Forever Under Construction

Planet of Slums

Posted in Architecture, Books, Society, Urbanism by homeyra on November 18, 2007

Planet of Slums
Mike Davis

Excerpt from The Guardian, Shantytown Apocalypse:

“[…] The majority of the world’s population live in poverty, oppressed, dispossessed and starving. But you knew that already. The great interest – indeed the morbid fascination – of Davis’s book is that it seeks to identify exactly how and why the majority of the world’s population is currently living in poverty, oppressed, dispossessed and starving; the poor may always be with us, but times change. […]

“For the first time the urban population of the earth will outnumber the rural”; there will soon be more people living in cities than in the country.

And this is bad news, because the cities that Davis examines and describes are not the rich, vibrant cultural centres beloved of Sunday-supplement dandies and middle-class flâneurs, but vast “peri-urban” developments, horizontal spreads of unplanned squats and shantytowns, unsightly dumps of humans and waste, where child labour is the norm, child prostitution is commonplace, gangs and paramilitaries rule and there is no access to clean water or sanitation, let alone to education or democratic institutions. […] He estimates that there are already some 200,000 such slums worldwide and argues that the slum is becoming the blueprint for cities of the future, which, “rather than being made out of glass and steel as envisioned by earlier generations of urbanists, are instead largely constructed out of crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks and scrap wood.”

According to Davis, this is largely due to the “neoliberal restructuring of Third World urban economies that has occurred since the late 1970s” – which is to say it’s the fault of the World Bank and IMF, and also “middle-class hegemony”, “petty landlordism”, “soft imperialism”, “elite homeowners” and NGOs which, he claims, are “captive to the agenda of the international donors, and grassroots groups similarly dependent upon the international NGOs”.

[…] Davis is the author of a number of strange and brilliant books about cities and their discontents, most notably a great, surging trilogy of books about Los Angeles – City of Quartz (1990), Ecology of Fear (1998) and Magical Urbanism (2001) […]” Read the article


Eurozine has published a series of very interesting articles named The city as stage for social upheaval. Highly recommended

Our Cities

Posted in Architecture, Art, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Middle East, Pakistan, Planning, Urbanism by homeyra on July 16, 2007

Eurozine has published a very interesting article: New towns on the Cold War frontier by Michelle Provoost, an architectural historian living and working in Rotterdam. This article is a part of the research project The New Town. Link via Jackson Pollock in Sadr City

I highly recommend the original article, here are excerpts:

“Looking at the cities that were built from scratch during the 1950s and 1960s all over the world, it is astonishing to see how world population growth was accommodated along very similar lines in places very remote and different in culture and political background. A similar strategy and design method was applied in the construction of the villes nouvelles around Paris, the new towns close to London […] in developing, decolonizing countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The export of New Town principles can only be understood against the background of the Cold War period, in which the East and West were both competing for the loyalty of the Third World […]

doxiadis.jpgA vivid illustration of this hypothesis is provided by the fascinating coalition of two parties, the Greek planner Constantinos Doxiadis and the American Ford Foundation, who together formed a powerful duo of vision and money […]

[…] Doxiadis developed an extremely hermetic and theoretical system of design and engineering called “Ekistics“, the science of human settlements. It was a rational and scientific alternative to existing historical cities […] Doxiadis proposed his gridiron cities, which would provide for a human-scaled environment and at the same time facilitate unlimited growth in people, money, cars, and so on. In that sense, they were extremely well suited to development of any kind. Doxiadis was possibly the leading exponent of the explicit application of modernist planning and design as vehicles for freedom, peace, and progress according to a Western model.
[…] He probably constructed more urban substance than all his CIAM (Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne) colleagues together. […] He designed and built new cities all over the world: in Ghana, Zambia, Sudan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Iraq, and the US. […]

