Some Issues Concerning the Foundation of Cities
Reprinted from: Architecture & Urbanism magazine, No. 62-63, October 2001, Tehran
The hegemony of two urban foci, governmental compounds and religious institutions, is ubiquitous in ancient cities. Around these two foci, which determined their configuration, we see people living and toiling in inappropriate environments and with little say in the matter. This is also reflected in the history of architecture and urban planning, which distinguishes between major architecture, meaning governmental complexes, and minor architecture, that is the indigenous, spontaneous architecture of the people, which was often built with scarce means and with short-lived materials and equipment. Thus, alongside these two main urban foci, which coexisted in apparent peace and union for gubernatorial reasons, we see many people rambling in search of a daily livelihood, while denied the right of taking any initiative or expressing any opinion in this regard.
In these cities, the rulers had the last word, and the people could only follow ideas they often found quite useless, and so went on living close-mouthed and frustrated. This has been the case almost everywhere in the world, as is well reflected in numerous literary works.
The contemporary world alter these relations to some extent. Within the modern social context, the concept of the city gives birth to modern spaces. In other words, modern urban spaces cannot come into being apart from adequate social conditions. With the emergence of modern social, economic and technological ideas, relations within the cities also change and the citizens' right of expressing their opinion on the conception of their environments comes to the fore. The value of labor and the presence of life take shape in that period's newborn social justice and the right to adequate living conditions within human communities take a different meaning. In the contemporary world, people understand more and this awareness creates new spaces, in which the individuals acquire greater economic and spiritual comfort. Modern cities are inseparable from the concepts of citizenship and civic society, and, although they may lack the outstanding beauties of ancient cities, this progress with their past conditions and spaces.
A city based on social concepts and modern labor production raises the problem of zoning, where living and working areas are separated, to the detriment of historic landmarks in new urban sectors. Residential areas far from crowded, polluted production sectors take shape, but the abruptness of this separation does not appear appropriate either, which calls for new ideals, concepts and theoretical bases to be discussed.
Along this conceptual development, since ancient times to the middle age, the Renaissance, the Period of Enlightenment, and the modern era, we have witnessed many urban theories, which have acquired a different from today. Descartes believed that urban design should be ruled by a logical and geometric reasoning, and thus somehow proposed a regular grid of the Greek and Roman type, which he considered a distinctive achievement of man's ingeniousness.
In the 19th century, the scientific and technological developments of the Industrial Revolution, in conjunction with the time's progressive ideas, already evoke present-day urban spaces, although mechanical means of transportation and such other scientific devices as automobiles, electricity, etc. have yet to come into existence.
The revolutionary process of mechanization of the 19th century has opened new fields of action, automation has entered our cities, speed has become a foremost priority, and immense rifts accompanying the survival of the megalopolis divides it into different zones and districts.
Today's city is one of sophisticated mechanical devices and electronic communications, the frantic pace, of which leaves no one untouched, because its turmoil encompasses all social strata.
Crowded, bustling modern and post-modern cities, even if they distance themselves from the nostalgic images of the past, allow everyone to manifest themselves, and the diversity of events that happen in them creates new grounds that have forcibly shattered the idea of ruling foci and relegated them to the realm of fantastic tales.
This diversity, confrontation and explosion necessarily imply new social rights. Important cities, where large-scale production takes place and a bustling life goes on, exert a powerful magnetic attraction upon all individuals of all works of life. Small towns and villages become empty, with everyone rushing toward these overcrowded cities in search of a job, a higher income, a better life; perhaps eventually acquiring a new relative freedom and a wider range of action by forgoing their individuality amid the multitude of faces and streets. The liberty of operations in megalopolises can undoubtedly have the taste of freedom and make them appear as launching pads for new ideas in comparison with the atmosphere of villages.
Cities are transformed into megalopolises and then into capitals with ten million inhabitants to which haste, money and pollution soon give the real visage of present-day cities. People are no more obliged to commute between their homes and workplaces, and are in constant contact with each other through instant information, electronic communication devices, fax machines, email, visual document exchanges, etc. We have come a long way since the time of the modernistic zoning concept. Leon Krier now advocates a reservation to streets and neighborhoods. He considers the urban nuclei of our megalopolises as complete, self-sufficient units, whose models are ideally suited to urban neighborhoods. Aldo Rossi, whose rationalistic and classic views are similar to Krier's, believes that the quality of the city depends on the quality of its streets and square, and that a model city is an agglomeration of harmonious buildings created around one another and forming social gathering spaces. Jane Jacobs also considers the street as one of the most important urban constituent elements, which gives priority to the quality of life in the neighborhoods.
