Experiencing the city anew

Charles Landry
28 August 2001

Roger Scruton and Sophie Jeffreys are onto something in their openDemocracy polemic on the need to revive classicism. During times of dramatic transformation the question “what are we here for?” becomes more urgent, as does the search for meaning. This must find expression within, and therefore also be contested, in the way we build.

Economic well-being only makes us feel that we live good lives up to a point. Other issues come into play, such as cultural sustainability. How can we achieve this when the three traditional anchors of community – social homogeneity, immobility and the need to co-operate with neighbours – have disappeared? Any city neighbourhood today has people with different interests, backgrounds and lifestyles, who are mobile, have hybrid identities, a mix-and-match lifestyle. People, in other words, who find little need to co-operate with their neighbours.

The three conditions giving rise to “community” only exist in exceptional circumstances, generally in deprived and isolated neighbourhoods such as outer housing estates, where “a mutuality of the oppressed” exists. It is doubtful whether those communities could be a model for how our cities should develop.

Yet the desire for anchoring remains key and it is still connected to place. In spite of modern high-tech communications, face-to-face contact remains essential to anchoring. Place remains a centre of real value. Not necessarily my original place but some place – my flat, street, city, region, country – even if I see myself as a citizen of the world.

Roger Scruton and Sophie Jeffreys propose a return to classicism as the answer to the need to anchor communities. They reject the idea that we should simply abolish all planning on property and leave city and country to the market, as Jules Lubbock suggested in his openDemocracy contribution. Instead, they outline a withering assault upon what they describe as “modernism” in architecture and building. In their view, it cannot produce anything other than isolated, unrepeatable edifices. They concede that sometimes, as in occasional houses of Frank Lloyd Wright, these may be magnificent. But, they insist, the impulse of modernism is a mechanical individualism which cannot provide a way forward for liveable cities.

The past: resource, not weapon

Roger and Sophie have done us a great service by insisting so forcefully that debates over planning and development are aesthetic. Planning implies cultural and artistic standards and artisanal values. But is classicism the right aesthetic?

They accept that classicism itself was not static and has its own history of change. Nonetheless, they use it as a weapon against present trends. Individually, their arguments have force, but together they mislead. What we need to recover is the relationship between past and present, to re-establish a continuity out of the divide between classicism and modernism, instead of counter-posing them as total enemies. The idea of civic creativity is one such bridge.

Civic creativity involves applying imaginative problem solving to objectives of public good. The aim is to generate a continual flow of innovative solutions to problems which have an impact on the public realm. Civic creativity is the capacity for public officials, and others oriented to the public good, to imaginatively achieve “higher value within a framework of social and political values”. This may be translated into monetary terms, or other objectives. It is a creativity that negotiates a harmony between self-interest and collective desires.

Context determines what this might be. In one instance, the need to deal with urban violence innovatively; in another, raising income levels of the excluded; in a third, creating a sense of beauty in urban design, or inventing new forms of incentives to make social mixing within housing estates desirable. Civic creativity can only occur in a changed organisational culture; one that is predisposed to risk taking.

It requires an ethos. This is more than an aesthetic, although it includes it. An ethos requires a way of saying: “this is the way we do things here”. Ethos helps re-create coherence. An ethos is a very powerful tool: a guide to priorities and resources, a common identity and purpose that binds people together. It links the visionary and the practical. There are three layers that need to be coherent. The meta or grand strategy of ethos, vision, ethics and transformation; the core strategy of management, control, rules, budgets, initiatives and monitoring; the base strategy of routine, repetitive operations. In this way urban development can proceed by creating and adding value and values simultaneously.

We need planning that incorporates different perspectives to gain more penetrative insights. By seeing a place through diverse eyes, potential and hidden possibilities – from business ideas to improving the mundane – are revealed. Traditional planning has been dominated by land-use, transport, and engineering specialists. The new planning should rely much more on the insights of local historians, psychologists, cultural activists, social affairs people, lateral thinkers and those who understand global economic dynamics.

