- April 18, 2019
We live now in a world not of states, but of cities. These are burning stars that dot the globe; we trace lines to form constellations, outlining flows that tie each node into dense networks. Flows of labor, products, and cultural transmission connect cities and collapse the distances between them. Each place receives from others and passes on to the next, lobbing its outputs to a multitude of locations.
One of these flows is a currency familiar to architects: that of the digital image. Separate from the goods and services that keep our present selves running, the digital image operates in the speculative economy, that which is concerned with future you. It proposes a vision of the world that is yet to be, whether it depicts a smiling family with the right insurance, an immortal meme, or a glossy rendering of a new business district.
A network of digital images lights the earth, multiplying at immeasurable speed. Among the many visions it illuminates, few are as potent as the myth of the world-class city. This myth seeks to define the cities it travels to, importing from elsewhere an aspirational architectural vocabulary. The aesthetics of world-class-ness, relentlessly repeated in cities around the world, is now easy to spot. Swanky airport? Check. Luxury mega-mall? Got it. Record-breaking office tower housing multinational companies? This is a world-class city. Bonus points for a fake island or high tech stadium.
The impressive edifices of the world-class city are contingent upon the production of images and fly-through simulations that evince their form, which convince the public and, those in power that they deserve to be made real. These images are not always concocted—they might be pictures of other cities further along in the race. The world-class aesthetic trickles down from one place to the next: make Shanghai the new London, make Dubai the new Shanghai, make Mumbai the new Dubai. With the persistence of these visions—in which one business district can hardly be told apart from another—an arbitrary standard of beauty emerges and imposes itself upon countless places that seek to attain this elusive world-class quality. World-class-ness becomes an end in itself, turning urban planning into a beauty contest.
In his ethnography on the slum residents of a Delhi neighborhood, Asher Ghertner observes an “aesthetic mode of governing” that determines the legality of spaces and people in the city. “If a development project looks ‘world-class,’” he argues, “then it is most often declared planned; if a settlement looks polluting, it is sanctioned as unplanned and illegal.”¹ In Dholera, Gujarat, a small Indian city shrouded in the analogous rhetoric of the ‘smart city,’ Ayona Datta similarly observes the seductive role of “super-simulated” promotional videos, which “transform the ambiguous rhetorics of a smart city into an active desire for its materialization.”²
This gives rise to a dangerous paradigm of planning, in which outer characteristics drive the validity of large-scale developments and the converse invalidity of spaces that don’t conform to the world-class aesthetic. Inevitably, only the elite benefit from the utopian infrastructures that are grafted onto their cities as cosmetic implants. Only a certain set can afford to pay the tolls on new highways, buy apartments in luxury towers, and fly out of swanky airport terminals. The world-class city is a hot commodity, but whose utopia is it?
Saskia Sassen argues that despite the dispersive tendencies of globalization—or perhaps because of it—the pull of world cities, which function as coordinating centers, is only getting stronger. But the accelerated import of global ideas to these hubs has imposed within them “a new valorization dynamic—that is, a new set of criteria for valuing or pricing various economic activities and outcomes.” Spatial vestiges of local histories and the visual blight of migrant enclaves score low on this global report card, threatened by an insatiable demand for international branding.
In Ghertner’s study, Delhi’s slum residents earnestly taped to their walls poorly photoshopped posters depicting strange dreams of domesticity, images that could have been easily cooked up by architecture students as tongue-in-cheek collages. While the heavily rendered images produced for the world-class campaign might prompt derision in academic circles, they often inspire the opposite emotion in urban residents—even those who remain excluded from world-class visions are conditioned to salivate.
Architects of today tend to believe that there is no place for utopian visions in the contemporary world—we are far from the days of a prewar CIAM; Haussmannian master plans are incompatible with our present appreciation of urban heterogeneity. We content ourselves instead with small-scale interventions and one-off formal exercises, focusing on local constituents rather than messy urban citizenry. But the truth is that world-class schemes are still being produced and deformed utopias are still being built; we need to determine our role in it all.
First we must address the fact that our native abilities in image production are complicit in the creation of world-class-ness. It is not simply the work of corporate firms that enables world-class visions—with our endless production of all kinds of architectural images, we strengthen the duplicity of renderings, imbuing them with a false semblance of truth. We are not made appropriately weary of the dark side to the digital tools we use, in which their products can dislodge whole communities, as pixelated Trojan horses claiming territory in the name of a mythological beauty.
By enabling the reification of world-class-ness, we also define its unworldly other: spaces that don’t belong in pleasant vignettes, people that don’t look like their stock photo stand-ins. The world-class aesthetic interrupts and erases the textural specificities of each city it arrives in. In technocratic terms, these unkempt spaces are deemed illegal by municipal authorities simply because their outward appearances don’t pair well with the gleaming elevations advertised on nearby billboards: “Experience A World-Class Lifestyle At The Most Luxurious Landmarks of Kharghar: Located Next to Golf Course, Upcoming Metro Station & Corporate Park.”
Even if one could claim no involvement in the creation of the infectious world-class image, silence on the matter is just as damaging. The rapidity with which world-class developments can transform cities implies an urgent need for bold alternatives, proposals far beyond the realm of timid urban acupuncture. Until then, there is no match for the invisible hand that traces skylines on young cities, leaving glistening towers in its wake.
Of course, not all development is insidious—cities need to evolve, and this often involves large-scale infrastructural amendments and architectural landmarks. But when the rhetoric of these projects increasingly serves an elite class of the urban population and is built at the cost of displacement and erasure, then so-called development must be publicly challenged, called out for the utopia it isn’t. World-class-ness can be a quality, even an aesthetic, to aspire to—as long as we hold the world to a higher standard.