POSTCARD FROM GOOGLE

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I recently spent a morning at Google headquarters (‘the Googleplex’) in Mountain View, Califonia, at the northern end of Silicon Valley. It was a Sunday, so eerily quiet. I had half a dozen leads from Edinburgh, itself a minor tech pole, and I’d written to all of them requesting a visit. As it turned out, so ineffable is the company, and its campus, I might as well have been requesting an audience with God. So I just went alone and unannounced.

The place was certainly a physical reality. As Wired journalist Andrew Blum points out in an entertaining new book, the internet is a material thing as much as an idea. Internet companies love you to believe in their insubstantiality, in their cloud-ness – but all that data has to be stored somewhere, and the work of managing it likewise.

It was an easy enough trip from SF. I got into my rented Prius and whirred down route 101 to the Rengstorff exit, crossed the highway, and there I was. The campus wasn’t strictly a campus per se, but a constellation of campuses, each anchored by one or more Google buildings. Bordered by route 101, it has an artificial lake for boating, miles of hiking trails, and a huge amphitheatre like the Hollywood Bowl. In the distance to the south, across drained swampland punctuated with electricity pylons I could see NASA’s Ames facility. Defined by three of the world’s biggest buildings, arched sheds made for building airships during the Second World War, it’s one of California’s great architectural sights.

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The Google campus it must be said, isn’t. It’s a sprawling complex, at a guess 300,000 square feet shaped like a C-clamp, comprising half a dozen interlinked pavilions. Clive Wilkinson architects designed it; based in Culver City, one of the centres of the LA film industry, they specialise in ‘Building Creative Communities’. It’s not a statement building of the kind that Facebook are currently contriving with Frank Gehry. You could drive past it and notice (I did, at first). But in the open plaza that defines centre of the complex, there are some deconstructivist Gehry-like elements, as if the façade of an ordinary office pavilion had been taken apart and shaken about. There’s a great curved beam, arching into the sky, emblazoned with the Google logo, like a piece of model railway track.

For the most part, it’s unspectacular, however and your eyes are drawn to the details. An organic garden occupies a northern corner of the plaza (a sign offers advice about seasonal planting, and a recipes – Organic Shephard’s (sic) Pie). A notice in the pavilion next door advertises the Google Film Club, whose carefully balanced, global programme looked the work of a genuine connoisseur.

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Of the details, though, it’s the G-Bikes that are most striking. Old-fashioned, sit-up-and-beg clunkers, they’re fitted with baskets and bells, and painted the corporate red, yellow, green and blue. There’s a useless rim brake, as well as a Dutch-style crank, so if you backpedal, you slow down. I don’t know why the two brakes. Safety first, I suppose. Anyway, they’re everywhere – hundreds of them, free to use for anyone who cares to. The abundance is really quite charming. I took one for a while. It felt like stealing at first, and the first few minutes felt deliciously transgressive (I had visited Apple the same day, and within seconds a security guard pulled up and yelled at me). But after a while, it was clear this seeming transgression wasn’t anything of the sort, but Google’s way of performing its generosity. These days Google may be ‘evil’, but it still has a lot invested in seeming not.

I soon grew tired of the Googleplex and pedalled over to an adjoining campus where a giant cupcake guarded the entrance. A handful of like-minded tourists milled around here, taking pictures – it was obviously what you did. They’d arrived on G-Bikes too, and like me were enjoying the perverse pleasures of the campus, before heading on to Facebook, Linked-In, and Yahoo! It was clearly the beginnings of a tourist trail, like Rome would have been for the eighteenth-century Englishman. Google seemed to have cottoned on already, hence the bikes. So, go while you still can. Google is waiting for you.

PS: Google – if you’re reading this, I put the bike back where it came from.

Forbidden Pleasures

The following are extracts from a talk given at the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina in Florianopolis, Brazil on 7 November 2013. 

