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Archive for October, 2010

Little known fact: besides research I’m also running an independent record label Betontoon, together with my good friend Zeno van den Broek. We have been running Betontoon for a bit more than a year now and things were going well. However, we felt we had to scale things up a little. When we met Sven Schlijper (of Kindamusic, Noise Central, Salon D’Esprit, and much more) we quickly developed a whole range of new ideas, from organizing concerts to publishing books. The more ideas we developed , the more we understood that the Betontoon brand didn’t fully capture all the things we intended to do. We therefore established the Platform for Avant-garde & Urban Media Explorations, or PAUME in short, last week. With PAUME we intend to explore the avant-garde of art in the broadest sense, especially where it concerns the urban.

Our debut as a curator was when we organized a one-off performance of the legendary Z’ev – in the Merkaz synagogue in Utrecht last month. It turned out to be a very special evening with many heartfelt responses from the audience. VPRO’s 3voor12 alternative channel reviewed the evening and did an interview with us.

Putting posters up on a rainy evening in Utrecht to promote the Z'ev event in Markaz. The start of something new. Picture by me in downpour whilst trying to keep other posters and ductape dry.

New events are coming soon. We are curating an evening with The Tapeworm during the Le Guess Who? Festival in Utrecht and ‘Urban Narratives‘ in Theater De Kikker, with Machinist and Audrey Chen, again in Utrecht. Other things are on our to-do list include a CD with field recordings from different cities, a book exploring the urban in all its dimensions and an exhibition of contemporary urban art. Updates will go through our PAUME website and the Betontoon website but I will do quick updates here, too.

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This weblog is called Cityness and ever since I started it, people have been asking me what means and why I selected this name. I first came across the concept in an article by Geoff Vigar, Stephen Graham and Patsy Healey, entitled ‘In Search of the City in Spatial Strategies: Past Legacies, Future Imaginings’ (in Urban Studies, vol. 42, no. 8). The article discusses how urban citizens give meaning to the city they live in and how this creation of meaning alters the way the city is represented. The city as such is just a collection of bricks, concrete, steel and so. It is the way people perceive that collection of building materials that matters in how cities are presented to the outside world. Attaching meaning to the urban matters most. The authors observe how a unitary and integrated notion of the city is gradually being replaced by a multifaceted notion that is attached to the urban by different urbanites. As such, it becomes increasingly difficult for urban planners, architects, civil servants and politicians to address the city as a whole because it isn’t a whole whilst still functioning as a whole (you may want to read this sentence twice but I can assure you it does what it says).

The authors of the article: “What is a contemporary city? How can the nature of cities be invoked or described in policy discourses to connect meaningfully with the collective consciousness of urban dwellers and build meaningful governance coalitions? Our starting-point is that all such efforts to make the word city through political work will inevitably involve what Rob Shields (1995, 245) has called ‘treacherous selective vision’. Because the multiple time-spaces, processes and subjectivities of cities cannot be generalized with one representation, efforts to attach meaning to the word city through words, maps or images will inevitably prioritize certain spaces, people, metaphors and discourses over others. [….] They will pick out and highlight a small sub-set of the unknowable totality that constitutes an urban place […].” (2005: 1393)

The quote highlights what I find most important in trying to answer the question: what makes the urban tick? In fact, the urban ‘ticks’ because of all these different aspect and that is why I do not only focus on architecture or urban planning but also on music and sounds, vision and pictures, interviews and observations, science and experience. We need to explore the full range of the urban and be as open as we can manage to understand the city in its full diversity.

 

Blade Runner is an example of an imagination of a city that doesn't exist in reality but still conveys a strong feeling of cityness, perhaps even more than some real cities.

 

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I went to see Brugge (or Bruges in English) in Belgium.  It is an old city in Flanders, near the North Sea coast, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is full of ancient buildings, ranging from  medieval to Neo-Classical buildings.  The reason why I was interested was not primarily because of its ancient heritage but above all because of the tension it creates between the old and the new. Being a world heritage site has its advantages because it protects the streets and the buildings and it attracts enormous amounts of tourists. It also has a considerable disadvantage because, essentially, it freezes the development of the city to a great extent. In other words: it has become very difficult to develop the town further. Or is it?

