After The Urban
The Critique Broadsheet
In this issue of Paprika!, entitled “Not Urban” the editors (Claudia Carle, Zach Felder, and Annika Babra) offer a robust series of essays that frame a timely conversation on the way we characterize the context and ground upon which we design. The editors’ statement raises questions that require us to think deeply about the categories urban/rural - and all their semantic siblings. The statement begins to unpack the tangled history of these terms and how they manifest themselves in our design methodologies today. The selected essays speak to each other through common themes: the role of nostalgia and romanticism in preserving the not-urban, or less-urban; the tangled modernist narrative of the urban/rural divide; the urban’s relationship to historical shifts in labor paradigms; the suburban and its reliance on repetition and idealization.
Through these themes a major question emerges: should we be using the term “urban” (and therefore “not-urban”) at all? Do these terms limit us from seeing patterns that cut across these categories? Or is this distinction useful in that the “not-urban” could perhaps be understood as simply that which is less traveled and therefore hidden, whether purposefully or not? Is this term “rural” or “not-urban” another way of claiming know-ability or ownership of anything that this less-traveled region might contain?
Many of the voices in the issue consider the relationship of the “urban” to form and to community identity. George Papamatthaiakis in his article, “Lingering Cityism and Countryside Entrapment”, investigates the relationship between the term “urban” and specifically the form of cities. Gustav Nielsen pursues the definition of urban in relationship to a civic identity, the polis. Lindsay Duddy paints these terms as related to form, like Papamatthaiakis, but abstracts his settlement typologies into geographic zones with perceived or drawn boundaries. As Duddy points out, these boundaries are drawn on maps and in collective consciousness. Nielsen discusses the systems we use in mapping out urban/not-urban areas and brings up the idea of “stewardship” and suggests that GIS can be a tool to allow for collective stewardship. Since drawn maps can reinforce imposed and problematic boundaries, I wonder how his collective stewardship might act to give control over land back to its community. This line of discussion questions whether community identity and form are at odds with one another and how they might be reconciled.
Meanwhile, Brian Orser, Benjamin Derlan, and Aleksa Milojevic’s essays investigate the history of the “urban” and its connection to modernist narratives of the rural. They argue that the study of life or daily ritual as opposed to the study of form is a key component of preserving any sort of “not-urban” form. Orser and Milojevic discuss the history of “urban” and its entanglement with the history of capitalism. They point out that settlement forms are directly linked to historic labor paradigms, and therefore “rural” has not only a spatial implication but a temporal one. They suggest that the term carries a connotation that these spaces exist in a prior labor structure. The countryside contains the remnants of feudalism; it is a place where capitalism has not yet reached. Each author explores the historical developments that led to an extractive and hyperactive urbanism and concludes that we need to study the new labor rituals happening in settlements outside of what we understand as “Urban”. While I find this challenge for designers to focus on ritual over form an apt one, their arguments rely on a nostalgic romanticism for “country-life.”
Which brings us to another prominent question dominating the issue’s conversation: is romanticizing “country life” detrimental to its endurance or can it be leveraged to help preserve the vestiges of the “not-urban”? This question appears most prominently in Lindsay Duddy's “The Latent In-Between” and Areti Kotsoni’s “Using Anamnesis to Reconstruct Space.” Both of these pieces suggest that tapping into a collective memory or nostalgia is key to preserving or reconstructing spaces outside of the “urban” proper. Duddy cites examples of architectural endeavors that have given a new life to abandoned or unusable structures of the past, and Kotsoni provides images of collective life and forms in Cretan villages to illustrate how understanding and respecting these structures and rituals could lead to their preservation. Nostalgia has proven to be a powerful tool towards maintaining historical structures over time, in the form of a relic. Is there a way that nostalgia or anamnesis can preserve more than form but also the community systems that give this form meaning?
Duddy’s interpretation of “in-between” spaces brings us to the thread of discussion surrounding the “almost-urban” or suburban spaces. Arguments on the suburb focused on the characteristics of the prototypical “suburb”, repetition and the composed edges of a picture-perfect suburban home and landscape. Jerry Chow focuses on the suburbs depicted in Peppa Pig and defines a suburb as a “landscape of idealism…an ideal of a life that is to be desired.” Yet, while we carry with us an ideal image of the suburb, a suburb seems to be first and foremost about space, a relief from urban density and the associated by-products; Its manicured appearance is a side effect of a purposeful excess of space. Andrew Bruno looks at the repetitive structures that stake claim to a unit of this excessive space through a discussion on the “Architect’s Small House Service Bureau”, an organization formed through the AIA to provide stock house plans for mass distribution. His article asks what a designer’s role should be in mass production and whether systems of optimization, aided by designers or not, have eroded the idiosyncrasies of place. The repetitive domestic structures of the suburbs baldly assume the role as a tool to lay claim to a unit of land, a symbol of one’s right to bountiful space, and place becomes irrelevant.
What does all this mean for how we should treat the “urban” and “not-urban” in architectural practice and methodology? Benjamin Fann argues that our urban methodologies are too zoomed out: we are so focused on form and on cataloguing these forms in an intellectual nexus that we lose sight of the real ways space is used. The idea of studying use, interactions, rituals comes up again. This issue’s lecture review, a punchy and sharp highlight in the issue, illustrates and criticizes contemporary practitioners’ use of informal urban settlements (yes, any informal urban settlement) as a backdrop for their paternalist, post-praxis manifestos on “proper” urban design. This suggests that we as designers too easily default to lumping forms of settlement into simple ontological categories, categories that can be manipulated to reinforce one’s personal goals.
In short, this was a dense fold but a provocative read, one that clearly got my gears turning and offered many morsels for further investigation. The density of the text alongside the graphic design choice to fill the “in-between” spaces with a series of repeating standardized farm-like icons helped support the major thread of inquiry in the issue: that perhaps the distinction urban/not-urban no longer has a formal manifestation and that in fact our systems for categorizing form might be obscuring the ways in which the not-urban has already been overcome by the Urban.