Biblio (108) Journal of Urban Cultural Studies

What can a new scientific magazine on urban matters deliver these days? Sure, only time can tell, but it seems good to have new forums. Urban Cultural Studies appear as a vision of a dialogue between art and society, with a large array of associated disciplines, from architecture to video games. For some, this would be the typical scheme developed in an American University that, despite having placed itself under the banner of a “Marxist saint” (Henri Lefebvre) would only be, in the end, another product of consumerism, and a niche one. i.e., a University with a certain prestige must propose any kind of product, as a cable provider would deliver Kim Kardashian and “Mad Men”.

But I think such a vision is far from fair, and reductionist. If you remember the previous “biblio” on the need to make urban planning cool again by giving is practitioners a clearer idea of the implications it has on society as whole, beyond the mere economic calculations, this initiative is interesting. Following the blog of its director, Benjamin Fraser, you can see there could be something there. Besides, no excuse to read the first issue, as it can be freely consulted (that’s understating the current cultural paradigm…).

Biblio (107) Why we need cool town planning (according to The Guardian)

Biblio 107

Here is an article published on November 10 on The Guardian, by Tom Campbell, the author of a recent fiction, “The planner”, about a young planner in London (which confirms that these days people write about just anything…).

The author describes in the article, from an English context, a sad divorce between architecture students that are often mocked for an imagination that is more mad than open-minded and planning students that are absurdly fed with regulations, with no larger vision whatsoever of the larger implications of their work for the society in which they live. The vision conveyed by the British government of planning as a set of bureaucratic limitations to growth is certainly not of help. The article presents two initiatives trying to change this situation: “Building Rights” and “Novus”.

Sure, he writes about Britain. This sad situation doesn’t happen in other countries…

Biblio (104) A book on the Chile National Urban Planning Award

Premio Nacional de Urbanismo Chile

I’m fully aware I’ve just written about this same subject just a few days ago; here it is about a monograph on the recipients of the award since the first edition. As I mentioned, this award has been clearly irregular along time. An award first attributed in Chile in 1971 and kept in hold until 1996 is as if it was first attributed in England in 1978 to have a second edition in 1998; sometimes the debate about ideas is transposed to the political landscape in such a way as to make some matters irrelevant for a time.

I have no reason to doubt of the interest for the Chilean nation of the works of each award recipient, but I will focus on the highlighted works; the first time it was a social housing project, the second one a metropolitan and infrastructure planning experience, and the following ones integrate increasingly sustainable development and public participation.

On awards (3) Aga Khan Awards for Architecture

Appartments in Tehran, candidate project to the 2013 cycle

I once heard a sentence from an Architecture historian on how difficult it was to define architectural modernity from an Islamic or Arabic viewpoint (I know both terms represent different things, but for what he meant any of them could be used). He said it was still open to debate how an Islamic or Arabic rail station should look like.

In 1977 the Aga Khan, supreme religious leader of the Ismailites, set up an architectural award for projects that could deliver positive results for Islamic societies. The Aga Khan as a character is far from current western stereotypes: he is a monarch without land, spiritual leader for a part of the Islam, living in the west. The aesthetics awarded in this case are quite far from tradition; however, it would be difficult to say what tradition is, as the Islamic world encompasses such a wide array of territories and peoples, with the subsequent array of architectural traditions.

The award is held every three years, and the last edition was that of 2013. The list of awarded architects is not restricted to Muslims, taking into account the names, sometimes well known in the west. There is an Islamic cemetery in the Austrian Alps, a road and public transit project in Rabat- Salé (Morocco), a rehabilitation in Tabriz (Iran), interventions on an historical  city core in Palestine and a heart surgery clinic in Khartoum (Sudan).

I have followed for some years (from a distance…) the results of the awards, and noticed that they encompass a wide geographical variety, addressing contemporary architectural models, without a pre-defined aesthetical framework. I could even say that they seem quality architectures, although I do not know the places in which they sit; and Salé (Morocco) is not Salem (Massachussetts).

In fact I still wonder why an Arab or Islamic rail station should be that different from an European or Christian one… as the later are quite diverse. The idea of a culture that is not a general frame of reference, but rather a rigid set of rules, has always seemed difficult to me.

Biblio (103) CABE

biblio 103-cabe

The last general election in Britain in 2011 brought a wave of public spending reduction in many fields. Among these reductions the Council for Architecture and the Built Environment was considered redundant; it published good examples of design reviews concerning urban planning and architecture. Thank god, the National Archives keep a link to the contents of the old site.

Maps 2014 (35) Ebstorf map

The Erbstorf map, as seen on

A map can tell you so many things, either through geometry or through ideology; here is an example of the second approach. Created during the middle ages in a German Covent and found in 1830, it is some 3,5 m long with some 30 pages of parchment, with Jerusalem in its center.

Biblio (98) Landscape and economics

Biblio 98 paisaje italia economia

According to the European Landscape Convention, landscape is “an area, as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors”. The convention mentions the links between economics and landscape, but the fact is that its implementation has often been more oriented towards environmental and perceptive issues, in part due to the difficulties to quantify and relate the multiple actions on landscapes with a concrete impact of each action overall. There are methods to compute the Gross Domestic Product, but it is complex to evaluate the worth of a landscape in a given configuration and by itself (and not just as a simple addition of the value of the present activities), which would be needed to evaluate the impact of a given project.