[…] the Ford Foundation was remodelled in 50 to extend its activities outside the US. Its main goals were formulated under the leadership of Paul Hoffman, formerly the coordinator of the Marshall Plan in Europe. […] Hoffmann led the Ford Foundation on an ambitious quest for world peace, aiming to better the world by educating the ignorant […] and easing them into democratic Western civilization […] mostly by investing in educational institutions […] and modernization programs in agriculture. Though urban planning was definitely not a main priority, the Ford Foundation spent five million dollars on Doxiadis‘s design and research, the largest sum it ever spent on one private party. Starting with a grant to Doxiadis‘s design work for the city of Karachi in Pakistan in the mid-50s […]

[…] There was complete consensus among the American elite to create peace and order in the world and it was seen as completely logical that private and governmental policies would mutually enhance and strengthen each other. […]

[…] Doxiadis was definitely no whimsical arty architect with crayons. He was a trustworthy engineer that could deliver. Ekistics was a visionary, but nonetheless scientific system, in which local data were entered and the design solution followed automatically. A touch of local landscape and architecture was inevitable and necessary, but not too much, since this was contradictory with the universal pretensions of Ekistics.
This objective and rational approach fitted perfectly the philosophy of the Ford Foundation […] the Foundation exported with this goal one of the most fundamental values of the US […] liberty, anti-collectivism, a reluctance to accept centralized political power, and an absolute belief in science and technology as the progenitor of “rational action“. The American elite were convinced “that liberty was not for everyone, but for those who, through property and education, possessed the necessary independence to be citizens of a republic“. So: civilization equals rationality. It was the task of the Americans to raise other peoples into a state of civilization. When turning to urban planning, it would have been hard to find an urban planning theory more rational than Ekistics. […]

Pollock and American values: […] To the American elite, Pollock‘s painting radiated the ideology of freedom, of free enterprise. It was non-figurative and politically silent – the very antithesis of socialist realism. Pollock was new, active, and energetic, while socialist realist art was rigid and aped historical styles. Abstract expressionism was seen as a specifically American invention conquering the world, replacing the old centre of the arts – Paris – with New York. Pollock was exactly the right character to oppose the boy-scout Soviet painters, who obediently portrayed collective communist values. […]

[…] I suggest that the Congress for Cultural Freedom, Ford Foundation, the US government, the Ivy League Universities, as well as other private bodies such as the Rockefeller and Carnegie Foundations, all worked together in “the war on Communism“, to paraphrase a contemporary term. […] This period has been described by most people involved as a very passionate time, an exiting amalgam of covert operations, boudoir politics, spontaneous action, lots of travel, pretension, and money, and especially: no doubt that all this was completely justified, useful, and ethical. A beautiful, high-minded episode, which everyone loved being part of. They felt they were “the most privileged of men, participants in a drama such as rarely occurs even in the long life of a great nation“. One can’t help feeling envious.

A new theory of planning: To these men, Doxiadis was as much a mascot in the field of urban planning as Jackson Pollock was in art. Whereas Pollock was the antidote to socialist realist painting, the work of Doxiadis posed the complete opposite to socialist realist urban planning and architecture. Postwar Soviet cities, up to the arrival of Kruschev at the end of the 1950s, bore the strong mark of Stalinist planning. Up to a thousand New Towns were built all over the vast country, using a well-known historical repertoire both in urban planning and in architecture. The vista, the axis, the square, the closed housing block, the monumental, palazzo-inspired architecture all evoked an urban image aspiring to be recognizable and familiar to the common people. While Pollock proposed a completely new direction in painting, and freed himself from historical precedents and iconography, Doxiadis‘s Ekistics posed a completely new system in urban planning, freeing it from formal design and replacing it by organizing the urban area in ever-expanding grids and systems, eliminating monumental composition and replacing it with schemes for unlimited growth and change. […] The neighborhood unit […] was stretched and repeated and put in an endless grid, until every reference to existing urban settings had vanished. […] ideas of change and growth without boundaries and technology solving every possible problem, from demographic growth to energy shortage, from pollution to economic backwardness to ethnic and social unrest, all made Doxiadis‘s vision the perfect vehicle of the ideology of US development.

