Varanasi (paolo mutti/Flicker)
Snapshot
  • This new book shows how a city is a process as much as it is a design. They look the way they do not because of the work of architects and builders but because of social, political, cultural and financial processes.

Why Cities Look The Way They Do. Richard J. Williams. Polity Press. 192 Pages. Rs 1,501.

A cycle “puncher” shop. A stationery store. A few restaurants. Coffee shops. A flower shop. An art design studio. An ice cream parlour. An apartment complex. A pharmacist. An ATM. A medical diagnostics outlet. A bank branch. A hospital. A small hotel. Some homes. A photography shop. A mobile store. A bar. A gym. A shoe shop. All next to each other, cheek by jowl. Could be in any Indian city.

This arrangement isn’t the outcome of any grand urban plan or architect’s design. It has happened organically. Much as most localities of cities have developed. Historical processes have played a role in the way cities have been organised.

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Political power, money, human labour, sexual desire, violence, culture, religion, food, transportation and many more flows of events and actions and people, over time, have shaped the face of contemporary cities.

Cities didn’t develop as the outcome of some grand imagination of what they ought to be. They should, therefore, be understood as they exist, as dynamic entities, almost as “events or performances”.

This is the view that Richard J Williams, Professor of Contemporary Visual Culture, History of Art, at the University of Edinburgh, brings to bear.

In a self-admittedly short book, he explores six of the above themes as processes — circulation of money, political power, industrialisation of culture, sexual desire, military action and role of labour — that have shaped the formation of what he refers to “self-consciously global” cities.

These are cities that all look the same as they attract the same kinds of attention and capital. Williams’ interest is not in singular iconic buildings or structures as objects of admiration but rather the ordinary and commonplace that exist in plain sight, and are the natural outcomes of an unconscious execution of processes.

So, the works of celebrated architect-designers like Oscar Niemeyer, who designed Brazil’s capital, Brasilia, while acknowledged as being brilliant are also dismissed as being unreal, like a myth that only exists in the architect’s imagination.

The outcome, therefore, is a sterile, lifeless Brasilia compared to a pulsating Rio de Janeiro, that has organically grown. Think Le Corbusier’s designed Chandigarh to the dynamic Mumbai.

As an art historian, Williams brings a keen visual eye, a scholarly historical perspective and a distaste for the manufactured aesthetic. He declares: “I hate Venice” as it caters to the 60,000 tourists who descend on the city each day, doing what tourists do.

So much so, that the spectacle — he makes it a point to explain the usage — of Venice is the tourist industry itself that feeds off an image of decaying touristy spots that have persisted since the eighteenth century. Venice, therefore, cannot let go of this “heritage” image and accommodate the processes of people in and around it.

Or, the role of money in shaping the construction of skyscrapers as iconic residential signatures of the very wealthy. Like London’s 20 Fenchurch Street (“Walkie-Talkie” building), which is a “material representation of a financial process”, manifested in having far more of the more valuable upper floors.

Or, New York’s 432 Park Avenue, a “macho aggression of the financial markets and a slender 85 storied building” with just 104 apartments costing up to $82m that the developers didn’t expect would be more than a quarter-occupied at any time, even as the real city of New York is hidden in plain sight.

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The chapter on capital, somewhat strangely but perhaps reflective of the politics of the author, has references to Piketty, Marx, Engels and even Davos. Where a tiny Swiss village of 11,000 suddenly attracts 2,500 delegates, 5,000 press and security persons, but remains lifeless.

Williams writes of the destruction of industry as a defining process of a global city. Of how the car industry shaped Detroit, of Amsterdam’s National Docks and Shipyards being refashioned as creative places (“broedplaatsen”) or the bungalows, the campuses and uniformly self-effacing architecture of Silicon Valley (“a state of mind”).

Liberal references to art historians, movies (eg. “Lost in Translation”) or TV shows (eg. “Seinfeld”) to make his points are commonplace. In the chapter on War, he talks of the unseen violence in the underbelly of a city by comparing Rio of the 1990s to Sarajevo.

He refers to Richard Florida’s book The Rise of the Creative Class in the section on Sex and makes the case that diversity and tolerance, especially for the sexually marginalised gay communities, provides for urban global spectacles that generates capital flows from San Francisco to Sao Paulo, to Manchester.

He, however, stretches credulity by making unsubstantiated assertions on homo-eroticism in Seinfeld or deriving pop conclusions on sexual desire and city living from TV shows like Sex and the City. These are jarring to read from an obviously erudite and subject matter expert writer.

Williams concludes the book by going back to the beginning of the book, namely the title and attempts to answer it again, much like he does in the introduction. The conclusion is remarkable for its honesty.

Rather than spectacle, it is the ordinary, lively, real, quotidian lived life of communities organised by “processes” of all types, that makes for vibrant city living. Rather than global megacities, the future lies in mid-sized cities like Leicester.

We will do well to keep this in mind as India rushes into rampant urbanisation without knowing what urban living actually is. This book is worth reading if only to get a perspective on how to think about urban agglomerations, apart from the normative consideration of the urban planner or designer.

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