The Creativity of Cities

How condensed organic human behaviour leads to trends and makes the world go round

I am obsessed with cities. This is not a mere result of my bizarre outlying mindset but rather also a consequence of a generational trend. Societies invest in their cities first and foremost, a rapid world urbanization, but also an ever-increasing connectedness between global metropolises in the world of today.

It is no coincidence that in a lot of plots depicting dystopian futures, cities are thriving disproportionately enormous and crowded monsters whilst the countryside is often depicted as disregarded and impoverished.

The thriving Capitol, in the Hunger Games book/film series, filled with decadent eccentricities whilst the surrounding districts are repressed and hungry

But my interest lies not in why governments invest in cities so much as how they contribute from a creative perspective. Cities are beacons for culture. They have always been. In my eyes one of the main reasons for this is that it is a place where minorities thrive. It is a place where marginalised people feel that they can let loose of their otherwise oppressed creative juices. In part due to the higher levels of anonymity, but also a gathering of people with a similar mindset.

Ultimately we are throwing all these strong characters in one pot, closing it shut and letting the chemical reactions begin.

It is a place where marginalised people feel that they can let loose of their otherwise oppressed creative juices

Now, this is a general phenomenon that you will observe in any multi-dimensional town such as Paris, London, New York, Berlin or Los Angeles.

World Economic Forum global power city index based on 6 criteria. Is it really about power?

What I then find fascinating is still how cities can exude radically different behaviours from each other. Towns can market themselves as centers for something in particular, say Los Angeles for entertainment. Entertainment historically crystalised in the United States properly in the 50s. It was partly about an identity resolution of culturally detaching from Europe. The United States invented entertainment (at least in a new and unique form), and the allocated center for this happened to be LA.

Now this has shaped the town in innumerable ways. We must admit that the quality of entertaining is fundamentally based on a dissonance from the truth, a facade, a smile whilst being in pain, which I found to be perfectly reflected in the layout of the city. Golden facades and less golden side-streets. (of course there are the wonderful kale juice shops and so on, but I will not go on about LA’s qualities just this instant)

LA’s Chinese world-known theater but with full view. Not all facades are created equal.

Now what I also find tremendously interesting is the way cities react to global trends, politically and culturally. Some cities embrace trends, such as London which since Thatcherite England has decided to walk in the footsteps of America and follow hyper-competitive, fast-moving capitalism, whilst France’s Mitterrand nationalised all banks and consequently Paris became a center for, let’s say it as it is, anti-Americanism and anti-consumerism, despite today being the world’s epicenter for luxury goods which ironically have for the last 10 years been “hyper-consumed” by the Chinese, Saudis and Russians. Maybe that was Paris’ way of saying, ok let’s give into the game otherwise we can’t survive but still we refuse to speak English.

Now Berlin is also a very interesting case. In 1900 Berlin was part of the big four: London, New York, Paris and Berlin. It was the shiny center of the German Empire, and later the Weimar Republic.

The Big capital like the other three (let’s consider NY a capital, even though it isn’t that of its own state!) at the time, was decadent, thriving and influential. We all know what happens after that: Crash, Hitler and the Wall. Not so glam.

Map of Berlin, 1905. Not far from its current size.

In parallel Kreuzberg becomes a magnet for punks alongside Camden Town in the 80s. Following the fall of the wall, Berlin had (well I wasn’t there but I have been told numerous times) a taste of possibility, of victory. Nevertheless not left untainted by a slow-cooked and perduring realism. In some ways this makes Berlin a very mature seen-it-all town, whilst it is not left without scars. So to bring it back to the city trend-following topic, Berlin is probably the best example of a city that has given the finger to global trends, turned on its heels and went the other way.

Kreuzberg, 1982: Londoner Michael Hughes, then 30, arrives to his own surprise in Berlin and finds himself in the middle of squatters, water cannon and teargas. In view of the excitement, he decides to start a new life in Berlin.

Things are rather different today. It feels like the rest of the world is becoming more like Berlin and Berlin is becoming more like the rest of the world. Nowadays you can’t play the game unless you play the global game. It is the same for jobs. Whatever you do, you have increasing probability of competing with someone in San Francisco or Beijing on your skillset. This is a big factor upsetting the current world order and a resistance to globalism. Anyways I’m getting side-tracked, but my point being that urban individualism is fading, and maybe budding localised youth culture is becoming a characteristic of the past.

