Thursday, September 30, 2010

Flash and Intimate Urbanism

There are two types of urbanism. There is flash urbanism; this is city as urban spectacular, building as starchitecture, the big statement, the grand flourish. For the past hundred years the persistent theme of flash urbanism is the construction of the tall building. Cities predicated upon flash urbanism include the oil rich states of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Here a combination of lots of money and a desperate need for world respect and global recognition leads to an architectural frenzy. Abu Dhabi has a Zaha Hadid-designed performing arts center and a Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim museum. Its central business district is a concrete forest of new tall buildings. Currently Dubai boasts the world’s tallest building, the 160-floor Burj Khalifa and the 77-floor Emirates Park Tower, the tallest hotel in the world. Tall buildings are spectacular and as urban skyline they create a visual signature of a globalizing modernity. In China the construction of Pudong in Shanghai was the self-conscious attempt to create an urban fabric of tall buildings including Shanghai Tower, the tallest tower in Asia.

Shanghai, China

But what is life like at the bottom of these buildings? In the Arab Emirates, streets are rarely filled with people. Almost a quarter of a million laborers work to construct Dubai's urban fantasy of global city rather than a city of enriched human experience. In Pudong the buildings that stand so tall rarely link with each other or the surrounding urban fabric. Too close to drive, the locals complain, and too far to walk from each other. Flash urbanism is about surface appearance, about impressing, about visual rhetoric. It is about the now.

There is another, quieter form of urbanism that I will refer to as a more intimate urbanism, smaller scale, more linked to the human body and its locomotion. An exemplar is the urban fabric of Dutch cities in their walkability, there deference to the bicyclists, the reliance on public transport, their quieter, more intimate feel. The Dutch prize what translates as coziness, and this is obvious in their built form. The Netherlands is not known for tall impressive buildings as in Abu Dhabi, Dubai or Shanghai. They are better known for the intimacy of the their streets, the coziness of their public space, the human scale of their cities.

Delft, Netherlands

Flash urbanism and intimate urbanism. They are not so much separate but two poles of a continuum. Sometime the flash can turn with age and use and custom into the intimate as a city incorporates the brash and new into the old and familiar. The Town Hall in Amsterdam, a monument to civic pride and civic society, was at one time one of the largest municipal buildings in Europe. Now it is a much-loved landmark in Dam Square. Flash urbanism reflects the ‘make-an-impression-now’: it is the architectural equivalent of instant gratification. It took less than twenty years to turn rice paddies into Pudong's skyline. Intimate urbanism takes a while to develop. Dutch urbanism emerged over centuries. While it is easy and quick to follow fashion it takes longer to find out what works as livable city. I like to visit flash cities but I prefer to live in more intimate cities.

(All Photos © John Rennie Short)

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Mount Vernon, Monticello and Slavery

There is much in the news these days about how we have strayed too far from the principles laid down by the Founding Fathers. Tea Party activists promote the actions and beliefs of those who broke with Britain over two hundred years ago. And even the Supreme Court seems dominated by those who adhere to the original intent of the framers and see the Constitution not as a living document but as a closed text. In uncertain times the past can provide a certain comfort, a soft landing spot where verities are always eternal. A closer look at the past reveals a more complex picture.

I visited Mount Vernon this summer. A summer ago I went to Monticello. Both places welcome and inform the public. Mount Vernon is the home of the first President George Washington and Monticello is the estate of the third President, Thomas Jefferson. They tell us a great deal about life in colonial America and the early Republic. Both places also gave me unexpected insights into the lives of the wealthy landed colonials who played such a large part in the invention of the USA. For me, an immigrant from Europe, the most striking feature shared by both estates, is the central role of slave labor. The slave contribution is visible, everywhere and obvious. This is not the distant transfer of wealth from sugar plantations in the Caribbean to English Georgian mansions—an indirectness that separates the conspicuous consumption from its bloody base. This is the direct, everyday, cheek-by-jowl exploitation of people sharing the same space, breathing the same air and living on the same estate. It is the intimacy of the slavery that is so striking. What makes both places so shocking is the closeness of the master-slave relationship. It is the direct exploitation of your living neighbors. For someone who grew up in Europe, slavery was always distant and foreign. In the early US it was part of the domestic ecology.

Mount Vernon: The Big House

Washington inherited 10 slaves when he was eleven years of age. At the time of his death in 1799 there were 316 slaves living in Mount Vernon. Food was grown by slaves, they tilled the land, mowed the hay, tended the animals. From sunrise to sunset they labored to keep George and Martha fed and clothed. The hospitality and quiet dignity that most visitors commented upon was founded on the backbreaking relentless toil of humans in permanent bondage.

Mount Vernon: Slave Cabin

Jefferson was owner of over 600 slaves. He lived in a beautiful Neo-Palladian mansion of his own design while hundreds of slaves resided in cramped accommodation unable to leave the estate of the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence.


