March 30, 2010 Mitch Miller

Optimism in the inevitable?

As Glasgow gouges out half its eastend to make way for the M74 motorway extension, our vision of urban improvement and renewal already seems woefully behind the times. This thought provoking piece from A Town Square suggests the whole logic behind cracking the city open to let more cars through runs counter to the tide of history (whatever THAT is) into obsolence. Take a read of it. It argues that ‘vernacular’ city arrangements, such as the Middle Eastern souk, the Chinese huton and even Chicago’s streetcars offer a viable template for high density living that is organic, efficient and on a certain level much more human. Starchitects such as Norman Foster and Rem Koolhaas have tried to respond, the latter claiming that it is possible to find ‘optimism in the inevitable.’

The M74 is, we have been told by Glasgow’s city councillors, one such inevitability but current thinking on urbanism suggests we may be taking, literally, the wrong direction. The Foster and Koolhaas ideas are interesting but – and this may be sentimentality creeping in – seem less effective than existing approaches. I always get a little disturbed over the grand visions of architects – instinct (rather than reasoned intellectual contemplation of the designs, I grant you ) tells me there is something totalitarian in both the designs here, even though Foster has attempted to construct his design around the traditional souk.  I will look at them in more detail, but in the meantime the message that taking note of how people actually do accommodate each other, rather than constantly trying to tell them how they should do so – or, cynically ensuring that what they do build will only suit certain classes of people – is a good one, and very much in line with this blog and the project it stories (I wonder what the average annual income of those living in a Foster or Koolhaas future city would be? Of course, the recent financial travails of the Emirate of Dubai may make our notion of what is ‘inevitable’ suddenly obsolete, and thus never inevitable in the first place…) .

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