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On Democracy (X): Modern Architecture in Old Towns – Does it fit together?

By Guenther Baechler*
Thursday, March 5
We all like to visit the big cities of the world with great interest and eagerness. I guess however we admit that such visit is not just fun and excitement. Sometimes we may even suffer while walking along the crowded streets, sitting in an expensive cafe and watching traffic jams or visiting the grandiose-most down-town buildings. Mixed feelings might also be triggered by various types of pollutions hardcore city dwellers have to cope with on a daily base: loud noise, thick air, grey concrete that affect our senses all together: eyes, ears, and nose as well as nerves.

A second challenge is the occupation of the urban space by more and more rural dwellers and village people – not because they all desperately want to be “urbanized” but just because their own impoverished livelihood forces them to leave. Rural areas are neglected, provincial towns forgotten, and interesting jobs and activities not to be found outside the capitals; there is just no interesting alternative in rural areas. Hence, in a few years from now 75% of the global population will live in increasingly ugly and unbearable mega-cities of the world. Against a rather frightening scenery of fast growing centers as well as wild and chaotic growth of landscape-hungry peri-urban, sub-urban and non-urban belts any sound town planning seems to become mission impossible.

The major pain however might be triggered by the sins of architects, engineers, and constructors; by the lack of town planning and design, by the failed reconciliation of old and new, historic and modern. A visual expression of profit maximization and high density is the sensational single monument. The lonely tower has become an icon of modern architecture: Higher, bigger, and unique in its form and appearance. Obviously, anything goes: so-called world architects are allowed to build monsters and ignore the “genius loci” as well as the identity of the urban dwellers all together. Sometimes I ask myself whether the gigantic monuments of liberal globalism are so different indeed from ancient “Soviet brutalism” in architecture. “Bigness” and individualism at any cost seems to be in while urbanistic planning of the structural and societal ensemble seems to be out.

The rank growths of cities might somehow be unavoidable. At the same time “urbanity” is much more than just a dense and wild assembly of buildings. Cities are by far more than just gigantic money making machines, cheap trade centers, narrow spaces for tourist crowds, or large motorways for crazy car drivers. Indeed towns are neither a free zone for private investors nor a panorama for architectural freestylers.

Nowadays, fast growing cities face a dual challenge indeed: that of establishing a new identity for the 21st century while preserving their unique history and contextual features. Such duality may lead either to a destructive confrontation and sharp divide between old and new or to a fertile and innovative polarization and reconciliatory facilitation between traditions and modernity. Let me try to explain the difference between confrontation and polarization in order to clarify my thoughts about something that might immediately catch your eyes once you walk in a given town.

On destructive confrontation between old and new

Locally specific and historically sensitive architecture in times of rapid growth and globalized icon-building is very much under threat. Instead, new strangely designed buildings seem to fall onto a given urban fabric like pigeon excrements on a well-dressed pedestrian at Peter’s square in Rome. World architecture is becoming so universal and uniform that you can hardly identify the town you found a certain building in: Zurich, Tokyo or Buenos Aires? Engineers construct geometrical shapes that are derived from the same materials and technologies: concrete + steel + glass. The aesthetic of all-white and formal minimalism is definitely dominating the scene. Hence, quite often world architecture collides with managerial disorganization of cities, with hasty and cheap construction, with lack or absence of architectural design, with lack of rules and regulations or the corrupt ignorance of them, and with crumbling infra¬structure of “rural” cities.

Minimalism has become a new ideology; a kind of arbitrary formalism that is focusing on forms, facades, and fantastic sculp¬tural appearance. The search for sensations promotes engineering and computational design rather than town planning and architectural conceptualizations. Individual monuments spread over the urban space like alien sculptures may initially attract some more tourists but also provoke a lot of criticism among the best architects and experts. Recently, William J.R. Curtis described the Metropol Parasol in Seville, built by Jurgen Mayer-Hermann with quite harsh words: “It is a completely absurd, unscrupulous, and narcissistic exercise in formalism which cannot even explained by the construction technique since it is quite a boring concrete structure with some steel and wooden elements attached to it (..) It completely destroys the urbanity of Plaza de la Encarnacion.” (NZZ, 27.04.2013, p. 62) Okay, one may like the sensational Museum of Bilbao or not; one may prefer Mario Botta from Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind from Herzog & de Meuron or the Italian Tendenza from Jean Nouvel etc. Fact is that there are definitely many different discourses about the sharp divide between traditionally grown systems and newly added structures that seem to be alien to any social and urban system. Fact is also that architecture is neither just a more or less monumental piece of concrete nor is it to be confused with art. A house – even the most beautiful one – is still a house; it is not art but a more or less well designed object of utility.

