Photo: Michael Reeve on Flickr

We may not be able to address national social discord directly but we might have a shot with our cities.

Wildly overdoing the current conservative bent to model the future on the past, we seem to have reverted as nations to infantile re-contemplation of notorious social and political dead ends. Indeed, the infant motif for our times seems pervasive.

Insensible to language and ignorant of history, like awestruck babies pawing the contents of their nappies, we no longer hear the adults in the room who admonish, “No dear, that’s not a leader or a worthy policy, it’s a poo-poo”.

Immigrants are bad and the cause of all our woes. Smash the international cooperation that delivered extraordinary international growth. Ban the whole freaking environment; it’s getting in the way of lifestyle on the only habitable planet within light years.

We admire strongmen, blind to their flagrant idiocy and forgetting what their type delivered for Europe, South America, Africa and Asia. Nations that define themselves primarily along ethnic, linguistic or religious lines assert ascendancy over those that define themselves in terms of institutions that render them civilised.

Perhaps one reason is that national experience is increasingly encountered indirectly, mostly through the same medium that dazzles with lifestyle contests and cooking shows, to the extent that the contents of each start to seem interchangeable.

Thus, matters of nationhood are just another form of entertainment; its themes and conflicts flattened, confected and as shallow as “Survivor” with the consequences of both so slight that they dissolve at the next ad break.

Our encounters with cities are entirely different. Urban experiences are first and foremost direct, lived and enduring. Urban shortcomings and joys are visceral, full of nuance. In contrast to nations, cities are hard to turn off.

With this distinction in mind, three presenters at the recent Moscow Urban Forum – 2019 (MUF-2019 for short) offered interesting perspectives on the changing nature of cities under what some refer to as “late capitalism”. Two are architect / academics and the third a social commentator focusing on cities. All had just released books, to which they frequently referred.

Bleak conditions for architecture

Reinier de Graaf is a principle of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA for short), which is a well-known Dutch practice operating globally. He also teaches in the Cambridge school of architecture.

He discussed his recent book, Four walls and a roof: the complex nature of a simple profession, a contemplation on the evolution of architecture in the early 21st century.

Reflecting on the changing significance of the house, he bemoaned its increasing treatment as a commodity. As both a cipher and a means of achieving economic success, the house has also become a symbol of growing global inequality.

His perspective was partly shaped by growing up happily in Dutch social housing. Along with its counterparts in most of Europe following two world wars, this housing type fulfilled national struggles to broaden social equality.

Its recent dismantling – often literally – has been accompanied by, and many would claim to be a contributing cause of, the broader social and political ructions now afflicting many western nations.

De Graaf suggested that the various symptoms of built form inequality spring from the primacy of real estate as a financial instrument. Emphatically tangible, its absolute rights defended by the state in most western economies, and currently delivering greater yields than many conventional financial instruments, property generally and housing particularly is a financial safe haven from regional uncertainty.

Asked as an architect to opine on the nature of “urban amenity” and “quality of life”, he avoided pat built-form nostrums, such as the importance of good design, observing instead that an equitable city tended to yield good public space, not the other way around. Greater urban equality is fundamental; its symptoms are greater urban amenity.

Amidst these conditions the agency of the architect was no longer that of built-form seer, as had seemed the case in the mid 20th century. Instead, the architect has become a mere enabler of capital investment. He considered it a grim virtue for architects to be aware of these conditions and avoid indulging in social leadership fantasies.

Importantly, he was not a market apologist; he mourned the loss of a large public sector capable of advancing significant public interests, such as the mass social housing he grew up in.

Urban absurdities of the market

Stephen Graham, an architecture academic from Newcastle University in the UK, introduced his recent book, Vertical: the city from satellites to bunkers.

He was interested in why designers seem to treat the vertical dimension in particularly obsessive ways.

High-rise buildings require particular attention technically, and they also evince a coldly compelling financial logic, yet the design treatment seems to greatly exceed these pragmatic demands.

