Indy Johar applauds an attempt to extend the architectural discussion of urbanism beyond building.
edited by Mohsen Mostafavi with Gareth Doherty
Lars Müller Publishers, 656pp, £40
Although the ambiguously all-encompassing title confused me slightly, it soon became clear that the purpose of this remarkable tome is to aggregate thinking on a new ‘systems-based’ approach to urbanism (perceiving the city as an ecology of people, processes, power structures and so on) that supercedes an object-based urbanism (one principally concerned with questions of built form).
This shift in focus is increasingly acknowledged, whether by urbanists working in the developing world or those working in post-industrial cities, and is influential in the emerging practices and approaches adopted by global organisations like IBM Smarter Cities as well as among those working at a micro-plot or sub-regional scale.
The relevance of this piece of work is high; both in browsing mode and upon closer reading of its many essays, Ecological Urbanism articulates the shifts in knowledge and language that are underpinning this evolution in urban strategy. Further, it is one of the few books that recognises and articulates how, if this systems-based approach is to be successful, it needs to design, integrate and express complex systems and social processes in ways that are fundamentally humane.
At its heart Ecological Urbanism is pointing towards a mode of practice that is only just emerging – a practice that will be increasingly data- and evidence-driven, conveyed by new modes of data visualisation, synthesised by design thinking and of course multidisciplinary. One merely needs to glance across the formidable list of contributors – Stefano Boeri, Rem Koolhaas, Sanford Kwinter and Bruno Latour, among others – to see this future viscerally laid out.
But what interests me more is that we are also witnessing a parallel shift in how urban actors are organising, as emerging agents actively adopt and fuse the behaviours of the thinktank and management consultancy with design thinking and engineering know-how to deliver and implement a systems-orientated practice. This in turn is enriched – sometimes directly, sometimes in dialectical opposition – by user-led innovation and new forms of direct citizen co-investment in change.
That said, a few key issues leave me disheartened. First, the book’s inability to acknowledge the everyday reality, where those involved experience constant institutional frictions in the implementation of such practice, stemming from obsolete municipal structures and short-sighted commercialism. The reality of total systems delivery and implementation at the coalface is one with which our institutional infrastructures struggle to engage. This domain of the nitty-gritty presents a huge challenge if we are to arrive at the real potential of a systems-based approach.
Likewise, the book fails to acknow-ledge the deep challenge that this shift poses for the majority of current practitioners, whether at professional or community level. By that I mean the need to develop and share new tools, technologies, organisational forms and structures and most critically, the knowledge capital of deep trans-disciplinary understanding and know-how.
The failure of most of these publications to really speak to policy professionals reflects a wider failing among architects. We seem happy to continue talking to ourselves, focusing on the semiotics of practice without getting our hands dirty by driving systemic institutional change, which is the precursor to this form of practice actually scaling and blossoming.
However, in no way do I wish this criticism to detract from what is a remarkable collection. As a practitioner, I just feel the need to articulate the critical urgency to take the next step quickly. So can we have volume two now, please?
Indy Johar is an architect and co-founder of strategy and design practice 00:/. He is a Demos Associate and has taught at TU Berlin, Bath, the AA and the Bartlett.
AT213/ November 10, p18