Incremental evolution in self-correcting
cities and the importance of everyday architectural acts in the
continual re-formation of the modern cityscape
The modern planned city, a vehicle of political and national
development, is a phenomenon of yesterday. The totalitarian power and
massive decision making authority necessary to build and maintain it has
proved unsustainable in most areas of the modern world. As the plans
age, people alter their course, sometimes with the help of just a
jackhammer. Programs change, redundancies develop and the logic of the
plan fades. The question is no longer, “did it succeed or fail?” but
instead, “how has it changed?”
These large scale infrastructural experiments did not allow for inconsistencies that would erode the power of the plan. Although in many cases the plans still exist, over time smaller scale changes have begun to compete with their authority.
In the past year, I traveled across the globe to sample a variety of such landscapes—aging modernist plans conceived and constructed en masse, slowly grown over by the individual interventions of their inhabitants. My aim has been to expose the process of intervention as an integral catalyst in the evolution of the city’s structure and organization. The particular architectural interventions made by inhabitants accrete, repeat, invert and invade the space of the city, restructuring the systems that surround them. Understanding this allows the designer to invoke change through participation in the inhabitants’ systems, rather than the other way around.
Because these cities are still relatively young, they provide a fertile
ground for understanding the relationship between the planner’s idea and
the lived-in reality. By understanding the reality, the designer can
learn a new role in urban design that does not project control, but
instead adopts the cues of an already functioning process of urban
upgrading that is practiced by the cities’ inhabitants.
The endeavors of individuals are the cues; a network of simple changes that hold concrete giants out of obscurity, shoring them up for an unpredictable future. These cues begin the focused effort of transformation. Oblique windows connect balconies to walls in Tolyatti, rippling across the concrete panels of prefabricated facades. Wood frame roofs with ceramic shingles cap concrete towers in Ankara because there they keep out water better than flat slabs. Steel frames attach to Eisenhüttenstadt’s housing blocks, lifting balconies up to windows.
Unlike the inhabitants, professionals have legal access to public space
and the ability to strategically pull together individual efforts. Left
alone, inhabitants’ efforts spread through informal channels,
tangentially linked by their collective effort to improve space, which
through its reproduction moves out of the private and into the public.
More often it is a combination of individual endeavors and professional
responses that evolve the status quo. Residential leapfrogging created
downtown Tel Aviv. Bicycle carts reinvented Chandigarh’s commerce, with
the help of a few architects and a watchful planning department. Plinth
extensions opened up Tolyatti’s slab residences, and the takeover of
Novi Beograd’s Block edges reversed the orientation of the city’s public
These systems are already at work in the city, invented and constructed by inhabitants, seen and adopted by their city administrations. The residents’ desire for a comfortable, but more importantly, larger space drives interior expansion that is read on the façade, copied across the street and institutionalized in the next building project. The residential entrepreneur not only expands, but also divides space, so as to create separate living accommodations and income supplements. A commercial entrepreneur aims for visibility—painting, sculpting, and constructing varied façade elements and sidewalk intrusions to grab the individual—such elements increasing in scale with the speed of the passerby. The restaurant owner hoards public space by dividing and limiting access with low fences that maintain the view for effect.
The designer needs to understand not only the way that these trends move at the individual and often informal level, but also the extent to which, and how, they are adopted and modified by the powers-that-be in a city: developers, citizens’ associations, and city administrations. These powers can respond by ignoring and therefore allowing changes, accommodating by enhancing them, or destroying them altogether. By accommodating, the city opens the door for designers to participate in the interventions. Strategies like the space invasion in Chandigarh, Tel Aviv building extension and Brasilia’s sidewalk occupation become expedient pieces of a new approach to urban evolution that attach themselves to existing systems latent with the potential to guide the future.
These observations lay the foundation for a master’s thesis that
imagines the future of the city as an incremental, contingent system of
interventions that supports its users.