The Spring 2011 issue of MAS Context is NETWORK. In architectural terms, networks have two basic meanings, both mild challenges to the orthodoxies of the profession. "Network" refers to the idea that buildings bring people (or data, or traffic) together, that buildings aren't standalone objects. Also, the term "network" is shorthand for "architects need to get out more."
The unexpected heroes in the debate about networks and architecture are Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, two paragons of the building-as-sacred-object school of thought. Ethel Baraona and Cesar Reyes interview Beatriz Colomina about how Le Corbusier and Mies used the media to promulgate the idea of the modern. She says,
Often people don’t even realize that the Mies we all know is basically produced through magazines and publications. His five famous projects (the two skyscrapers, the brick house, the concrete house, etc) are really paper architecture, produced within the context of some international exhibitions and are quite different from the projects he was building at the same time (the Mosler House, the Eichstaedt House) that were really conservative. All of the modern architects were involved in one way or another with the publishing industry.
The division between "paper architecture" and built buildings, between structures and the commentary on those structures, breaks down in Modernist architecture. Jacques Derrida regarded architecture as a network of metaphors. Writing comes before, during, and after the design and construction of a building. The link between Modernism and writing is clarified in Ioanna Angelidou's discussion of contemporary Japanese architecture. Le Corbusier was a major figure in twentieth-century Japanese architecture primarily because he wrote so much. His writings provided rhetorical ammunition for Japanese advocates of Modernist architecture. Later, in the post-real estate boom period, architecture magazines have been crucial venues for keeping design ideas alive when there are few buildings to construct.
For architect Akihisa Hirata, the media is a way for young architects to come out from behind their computers and engage with larger social issues.
Architecture in Japan is not really social. For instance, it is very rare to see architects’ comments in newspapers or other everyday media outside the profession, the one that common people have access to. Scientists reach out to a broader audience and make public appearances in Japan and I very much hope that eventually architecture will also gain such an audience and influence by its own means. I believe architecture is very much related to social issues and people’s everyday [lives], so why not have access to the media that refer to them?
The media is only one kind of network through which architecture comes to be defined. MAS Context editor Iker Gil interviews Sarah Rich and Nicola Twilley of the Foodprint project. Rich and Twilley see the city as a vast food distribution network. They are particularly interested in gaps within the network. Food deserts, for example, appear in sections of the city that are underserved by chain grocery stores who fear they can't sustain profit margins there.
Wal-Mart is also interested in gaps in the commodity distribution network, and Wal-Mart isn't afraid of anything. Jesse LeCavalier chronicles Wal-Mart's siege of Vermont. The state refused to allow the chain in its territory, so Wal-Mart placed stores on in neighboring states (sales-tax free New Hampshire was a favorite) so that by the time Vermonters finally relented and allowed Wal-Mart in, the company already had most of the state covered.
Networks, then, are a way of extending architecture across territories. Buildings can also pull together widely dispersed economic activities, giving them concrete form and plugging them into the global economy. Jiang Jun reports from Dafen, a village on the outskirts of Shenzhen Special Economic Zone in China. Dafen is a classic one-industry town, but with a specialization so narrow that it could only work by being connected to a global distribution network. The workers of Dafen are experts in hand-crafting copies of oil paintings. Photographer Haibo Yu depicts the workshops as scenes of bohemian squalor. The workers appear every bit as focused and exhausted as the artists who originally created the paintings.
In Dafen we also see the outer boundary of the architectural network. Workers are pulled from the undifferentiated masses of rural workers into a node within the vast network called "Made in China." The juxtapositions Le Corbusier liked to create—an automobile placed before the Parthenon, for instance—come to life in Dafen's juxtaposition of art and mass production, industrial force and the knowledge economy. As anyone who works with networks for any length of time knows, all kinds of strange and fascinating relationships appear deep in the network.
