The Game

[Image: (Untitled) by Priscilla Monge, photographed by Alexandra Wolkowicz. Part of the 2006 Liverpool Biennial].

A post earlier this week here on BLDGBLOG raised the question of whether or not an urban candidate might be inherently better suited for the job of U.S. president than a rural one – but what exactly do we mean when we say “urban”?
When we read that the world is rapidly urbanizing, for instance, and that more than 50% of the earth’s human population now lives in cities, what do we mean by “cities” and how can we tell when a dense assortment of buildings becomes a truly “urban” experience?
What if we are surrounded by more buildings than ever before – but there isn’t a single real city in sight?

[Image: The Garston Embassy, of the Artistic Republic of Garston, part of the Liverpool Biennial International 08].

This summer I was commissioned by the recently opened Liverpool Biennial International 08 – the theme of which is MADE UP – to write an essay about the idea of “made-up” cities. That essay, called “The Game,” was just published in the Biennial’s gigantic, 300-page catalog alongside stories and essays by Haruki Murakami, Bruno Latour, Jonathan Allen, Rana Dasgupta, Brian Hatton, and many others.
“The Game” explores the idea that we might not actually know what it means to be urban, using a remark by Ole Bouman as a jumping-off point. In an essay of his own called “Desperate Decadence,” published in Volume magazine #6, Bouman writes: “We have come to take for granted that those locations with large congregations of architecture must be cities.”
I’ve re-posted the complete essay below.

• • •

[Image: The Liverpool Biennial International 08].

The internet briefly lit up two years ago with the story of Gilles Tréhin, an autistic savant, artist, and amateur urban planner who had invented a city that he calls Urville. Urville, imagined as an island metropolis for 12 million inhabitants, begun when Tréhin was only five years old, is a triumphant example of a city made up almost from nothing. Tréhin’s own guidebook to the city includes hundreds of perspectival pencil drawings; these depict, in often astonishing detail, recognizable buildings and building types that have been combined to form a cityscape that itself exceeds recognition.

With imaginary spaces like the Square des Mille Astres, the Gare d’Italie, and the Place des Tégartines, Urville’s visual appearance could perhaps be described as a kind of Belgian Venice, crossbred with Chicago, as master-planned by Baron Hausmann for an upstart hotelier in Las Vegas. In other words, the city is derivative; it is a collection of landmarks. One can make out the Sears Tower, the Rialto Bridge, the Grande Arche de La Défense, and what could easily pass for New York’s World Trade Center towers—among many other sites on the global tourist circuit—but what Urville lacks is a human face. Although the jacket of Tréhin’s book explains that the city comes complete with “cultural anecdotes grounded in historical reality,” including the long-lasting spatial effects of Vichy France, World War II, and what is broadly referred to as globalization, the city is something of a void, an open-air museum of unchallenging urban artifacts.

As Charlotte Moore wrote for the Guardian back in May 2006, Urville is “curiously timeless, swept clean of the detritus of human lives.” She suggests that the city even has “no sense of character.” Indeed, Urville is a strange sight. It is vast, referentially comprehensive, and visually detailed—but, outside of its sheer curiosity, there is very little there that might recommend a visit. It is Brussels or The Hague. One might even say that Urville is framed to avoid the emotional vicissitudes of everyday life.

Urville has plenty of buildings—but there is no real city.

[Image: (Untitled) by Matej Andraz Vogrincic, photographed by Alexandra Wolkowicz. Part of the 2006 Liverpool Biennial].

In a short essay called “Desperate Decadence,” published in Volume magazine #6, Ole Bouman quips: “We have come to take for granted that those locations with large congregations of architecture must be cities.” When I later asked him about this comment during an interview, he added: “If you don’t distinguish between those two—if you think that applying urban form is the same as building a city, or even creating urban culture—then you make a very big mistake.” The question, then, in this context, is: Is it possible to invent—to make up—a city that isn’t simply a collection of buildings? Is it possible to create a genuine city from nothing—or can we only construct large congregations of architecture?

We’ve all heard by now, for instance, that for the first time in history the majority of our species—more than 50% of the Earth’s human population—lives in an urban environment today. We’ve been told, by journalists intoxicated with the superlative, that this a moment of great Darwinian consequence, an evolutionary point of no return. More urbanized than we have ever been before, have humans have apparently changed the very nature of the species: Humans are now animals that live together in cities. We are builders, dwellers and thinkers of towers and streets.

