Urban Ecology & Man-Made Disaster in Shimokitazawa

October 24, 2008

Published in 10+1 magazine, Tokyo in December 15, 2006


Night Shot of Shimokitazawa. Narrow street and dense activity.

Shimokitazawa was preserved from destruction and redevelopment throughout the war right up to our days. As a result the town developed incrementally along its narrow streets retaining a village feel that contributed to making it one of Tokyo’s most popular neighborhoods. Shimokitazawa represents an alternative urban model characterized by low rise buildings, pedestrian space, bustling ground-level market activity, and tight social networks. This model is however challenged by a master plan of the Municipality of Setagaya envisioning a brave new world for Shimokitazawa. The official design is reminiscent of the global generic urbanism predominating in other parts of Tokyo, spreading to many cities around the world. Residents have responded by proposing alternatives to what we might call the “Ikebukurization” of Shimokitazawa, referring to Ikebukuro, one of Tokyo’s standardized, modern neighbourhoods

The case of Shimokitazawa illustrates the classic collision between two models of urbanization which do not have to be mutually exclusive: bottom-up development and top down planning. Emergent megacities in particular, are particularly affected by the increasingly aggressive development agenda of urban governments and the corporate world. Extremely fast economic growth and skyrocketing real estate value in Shanghai and Mumbai, for instance, are putting enormous pressure on the urban heritage. It is said that no historical neighborhood remains at the center of Shanghai. In Mumbai dreams of modernity are filled with high-rise buildings, and vernacular architecture is disregarded as an expression of backwardness. First world megacities such as New York, Paris and London however, have for long acknowledged the value of urban landmarks which has resulted in extensive historic preservation. Japan traditionally puts much less value on its urban heritage, prefering the new to the old. Historical preservation, however is not as much about architecture as it is about culture.   Indeed, Shimokitazawa is a cultural landmark. It is a complex urban ecosystem where physical form and culture merge producing unique urban patterns. These patterns develop over time; they cannot be designed from scratch, but can be easily destroyed. What is sometimes described as urban mess and incoherence in Shimokitazawa, is actually an alternative order that should be recognized, respected, preserved and nurtured. In one of her most famous quote, Jane Jacobs states that there “is a quality meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.” What is true for urban ghettos is also true for grown up neighborhoods like Shimokitazawa.


Urban mess and incoherence or alternative order?

The urbanism of Shimokitazawa characterized by narrow pedestrian streets and dense commercial activity, gives the area a deep Tokyo feel. Newcomers, attracted by the relaxed character and communal atmosphere of Shimokitazawa, live alongside old-timers who have seen the neighborhood change throughout the years. In an interview recorded by Save the Shimokitazawa, a community group opposing the master plan, an African shop owner explains that what attracted him to Shimokitazawa was a feeling of “old-Japan” which he did not encounter in any other part of Tokyo. In Shimokitazawa the future meets the past.  Shimokitazawa is an urban experience and a space of cultural expression enjoyed by a colorful crowd from Tokyo and the rest of the world. Countless speciality shops, restaurants and bars animate the area day and night. It is the favorite destination of sophisticated vintage shoppers, record collectors, musicians, artists, students, freelancers, lovers, and other creative types. The “Shimokitazawa experience” is a lifestyle rather than a fashion-style. Indeed the area has served as an “incubator” for many Japanese artists and musicians. Its famous residents include the musicians Keiichi Sokabe, Hiroto Khomoto, Mayumi Kojima, the writers Sakutaro Hagiwara, Ango Sakaguchi, Riichi Yokomitsu (as well as prime minister Eisaku Yoshida, and minister Noboru Takeshita).


Street market the anti-department store.

Shimokitazawa is 7 minutes away by train from Shibuya and Shinjuku, two of the most important hubs in Tokyo. Everyday, hundreds of thousands of people commute through Shimokitazawa. Around the commercial core spread upper-middle class residential neighborhoods. Shimokitazawa has become a brand-name and a very hot real estate market. Therefore, some investors see great opportunity in the development of new department stores and luxury residential buildings. The master plan of the Municipality of Setagaya accommodates this vision. In the plan, the station is turned into a multi-stories high building hosting stores and restaurants, like in so many other parts of Tokyo. Odakyu also plans on depressing the Odakyu line [i], freeing much needed space at the surface. More controversially, a section of the 1946 “War damage revival plan” envisioning a 26-meter wide road (originally 20 meters) passing through the North of Shimokitazawa was resurrected and expended. This road project is known as Route 54. The original planner, Hideaki Hishikawa, would probably be stunned to know that the plan he drafted under the American post-war administration 60 years ago is now being implemented in a completely different context.

Planned Route 54: The global generic vision for Shimokitazawa.

So what is the rationale behind Route 54? The Government of Setagaya gives two reasons for digging this plan out of the grave: safety and traffic congestion. Firstly, they argue, in case of earthquake or fire, Route 54 would provide an emergency lane. It is however not clear why this suddenly became a priority for Shimokitazawa, when hundreds of neighborhoods throughout Tokyo are under the same threat. Nonetheless, an access for evacuation and emergency vehicles can hardly be argued against, but does it really need to be 26 meters wide? The second reason, traffic congestion, is even less credible. The Government claims that according to a study it conducted, Route 54 is needed to improve traffic flow. The study however is not available to the public and its conclusions have been contested by independent planning and transportation experts. In any case, the refusal of the Municipal Government to open the discussion with the concerned population has raised serious doubts about the real motives behind the plan. This lead many people to feel that the master plan is serving the interests of the real estate and construction lobby, more than these of the residents. Indeed, according to the ‘Building Standard Law’, the building height is relative to the width of the road along which it is built. Route 54 will authorize developers to build 60 meter high buildings, which is about 4 to 6 times higher than the average building height in Shimokitazawa at present.