In their new book Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next, John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay argue that the aerotropolis, or airport-city, is the model for "the way we'll live next." An airport, they argue, is a new kind of human settlement that "represents the logic of globalization made flesh in the form of cities." Just as many nineteenth-century cities such as Chicago were formed by railroads, twenty-first-century "instant cities" are formed by global air travel. Cities will be mass produced in Asia and the Middle East. Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG explains in his introduction to his interview with Greg Lindsay,
"Each [new city] will be built faster, better, and more cheaply than the ones that came before," Aerotropolis suggests: whole cities created by the warehousing demands of international shipping firms. In fact, they are "cities that shipping and handling built," Lindsay and Kasarda quip—urbanism in the age of Amazon Prime.
The world of the aerotropolis, then, is a world where "a metropolitan area's position in the airline network determine[s] its employment growth and not, as commonly supposed, the other way around." Or, as a representative from FedEx explains to Greg Lindsay, "Not every great city will be an aerotropolis, but those cities which are an aerotropolis will be great ones."
In this exchange, Lindsay and Manaugh describe the aerotropolis as a kind of corporate city-state.
BLDGBLOG: In this context, you point out in the book that Kasarda “proposes building cities by corporations for corporations, guaranteeing their survival by tailoring them to clients’ specifications—beginning with the airport.” The city is not an expression of human culture, so to speak, but a kind of 3-dimensional graph of economic activity.
Lindsay: Yes, the aerotropolis—as Kasarda preaches it and as has been implemented in places like Dubai and elsewhere—is less about urbanity than repurposing the city as a “machine for living,” to quote Le Corbusier.
The aerotropolis is basically an economic engine. Planners are looking for ways to make these cities as frictionless as possible in terms of doing business—which means that, in places like Dubai, the tax-free zones and enclaves such as Dubai Media City and Dubai Internet City and the Jebel Ali Free Zone can basically wage an economic war of all against all when it comes to competing cities. They were designed as weapons for fighting trade wars, and their charter—to be duty-free and hyper-efficient—reflects this. So it’s interesting in the sense that these cities are infrastructure-as-weaponry, which Rem Koolhaas wrote about in “The Generic City”—“City X builds an airport to kill City Y.” They’re competing rather than complementing.
China’s cities, in particular, are building infrastructure not as a way to improve urban living across these larger regions, but basically so that they can do battle against one another for attention and investment.
At a certain level Aerotropolis is an updating of the concept of the generic city. And like Koolhaas's essay, the line between description and prescription gets a little blurred, as this woman intuited.
Actually, the idea didn't come from an architect. In fact, architects and architectural critics have largely panned the idea. Rob Holmes at the Mammoth blog says the aerotropolis is "more a symbol of globalization than it is the ultimate instantiation of globalization." Kazys Varnelis of Columbia University points out that air travel and shipping won't seem so frictionless once oil hits $150 a barrel.
The aerotropolis is the brain child of John Kasarda, a business professor. To be precise, Kasarda is the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship and Director of the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School.
What people are picking up on--without reading the book--is the apparently cheerful way Kasarda regards the new instant cities as collaborations between multi-national corporations and autocratic regimes. Is the aerotropolis a dreary post-urban vision or an excellent investment opportunity?
The concept of the aerotropolis originally made the rounds of business-oriented publications such as Fast Company. Chambers of Commerce have latched onto the idea. For instance, there's the Detroit Region Aerotropolis, "America's premier location for trade and business expansion."
Detroit was a city built by and for auto companies. And look how Motor City turned out.
Here's what's coming to a cineplex near you this year:
[F]our adaptations of comic books. One prequel to an adaptation of a comic book. One sequel to a sequel to a movie based on a toy. One sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a movie based on an amusement-park ride. One prequel to a remake. Two sequels to cartoons. One sequel to a comedy. An adaptation of a children's book. An adaptation of a Saturday-morning cartoon. One sequel with a 4 in the title. Two sequels with a 5 in the title. One sequel that, if it were inclined to use numbers, would have to have a 7 1/2 in the title.
This dreary list was compiled by Mark Harris in his GQ article, "The Day the Movies Died." What killed Hollywood? Top Gun did.