Does the modern architecture aim at breaking with the traditional town structure and promote radical concepts of the dissolution of the town? Is there a new approach that is giving up on communicating buildings, streets and squares and fostering only objects without any link to the local context and structural situation? Is it really worthwhile for city governments to provide expensive playground for engineers to experiment with the deconstruction of the town and its historically grown identity? Are citizens really willing and interested in giving up on their own identity just for the sake of a few key monumental constructions?

On innovative polarization between traditions and modernity

Against such divided background I would like to focus on the question: how to do it better?

More than ever town planning and city development is challenged by both, the preservation of ancient buildings and historic centers; the renovation of a huge number of buildings that were designed and built in the last fifty or so years (after WW II); and of course the construction of new and modern buildings for a growing number of needs and functions. Planners are supposed to be able to facilitate between local traditions and the domestic character of cities and quarters on the one hand and modern styles and international or world architecture on the other.

A modern town is somehow comparable to a human being. Both are supposed to combine factors of a multiple identity in order to strengthen personal identity and not to destroy it. Identity in town planning is always linked to architectural heritage which by itself is composed of a mix of various historical periods, different cultural and geographical influences, and of an extraordinary range of styles, functions, and forms. A common understanding about the urbanistic hierarchy in town development, about what is important and what not can only be reached in the democratic process.

Architects therefore must should the ability and the knowledge to connect with the past while at the same time to mirror and symbolize the future – not knowing exactly (yet) how this future may look like. In 1752 David Hume in his “Political Discourses” described very adequately the modern European town as a symbol of openness towards the future: unthinkable, unimaginable. He very much regarded the town as a visualiza¬tion of our civilization, of culture, and of democratic development.

Let me follow David Hume and reflect about the triangle: civilization, culture, democracy in our modern (European) towns.

