As I write this, the Occupy Hong Kong movement has taken over the streets of a city that combines high-rise glitz with ground-floor density like few other places in the world. Separate from the politics of the occurrence, it makes me wonder whether the notion that the city core is still a place of vibrancy we need to put all our money on as the hope for urbanity is really true. It seems to be under attack by blandness and homogenization, rather than just by the suburbanization. People might be moving back to downtowns, as they are here in Cincinnati, but only if and when it is safe, and only if it means that they can gather at Starbucks and shop at Whole Foods. The social mix is going away just as quickly as the yuppies arrive, as are retail and any sense of difference between different cities.
The New York Times this week brought a forceful editorial on the destruction of Mecca. A city that very few of us non-Muslims have seen is apparently turning into a continuous sprawl of skyscrapers rising out of massive shopping malls into hotels and condominiums for the rich. That new mecca for capital is replacing the ancient sites and the intricate and, the author claims, both architecturally and socially heterogeneous city fabric, with “…an amalgam of Disneyland and Las Vegas.”
Meanwhile, news comes from the real Las Vegas—the one of desert, transshipment warehouses, endless suburbs and a forgotten downtown: Zappos founder Tony Hsieh’s dream of creating an alternative to both what we think of as Las Vegas—the realm of air conditioned gambling, shopping, eating and sleeping—and to its reality as one of the most sprawling cities in the U.S., is faltering. There is just no economic base for his vision of a Funkytown of shipping containers housing start-ups mixed in with luxury loft living. His attempt at revitalization soon might go the way of the electronic expressionism of Jon Jerde’s nearby arcade, the Fremont Experience, which blinks away forlornly between failed hotels and stores.
In the last few weeks, I was in three European cities, and what struck me was the continued march of sameness. There are Zara stores everywhere, as well as the same advertisements and similar new buildings. Even if cities like Zurich or Paris manage to preserve their urban cores, they do so only as sites for branches of multinationals, both in terms of the uses of the historic buildings for business and in terms of the endless parade of the same places to eat and shop.
It is on the edges where things are more vibrant. Zurich’s Hardbruecke area is converting what was an industrial wasteland into a home for the hipoisie that looks like a cleaner version (sorry for the cliché) of parts of Brooklyn. In the latter area, a group of artists are now proposing a tower in the form of scaffolding that would give the arts and artists an anchor from which to resist the march of the same Gap-based luxury high-rise towers that are spreading around the world.
Let’s not worry about downtown so much. It has long ago reached its natural state as a place where the elite base their command, control, and culture centers, as David Harvey pointed out several decades ago. The only difference is that they and their aspiring children now can live there as well. Developments such as Mecca are mostly about making sure that the kinds of dissent and social gathering that we are seeing in Hong Kong can never happen there. My friends in Hong Kong are also telling me that they are seeing minimal disruption to their lives: downtown, or Central, as it is called there, is just not central to their lives.
What we should be hoping for is, as I said earlier, the Brooklynization of our edges, and the development of vibrant cores or just moments of diversity away from our dead and deadening downtowns. We should be looking at suburbs and exurbs, and figuring out how to make them work.
We should also be thinking funky. Last night we rented the restored version of the 2003 documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, an amalgamation of movie fragments in which that city appears, often only as a bit player. It’s author, Thom Andersen, points out that Blade Runner’s version of L.A. in 2019 (!?) shows what is supposed to be dystopia but is closer to what many of us think cities should be like: Vibrant street life, with no cars, a multi-ethnic populace, and plenty of good noodle shops. It just happens to be controlled by Big Business and its replicants.
On my way into Paris last week, the airport bus took a detour to avoid congestion on the highway. We went straight through former villages like Le Bourget, La Courneuve, and Aubervilliers, now linear cities filled with shops and a diverse population, though their housing stock is still abysmal. This is the Paris of the dystopian movie District B13, but like Blade Runner, that movie also showed a vibrant life, though one that was isolated and controlled. If we can figure out how to make these places work and spread, then we will have an answer to what true urbanity could be.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.