The Urban History Man. Richard J. Williams interviewed by Richard J. Williams

IMG_0383It’s an unusually perfect day in Edinburgh and I’m sitting in Richard’s 1878 tenement flat, in the kitchen to be precise where sun is streaming through the big sash window. He fusses with the kettle. Do I want tea? Coffee? A cocktail? (‘I make a great breakfast caipirinha’). I settle for water, fresh from the Pentland Hills that are just visible from the window. ‘Good isn’t it?’ he says, referring to the water. ‘It’s the lead that makes it.’ He pulls up a chair, which screeches on the wooden floor, frightening a cat from its slumbers. So why did he agree to this solipsistic exercise? Well, he says, scratching his beard, it was time to get a few things straight. And ‘I wanted to do a conversation about research’, he adds, ‘which you rarely get a chance to do in enough detail.’ So I start by asking him the question that all doctoral students dread. What is he doing? What exactly is his contribution to the sum total of human knowledge?

RW: Oh God (laughs). Well actually I invited you to ask that question because I’ve so often struggled with it myself, especially when asked to say something straightforwardly disciplinary. I always end up saying ‘I’m not this, and I’m not that’, you know, without ever really coming to the point. So I did want you to ask that question…


Well the answer is actually pretty simple. I’m interested basically in why cities look the way they do. You’d think it’s an obvious question to ask, but it isn’t because the people who ask it invariably have some agenda. So they lament the way things are, rather than keeping the question open. And there aren’t very simple answers. People like to think there are, but there aren’t. The production of something as complex as a city involves multiple actors, most of whom are perhaps not even conscious of being actors at all.

Can you say what you mean by that?

Well, people – I mean us – habitually think that cities are somehow designed. I want a method of looking at cities that incorporates things like material decay, but also use and inhabitation, and also if this is even possible their representation in things like films and art.

That’s clearly impossible.

Of course it is. But still I’d like to try because our perceptions of cities are conditioned by all of these immaterial factors. We don’t simply see them. We see them, like any other object, through what we expect and have learned to expect.

Can you give an example?

Brasília is a good case. I spent a lot of the last decade thinking and writing about it because it seemed to be such a reviled object, at least in Europe, and particularly Britain. Critics and journalists would routinely invoke it as an example of why the 1960s were so bad. It was always a great disaster, a dystopia – everything about it was appalling. It had a quite amazing status. Of course practically none of the people who invoked Brasília had actually been anywhere near the place, and in the rare cases that they had, their impressions dated from the moment of inauguration, 1960, when Brasília was still a building site. So it was this amazing discursive object. I went for the first time in (scratches head) about 2001 and found a place that was for the most part clean, well-ordered and perfectly normal. Yet the myths, the stories people told about the place, the memories of the candangos (note: the original settlers of the city)  – these things were all essential to the perception of the place.

Did you have a method for producing this synthetic knowledge?

No. But I knew that visuality was important.


Well, anecdotally, it seemed clear that around the visual, almost everyone had a view. They’d complain about eyesores, and the way things looked, ‘mess’ and so on, as if these things were straightforwardly resolved. Even perfectly intelligent people would start raging against modernist architecture. They seemed to lose their minds in the face of the visual.

Why do you think that is?

I don’t know, exactly. But I think it has something to do with seeing the visual world as a threat, something about it resisting control. For that reason I want to start with the visual and use visual artefacts to keep questions open as long as possible. That is something that art history was always good at, when it was good. I don’t have much patience with art any more, but I do still respect the way art history at its best used visual objects to keep questions open. It showed how meanings could be highly contingent on circumstance, how reception was important as production, and how ambiguity is in fact the condition we all live in, rather than something undesirable that has to be corrected. These are all pretty good things to understand in relation to cities. Who knows, if we could understand these things better, we might build better ones.

So what you’re proposing is an art history of cities?

In some ways, yes. It uses the visual as a way of keeping questions open as long as possible. I did a PhD in art history and still have a lot of respect for the methods. Panofsky, Gombrich, Tim Clark later on.