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‘I mainly work on architecture and the experience of architecture. Increasingly I have been interested in the way the architecture of film and TV conditions the way we experience real buildings. So this talk is about the representation of architecture in two recent American TV series, Breaking Bad and Mad Men both of which have attracted huge interest from architects and designers in the English-speaking world, and in some ways, they represent some of the most imaginative architecture built in the last ten years or so – although they do not, as I say represent real buildings, but rather fantasies (…)

‘I was as surprised as anyone to find myself talking about TV. But as soon as I had discovered Mad Men (directed by Matthew Wiener, 2008 to present) I realised that TV could express things that were not being properly expressed anywhere else. TV seemed to be able to express in more detail, and with more subtlety, the complexities of modern family life, and how it was housed. I wanted architecture to have something to say about that, but about architecture, as always, seemed mostly to want to talk about itself. TV seemed to show the lived experience.

‘The TV I refer to is sometimes known as the ‘third golden age’. It is different from previous ‘ages’ in that it is exclusively produced by and for cable networks. So it is not subject to the usual forms of censorship, or self-censorship that apply on mainstream TV (and American TV is, as you probably know, unusually censorious). What else? It is extremely well funded. It is technically of a very high quality, certainly as good as mainstream Hollywood. It allows long-term character development of a kind only known previously in (say) the nineteenth century novel (…) The narratives of each of these dramas revolves around the tension between the public role and the private desire, order and chaos, between civilisation and sex. There are invariably secrets; those secrets invariably threaten to reveal themselves at any moment. Just as Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movies of the 50s an 60s played out themes from Freudian psychoanalysis, so these long-form TV dramas revisit psychoanalytical themes: eros and civilsation, the death drive, the return of the repressed – they are all there, just as they were in Hitchcock.

MAD MEN ‘It concerns the changing fortunes of a New York advertising agency, starting in the early 1960s. It allows viewers to experience – albeit vicariously – a whole range of pleasures that are now more or less forbidden. These include smoking (the US has some of the toughest anti-smoking legislation in the developed world); drinking (the US is strikingly puritanical when it comes to alcohol, certainly compared with western Europe); extra-marital sex (American marriages are strikingly intolerant of transgression). Mad Men allows viewers to experience all of these things safely from the comfort of the home. And  architecture frames these things, and in so doing provides us with a different reading of the modernist city.

‘The city is undoubtedly that of Mies van der Rohe. His architecture communicates restraint and good taste, characteristics of civilisation, you might say, not eros. It tolerates well-behaved humans, but only just. Mad Men subverts all that, introducing bodies to a modernist environment, bodies with all kinds of desires, bodies which are frankly incapable of behaving. Where Mies demands restraint, Mad Men goes for excess. So, smoking, now so powerfully discouraged in the US, punctuates absolutely every activity. Everyone smokes, all of the time (…) So it is with drinking (…)

‘And, inevitably, sex. When we see the office Diva, Joan Harris set against the regular grid of the open-plan desks, we know there is going to be trouble. By the end of series one, we know that the open plan is a kind of arena, a space largely occupied by women who parade for the entertainment of the largely male partners who occupy the translucent offices surrounding the centre. And we know that the parading is not just for show. Often something happens in the open plan which leads to something else happening the private offices. So towards the end of season 1, Pete Campbell has sex on his office couch early one morning with a colleague, Peggy Olson, an act that – to great comic effect – is visible in silhouette through the glass. The janitor’s blasé attitude says it all. He’s seen it plenty of times before: it’s simply what goes on in this place. In summary, Mad Men turns a place of restraint, order and efficiency into its opposite; the Miesian office becomes a machine for the free reign of the libido. We can never look at it in the same way again (…)