The Ford Foundation described its urban planning projects (in India, Yugoslavia, Chile, and Pakistan) as “white bread”: soft, with no particular taste, and liked by everybody. They could ease the way towards a different lifestyle – Western, efficient, and peaceful – and help Third World countries become rational civilizations and obtain well-deserved autonomy. […]

Planning in the Middle East: The Middle East, located right below the soft underbelly of the USSR and therefore a main stage for Cold War activities, was virtually a playground for American architects in the 1950s. They followed in the wake of American and international aid programmes such as the Point Four Program and the United Nations Development Decade. They were hired by the puppet regimes installed by the British-American “coalition”. In Iran […] Victor Gruen (see The Mall Maker) designed a master plan for the capital Tehran and numerous American offices flooded the country to work on New Towns. The Iraqi regime of King Faisal hired Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Gio Ponti, Alvar Aalto, and Frank Lloyd Wright. […]

The American aid programmes focused on Lebanon, Iraq, or Iran often underestimated the complexities of the countries. Without speaking the language, with insufficient knowledge about the local social customs, these well-intentioned but amateur efforts often missed the target. In Iran, a group of five American planners took up the challenge. When they arrived in 1957, they found out, to their disgust and disappointment, that the cities were not exactly metropolitan, had no comfortable means of transport, no services, no shopping, no education, and so on. They had the greatest trouble interacting with local officials, there were permanent issues of hierarchy, and there was frustration about lack of cooperation and lack of almost everything else. The most enthusiastic planner, working in the Kurdish city Sanandaj in western Iran, finally succeeded in setting up a small planning department along Western lines, complete with an office and drawing boards. But he returned from a two-week honeymoon to find that the office had been wrecked by a storm and that his newly trained planners had disappeared. […]

Compared to these rather naive efforts, what came out of Doxiadis‘s office was of the utmost efficiency and effectiveness. Especially in Iraq, where he was hired to design a modern national housing program including the capital Baghdad, Doxiadis showed what he was capable of: practically on his own he introduced a complete ministry of housing, planning, architecture, and architecture training. Gropius‘s office was struggling to get the designs for the Baghdad University built, and only succeeded in realizing one tower twenty years later; Frank Lloyd Wright saw his grandiose plans for the Baghdad Opera thrown out the window when the revolutionary regime took over from King Faisal in 1958. But Doxiadis had no problems: his multidisciplinary team made surveys, wrote reports, designed tens of thousands of houses, and was able to build them too. Nevertheless, official architectural history has shown a disproportionate interest in the failed designs of high profile architects and neglected the far more influential work of Doxiadis.
Unknowingly, everybody has seen the results of his work on CNN. By the end of the 1950s, Doxiadis built areas in Iraqi towns which bear the now well-known names of Mosul, Basra, and Kirkuk. The largest number of houses was realized in Baghdad, on the east bank of the Tigris; the endless repetition of square neighbourhood units are easily recognizable on any satellite image. This is the area called Sadr City. By now it is mostly known as a nightmarish ghetto and the gruesome backdrop for war footage. […]

Planning as political strategy: Sadr City was designed by Doxiadis as part of his 1958 masterplan for Baghdad. Doxiadis’s design follows the Ekistics rules and is almost identical to his other contemporary urban designs, be it Islamabad, Tema, or Khartoum. Doxiadis encased the historical centre of Baghdad in an orthogonal grid extending on both sides of the Tigris/Euphrates, composed of 40 sectors of some two square kilometres each, separated from each other by wide thoroughfares. Each sector was subdivided into a number of ‘communities’, with smaller neighbourhood centres and housing areas served by a network of cul-de-sacs. Each community centre consisted of a modernist composition of market buildings, public services, and a mosque. The row housing was organized in such a way that the smallest communities each had a “gossip square”, an intimate open meeting space inspired by existing local Iraqi customs. Though these small oases could be interpreted as contextual elements, as a whole, the extension of Baghdad was a generic, universal system Doxiadis thought appropriate for almost any developing city with a hot climate. The architecture itself was also generic, with some local touches: a restrained modernism with decorated panels in a pattern slightly reminiscent of Arab motives, built with local materials, but not in any outspoken vernacular. Local influence had a very limited, technical meaning for Doxiadis : it meant using local techniques and building methods, but did not involve using local identity or cultural traditions. The most appealing feature of Doxiadis ‘s plans for his American patrons and the Ford Foundation in particular was the emphasis on community building. Something that was to be avoided at all costs was that the cities should have an alienating effect on the millions who were often the first in their families to lead a modern urban lifestyle. After all, alienation would lead the population to turn in frustration to communism or to revert to archaic traditions of superstition and violence. We could therefore regard the cities designed by Doxiadis […] as finely-tuned “emancipation machines”. This emancipation was part of the modernization package, which included democratic institution building and free-market economic reforms.
In retrospect, one thing is certain: the urban planning projects in Iraq, Iran, or Pakistan did not have the effect the Americans had hoped for: a stable democratic mentality that would secure the way for Western foreign policy. […]

