It seemed that we had conceded the last of our utopian pretensions in the 1970s. The tradition that began with Plato’s Republic (c. 360 BC) and found a name in Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) appeared to come to an end with the failed experiments of Brasilia and Chandigarh – cities designed for a modernity that most of their citizens weren’t concerned with – after the elegantly controlled explosions that flattened Pruitt-Igoe fixed it a lasting image. Charles Jencks famously proclaimed the death of modern architecture with the fall of the second tower on July 15th 1972. Meanwhile, a glance at the latest blockbusters would suggest that our self-destruction, rather than collective perfection, is now a far more attractive fantasy.
The shift is a strange one, since, as Constantinos Doxiadis notes, ‘there have been very few Utopian cities in the twentieth century, when mankind needs them most.’ We seem to have lost that conception of urban planning as urgent social reform, in the belief that people deserved better than what they had. The two biggest waves of widespread city planning produced the Garden City and New Town movements, at the end of the nineteenth century and after the Second World War, respectively. Both offered alternatives to the quality of life for those living and working in the industrial metropolis. Ebeneezer Howard’s garden cities (implemented only in a diluted form, Examples include Letchworth and Welwyn) were to be cooperatively run communities that merged the best of the urban and the rural; the New Towns (for example Stevenage and Milton Keynes) were to provide ‘Homes for Heroes’ returning from battle. Both were driven by an impetus to accommodate lifestyles that were seen to have outgrown their environment.
Gone too is the conception of an ‘art’ of urban design, a kind of architecture-writ-large, dreamt up by visionary minds. It was in this spirit that Le Corbusier designed his Ville Radieuse (1935), and Frank Lloyd Wright his Broadacre City (1935). Their designs present contrary efforts to fundamentally reorganise urban life in the early twentieth century: Le Corbusier embraced density, and Lloyd Wright decentralisation. Both plans were rejected as beautiful nightmares, and neither left the drawing board. That unity of architecture and urban planning as a single discipline executed on differing scales has long since given way to a caricature of the planner as a bureaucrat who designs roundabouts in neighbourhoods he will never visit. Increased privatisation has also made it harder for governments to instigate such master plans, and public opinion has understandably grown suspicious of the authoritarian undertones present in all such visionary designs. “Planning leads to dictatorship,” Hayek once wrote.
Yet from the comfort of the developed world it is all too easy to overlook the fact that the design of entirely new cities continues apace in newly industrialised countries, on the tabula rasa sites so far untouched by urbanisation. King Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia, Masdar City in the UAE, and Ordos (also known as Motor City) in China are just a few examples of the cities currently under construction, each funded by the incredible speed and scale of domestic economic growth. These projects are recognisable to us as ‘urban design’ only in the most fundamental sense of landscaped intervention. The social imperative, the visionary reorganisation of society, has in each instance been all but usurped by raw economics.
For these new urban environments are being built for a purpose, rather than for people. In every city we visit we find areas that are dominated by a particular industry or demographic, but this is at the infra-urban scale, and there are inevitably exceptions where the borders are blurred. Today though, as the common nomenclature demonstrates, we are seeing the construction of dedicated urban environments. As Masdar diversifies the UAE’s oil-centric economy, Ordos provides China with an automotive manufacturing hub, and Economic City urges Saudi Arabia into the world’s most competitive investment destinations, there will certainly be opportunities for employment and enterprise. But the bulk of the rewards will be reaped precisely where the speculation is being made—at the national, rather than communal, level.
In one sense this approach addresses the mistakes made by Brasilia and, more unashamedly, Le Corbusier’s unbuilt Ville contemporaine de trois millions d’habitants: namely that, by presuming it was possible to cap population growth, their architects attempted to design spaces free from the burden of time. Already a-historical, created from no-where, these cities seemed to be thus deprived of their future too: monuments of their own design process. The new wave of planned cities, designed for economies rather than citizens, will enjoy a perverse luxury in so far as the industries ‘who’ live there can grow and grow as long as the money keeps coming in. Time and space in relentless harmony.
The risk is that these new developments pursue national growth at the expense of a city’s capacity to accumulate difference and foster simultaneous diverging patterns of life, to attract migration, trade, and exchange of every kind, be it conflictual or cooperative, social or material. When the dominant urbanism is one of specialisation, is it even possible to have a city centre, a symbolic point for that exchange? Where can one find the place where actualities overlap and interact, where public space finds form? I’m reminded again of Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse, where the ‘centre’ is constituted by the vertical convergence of transit links — planes above trains above cars — rather than inhabited or explored. Henri Lefebvre wrote of the importance of the centre, and celebrated the capacity of cities to support and introduce multiple centralities. In the city, ‘centrality is always possible,’ it can emerge from anywhere. Meanwhile Karl Sharro has recently discussed the danger of losing the centre, in relation to Beirut and the onset of urban warfare. A city that neglects its centre(s) lacks that spatial symbol.
I use the centre as an indicator of cities’ broader capacity to foster convergence. For others, it’s a conversation. Cees Nooteboom illustrates his idea of ‘that unique instrument that makes a city a city: the human voice’ with an ancient example, but one which resonates with the planned cities of the future. ‘Remus,’ he writes, ‘was killed in the jealous fight between the two brothers following the judgment of the gods. It was only then that the conversation of the city could begin.’ If cities plan away the citizen in an attempt to satisfy economic goals so far removed from the people who will be employed to realise them, these conversations may never have the chance to begin.