took a different direction. As Wigley himself noted, what was painful was the big difference in approach to complex issues by researchers on the one hand, and architects and artists on the other. The latter category of speakers had difficulty looking beyond the frame of their own screens. Even Rem Koolhaas, who has set up the AMO research division alongside OMA, didn't get any further than a slide-show of recent projects, among them the Guggenheim in Las Vegas and a marketing strategy for Wired magazine.