Therapeutic Urbanism?

First published in ARCHIS Magazine, Netherlands, #4, 2003, pp. 60-68.

“Hornstrumpet! We shall not have succeeded in demolishing everything unless we demolish the ruins as well. But the only way I can see of doing that is to use them to put up a lot of fine, well-designed buildings.” – Père Ubu (1)

The city, that most significant repository of identity, often finds its fate decided by real-life versions of Alfred Jarry’s mischievous despot, by politicians and planners. While destruction in the name of regeneration marks every city every day, nowhere is the issue of identity and memory in urbanism as critical as in post-war reconstruction. From Warsaw to Beirut, to Sarajevo and back to a projected Baghdad, recent history is full of Père Ubus leaving their marks on the tattered fabric of the city. With various degrees of intention, good and bad (2), attempts at post-war recovery have produced irreversible breaks in the continuity of urban identity as it is manifested in the notion of memory as built form, complex and problematic in the case of cities.

In Hebrew, as in Arabic, “man” (zakar or zekher) and “memory” (zaakira) share the same root. Beyond the immediate temporal (or historical) dimension of the concept, the Arabic language also uses zaakira to signify the navel: the central point (a spatial dimension), but also the tip of the umbilical cord that connects mother and child (a social dimension). If man is memory, then memory is an absolute necessity in his continuous connection with himself, his life and his social, spatial, and temporal dimensions(3).

In highly charged post-war contexts, the significance of this link between man and urban setting through memory is at its zenith, ripe for recovery but prey to propaganda. Faced with the realities of politics and economics, the therapeutic role of urbanism is often misused. Presented with the physical, political, and economical realities of such contexts, decision makers often opt for the easy erasure of the traces of conflict, while designers often opt for a fetishization of the same traces.

Following on from work in Beirut and Sarajevo we propose a strategy for damaged urbanism that both retains the characteristics of charged sites and transforms the significance of those characteristics – walking a fine line between amnesia and trauma. We suggest a neutral recognition of certain artifacts, and equally recognize qualities that make such sites unique in their social, spatial, and historical dimensions.

Even in places with as difficult a recent history as Bosnia, memory, as embodied in urban form, should not be eradicated. This would induce a form of civic amnesia that the eviscerated central district of Beirut most clearly evokes. There the demolition of most structures in the downtown and the more extreme erasure of the street pattern has produced a void that will now be filled by the forms of speculation and invented tradition. The radical erasure and reformation of war-damaged cities in Europe, east and west, after 1945 is another negative example of amnesia as urban strategy. In psychotherapeutic terms this is the equivalent of shock-therapy, the erasure of unbearable memory, allowing the recreation of personality in a more docile mode. In urban terms it subdues cultural flux permitting an intensification of the marketplace and a redefinition of cultural values.

On the other hand, the maintenance of traumatic urban form, the celebration of war damage as in the projects of Lebbeus Woods for various devastated sites including Sarajevo, represents another extreme. Here the Pastoralism of War (4) becomes voyeuristic and painful memory is institutionalized, encouraging a numb indifference that is also extremely vulnerable to the worst sorts of development. The “Meta-Institute” visit to and subsequent projections for Havana resonate with similar contradictions. This group, consisting of Woods and fellow neo-expressionists, initiated a process of cultural colonization that I imagine neo-avant-gardists around the globe will be continuing. Visiting Cuba would ratify their own aesthetic formats and self-proclaimed radicalism. In fact the ACSA (Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture – the consortium of American schools) International Conference was held in Havana last year. Possibly the advantages for this struggling nation, beyond the revenue derived from such visit, is the publicity, however exploitive, derived from their chest-pounding. While the same issues somewhat taint all endeavors in war-damaged areas, their value is that they can attract patronage. The sympathy directed toward these environments that the ex-Cold-War is producing wholesale, means funding for research and strategies for action in other quarters. Less overtly imagistic projections than Woods’ may be laboratory experiments for damaged urbanism world-wide. Dilapidation and fragmentation are global problems for cities of the ex-second and third worlds and ironically those of the United States as well. Generously funded work in battle-scarred cities can then produce proposals with implications for other tattered cities like Havana, Lima, Lagos or Detroit, for whom funding and compassion are scarce.

The traumatic retention of the forms and damage of war, while possibly picturesque in a romance-of-the-ruin way, can be entertaining only for those who have not lived through the suffering and loss embodied in those ruins. That is one reason most such projects remain theoretical, while the other extreme – the amnesiac destruction of the ruins becomes the norm. If, outside of historical collages like Rome, removing ruins is inevitable, what is necessary to keep at least a memory of their removal itself?

In one sense, cities already answer this question. For the habitual forms of urban development, the three-dimensional armature produced by convention and ordinance in which buildings are shaped, has a lot more to do with the retention of cultural value than objects themselves. Thus such projects as the eradication of the ancient borgo to expose the fragments of the Roman Forum and create a boulevard for Fascist display have produced a culture of urban aphasia. More radical still, is the erasure of downtown Beirut and the reconfiguration of the street pattern. This loss of civic organization, of plan and volume, is even more extreme than the obliteration of the two thousand buildings that accompanied it. We have wandered this late-capitalist ruin with Beirutis of the pre-war generation who invariably cannot find the cardinal spaces of their youth. “No….the Place de Martyrs was over here,” “No it started here.” or “Was this Bab Idriss?”; “I used to meet my father for lunch here, no there.” Interestingly, many of the buildings around these historic spaces still stand but without the urban morphologies, they become like isolated words floating on a page.

