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Posts Tagged ‘cityness’

All good things must come to an end and so it is with Cityness. I started this weblog over a year ago, as an experiment to see if I could connect the realm of the urban with the realms of science and arts. Whether that has been successful, is up to you to decide. For me, it was interesting to the extent that it brought me in contact with other people. But on the whole, it required considerable more energy than it returned. Some Internet-savvy people told me that the posts were too long to be published on the Internet. That may be so but I refuse to give in and join the great amounts of shallow tidbits that are strewn across the Internet. Also, the most popular posts on the website are about subjects that I will cover in an upcoming book. I think it is better that I focus my writing efforts on getting that book out instead of posting incomplete work here. So I’ve decided to stop Cityness but will continue to write contributions for the PAUME-website. Do you like to read about the urban, arts and sciences? Be sure to check out the ‘Featured’ section of the PAUME-site!

One of those pictures that I took for this weblog, without having a real story about it. It is a quick snapshot of Rotterdam, which captures the dynamics of this town nicely.

Some stats:
Cityness attracted about 10.000 hits in one year. The top three most popular single posts were the ones about Peckam, my thoughts on the role of railway stations in European cities and a discussion of the work of architect Maarten Struijs. The most popular review was the book review of Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. Some popular posts will be reposted at the PAUME website, as long as it fits the PAUME framework. This blog will remain online as long as it keeps attracting readers.

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It has been relatively quiet at Cityness. I’ve been awfully busy with teaching and research, and there was not that much to report in terms of all things urban. But a few things happened here and there, and some comments are deserved.

The main news this month was that the government proposed to merge three (or two) Provinces into one metropolitan region around Amsterdam. This is an incarnation of a debate that is going on ever since sir Peter Hall added the ‘Randstad Holland’ to his list of world cities. This time, the provinces of North-Holland, Flevoland and Utrecht would merge to create one big administrative unit. The proposal was barely out or parties started a public fight about many issues, including whether Utrecht should be considered part of Amsterdam or not. It all sounds a bit too familiar. The most noticeable point was the absence of Rotterdam or Den Haag or South-Holland in the whole debate. And as it happened, the mayors of both cities announced their own plan to form a metropolitan region. Call me a cynic but I find it highly suspicious that Rotterdam and Den Haag rarely agreed on anything for the past decades and would change their stance overnight. Surely not. And to those who think that redrawing administrative boundaries accelerate decision-making: if people don’t want to cooperate they will not cooperate, regardless of hierarchies or boundaries.

Meanwhile, public organizations are quietly working on the intergration of the public transport in the Randstad. That seems sensible.  There is much going on in this part of the country. Public transport covers a bewildering range of means and ends, ranging from ultra-short tramlinks (former Utrecht-Houten) to international high-speed railroads (Amsterdam-Paris, and possible a direct link to London in the future). Old railroads have been converted to new light-rail, bus services have been put out to tender and quite successfully so. Attempts are now made to integrate the system, which will help to increase its attractiveness and make traveling the Randstad a whole lot smoother. I find this way of thinking better than abstract discussions about who is Amsterdam and who isn’t. Click here for a marvelous map of the Randstad and its current and future public transport links.

Other news: the Rotterdam Economic Development Board published a report in which it assessed the state of Rotterdam. Its main conclusion is that much is needed to get Rotterdam back on track. I felt tired reading the same thing over and over again and I think that it is time to judge the city in its own right rather than repeating the same mantra (not enough high incomes) and medicine (build houses for high incomes). I read the report and felt a creative vacuum. Sure, the city could do with more people and higher incomes but no one mentions the main real issues that will prevent this from happening: (a) the municipality is not in the position to build housing for another 30.000 people, and (b) where would these people come from in a country whose population is already shrinking? And even if that magic wand was found and 30.000 people and houses were conjured up… would that change the city considerably? Path-dependency suggests it won’t. Live with it. But my main complaint is that it really doesn’t help anybody to suggest the city council to build more. There is no money, there are no legal instruments that can do that, there are no people to live in those houses. It makes one eager to develop a counter-plan…

I like my city rough and tough. It has been like this for centuries, it won't change. It is good in its own right. Picture of the Maassilo by me.

 

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No words this time…

 

… But pictures instead (all pictures by me).

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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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