How to survive the twentieth century #1
The reconstruction of Baghdad
Asked to write an article for a book on the office of Kees Christiaanse, the author tyries to link the global legacy of Modernist town planning, to the current export of Dutch modern architecture and urbanism.
No matter how forward-looking, pragmatic and unsentimental the work and thinking of KCAP might seem, the modernist twentieth century is everywhere present. All we have to do is scratch the glazed surface of the practice’s projects to reveal an array of memories, formulations, instruments and idealized images that are typically ‘last century’. The twentieth-century, modernist frame of reference and its accompanying attitudes surfaces in projects such as Kaisersrot, a software package that can be used to generate well-balanced and cost-effective urban developments in any kind of architectural or urban planning envelope. What makes this so typically twentieth-century is that the basis of the design does not lie in the design but in a universally applicable system which makes opportunistic use of local context, of architectural taste. Kaisersrot has to do with the modernist dream of downloading the designer’s intelligence into an automatically functioning system and in so doing rendering oneself invisible, except perhaps as the only one who understands the system and can operate it.
Equally twentieth-century are the comments made by Kees Christiaanse and his staff about the challenge in China. The task of creating new cities in China is compared with the housing construction task in the Netherlands of the 1950s and ’60s, in terms both of scale and of monofunctional, large-scale programmes. However, the most twentieth-century thing about this is the attitude: in their voices and reading between the lines one discerns their keenness to place themselves in a context that is difficult, coarse and controversial, and to extract from it whatever ‘quality’ it may contain. They deliberately take the risk of creating serious failures, if for no other reason than the frisson of the risk. KCAP feels an existential urge to make things better there; but also a reckless ambition to go there simply because the architectural task there is the biggest in quantitative terms. This metaphysics of quantities is typical of the twentieth-century architect. Why China? Because it’s there.
However, the most significant giveaway is surely the repeated reference to the bombardment and reconstruction of Rotterdam at the beginning of texts and lectures by Kees Christiaanse. Anyone who relates how the planners and administrators of Rotterdam seized on the bombardment to create a tabula rasa and in so doing effected an 180-degree change in the city’s course - all with barely concealed admiration - and then goes on to talk about the city as if it were a television you can switch to another urban planning channel every now and again and also argues that this is the source of its continuity, is someone of the twentieth century, a modernist, a megalomaniac, an architect. That is how I view KCAP, and also how I regard myself.
Architectural practices like KCAP are especially important for the contemporary urban task because they are responsive to the market, have global ambitions and are well-placed politically, yet have their roots in an ideologically metropolitan branch of twentieth-century modernism. This means they can summon up the engagement and credibility for what I consider to be one of the greatest challenges for urban planning and architecture today and in the near future: the management and reinvigoration of the urban planning legacy of the twentieth century.
In terms of urban planning and architecture, the twentieth century was a period when not just ambitions, but the actual realizations, were so lofty, so large-scale and so overwhelming that, from the last quarter of the twentieth century people started to forget as much as possible and to deny what had in fact occurred. One doesn’t have to be paranoid to conclude that the wholesale demolition of modernist residential ensembles from the second half of the twentieth century is part of this process of sweeping away, beginning anew, and acting as if nothing had ever happened. The shocking thing is that the crudest ‘edits’ of the history of twentieth-century architecture were made by the very people who reproach modernism for being anti-historical and destructive. The tabula rasa created by the demolition of post-war neighbourhoods in the Netherlands, France and the United States is hundreds of times greater than the worst things ever proposed by Le Corbusier for cities like Paris, or whatever happened during the clearing of rubble in Rotterdam. Moreover, the dogmatic statements of Ur-modernists like Giedion, Le Corbusier or Rem Koolhaas pale in comparison with the fundamentalist simplicity of Rob Krier and Hans Stimman, who have pronounced the whole second half of the twentieth century an unmitigated failure in the field of urban planning.
The twentieth century began with a project that was designed as a complete alternative to the nineteenth-century city: the Garden City Movement. Ebenezer Howard, an accountant and mediocre journalist, devised a system in which the best of the city would be united with the best of the countryside. The system was based on a purely quantitative approach to ‘soft’ factors such as family, neighbourhood, district, city and region, and could be applied everywhere, with the same guaranteed urbanity, neighbourhood sociability, economic viability and possibility of identification.