A bit of history here then. Arguably the most important person where it concerns architecture and urban planning is Louis Delacenserie who, when in charge of the Brugge office for architecture, rebuild and restored many of the city’s old buildings. This large-scale restoration boosted Brugge’s image and the city discovered that it could use this image to attract tourists interested in cultural things. Now, it must be understood that Delanceserie did not always remain faithful to the styles and elements of the buildings he restored. In fact, on many occasions he would redesign parts of the building in order to make it look more Gothic or Neo-Classical than it ever was. One can see him rewriting a bit of the architectural history. I’m not saying this is good or bad (in fact, he was sometimes forced to change the design due to poor constructional choices in the past) but I want to point out that the genuine character of the city that was awarded a world heritage status is, in fact, partly fabricated on a much later point in time than the original construction.

In 1979 the municipality got its own department for preservation and reservation. It started to hand out subsidies to house owners to restore their buildings, provided they would restore them to the original looks. The subsidy was successful in helping to rebuild the city even further and many facades where returned to their original looks whilst the constructions were upgraded to more modern standards.

 

This building on the site where the Genthof and Spiegelrei cross was the first building to be restored using the subsidy from the municipality. Picture by me.

 

So, looking back at the history of architecture and urban planning, everything seems geared towards preserving the past and, occasionally, improving it. But that is not the full story. The question is: is there still room to do something new, something modern, in this old city? A number of Belgian architects responded to this question in an exhibition in the Gruuthuse. They agreed that rules for building something new are very strict but not unreasonable. One architect remarked with some irony that, when looking at the average Belgian suburb, it seems that more freedom of rules does not necessarily lead to better buildings. All agreed that it would be necessary for Brugge to keep on developing. Cities are always layers of time and it wouldn’t make sense to pretend that the city stopped developing in 1850 or so. The Concertgebouw, built in 2002 to commemorate the year that Brugge acted as the cultural capital of Europe, is a bold (post-)modern statement, trying to unite the traditional and modern in one building.

 

Detail of the modern Concertgebouw in Brugge. Picture by me.

More modern buildings, mostly houses, can be found around the town. In all cases the architects had to deal with the strict regulations. They found ways to unite both extremes of the spectrum. In that way, they can be seen as bridging gaps in the urban history of Brugge. They help keeping this city going and developing and adding layers of built history to it. I believe this is necessary and healthy for any place. Full stagnation doesn’t attract the young and adventurous. Whether the architects did a good job style-wise is up to the reader. Below are some examples.

 

Picture by me.

 

 

Picture by me

 

Picture by me

 

 

Picture by me

Fittingly, for one of the most interesting examples of old-meeting-new, we need to return to Delanceserie. His masterwork is perhaps the Antwerpen Centraal Station. It is a major station in the Neo-Renaissance style. A few years ago it was thoroughly rebuilt, receiving full restoration and four (!) extra floors of platforms and tracks on top of each other. The lowest floor gives access to a train tunnel leading to the north of the city, to enable through-services (up until that time, the station used to be a terminus). This new construction was carried out in bare concrete, steel and bricks and married happily with Delanceserie’s luxurious building on top of it.

 

Dome Antwerpen Centraal. Picture by Puangjita.

 

 

Stairs Antwerpen Centraal. Picture by Puangjita.

 

Antwerpen Centraal. Picture by me.

 

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Neither science nor heroic deeds brought me fame. But today I could enjoy 15 seconds of fame by having a picture of my view featured on television channel TV Rijnmond. The legendary Ed Aldus used it to illustrate the freak weather today in the city.