But isn’t that just another way of aestheticising the city? I mean, you’re always railing against the heritage lobby, but this sounds like the same thing, just in a different style.

Ha ha! That’s a good point, of course. But I’m not principally interested in aesthetics, rather the way the visuality helps keep other questions open. I basically think cities are good for us, and I want the most people to have the most opportunities. Exploring the visual world is often a way of asking awkward questions. So, for example, I’m fairly certain that the adherence to a single design aesthetic, whatever it is, has a limiting effect on the material opportunities of a city. The green belt, for example in the UK. It is an aesthetic position more than anything else that ends up being a tax on the poor. I’m quite convinced of that now, despite having spent large parts of my life enjoying them one way or another…


Walking my parents’ dogs, mainly. But I don’t think the interests of a few dog-walkers should be allowed to trump the access of millions to reasonably-priced housing.

Can you say more about the kinds of sources you use? You once said that you got a lot from what we might call ‘professional’ discourses – what architects and planners say to each other.

Yes, that’s right. I work with academic material like everyone else, and draw on the usual urban theories. But I’ve always spent a lot of time with the professions themselves, especially the professional magazines. There’s a tendency for academics to ignore this material as it’s not always very sophisticated in a way that they recognise. But often they’re dealing with ideas that are as complex as anything academics deal with. It’s just that they have to explain them to a range of different constituencies, with a range of different expertises. I spent a lot of time with architects in the 1990s and 2000s in the UK, and felt that what was being played out in public, in the journals was very important. In the early 1990s, the climate was still deeply anti-urban in the UK and the US. That it changed so dramatically has a lot to do with what was happening in the journals.

You don’t automatically bash the real estate business.

No, that’s right. Part of the urban story of the past 20 years is the realisation by the business that there were market opportunities in cities, so they had to learn a new range of concepts in order to make the most of it. Those shifts are quite legible in magazines like Property Week and Estates Gazette that really nobody apart from people in the business reads. But it always seemed to me that it was there that you really found out what was going on, why for example there had been a gap site somewhere for a generation  (…..) Then there’s the developers themselves. When I was starting to research cities for the first time, I found people connected with the business very open. At least the people I talked to. Howard Bernstein, the CEO of Manchester City Council, for example, a public official, but a man with a very sound business head. He gave me a whole afternoon of his time in, um, 2002 or thereabouts, and then let me have his head of planning give me a tour. They were both extraordinarily generous with their time, despite the fact that they were as busy then as they had ever been in their lives. But they saw I was interested in their ideas. The profit motive mattered, clearly, but they were interested in a much longer-term transformation. You got the same thing from Tom Bloxham and Carol Ainscow in the same city. They needed to make money, obviously, but they weren’t driven by it. Ainscow (note: she developed Manchester’s Gay Village) was as interested in sexual politics as anything else. If these people were just interested in making money, they’d have found a much easier way to do it. Real estate development is hell a lot of the time. You have to really like buildings to do it.

Are there any other developers you admire?

Of course I sound like a Neo-Con nutjob saying I admire developers (laughs)….But yes, I do, at least some of them. John Portman (note: inventor of the atrium hotel) is amazing. There’s a hilarious piece on his Bonaventure Hotel in the French journal L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui from 1977 or so where the writers are so determined to hate it because it’s a product of the market…but in the end they grudgingly admit it’s a really radical building, possibly more so than the Pompidou Centre. Yes, Portman’s great. A real iconoclast.

You really sound like a Neo-Con now.

I’m really not. I’m just not a fundamentalist. I don’t automatically believe that markets are evil.

What are you doing now?

A few things. We want to set up a research centre in Edinburgh of some sort on the cultures of cities, and we have seedcorn funding to start. My colleague Igor Stiks will run it. He’s an expert on, and a participant in various urban-social movements, particularly in south-eastern Europe, and we’re both interested in the way younger people are developing new modes of urban citizenship. That seems to be a global phenomenon, and also seems to cut across political divides to some extent. Igor’s particular interest is in progressive change, Occupy and so on. I’m interested in the way generally people are developing new modes of urban behaviour and urban aspirations. We’ve a bit of a network already. Christoph Lindner in Amsterdam. Sharon Zukin in New York if we can persuade her. We’ll see…

And there’s a book.

