Reducing cities to a statistical sprawl

The Global Cities exhibition at Tate Modern – all warnings about overpopulation and eco-doom – shows architects have lost their ‘utopian drive’.

Austin Williams

Topics Culture

If you love statistics, you’ll love Global Cities, a new exhibition about city life in the London Tate Modern’s huge turbine hall space. If you don’t love statistics, however, then you may find that the show’s relentless bombardment with reams of data only reduces global cities to numbers, ratios and percentages.

In some ways, a spreadsheet-analysis of cities is fitting today, given that the profession of architecture, in Britain at least, is dominated by benchmarking, tickboxing and performance criteria. So, Global Cities presents lists of spatial densities, travel distances, population figures and other numerical interpretations that fall well short of explaining the complexity of cities and urban living. After a few minutes in the exhibition, it becomes clear that real people are missing from the equation. There are lots of highly engaging, personal video testimonials, but the ‘public’ only appears as some kind of stage army wheeled into view at the last minute in order to humanise the underlying project of harsh statistical analysis.

This current version of the Global Cities exhibition is curated by Ricky Burdett, who is principal design adviser for the London 2012 Olympics. He was previously an architectural adviser to the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. The Tate Modern show is a pale shadow of Burdett’s bigger exhibit at last year’s tenth Venice Biennale, which concluded the initial stage in his ‘Urban Age’ conferences: a series of Deutsche Bank-funded debates that took him around the world (carbon-neutrally, of course).

Though the exhibition has been pared down for its stint at the Tate Modern, there is still much interesting work on display, and the data does impress and shock in equal measure. For example, we’re told that Istanbul is the fastest growing city in the world: its population has increased by 27 per cent over the past decade. We learn that the average life expectancy for a male in Johannesburg is 52 years – almost ten years less than in India.

Much of the show is enjoyable, watchable and informative: there are fantastic sets of photographs, interesting models, imaginative videos. It is certainly worth a visit. However… it isn’t art. It is subtle propaganda with a reasonably well-defined objective. As a critic for the Daily Telegraph synopsised, the exhibition explores ‘gigantic slums…environmentally wasteful geographical sprawl [and] growing social polarisation’ (1). Happy days.

One of the notices in Global Cities states that ‘by raising awareness of these issues at the global and human scale, the exhibition stresses that the shape of our cities will determine the future of the planet’. Cue the subliminal litany of population, environmental, developmental and sprawl ‘issues’. At times, these issues are presented under the radical banner of anti-capitalism – and for the purposes of this exhibition, anti-capitalism seems to mean little more than juxtaposing the lifestyles and behaviour of the wealthy against the nobility of the poor. Still, in the context of revealing social disparities, the photographs of the new, gated communities in Istanbul, for example, were quite remarkable. I, for one, had not seen anything like them before.

You can choose to enter the exhibition along a ‘high-level walkway’: it turns out to be a particularly unimpressive piece of scaffolding along which a few measly pieces of work are exhibited, and from which one is occasionally instructed to peer over to see the substantial stuff below. The first work of art, by Nils Norman, sets the tone. It is a mock bus shelter with a Second World War-style ‘Plant for Victory’ poster, warning of ‘impending environmental disasters’ and proposing ‘micro-solutions for living in a flood zone’. Not the best start to an exhibition about the global city. At the end of the walkway, a video shows local residents reclaiming a patch of grass as an allotment for healthy produce for their children. The blurb tells us, ‘Today we live with this notion that…plants that produce food are ugly’. Presumably this Fritz Haeg video installation was an admirable exercise in raising vegetable self-esteem. It left me wondering if I had walked into a ‘Parochial Cities’ rather than a ‘Global Cities’ exhibition.

Downstairs, Nigel Coates has created yet another anachronistic Pop-Art folly for which he is wearisomely famed. As with most of his creations, it is pleasant but cynical. It is a parody of an imagined cityscape with buildings made from mobile phones, shoes and giant plaster casts of hands. One building is made of humbugs, which seemed to sum it up.

Other architects have been brought in to create displays: Zaha Hadid and Patrick Schumacher have created a relatively unintelligible and reasonably boring piece of work; Rem Koolhaas has made a fatuous commentary on surveillance society (asking ‘Hoodies? What do you think? Talk about this on our forum’); and Richard Wentworth has brought together several monitors playing the same video of city life, ‘but it is never possible to confirm whether all the identical short videos are running simultaneously’. It is also not possible to care.