According Harris, the Tom Cruise vehicle was made to be marketed. The entire story could be seen in the trailer. Going to the theater just meant filling in the blanks with action. The same formula now applies to almost every movie Hollywood makes: movies no longer tell stories, they are packages. Marketers are more important than writers and directors, brands are more important than stars.
In a conversation published yesterday A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis were less dire in their assessment of American cinema. Scott pointed out that the 2011 Oscars demonstrated "2010 was, all in all, a good year for American movies." Dargis recounted a great story about the producer David O. Selznick being practically suicidal about the state of Hollywood in 1951.
But both Scott and Dargis endorsed Harris's assertion that story-centered mid-list (to borrow a publishing term) films are getting squeezed by the bifurcation of American cinema into quality small films and tent-pole dreck.
The new issue of Sense of Cinema has two interesting perspectives on the death of cinema debate. Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang also blames marketers for the death of quality cinema.
Last year I ran into a senior German director, and he mentioned that in 1984 there was also a sudden rise of criticism proclaiming the death of German cinema. With Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s death in 1982, the whole German film industry went into a different phase. The German government stopped funding art cinema, causing a number of German directors to leave the country. The government’s defense was that film should be made for a general audience, just like Hollywood does. Ultimately, forlorn film critics marked the demise of the New German Cinema. Indeed, we remember Werner Herzog, Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, etc. from the provocative primetime of the New German Cinema, but we hardly remember any great German directors after the 80s. I think this is all connected to marketing. Every country seems to have gone through a similar period of experiencing the death of its national cinema, though the causes might vary.
Arthur Knight identifies a wholly unexpected cause of death for the Hollywood cinema. The cinema is tied to another dying cultural form: the shopping mall. (Click here for the Knight's observations, then scroll down a bit.) Movie theaters get dragged down with the rest of the failing retails spaces, even in affluent and fast-growing Williamsburg, VA. Not even mixed-use New Urbanist developments help.
Twenty-five years ago Top Gun was marketed to mall rats. Now the mall rats are gone.
I finally got around to reading Edward Glaeser's Atlantic Monthly article, "How Skyscrapers Can Save the City," which is an except from his new book, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. The subtitle tells you pretty much all you need to know about Glaeser's position. He's firmly in the density is good camp. Glaeser is an economist, so his position is driven by data, with some interesting extrapolations, most of which lead in one direction, in the Atlantic essay, at any rate. He argues that tall towers allow for lower-density development elsewhere in the city. The skyscrapers of La Défense, for example, allow Paris to remain within its Haussmann-era height limits and still maintain space for economic growth. Here's Glaeser on Jane Jacobs:
She thought that preserving older, shorter structures would somehow keep prices affordable for budding entrepreneurs. That’s not how supply and demand works. Protecting an older one-story building instead of replacing it with a 40-story building does not preserve affordability. Indeed, opposing new building is the surest way to make a popular area unaffordable. An increase in the supply of houses, or anything else, almost always drives prices down, while restricting the supply of real estate keeps prices high.
This point makes sense, although I wonder if the real estate market really works that way. I could envision a market in which a density of tall residential structures make the older, shorter structures more desirable and therefore more expensive, dispersing creative people into other neighborhoods or into towers. That's basically what's happened to Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood. Greenwich Village may still be quaint, but it ceased to be a creative center several economic booms ago.
For Glaeser dense cities are economically and socially vibrant places, zones of supreme rationality. But like all economists, Glaeser can analyze general trends, but his insights stop at the contingency of the individual. What is it like on an experiential level to live in a dense city?
The literature on this question is rich and very complex. Generally it supports Glaeser's fundamental conclusions, but with important qualifications. Rem Koolhaas offers a much broader definition of density in Delirious New York. He calls it Manhattanism, a concept that includes the vast rivers of traffic that flow, slowly, through Manhattan. In his view, skyscrapers are slightly crazy objects , the streets are stages for strange dreams. The history of the flâneur offers another counter-history of density and its effects on alternative subjectivity. Flâneurs thrived in the anonymity of large crowds until Haussmann's boulevards and the traffic they brought became too much for the individual stroller. Finally, in 1903 Georg Simmel argued in "The Metropolis and Mental Life" that cities made people smarter, but at the cost of having their pysches bombarded with stimuli.