But for all the talk of the ancient hunter-gatherer finally succumbing to the bright lights of the big city, it is not at all clear that we even know what cities really are. Can we be certain, for all of the buildings currently under construction in places like Dubai, Shenzhen, and even Dallas-Ft. Worth, that it is cities we are creating? We are surrounded by more buildings than ever before, but perhaps this observation alone is not enough to say that human life has been thoroughly urbanized.

[Image: Air-Port-City by Tomas Saraceno, photographed by Adatabase. “Since 2002,” we read in the Biennial’s pocket guide, “Saraceno has continued, in sculptures, installations and experimental flights, to make a series of incremental steps towards his ultimate goal of cities built in the air.” From the Liverpool Biennial International 08].

An interesting analogy comes to us here from the history of videogame design. In her 2001 pamphlet called Utopian Entrepreneur, published by MIT, author Brenda Laurel describes what she calls an “ugly” time in the corporate career of videogame super-firm Atari. In 1984, Atari’s sales figures, reputation, and game quality all began to nosedive. “So began the great videogame darkness of 1984 that lasted until almost the end of that decade,” she writes. But what exactly happened—and how does it relate to urban design?

“The Atari corporation paid very little attention to designing for computer games,” Laurel diagnoses. After all, “no one except a few isolated programmers who actually built the games was looking at the requirements for good interactivity, play patterns, or design principles.” Worse still, “There was no market research on what players liked in a game.” In other words, entire games and game worlds were being produced from scratch, without any real grasp of what might make a game work.

At the same time, hordes of Harvard MBAs began churning out business plans, and transplants from aerospace middle management drew up elaborate production schedules, and Procter & Gamble veterans happily began planning marketing and distribution. Great commercials were produced. Except for the programmers, however, no one was in the business of creating great videogames.

Atari had a stellar business plan and a first-rate marketing team—but, for all intents and purposes, it had nothing interesting to sell.

Following the logic of this example, it is easy enough to see Dubai—or even Tucson, Arizona—as a failed videogame in the desert, ironically under-designed and over-promoted. One could even say that we have perfected the art of the anti-city—that we have made up anything but truly urban environments. Dubai, for instance, is famously difficult to navigate on foot, requiring a ten minute car ride down six-lane motorways, complete with frequently lethal U-turns, simply to get to the hotel across the street. The city has a sum total of eleven pedestrian bridges—and twenty-five percent of the world’s cranes. While pedestrian-friendliness is by no means the only marker of ‘good interactivity, play patterns, or design principles’ in a future metropolis, it is nonetheless worth highlighting the disjunction here between the city as a dense, somewhat autistic collection of buildings and the city as a user-friendly environment.

It’s as if Dubai has perfected the art of construction, but in securing a market niche it has forgotten what needed to be built. Paraphrasing Brenda Laurel, perhaps Dubai did not do enough “market research on what players liked in a game”—only here the game is a city.

[Image: Opertus Lunula Umbra (Hidden Shadow of Moon) by U-Ram Choe, part of the artist’s “archaeology of undiscovered futuristic organisms,” photographed by Adatabase. Part of the Liverpool Biennial International 08].

But cities today are well known for popping up in the middle of nowhere, history-less and incomprehensible. There are slums, refugee camps, army bases—and Dubai. That’s what cities now do. If these cities are here today, they weren’t five years ago; if they’re not here now, they will be soon. Today’s cities are made up, viral, fungal, unexpected. Like well-lit film sets in the distance, staged amidst mudflats, reflecting themselves in the still waters of inland reservoirs, today’s cities simply arrive, without reservations; they are not so much invited as they are impossible to turn away. Cities now erupt and linger; they are both too early and far too late. Cities move in, take root and expand, whole neighborhoods throwing themselves together in convulsions of glass and steel.

Except, as Mike Davis memorably points out in his recent book Planet of Slums, the “cities of the future, rather than being made out of glass and steel as envisioned by earlier generations of urbanists, are instead largely constructed out of crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks, and scrap wood. Instead of cities of light soaring toward heaven, much of the twenty-first-century urban world squats in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement, and decay.” This is “pirate urbanization,” he writes, and it consists of “anarchic” anti-cities on the fringes of “cyber-modernity.” We might be making up new cities everywhere around the world today, but very few of them look like Norman Foster’s eco-metropolis of Masdar, that well-rendered city constructed from nothing but petrodollars atop the sands of Abu Dhabi. Davis writes, or example, that, in “an archipelago of 10 slums” outside Bangalore, India, “researchers found only 19 latrines for 102,000 residents.” There is thus what Davis calls an ‘excremental surplus’ to these rapidly expanding environments—yet these are the landscapes to which we refer when we say that humans have become an urban species.

