The Urban Beyond

The Critique Broadsheet

Volume 7, Issue 05
February 8, 2022

Claudia Carle, Zach Felder, and Annika Babra have posed important questions in their editorial proposal for Paprika, titled “Not Urban” I commend their invitation to focus the architectural gaze beyond the confines of what has traditionally been considered “the urban,” within a false dichotomy that dominates the way in which we think about cities as purportedly separate from rural areas, forests, oceans, wildernesses, and other environments that sustain them.

Does designing for the non-urban require different conceptual frameworks, processes, and representational tools? This editorial provocation transported me to a lecture I attended over a decade ago. Ever since I visited Curitiba in 2006, I became interested in Jaime Lerner and the work his team developed under his leadership as mayor (1971-1975, 1979-1984 and 1989-1993). Curitiba displayed a brilliant mix of uses and densities interwoven by an excellent park system -remediated mines included- and electric Bus Rapid Transit infrastructure. I invited Lerner twice to join us at the Quito Architecture Biennial. Unfortunately, a health condition prevented him from flying to a place located 2,600 masl. YouTube was not saturated with video lectures at the time, and the Quito Biennial didn’t even have a web-page before 2006.When I learned that Lerner was to deliver a lecture at Ecuador’s largest port in Guayaquil, I made the journey. He did not speak about Curitiba and its extremely successful urban acupuncture and sustainability strategy. He spoke about the work he led at the regional scale, when he was governor of the state of Paraná (1995-1998 and 1999-2002). Its capital city, Curitiba, had attracted thousands of immigrants from the region as a result of its successful planning; Who doesn’t enjoy living in a city that offers the benefits of high density agglomerations? Curitiba provided mid-density and mixed residential areas, suburban garden cities, and large parks within blocks that were all situated within walking distance, a short bike or BRT ride.

Lerner then posed a question, as Curitiba suddenly fell victim to its own success. Migrants began pouring into the city and “squatting” (questionable verb, I know) in its outskirts and interstices. Why did this happen?. Could urban issues be tackled by addressing regional necessities? What was missing in Paraná that Curitiba offered? He decided to find out. The surveys were clear: migrants were moving to the city to access the public and private services it offered -schools, medical centers, daycares, playgrounds, banks- unavailable in underserved villages and towns. De facto settlements didn´t offer utilities nor guaranteed access to jobs, but held the promise of a better future for younger generations. Economists debate whether people follow jobs or jobs follow people. The underlying assumption of this debate –a formal, capitalist economy- collapsed under the logic of so-called informal or irregular settlements in the Global South. Most of its inhabitants live resourcefully, drawing the means for sustenance from diverse sites, their areas of origin included (strong urban rural linkages). The revealing aspect of Lerner´s story, beyond economic considerations, was that he and his planning team applied the same acupunctural strategy that transformed Curitiba in order to address shortcomings at the regional scale. In small and intermediate cities, the desired and attractive public services that Curitiba was offering were provided for at the scale of the state; Migration eventually began to reverse its course, and secondary and tertiary magnets were created to redistribute the population in a hierarchical, polycentric constellation of settlements.

Cities cannot be planned as if they exist in isolation, nor can regions, not even buildings. The pandemic taught us that we must achieve a challenging balance between autonomy and interconnectivity. Architects who are interested, like Lerner, in addressing the urban and regional scales must understand –or attempt to understand- the multi-scalar and complex relationships that weave the city and its life into absolutely everything else. Even more so in a condition of planetary urbanism, as Lefebvre noted in 19701 , in which the hinterland has been disjointed from the city. I know, for a fact, that many of the post-industrial sites of U. S. cities are located in the midst of the rain forests of Amazonia. In a vertically integrated global capitalist economy, the relationship between city and hinterland that William Cronon so thoroughly described for Chicago in his book Nature´s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West , has achieved kaleidoscopic levels of multi-scalar and multi-sited complexity that are hard to map2 , in spite of the satellite panopticon. The notion of ecological or environmental footprint may serve as a guiding principle it is naïve to measure urban impact in terms of the literal footprint of urban nuclei on the ground, as a contained “urban” land use approach. The octopus-like footprint of cities, if we consider their consumption, achieves planetary scale. Monocultural land uses and mines are, quintessentially, “urban” from the perspective of their appropriation and use.

