Turning a critical eye to cities
Promising ‘ideas, knowledge and agitation’, Critical Cities: Volume 2, does not disappoint. The essays, conversations and images on the contemporary city collected by editorial duo Deepa Naik and Trenton Oldfield create an enriching, though at times frustrating volume. Although many of the pieces were informative, thought-provoking and passionate, I was repeatedly inclined to throw the book down in exasperation.
Intending to provide an alternative to already established ‘urban forums’, described as little more than ‘expensive networking opportunities’, Naik and Oldfield founded the festival This Is Not A Gateway (TINAG, 2009), from which this book has stemmed. Through this event and the later publications, their objective is to bring together those they describe as ‘the critical, the frustrated, the exploited, those subverting and interrogating the status quo and through their refusal of capitalism and oppression are already starting to forge alternative ways of living and thinking’.
Accordingly, Critical Cities is resolute in seeking to manifest the urban condition from a grass-roots vantage point. At the same time, key points of reference, such as Henri Lefebvre’s ‘Right to the City’ in his 1968 book Le Droit à la Ville and Richard Sennett’s 2009 essay ‘The Open City’, offer more than adequate theoretical contextualisation to get your teeth into.
The editors describe their contributors as ‘emerging urbanists’ and among their number is Joel Cady, whose work focuses on the design of the fence to the Olympic development site, highlighting the ‘Demolish, Dig, Design’ logo of the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA), and explaining how the site was being ‘transformed into a blank canvas, ready for the “big build”’. What other imagery could better lend itself to TINAG’s portrayal of the Olympics as a quasi-colonial venture, obliterating all that existed to recreate a tabula rasa?
In deliberate opposition to the scorched-earth approach of the ODA, Critical Cities is pointedly true to its east London roots. Continually running through the book is an echo of the social history and heritage of an urban environment that has been multi-ethnic and multi-cultural for centuries. Particularly rich sections include Joy Gregory’s photographic cycle through London, documenting ‘Sites of Africa’, and the interview with David Rosenberg, a passionate and immensely knowledgeable guide to the East End.
By way of achieving a balance, the book avoids excessive focus on east London by including many contributions from locations further afield. Joanna Erbel explores the transformation of Polish cities since the end of Communist rule, while Nikola Mihov contributes a particularly thoughtful documentation of the current state of significant communist-era monuments in Bulgaria.
The editors’ introductory pieces are key to understanding the intention of the project, in particular, ‘The Urban Industry and its Post-Critical Condition’. Here, the readers begin a supposed journey to self-discovery by taking on board that they are part of what Naik and Oldfield term the ‘Urban Industry’, and that as such they are ‘perpetuating the intrinsically political and partisan ideology underlying contemporary business practices and market techniques’.
It is within much of this discussion that my frustration emerges, as the editors preach their moral campaign, supposing that as an ‘uncritical’ and ‘post-political’ element within the Urban Industry, we are lending our creativity and expertise to its malevolent force. In all likelihood, this moral campaign is legitimate, but through the book’s tone I feel persecuted rather than encouraged by its cause.
Also, wherein lies redemption? The term ‘emerging urbanists’ lends expression to the grass-roots perspective adopted through the book, suggesting a youthful and idealistic cohort of up-and-coming hatchlings − presumably the personified antithesis of the Urban Industry. However, one of the book’s main strengths is drawn from the considerable wealth of knowledge and depth of experience that many of the contributors possess.
I am puzzled as to what might lead Naik and Oldfield to underplay the gravitas of their contributors by describing them as such, other
than perhaps a desire to provide absolution per definitionem from the deadly accusation of collusion with their more commercial counterparts. Would it not lend greater weight to the work gathered together here to accept and embrace the value of life experience, warts and all, and to allow for a greater range of shades between black and white?
Yet collected together, these provocative essays underline the fundamental driver behind Critical Cities as being a moral campaign, and − despite occasional lapses in tone and temper − form an erudite and recommendable volume. Read it with some caution, but thoughtfully, since there is much of great value to learn along the way. Naik and Oldfield have successfully tailored a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
Critical Cities: Volume 2
Editors: Deepa Naik and Trenton Oldfield
Publisher: Myrdle Court Press