Were they just hypocrites? Mouthing freedoms while they lived off the unpaid labor of others. “How is it”, remarked the Englishman Samuel Johnson, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes”? In their defense, they were people of their times, thrown into a slave-owning society unable to change things around them. Yet the same people resisted the political status quo and fought the greatest imperial power in a long struggle for independence.

Slavery was maintained by acts of racial terrorism. Slavery and its long drawn out, trailing and entangling consequences have permanently marked and scarred the reality and the promise of the US. To enslave fellow humans while mouthing the rights of man was an act of hypocrisy that damaged the moral base of the country. We have yet to fully recover. We are not helped by willful acts of historical amnesia. Part of the recovery requires a more honest assessment of the nation’s past than that promoted by today’s ideologues.

(All Photos © John Rennie Short)

Monday, June 7, 2010


To say that Istanbul is situated between East and West is not a trite cliché, but a simple statement of geographical reality. The city sprawls across the narrow sea passage between Europe and Asia.

Like all maritime cities—it fringes not only the Bosporus, but also the Golden Horn and the evocatively named Sea of Marmara—it has an expansive luminosity, a salt-tinged clarity and sea-breezed airiness. Even with 17 million people and busy traffic, it still manages to shine and sparkle.

The city straddles both continents and embodies the varied and long contacts between East and West. Founded in 330 by the Emperor Constantine as Constantinople, it became the capital of the Byzantine Empire that stretched throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, covering parts of Europe as well as Asia. As an important repository of the legacy of Greek classical thought and a transmission point for the intellectual flowering of Arabic and Persian scholarship, Constantinople stayed lit when Western Europe sank into the dark ages. The Byzantines kept the sparks of culture alive that subsequently caught fire in the Renaissance of Western Europe. There were also more destructive exchanges. The city was pillaged in the Fourth Crusade, its treasures looted and taken back to Western Europe. The churches of Venice are filled with the theft.

When it became the capital of the Ottomans, it was the centre of an empire that embraced the continents of Africa, Asia and Europe. At its furthest extent, the city’s power reached to the very gates of Venice. Under the longest reigning Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent (r. 1520-1566), not only was the empire extended, but also the city was adorned with new mosques and multicultural tolerance was practiced. The city is still filled with the most beautiful of religious architecture including the intimate Church of St. Savior in Chora, the serene Hagia Sophia and the stunning Blue Mosque. The city skyline as it stretches across the hills is punctuated with minarets ands towers, Ottoman mosques and Byzantine churches.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul

The names Byzantine and Ottoman cover processes rather than fixed objects. The Byzantine Christians grafted their religion onto pagan roots, and their later art reflected contact with the East as well as encounters with the West. The icons produced in the later Byzantine Empire have a more naturalistic representation, reflecting contact with the art of the Western Renaissance. Constantinople/Istanbul was a city where Arabic and Turkish, as well as Greek and Italian, could be heard in the streets. As the Ottoman Empire waned, there was a growing admiration for an ascending West. In 1856, the Sultan abandoned the Topkapi Palace for a new Neoclassical palace at Dolmabahce, which could look just as at home on the banks of the Seine or the Thames as it does on the Bosporus. The encounters continue. Today the Grand Bazaar first founded when the Ottomans gained control of the city in 1453, is filled more by foreign tourists than native Turks.

Grand Bazaar

Istanbul is less a fixture and more an ongoing process, a crucible where East and West are reshaped. Turkey is a longstanding, vital member of NATO and continues to forge further links with the West. Its application to join the European Union is just one of many ventures reaching to the West. There is also a more recent religiosity that derives from the Islamic world. To walk the streets of Istanbul is to see women dressed in the most contemporary fashions as well as in the hijab. Islamic fundamentalism today is more an invented tradition of relatively recent vintage than a “pure” historical artifact. And a secular capitalist democracy is not an objective fixed in the future but part of an evolving present. The fundamentalist and the secular represent not the past and the future, respectively, but alternative conceptions of the present: Istanbul’s geographical reality stages these competing modernities in the form of tension between the comfort of an invented past and the attraction of an imagined future. Founded as a secular republic, modern Turkey is still situating between East and West, and at the heart of this unfolding drama is the city of Istanbul.

(All Photos: © John Rennie Short)

Thursday, March 25, 2010


I visited Warsaw for one week in mid-March. My first day there was wintry. On my last day it felt like spring, encouraging people to shed their heavy coats. Easy to see this experience as a metaphor for Poland’s recent history: the nation emerged from almost fifty years of Communist rule in 1989 as one of the first Eastern bloc countries to escape from the Russian grip. Poland embraced market reforms and joined the EU in 2004.

Warsaw’s Communist legacy is still evident. The Palace of Culture and Science (formerly Joseph Stalin Palace of Culture and Science) was the tallest building in Europe until 1957 and still dominates the skyline in the city center. An exuberant example of Soviet Realism, it was completed in 1955. There are also the blocks of former public housing, modernist monoliths scattered throughout Warsaw.

