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Notes from the ‘Global Place’ conference

(From Mark Newman’s Worldmapper)

The recent ‘Global Place’ conference at the University of Michigan addressed the challenge of designing and managing cities in age of unprecedented urbanization and global climactic crisis. Cities can be a part of the solution as they are far more than physical places. Economically, they are the location of opportunities and increasingly vital creative intermingling. Socially, they promote dialogue, bonding and unity. Ecologically, they tend to slow population growth, help conquer diseases and due to their density, have relatively small footprints.

The conference was a resounding call for pragmatic utopianism and an integration of urbanism and ecology. It had an emphasis on getting things done rather than living to an ideal. Yet there was some agreement that there is gap between academic discussion and the cultural and material realities. Enough talk. There is a greater need for implementation.

Proposed design solutions rarely spoke of how sustainable architecture practices could be incorporated into a larger idea of empowered development that addresses issues of poverty and self-reliance. Many participants mentioned the necessity of giving urbanizers the freedom to determine and adapt to their own built environments. Yet we glanced over the subject of how communities with differing wealth, expertise and capabilities could autonomously and locally apply sustainable solutions from the bottom up.

We also assumed urbanization to be an undifferentiated process. By definition it is always a flow of people to urban environments. And though usually economically motivated, there is great variation amongst the situations and drivers that bring people to move entire lives and families from one space to another. But space is not even the same as place. Place is something uniquely made over time. We should wonder how ‘place’ is made when people exodus en masse to locations of proximity to economic opportunity.

As the process of urbanization is happening in largely diverse and distinct economies and cultures, it would be most helpful to understanding the future needs of the built environment by revealing and incorporating the various modes of urbanization. Just who are the urbanizing people, from where are they coming and to where are they going? How are they drawn into urban economic dreams and what is awaiting them when they arrive? Answering these largely psychological questions would provide a much needed depth to the designing and managing of cities that best respond to their needs, idiosyncratic conditions and mental states.

Here are some notes that outline the people and topics from the very engaging and wide ranging three days. There are also videos of all the sessions.
(Opening Panel: L to R, Saskia Sassen, Liane LeFaivre, Michael Sorkin, Charles Correa, Homi Bhabha)

1. Homi Bhabha spoke about how globalization intensifies the ambivalence about a whole range of issues. Showing the picture “Ramallah New York” of similar scenes in two locations known to be diametrically different but apparently aesthetically similar, he suggests that we become split in an ambivalent representation of these frames.

2. Saskia Sassen based her talk on the observation that the formal political system incorporates less of the political. The legislative branch has lost much of its political power to the executive, which is usually aligned with global corporate capital.

Privatization removes functions of legislature and shifts them to the private sector

Sassen believes that cities are a critical space for overcoming the hollowing of the legislative body and in their capacity to make informal politics. People are mixed from around the world creating a vernacular cosmopolitanism. To facilitate better local informal political interactions, the technologies of globalization that tend to be wired into urban spaces can be used to study the city, and decode the new forms of the political.

(L to R: Teddy Cruz, Peter Land, Liane Lefaivre)
3. As a critical regionalist, Liane Lefaivre seeks to understand the context of a place in order to give it meaning.
Le Faivre’s current project uses the concept of play to confront major issues affecting European cities, especially the tension between communities. Citing Schiller, Gross, Freud, Huizinga, and the Dutch painting genre “Children’s Play,” she talked about the importance of play in exploring our world and in crossing over cultural boundaries.

Post World War Two, the Dutch chose to instill civic values and a civic experience through play. Aldo Van Eyk designed multiple play spaces in central neighbourhood locations in Amsterdam. The Amsterdam playgrounds were not conceived individually, but as part of a net. They were polycentric, interstitial and participatory.

Le Faivre became concerned about xenophobia in the Netherlands and chose to develop playgrounds in Oude Westen, the poorest part of Rotterdam and also that with the least inter-ethnic bonding. After interviewing and engaging local residents, she has assembled a team of global architects and designers to conceive and build playgrounds.