To illustrate, he proposed the “vanity height” of recent super-tall buildings. This was the height difference between the top-most habitable floor and the absolute height overall. He noted that this height contributed little functional benefit to a project, yet had been steadily growing in recent years.

Despite the assumption that the allocation of vast resources is rationally productive, the role of super-tall buildings is more symbolic than pragmatic. Financial rationality does not prevail directly but at one remove from the meagre accommodation it generates. For example, the value uplift of a rather ordinary suburb in the desert is greater when clustered around a grand landmark feature compared with an identical suburb that lacks one.

Where money globally is expected to work forever harder, the immense cost of these projects means that the value of symbolism is substantial, possibly exceeding more conventional measures of project success.

Graham identified other apparently irrational objectives of tall buildings. The recent spate of super-tall pencil-thin apartment buildings around New York’s Central Park do not provide much actual accommodation, perhaps 30 apartments for a building 100 metres tall with significant areas on each floor devoted to lifts and stairs. The extreme cost of apartments excludes all but the extremely wealthy few, some of whom are likely never to set foot in them.

The financial logic derives from other benefits. Effectively, these dwellings are banks into which money obtained in, errr, higher risk jurisdictions can be transferred to more secure ones. Capital value and growth are guaranteed by the desires of subsequent owners for “an exclusive building with un-build-out-able globally iconic views”, in the strangled jargon of real estate.

The point here is that despite ever-greater demands for financial efficiencies in the construction and operation of cities for all, capital is endlessly available for squander when left to its own devices.

The primary importance of urban equality

Speaking via video link from London, the third contributor, Richard Sennett, unfolded his presentation from his most recent book, Building and dwelling: ethics for the City.

Though often considered more a thoughtful observer of the cultural conditions underpinning urban life, his book summarised what he has learned in practice as an urban consultant to agencies such as UN Habitat.

Sennett reported that the proper task of the urbanist is not always to give people what they want. Echoing Graham’s observation about the market value of exclusion, Sennett observed that the most frequently requested development was for gated enclaves, so that insiders could avoid people not like them. He considered these to be immoral urban manifestations, corrosive of larger yet undervalued social harmony.

Better, he felt, to insist on mixing, despite the uncertainty for city dwellers this entailed, simply because it obliged people to get along with each other.

Echoing much from recent environmental debates, he also advocated “open” as opposed to “closed” systems. Only the former are capable of adaption when urban conditions change; the determined conditions of the latter not so hence are prone to wastage and despair for inhabitants.

Distinguishing between the physical and lived attributes of cities, Sennett’s overall objective was to identify the conditions amenable to social harmony, which he inferred was an irreducible pre-requisite to urban living; compare its absence in Aleppo with the harmony of Copenhagen.

The advantages of urban living depend on openness to new experiences, so if feelings of unease accompany associating with others that are not your type then so be it. The alternative, cutting out exposure to others, is fundamentally antithetical to urban life.

Where de Graaf expressed frustrated regret at the market conditions under which building is now conducted, and Graham illustrated some of its absurdities, Sennett’s account vividly illustrated the continuity between national harmony and the generation and experience of urban equality.

Cities are where we learn to be decent (or destructive) national citizens.

Most remarkable for all three was how utterly familiar their commentaries are. We’ve all been told this before yet, like infants, ignored it; think the pressing need to address environmental degradation, housing affordability and growing intergenerational inequality.

Civilised nations are born in civilised cities

The positive message is that though we may be unable to address national social discord directly, we are able to do so indirectly by making our cities more civilised.

The roles and expectations of government seem to be changing rapidly. If at a national level government exists to press absurd triumphalist agendas largely safe from consequences, the relative immediacy of urban life largely prevents those that govern our cities from papering over urban policy fractures.

The alternative is untenable. If these urban issues persist the gleeful nappy-soiling squeals that pass for public debate these days are only likely to increase and the more urgent task of government may simply be to keep the fan well away.

Mike Brown has worked in NSW local and state government in planning, urban design, and strategic roles for 15 years. He is also a graduate of the Masters of Urban Policy and Strategy program at the University of NSW.

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