It may be an obvious point, but what makes the kind of terrorism that erupted in Paris last week so frightening is its lack of predictability: The bombs can go off anywhere and at any time, and the attackers can appear suddenly, as they did in Paris, either from right under our noses or from far away, using the very means of transportation that bind us together and let our modern society function. The blocks and grids that embody order are as nothing to them. There is very little we can do to stop them. Their horror is as sprawling as our cities have become, and they make their way both through the city’s networks into the suburbs and beyond, and along the ephemeral threads of the internet and social media that have become, to a certain extent, our new city streets and squares.
Terrorism of this sort, in other words, hits exactly the benefits of the traditional city. The recent attacks occurred where people gathered for what has become the core city’s main function, namely to be a place of spectacle: a place to see and be seen, to consume and socialize. The attackers did not go for sites of work or government offices, let alone for symbols such as the Eiffel Tower, knowing, perhaps, that such obvious targets are well guarded. They did not respect the city’s traditional hierarchy and had little interest in barricading the boulevards or laying siege to the defined entity of the inner city, as previous revolutionaries in Paris have done. Instead, they eased themselves into the milling crowds and consuming patrons that spill in and out of restaurants, clubs, squares, and streets. Where they hit a hard border, such as the gates of the soccer stadium, they apparently failed to penetrate it, and caused much less damage then they could have. It was where the city was at its best and its most amorphous that they were at their worst.
This is a global phenomenon. Today, terror appears everywhere: In music clubs of Paris, in shopping streets of Beirut (the day before the Paris attacks), and in suburban malls of Colorado. It gravitates to events and places where we construct our social lives: our collective sense of connection, belonging, and being human. This terror is, in other words, essentially urban in the deepest sense of that word, and not tied to traditional notions of the physical city and its order.
It is as far as I am concerned no coincidence that the roots of this modern form of terrorism lie both in areas that are essentially rural and remote, and have been shocked by their confrontation with urbanity, and in the communities (ghettos, really, in the case of Paris’ outskirts) that have felt themselves closed off from urban amenities and treated as outside of the cultural mix that marks and defines our best cities. Terror appears where urbanity doesn’t work, either in the countryside or in the city. Out of such isolation, shocked by and confronted with the porous, open, shifting kaleidoscope that is our culture, come the desires to both close down from and blow up and eradicate all that is urban.
Our first reaction when such terror hits us is to mirror that movement: to shrink back into our homes and behind our borders, even though we know they will never fully protect us. Our reaction should be to open our cities even more, and to extend the benefits they provide to all those who now live in those ghettos, and all those who find themselves subjected to all of their rapacious desires for resources and power without gaining any of their benefits.
The boulevards of Paris are empty this week. They will remain so for a while, and then we will fill them again with our life. We must mourn and be resolute in our defense of the space they provide us. We must not retreat, nor must we close up. We must make our urban scenes so resilient that nothing can tear them apart.
We must also work towards change. Around the world, architects are trying to find ways to tear down walls and make urbanity available to all. Just one small example, which addresses the core of how order works in our cities today: Architect Jeanne Gang, FAIA, has a small project in the Chicago Architecture Biennale: a proposal for a police station that morphs and dissolves into a variety of community activities that spread throughout the community. That is the kind of building block out of which we can erect a wall against terrorism.