View with rainbows during October showers

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I wrote in an earlier post how I thought that it is necessary to use all means available to understand the city and its cityness. Those means include music and sound and one of the earliest sonic treatments of modern urbanity can be contributed to Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht in their anti-opera ‘Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny’.  The opera, written between 1927 and 1929, describes how a gang, on the run for the police, have escaped and decide they are so far outside the civilized world they might as well start a city from scratch on that spot. The city, Mahagonny, is meant to be a pleasure city, a place where people would be free of care and sorrow. The plan works for a while but as the story unfolds it becomes increasingly clear that careless pleasure is an impossibility and the end of the opera suggests that the city burns down, after one of the main characters is hanged.

There are many themes in this opera and the city serves as the spot that anchors the kaleidoscope of  themes. There are whores, gamblers, some sort of authority made up by ex-criminals, looming natural disasters and more. The city itself may serve as a symbol of capitalism and its discontents. Both Weill and Brecht set out to present an opera that made people re-think their ideas about society. Although a German opera, it has nothing of the grandiose (sometimes grotesque) characteristics of the traditional opera. Instead it employs a range of tools to create a confusing effect: the traditional themes are turned upside down (a disaster does not happen, essentially rewarding people for their behavior; love is nothing romantic but something for sale, and so on), the music mirrors the atmosphere of the text (when the singers exclaim their happiness, they do so in a moody song) and the music is often dissonant whilst still suggesting more common styles such as jazz. In fact, it is Weill’s use of dissonant music that made me first realize the true potential of music as a descriptor.

The abundance of themes, the musical treatment and the focus on the city as a playground for humanity all mean that Weill and Brecht made exactly what we need to understand the urban in the past and today.  Or, to put it more precise: they have created a prototype of music as an urban exploration. There are many versions available on CD and LP but very few integral versions, let alone versions of the recordings of those days. One day I came across a box set of a remastered vinyl edition with Lotte Lenya singing the role of Jenny Smith. That was a lucky day. More popular renditions of the songs are still around – ranging from The Doors to the Young Gods. They are interesting but less interesting than the originals so don’t hesitate to buy a good copy if you spot one.

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Here is a book that is very hard to get but that I still want to discuss because it symbolizes a lot for the city I grew up in. ‘Rotterdam: de geschiedenis van 10 jaren wederopbouw’ (published in 1955, in Dutch only) reviews the progress of the city of Rotterdam 10 years after the full-scale destruction of World War 2. I found it at a second-hand book market, sold by foundation Ons Rotterdam. At 5 Euros it is a real bargain. The book was published by Ad.Donker and was written by a team of authors. There are several reasons why this book needs a mention on this weblog. First of all, it acts as a time warp in history and it is very interesting to see the how progress, urban planning and public policy was looked at back in the olden days. Comparing the ambitions of that time with what has been achieved nowadays is also a treat and shows that development is essentially non-linear: much of what was expected and planned in 1955 never came true (and surprisingly, some things actually happened). One fine example is overlooking the great impact of the automobile and the establishment of considerable suburbs and satellite towns. Indeed, it was expected that Rotterdam would soon house 1 million inhabitants. As it stands nowadays, the city itself has a population of approximately 600.000 inhabitants, with a total of 1 million for the whole region, and congestion is a much greater problem than density. This is not to blame the policy makers of 1955, it just shows that things will rarely go according to plan.

Rotterdam: de geschiedenis van 10 jaren wederopbouw. Published by Ad.Donkers but not available anymore.

A second, perhaps more serious reason why people should try to get this book is that it shows that considerable contemporary issues with the city are not at all unique or, as some populist rhetorics state, a result from left-winged bias. The book discusses how cheap housing was the only possible answer in a time when raw materials were scarce and when most people found employment in low-paid jobs. There was no way people could afford to live in better houses and there was no way these houses could be build without considerable extra funding. Another lasting issue is that of having plenty of work in the trade, industrial and port sector but much less in the financial and services sector. This is not something new, as some policy papers suggest, but rather a historic path dependency that is extremely difficult (if not impossible) to break away from. Other examples include the possibility of upward social mobility through well-designed neighborhoods and lack of openness in shops and house at ground level (something which is still an issue as witnessed in the recent policy paper on high-rise). If anything, this book gave me some surprising insights that let me reflect on my own perception of current policy issues. Perhaps it is time that Rotterdam comes to terms with its role in the Dutch society: providing an entrance, both physically (the port and distribution) and socially (people from the lower classes getting their first chances for upward mobility here). From that perspective it becomes clear that Rotterdam doesn’t need to become another Amsterdam or Frankfurt. It has a specific and essential role in the Dutch urban landscape and that is not something that needs to be erased.