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BREAKING BAD ‘Neither can we look in the same way at the sunny, suburban city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, the location of Breaking Bad. The narrative, for those of you who have not seen it, concerns a mild-mannered gifted high school chemistry teacher, Walter White. Walt is faced with not only an unexpected child (his wife) but also his own diagnosis of terminal cancer. Unable to bear leaving his family with debt, he turns to the manufacture of the highly addictive and dangerous drug methamphetamine. He turns out to be extremely good at this. He also turns out to be extremely good at killing. It is one of the strengths of the series that it is sufficiently complex to allow our sympathies to remain with Walt far longer than they should; even after the bodies start to pile up, we still want Walt to ‘win’. The reason for this is, in a way, simple. Walt’s descent into criminality is also a libidinal awakening. In other words, as he becomes a criminal, he also becomes a man (…)

Breaking Bad parades a whole range of transgressions, but all of them can be defined in terms of the libido. In the first episode of the first season, Walt is depicted in bed with his wife, Skyler at the end of a day celebrating Walt’s 50th birthday. It is a dismal scene: an overdecorated, dark bedroom, Skyler distracted with a laptop (she is bidding for items on e-Bay) while she gives Walt a desultory handjob; she’s far more interested in what’s going on onscreen than she is in Walt’s pleasure – he loses whatever interest he had. He is both figuratively and literally emasculated. But later in that episode, through a series of extraordinary turns, Walt has started to construct a new, and libidinally charged identity.

‘Here he is in a composite image used for publicity purposes, but which beautifully summarises the early stages of his transition. The location is the New Mexico desert on the outskirts of Albuquerque, a place (we learn quickly) where Bad Things Happen – a lawless zone, where civilisation literally and figuratively does not exist. In the background is the 1986 Fleetwood Bounder, a large RV that serves for the first half of the series as a mobile laboratory. To Walt’s right lies a discarded breathing mask, necessary attire for cooking meth, but also (in terms of the symbolism of the series) an important uniform. Walt himself stands half-transformed. His residual clothing (the green shirt and the desert boots) is that of his old identity of chemistry school teacher – but he has lost his pants, he stands legs apart, glaring at the camera, and he holds a pistol, with intent. He looks absurd – but also menacing. What is certain in this image is that he is decisively more in control in this by all accounts crazy environment than he ever was in the relative security of home  (…)

‘Now Walt’s solution is an almost perfect realisation of the Freudian death drive, a will to destruction that we all to greater, or lesser degrees, have. Enacting that drive is not an option for most of us, so the function of dramas like Breaking Bad is to stage it, so it can be vicariously consumed. Walt is a fictional character, as are the characters in Mad Men, but there are many Walts out there, angry white men, harbouring the same fantasies of destruction. American TV drama may not have any answers, but it is certainly asking the right questions.

Lies, Damned Lies…and Cities

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A short post about cities and statistics:

Cities are remarkably hard to define. You would think otherwise, given the amount of data we have at our disposal. There are few cities on earth that have not been comprehensively mapped and photographed. But certain problems of definition remain: even in a single context, let’s say the United Kingdom, the definition of a city’s limits might vary from one case to another; we often compare apples with oranges. I was reminded this in recent coverage of a survey which measured the relative ‘vibrancy’ of different UK cities. I didn’t think much of the survey (it was a ‘fucking bag of bollocks’ according to the architectural journalist Ian Martin). One reason I didn’t was that its definitions varied according to city. So ‘London’ was, strictly speaking, the Greater London metropolitan region, with a population of 7.5 million or so. Its ‘Manchester’ was the political city, which is to say, a constituent part of a much larger urban region. Its 510,000 population makes it more like a big London borough. In this particular case, smallness played to Manchester’s advantage, and it came it top. For this exiled Mancunian, of course that’s good news, but I still recognise it as a flawed comparison.

