Our Cities Ourselves: The Future of Transportation in Urban Life
Center for Architecture
536 LaGuardia Place
New York, New York
Through September 11
The title of Our Cities Ourselves, the latest urban planning exhibition at the Center for Architecture, suggests a certain 1970s openness, a live-and-let-live philosophy, a crunchy impression enhanced by the bicycles hanging in the Center’s double-height display window. And bicycles turn out to be the dominant theme (along with buses) in the exhibition within, organized by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. The Institute’s ten principles for sustainable transportation, printed up on an interior wall, include such unobjectionable (and by now somewhat obvious) ideas as 24/7 mixed-use development, pedestrian-scaled streets, buying locally, more bikes, and more buses. The ten proposals on display to create better cities through better transportation by 2030 seem (mostly) reasonable. After a quick look around the exhibit’s first bay (Jakarta, Rio, Johannesburg), my instinct was to say, Sounds great! How could one object?
While the exhibit title sounds macro, most of the proposals are micro, taking on specific neighborhoods and conditions in cities from Ahmedabad to Guangzhou, Dar es Salaam to Budapest. This makes for subtler planning, but the topic is difficult to display clearly. Maps on central kiosks are more confusing than useful (many have few labels), and the texts just skim the surface of the urban condition. In the Johannesburg scheme, for example, a stadium pops up in a single rendering and caption, with no notation of its name or whether it is one of the white elephants built for the World Cup. It was hard for me, unfamiliar with most of the cities in question, to evaluate the plans, either for feasibility or impact.
What was also disconcerting is the sameness of the strategies. Bus Rapid Transit, the transport fix on everyone’s lips, is the major player, linking backwaters to centers, creating transit nodes, replacing cars and motorcycles. BRT is the one thing most of these cities do have (or have in the works). Dedicated bus lanes and bike lanes turn up in almost every example, along with linear parks and landscaped boulevards, street-level retail, highways sunken and disappeared. But can BRT really always be the answer? I also wondered about those disappearing roads. In the New York proposal, Terreform and Michael Sorkin Studio casually remove the Manhattan-side access ramps to the Brooklyn Bridge, along with the elevated FDR, and replace them with multi-level shops and cafes in the anchorage, direct pedestrian access to the bridge, urban farming, and freight barges. Were all the proposals just as unlikely to happen?
If that sameness is the big idea of the show, demonstrating the universal applicability of the institute’s principles, they should say so. I still don’t know why these proposals were generated and for whom, and there’s no sense that they are more than paper architecture. In the case of Ahmedabad, the wall text casually refers to a new elevated highway, now under construction, that will make the congestion in Jamalpur worse, and possibly negate HCP Design and Project Management’s concept for “taming traffic chaos,” opening the waterfront, and creating public gardens. I couldn’t tell if they were betting on the city’s inability to finish the highway in order to let their plan flower.
The architecture on display is in general banal, background to renderings of urban liveliness. But a couple of exceptions seemed notably bizarre. The marquee image of the show, the first you see on walking into the Center, is a lumpy planted arch by Budi Pradono Architects for Jakarta. Its purpose is not explained, and its aesthetic seems a too-literal embodiment of the “organic connections” the architects hope to create among the city’s urban villages, or kampongs. The wall text praises the Budi Pradono plan to elevate planted roofs and walkways as saving the kampongs from clearance, but later suggests those same kampongs might be better replaced with new urban villages on stilts, as a hedge against flooding. This idea smacks of 1960s urban renewal, destroying things in order to save them. I’m also not sure that PALO Arquitectura Urbana isn’t indulging in a little favela chic with their domestic designs for Buenos Aires’ La Boca zone. Rainbow bright, built of corrugated metal and recycled timbers, the new houses are supposed to line a non-motorized boulevard along the former industrial waterfront. More happy bikers, with a BRT link to the city center.
Our Cities Ourselves is full of good ideas, and I hope as many as possible happen. The exhibition is a good opportunity to review the possibilities and the realities of cities very different from our own. What it doesn’t do is question some dominant contemporary planning pieties (a bicycle for every stoop!) or give any sense of how likely any of us are to be living in such a city in 2030.
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