The Master Plan of Setagaya-ku.

The issue is not only the plan, but also the whole planning process. Residents’ groups say that that Government has systematically refused to meet them. One of them, Save the Shimokitazawa (STSK), points out that although a few public hearings were organized, (as required by the law) they only served as a venue for the Government to present its plan without even answering the residents’ questions [ii].  The community groups that emerged as a result of the government plan initiated a series of public consultations, produced a series of alternative plans  and, in the process, innovated in the field of grassroots community participation. They sent letters, organized concerts, demonstrations, carnivals, candle light sittings, symposia, workshops, studios, and proposed alternative plans. STSK says that despite all their efforts, they were never heard by the mayor or any representative in Setagaya or Tokyo. Many urban experts and academics, including former senior members of the government, have said loud and clear that the Route 54 is not necessary and that it would be a cultural disaster for Tokyo[iii].

That doesn’t mean that Shimokitazawa should stop evolving. Quite on the contrary, to stay itself it has to adapt to the changing context of Tokyo. Even community groups strongly opposing the current master plan, recognize that things are not perfect as they are. The problem with the plan, they say, is that it does not actually acknowledge the community. They do not demand the status quo but rather a new plan involving the public. Shimokitazawa Forum, a resident group, distributed a questionnaire to thousands of residents. 81% of the respondents think that Setagaya-ku should have a roundtable with local people about the plan.   More than ten alternative plans were drafted by various constituencies. For instance, in 2005, a Harvard Graduate School of Design plan proposed to combine Route 54 with the Odakyu line being depressed. The road would be below ground and thus preserve the area above. This would cost tax payers much less than buying prime real estate above ground, and the Shimokitazawa would be preserved. But it would not satisfy the people set to benefit directly from the road project in the form of construction contracts, real estate deals, political donations and so on.


Youth culture meets tradition in Shimokitazawa.

The complete opacity of the planning process makes it difficult to grasp where exactly the decision-making power rests. In any case the ultimate responsibility for the master plan weights on the shoulders of the Mayor of Setagaya, who claims not to know much about the plan, which is, sadly, probably true. In all likelihood, the plan was drafted by the central planners of the Metropolitan Government of Tokyo and sent for formal approval to the Municipal Government of Setagaya, which has ultimate authority on it. Setagaya then had to request funding and approval from the Metropolitan Government, which it just received in October 2006. The construction cost will probably be shared by the National Government, the Metropolitan Government, and the Municipality. The Municipality started buying the land along Route 54, a process which is likely to take a few years, especially since some landowners have made clear that they will refuse to sell their estate to the government.  In plus of being opaque and unaccountable, it seems that both the Tokyo Government and the Setagaya Government are failing to fulfill their promises. In its 2025 Urban Development Plan the Metropolitan Government of Tokyo,  set as a goal “Greater transparency of the process by which decisions are made by having the administration be more accountable from the initial planning stage, employing PI [Public Involvement] -type methods, strengthening resident participation, and so on”[iii]. The Municipality of Setagaya too, states as one of its five main goals for its 10 year plan a “community that the city’s residents create”, through “cooperative community development”[vi]. Reality could not be further away from rhetoric.  In this grey landscape, the community groups represent a true source of hope. They have shown that residents can come together and think collectively about their urban environment. This stands in sharp contrast with the cynicism of political representatives and greed of the construction lobby. Recently for instance, two of the main community groups in Shimokitazawa, organized a design workshop called “Urban Typhoon” with the help of the University of Tokyo and students from various universities. It was attended by more than 130 participants from all over the world. Many ideas were generated and the material produced will be published as a book in the coming year. In Shimokitazawa, grassroots movements leads the way towards inclusive and responsible urban planning. It is time for urban authorities to recognize that involving residents is a great opportunity put collective intelligence at the service of planning.


The Urban Typhoon Workshop, which took place in June 2006 with more than 130 participants from all over the world.

[i]  http://www.metro.tokyo.jp/INET/OSHIRASE/2004/03/20e3n400.htm
[ii] Save the Shimokitazawa & Shimokitazawa Forum are two of the most active residents groups in Shimokitazawa.
[iii] Experts and academics who have denounced the master plan include Kei Minohara former official of the Planning Department of the Ministry of Construction, Masami Kobayashi, Professor of urban design at Meiji University and visiting Professor at Harvard University, Peter Rowe former Dean of the Graduate School of Design at Harvard.
[vi] http://www.toshiseibi.metro.tokyo.jp
[v] http://www.city.setagaya.tokyo.jp/topics/bunkoku/outline/plan.pdf

more info:

www.stsk.net
www.urbantyphoon.com
www.shimokitazawa-forum.net

The S… Word

We are all children of Mike Davis. The publication of his City of Quartz was an inspiring moment when we realized that we can and should talk about cities not just as architects and urbanists but also as engaged citizens, critics and activists, allowing ourselves to be confused by an urban experience of infinite depth. He introduced us to a perverted aesthetic where urban dreadfulness became attractive and fascinating. A camera on a street corner, a homeless-proof bench, defensive walls were all turned into iconic expressions of the paranoid urbanity of a city living in fear of itself.

The simple act of taking a picture of a surveillance camera and walking these supposedly dangerous streets came across as gesture of defiance, a direct engagement with the urban realm, and a kind of cure to the city’s neurosis. The idea that anyone can be an urbanist stayed on our minds . All we really need is to explore our environment, critically assess it and let our imagination drift. We don’t need to be urbanists to have ideas about space, what we need is a direct engagement.

