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Urban Legends

Harriet Foyster

13.08.2020

City Drafting

I see the cityscape hosting two kinds of activity. In the first, buildings come creaking down: bird-like cranes peck at brick and cement, pipes and wires, transforming once full-bodied constructions into heaps of fleshless bone; dusty corpses with a port-a-loo at their bedside. In the second, growth flourishes: fresh developments rise up in all corners of the city, the erection of their jagged shapes bringing to fruition renderings of promise. Portraits of potential splashed on hoardings surrounding beams and poles are finally articulated in three dimensions. Demolition is everywhere, but so is construction. One might assume that a simultaneity of destruction and development would generate a kind of equilibrium, but that is not so. There’s always too much of one thing, and not enough of another. The tension between an urgent lack of affordable housing and a surplus of expensive units – between shortage and excess – grows more grotesque each day. But still the birds keep pecking and the blocks keep stacking.

This dynamic of constant transition strikes me with the uneasy feeling that the city is replacing itself. Familiar characters are written out as new, generic buildings designed for stock-inhabitants (or, more realistically, for investment) are drafted in. Spaces that I used to know are replaced with elements that I need to learn all over again. Considering the plethora of books, conferences and symposiums dedicated to ‘reading’ the city, this could be described as the writing process, or the re-writing. And if writing is an assembly of fragments that accommodate one another in search of a coherent whole, I look out of the window at the bird-cranes and the shit-heaps and see that they are trying to empathise. Just as a text, the city is re-iterated as a second draft, third, fourth… each segment tweaked and tightened into a polished configuration of high-rise, green space and storefronts, punctuated by escalators, stations and car parks.

Of course to talk of ‘the city’ in this way is to do away with specificity, but there are truths to be found across trends in metropolitan development and in shared patterns of experience. A city is at once a thing theorised and a thing lived. It is inextricable from personal narratives: both life milestones and banal habits are facilitated by architecture and infrastructure – home-buying, child-rearing, career-forming, socialising, caring, studying, exercising, worshipping, dying (burial space is a pressing issue for many cities). Where we live is the nucleus of what we live. More than centres of trade, investment, industry and culture, then, but somehow rarely described as such, cities are homes.

So not as an urbanist, architect or developer, but as a dweller, I have a vested interest in how the city is re-written, in its future as home. More than 70% of the global population will live in urban areas by 20501 but, at present, many residents are being written out not drafted in. I’ve watched similar shiny buildings creep across the skylines of Lincoln, Birmingham, London, Berlin and Amsterdam, and wondered whose narratives are being built, and whose are being erased. As the city reinvents itself, how are so many people excluded from its story?

Cityscapes

Setting the scene is crucial to building narrative, and the city knows this well: it’s a place obsessed with perfecting its own image. Always recomposing its mass, its reach extends to anything from water to wasteland, demarcating space into plots. The whole thing shape-shifts as it subsumes more volume into both the widths of its borders and the endless heights of its verticality. Amsterdam, to use my current home as an example, has a lengthy history of self-design. The Netherlands is a pioneering design project in itself; 17% of the land is reclaimed from water to very literally create setting. The capital continued to expand after World War II – in 1951, work began on the generation of four pre-planned suburbs; Slotermeer, Geuzenveld, Slotervaart and Osdorp. It swelled yet further with the construction of the IJ tunnel in 1968, built specifically to connect the previously-isolated Noord region to the rest of the city upon its designation as an ‘expansion zone’.

But the creation of the Bijlmermeer in the 1960s is perhaps the most glaring example of scene-setting. A city blueprint of 13,000 residential units adhering strictly to modernist principles, the honeycomb configuration of high-rise apartments was intended as a haven for the Dutch middle class. Middle-income earners were expected to flock to populate the Zuidoost, enjoying the success of totally designed city-space. The plan was quickly considered a failure by its architects, though, when instead of the affluent, white and propertied, predominantly black Surinamese and low-income white residents made home there. Lead architect Siegfried Nassuth walked out on the Bijlmermeer before completion, abandoning his office without so much as a goodbye.2 To him, the city was a project. The residents? They were still waiting for roads, infrastructure, promises to materialise. There is much to say about the Bijlmermeer, but that a new cityscape could be declared a failure while housing thousands of occupants, that home-building can be picked up and dropped at the whims of architects and investors, indicates the reality of the city-as-setting. It becomes scenography, artificially developed to accommodate a certain kind of story. Clearly, the Bijlmermeer told the wrong one.