This is where Roger and Sophie's argument is deeply relevant, in its awareness of the “holistic” aspect of planning; in their words, the “fittingness” of the part with its larger aspect. But the direction of this argument is again mistaken, in taking its stand in the past against the present, rather than seeing how the modernist principles can be defended against bad practice. Modernism is more than a few bad buildings; it is itself an outgrowth of the way people have chosen to live their lives, as well as having been forced to.

The present is the challenge

The “teams” that plan cities should therefore represent a much larger diversity of roles than we are used to. They need facilitators, visionaries, leaders, public servants, investors, advocates and technical specialists, with a wide range of intellectual resources to match. Planning should be driven by an ethos and carried out with civic creativity. It must be deliberative, rather than narrowly technical.

In this respect then, Roger and Sophie are right to insist that the direction for architecture and the creation of our cities needs to be based on human values, not technical schemes. Furthermore, as I will show in a moment, the market place, and the corporations that track and trace our longings and our demands, are already onto the need for value that Roger and Sophie have diagnosed. But this also makes it all the more important to understand the central respect in which their analysis is wrong.

They argue that we have to take, as the fundamental principle of building, the permanence of life. That we have to build forever. That the desire for “fittingness” and settlement is the desire for remaining in one place for the whole of one’s life. This links to their advocacy of classicism, which they see as representing the universal characteristics of human life.

In my view, they fail to understand that change, the need for change, the need for novelty and impermanence, the need for movement and difference, the need for creativity of a superficial as well as of a fundamental level – that these human needs are fundamental to urban life.

Roger and Sophie are reproducing the mythology of settlement that goes with farming. This has been most eloquently argued by Hugh Brody (see his interview in openDemocracy issue 4). Brody shows that the Neolithic life of farming and town and city settlement only appears to be fixed, while that of the hunter-gatherer appears to be transient and mobile. Looked at over two or three generations you see instead that our way of life is the explosive one, permanently expanding, that it is restless and imperial in its rhythms, whilst the hunter-gatherers move within relatively fixed borders, and understand the specific landscape they move across. The ideology of permanence is crucial to the claims made upon the landscape by settlers of all kind. But it is a false claim. They are –we are – a people in movement.

The question, therefore, is how to build for movement and inter-generational change. The corporate market place has grasped this and seeks to exploit the human need for change. “Experience” is currently the centre of this strategy. Popularised by the book The Experience Economy (James H. Gilmore and B. Joseph Pine II, Harvard Business School Press, 1999), it is a union of everyday consumption and spectacle.

This process is turning retailing into a part of the entertainment industry, often blurring the boundaries between shopping, learning and the experience of culture. It involves creating settings where customers and visitors participate in all-embracing sensory events, whether for shopping, visiting a museum, going to a restaurant, conducting business-to-business activities, or providing any personalised service, from haircutting to arranging travel. In this process, for example, shops can develop museum-like features and museums can become more like shops.

Design, multimedia, theatrics and soundscapes increasingly move centre-stage. If you want to keep your customers’ attention, it is said, you have to deliver a compelling experience. This is a trend that is shaking the foundations of museums, libraries, science centres, shopping malls and cultural centres, as well as virtually every aspect of the business world.

With greater choices and higher expectations, marketeers are competing for customers’ attention, trying to break through the clutter and sensory overload. How is this done? By creating experiences that are so distinctive that they stand out in a crowded landscape. Suddenly the power of Disneyland is seen as salvation, and organisations are seeking to create their own “brandlands”, which are destinations (both real and virtual) that deliver a memorable message by telling a compelling story.

Theme park-style technology, special effects, and storytelling techniques are applied to projects like the Sephora and Niketown stores; the Lincoln library; a Volkswagen factory in Dresden, Germany; a cultural centre for the Sami people in Karasjok, Norway. While Disney had Adventureland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland, the projects that organisations like BRC (the California-based planning company of themed entertainment venues) are working on are corporate brandlands, cultural discoverylands, and learninglands, wrapping everything up in a cohesive narrative, engaging visuals, and soaring musical scores.

BRC are even toying with the idea of theming hospitals. “We’ve proven that you can build a hospital that makes people feel worse, what if you could design one that helps people feel better?” BRC’s CEO, Bob Rogers, argues. “The 21st century will be a search for meaning,” he continues. “We’re going to find meaning in stories that tell us who we are. Story is what touches people. Story is what changes lives. And that’s what we do here.”

