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Regina Bittner

Design City - City without manual?

Le Corbusier, "Algier, Gesamtansicht", 1930, Studie Le Corbusier, "Algier, Gesamtansicht", 1930, Studie

Creativity can no longer be understood as the individual “gift” that had commonly been attributed to art geniuses. Rather, it has become a universal value, which may even be applicable to entire urban structures. This at least is the impression that suggests itself if cities worldwide are appointed – in analogy to Capitals of Culture – to “UNESCO Cities of Design”.

This gives reason to review urban developments with regard to design processes. How did the acts of industrial modernization affect the experience of space? What is the relationship of the “creative industries” to the living conditions in a consumer society? What can design achieve in a post-Fordist economy? And what about the critical claim once connected to the term design in Modernism?

In August 2005 Buenos Aires was elected the first “UNESCO City of Design”. Berlin followed just months later. Montreal was awarded the title in 2006. These three cities belong to the UNESCO‘s “Creative City Network”, which was established as a “Global Alliance for Cultural Diversity” initiative in 2005: “The three current ‘City of Design’ title holders, all considered creative hubs, distinguish themselves with policies and projects that valorize the role of design and their efforts to promote social, urban and economic development. […] and each has a reputation for creativity, innovation and quirkiness”. [1] Cities must exhibit certain criteria to be nominated as a Design City: an established design industry, modern architecture, a unique type of “urban design”, outstanding schools of design as well as regionally and nationally renowned artists and designers who display local traditions and materials in their practice. Design Cities offer fairs, events and exhibitions addressing the issue of design. The “creative industry” should first and foremost benefit in the area of design. The new alliance of design and city is also the topic of an exhibition at the Design Museum, London: seven cities are introduced as breeding grounds for epochal design traditions. The press release quotes curator Deyan Sudjic: “One fruitful way to understand the development of design is to look how certain cities, at specific moments in their histories, have moved the practice of design on […]. It looks at what it was that made a sequence of cities, at various moments, shift the direction taken by design”. [2] Design has become a privileged practice in dealing with the post-Fordist city. Design is in play when civic, public places and architectures are revitalized or developed. Iconic buildings, prestigious museums and cultural events as well as perfectly designed public places and parks have become a standard repertoire of every tourist city destination. Design is also involved when cities seek to globally reposition themselves as “creative industries”. The debate about the “Design City” is remarkable not only for addressing the aesthetic configuration or cultural development of the city in designed spaces and the socio- spatial exclusion mechanisms associated with it. This was often the case in debates about the “Event City”. “Design City” refers to a dynamic, urban practice of creativity and innovation that calls on city dwellers to permanently self-activate in this process. The concept of “Design City” thus introduces a new relationship between city and design and invites reflection about what both mean in this context. Is urban design today entirely detached from the functional design practice of modernism? How do images and ways of speaking about the “Design City” reflect change in the city discourse? And finally, where would a critical design practice be located in a “Design City?”

City of Order and Function

The conditions of urban design changed dramatically with the advent of industrial society. At the end of the 19th century, industrialization, acceleration, electrification and transportation had already transformed the city into a kaleidoscope of space particles. Experiencing city space as a continuum was no longer possible. Chaos, disorder, decay, anonymity and diseases were among the critical tropes with which the modern metropolis was described. A case in point is Ludwig Klages who contemptuously observed the “naked metropolis, steaming with blood of infantile nations”. In 1918, Oswald Spengler saw increasing metropolitan density as the final stage of the Occident itself. [3] Reform movements inspired by the garden city idea marked the beginning of a series of new city plans. Instead of pursuing a return to nature, they sought to overcome the old city by incorporating technological conditions, rationalization, science and new means of communication.

This new way of thinking privileged a “panorama” view of the city and translated it into constructed reality along traffic arteries and routes of transport. The urban design concepts of Hannes Meyer, Ludwig Hilberseimer und Le Corbusier showcase this idea. The “Concept City” (Panu Lehtovuori) — which allowed planners to disregard the complex and unpredictable reality of the city and instead create a controllable space — has been widely criticized. However, K. Michael Hays in his reflections on their approches to design, has pointed out some of the important premises of their urban design practice. After all, Hannes Meyer and also Ludwig Hilberseimer pursued a different concept in terms of architecture and urban development — one that deliberately abandons traditional symbolic and representational forms of architecture. Mass production, the cultural industry and new channels of communication like the radio formed a transformational potential that demanded a new concept of space. The backdrop of such a design approach was the idea of the “post-human subject” (K. M. Hays): a dismissal of the aestheticized, bourgeois individualism which was no longer viable in the new environment of cities and factories. [4] Radical rejection of the 19th century anthropology is an essential part of functionalist concepts of design experiments. Thus the break up of the closed structure and its treatment as one element in a production and assembly chain leads, in architecture and housing development design, to a changed experience of space. Here, the openness of industrial modernization becomes the structural principle of spatial composition. K. M. Hays understands Meyer‘s and Hilberseimer‘s architecture as the intention to let architecture itself be an intermediary for a new spatial socialization. This “utilitarian turn” (Hays) favors use value.