These are not cities in any recognised infrastructural or legislative sense; they are, rather, dense collections of buildings. In contrast to Dubai’s Atari–like desert failure, with its arid combination of over-thought business plans and an absolute lack of content, these super-slums compress far too much content into a radically unplanned space.

[Image: The Gleaming Lights of the Souls by Yayoi Kusama, photographed by Adatabase. Part of the Liverpool Biennial International 08].

On the other hand, sometimes a made-up city does not even require acts of construction. That is, what might appear simply to be a field of cloned single-family houses, buffered by vast tracts of manicured green space, can be transformed into a city with the stroke of a pen. Cities are thus created everyday, in other words, within the administrative guidelines for managing inhabited landscapes—and no new ground need ever be broken. These made-up cities are, in fact, boomburbs, according to Robert Lang and Jennifer LeFurgy, two sociologists with the Washington D.C.-based Brookings Institution.

In their 2007 book, Boomburbs: The Rise of America’s Accidental Cities, Lang and LeFurgy explain that many of the largest cities in the United States today are simply hypertrophied suburbs—they are boomburbs. The mayors of established cities have had a hard time adjusting to this fact. Mesa, Arizona, for instance, an otherwise anonymous tumescence on the air-conditioned desert edge of Phoenix, is a “stealth city”: Its population, incredibly, is larger than both Minneapolis–St. Paul and Miami. The authors also describe how the mayor of Salt Lake City once “dismissed the idea” that his city might have anything in common with suburban North Las Vegas, “despite the fact that North Las Vegas is both bigger and more ethnically diverse than Salt Lake City.” What these boomburbs have, in lieu of historic centrality and international name-recognition, is a flexible legal and financial infrastructure. They have water rights boards and waste disposal networks, even local schools and sales tax—and though they don’t necessarily have mayors (though some do), they have “landscape management” committees and homeowners associations. These are cities made up less by buildings than by tax codes and the law.

The mayor of Salt Lake City’s widely shared cognitive dissonance, being somehow unable to see that Mesa, Arizona, is bigger than a city like St. Louis—with its Eero Saarinen-designed Gateway Arch along the banks of the Mississippi—is part of what the authors call “a national ambivalence about what we have built in the past half century.” This featureless landscape of low-rise retail parks and residential cul-de-sacs—of video shops, hockey moms, and 24-hour supermarkets—has become the dominant architecture of American urbanism, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it remains critically invisible. One could even say that this landscape is all life and no landmarks—an almost exact inversion of Gilles Tréhin’s Urville, with its tapestry of landmarks and no signs of life. From boomburbs to Urville, via super-slums and Dubai, these instant cities take shape in less than a single generation and cross a fantastic landscape of competing urban forms.

[Image: An installation by Sarah Sze, photographed by Adatabase. Sze’s installations “are like highly organic ecosystems, colonizing the space they inhabit.” Part of the Liverpool Biennial International 08].

Is it really possible, though, that we could continue to make up and construct the wrong kinds of cities? One could perhaps be excused here for concluding that successful cities cannot be made up at all, that there is something fundamentally unthinkable or excessive to this process, something that simply cannot be planned in advance.

But that doesn’t stop us from looking for what we believe is the secret recipe—for exactly the right balance of marketing plans, water laws, historic monuments, public spaces, and so on. A thriving subsidiary industry has thus arisen in these cities’ shadows, forming a new, deliberately carnivalesque genre of international reportage. We are city-hunting. Writers fly halfway round the world to describe their newest adventures in Middle Eastern air-conditioning. These are new sights in human history, we’re told, and they’re meant to dazzle the modern mind. Every urban day is remarkable, we read, for it is different—and somehow bigger, more extreme—than the last.

So if we continue to get so many things about our cities so wrong, then the only thing to do is to keep looking—to track down Zaha Hadid’s newest building, to host design competitions for skyscrapers in St. Petersburg, to commission private islands, domes, and pyramids. We experiment with Olympic Villages. Amidst all of the dust and the eye-popping budgets, it seems impossible to believe that we won’t get at least one place right.

It’s as if, hovering there in the future possible tense, at the imaginative vanishing point of urban design itself, is the perfect city, sending ripple effects back into the spaces of today—and we can trace the outlines of its utopian arrival in the empty streets and construction sites of the spaces that now surround us.

Because it no longer matters if we are wrong about our cities; we will always be right if we just make up more.