Mike Davis’ intimate relationship with Los Angeles is what made City of Quartz a great read, and it is what is terribly lacking in his Planet of Slums, which at times reads more like a UN report than anything else. The intention was noble and the topic is obviously of critical relevance, but a direct form of engagement with the topic was missing. Not that Mike Davis never stepped in a slum before. No doubt he has many friends in many parts of the world. The problem was rather that he tried to say too much about slums, putting an enormously varied bunch of habitats in one very problematic and ill defined category. In fact slums around the world share little in common, apart from a vague definition born from the uncreative minds of bureaucrats and academics. According to the United Nation Task Force in Improving the Lives of Slum Dwellers, a slum is “a group of individuals living under the same roof lacking one or more of the following necessities: access to improved water, access to improved sanitation, sufficient living area, structural quality and durability of dwellings, and security of tenure.”

Oh my God, my Tokyo apartment is a slum!

This type of broad amalgamation and labeling opens the way to all kinds of man-made urban disasters. The well-intentioned UN Millennium project targets to “Have achieved by 2020 a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers.” How do you realistically make a difference on such a scale? Just to get an idea of the extent of the project, 100 million is anything between 100 and 200 Dharavi, which as a settlement definitively fits in the UN definition of a slum -although many of the residents do not conceive of it as such. 100 million is a third of the US population. How can you invent a program that can impact the living conditions of so many people at once?

Lets imagine a best case scenario; an UN officer’s dream: An enlightened new US president gets elected and says: “No more war, we will give instead all these billions to the UN so it can accomplish its target of improving the life of 100 million slum dwellers.” The UN officer smiles in his sleep and his dream flies to the near-by bedroom of a real-estate developer: Mass housing construction for 100 million people throughout the world. His smile is twice as large as that of the UN bureaucrat. What a project!


“I will make world-class townships and improve the lives of 100 million slum dwellers!…”

That would translate in the redevelopment of hundreds of thousands settlements throughout the world. And everyone would ride on a great feeling of social justice. Except that Redevelopment is not development. Development is what is happening all the time in so-called slums throughout the world and it is not just urban, but also economic, political, social and cultural. Redevelopment plans do much less for the concerned population and much more for private developers and financial institutions than is often believed. They actually often do more harm than good, especially large scale ones.

The main problem with large scale development projects, such as the Dharavi Redevelopment Project is that they usually have no consideration for the neighborhoods they are set to redevelop. After all, these are slums and slums can only be seen in negative terms. Most middle-class people sincerely conceive of slum as urban junk. And anyone pointing out to that the settlements in questions cannot be reduced to their depressed appearance, but are also complex economies with intricate social webs and vibrant cultural life, will immediately be called “romantic”. By the way, this generic “romantic” label put on anyone questioning the dominant logic of urban development ought to be the theme of a future post on this blog.

Moving people from their makeshift homes to a mass-produced concrete building won’t turn them into middle-class citizens by magic. If anything is truly “romantic” it is this crazy idea and conviction. Just as the idea that middle-class pity and paternalism will help the poor in any way. As our good friend Bhau, who was born in Dharavi and lived there his whole life, often reminds us:

“They say they will redevelop Dharavi, but look at what they’re doing! These high-rise buildings mushrooming all round us. Families who are given a flat are soon selling and leaving. They need money because they cannot continue with their livelihoods in these buildings. People living in these high-rises don’t know their neighbours anymore. This street activity will be gone. Where will my people go now? They say it is development but it’s just the opposite.”

So Mike, if by any chance you come across this blog and are reading these lines: We love you as a street-wise urban prophet, but not so much as a proxy UN reporter. The real-life vision and direct engagement that we liked so much in City of Quartz was missing from your Planet of Slums. Please stop reading statistics and come join us in Koliwada-Dharavi!

More on that theme here.

The Metabolic City


Satellite image of North Shimokitazawa, Tokyo

According to Kisho Kurokawa – a proponent of the metabolist architectural movement – “Western Culture…based on modernism, cannot be discussed without reference to its… [reliance on] dualism and binominal opposition … Dualism is the fundamental base of rationalism of the modern West. Spirit and form, freedom and necessity, good and evil, reaction and reform, art and science, intellect and emotion, humanity and nature, tradition and technology, capitalism and socialism, the individual and the whole…” (1998).

To this list of oppositions we can add city and village, modern and primitive, formal and informal, order and mess or “noise”, as Kurokawa calls it in reference to Edgar Morin’s theory of noise. According to Kurokawa, in Japan, order includes noise. This is why Japanese cities are so tolerant to those forms of urbanism that Western notions of planning and urban order would call “irrational”, “messy” or even “slummy”.

A city, says Kurokawa, “is also composed of complex and multilayered relations between an organized structure and the multivalent, heterogeneous elements that can be called noise. The city is always changing dynamically as it continually incorporates new elements. The open structure, or receptivity, is a special feature of the Japanese city and one it shares with other Asian cities.”

Japanese cities have largely evolved as unplanned habitats in a gradual, incremental manner, which blurred many of the dichotomies at the root of Western conceptions of urban planning, including those between urban and rural. Greater Tokyo was developed over the small patches of farm land surrounding the ancient capital of Edo. This “pattern gives continuity with the past, [it is a] kind of patchwork [that] is the main urban replacement of an agricultural … landscape” (Shelton 1999).


Mixed-used, unplanned and crowded streets in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo.

Observers of Tokyo have for long admired its fluidity, its capacity to constantly reinvent itself and its ability of multiplying, juxtaposing, and overlaying functions. The history of Tokyo’s urban development in the past century is mainly one of incremental and spontaneous development of the parts assembling to form a whole. Modernizers have for long attempted to “rationalize” Tokyo, but were ultimately unable to cope with the extremely rapid demographic and urban expansion.