We can recognize Howard’s models and ambitions in all the urban planning of the twentieth century: from his own Letchworth, through the New Towns of the 1950s and ’60s, replete with progressive thinking and mass culture, to the New Urbanism that sprang up in the 1990s and re-kindled the dream of Main Street USA, with its mix of income groups and functions. We can, moreover, detect Howard’s stance throughout the twentieth century: the megalomaniac ambition to create a total and permanent alternative to the existing city; the rigid way of thinking in quantities even in reference to sociological or cultural factors; the pretension that this system can and should be applied universally; the use of architectural infill as a diversionary tactic: whether the architecture is rustic, modernist, the sublimation of a democratic dream or indeed a celebration of the beauty of mechanized construction, the system remains the same. But perhaps the most important quality of twentieth-century urban planning is the fact that it is consistently and fundamentally negative in its formulation: as a correction to or an alternative to the existing city. The raison d’être of the new garden city was the unacceptable ugliness and inhumanity of the earlier city - the city of industry and capitalism. Now the suburb, the village, the country estate and the replica of the 1930s neighbourhood were reintroduced as a way of escaping the nightmare of the modernist city, even though this had its roots in an equally pretentious rejection of the generation of cities that preceded it. By persisting in this wholesale repudiation of the previous city, we will never truly dispose of the key problem of the twentieth century: the constant process of beginning afresh, but without any empirical knowledge about what has gone before. We will never shake off the twentieth century in this manner; we are in danger of getting stuck in a slow, urban planning variant of the film Groundhog Day (1993).
And that is why it is so important that there are practices like KCAP, in whose work the twentieth century is not ignored, is indeed sometimes blatantly present. For the flip side of the paradox mentioned above is that it is the very people who are still fascinated by the urban planning pretensions and methodologies of the twentieth century who might contribute to breaking the vicious circle of forgetting, beginning anew, forgetting, beginning anew, et cetera. Those who push this negative project of the modernist twentieth century most aggressively are those who are most convinced they have radically broken with this period: the corporate directors who raze entire working-class neighbourhoods and replace them with suburbs, the architects who build neo-traditionalist ‘new towns’ in the countryside of Brabant, and the building senator who orders the construction of a whole metropolis based on notional 18th-century construction envelopes.
It is only wealthy countries like the Netherlands that can afford to countenance the demolition of entire residential areas that have been inhabited by only one or two generations. And here we see the kind of destruction of financial, cultural and social capital this generates. Neighbourhoods where, after 40 years, some kind of layeredness has finally developed - because they have long since stopped being inhabited and used in accordance with the way they were planned - are demolished, so that the process of ‘normalization’ can start again from the very beginning, this time under the much more favourable conditions of a semi-suburban design. Normalization is a term used by the German architecture critic Wolfgang Kil to refer to a process - though that may be too grand a word - that occurs once the urban planners and the architects are finished and the inhabitants start to appropriate the high-rise district bit by bit: little balconies become kitchen extensions, green verges are occupied by quasi-legal kiosks, car parks are used as mosques and private garages as clubhouses. It is the age-old phenomenon of urban patina which can proceed at a tremendous rate or almost imperceptibly slowly, depending on the circumstances. It presents us with a paradox: a city becomes more urban the more exuberantly this process advances, so urban planning is more successful the more ‘incorrectly’ its products are used over time. This is, of course, a theme that also presumes architectural know-how and methodology; a kind of urban ‘architecture without architects’, a theme on which KCAP has carried out various forms of interesting research.