I missed Ken Vandermark and Jason Moran's performance at the Green Mill because babysitters don't answer the phone when it's five degrees Fahrenheit out. While there are some interesting things going on in Chicago right now, such as the MCA's Urban China: Informal Cities exhibition, it's probably best to stay indoors until the snow pack has melted down a bit. Besides, there's work to do. I'm putting the finishing touches on a redesign for One-Way Street. Like all website redesign projects, there's a lot more work to be done than I originally thought. I'm shooting for a Monday launch.
Speaking of redesign projects, the deadline approaches for submissions to the Network Reset: Rethinking the Chicago Emerald Necklace competition. Entries must be entered by February 21.
For those of you in New York City here are some recommended events.
The Brooklyn Museum is gearing up for its new exhibition, Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains. The exhibition looks at the role of the tipi in culture of Great Plains tribes. A major theme of Tipi is the role of women as the owners and makers of the tipi, along with everything in it, including the furnishings, clothing, and accessories. (The men got the outside of the tipi, which was reserved for illustrating their exploits as warriors and hunters.) The exhibit features more than 160 objects from the Museum’s collection of Plains material, supplemented by works from other museums and objects by contemporary Plains artists. There will be three full-size tipis, including the one by Lyle J. Heavy Runner (the designer) and Naomi Crawford (the maker). Their tipi (shown above in a photograph by Keith Sirchio) is shown above during its instillation. The exhibition begins February 18 and runs through May 15, 2011. More information can be found here.
Meanwhile, over in Queens, phati’tude Literary Magazine will launch its first annual African American Literary Festival n February 26, 2011. The festival will take place at the Queens Library’s Langston Hughes Community Library & Cultural Center from 10:00am until 4:00pm. There will be workshops, a panel discussion, poetry readings, a musical performance, a short-film premiere and book signings. Additionally, the Winter issue of phati’tude Literary Magazine, “Celebrating Black History Through Literature: From the Harlem Renaissance to Today” will be unveiled, featuring local and nationally recognized writers Amiri Baraka, Quincy Troupe, Ishmael Reed, Shonda Buchanan, devorah major, Yusef Komunyakaa, Stephani Maari Booker, Tony Medina, Askia Toure, Haki Madhubiti, among others. The festival is free and open to the public. You can register here.
Next Friday, February 18, the Columbia University and the Columbia Building Intelligence Project will stage the fourth International Think Tank, entitled "(Re)Searching Knowledge." Participants will discuss the future of the building industry in four 90-minute sessions pecha-kucha style, which will keep the proceedings moving along. Here are the four sessions:
The talks will take place between 9:30 am and 5:00 pm at The Center for Architecture, 536 LaGuardia Place. A reception will follow. The sessions are open to the public, but reservations are required. You can make them by e-mailing the C-BIP staff.
There's a war going on for your garage.
On one side are the New Urbanists, the sworn enemies of off-ramps. On the other side are landscape urbanists who say you can keep your two-car garage if you install a rain barrel beside it. The leader of the landscape urbanists is Charles Waldheim (above center), the chair of the landscape architecture department at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University. He has spiky hair and dresses all in black. The New Urbanists are led by architect Andres Duany, who screens videos of Waldheim's lectures as if they were horror films.
Each camp has their reasonable side, as well as their counterintuitive side. The landscape urbanists recognize that the U.S. has already made a huge investment in its suburban infrastructure, and it's impractical to expect Americans to abandon their cul-de-sacs and move downtown. The division between city and suburb is artificial; together they form a single entity. It's possible to plan suburbs that respect the pre-existing ecosystem. However, these tenets fly in the face of planning orthodoxy (and not just New Urbanist theory) that says, everything else being equal, density is more sustainable than sprawl. It doesn't help that the landscape architects like to use a forbiddingly abstract language that makes them sound like Jean-François Lyotard on a vegan diet.