I explored the problem a little more in a class today. I showed the group a list of population figures, all of which define ‘Manchester’ correctly:

‘Old City’ (1800 boundary)                                          25,000
Political boundary city 2013                                       510,000
Urban core, including Salford and Trafford            1,200,000
Greater Manchester, political boundary, 2013       2,600,000
Postcode city including all GM codes                     3,000,000 (estimate)
Travel-to-work city                                                  3,500,000 (estimate)
MUFC supporters worldwide, 2012 estimate      659,000,000

Manchester City fans will want to discount the MUFC stat immediately, which is fair enough. It does however give an indication of the potential importance of a non-resident population, all of who, arguably have an interest in what goes on in the city. Anyway, put that figure aside. We still have a remarkable discrepancy between the core city population of 25,000 (up from a historic low of 250 in the 1990), and what is arguably the ‘real’ city, the travel-to-work city of 3.5 million. It’s a differential factor of 140. Even if we were to take the ‘low’ figure as the 2013 political city, 510,000, we’re still looking at a factor of 7.

Manchester’s far from alone in its discrepant representations. Buenos Aires seems to suffer a similar problem. Is it a European-scale large city of 3 million? Or an emerging-market megalopolis of 16 million? Well, both, and neither. It just depends who is speaking and what they are trying to prove. That is the lesson for all of us, and all cities.

NOTES:

Vibrancy survey by Experian, reported in FT (9 October 2013)  http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/2bc0e682-2f50-11e3-ae87-00144feab7de.html#axzz2iSUwJSb1

Trouble at t’Mall

IMG_0353Something’s up with cities, as recent articles in The Economist and the FT attest. In the rich world, for decades we’ve held the notion of cities as basket cases to be endured rather than enjoyed. Few really believed in regeneration, if pushed: tidying up old docks and factories was, most of us believed, a cosmetic exercise. Our future was inexorably suburban. That set of beliefs held true until about a decade ago, underlined by relentlessly gloomy demographics, nlot just for celebrated basket cases like Detroit (61% population loss), but otherwise wealthy and successful places like London (-25% from its peak). We read Joel Garreau on the exurbs and imagined, mostly with trepidation, a Californian future. Cities were what the  developing world did – they weren’t for us.

Well, all that seems to have changed. The last set of population statistics for the UK were remarkable for what they said about cities. Greater London we knew had got bigger, but what was a surprise was how quickly it had regained its peak size. Down to 6.5 million in the 1980s, it was back up to 8.5 or so, 30% growth in 20 years. Even more startling in some way were the figures for such perennially shrinking cities are Liverpool (now up 5%), or most amazingly of all, Manchester (up 25%), with accompanying gains for their hinterlands. Across the Atlantic, as Gallagher has recently argued, the same trends are much in evidence. Washington DC hums with life these days in a way inconceivable a decade back. And in al these places, real estate values indicate a shift back to the  central city, and the decline of suburbia. However you do the maths, there is only one conclusion: cities are back.

In a funny way, no-one saw this coming. In fact the professional literature around regeneration is miserable. You can’t research the area without developing a deep sense of gloom. Academics invariably focus on the bad news; builders worry about money; policians argue incessantly about the benefits. Hardly anyone seems to believe it when push comes to shove. They should. The ‘project’ of regeneration, whether it’s through Richard Rogers’s advocacy in London, or Mike Bloomberg’s in New York, has been on its own terms, more often than not, a huge success. Cities have returned in a big way, dense, busy and vertical, just as their advocates wanted.

That success brings with it some old – basically 19th century – problems. In 2004 I speculated about this in The Anxious City, looking at Richard Rogers’s envisioning of London. It seemed (still) unattainable; it also seemed a transparently bourgeois city. Surely we would see through this (admittedly seductive) play of urban surfaces? Surely we would see it for the fantasy that it is? Well apparently not, for it’s come to pass not only in London, but New York and Washington, and with it, the embodiment in stone and glass of a most astonishing set of inequalities. The urbanist’s rhetoric from Richard Rogers to Richard Florida to Charles Landry is of equality and democracy. The built reality – just look at London – is anything but.

This leaves suburbia hanging. Suburbia will always be with us, but like the inner cities of the late 60s and early 70s, it may well become the locus of dissolution and decay. That might be good for urban innovators – we could conceivably see an exodus of poor, but creative youngsters to Metroland in search of space and time and relative freedom from the market. But those people, so prized by Florida and Landry, may choose to leapfrog the city altogether, and abandon it to the rich. Who knows. But cities have irrevocably changed this past decade, and we will have to deal with the consequences.