Thanks to a toxic combination of housing-as-asset and the seduction of the 3D rendering, today’s cities quite blatantly operate at a scenographic level. Residential development is dominated by aesthetics reminiscent of gaming and by time-lapse videography, while streets are littered with over-saturated manipulations and projections. As construction work takes place, the literal images wrapped around sites of activity act as stand-ins for the built environment: hoardings describe the city whilst also comprising it. They offer a series of convincing depictions of sustainability, economic growth, open fireplaces and Martinis, screaming of ‘lifestyle’, unsurprisingly appealing in times of crisis. False narratives become aspirational ones. Once completed, these new buildings will still function predominantly as image: inaccessible to the majority thanks to astronomical prices or their purchase as private investments,3 interaction is limited to merely passing the facades. The city and its imagery collapse into a tiresomely familiar and dutifully accepted backdrop: not so much an accessible home as an artificial scene.

City Tales

City development, then, relies totally on invention: both of territory and image. Since invention is the domain of storytelling, the city’s narrative is exposed as fiction. The majority of new and regenerated zones don’t accommodate existing communities, nor do they reflect realistic lifestyles. Rather they propel an “architectural aesthetic where form does not reflect function, but… is the shoddy attempt to fiction it.”4 Property intended largely for speculation, investment and short-term rental,5 as well as that which intends to draw only the mythically enormous upper-middle new-monied classes to an area, must tell a cover-up story, masquerading as housing needed by the city. As with all fictions, this requires a suspension of disbelief. The optimistic writing of old harbours into dazzling penthouse suites in Rotterdam, or vacant corporate plots into geometric campuses in Hoofddorp, does not, through representation nor brute force, constitute a new reality. Inhabitants are not magically conjured, and the property ladder is not generously lowered to low-income tenants. But still the bullish transformation of the city continues. “The constant reiteration of architecture multiplies its sense of reality”6; the fiction gains credibility through its own repetition.

This credibility is bolstered by marketing. “A place has truth based not just on the facts of its existence, but also on the things believed to be true about it. Making place is not just about physical creation and destruction; it is also about observation, narrative, association, and ritual.”7 Promotional material for city housing frequently employs a tactic of naturalisation. Developments are presented as organic answers to questions of city living, either as historically inevitable conclusions, or as ecologically necessary phenomena, growing right out of the pavement.

This is particularly problematic in the Dutch context, where much city regeneration occurs on grounds once used – directly or indirectly – in the establishment and perpetuation of slave trading and the colonisation of the West and East Indies. See the following:8

NDSM’s De Werf is proud of its “tough history, hip future”. Meanwhile in Houthavens, what “was once one of the most important trading ports in the world… is being transformed into…a place where peace prevails”. Living in WEST507, in “a beautiful section of the old city, which survived the 1940 bombardment of Rotterdam…makes you a successor to countless other users who have used and changed this epic building, making it what it is today,” while in new neighbourhood the Asscherkwartier, “the past” quite simply “meets the future”. The list continues, and as it does so, the fiction of the city is given credence by anchoring it in an apparently historical relevance, not to be questioned. Of course this shipyard was going to end up hosting €480,000 apartments… that’s just the way history runs. As for green-washing, capitalism is savvy enough to repackage what is ultimately sensible high-density living, privatise it, and sell it on as though it were a ground-breaking discovery. Take Amsterdam’s Valley development as the epitome; apparently “a new form of city living where the best of both worlds come together: city life and the natural environment.” With the tagline “the evolution of city life”, it asks: “where does the building end and nature start?” Some of these developers seem to believe they invented the outdoors themselves.

These stories of the locale do not strain to produce the locale. They are stories, after all. They are less invested in accommodating local communities and contributing to a social history of place, and more in fabricating distractions from the dry number-crunching of investing, the dismal mapping of overheated markets, and the enormous under-delivery of social housing. Green and historic tales are much more grand and seductive than ones of feuds over planning permission and housing benefits. Developers must assert fictions of beautiful histories and inevitable futures with alarming conviction since the property market, just like the financial one, relies on confidence.