16 thoughts on “The Game”

  1. great post! it reminded me of italo calvino’s invisible cities towards the end. definitely the dubai type supergrowth and the informal city are two sides of one problematic.

  2. I never before thought of the connection between the Dubai’s and boomburbs of the world and the informal urban aggregations that are so much of humanity’s present and future.
    However, you make an interesting point. They are in fact both non planned in the sense of a plan for urbanism. They are all about either form making, or an infrastructural and capitalistic based/generated form of densisty which exist without the overarching urbanism or urban quality that we know as making cities.
    Although, i suppose there is one key difference between the one and the other, while the informal aggregations are not cities as we have traditionally understood them (due i suppose to their informality) and while the Dubai’s are not either (because of their focus on form and not interaction) at least the informal cities fo the developing world have the street life, and daily interactiosn that Jane Jacobs and other urban scholars have identified as being key to a “city’s success”.
    So i guess the question becomes twofold;
    A) an we add the formal structure of a city to the informal aggregations without killing them?
    B) Can we add the interaction, human scale, that at least historically have made up the pulse of the city to the unplanned form focused faux-urbanism fo the boomburbs and Dubai’s of the world?

  3. nam, i see it as two sides of one problem because they are the two types of fast growing ‘city’ right now and in a way all the wealth that goes into one is potentially being sucked out of the other.. i mean if you trace these processes, these things tend to balance themselves out at a global scale. to your questions, a good example for question a is mario jauregui.

  4. While I was reading this article, I couldn’t help but think that there might someday be very little of the planet not covered in ‘ghost cities’ – cities where people used to live, but abandoned the place for one reason or another.

    The cities nearest to Chernobyl are examples of cities abandoned because of pollution, and readily spring to mind. There are plenty of cities, big and small, in the U.S.A., though, that were abandoned for other reasons – the mining ran out, or the big factory driving the local economy closed. And all of them are quietly moldering away.

    Is the “reclaimed urban environment” – i.e. cities overgrown by greenery, cracked pavement, with crumbling buildings inhabited by birds and small mammals, the future?

  5. One of the funniest strangest things is that the renderings of Masdar really do feel, space wise like many of the largest slums, in the attention to walking space, the height, the running of water down the interstitial spaces, and a couple other things. It’s no bad thing, after all these places come from that real interpersonal aggregative experience, the one which forges the true city. Strange the designers of Masdar came to the same kinds of space. Sure it feels right but I usually don’t expect too much from mega projects.

  6. Random wisecrack: looking at the top of my browser, it says “Bldgblog: The Game”. Sounds kinda like Geoff started merchandising.

    I wonder what a Bldgblog board game would look like, anyway . . .?

    Anyway, back to the topic: I wouldn’t worry too much about that Anthony. Most of those ghost cities will be torn down for building materials or land, same as the ghost cities of the past. Where you see ruins these days are usually places where there was no one left to recycle building materials or no one willing to live there. The commonness of rock helps too–hard to run out of that.

  7. I have lived in Abu Dhabi, the other Dubai, now for seven months. And it is as if life and city are juxtopsed but not interacting. People meet and congregate, but this happens despite the city, not because of it. It is partly the weather of course, scorching for 8 months of the year. But there is a way to deal with hot weather. in medieval cairo, the narrow streets were covered for shade. the houses were four stories high, but close enough to provide sanctuary from the sun. in Sidney, some boardwalks are covered by coloured plexiglass to protect the pedestrians. none of this in abu dhabi. it looks like a business centre, because this is what it is. it’s not about people who are there to stay. it is about people who amble there for an airconditioned and high salaried job for a while. it is the anti-thesis of an abode. it is more of a terminal. could it have been different? i bet it could have, but the planners didn’t stop to think. and there is more money in a high rise of steel than in a medieval setting, i guess.

  8. come now! just look:

    it’s not a “city without a face” — it’s just a city filled with robots, pacing with perfect trajectory and spacing ’round each other. no wonder everything runs smoothly.

    so there’s your solution: once we’re done designing these cities no one wants to live in, we’ll just design some people to live in them.

    (honestly, though, if it’s considered “tough” to survive apocalypses and doomsdays, to beat forbidding video games if you can’t conquer deep sea and space, why can’t we design cities to overcome, too?)

  9. i live in one of the largest cities in the world, a schizoprenic city where the glass tower co-exists with the slum at every corner. the relationship between these two imaginations of the city is symbiotic, parasitic, predatory but seldom indifferent. it is this series of almost arbitrary interactions and historical coincidences that have made this city what it is, and maybe every city what it is. One cannot create a city overnight, whether through planning or petrodollar. Cities aggregate, they are not built.

