Unbeknownst to the average urban dweller, the 21st Century metropolis is on the cusp of cultural and civic decline. We have become passive bystanders watching the uncapped proliferation of megadevelopments, blissfully unaware of the evaporation of civic life that ensues. Commitment is a hot-potato for many; better to spectate and leave the urban transactions to ignorance than have to take responsibility for the awareness. In fact, urban awareness is censored (almost neutered) in most corners of the globe.
The problem of privatisation, with its all-encompassing grasp on the world economy is that it foreshadows a future of intensely insular conurbations and divisive boundaries. Such a future awaits any city which endorses the expansion of uncompromising bigness. From shelter to shell, complex morphologies to shopping complexes – globalised industry has accelerated into overdrive. Locked lobbies adorn streetscapes; unpunctured concrete and glass meet the boundary with unquestioned secrecy. Humanity is stacked in rigid glass shelves, relegated to a one-size-fits-all proprietary system. As cities continue to expand upward they seem to retreat ever further into themselves; insular programs swallowed whole by the exclusive and the institutional. The city of tomorrow exists not as systems but as a collection of laboratory glassware – instruments of power that conceal a cultural vacuity. The physical ascent of these inert sculptural objects mirrors the regression of its core social constituent: civic life.
Land has gained currency in more ways than one. What was once a commitment and an inheritance can now change hands in seconds (physical presence is optional). In some cities even social housing stock is available for purchase, complete with existing tenants who now face eviction instead of housing protection. Unwanted demographics are priced out of leafy suburbs and lease contracts; traces of the homeless and marginalised are erased in favour of gentrification. Urban renewal takes on a new meaning as the city is continually ‘cleared out’; those awaiting emergency housing struggle for shelter while, ironically, new apartments lie vacant.
Swiftly and surreptitiously, public parklands become golf courses, while unseen transactions render entire portions of the coastline inaccessible. Block by block, rough suburbs yield to reassuring developers promising greener pastures; vivid renders showing meticulous faith in the future down to the last furniture detail or unblemished urban plan. These are highly specific futures that utterly seduce, yet never quite materialise with the same level of transparency.
High-rise neighbours live closer than ever before, yet only meet bi-annually through an appointed body corporate committee. This reluctant proximity makes for a highly disjunctive (yet fully accepted) social experience.
With technological advancement comes great responsibility; mismanaged designs for convenience can isolate and insulate spaces for their occupants. Take the slick facade of a new office tower; sealed vitrines in the sky, privileging aerial views. All the sophisticated environmental controls in the world, and yet one can’t open a window to let in the breeze. Roller-blinds are then posthumously installed to the glazed walls in a counterintuitive bid to screen those inside from the intolerable glare. It is as though the perverse application of high technology has exempted architects from the fundamental criteria of climate-responsive design and the incompatible spaces that ensue.
The quietly unnerving thing is that we are now used to privatisation, and are thoroughly promoting it. Laissez-faire activity has become the backbone of performance and is now deemed a necessary vehicle for accelerated urban growth. Between planned and sponsored events there appears to be a slump. Our hard urban plazas stretch out like deserts waiting for programmatic relief, a symptom of public space’s increasing reliance on corporate entities for civic success. One might wonder about the influence of the profession on our studded park benches, blank walls, spiked fences and gated municipal zones. Where are architects while society queues for the next ticketed thirstquencher?
By this stage in the game we are well-conditioned, having been spoon-fed the norm of commercial dependence. The main course of urban development continues, building to an uneasy crescendo of equal parts uncertainty and indifference. What (and who) is allowed to exist in a fully privatised ecosystem? What role do architects play as negotiators between these fractured mechanisms that run the city, and those who live in/under it?
Age of Agency
At some point the public/ private scales will become so imbalanced that the existing modes of practice will demand critical introspection and unconventional readdress. Architects need no longer be cogs in the chain of dictated change. We are citizens of action – as academic and architect, Mel Dodd suggests, ‘double agents’ – with a hand in recalibrating our cities from the bottom up or middle-out.
Amid heightened civil unrest and distortions in climate conditions, architects are in a prime position to engage, propose and prospect for tactical gaps and opportunities. Skilled in inter-party negotiation and competition experience, architects for the ‘common good’ find themselves in vital pro-active roles:spokespeople, reconcilers and mediators of assets (physical and financial); urban brokers on behalf of the public. Such interventions are inevitably political, arduous and largely self-funded; many might have to forgo glittering careers on the private side as society is polarised. Architects become field surgeons that pinpoint critical moments in the saturated superblock topography, breaking down grossly unchecked scale deformations and retrofitting existing urban framework for equitable access. In order to future-proof the 99% from the reliance on depleting fuels, basement research labs will invest energies in the redevelopment of primitive technologies and mechanical details that continue to work despite the increasingly frequent power outages and utility cuts.
In this unsettling (yet altogether plausible) utopian future, practice is used in the most operative sense of the word. Through direct efforts from the design profession, public architecture becomes a series of ad-hoc service infrastructures; a flexible conduit that sustains and empowers the existence of a mass minority.