Democratic town planning

Here are some guidelines I would like to offer for debate:
• First and foremost, within the fundamental dichotomy between public and private in city plan¬ning there is a clear civilizational preference for the public space. During the Greek antique the public space came always first. The urban space – more precisely: the square – was the agent of change of the res publica the most famous of which is the Agora of Athens. The political history of democracy developed on the public squares of our towns; and this holds true till today. Only recently squares like Maidan, Tahir, and Freedom Square etc. worldwide became a vivid symbol of this. Berlin Alexanderplatz became well-known for the protest movement against the Soviet Empire and for the peaceful end of the Cold War; the Tiananmen-square in Peking or the Red Square in Moscow became sometimes famous for the opposite. The public square in the town is exactly the space where history gets accelerated; where human development takes place; where progress of arts, culture, and sciences was shaped.
• Secondly, in developed civilizations and cultures of the world any city development follows some kind of a program. While authoritarianism prefers rigid plans, rectangular structures, huge avenues in newly erected towns in the middle of a desert the democratic city is an expression of uncountable interventions, somehow chaotic balance of interests, and of on-going democratic decision making processes at various levels. The urban layout mirrors the tasks, functions, hierarchies, and objectives of a town; and there are plenty of them: living and working, reproduction, producing and selling, shopping, recreation, mobility, bridges, monuments, education, hospitals, museum, libraries, cinemas, parks, gardens, sports facilities, theaters, operas, train stations, airports, ports, avenues, etc. Democratic towns are supposed to be green towns with quiet recreational areas where no cars are allowed. In such towns there is freedom of movement in well separated spaces where big cars do not attack small ones, small cars not the bickers, and bickers not the pedestrians. Democratic towns are linked with clean energy; they promote urban gardening and urban mining in order to cope with both healthy food and the garbage challenge. Planning and regulating such a complex system while being creative, sensitive to the past, combining rational designs with poetic elements and without destroying the “identity” of a town and its citizens is a huge task indeed. This task can only be accomplished in constant exchange with the citizens who ultimately decide how “their” city shall look like and how the dialectics between the town as a whole and individual parts is being handled. Town planning is of course about affordable housing in livable neighborhoods.
• Thirdly, a major democratic challenge is the historically grown city – compared to a newly built city planned on the computer by engineers. Many architects behaved like gods when they were arguing against deformities and degeneracies of old cities. Not few of them presented plans for the destruction of grown cities in order to build an image of their own vision; e.g. Le Corbusier with his Plan Voisin in 1925; Karl Moser in Zurich in 1933; Maurice Braillard in Geneva in 1935). Fortunately both democratically elected governments and social movements successfully protested against the tabula-rasa logic of the avant-gardists and god-like engineers. Otherwise old Zurich, Paris etc. eventually would not exist anymore. The lessons: Town builders always have to reconcile history and modern times, old and new, traditional and modern. Today, reconciliation between architects and urban designers or town constructors is needed. Both (private) architects, (public) town designers, and local representative bodies have to fight back against the dominance of investors, engineers, and managers and win terrain for the public space back again. A town is not a technical tool but an ever changing organism that reflects the interdependence of continuity and change. Old and new clothes have to fit with constant growth. Maybe car designers can be a model for town builders, too: a car designer is very much concerned with identity. He/she has to ensure that the most modern and fancy Mercedes is still being perceived as a Mercedes just as the models of 1956 or 1972 etc. did as well. The sound mixture of functions and form, of contextual and global is a major element of the art of sound town planning. Why cities like Berlin, Rome, London, and Paris are beautiful? It is because of their structured orders which resemble a specific pattern. The similar appearance of buildings determines a street or an avenue. Buildings are similar in style, size, colors, but not identical and not all exactly the same. There is also the experience of colors and their different grades. Paris is white, Prague yellowish, London more dark. Buildings do not only represent themselves. They also de¬t-ermine topographies, directions, lines, cross¬roads, waterways, linkages, and geographical perspectives. They shape the sky over the city and with this also the light and its shades. In a well-planned urban environment one or the other well-designed sensational and unique tower may indeed contribute to the “face-lifting” rather than promote the destruction of its identity.

Some conclusions: On the concrete question of a journalist whether or not democracy gives a hard life to architects Daniel Libeskind, the builder of new Ground Zero in New York, answered: “Yes, but that’s why I love democracy. Many people think, it is easy and nice to work for authoritarian regimes. No, such architecture only produces facades.” (NZZ of 11.01.2015, p. 66). And that’s not what architects aim at. Ground Zero is more than just two towers: it is a new complex structure forming a kind of city in the city of Manhattan attracting thousands of city dwellers and commercial offices in a complex but planned urbanistic structure.

What does democratic development mean for modern architecture? One thing is for sure. The task is not to build frivol architecture in an open space or to empty historically grown space for sculptural monsters but rather, to design visionary buildings with a human dimension as part of the town. A town is like a body that wants to be shaped, well treated, nicely dressed, and well designed. The transformation of the city is only possible in the framework of a “town-culture” similar to a sound and sustainable “agri-culture”. That is why environmental, climatic, and energetic aspects play a crucial role as well. As in agriculture in town-culture the use of light, energy, and soil is a factor of success or failure. A dying city is like a deserted acre or a deadly-sick human body.

I still believe in the future of the Agora, the public space, the town as a repetition of the similar in well-defined but open structures, the interaction between old and new, contextual and global, local and international. I still envisage the modern town as a an ensemble where buildings, streets, quarters and squares reflect both sustainable urban and sound societal fabrics. Let’s still understand town planning against our own civilization, culture, and democratic traditions. Let’s make our cities a zone of peaceful, pluralistic, and innovative togetherness.

In the near future when I visit one of the famous towns of the world I would still like to exper-ience the same emotional feeling I do experience in the high mountains or at the seaside: a feeling of sublimity, grandeur, transcendence…

Guenther Baechler, Ambassador of Switzerland in Tbilisi, holds a PhD in political science and is a visiting professor at the Institute for European Studies at the University of Basel.