  10. As a Urban planner comming from USA and currently working in the UAE let us talk about Smart Growth, which has been much in the news lately as a marketing logo nothing more, promises many answers to the problems that face planners today. But like the equally trendy New Urbanism, it is an intellectual solution, not necessarily a practical one—and not necessarily a new one. In reality, smart growth only slows growth, while New Urbanism simply makes increased density more enjoyable.

    Neither doctrine alone can change the fact that growth in metropolitan areas will result in overcrowding, traffic congestion, and poor air quality. Gridlock is simply a function of too many people living in an area, and no concurrency policy or dollar outlay can fix it. Nor can either policy stop the expansion of cities. It’s inevitable, for instance, that the UAE will eventually evolve into a massive megalopolis stretching along the Arabian Sea from Ras Al-Khaimah to Dubai. There are similar examples all around the world.

    Experts suggest that cities may have an optimum size and population. They tell us that an ideal city is a sustainable one, where economic, social, and environmental systems are in balance, and where residents feel that they are part of a definable, understandable community. Writers like Ian McHarg (Design with Nature) have pointed out that urban areas, like natural areas, have an inherent carrying capacity. Others like Carl Sagan
    (Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors), have described the pathological effect of population size on urban areas.

    Yet, planners rarely talk about limiting growth. That is because we do not have a politically marketable alternative that allows for rational growth. Even in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where growth boundaries are a way of life, the urban areas keep expanding. Although the population is growing faster than in many parts of the country, higher densities slow geographical expansion.

    Certainly, there is credible evidence illustrate that smaller metropolitan areas like Austin, Texas; Eugene, Oregon; and Santa Fe, New Mexico, and others around USA are livable precisely because of their size and sense of place. When new towns are needed, they should be established at a minimum distance from existing settlements. Such towns would never outgrow their urban growth boundaries or intrude on their greenbelt buffers. A basic principle of planning is that it must be comprehensive. Nonetheless, planners and public officials today only plan for 20 to 25 years ahead—the equivalent of one generation. If our typical life span is 80 to 90 years, shouldn’t we be planning our cities for four or five generations? Even when we understand the space-time continuum of cities, we do not seem to have the political will to manage them. Our lack of understanding of smart growth principals and the adaptation of the American model in a free-market economy is too often argued as a reason to allow free-market urban development. The result is the sprawl and loss of community identity that we grieve over today.

  11. Fascinating post – and comments. As usual when I come over here I am filled with ideas.

    One thing that struck me is whether it is even possible to have an unplanned city these days – except, I suppose, at the fringes, in shanty towns and the like.

    I do prefer the unplanned places. I like the idea of a city growing slowly on its own, everyone contributing – like that it is something democratic – maybe shambolic, but everyone has a voice. Too much planning and those voices are lost. They are replaced by just one voice, an overbearing one with its own big idea. Because this voice is so loud it might forget that people need to talk, and walk, and that once, a long time ago before it was born, there were no cars.

    Anyway, I can’t remember the plans I had for today, whatever they were they are being abandoned – luckily for me I live close enough to Liverpool to visit.

  12. Clare,

    You bring up a good point; another definition to planned vs unplanned. But, and this is just my opinion, I don’t think the terms “planned” or “unplanned” are being used in an authoritative sense. When I read this post I always thought that “unplanned” just meant that they were disorganized, haphazard, and inconsiderate of pre-existing conditions.


  13. Wow. Amazing post. Another thing that varies around the world is what is part of a specific city. In Australia the entire metropolitan area is called after the central city, even if there are many local governments that make it up. So someone from Mesa (and Tempe, Scottsdale, Glendale, Chandler, Gilbert etc.) would say they live in Phoenix. When looked at this way, cities become somewhat more similar, at least in the first world.

    This review of The Big Necessity talks about sewerage architecture.

    One nitpick – Dubai most likely has 1-2% of the world’s cranes.

  14. very thought-provoking post! the concept of a perfect city is intriguing; i’ve seen people adapt to the buildings and streets around them (ie. scheduling errands around destinations, fitting belongings into the floor plan, etc) and thus create new customs and relationships–regardless of good or bad design. we have a tendency to make spaces our own.

    i don’t feel we can ever design a perfect city, because our preferences, priorities, and interests are so varied. perhaps utopia would be a place where everyone has the bare necessities? but maybe even those are disputable. for me, the most important element of a city is the very one that turns an aggregation of buildings into a city: other people.

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