EXHIBITION REVIEW: RICHARD ROGERS, ROYAL ACADEMY, LONDON

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The idea of ‘civility’ crops up a lot at Richard Rogers’s exhibition. It’s there right from the start in a room decked out in orange vinyl, with a series of panels laying out Rogers’s ‘ethos’. In practice, it’s most clearly represented in Rogers’s non-architectural work, such as his chairmanship of the New Labour government’s Urban Task Force (1999), his work as London’s architecture ‘tsar’ for then Mayor, Ken Livingstone, his Reith lectures for the BBC, and his books. Cities for a Small Planet (1997) is the best known of those, and it has been good business for both Rogers and Faber and Faber. All of this work pushes a beguilingly simple message: we should all stop being beastly to each other, beastly to the planet, and learn to live in cities. Until then, we are doomed. Good behaviour and armageddon are entwined: do right, and we live, he seems to suggest; misbehave and we all die. It would be an abominably Victorian message if it wasn’t delivered with such urbanity. But Rogers is charm personified, and he somehow not only gets away with it, but has got the rest of us to believe him.

In practice Rogers thinks that civility can be built. His birthplace, Florence is civil, as is Barcelona and most of Paris, as increasingly, he thinks, is London, or at least those bits which have been remade according to his preferences. More generally, coffee drinking encourages civility – here he sounds positively eighteenth century – and as if to prove it, the last room of the exhibition has a cycle-powered coffee cart from which you can purchase a latte and reflect on city life.

It’s a measure of Rogers’s success that all of this now seems so normal. In 1986, when he exhibited at the RA, his ideas (pedestrianise Trafalgar Sqaure, civilise the Embankment, make spaces for people) were rather exotic. The government of the day wasn’t interested. Twenty five years later, almost all of what he then wanted has been achieved, if rarely by Rogers himself. Moreover, London has grown hugely, adding almost two million residents, with no end in sight to its growth. Not only that, but these residents have come, by and large, to the inner city. The balance of power has shifted to the city from the suburb. Its new residents aspire, for the time being, to a city life.

The odd thing is how little Rogers’s built work expresses civility. His best buildings are really profoundly uncivil. The Centre Georges Pompidou (1977) involved the wholesale demolition of a city block, and the insertion of a building alien to anything in Paris – indeed the world – at the time. The Lloyds Building (1985) repeated the same trick in London. Both buildings celebrated the temporary and emphemeral in contexts that more or less demanded the opposite; both showed indifference verging on hostility to their surroundings; both look (like the imaginary works of Archigram that informed them) like they might just rise up on pneumatic stalks and move on, once they’d exhausted their local resources. The aesthetic has been toned down of late. But the latest building, the skyscraper at Leadenhall St in the City, has acquired a suggestive nickname, ‘the Cheesegrater’. It refers to its triangular outward form of the building, of course, but it also describes an abrasive tool made to shred things that get close.

I like this incivil character in Rogers, and there are plenty of examples of it at the RA exhibition. The Pompidou and Lloyds are fantastic buildings precisely because they don’t appear to give a damn about their surroundings, or indeed anything. I like them in exactly the same way I like J. G. Ballard, or early Hawkwind, or Blade Runner: they’re cheerfully amoral, rolling in the ruins of the apocalyptic present. They trash humanism, or so it seems.

The contradiction between Rogers’s buildings, and his rhetoric has never been properly explained. He and his advocates have tried by claiming civility for the early buildings. That’s why the Pompidou is more often these days described as an extension of the (civilised) Place Pompidou, rather than a soixante-huitard’s attack on the bourgeois city.

However, perhaps the contradiction isn’t what it seems, however. Civility tends to be expressed from a place of privilege, and in this, Rogers is no exception. The imagination of civility – of which there is copious evidence at the RA – is a life of leisure: drinking, eating and talking in beautiful city spaces. Nobody does a scrap of work. The now iconic image of Trafalgar Square from ‘London as it Could Be’ (1986 – actually a drawing by Rogers’s long-time associate Mike Davies) imagines this key public space as a de facto sculpture gallery, populated by people who have just spilled out of the National. The art museum and the public space are coterminous. Nothing wrong with that – except that this mode of being in public, the leisured promenade is the only way Rogers and his friends can imagine public life. Civility equals politeness here; it’s manners sublimated to morality. And it really helps if you’ve got plenty of cash. Rogers’s client base is rarely the ‘public’ of which he likes to speak. More often than not it’s the corporate financial sector, or the super rich, the business traveller. The Welsh Assembly in Cardiff is a rare exception.

