FAQ: TEMPORALITY AND URBAN FORM

from an interview with Urban Works Agency, 2015, with Neeraj Bhatia and Christoper Roche

NB: We’ve previously talked about the second printing of “Ladders,” which I believe is imminent. What, if anything, do you feel has changed in the idea of the city and urbanism since its original printing?

AP: What’s changed? In the years since it was published a lot has changed and nothing has changed. Given the nature of the city, it is to be expected.

Urbanism has a very long fuse. Architecture has a certain duration of, say, fifty years for the life of a building. Occupants or people have a certain duration of say an average of 70 years. Urbanism also has a certain duration but it is radically extended — sometimes measured out in centuries. Time is one of the most misunderstood aspects of urbanism. Cities have their own unique duration that is often very difficult to grasp. It’s an alien time frame for humans, like that of a sea-turtles or bristlecone pine trees. The oldest continuously occupied city Damascus is 12,000 years. That’s a non-human time frame to be sure. You don’t know much about cities if you do not understand this time frame.

So you listen to community activists, for example, their position is basically: the city is ours to fix, to change and to change now. And their work is great, it is to be valued. But it’s also obvious that the city is not owned by a single generation and certainly not a single group of occupants. If you think cities can change overnight then you’re simply not dealing with the entity on its own terms. And you are going to end up being disappointed. I think a lot of what we do is try to say: yes, there’s economics and yes, there’s politics and yes, there are the interests of one cycle of inhabitants, and each in its way is valid. But urbanism also has it’s own logic, it’s own mode and pace of expansion and it’s own set of characteristic forms. These must be respected.

There are very few people who actually understand and stand up for the logic that the city contains in itself. I wrote Ladders in defense of the inherent characteristics of the city. I was trying to track a specific transformation of form which is playing out surprisingly fast. It is being occurring during my own timespan — beginning in about 1950 — but it is transformation that could ultimately change the shape of cities for centuries. This transformation is best described as the transition from a grid-based urbanism to a spine-based urbanism; and it is a remarkable transformation in that it upsets a millennia of urban history. If you consider that the origins of grid-based urbanism are in antiquity and that the origin of spine-based urbanism is a mere 50 years ago, you start to appreciate the magnitude of the change. To the extent that it tracks this change, the book remains relevant, mostly because these kind of changes don’t happen very often. Across the pages of urban history, they almost never happen. So when they do happen they’re significant, and very difficult to adjust to. I feel like my whole career has been spent jumping up and down and trying to draw attention to this grid-based to spine-based transition. Despite the fact that it has been going on right under our nose, I still don’t think we have a handle on it, I still haven’t gotten a handle on it.

We did make some changes in the second edition of the book did not alter the argument but continue to look for evermore interesting ways to make this drastic transformation ever more clear, obvious and relevant. But the underlying investigation of spine-based form hasn’t changed, because that transformation is still ongoing. In that regard, the reprint seemed to make a lot of sense. I think, if anything, as time goes on, it will become more relevant than it was when it was first written. Ideas within architectural and urban discourses sometimes seem to have the shelf life of a banana. Whether we like it or not, the city’s timeframe is much longer.

We are, however, catching up to it; it is only a matter of time. From a statistical point of view, spine-based urbanism today constitutes about 75% of the built environment. So grid-based urbanism accounts for just 25% of the built environment, and that proportion continues to shrink. Such transformations effect everything and everyone. For example, it effects the speed and extents of gentrification as grid based urbanism becomes ever more desirable and ever more rare. Well, it’s obvious why this is happening, grid-based urbanism is a fixed commodity — we don’t produce it anymore. That’s the larger frame of reference and the longer frame of reference that I think is missing. Without that frame of reference it is going to be impossible to address our most basic urban problems.

So I think these observation on the city were relevant in 1997 but I think they are even more relevant now if only because of the shear amount of urban substance that we’ve built over the last 50 years even in the last 10 years. The scale of it all makes it much more apparent and more necessary to understand the underlying logic of the city — its characteristic forms, duration and mode of expansion.

For lack of better word, we need a far better understanding of the “DNA” of the city. If don’t understand how spine-based urbanism differs from grid-based urbanism, you’re are not really equipped with the knowledge that you need to engage in any ongoing urban project. In the absence of that, all that will register as urbanism will be the work done on our dwindling historical urban centers. Working on grid-based urbanism today is essentially a restoration project, and sometimes a modernization project. The High Line is a good example, everyone loves it, it’s great, it’s amazing. The tourists are very happy and the real estate agents are happy because property values surrounding it have soared. But it is like putting a plasma screen in your grant parents living room. It’s urbanism of a sort, but it’s urbanism for tourists and for the very few people who can now afford to live in Manhattan.

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