4. Michael Sorkin, whose work deals with the investigation of how politics and architecture are ‘conjoined,’ came with a stunning if somewhat ironic talk about slums as utopian propositions. At the core of the urban crisis are slums, where 1.5 billion people live. And though slums remind us of the most desperate of human conditions, and are very real problems, they are paragons of efficiency and democracy. They can respond to our environmental oversights.

The canary in the minefield has croaked and the solution is to build sustainable cities.

As Jane Jacobs spoke of good cities being self-organizing and morphological, slums, with these and other desirable qualities give us the possibility of thinking of the utopian condition:

  • high degrees of internal equality, which can be identified as the basis of solidarity
  • low levels of consumption
  • high levels of reuse and recycling
  • logical adjacencies to economic resources
  • high levels of self-organization stemming from tight community grouping
  • scales that are morphologically adaptable

5. Celebrated Indian Architect Charles Correa conveyed the great hope India has placed in its cities. He pointed out how they break down the caste system, provide freedom, generate economic skills and are agents of social engineering. He maintained that we need to increase the carrying capacity of cities, and that we should not be looking for beauty in them, but in the synergy that delivers the quality of what we would call a ‘city.’ While celebrating the absorptive capacity of Indian cities as destinations for rural immigrants who otherwise would have gone to ‘Australia’ he described Bombay as “a great city and a terrible place.”

Correa, in one of the more referenced moments of the conference, differentiated between the scientific ideas of similarity as they relate to building large-scale projects from scratch:

Same-similar is life. Same-identical is death.

Correa then presented his own bill of rights for Indian Housing:

  • open to sky space
  • malleability
  • incrementality
  • participation
  • income generation
  • equity
  • disaggregation
  • pluralism

6. Ed Mazria gave his blistering presentation on global warming and architectural responses, which provided tangible and practical solutions for construction as outlined in his ‘2030 Challenge.’ As buildings are responsible for nearly 50% of contributions to greenhouse gases, it’s a crucial leverage point in achieving sustainability.

7. Citing T.S. Elliot, David Orr asked why we fail to fathom unfathomable things. Elliot thought it’s because in our drive to deny mortality, we don’t have much appetite for truth. Orr largely blamed the 5 massive media conglomerates that dominate the market. And he did allude to the potential positive effect of the democratization of media that participatory practices of the internet afford.

In the market we say ‘I’, in the politics we say ‘we.’

8. Beginning with a story from Sack’s “The man who mistook his wife for a hat,” John Thackara spoke about the necessity of seeing the reality behind our physical world. The difference between what is visible and what is invisible means we can’t recognize the ecological realities of our material world. He cited Rafael Buitrago’s notion that we respond to our environment based on hunter-gatherer instincts. In response, we all need the tools to look deeper into the origins and consequences of our material world, and the feedback mechanisms to regulate our individual and group behaviour. We need embedded technology to show the flows through a system.

The Stern Review was a major official pronouncement of the real economic dangers of global warming. Multinationals are rethinking their principles and entire countries like Sweden are eliminating their dependencies on fossil fuels. Taking these as examples, it is not enough to consider the design of individual products or buildings, we need a “transformation of material and energy flows at the very heart of our economy.”

Thackara’s most appealing proposition is to design away from the need to have gadgets and to transition to a ‘use rather than own’ economy. His latest book, ‘In the Bubble,’ makes a strong case for this, especially on the notion that networked communication allows us to locate something easily so we don’t need to be in constant possession of it. Thackara maintains that there is no shortage of innovation and ideas, just of implementation.

9. John King, recent dean of the University of Michigan school of information, urged us to look at things that don’t change in order to design in a faster world. Things that don’t change: people are social, rational and self-interested, and central planning never works. We should learn from Friedrich von Hayek’s ‘local-distant knowledge problem’ where the quality of a decision is proportional to the proximity to the problem. King believes we should put decision-making powers into the hands of the local community.