Dealing with these neighbourhoods requires a paradoxical form of contextualism: an attitude that assimilates aspects of the ideological fervour of the modernists, but is also able set them aside, and is capable of making opportunistic use of the dynamic of a neighbourhood that is colonized by its inhabitants and users. While we are developing instruments with which to promote the process of normalization, and the spaces and buildings of the modern neighbourhoods and cities are being eroded still further, we should be thinking about how we can breathe new life into the cursed pretensions of modern urban planning for the 21st century. Community building anyone? Emancipation? Progress? Self-fulfilment? Collectivity? The fact is that this paradoxical contextualism requires architects with a paradoxical kind of nostalgia: for the idealism, the ideology, the belief in progress and, above all, the modernist twentieth century’s lack of nostalgia. Current construction and design practice in the Netherlands and other wealthy Western countries tends to do the reverse: it uses the same top-down, technocratic planning methods based on highly simplified principles as in the 1950s, but it has lost any idealism and any compelling narrative about our collective future - truly, the worst of both worlds.
There is another argument, besides this rather cerebral one, for more seriously engaging with the urban planning of the twentieth century: there are simply so many people living in the districts and cities built according to these fundamental principles of modern urban planning that it is absurd and damaging that we can do nothing better than condemn them, demolish them and start afresh. The clear majority of countries with large-scale urban planning legacies dating from the modern twentieth century - and that is most countries - cannot afford to adopt the stance of Dutch politicians, housing corporation directors and architects. They are obliged to accept the existence of the New Towns, Großsiedlungen and sotsgorods and continue working to improve these areas. This applies to the new towns in Poland and East Germany and in northern England, Portugal, Greece and so on.
However, there is one aspect of the modern movement that has been almost completely overlooked by both architects and architectural historians, namely the huge export of new urban planning models to Asia, Africa and South America in the 1950s and ’60s, and their intrusive political and ideological character. During the Cold War, Russian and American institutions exported whole new cities to countries that were vacillating between the two spheres of influence. The Americans, almost without exception, employed ultra-modernist, European-born urban planners of the CIAM generation, for this task. Josep Lluis Sert created highly modernist master plans for metropolises and new towns in Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil and Peru, and in so doing bore out Fernand Braudel’s theory that the Mediterranée extends as far as Brazil. Victor Gruen, the Austrian architect who invented the shopping mall, designed an immense Master Plan for Tehran for the Shah of Iran and became increasingly desperate in his search for a client who would allow him to build the twentieth-century version of the European city. Albert Mayer was sent out to India to design a new capital city for the Punjab for Nehru and in so doing lend the New Deal ideals of Franklin Roosevelt a global dimension, but in the middle of the process he was replaced by a Swiss naturist and architect. There are countless other examples and, moreover, we can point to hundreds of cities inhabited by hundreds of millions of people that were designed by our own professional forefathers, according to the same principles as the residential districts that we inhabit and sometimes demolish. Apart from the two ‘hits’, Chandigarh and Brasilia, nothing is known about whether or not these cities were ‘normalized’. There is, at best, an assumption that these cities and districts represent the worst excesses of a colonial export of Western systems that do not fit into local cultures. But meanwhile, those hundreds of millions of people are still living in cities planned - metaphorically speaking - by us. Our intercontinental interests are limited, on the one hand, to the planning of a whole new generation of new cities in China or, on the other, to a politically correct interest in totally unplanned urban developments in the mega-cities of the developing world, such as the favelas of Brazil, or the spatial improvisation skills of the residents of mega-cities like Lagos. The paradoxical contextualism for which I am arguing, is actually being practised where the unplanned urban developments and the top-down planning clash most brutally, provoking a series of urban planning challenges for which we have few answers as yet.