London, the Modern Babylon. A brilliant documentary depicting how 20th century subcultures have defined the metropolis that London is today.

Maybe it is this feeling (or reality) that the government couldn’t control everything before and burgeoning creativity could happen behind big brother’s back before things were institutionalised as the system in its sum moved slower.

Urban individualism is fading, and maybe budding localised youth culture is becoming a characteristic of the past

Nowadays you can’t throw a decent event or exhibit without a global flock of pretend-aficionados rushing over on the first flight, phone camera first for a good snap (I am guilty of this at times, just saying).

Neighborhoods that were once thriving centers of underground culture will, if lucky, become gentrified centers with fairly hip families like Stoke Newington, and if unlucky, turn out like Camden Town, a hub for the average tourist seeking a t-shirt as a thrilling and unique souvenir of their trip.

Every creative neighbourhood goes through the same lifecycle stages:

  • No-go zone: Nothing to see, dangerous, poor, but affordable rent, so people move there.
  • Je-ne-sais-quoi phase: Enough artists have moved over for the place to have an initial life of its own, but only insiders know.
  • Hype: The cool kids know about it and go regularly. It is probably still frowned upon to go there in some posher/more conservative circles.
  • Peak: TimeOut writes a feature article and suddenly the other kids are trying to make their way too. They dilute all forms of culture.
  • Death: Creatives are priced out, and bankers and lawyers are priced in.

Now it is only natural to think that once every neighbourhood has been through this cycle there isn’t any part of the city left that hasn’t been laboriously transformed. Cities push their boundaries increasingly outwards until you need to walk the Camino de Santiago to get to a venue with a hint of a creative buzz.

Now. I have a counter-theory. What I just presented to you was the logic valid until not so long ago: The logic that neighbourhoods are physical enclosures that go through cycles one after the next until creatives are pushed out so far that they are better off starting anew at the center of Lisbon than get kicked out to Stratford.

Well what if we now lived in a digital, post-physical world where culture does not need to be attributed to a material space anymore and that we could be seeing a third movement (the first two being 1) immigration to the suburbs in the 60s, and 2) reclaiming city centers — in concentric rings — since the 90s), which follows a digital logic, rather than a space-bound one.

Ok, I admit it, this sounds a bit esoteric, but let me explain. Culture is mostly online: magazines, platforms, Instagram accounts. There is less of a need to be present on the spot. Things are communicated instantly whether you are in Neuköln, Canal St Martin, Bushwick or Hackney Wick. Not everyone needs to rush to the spot.

What if we now lived in a digital, post-physical world where culture does not anymore need to be attributed to a material space

This gives easy access to culture for everyone without forcing mobility and physical concentration around the community kernel. Sure it is best to bathe in the middle of it but you don’t really need to cross town to see a photography exhibit as much as you did in the past, do you?

Question — since culture might become less space bound, will cities become less relevant for creatives? Or is human contact still crucial?

Digital Revolution, an exhibition in 2014 at the Barbican, presenting how digital innovation can feed global culture

Now. Talented artists are getting larger and more instant global exposure than ever before. The average musical taste of the everyday man is on the increase in terms of sophistication. Sure there is a lot of noise with the hyper-democratization of culture as more people are flooding into the game. But finding good content is probably easier than it has ever been. The frequency of release of good music, of films with substance (long or short), of stunning visual work is on the increase.

“Digital Culture stands for the contemporary phase of communication technologies, one that follows 19th century print culture and 20th century electronic broadcast culture, and that is deeply amplified and accelerated by the popularity of networked computers, personalised technologies and digital images.”

Best practices are past along very easily, creatives are more quickly equipped with the tools required to create art that people can appreciate, be it music, graphics or photography.

Now I know that some of you will think that the number of good things has remained stagnant and there is only more of the bad stuff. But honestly watch a cult film from the 90s and you will feel nauseous about the fact that you ever found these films good.

Now my sincere question to you is — is culture simply evolving and taking a whole different form or is something fundamentally human on the brink of dying?

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