There are at least three types of memory that built form embodies, and that risk being lost in the process:

  1. the subjective memory related to meaning, and directly linked to each individual’s sense of personal and group identity (zaakira – memories);
  2. the collective memory of preceding civilizations or even close ancestors (zaakira – umbilical cord);
  3. the recorded memory of the knowledge and worldview of those who built and lived the place (zaakira – navel of the world).

The existence of these sorts of memory in urban form is nebulous. Identity, one of the most abused terms in modern discourse of any sort, finds itself blurring with memory. Current attempts to locate identity in architectural form have turned out to be inadequate at best and crassly commercial more typically. Real estate is well served by the production of identity and the exploitation of memory. The erasure of history through the annihilation of the urban fabric in which it embedded offers a chance to rewrite that history. Regionalism and nationalism are different cuts of the same ideological suit of which identity is also a variation.

“Consider for example, what is already happening in those nations lately released from the grip of Russia – Hungary, Poland, Romania – where architecture is seen as the most potent means of restoring and representing the national identity. Students are encouraged to resurrect ancient mysteries, that is to imagine objects that may unwittingly reinforce racial and tribal differences. In spite of good intentions, the monsters may return…” (5)

Despite the compromised conditions that must be faced in such a situation, each one of these memories implies different effects on built form. Some examples are given below as the rudiments of an urban manifesto with buildable implications:

  • We acknowledge the importance of “therapeutic” urbanism in equal relation to given landscape.
  • Morphologies are identified and reconfigured through a new equivalence between mass, void, and organism.
  • A nervous field is produced where rules appear precise but edges overlap and definitions remain fuzzy.
  • Armatures of violence and authority may be formally transformed while remaining recognizable typologically or morphologically. Traumatic form may thus remain but finds new significance.
  • Programs can be determined by need, and can be directly influenced by the action of the end users. The spatial relation between them will conform to certain urban requirements however.
  • Centers of gravity in the urban field will be identified and new events are injected into existing morphologies. Points of extreme activity generate pressure, triggering the gradual colonization of the development area.
  • This does not imply the uncritical retention or restoration of existing damaged fabric, but rather the recognition of existing urban configurations.
  • In fact the physical fabric of space may be reversed. Void can become solid as in the castings of Rachel Whiteread.
  • “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” (6) This passage describes the strategy, for a plow is still a blade and a hook still a lance, but their function and significance are overturned.

“New built form should not force any particular non-contemporary ‘style’ on coming generations, but rather respect their own capacity of adding meaning layers to whatever is built today, which means new built form should have a wide range of adaptability, both physical and aesthetic. On the other hand, existing built form should be judged according to the same rule – in other words, even settings with no immediate architectural or historical value should be respected, saved and/or upgraded, if found to have particular meanings attached to their current users.” (7)

Spaces and objects propose a general strategy for producing new density in suburban sprawl while avoiding the nostalgic recreation of archaic urban structures as has been mandated in Berlin, for instance. Vast new programmatic areas can be accommodated and urban spaces that address the concerns and activities of progressive communities are generated. An urbanism that may now be lacking, an urbanism that values space as much as object, is reasserted here.

Maximum formal diversity is encouraged within the urban limits, not just in the configuration of the buildings and their program but also in the spaces that form between them. As the project develops, a system of envelopes for building construction will interact with a series of urban spaces, changing with the seasons and the flow of users. The “authorities” only set out the rules of the game. The users (players) develop the patterns/configuration of the game along each turn’s needs and implications. Like the game of Go, a certain inevitability will link what can never be random development.

A therapeutic urbanism may heal on two levels: on the level of the individual, of the citizen/user, and on that of the urban fabric. Action is by the individual, moved by both practical need and resonant memory. Random needs produce inevitable results. The consequence of such action affects the fabric, creating practical spaces and new associations, which in turn feed back into the therapeutic process…. The result is a feedback-driven process constantly linking citizen, memory, and physical form.

 


Ayssar Arida is an architect & urban designer, living and practicing in London and Beirut. His first book Quantum City defines a new language for the development of theories for the 21st century city.

 

Michael Stanton is an architect, Associate Professor and Chairman of the Department of Architecture and Design at the American University of Beirut. Scholarly interests include Italian Modernism, contemporary architectural theory and culture, and urbanism.


1 Jarry, Alfred « Ubu enchaîné », in Œuvres complètes, tome 1, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris, 1972. p 427. English translation from Anastasi, William: « Jarry, Joyce, Duchamp and Cage » in Tout-Fait Vol.1/Issue 2, May 2000.http://www.toutfait.com/issues/issue_2/Articles/anastasi.html
2 Various passages in this essay are sampled from Stanton, Michael, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Urbanism and Intention” in Mining Autonomy — Perspecta 33, The Yale Architectural Journal, New Haven, 2002.
3 See Arida, Ayssar, Quantum City, Architectural Press, Oxford 2002, pp. 192-195.
4 See Stanton, Michael, “On Realism and the Observer,” ARCHIS 9, September 2000, pp. 51-55. With illustrations by Arida, Ayssar and Khodr, Nesrine.
5 Kelbaugh, D. (1997), Common Place: toward Neighborhood and Regional Design. University of Washington Press.
6 Old Testament, Micah iv 3. 2.
7 Arida, Ayssar, Quantum City, Architectural Press, Oxford 2002, p 193.

One Comments

  1. NILO BAREZ says:

    IT ‘S VERY VERY INTERESTING.THANK YOU

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This started as the companion site to Ayssar Arida''s first book, Quantum City. It now includes a growing set of the author''s writing and his blog.


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