City Players

So if the cityscape is the setting for a fiction, who are the characters that grace it? Clues emerge around the mid-70s, as urban development becomes a major site of investment. Described in the New York Times in 1975, protests in Amsterdam’s centre demanded protection for housing in the Nieuwmarkt area after demolition was planned to make way for a new metro station.

The article itself exposes the loci of city power; its language hands over almost all agency to the city. Buildings, districts and rents are the actors; they are ‘celebrating’, ’graceful’, ‘soaring’, ‘driving’, ‘twisting’, ‘struggling’. The residents are left only to ‘bitterly resist’, ‘complain’, ‘occupy’, ‘refuse’ and ‘argue’. The city enjoys the role of protagonist while local people are only given capacity to react.

There is something particularly violent about destroying homes to make way for transport. Although not entirely unproblematic, the domestic dwelling should, in theory, stand for rootedness and belonging, but here is subordinated to a constant to-and-fro. Fast forward 45 years and the city’s animation has only increased. Take the north of Amsterdam, for example. Described by ‘designer rentals’ complex NorthOrleans, it’s “a neighbourhood with ambition. A plucky character with the city in its sights… the trailblazing younger sibling of Amsterdam with its own edgy style and authenticity.” It’s declared as sleeping, waiting to be “awoken” by the new metro line.9 Or see the Sluishuis, a new development in the east which, according to its architect Bjarke Ingels, is “born of the same DNA” as Amsterdam. “Towards the city, the courtyard building kneels down...”10 Winy Maas, co-founder of MVRDV, injects the Zuidas’ Valley with more disturbing anthropomorphism, claiming the central atrium as “the beating heart of the building,” whose “human facade… loves the Zuidas... it’s insane”.11 Two more of the firm’s buildings, Salt and Pepper, will open in the west this year, one a “stocky… chunk of experience and emotion”, the other “organised”, “elegant” and “aristocratic”.

Humanisation of buildings is certainly not new, but nor is it simply a boring marketing strategy. As residents are further dehumanised, displaced and reduced to income criteria and social security numbers, it is an alarming indicator of who the city’s main players really are. ‘Housing’ gains personality, while real living beings are plunged deeper into a housing crisis. No longer widely regulated and administered by unglamorous municipalities, ‘housing’ has a life of its own. ‘Housing’ is imaginative, hip and adventurous. It’s sexy, desirable, alive. Smart systems lock their own doors, control their own heating, decide when the lights go out. Almost unrecognisable from its premise as a basic human need, city housing has been catapulted into something lusty and powerful, its traditional cornerstones – safety, comfort, rest – no longer guiding the conversation. “Generic buildings are reproduced with such indifference towards our needs, so out of proportion to our individual bodies and collective assemblages, that we cannot help but understand them as alien and invasive, a species without predators in what was once our domain. Their axis of emergence seems… to intersect less and less with the axis on which humans develop.”12 ‘Housing’ is given the same frightening agency as the market.

Alternate Endings

In this ever-changing city that I (for now) call home, I notice more and more that conversation among friends revolves predominantly around questions of living. How long will you stay here? Will you move back to your hometown? I hear Rotterdam is still just about affordable… We’ll never be able to buy, right? Maybe we could find an old place on the outskirts and do it up… Hanging on question marks, city life becomes dominated by imaginary moments, unattainable wishes, and unrealistic proposals. Exhaustingly, one eye must sit constantly on an uncertain future.

It’s abundantly clear that global financial capitalism employs the city to accommodate flights of capital and lines of profit, rather than to welcome, nurture, and house. Pillars created for human use of the city – housing, transport, infrastructure – become sites where people service the city. Cleaners, delivery drivers, pavers, refuse workers, hospitality and sales assistants – masses of ordinary people – furnish the city with their labour but, at the end of the working day, are not afforded the capacity to live in it.