It is interesting to me that most of the contributors to this issue relate to the rural indirectly, especially those who engage the countryside through representations of the rural as a bucolic, pastoral, or inescapably suburban landscape; as portrayed in “On Peppa Pig´s House in Paradise”, by Jerry Chow. We know from ancient urban texts, like the Epic of Gilgamesh or Aesop´s fables, that the nostalgia for the rural is a profoundly urban phenomenon. The Enlightenment significantly contributed to consolidate the fictional divide between rural and urban. Its critique, Romanticism, paradoxically accentuated the divide: humans could only be nefarious to that otherness, to nature. The wilderness had to be protected from them by zoning laws, even if in the Transcendentalism of the U.S. it meant expelling Native Americans from to-be National Parks. Brian Orser is concerned with “reverse migration.” As urbanites return to the countryside, a trend that the pandemic has contributed to accelerate, they urbanize country living in their favored rustic-modern style. From cities of peasants we have shifted to a countryside of urbanites. I appreciate Orser´s call for a Grundgeist, for the spirit of the soil, the body, place and a soiled existence. I wonder why he assumes that “good” architecture depends on access to capital… I have always admired vernacular architecture in rural America. The Hispanic world was born as an imperialist project of urbanization conceived as a replicable grid (Law of Indies) that could rapidly proliferate and establish extractive nodes in North, Central and South America. The Anglo-Saxon colonies, instead, stem from a camp of political and religious refugees who found in the north-Atlantic coasts of what is the U.S. today a land for personal and collective investment –return was not an option for the fifty or so migrants who survived the first winter (half of those who arrived on the Mayflower). In Plymouth, the vernacular wooden houses of horizontal planks founded a quintessentially “American” architecture, neither English nor Wampanoag, but a synthesis of two cultures and their shared environment.

Andrew Bruno, in “Remembering the Architect´s Small House Service Bureau”, focuses on the profound transformation that the architectural profession underwent in the Global North as industrial mass-production of housing displaced the architect from the construction of vast tracts of urban space to confine her/his role within the custom-made, generally luxurious and elitist, production of unique, often iconic, architectures that could not be offered by the machine. The industrial revolution also created a form of “architecture without architects,” architecture as pre-fabricated commodity; This was exemplified in mail-order plans with working drawings, building materials and financing options. The machined vernacular populates what Bruno perceives as the monocultural subdivisions of suburban America today. Benjamin Derlan, in his “Dollar Generalized Anxiety and a Case for Rural Planning”, focuses not on the mechanization of housing, but on an analogous process – the mechanization of farming and the subsequent corporatization of an emptied rural America, as big-box stores like Dollar General “take over” rural retirement hometowns. My only advice to Derlan would be to exercise caution when presenting rural studies as a largely unexplored field, lest he make the same mistake Koolhaas made in his Countryside exhibition. This topic may have been unexplored by architects, but has been extensively studied by other fields: peasant studies, agrarian studies, environmental history, food systems, geography, political ecology, development studies, and so forth.

The vernacular and its incremental dynamism is the central focus of Areti Kotsoni, who suggests “Using Anamnesis to Reconstruct Space”. In Greece, the return to the countryside has been driven by the economic crisis. Kotsoni centers his biographical gaze on the revival of Cretan villages that had been deserted by rural-urban migration. His description of the adaptive, incremental growth of domestic architectures which expand to accommodate growing families through the investment of growing resources -social and material, common and individual, public and private- is analogous to narratives of de facto or informal settlements in the Global South (it could even be applied to describe most pre-industrial urban growth). The exhibition and book Time Builds! The Experimental Housing Project (PREVI), Lima: Genesis and Outcome, by Chileans Fernando García-Huidobro and Nicolás Tugas, and the Peruvian Diego Torres Torriti, trace an analogous process for a project that was formally conceived as incremental3 and, to a large extent, inspired Aravena´s Elemental-Chile competition of 2004. Incrementality as a design principle derives its approach from neighborhoods like the one described by Kotsoni.