Sources:

D.K., ‘Mapping Gentrification: The Great Inversion’, Economist (9 September 2013) http://www.economist.com/blogs/blighty/2013/09/mapping-gentrification

Gapper, J., ‘America’s Heart is in the City Once Again’, Financial Times (8 September 2013) http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/0e8cc084-1652-11e3-a57d-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2fF0L7D9Y

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)

Aeon magazine – can architecture improve our sex lives?

Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation complex in Marseilles (1952) was designed around the display of the body, its pools and terraces, meant for inhabitants to show off. Photo by Stephen Burrows. Courtesy Aeon Magazine.

Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation complex in Marseilles (1952) was designed around the display of the body, its pools and terraces, meant for inhabitants to show off. Photo by Stephen Burrows. Courtesy Aeon Magazine.

Aeon magazine have just published this piece on Sex and Buildings:

http://www.aeonmagazine.com/living-together/can-architecture-improve-our-sex-lives/

It summarises the book’s argument, but adds a little at the end on an alternative future. It argues for a ‘commune-lite’, in essence, not far of what Le Corbusier imagined in Marseilles in 1948, or Ricardo Bofill in Barcelona in ’77. Bofill’s ‘Walden Seven’ is one of my favourite buildings, whatever Robert Hughes said about it. A visionary place that also seems to work for its residents. Now if some friendly developer would like to do the same here…

Incidentally, the piece has a few snippy remarks about Morningside, as does a forthcoming feature by Teddy Jamieson in the Herald. I should say I still live there, and despite its maddening character, have no plans to move. My complaints are those of  someone who know – for better or worse – he’s in it for good.

Madrid in the Journal of Iberian Studies

Here below is a link to a new issue of the Journal of Iberian Studies on Madrid, edited by Benjamin Fraser. Looks great. Madrid is very large, and complex, but often overlooked by Anglophone writers. It shouldn’t be: it grew at a prodigious rate during from the 1980s until recently, and arguably experienced more urban change than anywhere in Western Europe in that period. It bought into culture as an agent of change more vigorously (and earlier) than anywhere I can think of, and its reconstruction of its transport networks was likewise done with with rare conviction and thoroughness. The landscapes of change we now find in contemporary China were all there in early 1990s Madrid: new suburbs and satellite towns created de novo, forests of high rises, inexorably expanding subway networks, frenzied consumerism, a new, bewildered poor. I know, because I was there. It was an unforgettable and formative experience. Lately, Madrid has experienced waves of immigration that have changed its character markedly – and it’s an abrupt experience, with no historical precedent. Madrid’s recent experiences are thoroughly global ones; it’s a splendid test case for any number of global phenomena.

http://www.intellectbooks.co.uk/journals/view-issue,id=2454/

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 Disturbances in Brazil

Image from A Folha de São Paulo, 19 June 2013. A protestor sets fire to a World Cup mural

Image from A Folha de São Paulo, 19 June 2013. A protestor sets fire to a World Cup mural

The protests that have flared in Brazil in response to a 20-centavo rise in urban bus fares have produced some spectacular – and familiar – scenes. Brazil’s cities are no strangers to disorder, of both the licensed kind (Rio’s annual carnival) or the wildly unlicensed. For the latter, you only have to think back to the extraordinary events of May 2006 when a criminal gang, the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) briefly took over the entire city of São Paulo. The novelist Teixeira Coelho described an extraordinary scene to me a few months later. After the initial violence, there was a period of utter, complete, silence during which this metropolis of 11 million souls appeared to have been abandoned. It was a state Coelho had experienced once before:  on a canoe in the middle of the Amazon. May ’06 was admittedly exceptional. But the streets of São Paulo, until recently at least, could give the visitor the impression of civil war, even when it was just football at stake. That impression of ‘undeclared civil war’ was much cultivated by local journalists, much as their counterparts did in 1920s Chicago. Brazil’s violence was (for more people than should have been the case) good for business. Good for traffickers in drugs and guns certainly, but also private security firms, developers of gated communities, and (sadly) novelists, and film-makers. The movie version of Cidade de Deus, about a Jacarepaguá slum, was a huge international hit in 2002.