I would like to illustrate a few of these challenges with a topical case: Baghdad, capital of Iraq. Since the invasion of Iraq, the American military, together with the United Nations, have done their best to turn part of this immense ‘feral city’ into a respectable metropolis. They are directing much of their effort at a rectangular district of some five square kilometres in the northeast of the city, which is inhabited by two million, mainly Shia, Iraqis: Sadr City. Sadr City is the third name that this area has had since its creation about 45 years ago. Under the enlightened despot Qassim, it was called Madinat al-Thawra - ‘Revolution City’. He built it for ‘internal displaced persons’, the poor Shia who flocked to the city. After Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Baathist, seized power, al-Thawra became a symbol of the poor majority’s uprising against the dominant minority. With exceptional black humour, Saddam renamed this concentration of people he had ostracized Saddam City. Even before he was ousted, Saddam City was already a stronghold of the Shia struggle against Saddam, led by the Shia Muslim cleric Mohammed al-Sadr, who was assassinated by Saddam supporters in 1999. When Saddam fell, Saddam City had in fact already been renamed Sadr City: a virtually autonomous, ‘no-go area’ for Saddam’s troops, controlled by the Mahdi, the unofficial troops who accepted the authority of Ayatollah Mohammed al-Sadr, the spiritual leader of the Shia Muslims, and, after his death, that of his son, Muqtada al-Sadr. A remarkably large portion of the population consists of the tens of thousands of criminals released from prisons by Saddam as a propaganda stunt on the eve of the invasion by the ‘Coalition’. After the invasion, Sadr City once again became a hotbed of resistance, but this time against the Americans, led by Muqtada al-Sadr, son of the ayatollah. The seemingly endless zones of low-rise but highly dense development, with their narrow alleys and culs-de-sac, provided - and still provide - the backdrop for the most gruesome and bloody urban guerilla warfare in recent history. Sadr City even has the dubious honour of being rendered in its entirety in a multi-player, shoot-em-up computer game, Kuma War/Real War Games: Mission 16, Battle in Sadr City. Soldiers from the 1st cavalry Division fight Mahdi Army militiamen - loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr - in the tight, dirty streets of Baghdad’s Sadr City. It is May 23rd, in the Baghdad slum known as Sadr City. The temperature ranges to 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Over a 24 hour period, US soldiers encounter and engage several small groups of anti-coalition fighters resulting in 20-30 enemy killed with no Coalition casualties.
This is the Sadr City we can find on a variety of Internet news sites, in newspapers, on CNN and Al Jazeera, and in the spate of books about the Gulf War. However, we can also find Sadr City in a relatively obscure corner of architectural history libraries: in publications about the Greek urban planner and architect Constantinos Doxiadis. The fact that Doxiadis’ projects have been almost completely ignored by architectural historians, critics and architects themselves since the 1970s is symptomatic of the short-sightedness that this profession has developed in recent years. Doxiadis was in fact responsible for the construction of more urban substance than all his ex-CIAM colleagues put together. He did this according to an almost hermetic theoretical, design and engineering system called ‘Ekistics’, and he was a past master at injecting his projects with an ideology of community building, freedom, democracy, emancipation and, most especially, progressive thinking. Doxiadis built Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, built new cities in Libya, Zambia, Ghana and other countries, and drafted expansion plans for cities such as Riyadh, Khartoum and Baghdad, plans that increased the size of these cities many times. Doxiadis was possibly the leading exponent of the explicit application of modernist planning and design models as vehicles for freedom, peace and progress according to a Western model. He owed these commissions to the convergence of the influence of American government and non-government institutions like the Ford Foundation, Harvard University and the State Department, and the nationalist and modernist ambitions of the new leaders of the new countries, such as Qassim in Iraq, Khan in Pakistan, Nyerere in Ghana, and Pahlavi in Iran.
We could describe Doxiadis’ activities in Iraq as an attempt to provide the young state with a housing system as modern as, say, the Netherlands. Doxiadis drafted a plan for housing throughout the country and produced expansion plans for various cities in Iraq. The housing plans were schemata geared to local technology which laid down which income groups should live in what type of housing, how big these should be, and the ratio of land to be devoted to public, private and semi-public use. The keystone of the operation was the master plan for Baghdad.
After a study conducted with astounding efficiency, Doxiadis pinpointed two natural growth directions in this city: downstream and upstream along the Euphrates. He encased the historical city in a grid that stood open to the two growth directions. This grid was composed of 40 sectors covering from two to four square kilometres, each with an urban centre and a population ranging from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. Zooming in more closely, we can see that these sectors are further subdivided into a number of ‘human sectors’, each measuring 1 x 0.5 kilometres with a smaller neighbourhood centre. The smaller sectors are the community units from which the city communities are built. These are separated from one other by a grid of broad thoroughfares and are themselves accessible via one or two through roads and a network of culs-de-sac. The district centre consists of a modernist composition of market buildings, a mosque and, for example, a football stadium and a police station. The smallest level of communal scale consists of the neighbourhoods around the culs-de-sac, each with its ‘gossip square’. These small, open spaces in the heart of the neighbourhoods were once again based on research by Doxiadis into the structure and functionality of the Iraqi and Islamic city, just like the city’s direction of growth along the river and the demographic data that he used for the sectors, districts and neighbourhoods. The gossip squares were intended to provide an escape from traffic noise, to create oases of peace and shade where small groups of men and women could meet and sit.