The New Urbanists, on the other hand, make the sensible point that people still like the physical environment of 19th-century towns and cities, or at least its idealized version. Studies have shown that suburbanites are more depressed and less healthy than their urban counterparts. Density fosters creativity and efficiency alike. An automobile-based economy and infrastructure will come to grief eventually. But while people might like strolling through a townhouse/corner shop neighborhood, they don't necessary want to live in one, especially if they have to parallel park. New Urbanists can sound like neo-conservative scolds in their efforts to change human behavior. There's something wrong about trying to remake 21st-century metropolises into 19th-century cities.
For years the New Urbanists' natural enemies have been Modernists with their glass towers and vast lawns. Waldheim represents a new threat. He's liberated landscape architects from their traditional roles as bush planters who come in after building architects complete their work, a role once described as "putting parsley on the pig." He's given landscape architects swagger. He's seized Harvard for them. But will the landscape urbanists do anything for the rest of us besides erect swing sets over our garbage dumps?
Urban planning in Chicago experienced a major trauma last year, and another major upheaval may be in the making. Last year Chicago failed, in embarrassing fashion, to win the 2016 Olympics. The proposal monopolized urban planning for a couple of years. No other major event or initiative has taken its place to galvanize thought about the city's physical environment.
In a few months Chicago will elect a new mayor, the city's first new mayor since 1989. Conventional wisdom says Mayor Daley will be succeeded by Rahm Emanuel, a politician who has never had to think much beyond wards and congressional districts. As mayor, he (or whoever wins the election) will need a crash course in building zones and transportation systems.
To refocus urban planning on the post-Olympics, post-Daley era, MAS Studio and the Chicago Architectural Club have launched Network Reset: Rethinking the Chicago Emerald Necklace, a single-stage international competition eliciting proposals to revitalize the city's boulevard system. The Emerald Necklace, as the boulevard system is supposed to be called, was conceived as a sort of highway system for carriages, affording smooth horse-driven transport around the city. Today the boulevards are functional but unlovely. Horse-drawn carriages gave way long ago to homicidal taxi drivers.
The Network Reset competition is anonymous and open to design students and professionals everywhere. To enter, start by asking yourself these questions:
What if the system becomes a new transportation corridor in the city? What type of transportation would that be? What if the open space becomes an active layer and not just a passive one? What if this system provides activities that the city as a whole is lacking? What if the system becomes a tool for social cohesion? What if the system has a strong visual identity? What if it becomes an economic catalyst for the neighborhoods? What if the system is all of this and more?
The winners will be announced in March 2011. All entries will be published in the forthcoming issue of MAS Context. Submission guidelines, evaluation criteria, and other details can be found here. The deadline for entries is February 21, 2011.
Photo above: Western Boulevard at 54th Street, from the Network Reset competition resources.
Since I started this blog in 2006, I've concluded every year with a review of the year as I saw it as a blogger. I don't do "best of" lists. Rather, I write about those books, buildings, movies, recordings that will stay with me.
This morning, just before I sat down to write the entry for 2010, I had two experiences that seemed to capture how the world has changed this year, and how it will be different in the coming year.
I was playing with Google's Ngram Viewer, launched this morning, when I was called into an emergency meeting. In my day job I manage web development projects for a major publisher. Marketing executives called the meeting to inform me that the project I'd been managing since last February, a massive redesign of every website in the company, was being put on indefinite hold. When I return to the office on December 28th, I will start another project: building apps for mobile devices, starting with the iPad.
That my company was leaving behind, or at least de-emphasizing, the desktop Internet was very significant. The iPad launch was the latest step in a general trend that became more prominent this year. Increasingly powerful mobile devices are placing more complex data sets literally in the hands of individuals. At the same time, and perhaps more importantly, these same devices are generating data about how we read, listen, watch, talk, write, walk, drive, run, and fly. All of this data is being transmitting in real time, stored, and processed. Ubiquitous computing, as these technologies are known, are changing how we see the world--and how we shape it.