The principal delights are the huge colourful photographic prints by Andreas Gursky, which juxtapose rich housing and slum development. However, an accompanying note says that Gursky ‘has made subtle digital alterations to some of his photos, adjusting the composition, eliminating details and enhancing colour’. This struck me as problematic. Because these photographs are no longer in an art-gallery environment, but rather are meant to be documentary-style, pseudo-analytical exhibits in a show that apparently reveals the truth about global cities, the use of artistic licence is questionable. After reading that note, one could be forgiven for interpreting the pictures as the manipulated testimony of an untrustworthy witness.

Fortunately, some of the video screenings are innocently engaging – particularly the one about Istanbul residents who come ‘to relieve the stresses’ of the city by relaxing in the middle of a glorified motorway roundabout; or the one that shows the grim reality of recycling for a Sao Paolo catadore (a job that the World Urban Forum describes as ‘recycling co-ops and waste scavenger associations’). Only two videos – or two anything – made me smile: a video of Tokyo traffic management during the World Cup where pedestrians and traffic are in dynamic harmony; and the video of hundreds of Indians crossing a perilous sea wall to pray at the Haj Mosque.

The most important issue of the whole exhibition was contained in a statement in Koolhaas’ installation. Hidden in the text was the admission that, amongst architects, ‘confidence is completely absent, [and] the absence of utopian drive is perhaps almost as serious as an overdose of it’. We no longer explore ‘what to do, but how to understand what already exists’. The real problem with this exhibition is that it reflects the fact that vision seems too difficult. For the curatorial staff, concentrating on ‘process’ and statistics is a lot easier. Rehearsing the argument about overpopulation, sprawl and food miles causing an environmental crisis is not the most radical manifesto for the cities of tomorrow. If the people who live in cities – and their social relations – are seen as the problem, no wonder they are simply reduced to erasable statistics.

Meanwhile, Watermans New Media gallery in Brentford, England, is hosting a much simpler and more thought-provoking (but unfortunately more poorly attended) exhibition. It’s entitled Building Sights. Compiled by the Raq Media Collective from Delhi, whose stated aim is to ‘[interpret] the city and the urban experience’, the exhibition quite successfully reveals the intriguing normality of Asian urban life. It is a much more human and empathetic experience than the Global Cities exhibition, and it is executed with a more powerful sense of artistic freedom, too.

The Raq Collective says: ‘The city [Delhi] can strike you as a maelstrom. The city swells, becomes strange, crowded, dense. Evictions breed evictions. A city becomes something you hang on to as you lurch into daily uncertainties. Yet time is sought for pauses, for breath, for play, for dreaming, for carving out of spaces, handholds and corridors which make the city liveable.’

Housed in a couple of rooms, with minimal fuss, the exhibition comprises a number of video installations and photographs displayed unceremoniously. One video is a fixed shot that focuses on an incongruous velvet chair situated in an ordinary Delhi back street. Without resorting to ironic Becks Futures-style tomfoolery, the grainy video actually draws you in to the innocence of the street scene. Throughout, there is a genuine engagement with the city-dwellers, born out of a closeness to the subject matter, which is somewhat lacking in the Tate Modern show.

Another video simply shows a close up of the ever-growing mass of hands that hang on to a single ceiling strap on a train as it gathers passengers commuting into the city. The centre of the exhibition is a video showing a JCB shovelling earth and dumping it in another location on a building site: the excavating bucket in close-up. It is only after watching the digger arm swinging to and fro several times that you notice a small boy in the cabin sitting on his haunches, minding his own business, clearly oblivious to health-and-safety rules.

This is a charmingly simple exhibition that recognises the resoluteness of Third World city-dwellers without feeling the need to preach, sanctify or offer tendentious advice. If one of the defining features of art is that it allows, and encourages, a trust in the perceptive interpretation of the viewing public, then the Building Sights videos have more artistic (as opposed to propagandistic) merit than all of the documentary footage shown at Global Cities put together.

Austin Williams is organiser of the Bookshop Barnies and director of the Future Cities Project.

For more information on Building Sights, click here – for more on Global Cities, click here.

Previously on spiked

Austin Williams looked at New Orleans and the New Urban vision, and examined the state of English cities. James Woudhuysen wanted to demolish Brown’s plans for eco-towns, and warned of the dangers of Brownfield Brutalism. James Heartfield said the end of the boundary between town and country is a liberation, not a loss. Or read more at spiked issue Architecture and planning.

(1) See Why you’ll soon be avant-gardening, The Telegraph, 16 June 2007

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Topics Culture


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