What made this process quite distinctive (from other Asian urban histories) is that official policies did not dismiss the city’s organic evolution. The mixed-use habitats, the village like social foundations of the urban neighbourhoods and the low-rise high density landscape emerged as a default urban model. A model that was not seen as an ideal one by planners, but which also was not considered illegitimate. In fact the government engineered projects related to sewage, water supply, electricity and roads to reach every corner of these neighbourhoods through private agencies. These agencies had to negotiate labyrinthine inner roads and unexpected twists and turns, an inevitable feature of such habitats, but eventually succeeded with ingenious and innovative use of technological inputs.

The “metabolist” approach theorized by Kisho Kurokawa describes the city as a living organism, an evolving system that is being produced from the bottom up, rather than from the top down. Each part of the city has its functions and sense of locality, and it integrates the whole in its own terms. We believe that there is much to be learned from the Tokyo “default” model, especially at a time when emergent cities throughout the world – facing unprecedented rates of urbanization – are battling with the idea of “modern urban form”. Broadening their conception of what a city can be would be the single biggest step central planners, bureaucrats, and policy-makers could make in the direction of improving the life of slum dwellers in developing cities, since it would allow for more sensible planning interventions.


From a local commercial lane to a tiny community pathway. A fractal pattern that repeats itself all over Tokyo. Photos taken in Ikebukuro, seconds away from 4 lanes roads and high rise buildings.

The Construction of Capital

October 15, 2008

Almost all the analyses of the recent financial crisis, that started in the US but pretty much affects most of the world, lays the blame on the recklessness of financial institutions, miscalculation of value and the basic problems endemic to the act of speculation itself. Political critiques blame the US squarely for riding on a credit-based economy that asserted itself in the Reagan era and more or less set crazy standards for financial institutions everywhere.

Some even blame the emergence of stock market software and the spread of the web as a prime mover of financial opaqueness that eventually grew to monstrous proportions. You could shave profits off stock – markets situated across time zones calculated at fractions of seconds and make capital theoretically available for investment in any which way to anyone, anywhere in the world – for a price calculated on the cost of communication and not on concrete value.

However – at the end of the day you can’t really blame the logical extension of manipulating economic interests to its extreme, using technology or whatever, as long as the systems in place support the broad logic – of making profits. But sometimes, even in the toughest of capitalist skin, there is feeling. Especially if you find yourself hacking at the very branch that you are sitting on. That’s when it makes sense to say that the profit logic needs some qualification.

However, such a qualification should well apply to all dimensions of the game. If financial institutions need to become more transparent, if governments need to be a tad more intrusive, if credit has to become more sensibly priced then value too needs to be evaluated critically.

The heart of the problem does lie at the question of real value. We find it difficult to believe that most analysts skip over this issue or make fleeting mention before going back to blaming old demons – laissez faire on one hand and bad fiscal management by the state on the other – even though these may well be symptoms than the real causes.

The fact is that speculation around real – estate, as a specific mode of speculation and transforming value follows quite distinct rules. It is at once related to concrete, quantifiable assets as it is to asserting an abstract value around these assets by changing the terms of its supply and demand. In other words, you can always claim legitimacy for the act of construction even when there is no real market. You can simulate demand quite literally when none exists – based on a different kind of projected speculation – in the hope that people will keep exchanging, moving up, aspiring towards better lifestyles. That governments will always invest in improving infrastructure, so on and so forth. While this applies to all basic acts of consumption (and we can see the effects of this on other realms of our lives – environmental degradation, the expensive business of waste disposal), the specific way in which this happens in the realm of construction needs to be isolated.

The industry’s ability of evaluating terms based not on real needs but on an abstract sense of general needs is a special mode of simulating demand. We are told we need buildings, roads, infrastructure and homes. Since no one actually questions that – these general needs can be evoked to raise and justify investments and capital re-cycling without it tallying with the ground level needs in real terms. In an advanced economy such as the US – the crisis was triggered off by an over-supply that pushed down the value of mortgages making the interest rates redundant. What’s happening in China is slightly different. The building and construction industry has been investing in the name of abstract and general needs and borrowing heavily from a financial market that has lost its focus behind the frenzy of globalized speculation. But the effects will be more or less the same. A major crisis of credit.

The fact is that the construction industry has played a crucial but largely ignored and even invisible role in producing a fog around the idea of value, credit and financial investment while muddying the waters extensively on the ground.

In many parts of the world – housing has been framed as a need to be financed and supplied by construction companies with massive access to capital. Construction companies have built cities afresh or re-built and destroyed habitats without paying any attention to the way in which the configuration of real needs of people, their livelihoods, ability to pay have been factored in sensibly.

Yet – their role is never in the forefront of discussions and debates. Once more the world of built-form is relegated to being the stage in which dramas take place, the context in which life is lived, an invisible casing in which capitalism operates. In reality, built-forms, as Linda Clarke informs us in ‘Building Capitalism’ are themselves production sites. Cities are living financial worlds that produce, consume, exchange and re-arrange resources of labour, capital and the environment and have been doing that for centuries.
Its like discovering that the inanimate world of rocks are actually living breathing entities that wield a massive influence on people living in their proximity.

These world makers have always worked from behind the scenes – fully supported by the local kings, aristocratic lords or the religious elite.

Today, they are the hidden arbitrators of a certain kind of value that energizes one significant part of the market.

Its easy to blame specific acts of mismanagement, the ability of technology to create confusion or pass judgments on entire ideologies by completely ignoring this point. Something similar happened during the Cold-war. While the world was quibbling over grand narratives of capitalism and communism; builders, engineers, construction companies and architects flowed easily through iron curtains and concrete walls in the name of being neutral agents.

We are only building, creating, doing good – they would smile, we are not quite ideological.

Yet they had immense powers to channelize huge resources in the name of development and construction. In countries like India – they built massive cities in the name of modernization while most urban enclaves lost their traditional skills and legitimate rights to make their own homes to eventually get transformed into degraded infrastructure deprived environments, quickly labeled slums.