Leaving the RA and heading north, it was striking how much Mayfair seemed to embody Rogers’s notion of civility. Its urbanity, cosmopolitanism, and sense of ease seemed to embody everything Rogers meant by civility. But it is also the most expensive neighbourhood in the known universe. Very few of us can afford to spend any time there, let alone think of calling it our own. And its civility is supported by a vast labouring army, who – like the coffee-vendor in the gallery – contribute to the spectacle, without being able to enjoy it. For those reasons, civility to me often connotes cruelty, albeit of a hidden kind. At best it’s bullshit, and I think it ultimately diminishes Rogers’s work. Architecture, like all the arts, is fundamentally amoral. If you’re going claim otherwise, you better have a pretty strong claim. This ain’t it.

Richard Rogers RA Inside Out is at the Royal Academy, London, until 18 October 2013. For more on Rogers and civility, see my book The Anxious City (London: Routledge, 2004)

I Heart My City In The Summer: My Top Twenty.

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National Geographic Traveler has just posted its top 20 best things to do in cities around the world this summer. Here are mine, in reverse order:

20. Stockholm, Sweden Have a tour of the recent riots, taking in some great ethnic food along the way. Take the blue (T11) metro line to the northern suburb of Husby. Then top it off with a spot of nude sunbathing at Ågesta Beach (bus 742).

19. New York, United States Take a trip back in time on the famous New York subway, unchanged in 40 years. Has the US completely lost it? It’s 1973 down there. Lou Reed’s chewing gum, spat out as he left the Velvet Undrground’s session for Loaded in 1969, still visible at Spring St. station, SoHo.

18. Singapore, Singapore Play hide and seek with your kids in the smog (but do wear masks). Plenty of time left to do it: it’s going to last for weeks. Have a drink on the veranda at the Raffles Hotel afterward.

17. Edinburgh, Scotland Tour the the never-ending tram works on Princes St. Are they building it – or taking it to pieces? Your guess is as good as ours. Later on, take the Scottish DNA test courtesy those latter-day eugenicists at http://www.scotlandsdna.com/. Are you pure enough for Scotland?

16. Madrid, Spain Help remove the shanty town at El Gallinero, Madrid. Let’s clean this place up! Take the train to Collado Villalba, and get a cab from there. Great tapas back in Madrid. Try El Museo del Jamon, nr. Puerta del Sol.

15. Tehran. Iran Try a spot of flag-burning in Azadi Square to celebrate the election of President Hasan Rowhani (but not the Iranian one!). Check out the street food: ‘Mexican Corn Cup’ and boiled beets, available everywhere.

14. Doha, Qatar Visit the new Taliban Embassy. If you can find it. They’ve removed the sign.

13. Moscow, Russia Stand up for traditional family values in an anti-gay demonstration. Plenty of choice, free to participate. Then frozen vodka with Moscow’s jet set at Simachev’s, Stoleshnikov Lane.

12. Shanghai, China Take a refreshing dip in the Huangpu River. Watch out for pigs!

11. Paris, France Ever wanted to try your hand at being an air traffic controller? Now’s your chance. France routinely stops air traffic during the summer to let tourists have go at  guiding planes – but without the risk, because they ground them all. Try Paris Charles de Gaulle. It’s popular, though – be prepared for long queues.

10. Venice, Italy Biennial festival of Garbage. The mysterious Biennale attracts pilgrims from all over the world to worship displays of rubbish, and speak in mystical terms, guided by the enigmatic catalogo, a religious text. The origins of this rubbish-worship are obscure.

9. London, England Re-enact the spectacular looting of summer 2011. Just take a train to Clapham Junction (every five minutes from Waterloo), head for the Debenhams department store, and help yourself to whatever you like. Nobody minds. That buccaneering spirit is London’s gift to the world.

8. Detroit, United States Celebrate the city’s culture-led revival with a visit to the opera house. Free entry.

7. Toronto, Canada It’s party time – and boy, do Torontonians know how to let it all hang out. How about sharing a crack pipe with the city’s Mayor?

6. Limassol, Cyprus Check out the spectacular ruins of Europe’s banks, strangely compelling in the sunshine. Great Russian food.

5. Kabul, Afghanistan Model aircraft fans! You’ll think you’ve died and gone to heaven. Actually…

4. Brasilia, Brazil How about some free-running (parkour) on the government buildings of the Monumental Axis? Very popular this summer. Watch out for teargas, though. Then try some authentic Lebanese kibbeh in the Bar Beruite, Asa Sul. Open late.

3. Athens, Greece Learn the ancient art of the moutza in Syntagman Square. Careful what you do with it once you’ve learned.

2. Istanbul, Turkey Meet the friendly local police at Gezi Park.

1. Sao Paulo, Brazil This summer’s hit. Where to start in the South American metropolis? A quarter-million-strong demo on the Avenida Paulista? Check. Blocking the main highway to Santos? Check. Looting of shops and banks? Check. It’s all to play for in summer 2013’s hottest destination.