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I received this book a while ago as a present and ever since it has been close at hand in my office or at home because it is such a treat to leaf through its pages. ‘Redes Metropolitanas / Metropolitan Networks’ by Jordi Julià Sort is a bilingual book (Spanish and English) that explores the evolution of metropolis, urban planning, administration and metropolitan networks in the shape of metro’s, light rail, and (to a lesser extent) trams through time. There is an obvious connection between these elements in making the city but this book is the first (as far as I know) that presents that co-evolution in a very clear way. The main reason d’etre for this book is a surprising one. The author, as a member of the Agencia Metropolitana Barcelona Regional, is participant in the development of the Barcelona metro and suburban networks. It is from that work that he became interested in how other cities have dealt with the questions Barcelona was dealing with. That curiosity evolved into a large comparative study, resulting in this book.

It is not at all easy to map the development of metropolitan networks in relation to the city, urban planning and the way the administration dealt with the challenges, especially because the author covers the time span between the time that traffic first became a problem to the contemporary state of the network. Not only does the book cover a wide time span, it also covers a wide range of topics in a wide range of cities. Although there are commonalities in the cities he investigated, there are also numerous local differences and peculiarities. Still, Sort manages to present his argument in a clear, concise and convincing way and although each case is big enough to fill a separate book, he seems to have captured the most crucial aspects of each case. The case selection includes some of the usual suspects (London, New York, Paris, Berlin and Tokyo, and for obvious reasons Barcelona and Milan) but also cities that provide a counter-jig (Los Angeles because of its car domination, Mexico City because its network has just started to develop, and Singapore because of the comprehensive land-use development and restrictive public policies).

Sort discusses each case from the early beginnings, the growth of the city and the rapid expansion of the networks, to the rise of the automobile, the changes to urban planning following the car and the decline of public transport in the 1970s and 1980s.  He then also points at how many of the (semi or fully public) transport companies reinvent themselves to return as one of the keys in solving the enormous car congestion that plagues each city. Although the author (rightly) states that a full analysis of the metropolitan network couldn’t do without an analysis of other means of transport (including walking), it was impossible to fit it into the book. Nevertheless, he complements the book with a chapter on airports and their impact on the cities in this book, and a chapter on high-speed trains and their impact on the same cities. The final part of the book covers all sorts of statistics and maps and provides additional material to the earlier chapters. The book is full color and is abundantly illustrated with (historical) maps, pictures and promotional materials from the past. Actually, the illustrations alone justify getting this book.

Redes Metropolitanas / Metropolitan Networks by Jordi Julià Sort

The conclusions of the book are interesting and though-provoking. Sort asserts that the history of metropolitan networks show a pendulum movement. We have seen the how the first rail networks were set-up to serve the suburbs, how rail was extended to the city center through tunnels, how cars and roads take over the services to the suburbs and inner city and how the railways reappear again but this time in the shape of light-rails or ‘suburban’. Sort: “The reappearance of the railway at the end may surprise us, but now it is a different system […] the suburban railway as a transport system at the scale of the metropolitan region and the high-speed railway as a transport system between cities and metropolitan areas” (pp. 7) . I support Sort’s thesis but would like to add that his view on the future is essentially European-centric because the rails for passengers is still an uphill battle in the US and Asia, despite a few good examples, is still struggling with car domination and lack of funds to build good metropolitan railway networks. My only complaint about this book is that the translation is sometimes a bit shaky and in some cases funnily wrong (e.g. talking about ‘organisms’ when it should be ‘organizations’) but who am I to complain as a non-native speaker? I really recommend this book to people who would like to understand the coming of the city in relation to its railway network (or the other way around, but that is exactly the point).

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