Museum of Modern Art, New York
22 November-10 May
Review by Thomas Wensing for Blueprint Magazine
This is the closing show of a 14-month initiative in which interdisciplinary teams of local practitioners and international architecture and urbanism experts have been invited to produce tactical interventions for six rapidly and unevenly growing global metropolises — Hong Kong, Istanbul, Lagos, New York, Mumbai, and Rio de Janeiro.
The six different proposals are responses to the specific nature of the different locations but all favour ‘tactical urbanism’ over more traditional top-down planning activity. Tactical urbanism is about small-scale, often temporary, urban interventions that challenge existing power structures. Pedro Gadanho, the curator of Uneven Growth, posits tactical urbanism as a critical tool against failing official policies and institutions. The interventions are intended to foster public debate and enable activist architects and communities to engage with urban problems in a more immediate way.
The statistics of rapid so-called spontaneous urbanisation are familiar enough. In 2008, for the first time in history, half of the world’s population, or 3.3 billion people, were living in cities. In 2030 the world’s population is projected to grow to eight billion, of which two-thirds will be living in cities. Currently a billion people are housed in slums, while at the same time income inequality has reached extreme levels and continues to rise.
The institutionalised marginalisation of large swathes of the population, together with the continued reliance on a culture of consumption and waste, are but two of the obstacles standing in the way of achieving ecologically viable land-use patterns and more equitable urban environments. In the exhibition catalogue David Harvey, Distinguished professor of geography and social theory at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, rightly states that the global urbanisation boom has little to do with meeting people’s needs, but is result of a system in which urbanisation is seen as a primary site for capital accumulation and speculation.
The irrationality of this economic creed is all too evident when set against social segregation and crises of accessibility and affordability in all megalopoli. With the impacts of climate change becoming increasingly severe it is no wonder that the UN warns that ‘business as usual’ scenarios pose significant risks. It calls for major changes in the way urban development is designed and directed, and urges increases in investments in urban infrastructure and services, while demanding a transformation of the financial system so that long-term sustainable development may be achieved.
Given this sense of urgency, this exhibition can be seen to try to reinforce the link between architecture and social responsibility and expresses, in the words of Gadanho, ‘the optimistic belief that current design thinking can effectively contribute to the current urban debate’. But problems on the scale of the megalopolis cannot be solved by debate alone and the curatorial decision to rely on tactical urbanism as the strategy of choice, replacing top-down comprehensive planning methods, does not bode well.
The six proposals differ greatly in scope, ambition and realism. The design scenario for Hong Kong, by MAP Office Hong Kong, Network Architecture Lab and Columbia University, proposes eight new island reclamation projects in which the features of existing urban contexts are enhanced to meet current and future needs. The islands are functionally determinate, with one dedicated to the pursuit of hedonistic pleasures and another to the accumulation of discarded materials, for instance, and feels decidedly utopian in ambition.
The scenario for Mumbai, by URBZ: user-generated cities, Mumbai Ensamble Studio/MIT-POPlab, draws more directly on the creative ways in which urban citizens occupy and appropriate space. It takes the ‘tool-house’ typology, a house and workspace combined, as a point of departure for user-participated small-scale interventions. In addition, light-weight 3D infrastructures are superimposed on to the existing urban fabric to address the lack of public services. The project has a positive vibe and realistic feel, as it draws on the strengths of the existing fabric and human resourcefulness.
The proposal for New York, by SITU studio and Cohabitation Strategies, is the single most effective in addressing the juridical and financial framework that builds the city. In a video of interviews with experts and housing activists it is rightfully argued that there are many alternatives between the extremes of market-driven urban development and government-sponsored affordable housing that are waiting to be further explored. I was captivated by the clarity of this analysis, the insistence on mandatory legislation and the exploration of alternative financing and delivering of affordable housing.
In another catalogue essay, by Nadar Tehrani, professor of architecture at MIT, tactical urbanism is compared with guerrilla warfare in the sense that it does address larger issues, but is fleeting in nature. His argument is that the act of taking over a public space may open up discussion and lay bare the glaring disparities expressed in our cities, but in order to effect real change a more lasting engagement with the legislative framework underpinning our cities will have to take place.