In rich countries, their ability of creating general needs – redefining what makes modern lifestyles and spawning a whole new industry by creating and destroying habitats ensured that they constantly borrowed, made profits and moved on to new territories. Their economies were elegantly constructed on building and borrowing.

Eventually – when simple laws of economics kicked into place – when supply over stripped demand in some quarters, it tripped the whole system.

Unfortunately there is enough reason to believe that they will get away scot-free once again – while regimes will contain and control and regulate the market in other ways.

Genève : Learning from a Postcard City (a view from India)

October 12, 2008

Published in October 2008 issue of Indian Architect & Builder


A view of Geneva.

In the global imagination, Switzerland often represents an ideal society. One in which Italo Calvino would find quite a few cities morphing into picture perfect post cards. Switzerland is at once globally competitive and domestically redistributive, in tune with nature and well protected against its excesses, rooted in its culture, yet cosmopolitan and technologically advanced. Swiss cities are well planned, compact and sensibly connected to the countryside. Politically, they are models of participatory democracy, with cantonal (district wise) and municipal governments administering local affairs and overseeing urban development. Switzerland attracts successful people from all over the world, particularly in the fields of business, research and diplomacy. Many choose to settle in Switzerland because of its comfortable scale, charming landscapes, and well maintained cities.

At the same time, Switzerland is known for its aversion to anything that threatens the status quo. While in India change these days is often considered synonymous with economic growth and rising living standards, in Switzerland it is associated with risk and a possible reduction in the quality of life. It is extremely difficult for the young generation to innovate in Switzerland. Soaring birds, especially if they are rebellious and creative, have to fly far from their nest in order to live up to their potential and aspirations. For them leaving the middle ground often means simply going away.


Vineyards on the coast of the Leman Lake in the Canton of Vaud, next to Geneva.

Genève, the French speaking Swiss city at the end of the Leman Lake, is truly open. It is funky and literally flexible with it multiple formal boundaries (the city, the canton and a part of the lake). Commuters come to it everyday from neighbouring France and nearly forty percent of its residents are not native. The city emerged in the European imagination during the 15th century, with its famous international fairs making it a hub on the ancient trade routes leading to the Mediterranean Sea. These trade fairs were economic and cultural events that brought in thousands of traders and merchants to this francophone city. The fairs were open, vibrant and significant urban moments that shaped its famous banking institutions and inaugurated its destiny as a global city.

Genève derives much of its force from this historical openness to the world. Culturally it appears amazingly rich. It has all the museums, cultural centres, art galleries and operas it needs.


Day long “disaster” installation in front the Grütli House, a heavily subsidised cultural centre in Geneva.

Yet, so many young arts practitioners acknowledge that something crucial is missing. The city hardly allows homegrown innovators and creators to survive. A truly creative city cannot just depend on its formal cultural infrastructure. That may produce a well educated audience, but one needs more than spectators to make for a truly creative city. One needs free actors who can experiment and express themselves without constraint. One needs affordable spaces for them to function as such. And it is here that the city fails to oblige.

A truly creative city must allow creative destruction of the status quo, especially when it is driven from within. It must have spaces that allow freedom and encourage the ability to take real risks for its emerging generation of practitioners. These are things that cannot be part of the formal cultural systems. Genève may support its most successful artists and creators through grants and other institutional arrangements. Subsidies from the national government also make themselves available to a handful of movie producers and musicians who depend on them. However, these are just not enough when free spaces for self-expression are being shut down.

Until very recently Geneva had its own version of the great European cultural practice of squatting. Squatting is something that one never thinks of in the context of Europe, let alone Switzerland. However the European squat movement was responsible for the cultural effervescence of cities like Paris in the 1970s, Copenhagen in the 1980s, Barcelona in the 1990s and Berlin in the 2000s. Similarly, Genève had several squats that provided cheap shelter for students, artists, nomads and other free spirits.


The site of Artamis in Geneva was squatted by artists, designers and musicians. The site is now being redeveloped and the occupants have be relocated elsewhere in the city.

To the Asian reader, the word squat usually evokes informal settlements built by poor immigrants on public land. In Europe squatting basically describes the occupation of an abandoned structure by a group of young people who cannot afford to rent a regular apartment. The degree of tolerance towards this practice varies from one country to the other. In the Netherlands squatting is authorized in any building that has not been used for over a year. This guarantees an optimum use of space in an urban context where it is scarce. Until recently, in Genève, an owner had to show a rehabilitation project for its property before the police could evacuate squatters.

Squats thus provided a natural habitat for those who could not afford formal housing or working space. It was an indirect subsidy from property owners to artists and creators who would not have been able to do their art if they had to work full time to pay their rent.


Artamis Summer 2008.

Genève use to have a fairly tolerant attitude towards squats. Many of them had activities open to the public such as art galleries, theatres, concerts, bars, and restaurants. These constituted a point of connection between the squatters and the public. They functioned as incubators and breeding ground for artists, writers, musicians, designers and so on. A whole generation of local creators emerged from the squats.

In the past few years a sharp rise in property prices and the rise of a new brand of political conservatism in Europe has unleashed a huge backlash against squats and squatters. The laws have changed and now the owner doesn’t need to present any plan for rehabilitation. The attitude of the authorities in Genève has changed, and squatting is no longer tolerated. Almost all the squats have closed down forcing many out of the city.

Ironically this happens just at the time when new ideas about the ‘creative class’ are spreading in universities, planning departments and the political arena. According to the proponents, the new urban elite is highly mobile and creative. In an economic context where innovation is vital to the conservation and conquest of new markets, cities must compete to attract and retain creative people. The creative class wants lively cities with a lively and inspiring cultural scene that multiplies networking opportunities and stimulates imagination.


