european questions

Le Corbusier’s Radiant City proposal for Paris

I spent the first five months of the year visiting cities in places where the absence of enforced regulation in some way or another allowed individual desires to gain momentum in changing the city’s face. Whether it was through ignoring what went on behind the façade, turning a blind eye to back alley encroachments or allowing traditional structure to top of failing roof systems, these cities balanced the challenges of a changing environment by allowing, and sometimes learning from, the gradual makeovers initiated and encouraged by their citizens.

The results are mixed. Ankara’s “loading zone” commercial streets sit alongside Chandigarh’s booth markets and Tel Aviv’s sidewalk cafes, while Cairo’s cars crush all other inhabitants of the zone of the street. Bahir Dar maintains its street grid in the complete absence of infrastructure and Heliopolis holds its commercial shifts within the framework of a separately structured façade.

As I now move through Western Europe, I am faced with an entirely different scenario. Massive housing projects, cities themselves, pepper the fringes of major urban areas, and experiments on the life and actions of the human stand as monuments to the ideas of their creators. Many of the new towns were built for the benefit of the lesser economic classes, who remain the only group significantly housed this way.

These cities do not deal with an extreme population pressure, and many of them lack the range of economic development seen in my previous case studies. Both these factors change a lot about what happens as the place ages. But I think that the most important difference is the role of the institution in the transformation of these places. Rather than allowing private changes at all scales, or catching on to trends and adopting them, the institution (city planners, think tanks, administration) is an active agent in directing the transformation. Institutional interventions happen at a larger scale, while the small scale private stuff is largely suppressed. As I move through Europe (France, Netherlands, Germany, Slovenia, Italy) I have been, and hope to further explore this relationship, to understand how the city can act as its own transformer, and what effect that has on the perception of the place.

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