A Wonderful World

Wiel Arets, Wiel Arets: Autobiographical References (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2012), 489-492

To understand the world we are living in we have to redefine the ‘Map of the World’, a mental construct which at least since 1492 has undergone many reinterpretations. We could read the world anno 2020 as a collective living space for all, in which all the continents are in reach within 288 minutes, and the maximum travel distance within each continent will be 72 minutes, the time in which every city on each continent will be able to be reached. The world will be our territory, the continents are our daily living space, and the metropolitan three-dimensional city our home, surrounded by an untouched green/blue environment. The basic question we should put forward is: How will the city develop within our extremely exciting, complex, but ‘shrinking’ world? This problem was not solved during the twentieth century, although an important attempt was made to think about an ‘International Style’, an idea that people all over would be able to live their lives within one ideological construct. What will be the strategy for the contemporary city and who will challenge this development? We have to radically change our perception of what is a city; we have to find a new definition and even a new word for what we call ‘the city’ or the ‘metropolis’, a name that was coined in the early-twentieth century. 

During the second part of the twentieth century, the rediscovery of the traditional city was the focus of attention; we can refer to Aldo Rossi’s book L’Architettura della Citta. Parallel to this revival, Rem Koolhaas wrote Delirious New York in which suddenly the research of this metropolis was undertaken with the courage of a journalist who was making notes, since his ambition was to write the script for a movie in which this metropolis was seen as a ‘living organism’. During the last decade, however, some people have been speaking about the virtual city; of course this does exist. Parallel to this, Dubai showed us that a dream could be realized like Brasília in the 1950s. But just as the phone operates together with the computer and the email to communicate, the new city, the city to come is more complex than the city as we know it so far, because our culture is simply much more complex as well. 

New infrastructural devices have to be developed which will have a great influence on the development of what we will call the ‘unconscious city’. Perhaps the virtual realm will help the city to get a new identity, in which our constantly changing world is meeting instability. The way the world is dealing with financial issues and the role/position of the bank, property-ownership, and the playground for developers and entrepreneurs are not anymore bound to one city; they relate by stock exchange and the international property development as a global issue. We would like to speak in this respect about the city to come as the unconscious city, the city we experience in a dreamlike condition; the un-sensational, the un-thought, the un-environment, the seemingly un-complex perception of a new reality. Our contemporary civilization is based on imperfect systems, on uncertainties, and is much more adaptable and flexible; but risk is an issue which is not anymore related to one person or institution. Our daily routine depends very much on the individual decision, although people are connected, by the Internet, to every imaginable group. We have to develop new planning devices that take this contemporary individualization much more into account.

The biggest problem facing the city today is that it does not offer an alternative to housing, as we know it. How should we live our life in this unconscious city? It is clear that not only our buildings but also our city will become more hybrid than ever. Urban living will intensify within the next decade since we know that worldwide more than 90 per cent of the world’s population will live in metropolises in the near future. Urban living should be considered conceptually as a place for the individual to be able to live in the urban culture, the urban hybrid fabric, although his ‘romantic’ desire for space outside the city is greater than ever. ‘Singularity’ is not the only word which we have to redefine, since there will always be a ‘togetherness’. We should get rid of the mono-programmatic understanding of architecture, the singularity of the linear reading; the multi-layered society of today will be realized in a built format to be called unconscious city. 

Once we agree that there wasn’t a satisfying concept of urbanism and planning a decade ago, it is clear that our new urbanism has to be more strategic, based on processes, conflicts, differences and fields. Within this new strategic device we have to consider the relationship between metropolises, we have to understand that our metropolises around the world are more linked than ever. Interests of all kind, whether we think about political, financial, cultural, and religious, etc., are more intertwined than ever. This is also risky for those who think that architecture should be historically developed; since our strategic urbanism is not based on references and we do not know what the result will be, it is risky. We can certainly learn a great deal from the past, from the urban strategies from the Greeks and Romans, from great architects and their Maecenas–we can learn from the past, but always in respect to the condition of the past. Great cultures like Egypt or the Maya developed their strategies within their intellectual content; we have to respect their vision and this has to be seen as one of our fields of research. We should not be too skeptical just because our discipline, architecture as well as urbanism, is slow and depends on delays and resistances. We should take risks and adopt the approach of the unconscious city as a strategic device.

Every city or metropolis and its architecture has its own rational of development within its time. Consider that Manhattan was a phenomenon of a radical utopia, and that economic forces developed Chicago, while in China the new metropolises are based on quantities of people and on bigness. One thing we have to keep in mind when considering metropolises is their uniqueness, since they are always developed without compromises; this seems to be the basis for recognition. Brasília, Kubitschek’s dream which he asked Costa and Niemeyer to work on, is in this respect an interesting phenomenon as well, but whether it is a modern brilliant model or a failure, at least is was radical. It is probably the best to be compared with the dream of Sheik Al-Maktoum to built Dubai, a city with a criteria that as much as possible of that what is realized should be published in the ‘Guinness Book of World Records’, the highest building, the biggest shopping mall, the most unique artificial island seen from orbit, etc.

The unconscious city should be based on an awareness of risk and tension and the creation of a new dream. It should be seen as a model, of a new or reconstructed existing metropolis that works within the ‘New World Map’. It is clear that we have to understand the writings by Saskia Sassen, Mike Davies, and others to understand that our new reality is asking for new strategic devices. There is a need to change the city radically by transformations that deal with differences instead of sameness, which seems to be the issue of late-twentieth century nostalgia; the difference between city and landscape starts to blur more and more. Instead, the city should be a three-dimensional and hybrid construct with a clear boundary, so nature can become nature again—a place in which people should behave as strangers. In this respect, perhaps the ‘New Map of the World’ can be seen as some continents floating in the ocean, with metropolises as archipelagos spread over the continents surrounded by untouched nature. Contrasts of quality should not fade, clear borders are what we need since we have to know where the city ends and where the countryside begins. 

In our fluid society, where internet and new technologies are playing an important role, we have to define new criteria for what is our public and private realm or domain. We have to rethink all of our infrastructure as well as mechanical transportation by airplane, boat, train, car and new, yet to be developed transportation systems, and make clear choices. The airport will connect main points at a greater distance from one another (within 288 minutes). Fast trains have to connect cities and major locations (within 72 or 288 minutes). The smaller cities and villages are connected by local public transport and road systems (within 72 or 288 minutes). The car will become a vehicle that we will use only on specific occasions, when computers can control it on electronic highways. Finally, we have to economize our means, to make clear decisions about how the unconscious city could be developed, and how the ‘New Map of the World’ should look like in our new global strategy.