Edifices and Narratives
Astronaut Photo of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia taken from the International Space Station (ISS), 2010.
In the beginning there was not the city, but the resistant shard; not the organic community, but more or less the cumbersome fragments. There has never been an original Whole into which all parts could once again harmoniously fit, but only antagonistic pieces that different forces try to exploit and put together in conflicting ways. Consequently there is no point in expecting or even compelling the citizens of a city to love each other (“Heterophiliate or die!” as Jencks puts it). The crucial point is to find ways in which we can find meaning, value and even joy in coexistence, given that our destinies are intertwined in one way or the other – with or against our will. No matter how hard we try, there is no way to escape each other. Neither islands or walls can protect us from the insistent presence of the putative Other. Instead, we need to build (down to the last letter) on the fact that only mental confinement awaits us if we try to pull down the bridges over the troubled waters that surrounds us. We know that there is a continuous dialectic between the material infrastructure and the mental infrastructure of a city. Institutions and imaginations, edifices and narratives, structures and dreams, interact and feed upon each other. The urban landscape is in itself capable of both fortifying and erasing social inequalities and racial segregation. Accordingly, the best way to strengthen the links between people is to promote justice, equality and the opportunity of genuine participation in the construction of the urban scenery. The occupy movement that spread throughout the world in the wake of the Arab spring taught us that any struggle for democracy requires a twofold strategy: not only do we need to have a say about the actual designing and organizing of the urban milieu, we also need to influence the very idea of the city in which we are supposed to live. “Architecture or revolution!” as the Swiss architect Le Corbusier put it.
A first step in such a direction would be to foster a vibrant and democratic urban culture that would also serve as a barrier to the growth of fear-ridden and vilifying rumours, lurking particularly in the parts of the city that are either abandoned (from impoverished suburbs to downright urban slums) or particularly privileged (from gentrified neighbourhoods to gated communities). If the petty and often simple-minded passions of ethnicity and race, with all its narcissism and propensity for scapegoating, are allowed to suck up all space in the public debate, the singularity of our most beautiful passions and the most interesting prospects for the glocal urban fabric run the risk of dropping out. Few things are more vital to a viable city than an incessant critical outlook on its own political life, on its dreams and aspirations, its shortcomings and its assets. As we are all, from birth, too fragile for the world that we are thrown into, there are only a limited number of ways to make us feel somewhat safe in the city. It begins with the more or less convulsive identification with a certain group (the sense of protection that comes with the haphazard belonging to a we) and proceeds to the politics of isolation that may, or may not, follow out of this identification (the building of walls and procurement of arms to keep the Other at bay). Yet there is still the possibility of a creative culture, fertile enough to lead us out of the mentality of isolation by encouraging us to enrich our palette of emotions and thoughts so that our lives won’t be reduced to the pure dimension of fear and its ensuing companions: stupidity and paranoia.