A signal failure: It is tempting to compare the present situation in Iraq with the Cold War episode. Again, the US has attempted to impose its own ideas on Iraq – […] the neoconservative idea of the free-market economy. Even officials who were part of the American policy making in the 1950s […] now issue warnings not to make the same mistake twice: of imposing structures, ideas, organizations and plans that are not wanted and not indigenous to the local culture. As Polk has simply and truly stated: it is not only the US that wants to determine its own destiny. We could add: it is not only the US that wants to determine its own architecture. Architecture and urban planning are not “white bread” as the Ford Foundation stated, they are not technical works with no inherent meaning or taste; on the contrary, by their organization they project a strong ideal image of a specific kind of society. But however you judge Doxiadis ‘ cities and however critical you might be, there was at least an ideal behind it; at the present moment it would be very difficult to find any positive images of the future Iraq. It may seem extremely ill-judged to compare Baghdad with the European New Towns, of which the problems and circumstances are of a totally different nature. However, there is one obvious parallel: in Europe, too, there was a cultural and political mission hidden somewhere in the technocratic project of the industrialized and standardized city – the idea that these New Towns could function as instruments of emancipation and modernization. In Europe, like in Baghdad, the open design had an extra meaning: to shape the minds of the inhabitants, to open their minds to the free, democratic society. And in Europe, too, these ideals have not turned out as planned. […]

[…] everybody in the architects and planning community agrees that the postwar cities have been a complete failure […] In academia, there is a tendency to study postwar modernist planning and original concepts to the point of obsession even.

Our modernist heritage: Minutes of the few CIAM meetings have produced libraries-full of analytical literature; the unrealized designs of Sert, Le Corbusier, or Kahn are still unravelled as if they were the Dead Sea scrolls. But studies such as these tend to banish modernist architecture and planning to a distant era, almost forgetting that there are real cities out there, with real people in them, that one can visit and walk around in, and that have problems to be solved. Practising architects and planners, on the other hand, have either completely ignored the existence of the not-so-sexy and glamorous New Towns or they have clung to the tabula rasa approach of erasing them and starting anew. This can hardly be the proper solution: the postwar urban substance is simply too big, there are too many people living there, and starting all over again creates the same problem all over again. The problem of the deteriorating postwar areas cries out for creative urban planning, research, and design, which re-uses the existing material, both in its physical and social sense.
And it doesn’t really matter if we talk about Baghdad or Hoogvliet: both are part of the same 20th-century heritage we have to deal with – even the bottom line of the moral questions is the same. […] the values inherent in the modern planning – democracy, the collective, emancipation – are still relevant, even though their architectural forms may change. […]

[…] projects developed in the restructuring of European cities might well be an instrument to be used in the rebuilding of Islamabad or Baghdad. It is necessary that the legacy of modernist urban planning is reconsidered, that all these visions of its future are made known and exchangeable, and that the New Towns are treated as what they are: real cities not be erased, but waiting for a serious design strategy that will add another layer of urban material, and turn them into normal, growing, developing, aging cities.” Excerpts from New towns on the Cold War frontier

Relevant links:
How to survive the twentieth century, Michelle Provoost
Constantinos Doxiadis: Ekistics, 1968, Nina Brown
Circa 1958: Lebanon in the Pictures and Plans of Constantinos Doxiadis, Hashim Sarkis, 2003
Worldview: Perspectives of architecture and urbanism from around the globe

The Mall Maker

Posted in Architecture, Planning, Urbanism by homeyra on July 3, 2007

In 1969 the Austrian-born American Victor Gruen and Aziz Farman Farmaian, a well known Iranian architect, submitted the first development plan for the capital city, Tehran. The plan was approved the next year. It suggested a future development of the city toward East and West around nine centers to be created. The proposal has been put aside since a long time by now.