One of the highlights of the year for me was working with Iker Gil and the MAS Context team. Through them I encountered projects that expanded my understanding of what design can and should do. For example, Belinda Tato and her team at Ecosistema Urbano built an ecoboulevard in a bleak mixed-use development on the outskirts of Madrid. The "eco" part of the project impressed me less than the "boulevard" part. Ecosistema Urbano created an elegant design addressing a complex set of social, technical, and political problems. A smaller-scale yet similarly ingenious projects was featured in the ENERGY issue of MAS Context. Elizabeth Redmond, founder and president of Piezoelectricity, has created the POWERleap, a device that generates electrictity when people walk across it.
The POWERleap (at left, from MAS Context) and Ecosistema Urbano are both products of a way of looking at cities as complex systems made up of interlocking data sets. A single POWERleap unit doesn't generating a meaningful amount of electricity by itself, but they can be dispersed in enough places and linked together to contribute significantly to a power grid. The design philosophy of Ecosistema Urbano defines the city as a complex ecosystem in which no one structure can be separated out from its environmental, social, and technological context.
The ecosystem metaphor reflects a new way of seeing cities. In my fumbling way, I was making this point in my contribution to MAS Context's INFORMATION issue. While researching the essay I was struck by how urban planners and architects have had to rely on imprecise and static data to make design choices. With ubiquitous computing technologies a city bus, a gas meter in a private home, and a middle-schooler texting her friends can become data points contributing to a comprehensive view of a metropolis, or a single city block. Furthermore--and this is the real breakthrough--it's possible for planners and designers to see how their choices alter behavioral patterns.
The implications of this are enormous. For example, in 2010, for the first time, it has become technologically feasible to craft an advertising message for a single person--that's you, dear reader. I work in an eMarketing department, and we're just now coming to terms with this possibility.
Until you get your own private Internet on your mobile device, you can use your iPad to read 500 billion words written since 1800 on Google's Ngram Viewer. You can enter any combination of words and see how often they appear over time. For instance, if you want evidence of post-structuralism's decline, enter "Derrida, Foucault, Lacan" and see how mentions of all three figures have been in steady decline since 1998 or so. I'm dubious about quantitative approaches to criticism, as are others, but one thing is undeniable: they challenge how we see literature. According to Raymond Williams (in his invaluable Keywords) "literature" separated itself from "being literate" in the middle of the 18th century with the rise of professional writers such as Oliver Goldsmith and Samuel Johnson. Since then, literature has been tied up with a certain definition of authorship. However, unlike literature professors, machines can read everything available to them. In the data warehouse, literature is just another data subset. An author is no longer a source of meaning. He or she is little more than a keyword for a search. American literature becomes the entirety of imaginative writing produced (and scanned) by Americans. Trust me, the Ngram Viewer technology isn't just being developed to analyze writing; the totality of image and object production will be searchable too, and very soon. Then the cinema will be Hollywood every cellphone video ever shot--a cinema without directors. Architecture will be every building in the world, from dog houses to supertalls--architecture without architects.
Of course, buildings have been erected for millennia without any involvement from a licensed architect, but architecture as a discipline, with a set of rules and a history, has always revolved around a select number of practitioners and a limited number of buildings. The same holds for the cinema. It's one thing to consider Robert A.M. Stern's use of pilasters or Jean-Luc Godard's jump cuts, but it's quite another thing to study the pilaster in every building built in post-World War II America or every discontinuous edit in France since 1964.