Various murals and right above the Shark bar in Artamis .

Unfortunately, this idea is more often than not misinterpreted by policy makers to mean an investment in formal cultural infrastructure. It becomes an excuse for more construction-based projects to create new physical spaces such as galleries, museums and formal performing arenas. This in turn makes cities more expensive and actually pushes the creative class (except for a handful of successful, rich and corporate dependent practitioners) outside the city.

Today, Swiss artists are leaving to Berlin, Buenos Aires, Shanghai or Mumbai in search of places where they can afford to be creative. And Genève is increasingly becoming a bankers’ or tax evaders city. A beautiful postcard that strives to preserve its cute image for the greatest pleasure of Saudi, Japanese and Indian tourists.

In many ways Genève symbolizes what is happening in other parts of the world. City authorities are fetishizing art and cultural spaces while outlawing spaces where creators and innovators can survive.

Eventually, the architecture of construction always wins. It is more lucrative, even though unnecessary. While what is really needed, an architecture of improvisation, an architecture that is inspired by the history and practice of squatting, of re-use, adaptation, and innovation.

In contrast to the Swiss city, the Indian urban landscape is a peculiar place right now. In some ways it reflects similar global processes while in others it manages to allow for genuine creativity to unfold. Especially in its vast swathes of informal settlements or in its historical small towns cracking open their shells, coming into their own. These are the spaces that are starting to attract the global adventurer artist, seeking to escape his slick, expensive and closed world.

Squats, East and West, are places of innovation where alternatives to the global standard emerge. They are hyper-local urban spaces that policy-makers, urbanists and architects should respect, understand and support. In essence we must recognize that a city must not only be open to the outside world, it must also allow inner forces to drive cultural innovation and social change.

The Moment of Activism

October 9, 2008

Local identity is a notion worth exploring since it is often in its name that activists and community groups come together and oppose “redevelopment plans”, such as the ones taking place in Shimokitazawa-Tokyo, Dharavi-Mumbai, Goa, Barcelonetta-Barcelone and so many other places around the world.

In Shimokitazawa for instance, local residents created various groups including Save the Shimokitazawa and Shimokitazawa Forum in response to a typical old-school top-down master plan of the government for a 26 meter-wide road cutting through the culturally vibrant pedestrian streets of that unique Tokyo neighborhood. These groups have been incredibly active and creative in their response to the government’s plans.

They organized symposiums with academics and experts, invited students from Japan, Israel, and the US to propose alternatives, organized an international design workshop, conducted population surveys, petitioned residents, raised funds, created other groups, wrote to the government and the media, designed posters, t-shirts, hats and pins, organized marches, concerts, and festivals… They have done everything imaginable.

These groups are composed of some of the most informed, organized and passionate people in Tokyo. They are also the most diverse yet united bunch ever: planners, architects, musicians, students, unemployed, professors, bar owners, retirees, editors, journalists, professional gamblers, translators, dancers, librarians, corner shop owners, enthusiastic foreigners, you name it. Spend an evening with them at their favorite meeting place, the Never Never Land bar, and they just look like childhood friends or better, like old comrades who’ve been fighting many wars together.

They are united against a common threat; fighting a common enemy. Yet sometimes one wonders if that enemy is not also their best friend. A best enemy of sorts. Think about it: if the government was to withdraw its redevelopment plan altogether, what would happen to the sacred unity connecting these people? What would then happen to that “local identity” they are defending? Would it still exist once everyone goes back home and meets only randomly in the street or occasionally in a bar?

In fact community groups such as Save the Shimokitazawa and Shimokitazawa Forum do not defend “local identity” as much as they create it. In other words, the moment of activism is more meaningful than the cause being defended. Not only that, there is nothing static about the local identity that they create in the process. It gets redefined each time a new member joins the group or each time the government alters its plans. Community groups are actually rarely in favor of the status quo. They are fighting for self-determination and control in the local development process.

Community groups are sometimes accused of being composed of nostalgic, romantic souls trying vainly to preserve a local identity that has no meaning in the context of cities like Tokyo, Mumbai or Barcelona, which are in constant evolution. But really, these groups are fighting to preserve the ever changing nature of their neighborhoods, not to keep them stuck in one point of time. They are defending a culture in movement and the movement of culture.

The redevelopment plan in Shimokitazawa, with its wide road and lanes of 10-12 storey high buildings, will clearly make any future development costly and difficult, and necessarily top-down. Metabolic evolution requires a multiplicity of actors acting at the local level. The possibility of change is what needs to be preserved. It is only when a culture or “local identity” doesn’t have the possibility to change that it dies. Change is a necessary condition of identity.

The most important function of “participatory planning” is to create venues for the “production of locality” in our cities today. And without a doubt, community activist groups are the best sources of inspiration for any policymaker or urban planner interested in participatory planning.

For all its shortcomings, participatory planning is worth a genuine try. The crowd is not always wise in the end, but it definitively gets wiser in the process.

Magical Planning

October 5, 2008


Celebration of the Holy Festival, last day of the Urban Typhoon Workshop in Koliwada-Dharavi

Sorry Manuel Castells and David Harvey and all those great theorists who have taught us how capital and technology produce the city and constrain also its future development. Apologies to Paulo Freire too who’s tried his best to wake us up from our delirious “magical consciousness” to teach us that we are “subjects in and with an objective world”.

You really are great and we are trying, but we just cannot (and don’t really want to) get liberated from our imagination. We love the world of possibilities more than the world “as it is”. We know that “in theory” the two are not incompatible, but in practice, they don’t fare that well together. So while you go ahead to keep describing it, we’ll imagine it the best we can.