Many of the elements from which this city is composed are exactly the same as in the dozens of other cities that Doxiadis built in the developed world; they made use of the same hierarchy of community, the same modernist design tools and the same long-term and regionally scaled growth scenarios. The cities differ from each other because every city is the result of different empirical data fed into the same model. Doxiadis distinguished different strings of data, different usage typologies and different programmes for Pakistan, Iraq, the Sudan, Ghana, Philadelphia and Zambia, respectively. These slightly different data resulted in different elaborations of the same system. The architecture, too, is a slight variant of a uniform system: in Iraq we see a generous use of natural stone and brick, in Pakistan more stucco and in Pakistan there is also more ornamentation, inspired by the Moguls, and in Iraq more Arabic references, in an otherwise very restrained modernist repertoire.
Another feature common to all of Doxiadis’ cities is the highly concrete, community-building effect of the urban planning. This was a direct consequence of the political assignment given him by his American patrons. The decolonized cities had to get the best that Atlantic modernism had to offer. 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 to population groups turning in frustration to communist agents provocateurs or reverting to archaic traditions fraught with superstition and latent violence. That meant urban planning that adopted a middle course between local references and a modern, international style, between the large scale of the metropolis and the village-like organization of the city districts. Thanks to the cell structure of the mega-city, the first generation of internal immigrants from the countryside and the sophisticated city-dwellers would not be confronted with each other, but rather united in a single organism. We could therefore regard the cities designed by Doxiadis as precisely tuned ‘emancipation machines’ with which the newly autonomous states could free themselves from their colonial past and participate in the worldwide development of a free and democratic urban society.
One of the most provocative texts about urban development one can read today is Naomi Klein’s essay Baghdad Year Zero: Pillaging Iraq in Pursuit of a Neocon Utopia. Klein is clearly a virulent anti-globalist and much of her research is therefore extremely one-sided and partisan. She does, however, succeed in making a convincing case that the way Americans are dealing with post-invasion Iraq is fed by an ideological fervour that is stronger and more radical than that of the 1950s and ’60s. The key words, once again, are freedom and democracy, but the methods and above all the ideal image are totally, terribly and traumatically different. Naomi Klein compares the US reconstruction of Iraq to the torture of prisoners in order to extract confessions. If you give a prisoner a number of strong electric shocks to various parts of the body, they become so confused about where the pain is coming from as to be rendered incapable of putting up any resistance, physical or mental. Klein quotes a ‘Counterintelligence Interrogation’ manual from 1963, which describes how such a trauma can lead to ‘an interval - which may be extremely brief - of suspended animation, a kind of psychological shock or paralysis. ...At this moment the source is far more open to suggestion, far likelier to comply.’ She then compares this method to the designation of radical free-market reforms in, for example, Chile under Pinochet, as ‘shock treatment’. The theory is that one can make use of an immense disaster that affects the whole country, such as a war, a coup d’état or the collapse of government, to push through a whole raft of painful economic and social reforms.
According to Klein, the neo-conservative wing of American politics, which couples a genuine belief in the role of America as the propagator of democratic values throughout the world with an unshakeable belief in the free-market economy, found in Iraq an almost ideal backdrop for the founding of a utopian state. The US chargé d’affaires began his mission by dismantling almost the entire Iraqi government apparatus and flinging open the country to international companies that would take care of its reconstruction. After a few months of confusion, they would hire the hundreds of thousands who had ended up jobless on the streets and employ them to fill in the economic and political tabula rasa at breakneck speed, creating a country that would be set on the right track in a single swoop. After the initial months, during which the Iraqis did indeed seem too confused to offer much resistance, things started to go completely wrong, of course. The hundreds of thousands did not turn to the new companies but to the armed resistance, and instead of becoming ‘the best place to do business’, Iraq turned into a long-drawn-out nightmare, from which one company after another has withdrawn.
