Cities without nations

There is no greater symbol of migration than the Statue of Liberty. We know its inviting and austere gesture no less than we do, the hope and foreboding which it has inspired.

By Irénée Scalbert. Photo: Fabian Fauth / Unsplash

There is no greater symbol of migration than the Statue of Liberty. We know its inviting and austere gesture no less than we do, the hope and foreboding which it has inspired. We know, too, how familiar and nearly banal it has since become no less than we do, the crushing anonymity, the vast continental sprawl which lie behind it. Built in Paris and erected in New York, the Statue of Liberty was itself a migrant of a kind, and there it still stands to greet you.

In most great cities in the world, there is no such welcome, no such confidence in the gift of virtue. I recall from my first arrival in London which has since become my home a gradual adulteration by dullness. After disembarking and boarding the train at Dover, the bijou farms and the toy-like oast-houses of Kent gave way before the hordes of semi-detached houses. The pastures rolling between the Downs became progressively more shabby until they were replaced by unkept gardens. The hedges and the oaks, the soft green of the grass were overwhelmed by a world of bricks. Past Battersea power station which aspires still to become a monument (but to what?) came the tidal Thames which looked like an open drain. At last and without warning, I found myself on the concourse of Victoria Station, dragging a large suitcase heavy beyond reason. The suitcase (one of a pair given to my parents for their wedding) was studded with nails alongside its edges, and it reminds me that Punk was then getting under way. The first house where I stayed was, for a while at least, empty and large enough for me to fill it with a sense of dread and possibility. I have not used the suitcase since and my present house is about half full.

Each time I return to London, I return to this moment when I first arrived. I feel the same pinch inside and the same vacancy demanding to be filled outside. Recently I returned via Stansted. The airport bus (for the train service was disrupted) and the semi-d’s were at times window to window, and the ghostly combination of lace curtain and pendant light drove home the creeping dullness of the London night. However it was the engaging cheerfulness of the driver calling the names of stops over the failing Tannoy which struck me most. It seemed to belong with the view outside, rumbustious speech and visual poverty fitting together like a pub in a street.

Great cities are made by the repetition of such trivial experiences. They are like sand glasses in which the small change of suitcases pours and settles into houses. They are compositions of sand and time, shaped by microscopic processes which the glamour of global finance has concealed for too long. Returning yet another time to London on Guy Folkes night, I was fortunate enough to witness while taxying above Stansted sheaves after sheaves of fireworks showering their sparks over southern England. There was no sound, as if it had been dispersed into particles so fine as to be disolved in the depth of time. London may still have its traditions but their significance is everyday more improbable. Who started the fireworks? Why? And for whom? They seem, like London itself, fortuitous effects of time, fired within the sunless orbits of ring roads, and extinguished before they could touch the soil of the country. Look at how the North Circular overshadowed the Great Western Road, at how the London Orbital appears to supersede all radials. Great cities, almost all of them shaped by migration, have seceded from the land of their origin. They have become cities without nations.

Within them, the contents of suitcases, the bricks, the curtains, the pendants and the rockets… – all the things which together constitute the architecture of the city – belong no more to those who brought and laid them, hung, fitted and fired them, than they do to the city itself. They define neither individual nor collective identities but are merely cast-offs from the multitude of experiences. There is little hardness to testify to the trials of migrants. There is instead a softness where foreground – the stuff on pavements and in shop windows – prevail over background, where the present overwhelms by its sheer vitality attempts at creating permanence. In such cities, visual harmony, consistent order seem invariably quaint. They belong in districts stuck still in the age when the only big city was the capital of a nation. What then is this “architecture of the city” theorized by Aldo Rossi and revered by so many architects?

I once ate in Stockholm a type of shortbread known as a “dröm”, meaning dream in Swedish. A dröm glitters on the outside for it is made with granulated sugar, thinly cemented with dough. Being lightly baked, it crumbles at once in the mouth and dissolves without leaving much of a taste. I like to imagine the aggregate of the big city as one that is likewise coarse and bright, caught in a friable identity. Aldo Rossi proposed in his writings a monumental architecture in which the cement hardens with time. But his drawings show to the contrary day-dreams, sand castles propped by fragile memories. His designs seem, when realized, less well adapted to Milan where they were born than to Paris, Berlin or Tokyo where their foreigness allows them to retain their original equivocal presence.

But Rossi’s creations would stand best in the cities of America. For here, in a country built for the most part by migrants, architecture stands on the ground lightly, as if freshly unpacked from a suitcase. Who is to say what American architecture is? The wigwam? Pueblo settlements? The balloon frame of carpenters or the brownhouses of New York? The skyscrapers of Chicago, Levittown, the motels of route 66, Disney World or Las Vegas? And who could lay claim to have created it? Henry Richardson, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Daniel Burnham, Richard Neutra, Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson, Frank Gehry? At best there might be an architecture of the American dream, a dream moreover that crumbles while being consumed.

Only in Tokyo, the most racially exclusive of the great cities but the most receptive to foreign ideas, does one find an architecture more equivocal than in North America. Here buildings contain so many ideas that a single design, it has been claimed, could provide enough material for the oeuvre of a lifetime. Consider, even if not in Tokyo, the Shinwa Bank headquarters in Sasebo, Kyushu, built in three phases and completed in 1975. Its architect, Seichi Shirai, studied not architecture but philosophy. He did so not in Japan where he was born but in Germany. The Shinwa bank is not modern but it is futuristic in places. It is not historicist but it recalls the medieval and baroque architectures of central Europe and, sometimes in the same space, the traditional architecture of Japan. Finished in the most expensive materials, it is often kitsch but never vulgar. Shirai’s design corresponds to no particular time or space. It subscribes to no particular formal or intellectual system. Instead it appears to be a summ of the architect’s life experience and to have inherited thereby a characteristic but undefinable, inconsistent quality.

This building resembles to my mind the architecture of our time. Architecture has become more complex and contradictory –  though not merely to embrace Robert Venturi’s theory. It has become fashionable – though not to adapt to every fluctuation in taste. It has become eclectic – though not to satisfy the whims of developpers. Rather architecture has, like migrants, availed itself of the right to be inconsistent in matters of intellect as much as of physique. When we look at a great city, we recognize everywhere the physionomy of this new liberty. Perhaps we enjoy it. But do we fully appreciate its beauty?

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