The fact is, however, that Brazil’s cities had been getting safer at exactly the moment  artists were celebrating their violence. By the early 2000s, São Paulo was rather safer than most American cities. By 2006, its had Glasgow licked, at least by one measure. Whatever the statistics, there is no question Brazil’s cities felt safer. When I first visited São Paulo in 2001, my Carioca friends advised me to keep a boca fechada (mouth shut) at all times, lest I reveal myself as a foreigner, and therefore, a target. I duly obliged, locking my belongings away, rarely venturing out, and having a somewhat miserable time. Ten years, and as many visits later, I strolled the Avenida Paulista with impunity, bearing a laptop, camera, I-phone, and a pocket full of cash. Just like (it seemed) everyone else.

Brazil has got a lot richer, especially during the pragmatic and assured presidency of Luis Inácio Lula da Silva. Its middle class got visibly bigger, and more confident. It even started to make some progress on the intractable problem of slum housing. The favela-bairro projects showed how it was possible, with imagination and money, to create viable low-rise neighbourhoods that could easily attract middle class residents given a couple do decades of stability. I saw several of these, including the hugely impressive Paraisópolis, abutting the São Paulo suburb of Morumbi. I could see this, no exaggeration, as an incipient urban village. Lula invested heavily in education, too, and could make so decent claims about widening opportunity. There were big infrastructure projects, especially in the cities, and a rush of investment in the state-owned Petróbras to capitalise on the discovery of offshore oil. It was going fantastically well. Brazil looked as if it was – finally – starting to realise the ordem e progresso  emblazoned on the national flag.

What happened was (first) a period of economic slowdown that looks distinctly European. It has barely grown as an economy in two years. And there was much talk, inside and outside Brazil, of o custo brasileiro – ‘the Brazilian cost’ – the sheer expense of doing business in the country. Brazil has not been a cheap country for decades. Now, however, it is a distinctly expensive one – as well as bureaucratic, slow and awkward.
Therein lies the problem. It has become rich. It is, measured by GDP per capita, certainly a middle-income one, comparable with the newer states of the EU. Its uneven wealth distribution conceals the existence of a vast urban middle class who live, and spend, like the richest 10% in London or New York. There is serious money here, and lots of it.
This wealth – and more to the point, the sense that wealth is now within reach – has arguably created new tensions. Public services have undoubtedly improved, but now Brazilians expect them to be better. And for the most part, they are bloody awful. You smell Rio de Janeiro long before you see it; the untreated sewage around the aeroporto Tom Jobim produces is of the world’s great stenches. In São Paulo, hopeless drains mean summer rains invariably bring the city to a standstill in minutes. Outside the cities, highways are often dirt tracks. The trans-Amazon highway, built by the military in the mid-sixties, has become impassable. And so on.
The architects of Brazil’s recent boom, Lula and before him, another Marxist-turned-neoliberal Fernando Henrique Cardoso (‘FHC’) would argue, with justification, that economic progress is never smooth. They would point to the success of Brazil’s brewers, or its excellent low-cost airlines, or its plane-maker Embrarer. Building a stable, democratic economy takes time. The problem for Brazil’s residents, wherever they are in the country’s social constellation, is whether they have that time. The super-rich have the benefits already. The rest – in short anyone who depends on public services – will have to wait. They had got used to expecting very little from government except corruption and violence. Now government has raised its game, but in so doing it’s raised expectations. That’s why Brazil’s cities have blown up.

Richard Williams’s book, Brazil: Modern Architectures in History was published by Reaktion in 2009. For more, see: http://www.reaktionbooks.co.uk/display.asp?ISB=9781861894007