Here’s the National Geographic’s selection: http://intelligenttravel.nationalgeographic.com/author/iheartmycity/

The Creative City. It’s War.

0041-1THE USE OF ‘WAR’ TO DESCRIBE CITY LIFE IS A CULTURAL STUDIES CLICHE. In City of Quartz (1990) Mike Davis famously described Los Angeles as ‘militarized’, thinking of the bum-proof benches of downtown, and signs on suburban lawns warning of ‘armed response’ to intrusion. Teresa Caldeira’s account of São Paulo, City of Walls (2001) did something similar for the Brazilian metropolis, describing a city so conditioned by fear of crime that it might as well be at war. I’ve used the metaphor of warfare plenty of times myself, for example in my own accounts of Brazilian cities, which noted the tendency of local journalists to describe them as being in a state of de facto civil war. In that piece, I referred to a much-quoted statistic: during the four-year siege of Sarajevo 1992-6, more people of were killed on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, ostensibly a city at peace. War is a cliche, however, and an increasingly inaccurate one in these terms. LA, New York, São Paulo, Rio (etc. etc.) have become immeasurably safer since everyone started talking about how dangerous they were. And while Baghdad kills 50 or so people per day in a state of genuine warfare, it is frankly unethical to even use the term in relation to what are safe and wealthy places.

Still, that is what I am going to do. In my last post, I mentioned Richard E. Caves’s Creative Industries (2000) in relation to the sociability, or otherwise, of the creative city. The  intense, but intermittent, sociability of the creative city is in fact that of a condition of emergency. As Rebecca Solnit has written lately (A Paradise Built in Hell, 2009) natural disasters destroy communities, but also  produce  marvellous new ones. The more I thought about them, the more Caves’s core principles suggested such a condition of emergency. ‘Nobody Knows’, the ‘Motley Crew’, ‘Time Flies’ (and the rest) invoke an exceptional state of being. The future is unknown and unknowable, threats are permanent, change is ever-present, the project (movie, exhibition, artwork, performance, book, campaign) routinely demands the impossible. Time is  essential; everything must be now. The resources required are immense: it must store materials, skills and ideas in anticipation of a future that may never occur. It is subject to high levels of security and secrecy. Its workers are mobile and rootless, and live in de facto camps, separated and sometimes secured from the city proper. And each project – for which read ‘campaign’ – demands absolute commitment. Desertion is death.

Caves doesn’t describe the creative city in quite these terms, but the implication is there to  be had. And at the time he was writing, there were plenty of other writers invoking a sense of emergency in contemporary life: the sociologist Ulrich Beck’s ‘risk society’ is a perfect example.

On the ground, there are real figures of this metaphorical war. Superficially, many of the most creative cities have also been literal ruins at some stage of their development, caused, often enough by conflict (Berlin, London and Manchester bore until recently the literal scars of war). Artists have always been drawn to the ruined parts of cities for economic reasons, but they have also long cultivated an aesthetic of ruination – and resisted attempts to clean up. The creative city and the ruined city often seem to overlap.

However there’s more to this metaphorical war than ruins. Caves says a lot about LA and the movie industry, and if you know that city, you know how reminiscent its great studio complexes are of military encampments or munitions factories: sprawling, secure complexes, surrounded by high walls, blind to the outside world. And inside, they’re populated by transient gangs working secretly to impossible deadlines, for campaigns that become apparent only when they’re in progress. Making movies is uncannily like going to war. It’s no accident that war has been such a natural movie genre. And it’s arguably no accident that LA’s other main activity, at least until the 1980s, was armaments.

If the creative city is also metaphorically a city at war, is it right? The creative city undoubtedly suits those with the wits and education to take advantage of it, and weather its vicissitudes. I have thought of myself in that category often enough. But how does the creative city suit the weak, the sick, the very young? How does it work for anyone thinking beyond the next pitch?

Picture: Still from Alfred Hitchcock, ‘Saboteur’ (1942). Exploding munitions factory created on a Warner Bros studio lot.

THE CREATIVE CITY: A CORRECTION

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Since posting, Paul Morley published this piece on the Salford and Media City, which is connected. Most accounts of Media City have been unfavourable – sometimes simple snobbery, sometimes a failure to understand the landscape and its history.This discussion is more nuanced, and well worth reading. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/f5cc1646-c90b-11e2-9d2a-00144feab7de.html#axzz2VEXeJU4s

We hear a lot about the creative city these days. For city managers in the industrialised world, creativity is the way to go, meaning a rebalancing of urban economies away from manufacturing, and even financial services, towards advertising, the arts, culture, web design and so on. The chief advocate of the creative city is Richard Florida, a most entrepreneurially-minded sociologist. Florida is everywhere, and his concepts have been accepted by city leaders the world over. Good for him. His work, however, is predictive and future-oriented; there remains a notable deficit in the literature of the creative city as built, the ‘real’ creative city.