Beyond binaries of space-time, developed-undeveloped, Global North and Global South, addressing the global-scale favelization of the regions where dispossession and land grab are the norm, not capital accumulation, as urban geographies in a “state of becoming” (Kotsoni) seems more pertinent than describing them as a “Brechtian stage set, constructed with a placeless materiality,” as we read in “Peri-Urban Heterotopias: The Brechtian Megalopolis and the Poetic of the Banal in Latin American Informal Settlements”4 . This begs the question, a Stage for which audience? and from whose perspective? Placeless materiality? These machineries of local recycling? Perhaps an ongoing drama of survival caused by the privatization of the hinterlands, as they are converted into export-driven plantation monocultures or contaminated by mining and the oil industry, which continue to feed urbanization. Could the favelization of the Global South, as described by UN-Habitat´s The Challenge of Slums5 , famously reviewed by Mike Davis in his Planet of Slums6 , which exploded in the 90s, be considered a negative externality of the globalization of neoliberalism? De facto settlements are a “space logic that provokes unproductive paternalism,” our anonymous authors claim. They seem to interpret the phenomenon of a billion “slum” dwellers as a “foolish proletarian rush toward miserable megalopolises.” Global wealth concentration, from an urban perspective, has displayed two key outcomes: Saskia Sassen´s Global Cities, insatiable funnels of resources; and a “planet” of de facto settlements The authors hint to the complexity of global relationships, colonial in their Sixteenth Century origin, when they describe peri-urban heterotopias as the “resultant condition of global capital´s exploitative steamrolling of rurality.” Informal construction was the modus operandi of all non-state social institutions in the pre-modern world. Currently, it continues to compensate for what economists would describe as the market failure of the housing industry, and beyond paternalisms, it also points to the failure of the state to provide public housing. Informality is the third and oldest order of community-based production of space.

In “Lingering Cityism and Countryside Entrapment”, George Papamatthaiakis embarks on the kind of spatial analysis that a vertically integrated global economy demands. He frames his vision within the Lefebvrian tradition of planetary urbanism and calls for establishing a stronger dialogue between the design fields, the social and the natural sciences. Landscape architect Ian McHarg emerges as a critical precedent. His method of value-layer analysis is the foundation of two critical tools, applied extensively by multiple fields: the digital and georeferenced version of value layering (GIS), and environmental impact studies (the outcome of the method)7 . Papamatthaiakis acknowledges that, contrary to the intention of his precursor, “GIS has been used for the advancement of private ownership models, structures of oppression and natural resource extraction.” It even enabled satellite control of mechanized agriculture. On the other hand, GIS, satellites, drones, and other air-based cartographic tools have opened liberating possibilities such as critical cartography and Forensic Architecture. Some indigenous groups in Amazonia are using drones to identify encroachment and illegal logging in their territories. Collective, participatory mapping through versatile apps like KoBoToolbox, using methods like Thick Mapping,8 are also contributing to the defense of indigenous territories and the rapid mapping of post-catastrophe refugee sites. Ben Fann, in “Too Zoomed Out”, meditates on Charles and Ray Eames´ Powers of Ten, and echoes Papamatthaiakis’ anguish over the power of the satellite panopticon not only to subjugate, or attempt to subjugate territories, but also of the way in which it pulverizes the body and all scales of human life. What are the implications of this dissolution for architectural and urban design?

Furthermore, Jacob Cascio, in “Large Marge Sent Me”, frames his discussion of infrastructural networks within a macro understanding of planetary urbanism. He expands the definition of urbanism as a measure of interconnectivity and, inversely, the “non-urban” as an “inverted scale of connectivity.” This thought-provoking gradient of interconnectivity allows us to visualize nodes of different magnitudes more or less interconnected to each other. Their degree of interconnectivity, on the other hand, points to the role they play and the hierarchy they occupy within the system of planetary urbanization. One could argue that global cities are mega-nuclei with the highest degrees of interconnectivity. Regional primate cities of extractivism, in this logic, would be poorly interconnected expanses of urbanism (large concentrations with lower degrees of international interconnectivity). Being less connected does not diminish their urban presence, but does clarify their position within the nodal hierarchy of a network. Interconnectivity could also be a measure of accumulation (or its opposite: dispossession).