Language and imagination are the best tools we have. And now the mighty Web allows us to drop ideas right in the reader’s heads, enhanced with special graphics, sound and moving images. After having tried both, we are convinced that unrestrained imagination has much more transformative potential than analysis. Don’t get us wrong. We love theories, they are beautiful narratives.

But as Yehuday Safran said, the world is shaped “above all through language, and its sublime, monstruous imagination.”  We support all the truth seekers. Seeking truth is a beautiful project to undertake, so beautiful in fact that it really doesn’t matter if it ever gets realized. But sometimes another path is equally fruitful. What we like is trying out our imagination on reality to see what works. And imagination is at its best when it is naive, magical and wild.

Look at cities. They are first and foremost the products of collective imaginations. Dreams of grandeur and power produce avenues, churches and skyscrapers. Immigrants create heavens for themselves in far away lands, which they dreamt about on their way. When they cannot actually create heavens, they dream of going back with some money to recreate them there.

These heavens are simple really – homes that are the realization of life-long dreams. At the very least, people use imagination and decoration to make their shacks feel special. As Hiroshi Hara said, “There are as many worlds as there are rooms.”

It is also clearer today that communities are imaginary. More than ever before, we live in a deterritorialized world, where the outside and inside have supposedly lost their meaning. Resorting to the imagination is therefore a matter of survival. It is especially when localities get produced by an exterior context that inhabitants dont control, that they need to use their imagination to generate a context from within. A context that can be based on historical narratives, cultural affinities or fantasies – whatever one chooses.

It is worth fighting for an imagined space, especially if it is a stage for human relations and interactions. But it is not worth fighting for a space that restrains or limits imagination in any way. There is no point defending a place that cannot be transformed; unless it is a place worth preserving for the story it embodies, such as a ruin (especially if it is haunted with good spirits). Places must inspire or they must be rethought completely!

The Web is the greatest creation since the letters of the alphabet. In fact the Web is a product of the wild imagination of Tim Berner Lee who dreamed of hypertextuality to communicate the ideas of his time – just like Gutenberg shaped the printing press to communicate the ideas of his. The power of the Web is that it provides the most advanced space possible for the textual/visual expression of imaginaries. Moreover it connects ideas to each other on an infinite plane. What’s more, it acts as a mirror between the virtual world of imagination and the physical world. And it works both ways!

Much more than simple text alone, it allows others to contribute and evolve one’s own imaginary. Just like you could add a comment under that post or copy-paste it onto your blog. These simple moves enhance the potential for materialization of ideas into the physical world.

Here is a concrete example.

There was always a point in time during the organization of the Urban Typhoon workshop when the whole event was nothing more than a Web page. It was no more than wishful thinking by a small group of people. At that point we didn’t have any money to get the guests over, commitment from the local community was at best uncertain, and we had almost no registered participants.

Nonetheless this vision, expressed in the form of a decent Website, made people believe that it was real – and they registered. Contacts were done via email, but it was only on the day of the workshop that people actually materialized. Participants never doubted that the event was really happening, but we only knew that it was real when we saw them actually apparating, one by one – notwithstanding the fact that we were the ones to have invited them in the first place!

It was always harder to convince local people that the workshop was really going to happen. It was even harder to convince them to participate, even though that was the whole idea to start with. We had been invited but community members in the first place but most local people had no interest in participating until the the outsiders popped out of the World Wide Web with their eyes full of great expectations and a pre-emptive love for the neighborhood.

The outsiders had no problem imagining that a fantastic event was going to happen in a fantastic place. They connected the place to the event, while the locals could not connect the fantastic event to their everyday, banal place. At first they simply could not imagine and refused to believe, but that was only until they became overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and faith of the numerous believers.

The materialization of this event comforted us. We felt kicked and gleeful, in our back-of-the-classroom-dreaming pupil approach; our favourite kind!

Next thing in line is the Koliwada Design Cell, which will be the fantastic vehicle that will take us on a journey towards the realization of a participatory development project for Koliwada. All the walls on our way will disintegrate! Lets try out some magical planning.

An interview with SANAA


New Museum, New York City which opened in December 2007

SANAA (Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa) is one of the most en vogue architecture office in Tokyo. They recently designed the New Museum in Manhattan. They also designed the Learning Center at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). Here is an excerpt from an interview we made for the Taiwanese magazine EGG, which published a special issue on SANAA in Summer 2007. For the full interview click here.


Gallery space in the New Museum

How does the New Museum project in New York relate to the city?

N: New Museum was a difficult project. It is difficult for a museum to be so open to the outside. It needs walls to hang up the paintings. An enclosed space is necessary. One of the striking features of the New Museum is that it is right in the middle of the city. It is not in the outskirts like many museums. Also it doesn’t exhibit classical art, it is very contemporary. This is why they wanted to be in the middle of the city. So the question for us was how to open up the museum in this context.

So how did you manage?

N: We opened up the ground floor, people can get in and out for free, go to the cafe or the bookstore.

S: The design of the New Museum is based on the concept of shifting box, which allows us to create an open skyline. The building literally opens up to the sky. The shifting boxes create terraces allowing people to go in and out in the middle of the building.

N: As people go up the atmosphere changes. Each floor has a different relationship to the city and offers a different experience. The ground level is very messy, in direct contact with street life. From the top we can see the skyline of New York and the Chrysler building. Of course the clients wanted walls to exhibit art, but we wanted windows because the view is so interesting!

In Japan buildings are typically not built to last more than 20 or 30 years, whereas in Europe architects don’t usually think about their work as temporary. How do you view your work in time?

N: Most of the Roman buildings are gone, except for a few bridges and the Pantheon which are still standing. In Japan some ancient temples remain thanks to maintenance. We expect our buildings to stand for a really long time, but I cannot say forever. Maybe a hundred years at the maximum. But the city has a longer life span. The city lives through many generations.