My blogging practice, I'm starting to see, consists mainly of monitoring data streams. There's a literature data stream, a film data stream, and an architecture one. Plus, I keep an eye out for anything else that seems interesting. Here's what the streams have told me in 2010:
This year isn't the year of the ebook, but next year might be. LEEDS certification and reality television have become fixtures in the culture, so people aren't as preoccupied with them as they were in the past. The Social Network and Freedom are this year's most important film and novel, respectively. Everyone hates Daniel Libeskind. Herta Müller's Nobel Prize award in 2009 was widely denounced, but she's drawn international attention to German and Middle European literature. Apichatpong Weerasethakul is this year's Cristian Mungiu. Everyone wants an iPad, but not because they want to watch feature-length films on them. If Zsa Zsa Gabor was famous for being famous, Snooki and Kim Kardashian represent a new kind of celebrity type: famous because they shouldn't be famous. Philip Roth has become a national treasure, which is a weird place for him. 3D films and Sarah Palin are still niche products, and current indicators are that they will remain that way, but that could change. The Shanghai World Expo was the most important architectural event in 2010. American independent film is in serious trouble. Jeanne Gang has emerged as a major architect. Francis Ford Coppola's artistic comeback is never going to happen. But the city of Detroit's might.
Nicolai Ouroussoff has a long and fascinating look at King Abdullah Economic City, an entirely new city being built on near the shores of the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) is combines elements of a Chinese-style special economic zone with an American-style martinis and miniskirts zone for foreign oil executives, with a dash of Houston thrown in. On one level, KAEC is a kind of giant foreign exchange student program, with Westerners invited to meet a select group of Saudis.
KAEC [. . .] aims to draw a range of Western corporations and their employees, as well as their expertise, to create a social mixing chamber. The core of the city will be a business district much like the one on the outskirts of Riyadh. Residential areas will be interlaced with the kind of open public spaces — parks, plazas and the waterfront promenades — that are generic in large Western-style developments but almost impossible to find in Saudi Arabia.
Artists’ renderings of the project show couples happily strolling around the city dressed in an ambiguous mix of Islamic and Western styles. A video of the future university has women, their heads covered but otherwise in Western-looking dress, mingling with men on campus. To encourage more foreign companies and their employees to come here, the government will allow foreign ownership for the first time. And officials say the city will have a streamlined bureaucracy, so that unlike in other Saudi cities, where delays can make even the simplest transactions stretch out for days, action on visas or customs documents will take just an hour.
As you might imagine, Saudi religious conservatives are up in arms, but Ouroussoff cites another, and more telling, objection.
Several people here expressed outrage that the government was pouring billions of dollars into the creation of entire new cities while large areas of existing ones had deteriorated into slums. Jidda, for example, already has a port in desperate need of upgrading. Its historic center is a medieval slum inhabited by foreign laborers. The city has no sewer system, only septic tanks that regularly spill into the streets. And people who live there will have to continue living by the old rules.
King Abdullah is essentially building a new Saudi Arabia inside the old one. The existing petrostate can't survive indefinitely, and the King knows it. Unless the government shifts the epicenter of the national economy away from the Ghawar oil field, the nation will become ungovernable. It may even cease to exist as a nation state.
King Abdullah Economic City has sinister elements—the tight security, the lack of integration with existing urban areas, the ugly architecture. But what planning city didn't have a political, even authoritarian, dimension at its founding? As Michel Foucault has argued, the modern planned city began in the eighteenth century, when architecture became part of the development of how entire societies should be governed. Buildings and urban planning became concerned with questions about how a society should be ordered to avoid revolts and epidemics while ensuring a decent family life. These questions came up before, such as during the Roman Empire, but not to the systematic extent that they appeared in the 18th century. Architects didn't initiate the change, politicians did. And politicians still are.
One-Way Street [Einbahnstrasse, 1928] was Walter Benjamin's first effort to break out of the narrow confines of the academy and apply the techniques of literary studies to life as it is currently lived. For Benjamin criticism encompasses the ordinary objects of life, the literary texts of the time, films in current release, and the fleeting concerns of the public sphere. Following Benjamin's lead, this blog is concerned with the political content of the aesthetic and representations of the political in the media. As Benjamin writes in One-Way Street, "He who cannot take sides should keep silent."