In 2004 The New Yorker published a very interesting article about Gruen: The Terrazzo Jungle, Fifty years ago, the mall was born. America would never be the same, by Malcolm Gladwell. Here are some excerpts. (The first paragraph is an adaptation)

gruen.jpgVictor Gruen grew up in the well-to-do world of prewar Vienna studying architecture at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. He emigrated in 1938. Gruen’s most famous creation was a project in Edina, outside Minneapolis: the Southdale mall, 1956. He had the idea of putting a variety of functions under one roof. The two levels of this first air-conditioned complex were connected by escalators and fed by two-tiered parking. It included 72 stores, two anchor department-store tenants and some non-retail community services (post office, day care etc.). In the middle of the mall Gruen created a “garden court” under a skylight, with a fishpond, enormous sculpted trees, a large cage filled with exotic birds, balconies with hanging plants, and a café. The result was a sensation: Journalists from US’ top magazines, Life, Fortune, Time, NYT etc. all covered the opening: “The Splashiest Center in the US”… overnight Southdale had become an integral “part of the American Way.” Victor Gruen designed an archetype. He invented the mall.

Gruen was very critical of the American suburbia, whose roads, he said, were “avenues of horror” […] When he first drew up the plans for Southdale, he placed the shopping center at the heart of a tidy 463-acre development, complete with apartment buildings, houses, schools, a medical center, a park, and a lake. His grand plan for Southdale was never realized. There were no parks or schools or apartment buildings—just that big box in a sea of parking. One person who wasn’t dazzled by Southdale was Frank Lloyd Wright. “What is this, a railroad station or a bus station?” […]

At the time of Southdale, big shopping centers were a delicate commercial proposition, one of the first big postwar shopping centers was bankrupt within two years of its opening. Then, in the mid-50s, something happened that turned the dismal economics of the mall upside down: Congress made a radical change in the tax rules governing depreciation […]

For tax purposes, in the early fifties the useful life of a building was held to be 40 years, so a developer could deduct one-fortieth of the value of his building from his income every year. A new 40-million-dollar mall, then, had an annual depreciation deduction of a million dollars […] the result was a “bonanza” for developers. In the first few years after a shopping center was built, the depreciation deductions were so large that the mall was almost certainly losing money, at least on paper—which brought with it enormous benefits and it was tax-free.

Suddenly it was possible to make much more money investing in things like shopping centers than buying stocks […] and the more expensive the building was, the more the depreciation allowance was worth.[…]

In 1953, before accelerated depreciation was put in place, one major regional shopping center was built in the US. Three years later, after the law was passed, that number was 25. In 1953, new shopping-center construction of all kinds totalled six million square feet. By 1956, that figure had increased 500% […]

Late in life, Gruen […] revisited one of his old shopping centers, and saw all the sprawling development around it, and pronounced himself in “severe emotional shock.” Malls, he said, had been disfigured by “the ugliness and discomfort of the land-wasting seas of parking” around them. […] He turned away from his adopted country. He had fixed up a country house outside of Vienna, and soon he moved back home for good. […]

Just south of old Vienna, a mall had been built—in his anguished words, a “gigantic shopping machine.” It was putting the beloved independent shopkeepers of Vienna out of business. It was crushing the life of his city. He was devastated.
Victor Gruen invented the shopping mall in order to make America more like Vienna. He ended up making Vienna more like America. Read the article

Next post: Our cities

Relevant links:
Locating Victor Gruen, Alan A Loomis, 2000
The Gruen transfer
Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream, M. Jeffrey Hartwick University of Pennsylvania Press and his blog
Shopping Town USA: Victor Gruen, the cold war and the shopping mall by Annette Baldauf