One writer to take it seriously is Richard E. Caves, a Harvard law professor with longstanding interests in copyright. His book The Creative Industries – although published a decade ago – is a compelling, and still rare, analysis of the creative city as it exists and functions, rather than as a fantasy yet to be built. Caves’s argument revolves around a set of principles, which he says, describe unique behaviours of those working in the creative industries. These include (1) ‘nobody knows’ – no-one has the least idea of the likely success of a creative product, with no predictable connection between the capital investment in a project and its likely profitability; (2) the ‘motley crew’ – the necessity for an extremely diverse set of skills to realise projects, most likely supplied by a flexible, self-employed labour force; (3) ‘time flies’, the principle that once underway, a creative project will require absolute subservience to its timetable; (4) ‘art for arts’ sake’, in other words the principle that the actors in creative enterprises are not motivated solely by financial gain, and in many cases will work for the sake of the work itself. The sociologist Sharon Zukin described something similar, the AMP or Artistic Mode of Production, in her celebrated book Loft Living. Caves’s book is underwritten by the detailed knowledge of two cities, LA, focused on the experience of the movie industry, and New York, with a concentration on the art scene, at (I would note) a moment of great transition.

Caves’s principles, if we accept them, have severe implications for the nature of the creative city, indeed the city in general. It is widely assumed that the creative city is intensely sociable. The theme of sociability runs all the way through Florida’s work, for example. Creative types are by their nature gregarious, we are led to believe, and visibly so. They spend all day in cafes, yacking away to each other, tweeting their friends, making deals. That image is widely, and popularly understood; it drives real estate markets, provides fodder for TV, informs fashions in food and clothing and gadgets. It’s immensely popular with city politicians and managers too, for obvious reasons.

But it’s misleading. Caves’s principles imply a city that is far more anti-social than you might expect. Firstly, the creative industries are hopelessly profligate (‘nobody knows’), so they have en enormous amount invested in storage of all kinds. Materials, talent, ideas – most of which, most of the time remain unused, but must be kept available. Storage means space rather than sociability. Secondly, creative workers by and large are not working together, but as individuals who come together on a project-by-project basis (the ‘motley crew’). They’re subject to fits of intense socialisation to get business, but their work, most of the time, is not sociable. Thirdly, ‘time flies’: the creative city sublimates everything to the ‘now’ of the project, cutting across the normal time and space of city. It makes people subservient to the project, not the community. And so on. In summary, if you buy Caves, you buy into a world view that is arguably as anti-urban as it is urban. I don’t present this as a criticism at all, merely an observation. We have choices, after all.

Here is an example of why I think Caves’s analysis is right, namely the large, impressive media complex in Salford, Manchester, MediaCityUK, opened in 2012 and home for a substantial portion of BBC activity. You arrive at MCUK by newly-built light rail at a public plaza defined by glass buildings. There are outdoor TV screens everywhere; coffee and food abound; there are constant ‘events’ of one kind or another. It’s a relentlessly sociable place, almost exactly as the developers imagined. They must be delighted, and rightly so. Walk a few hundred metres to the north, however, and the sense of civilised urbanity falls away, and you find yourself in a warehouse zone, all blank walls and razor wire, seemingly uninhibited. Before MCUK, it was perhaps the definitive landscape of this part of Manchester. Many of the journalistic accounts of MCUK have focused on this disjunction, as if it were a fault. Yet on closer analysis, MCUK merely describes in built form the nature of the creative city. It’s sociable, but only intermittently so. The vast majority of its revenue-producing business comes from things beyond public view. Those warehouses look abandoned, but they house production facilities, sound stages, sets and props, as well as a huge range of informal workspaces. MCUK’s plaza is the public performance, as it were, of the creative city. The real work happens elsewhere.

MCUK was a purpose-built facility, a set piece. In form it reiterates the landscape of arguably the world’s first creative city. It’s an industrial-looking sprawl, dotted with pockets of frantic socialisation. The movie industry, which defines so much of the city, made it like that. The studios are epic in scale, but necessarily inward-looking and anti-social; their public faces, like the attractions on Hollywood Blvd., are designed, quite purposely, to direct attention away from their real business. So it is with all the other motors of the creative city. Far from being drivers of sociability, these businesses are, for most of the people involved in them, most of the time, deeply anti-social. That’s not, as I say, a criticism. But it’s worth pointing out that if sociable cities are a priority, then ‘creativity’ may not be the way to achieve it.

Richard E. Caves, The Creative Industries: Contracts Between Art and Commerce (Cambridge, Mass.:Harvard UP, 2002)

Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class (New York: Basic Books, 2004)

Sharon Zukin, Loft Living (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1989)