Gustav Nielsen, in “Regional Practice, Again”, also zooms out to discuss de-carbonization from a regional perspective, which demands awareness of raw materials sourcing. His regional interest would benefit from establishing an intellectual dialogue with the texts of Patrick Geddes and Edward Soja9 . Papamatthaiakis shares with Aleksa Milojevic an interest in the commons. Reminiscing the predominantly male rural life in the Balkans, in “Cousin´s Feast”, Milojevic calls for a quintessentially matriarchal (in the yin-yang sense, not as man-woman binary) nesting of Gemeinschaft, of “collective identities based on communal action, kinship, sentiment, and mythology.” The revolutionary work of economist Elinor Ostrom on the commons and collective action weaves the approach of these three authors on the rural, its ways, and its rurban potential10 .

Surprisingly, only two of the texts of this Paprika edition address the “rural” from the perspective of the in-between, the liminal, the borderland, or the interstitial. Emancipated from a concentric vision characteristic of orthodox conceptions of the “urban,” in which the rural envelopes or surrounds the nucleated settlement, Josh Greeneand Lindsay Duddy reflect on the in-between condition of “endless fields of corn” (the former), and contaminated post-industrial sites of the Rust Belt (the latter). Within a planetary conception of the urban, the vast expanses of mechanized monocultures may, indeed, be read as an in-between which also constitutes an edge, an advancing frontier, a threshold, as “boundaries between urban centers and their suburbs” (Duddy).

Paul Meuser´s “24 Acre Farm” is, on the one hand, a vision of a rurban future in which citizens are also farmers and contribute to produce food within the city; on the other, it indirectly addresses the notion of environmental or ecological footprint: the hectares are not literally present, but indirectly so, under an urbanite´s plate. Meuser weaves into his image the complex food systems that make life possible in an urban context. Katie Colford also chooses to approach the topic of the Not Urban through humor. The third installment of her recurring Do You Read Me? column, “Quiz: Do My Parents Understand My Studio Project?” is a hilarious, keen critique of how architecture sometimes relates to the ground (beyond the formal relationship) by ignoring it. When she asks “Do your parents know more about plumbing than you do?” she is bringing into the conversation precisely those infrastructural networks that are hidden in the city and its architectures, yet are extremely revealing of the urban footprint and the magnitude of the resources, like water, it controls (often in competition with its food serving areas). The dissolution of the body, which Fann associates with the view from above, is vindicated by the “scale figures that impressed [Colford’s parents] the most.” It is in that reinstatement of the body and the human scale that communication between architects and non-architects is reestablished.

Huy Truong´s “How to Build a City” offers the perfect closing remark. His poetic, visual reflection on the relationship between the cosmos and the Earth -another currently neglected interaction which was essential to early civilizations- recovers land as text, as con-text; as script and palimpsest; subject of oblivion and obliteration as much as reenactment, in which imagination is ignited by the dance of heavenly constellations on the land.

  1. Lefebvre, Henri. The urban revolution. U of Minnesota Press, 2003 ↩︎
  2. Lefebvre, Henri. The urban revolution. U of Minnesota Press, 2003 ↩︎
  3. García-Huidobro, F., D. Torres, and N. Tugas. “Time builds! The Experimental Housing Project (PREVI), Lima.” Genesis and outcome (2008). ↩︎
  4. A piece in the issue whose author remains anonymous ↩︎
  5. Davis, Mike, 1946-. Planet of Slums. London ; New York :Verso, 2007. ↩︎
  6. Davis, Mike, 1946-. Planet of Slums. London ; New York :Verso, 2007. ↩︎
  7. McHarg, Ian L. Design with nature. New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1969.
  8. Presner, T., Shepard, D., & Kawano, Y. (2014). Hypercities thick mapping in the digital humanities. Harvard University Press. ↩︎
  9. Geddes, Patrick. Cities in evolution: an introduction to the town planning movement and to the study of civics. London, Williams, 1915. ↩︎
  10. Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge university press, 1990. ↩︎

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Volume 7, Issue 05
February 8, 2022