Touching on the role of technology, King mentioned the mobile phone as the fastest disseminating device in history:

mobile technology is putting the knowledge and the decision-making in the hands of people – we have to get the action out to the leaves as soon as we can!

10. Teddy Cruz discussed his ‘acupunctural’ interventions between Tijuana and San Diego, the site of the most trafficked border in the world; over 60 million people cross every year.

Tijuana and San Diego are diametric opposites in wealth, but are relationally very close. Tijuana builds itself with the waste of San Diego. Entire American bungalows are transported over the border and placed awkwardly on stilts suspended over existing dwellings in Tijuana. Tijuana also has a massive tire-dump, and the dismantling and reconfiguring of tires is an example of creativity in a situation of crisis.

Cruz has intervened in the favellas of Tijuana that surround Maquiadores, the export-oriented assembly factories of global multinationals. The multinationals who take advantage of the cheap and abundant labour have tended not to give back to communities in proximity to them. So Cruz worked with Hyundai to make a metal frame that could be incorporated into existing structures and modes of resourcefulness of the people in the favellas. Rather than developing and deploying entire structures or solutions, the collaboration yielded the production of key ingredient that would help the self-improvement of the communities. Citing Homi Bhabha, Cruz said:

How do we enter in an empathic way allowing temporal possibilities rather than seeking a solution?

(Urban density display from Venice Biennale)

Showing an image from the Venice Architecture Biennale of a topographical representation of the population density of a city, Cruz called for a redefinition of density as the amount and complexity of social exchanges rather than the quantity of people in a place. He continued by suggesting that social experimentation should be happening on the level of the neighbourhood rather than the city.

11. With neoliberalism shaping globalization, there’s heightened competition amongst cities to attract industry and tourism. Rather than seeing cities as efficient and perhaps aesthetic places to live, they are being reconceived and marketed from the demand side as sites from conferences, festivals and conventions. Susan Fainstein argued that global cities can bear responses to the transitory whims of global corporations, the competition for foreign capital, and the placelessness of global culture.

Global citiies are strategic sites for economic control – yet they cannot control themselves – control emanates from them, but its not clear how much control cities have over their own boundaries.

While cities are becoming more responsive to global forces, Fainstein thinks we should encourage democracy on the local level to allow for equitable relationships. Inspired by David Harvey’s “Social Justice and the City,” and praising Amsterdam as a city with high social equality without sacrificing prosperity, she listed three factors that allow cities to deliver justice:

  1. the extent to which government is entrepreneurial
  2. the amount and quality of planning
  3. the amount of focus given to those most in need

Fainstein praised Sen and Nussbaum for their ‘capabilities approach’ to development which seeks to ensure substantial freedoms to people, and sees poverty as capability-deprivation. One such poverty is environment degradation, which often is caused from distant global forces and reinforces environmental injustice. Global climate change has the potential to disproportionately impact poor communities who may not be able to react to problems they didn’t create. Local populations need to be able to respond to global challenges in a way that ensures social justice.

12. Reknowned sustainability specialist Ken Yeang outlined his approach to design as biointegration.


buildings and the built environment are prosthetic devices in the biosphere…how are we to integrate what we make into the host organism?

(Yeang’s aspects of biointegration)

13. John Habraken spoke about how current design ideology is in conflict with the realities of the environment.

people still think that the environment is just a backdrop for architecture. The environment is not something you can produce, it is something you must cultivate. And you must understand the context to build well.

14. Harrison Fraker, dean of the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley, thinks collaboration is our greatest challenge. Coordination is deeply complicated, but entirely essential to taking on our interdisciplinary projects that require continually developing expertise.

