The metropolis as a place of exchange, dialogue and delight between diverse groups of people is being eradicated
If what is called the development of our cities is allowed to multiply at the present rate, then by the end of the century our world will consist of isolated oases of glassy monuments surrounded by a limbo of shacks and beige constructions, and we will be unable to distinguish any one global city from another.
This pandemic of generic buildings have no connection to each other, let alone to the climate and culture of their location.
With apologies to our forebear Ian Nairn, upon this scourge The Architectural Review bestows a name in the hope that it will stick – NOTOPIA. Its symptom (which one can observe without even leaving London) is that the edge of Mumbai will look like the beginning of Shenzhen, and the centre of Singapore will look like downtown Dallas.
This thing of terror, which will wake you up sweating at night when you begin to realise its true proportions, consists in the universal creation of cities that are not human settlements, but places where capital investment lives in architecture devoid of social purpose. Notopia is where empty apartments and gated communities stand under guard while the homeless are not permitted even to sleep on the street, and are prodded or hosed down with water until they move on.
How did we get here? Popular misunderstandings of one sort and another – of the consequence of capitalism and vulgarisations of the concept of democracy – have led the public to kick against the principle of land planning. Belief in trickle-down economics has likewise led us to tolerate every kind of abuse in the name of attracting financial investment. The fallacy has been that the free market will provide enough housing for those in need, and that allowing private business to build out our cities will save the public purse while providing for all.
‘This pandemic of generic buildings have no connection to each other, let alone to the climate and culture of their location’
The reality is that left to market forces, the commercialisation of land has given birth to a selfish city, disfigured by the interests of bankers and stillborn in vision, and unable to cope with mass urbanisation, leaving the working class to inhabit rabbit-hutch towers on the fringes. Meanwhile, the downtown cores are hollowed out by gentrification and the perversity of uninhabited luxury flats, the values of which further increase by not being lived in.
With so much energy put into the design of iconic totems, we have been confident that our cities will remain distinct. The essays enclosed at the heart of this edition prove that this is a criminally feckless illusion, and that in fact the mediocre conurbations breeding in New York, Sydney and Cape Town are obliterating the identity and culture of unique and vibrant capitals of commerce and exchange developed over thousands of years. This is not to say that capital investment has no place in development. But look where one may, in the East or the West, every city has a skyline of obelisks and trophies, the duplitecture of elsewhere with a flourish here and there to set itself apart.
The deeper issue, aside from how these towers look, is the no-places created on the ground. One building next to another does not make a place, and many buildings do not make a city. Notopia is a warning sign that the metropolis as a place of exchange, dialogue and delight between diverse groups of people is being exterminated. Buildings alone do not support life. With the erasure of identity and the desire to make cities safe and clean, comes the extinction of culture. The messiness and friction of people together makes for a creative and noisy place. There should be a cacophony of traffic, both mohawks and power-suits, and the vague notion that someone may steal your bag. It should be a place where the unexpected can happen, and not be moved on, imprisoned or fined. It must be unlike life in the suburbs, where nothing of consequence ever happens, and you are unlikely to meet anyone who is not like you.
‘With so much energy put into the design of iconic totems, we have been confident that our cities will remain distinct’
The cure is to adopt a new approach to modern planning.
The city sells off its land to private hands who leverage the value of the property by building as much as they can, as quickly as they can, with architecture there to dress up mediocrity just as parsley dresses up a plate of rice. Everywhere we are levelling the wondrous diversity to a uniform mean. And planning machinery is being used to speed up Notopia, not check it.
The planning offensive was started in a mood of idealism which assumed two things: that rules would be used flexibly and intelligently, and that private developers would build according to the needs of the local people. Now the tail is wagging the dog, and developers are building for the needs of offshore account-holders and money launderers. Any hope of intelligent interpretation was lost when planning was made into another unrewarding office job, and chained to the lowest common denominator, not the highest common multiple, with all the planning rules perverted to make every square mile proclaim its universal style and status as a safe haven for cash buyers.
Too big a problem? Surely it’s not beyond our power to address it. The alternative is the abyss.