Yes, another one for Reaktion, a history of the so-called Creative City. I wanted to put recent developments in some sort of cultural and historical context. Almost everyone in the developed world seems to have signed up to the creative industries, whatever they are – and there’s been a predictable negative reaction from the academic left. What I’m doing is putting a series of quite longstanding debates in context. I’m also hoping to produce a useable urban typology. There are big things like media cities, for example, but also smaller and more informal phenomema. The whole feel of eating and drinking, for example, the excessive sociability. When I was growing up, there literally wasn’t anywhere to go, and I think that applied in many parts of the developed world. Now there’s such an excess of it. And it’s global.

Will there be anything in it about sex?

Maybe, following on from the last book (note: Sex and Buildings was published by Reaktion in 2013). There’s certainly a question around all that frantic socialisation. The Creative city looks like a highly libidinal city in many ways, and work often morphs into something that to older people must look like dating, or at least flirting. But I wonder how much sex is really happening. Really busy people seem to like the look of sex, but don’t actually have time for it. I need a decent evidential base for that argument of course.

When is the book due out?

2016, we hope. There’s another project in the works too, on the visual culture of cities. But I can’t say any more about that until it’s a bit further on.

If you could do anything about cities now, what would it be?

It’s not in the gift of humanities professors to be prescriptive, you know. We’re just supposed to complain about things from the sidelines…

Oh, go on.

OK. There are certainly global problems around access to housing. The ‘great inversion’ as Alan Ehrenhalt calls it has drawn a lot of people to cities again, but the trade-off has been a general decline in the quality of housing and access to it, at least in the most popular places. The cost of housing in London or the Bay Area is pretty horrifying. I’d reduce the unit cost by increasing supply. There would have to be a bonfire of planning regulations, unfortunately, but that may be overdue. I’d also promote industrialised, systematised building. In the UK, everything seems to be done on a bespoke basis much more than it needs to, a problem made worse by the planning system. And I’d tear up the green belt. Did you hear my friend Karl Sharro on the radio the other night? He says just abolish planning altogether. I kind of agree with him. I have some sympathy with the old Parker-Morris standards, though, to get the basic level of space right.

That sounds like a recipe for sameness, a sort of grey-goo urbanism….

I don’t think it is. But even if it is, it doesn’t mean it stays the same. After all, in the UK there are probably ten million units of more or less identical terraced (row) houses, but more or less infinite variation in the way they’re used and inhabited. Buildings learn, as Stewart Brand says.

OK. Finally, I have to ask you about Scotland. You have really annoyed people there from time to time.

You know I can’t talk about that (laughter). Well I have a few supporters too. Scotland is in such a febrile state at the moment, it’s impossible to say anything without getting misinterpreted. But in terms of cities, it’s certainly a fascinating case. It’s got two of Europe’s great set pieces in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and a vigorous tradition of urban housing. The tenement is a really durable form. Unfortunately, Scotland just loves to regulate, and it’s obsessed with the past. So it’s impossible to either adapt buildings for contemporary conditions, or build housing where it’s actually required. If you live in Edinburgh (points at rattling sash windows) you’re not allowed to buy off the peg solutions for windows in tenements. Unless you’re rich, you’re basically encouraged to let them deteriorate. As for installing elevators, and adding extensions – well, forget it. There’s a huge amount of de-regulating that could be done. Not much political will, though. Same goes for the land issue. Edinburgh ought to be twice the size it is given the boom in financial services, but there is so much regulation designed to inhibit growth. That makes no sense to me at all. We need scale. Scale means opportunities.

Are you an optimist when it comes to cities?

Yes. You have to be, don’t you? And the return of cities in the developed world brings huge opportunities. It’s produced some hellish problems around housing, but I don’t see why they can’t be fixed. After all, it’s been done before.


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