S: With many changes.

N: Yes, I feel nothing changes in European cities. The notion is that the city must preserve the same form forever. I go to Asian cities and I see everything changed since the last time. The population is growing. The life of the people is changing and the city is changing with it. In China and Tokyo I see many things happening, many changes. This is like moving with the life. This is a very different viewpoint. In Europe the idea is that cities must stay the same, in Asia cities must change. I cannot say which one is the good view.

Tokyo is the biggest city in the world and yet it is often described as a collection of small villages. What is your idea of Tokyo, thinking specifically about the notion of scale from very small to extremely big?

S: I use a very limited part of Tokyo, so in this sense Tokyo feels like a village. I cannot say I have an overall image of Tokyo. Physically I cannot tell what are the boundaries of Tokyo.

N: Tokyo appears to be very much disorganized but actually it is a city which works really well. There is no train delay. Every morning huge crowds are moved in a very orderly way from one point to the other. Very few crimes are committed in Tokyo. It is actually very orderly, even if the landscape looks disorderly. Some Westerners come to Tokyo and say this is chaos! Maybe it is true but people manage it very well.

S: It is a chaotic but also extremely dynamic place. Somehow it looks generic and not well organized but so many things happen in Tokyo. One bad aspect of Tokyo is that people cannot spend time without money, which is also related to the physical reality of the city. But since the economy was bad for so long, we gradually learned how to enjoy the city without much money!

Dharavikitazawa

October 1, 2008


Structures from Dharavi (Mumbai) are inserted in this Tokyo landscape.

Here are a few collages showing how strikingly similar are the urban typologies of Dharavi (Mumbai) and many neighborhoods of Tokyo, in this case Shimokitazawa.

Shimokitazawa was preserved from destruction and redevelopment throughout the war, up to the present. As a result, the town developed incrementally along its narrow streets, retaining a village-like feel that contributes to its popularity. Characterized by low rise buildings, pedestrian space, bustling ground-level market activity, and tight community networks, Shimokitazawa represents an alternative model of urban development: the informal, unplanned city that consolidated through time.

These two neighborhoods shave many similarities despite evolving radically different contexts. Their common characteristics are indicative of some important global urban dynamics usually ignored by planning authorities.


Dharavi, left and Shimokitazawa, right.

Both neighborhoods are seen as “messy”, non-functional, irrationally laid out, hard to navigate, even harder to map out, nearly impossible to access by car, not zoned, mixed-use, full of narrow pedestrian streets with crowded storefronts, mobile vendors and groups of people hanging out. Moreover, they are havens for marginal groups and informal (or illegal) activities, and breeding grounds for all types of anti-conformist attitudes, subversive activities and movements of resistance.

In fact, there is nothing rational about denouncing them as messy. It says more about the ideology or phobia of whom is pointing the finger than anything. Indeed, this “mess” hides a different order. In the case of Shimokitazawa and Dharavi, we witness the emergence of new cultural, social, and economic patterns, which might well be some type of a global edge; an early adaptation to deep transformations in our ways of working, socializing, interacting and thinking.


Shimokitazawa streetscape with Dharavi house on the right.

Both neighborhoods are populated by creative, highly mobile, and entrepreneurial people who generate economic opportunities for themselves. They have developed sophisticated social networks, relying on the most intensive used of available technologies. Mobile phone stands can be found at every corner of Dharavi. Shimokitazawa’s youth working on wirelessly networked laptops convert small living spaces into creative offices. The distinction between living space and working space is also blurred in Dharavi with residents using their apartments, for instance, as daytime workshops, storage place and by the hour rental rooms. In both neighborhoods, commercial activity at the street level is dominated by a web of flea-market type specialty shops, representing a de facto alternative to the mainstream department store-office-factory model of commercial development.


The old Black Market in Shimokitwazawa (right) and Dharavi (left).

There is nothing surprising about the fact that real-estate developers ignore the richness of what they are willing to destroy in the pursuit of profit. What is chocking however is to see governments buying (or should I say selling?) into that tabula raza urban development approach. Especially since they claim, loud and clear, to be committed to the involvement of communities into the planning of their habitats.

Both Shimokitazawa and Dharavi are threatened by redevelopment plans from the government, acting on behalf of powerful real estate interests.

Dharavi University

Playful conversations during Urban Typhoon 2008 produced the idea of institutionalizing the pedagogic moments inherent in Dharavi. Before the banter could be dismissed as one more effort in idealizing the neighbourhood – already trapped in cliché’s of all kinds – we said why not? Everybody acknowledges that no other place in the world can, at the very least, teach us about condensing space, time and motion the way Dharavi does and at the most, teach us about the possibilities of extreme urbanism even as it is pushed to the verge of destroying itself thanks to myopic policies.

So – the establishment of Dharavi University is imminent – part museum, part tribute, part laboratory, part battlefield, part celebration; the virtual version is already functioning at www.dharavi.org. And since universities do need expression in real time and space the Koliwada Design Cell (KDC), one hub of this concept is set to start activities by end October this year as well. To become a place where everybody who lives and works in Dharavi can voice their viewpoints and create a living digital archive of opinions, images, ideals and values to shape the future of their lives and context. Where all those voices and personalities which speak with that particular edge, whose connections are deep and whose commitment to Dharavi’s history, present and future is total – become the main fountainheads of knowledge, instigators of debate and catalysts of more learning. Interviews and conversations with some of them will appear here very soon.

The KDC, just one among many such nodes imagined in Dharavi University, plans to layer the neighbourhood with an inexpensive and accessible information and communication technology infrastructure to come closer to its ideal of a user-generated city – one that is produced through the knowledge and life practices of its inhabitants.

We look for support, ideas and collaborations!