Fraker believes that China is our biggest threat and greatest hope. Every week a new coal fired power plant goes up, yet there is a growing interest in creating a circular economy there. He sees local mayors, who have great autonomy and big budgets, as the best partners in creating sustainable projects.

The current mode of Chinese development is based on arterial road systems, which create discrete urban blocks. Developers are required to provide structures according to guidelines. This process is quick as there is an intense and clarified division of roles. The result is a faux urbanism with the unintended consequences of being entirely reliant on automobile transport, which would lead to increased congestion and pollution. Already 80% of Chinese cities have unacceptable levels of air quality, and 600,000 people die prematurely from pollution-related respiratory problems.

Fraker and his students at Berkeley, partly financed by the Moore foundation are developing sustainable communities on an old military base. While gated communities appeal to the Chinese because they reference the emperor’s forbidden city, the team is considering the ‘block’ as the scale of a manageable ecological and political community.

In addition to implementing an array of leading sustainable architectural techniques, they are building an urban garden that will provide 50% of the produce needs of the community. For power generation, they are adopting an innovation in cylindrical wind-turbines spinning on a vertical axis, and graphite rods that extract electricity from biomass and accelerate its decomposition.

Fraker’s work is indicative of and foreshadows increasingly ambitious projects of sustainable architecture in China such as Arup’s Dongtan and SMO’s proposed development on Chongming Island.

15. Lance Brown reminded us that sustainability is a social act, not just a physical act. He talked about the Brazilian city Curitiba, what some people consider to be the most sustainable city in the world. Most impressive about Curitiba is the educational system which teaches young kids about how to live on the earth, who then return to their homes and teach their parents.

16. Anthony Townsend of the Institute for the Future discussed the role of mobile devices in the future of the city. With mobiles, people can record, document, and annotate social space. Ideas, insights and emotions can be transmitted. Townsend calls this functional telepathy “telepathic urbanism.”

Telepathic Urbanism would help us experiment with new social ways of urban living that are based on real-time information and feedback. Thus we could get more out of the existing structures of cities and optimize our lives in them through a better representation of their energy, resource and material realities.

17. Anthony Tung’s sensational and compelling story about urban preservation urged us to create and preserve the sublime for the acculturation of city dwellers. From the widening of Roman roads by Italian Fascists to the soviet aided peacetime removal of the Forbidden City, urban destruction has purged our history. The most touching account was in Warsaw, where Nazi architects and historians identified the most precious and significant Polish landmarks and destroyed them to eviscerate the Polish people of their historic structures and heritage.

Our significant historic fabric is being destroyed in a widespread demolition of irreplaceable structures. The total urban fabric from the past 2000 years that will be left by the year 2100 will be less that 1%.

18. And finally, Robert Jan van Pelt, expert witness in the trial against holocaust denier David Irving, explains in this video (sorry embed not working) how an architectural analysis of Auschwitz proved that the holocaust was not an accident.

we can follow all these decisions and see that their is no practice of killing, then their is a practice of murdering, then there is a policy of murdering…architecture of the camps morphed into the question of answering holocaust morphology…was it intended yes or no?


  1. Carson wrote:

    As we discussed before, it’s too bad that conferences like this one are not generally attented by policy makers. I wonder what they will make of this so-called ‘practical utopianism.’ If its one it can’t be the other, right?

    Sunday, January 14, 2007 at 4:31 pm | Permalink
  2. Joshua wrote:

    Completely agree Carson. And the conferences should be geared toward policy makers. Ultimately sustainable architecture, which is a costly long term investment that pays off in the long term, will be built by visionaries, principled people and those with money to spare. That basically leaves out most people. It’s the policy makers, with their laws, mandates and standards that can make the sustainable practices widespread. There was talk of some certification organizations, but nothing regulatory to speak of. As Mazria spoke of up to 50% of Green house gases coming from construction, it’s time to engage policy to complement the engagement of imagination, creativity and good will.

    Monday, January 15, 2007 at 12:01 am | Permalink

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