The city’s story, then, is evidently an alienating one, but this can be challenged with a rejection of “the disappearance of the material world behind language”.13 Despite shiny, swooping skylines, “[capitalism] is a system whose strongest production is the production of the image of its own productivity.”14 In reality, as more and more buildings sit empty, and more and more people are left without suitable homes, it’s clear that the city cannot continue on its current trajectory. It needs recovering from its shroud of PR and narrative of speculation. The city-as-image, however believable, is not the city. Buildings, however personified, are not agents, but are dead, gold bricks.15 Their static-ness lets them down. That there is ‘no room’, ‘no money’, ‘no potential’ for decent, affordable, social housing – the very narratives that are used to justify the city – these are constructions, too. This is not to say that city living doesn’t have real, material, atrocious repercussions, but that their inevitability must be brought into question.

Since relations of ownership necessitate correlations of lack, the marketisation of housing - the logic of private property - will always face opposition, and this opposition can overwrite the current narrative. Cities can be reshaped by their inhabitants. Buildings can be reappropriated, redistributed. Housing can be repopulated and socialised. All the real estate jargon in the world couldn’t summon life from a building, and all the alienation in the world couldn’t eradicate the vitality of the people. An anti-capitalist narrative might seem abstract at first, but when the city is understood as already a bubbling pot of images, abstractions and fictions, one that billions of people tangibly exist in each day, the idea of constructing a new story becomes less out of reach. I know which one I’d prefer.

***

Harriet Foyster is an artist, writer and editor based in Amsterdam, NL. She combines quotidian observation and feeling with historical and theoretical research to study ways that material circumstance and ideology converge to construct, reinforce and perpetuate behaviours that strengthen neoliberal agendas. Realised through moving image, installation, textual college, essay and performance, her work tries to grasp the centrality of capitalist logic in the production of contemporary subjectivity.

Footnotes

  1. Future Cities, We Make the City, link ↩︎
  2. Katie Mingle, Bijlmer: City of the Future (Part I), 99% Invisible Podcast, link ↩︎
  3. “Thanks to strong demand from both domestic and international investors, residential became the biggest real estate investment class in the Netherlands in 2018”: Bouwinvest Dutch Real Estate Market Outlook, 2020-2022, link ↩︎
  4. John Russell, Abysmal Plan: Waiting Until We Die and Radically Accelerated Repetitionism, e-flux, link ↩︎
  5. Last year, Airbnb had some 20,000 hosts in Amsterdam alone
    (Senay Boztas, Buyer beware: Amsterdam seeks to ban buy-to-let on newbuild homes, The Guardian, link ↩︎
  6. Sam Jacob, Make it Real: Architecture as Enactment, Strelka Press. ↩︎
  7. B.D Wortham-Galvin, Mythologies of Placemaking, Places Journal, link ↩︎
  8. Oostenburg promotional website, link ↩︎
  9. Amsterdam: A Short History, ARCAM, link ↩︎
  10. Sluishuis, Archello, link ↩︎
  11. Episode 2: The Architect, The Valley Documentary, link ↩︎
  12. Gean Moreno, Notes on the Inorganic, Part II: Terminal Velocity, e-flux,
    link ↩︎
  13. Chandra Mukerji, Territorial Ambitions and the Gardens of Versailles, Cambridge University Press ↩︎
  14. John Russel, ibid ↩︎
  15. ‘The essence of capitalism is to turn nature into commodities and commodities into capital. The live green earth is transformed into dead gold bricks, with luxury items for the few and toxic slag heaps for the many.’ – Michael Parenti, Against Empire, City Lights Books ↩︎

Photo credits (from top to bottom)

  • Image 1. Haarlemmerstraat, Amsterdam, May 2020. Photo by the author.
  • Image 2. Oosterdokseiland, Amsterdam. Video, link.
  • Image 3. Google Street View. Print screen.
  • Images 4-5. Promotional imagery. Image renderings by the architects.
  • Image 6. Oostenburg real estate project website. Print screen, link.
  • Image 7. Rotterdam. Photo by the author.
  • Image 8. ‘Banging your head against a wall’. Photo by Samia Malik.
  • Image 9. ‘Housing Demolition for Amsterdam Subway Stirs Opposition’, in The New York Times, Sunday April 20th, 1975.
  • Image 10. MVRDV architecture studio landing page. Print screen, link.
  • Image 11. Pontsteiger, Amsterdam. Image renderings by the architect.