Yet, all the cities of the world have problems and particularities of their own, which cannot be identified and recorded in terms of a model inspired solely from theoretical fundaments. Therefore, many a present-day social project lacking contextual linkage has had to be reconsidered in terms of its shortcomings. In fact, in cities, issues and socio-cultural factors are as diverse as towns configurations and development regarding land, environment or culture. In other terms, we a re a reflection of the image of the environment and, in fact, every citizen has associations with some part of the city, which image is soaked in memories and meanings. In reality, moving actions of people, activities, the pace of circulation, and human exchanges are as important as physical parts, buildings, streets or squares. An urban path, or pattern, finds its true meaning through the atmosphere of freedom, liberty and tolerance, which runs between the city's spaces.
For example, by its flow across Paris, the Seine divides this city into left and right banks, to which its inhabitants are very attached in their everyday lives and conversations. And each of its districts (quartiers) bears a particular identity, whose distinctive cultural wealth adds to the brilliance of Paris. Geneva, whose population has remained unchanged at 350,000 for more than 40 years, follows a circular pattern in its layout, radical accesses being assured by several bridges, and pedestrian movement being given entire priority in all the structures. In Morocco, the presence of palm groves has created a green belt next to the Casbah and the old Medinah, which, as in many Islamic countries, has become bifocal, with the so-called modern, anonymous city separated from the old town by a boundary, in which the local municipality carefully supervises the buildings' colors, forms and heights.
In Jakarta and Surabaya, the explosive sprawl of kampungs, i.e., popular villages, has resulted in an unwanted central crowding, from which all adjoining streets and avenues have been forcibly inspired, while the historic presence of the kampungs dating back to the past centuries, still play their role, albeit in a different guise, in today's Indonesian cities.
In Berlin, after the downfall of the wall of shame and the reunion of the city's eastern and western parts, some 12 years ago, the Postdamerplatz, which is perhaps the liveliest area for people and the youth of gather, has become an arena of confrontation between these two forces, across the trace of the invisible barrier of a wall that divided them for 40 years, for political reasons. This movement in Berlin is not without reason, for the world's greatest architects and urban planners, such as Libeskind, Renzo Piano, Norman Foster, Venturi, Isozaki, Helmut Jahn and others, have actively contributed to the design and conception of its urban areas and buildings as an international database of history. And finally, other cities in the world each have their own configurations and memories, and each one's particularity lies in the components and factors of its own culture and environment.
In philosophical and social terms, the meaning of a city lies in the quality of its human interactions. We are in the heart of complex diverse factors and interdisciplinary entities which will constitute the final formal space and the air we breathe, creating urban synthesis through esoteric diverse actions and spontaneous attitudes of the wider path frame of environment. A city is a place, where people can express their views and debate events, where problems are discussed and human civilization is enhanced.
Where do we stand and how do we see the future? Is the future built upon the past, or can it have an independent present-day identity? In Iran, we may praise the rational urban system of Safavid Isfahan, the well-adapted desert vernacular architecture of Yazd, or the unique mud architecture of Abyaneh, Massouleh, etc.; yet, where do really stand today? And where did we stop on our path towards creating well-adapted cities?
As a contemporary example of uncontrolled development and savage growth, what kind of a city is Tehran? A city with 12 million inhabitants, in which all kinds of events occur, where haste and pollution are compounded by an ever-increasing car production, a wholesale destruction of green areas and gardens, a frantic population rushing to reach a second or third daily job, aggressiveness and exasperation resulting from life pressures, and alienation of individuals with one another; but also as a counterpart of a semi-promiscuity and perhaps paradoxically, where a new experience of expressing one's opinions, attitudes and aspirations, of a tentative democracy, is taking place.
How is future urban planning determined in Iran and what are its particularities? In new cities and human agglomerations, perhaps following Rem Koolhaas' revolutionary theory embodied in his declaration on the generic city, every cause and action brings into being something new and the infinite multitude of unexpected causes eventually gives it its shape...