The future as sustainable experience

People increasingly want engagement, conversation, involvement and participation, so that they are part of shaping and re-shaping their unfolding universe. The danger is to underestimate the intelligence of the market in realising this for itself. My worry is that the market is starting to supply the experience of control over our lives and to sell it back to us. Nor is it always stupid or dumb in the way it achieves this. We have to be “in and against” the market, observing and learning from it, if we are to get the best.

You might want to go on holiday to Mexico, but this holiday is different. Instead of paying to relax, you pay to work on an archaeological dig. There is clearly work, and there is work that is leisure if conditions are right. On your return through New York, you end up at the Shisheido store, where there are enticing products on display, but you can’t buy any. You can only gape and then go elsewhere, perhaps Bloomingdale’s, to satisfy your desires. Then on to the Guggenheim, where the shop is an integral part of the museum, and where increasingly you are unsure as to whether you are in a museum or a shop. By contrast, Rem Koolhaas’s Prada store projects itself as if it were more than merely a shop. You go to 42nd Street and you remember that this was once the seedy part of town where New York’s low life provided a touch of danger mixed with excitement – theatres, jazz clubs and prostitutes. Now it is transformed. Disney plays a major part. Yet it has lost something on the way. The themed environment is more like the “sanitised razzmatazz” of Las Vegas.

Or what Las Vegas used to be like. Now you can go there to stay in the New York, New York hotel and experience the dangers of Gotham City. Las Vegas has pioneered the “constructed experience”. Walk along the strip and in one journey you can take in versions of Venice, Paris and the pyramids, and even encounter Rem Koolhaas’s new Vegas Guggenheim, where we meet another Prada that projects itself as a public space and different kind of selling experience.

Think, too, of the new Levi’s store Cinch, where you become the producer of your own jeans – measured to fit you alone. And bookshops or multi-media stores, like Borders or FNAC, now sell more than books; they are entertainment centres with music programmes, exhibition spaces and places for childrens’ storytelling. Europe is also in on the act, and the rest of the world is following. The London department store, Selfridges, held a Tokyo month in June 2001, and exuded the sensory experience of another world. In Birmingham, a new flagship store designed by Future Systems is being built, looking like a space ship that has landed on the former Bullring. It has no name – its iconic quality seeks to cry out – Selfridges. Indeed, it is architects who are freeing themselves up to produce new style structures that brand companies.

The selling of perfume is being re-thought as a theatrical experience. Sephora’s flagship store in Paris involves going down a ramp, where on your left you pass shelves full of books on smell and records with allusions to smell, while on your right are giant flacons exploring the history of perfume. You then arrive at a round counter with perhaps one thousand smell samples, and choosing between multi-coloured perfumes, soaps and fragrances, you create your own black gift box that is ceremoniously wrapped by assistants with one black glove before you rest in a meditation room.

These are just a few examples of the way that the market takes people’s need to be makers, shoppers and creators of their environment and uses it for narrow and shallow ends. Far from empowering, Niketown is a totally disempowering experience.

But there are examples where the human need to be active is not abused or exploited. The Duisburg Meiderich Park, created out of an old steel plant, becomes a nightly adventure playground, a spectacle with visitors climbing lit steel structures in the dark, designed by Pink Floyd’s lighting engineer Jim Park. It uses, too, the old factory walls as climbing frames for the local mountaineering school, although the area is completely flat; and the old gasholder is filled with water and used as a scuba diving training pool.

In Britain, the newly completed Eden project near St. Austell in Cornwall, designed by Nicholas Grimshaw and located in a disused clay quarry, features the biggest glass houses in the world. A combined garden and environmental project, its mission statement says it wants to envelop visitors with a compelling experience – but an experience with a broader purpose, namely the message of sustainability itself.

These are the genuinely positive public spaces, the piazzas, of our time. A call to return to the rhythm of classical columns will not answer the needs they express. Nor should we be gloomy about the confidence the market has displayed as it transforms experience into turnover. On the contrary, its energy shows that it is possible to move towards a viable and contemporary creative city, one that we will want to live in as well as experience.

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