Back to Sadr City. After 40 years of isolation and four years of resistance to the Americans, Doxiadis’ subtly designed emancipation machine has degenerated into a battlefield between those trying to lay sewers on behalf of the US and the UN, and the Mahdi who want to defend the district as an autonomous fiefdom. There is much talk of a reconstruction plan, but experts cannot even leave the Green Zone in the centre of the city. As architects and urban planners we are, for the time being, forced to look at this case from a great distance. It raises big questions of a different nature. Can the structure that Doxiadis established 40 years ago, which to judge from photos and eye-witness descriptions is remarkably intact, still work as it was intended? Do the citizens of Sadr still identify with their district, neighbourhood and gossip square? Are these broad lines the basis for a reconstruction? What are the architectural and urban planning equivalents of the neo-conservative utopia that the Pentagon and the White House and the boardrooms of Halliburton and Bechtel have in mind? Do they, too, presume a spatial tabula rasa; is Sadr City to be transformed into a suburb, into an edge city, into an archipelago of gated communities? If things ever calm down, if they are at least able to tame Baghdad, won’t the world’s big architectural practices be flown in? If even a fraction of American economic projections transpires, will Baghdad become a focal point of hyper-capitalism in the Middle East? A metropolitan Dubai, a Hong Kong of Arabia? These architectural practices will encounter a city with a still highly visible modernist anatomy, inspired by an ideology that combines the highest ideals of the twentieth century with the intimidating scale and chaos of a megalopolis in the developing world. It is inevitable that these practices will show their faces here. For the moment it is wholly unclear who their clients might be: private or public, small or large, good or bad. It is, however, obvious that they will enter a field where all the earlier large-scale structures were applied according to Western models and from the perspective of Western global politics. At the smallest scale they will encounter a highly specific local culture and tradition of appropriating typologies and spaces devised by others for totally unanticipated uses. This does not merely hold for Baghdad, but also for Tehran, parts of Kabul, Khartoum and other cities with a great post-colonial, modernist legacy and a recent history of total isolation and upheaval.
A case like Baghdad confronts us with a number of deep-seated issues with which contemporary urban planning is grappling. A wholly politically correct approach to the reconstruction of Baghdad would consist of denying the modernist, imported Western models of which this city is to a large extent composed. This would be a denial of the spatial situation of millions of people as a valid basis from which to work. The interesting thing is that this politically correct attitude would not be so unlike the neo-conservative fundamentalism with which a whole society is currently being erased in favour of a chimera. The only attitude we can adopt with respect to a city like Baghdad is that of paradoxical contextualism. How else should we work with the structures left behind by Doxiadis, which still form the only large-scale spatial basis? That is why I am intrigued to know how practices like KCAP would tackle a challenge like the reconstruction of Baghdad. I suspect they are more capable than anti-modernists or pure signature architects to engage seriously with the physical and non-physical legacies of Doxiadis and of the modernist twentieth century in particular. I also suspect that open-ended methodologies like Kaisersrot, or open-minded models like waiting lands, might simply be practical and beneficial in updating an artificial megastructure like Baghdad. It is, after all, as much about understanding the mechanisms of this inhabited diagram and being able to design with this, as it is about the ability to accept and embrace unforeseen uses of spaces designed for completely different purposes.
The main reason for this not immediately obvious coupling of KCAP and the war in Iraq is that I would like to remind us all that we - that is to say, our technological, architectural, urbanist, architectural and urban planning ideas - are already present there. We architects and urban planners, who are still infected by the ideological modernism of the twentieth century, have a feeling for the ‘source code’ of true twentieth-century cities like these, a feeling that is completely lacking among the traditionalists, the commercially driven and the pseudo-avant-garde. And as global politics increasingly seems to be shaped by ghosts from our own ideological, modernist past - ghosts that are now returning to haunt us - a pragmatic and humanist re-intervention in the artificial megalopolises of the twentieth century could well be of far wider significance than for architecture alone.