Polish Communism always had to deal with Polish nationalism. The old city reflects the commitment to rebuilding the city after the Nazis nearly annihilated it. Between the end of the Second World War and 1962, old town was carefully recreated from its ruins in an act of architectural memorialization that embodied Polish resilience and Polish identity. The many marvelous examples of Baroque and Neoclassical architecture remind us of Warsaw’s long connection with Europe.

The command economy still lives on in an unclear and uncertain land market. Large blocks of land lie undeveloped and undercapitalized, as investors are unsure of the property rights and legal claims. But there is also tremendous growth, especially at the edges of the city as the interstices between the modernist blocks are filled in with new housing and commerce and retail. One distinct feature is the number of gated communities. Guards and gates mark off many developments in both the central city and in the suburbs.

Like many post-Socialist cities, Warsaw has an infrastructure deficit, a huge housing shortage creating an overpriced housing market, a degraded urban environment in some places with feverish new investments in others. The city is still very Polish, one of the few examples of a European city that over the twentieth century saw it becoming more homogenous. Almost a half million Jews lived in this city prior to 1939. Now there is little more than 15,000. And yet to walk along Nowy Swiat is to see Starbucks and Subway, Colombian coffee houses and Indian restaurants. As I made my way up to the old town, I could see the local fashionistas sporting the ‘new black’ of purple scarves and coats. Cellphone usage is endemic and universal. Poland has such a poor landline network that consumers jumped more quickly to cellphone usage than in the USA. EU funding projects are ubiquitous throughout the city— refurbishing seventeenth-century palaces to providing school playgrounds.

In the city and the country as a whole there is realization that a post-Socialist city does not necessarily mean a neo-liberal city. Warsaw is in Mitteleuropa—situated between East and West Europe. It also occupies the difficult space between command and market economies, socialist and capitalist ideologies, authoritarian and democratic systems of government, of becoming as well as being.

(All Photos:© John Rennie Short)

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Barack Administration One Year On

It is over a year since I witnessed and celebrated the inauguration of President Barack Obama. I was just one of millions who lined the Mall in the bright sunlight on a bitterly cold day. We were thankful that the US had elected a thoughtful and intelligent candidate, and we looked forward to a change after the debacle of the Bush presidency.

Alas, one year on and the greatest accomplishment of his administration is that he has returned major banks and giant financial institutions to profitability. Compared to the bright skies and high hopes of last January, this January is dark and gloomy. Health care reform is tantalizingly close but still unrealized and increasingly precarious. The war in Afghanistan escalates, Guantanamo Bay prison is still open and the Republicans have just won a stunning victory in Massachusetts.

Inauguration Day 2009
(Photo: John Rennie Short)

The financial intuitions were bailed out while much needed regulatory reform was slow to gain traction within the Administration. A number of poor choices were made. Geithner was a flawed candidate for Treasury Secretary from the very start. Apart from the issue of his failure to pay taxes—the result of either incompetence or sleaziness, neither of which is a desirable attribute of a cabinet officer—he was always too closely aligned with Wall Street. The New York Fed does not so much regulate Wall Street but shills for it. Geithner was head of the New York Fed before his appointment to Treasury. With a tin ear for popular sentiment, Obama also backed Bernanke for a second term as head of the Fed. The architects of the bailout, which most American saw as flawed and unfair, were rewarded. While stabilization was needed, it should have been paralleled with tough regulatory reform. Yet this reform was never vigorously promoted when it was most obviously needed—last March. Only in the last few days has Obama taken on the banks, belatedly shifting his reliance on advice from Geithner to Volcker. But in the wake of the obscene end-of-the-year bonuses on Wall Street and the dramatic Democratic defeat in the Massachusetts, Obama’s move looks craven and desperate. He should have done this more vigorously much earlier when he could have ridden and guided popular sentiment.

Health care reform has been botched totally. The legislation was never explained to the US public, allowing political enemies easy targets and lots of room for attack. Having to deny “death panels” is not the best way to sell health care reform. The sprawling legislation was never explained nor fully justified by Obama, who allowed the process to meander untended through the swamp that is the US Congress. The Democrats in the Senate took too long, wasted too much time waiting for the support of Senators Snowe and Collins that never materialized and was never going to materialize after the summer assault on the bill by the Republican base. The grubby backroom dealings as Democratic Senators sought to get free rides for their constituents, were shabby and odious and generated even more popular resentment. And while all this was happening, the White House stayed strangely silent.

Barack Obama is a thoughtful person and gifted orator, but on the basis of his first year I am sorry to conclude that he is an incompetent President. In only a year on from a historic victory, he has managed to revitalize and energize an embattled and dispirited Republican Party, alienate independents and deeply disappoint the Democratic base. When you are elected on a popular mandate to change things, and your greatest accomplishment after one year in office is allowing financial institutions to pay out huge bonuses, then the depth of your failure is profound.