This turn towards utilitarianism demands a new concept of architecture and urban development, less in the sense of a design object but rather in the sense of a communication system, a program, an apparatus to produce events. [5] In the Weimar Republic, functionally designed things and constructed arrangements with their affirmation of the leveling force of technology were considered a contribution to reducing class and social differences. Relieved of social codes and semiotics, the quasi-classless objects met the needs of a new urban social group — the white-collar workers whose search for self- expression they answered. [6] The Weissenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart, for example, aimed at this audience of modern city dwellers. Such designs favored the city space of a modern mass society produced by industrial logic. In the post-war era of the Cold War and Fordist consumer society they soon lost their critical dimension.

In the name of the city‘s use value, modernism was now criticized for its simplistic and reductionist planning: The socio-technological city plans of post-war modernity came into conflict with the new living and consumption habits sparked by the welfare state and the consumer society. The city amorphously expanded into suburbia, which led Robert Venturi and Denis Scott Brown to reflect upon how the city works in a consumer society. In “Learning from Las Vegas” they presented a detailed analysis of the mechanisms of the automobilized city landscape. The symbolically rich and communicative system of the strip with its “decorated joints” and its billboards was to them a stage behind which they criticized the purism and ideal of order? —?both key to the modernist urban renewal programs. In their analysis, pop is a critical impetus seeking to asset the everyday life of the “common man” between mall, suburbia and job as a modern urban reality.

Here, “high and low” came together in a way that the “dried-up soil of academic modernity was to be revitalized by mass culture”. [7] The situationists also criticized what they identified as totalitarian spaces of control in modern urbanism: conflict about territories and spaces in the city were first and foremost conflicts about the social possibility of the individual’s appropriation of space. Key to their approach was the situation on the ground, which they sought to redefine. The situationists focused on the mundane, performative aspects of the city, thus relocating its meaning as a constructed object to the city‘s activities themselves. Instead of physical intervention the situationists advocated the “dérive” as a strategy of analysis and invention, “the terrain of experience for the social space of the cities of the future”. [8] Hence, the basis of the situationist international was an opposition of design and everyday life.

The squatter movements and neighborhood organizations of the 1970s and 1980s continued this tradition of urban contestation. They were unified by insisting collectively that the city was a socially produced space, the result of conflicting arguments between diverse social actors about the city‘s meaning, function and form.

The animated city

Robert Venturi found a reservoir of new design possibilities between “high and low” on the semantically rich Las Vegas strip. Today, architecture critic Werner Sewing claims for the contemporary urban design a “no more learning from Las Vegas” — the synthesis of pop, subculture and commerce has become a common basis of design practice. Regarding new malls imitating baroque castles or neoclassical facades he even speaks of a “re-semanticization”. [9] In the face of increasing contrast between excluded spaces of urban poverty and perfectly designed, privately controlled spaces of consumption in the post-Fordist city, “the middle-class — threatened with the loss of its social status?—?needs to acquire high culture decorations to document their aspirations”. [10] Has pop therefore lost its critical potential in designing the city? For a critical design practice dealing with the postindustrial city, however, even reference to the everyday life seems by now out of place.

In recent years an increasing number of publications about urban design have debated strategies and projects heralded as a turn in the practice of urban planning — away from the dominance of the architect‘s office and towards the living space of the inhabitant. New strategies for designing the city account for local situations, the everyday life of inhabitants and the way in which the city is constructed as a lived reality. Since the 1990s Berlin is an especially good example of this trend. Due to reunification, postindustrial restructuring and Berlin‘s advent as Germany‘s capital, the city offered an open structure which served as an Eldorado, a breeding ground for the spatial occupancy practice of architects, designers and artists.