Sure, you can say that a sustainable development must focus on all three dimensions (social, environmental and economic), and that economic calculation by no means guarantees a better policy or a coherent portrayal of reality. You can even say that creating an algorithm is just a way to have people tamper it to their own benefit.

Despite all that, some have gone down that way. Tiziano Tempesta evaluates the Italian case: “the landscape policies in Italy are currently essentially based on landscape transformation control and on the payment of subsidies to farmers. Since the landscape policies have a cost for citizens, in both cases it is necessary to evaluate the benefits coming from public intervention”.  There are no definitive conclusions, or magic algorithms, but some interesting thoughts on the matter.

Things I saw while on break

The Danube near Vienna, as seen from Khalenberg Hill

The Danube near Vienna, as seen from Khalenberg Hill

For those that have followed this blog during the last years, here is the proof it has not disappeared. Just a small fraction of that time was a break (most of it was quite the opposite…), but it was worth it.

During that time I have seen and thought about some interesting things, either on travel or through other means. Here are some, which can be viewed as a thematic layout of future posts:

  • Vienna: I had never visited Austria. After a recent trip to Germany I was curious to see the other big Germanic country, not so much (or rather no only) for its past as an old empire that imploded almost overnight in 1918, but more as a country in which I thought an interesting version of modernity was happening. The trip has indeed been interesting. My knowledge of German is schematic, and if I told you I have grasped the soul of the country after just a few days you would (for a good reason) think I’m just bragging; but some things have seemed interesting.
  • The evolution of the idea of sustainable development (or its weakening under some points of view). The quarrels surrounding the ministerial reorganization in France during this summer have made me remember news read during the recent municipal and European elections there. Among the promises made by local candidates of the National Front in many cities were the ones about letting again access the city core by car without restrictions, reversing policies adopted years ago to try to reduce pollution and conserve the old cities qualities. The National Front is a particularity in the French political system, but its rise is fuelled by their ability to grasp subjects that galvanize citizens. They raised that idea in many cities, but not in Paris and Lyon, where things cannot be so simplified. On the other hand, Nicolas Sarkozy, the former President, who instituted a Ministry for Durable Development, said in 2011 during a visit to the Agricultural Convention of Paris “the environment, it is becoming a bit too much”. On the other side, the relations between socialists and ecologists in France are far from easy (hence the initial mention to the French politics of this summer). The evolution over time of the UK policies on that matter has also been controversial there. Many in Europe will think that this is just peanuts compared to the American scene, forgetting the fact that there the scene is also mixed, as you just have to compare Republicans in the Congress (denial of climate change) to Schwarzeneger or Bloomberg (climate change policies) to see what I talk about. Are we witnessing the end of sustainable development as a somehow blind faith (believing in something presented as good, even if not understood by many that feel it just brings costs or even nuisance to their way of life) that can be used by politicians and marketers alike, to see a more critical conscience emerge, or else? Therein lies the rump….
  • A new rise in the social demand for rules, not as a defence of some economic interests, but of other matters lied to the idea of common good. These days there have been demonstrations in Barcelona against the growing presence of tourists renting apartments in an informal way in the Barceloneta area; they use what to some is a reduced booze price and a perceived image of Spain as a permissive country to behave in ways that perhaps could be subject to prosecution in their own countries. Sure, hotel owners have used that to talk about unlawful competition (a bit like taxi drivers revolts against Uber), but the neighbours asked here for quite simple things: the right to sleep without noise, or to move around their city without seeing gross scenes. I have read on today’s Washington Post a quite similar news concerning Ocean City, Maryland. The fear of squadrons of youth looking for booze and party, ruining the calm of a neighbourhood by renting homes piecemeal has also surfaced, and is also criticized by those saying that as the city lives from tourism, this must be endured. So Barceloneta (a popular neighbourhood with high density) is on the same wavelength as Ocean City (apparently a richer, lower density area). Some will present this as a case of NIMBY (Not In My BackYard), a resistance to accept externalities related to the inherent complexity of cities. But this seems something more, a symptom of a general evolution of the idea of what can be or not accepted in a society.
  • I have also seen interesting physical landscapes

Biblio (93) National Urban Development Policy, Chile

biblio 93- politica urbana chile

This year the new Chilean national policy on urban development has been enacted. As it has been approved under the now former president Sebastian Piñera, its effective application remains to be seen, but it is anyway an interesting document to understand the country.

As in many Latin American countries, since the 1980s there has been a relevant economic growth with effects for all the population, even if Chile still has clear inequalities. Current urban problems come largely from urban management decisions taken in a rush to solve urgent issues, without enough reflection, something that can hardly be confined to that country. There are positive signs in terms of sustainable development, as the growing share of multilevel housing and the contention of sprawl. But environmental protection and heritage conservation are in trouble, and housing remains, despite all the clear improvements, a challenge, with a deficit of about half a million dwellings in a country of some 17 million residents. Let’s not forget that in 2015 the goal of 100% sewage waters treatment could be achieved, not a small feat for any country.

You can choose the Spanish language version or the English language version