These not yet utilized spaces generated an intermediate situation allowing for a communicative practice which underscored the potential of these empty spaces with different strategies: alternative mappings, performances and temporary interventions. “The emphasis now lies on the city in the subjunctive, the city in the form of possibility”, Urs Füssler states in the magazine archplus. A situational practice had developed that no longer aimed at constructing mental, alternative worlds but one that would only see in them the material for situations that invite us to think further, to plan further, to go further. These actors predominantly prefer a locally specific approach — often called a new situationism — that favors subjective access to the city, thematizing the impossibility of an objectified production and definition of space. [11] This change in perspective is the result of a deregulation of urban conditions set in motion during the 1990s: more and more commercial global actors shape urban development, civic services are privatized, a new model of “urban governance” emerges that demands self- activation of the city dwellers. The configuration of urban politics in the post-industrial metropolis is generally marked by the loss of planning and regulatory approaches that thematized the city in its entirety. In this context, the new situationists operate in a complex field: when young architects and planners could not design the city with a public contract, they redefined the precariousness of their profession in times of entrepreneurial urban politics as a virtue. Even if many of their works implicitly criticize the conditions of design in the postindustrial city, the presence of these scenes is by now a significant statement for the “Design City”. Is the new situationism thus merely functional, having lost its countercultural posture? The new design strategies in the “urban possibility space” refer to a changed understanding of the city: today, new concepts of urbanity focus on processes of decentralization and dissolution. Accordingly, the city is no longer conceptualized as an organized model, a container, marked by a clear pattern of order. To the post-structurally inspired theory of the city, the post- industrial city landscape is no longer a system of order. “While the industrial city, in the model of the net city, was seen as a relational network consisting of center, periphery and regional integrations, the post-industrial city is considered an acentric, heterogeneous, plural network that is less characterized by utopian images of order and more by heterotopic spaces of order”. [12] The shining lights of this dynamic city are the creative artists. As Bastian Lange remarks in his criticism of Richard Floridas“the promotion of creative artists to central urban problem solvers […] is the latest attempt to connect urban development with entrepreneurial actors and their image”. Not only are the actors‘ precarious conditions of existence ignored in the process, but also questions of integrated urban development, fair distribution of resources as well as social and economic livelihood are underrepresented in this target-group oriented policy. [13] In the debate about the “Design City”, one learns very little about the about the many non-marketable uses made of the city by its inhabitans. An impressive example could be observed in September 2005 in Buenos Aires, when we witnessed an army of the unemployed from the suburbs taking over the bank towers that dominate downtown. Before leaving the building, the employees boarded up the seemingly transparent glass entries out of fear of assaults. These “designed spaces” were of little use in the real conflict about space in the “Design City” Buenos Aires.

As called for by Jesko Fezer and Matthias -Heyden, a critical design practice should “vehemently address the questions of access and availability of space“, so as to resist the increasing clinch of an urban policy that orients itself exclusively along the commercial concept of a “Creative City”. [14]

(Translation: Michael Lattek)


[3]On urban criticism, see: Wolfgang Sofsky, “Schreckbild Stadt. Stationen der modernen Stadtkritik”, in: Die alte Stadt 1/1986, pp. 1–21.
[4]K. Michael Hays, Modernism and the Posthumanist Subject, Cambridge, Mass. 1995, p. 20.
[5]Ibid. p. 136.
[6]Frederic J. Schwartz, “Utopia for Sale in The Bauhaus and the Weimar Germany’s Consumer Culture”, in: Kathleen James-Chakraborty, Bauhaus Culture From Weimar to the Cold War, Minnesota 2006, p. 138.
[7]Werner Sewing, “No more learning from las Vegas”, in: ders., Bildregie Architektur zwischen Retrodesign und Eventkultur, Basel 2003, p. 16.
[8]Panu Lehtovuori, Experience and Conflict, Helsinki 2005, p.?49.
[9]See note 7.
[10]Ibid., S. 17.
[11]Nikolaus Kuhnert/Susanne Schindler, “Off-Architektur”, in: archplus 166, October 2003, p.14.
[12]Gabriele Klein, “Die Stadt als Szene. Eine Einführung”, in: Gabriele Klein., Stadt. Szenen, Wien 2005, p. 19.
[13]Bastian Lange, “Wachstumsmotor Kreative?—?eine Kritik an Richard Florida, in: Philipp Oswaldt (ed.), Schrumpfende Städte, vol. 2, Ostfildern Ruit 2005, p. 404.
[14]Jesko Fezer/Mathias Heyden, “Die Versprechen des Situativen”, in: archplus 183, May 2007, p. 95.