What can architects, planners, and politicians learn from the economic collapse of 2008 about how to plan better, more responsive large-scale urban development? On February 22, 2013 the Architectural League will present “The City That Never Was,” a symposium that uses the crisis in Spain as a lens through which to consider future forms of urbanization. Gregory Wessner, the League’s Special Projects Director, sat down with symposium co-organizers Christopher Marcinkoski and Javier Arpa to talk about their research and why architects and planners need to rethink urban design for the 21st century.
Gregory Wessner: Let’s start by talking about the title of the symposium, “The City That Never Was,” because I think that will give you a chance to explain the larger focus of research that the two of you have been doing.
Christopher Marcincoski: At its most basic level, the title refers to the vast number of abandoned or partially completed urban developments that can be found throughout Spain, which is the situation we have looked at most closely. These are massive settlements and infrastructures that were intended for thousands of people but which are now just sitting empty following the 2008 crash. But on a deeper level, the title refers to what we consider a reductive contemporary ideal about urban development and the elements that comprise vibrant cities. Both the market and the urban design disciplines–architecture, landscape architecture, city planning, among others–seemingly have a recipe for what urban form should be when they set out to plan and implement new settlement. It involves certain ideas about density, about mobility, about public space, about future growth–which mostly means economic growth. There almost seems to be a kind of standard list of ingredients that cities are supposed to aspire to in order to be successful. You can easily look to The Economist or Monocle Magazine or other publications with similar city rankings for these definitions of what a globally competitive city should look like. What we find troubling is these ingredients are seemingly being applied indiscriminately to new urban development around the world, without a clear sense of context or demand. What the title of the symposium suggests is the need to fundamentally reject the idea that 21st century urbanization is somehow a transportable, reproducible, standardized product.
What the title of the symposium suggests is the need to fundamentally reject the idea that 21st century urbanization is somehow a transportable, reproducible, standardized product.
Javier Arpa: It’s also important to point out that these settlements are not shrinking cities. These sites were conceived of to accommodate important population densities and urban life. However, development suddenly stopped and those places were abandoned before they were even used. The first question now would be what we can learn from such a model of development and the second, what we can do with all those derelict or underused resources.
CM: And what I find striking and ripe with possibilities is that when you look at many emerging economies, they’re seemingly looking at the model of urbanization that the US and Europe have used over the past seventy years and saying, “We’re going to simply repeat that and we’re going to amplify it and we’re going to do it more quickly and more intensely.” I think they’re making many of the same mistakes that were made here and in Europe since the second world war, just on a much bigger scale.
JA: One of the key issues to be analyzed concerning “The City That Never Was” is the decision-making process leading to such formats of settlement. The individuals responsible for the construction of that urban model–officials, developers, designers, etc–followed a very hierarchical and simple decision-making process. In Spain, in particular, that process is strongly rooted in certain traditions dating back to the Franco regime. Many of the leaders involved in city planning, regardless of their political affiliation, usually claim to simply have followed a set of liberal rules. Reality, however, shows how instead of the stated neoliberal policies, a certain kind of “neo-oligarchysim” was generally deployed. Similar decision-making processes are being carried out in different parts of the world. We should ask ourselves, in the context of “The City That Never Was” how to change the way agents perform. For example, I am quite familiar with two different projects, one outside Madrid and another outside Paris, were the same set of agents took part. However, those agents intervened in very different ways in the two projects.
GW: And I’m guessing that they were successful in Paris and not in Madrid. So that implies that sometimes contemporary development does lead to success, if at other times to failure. How can you know at the outset whether the development will succeed? What strategies would make the difference between success and failure?
JA: I don’t have an answer to that. But in the cases of Madrid and Paris, when compared, what you see is that the decision-making process in Madrid is very hierarchical and opaque: the politician, on top, seems to have driven the investment policy of a certain financial institution, which decides to buy a piece of land, and hands it to a developer. In this case, the designer or the urban planner does not actually make any relevant decisions about the construction of the city. The difference with the project in Paris is that the urban planner and the designer took part in the process a lot earlier. In this case, at least, the outcome was a lot better when the urban planner and the designer were allowed to act earlier.
CM: I actually feel like the question of success versus failure is maybe the wrong one, in the sense that it’s more a matter of what’s the intent. Is the intent of planning and design a single fixed outcome or is the intent to catalyze or induce effects that we understand are going to have to be negotiated as an urban context evolves? I think the questions that are implicit in our discussion are, “Are the tools that designers and planners are relying on the right tools? Is the way that we’re thinking about the long-term implementation and transformation of urban settlement the right way to think about it? Is the master plan, the kind of singular ideal of what the outcome will be, still the right way to operate?” Or do we have to think about this work more in terms of contingency and scenario, where there is an acknowledgement of a range of outcomes that might emerge? I think in some ways this idea of success versus failure is simply too narrow. The disciplinary question should be, “what are the possible outcomes a project is confronted with and how then do we anticipate those outcomes?” I think it’s the reality of urban practice in the 21st century that new settlement creates a set of changing conditions that need to be continually adjusted for and managed.
GW: Why is this standard toolkit of urban design strategies that you refer to no longer sufficient?
In “The City That Never Was,” everything was predicated upon expectations of endless growth. Reality says otherwise.
JA: I think this kind of instant city we are looking at doesn’t work very well anymore. In “The City That Never Was,” everything was predicated upon expectations of endless growth. Reality says otherwise. Last weekend, I was reading the projections of growth released by the International Monetary Fund: they are catastrophic, as they predict we will not see much growth in the Western World, and particularly in Spain, in the next ten years. Therefore, when we as planners think of the city, we will have to have to consider the possibility of reducing speed. Our projects will have to adapt to this new reality: growth may not be endless or, maybe, growth will just not come back as we know it.
CM: Javier talked about the instant city and I think the aspect of speed is something that is really important to consider in this context. These ghosted settlements are proliferating because there’s a demand for implementation in the quickest possible way. Urbanization has become the go to instrument of economic production. The ability to deploy these large-scale urban plans and make these transformations is much more expedient if it’s a kind of prototype, or if it’s something that has been demonstrated to work elsewhere. Yet one could argue that it is this reliance on prototype or precedent that most often leads to failure. It too much of an “if it worked there, it will work here” mentality.
GW: To what degree do architects themselves, as opposed to politicians or developers, bear responsibility for creating these “cities that never were?”
JA: Well, in Spain they were not always responsible, that’s for sure. As I said earlier, development had a lot to do with political and economic ambition and very little to do with design. Architects or urban planners were the last agents to participate in the decision-making process. They were simply asked to provide a design according to certain givens. Very seldom were they asked what they thought the city should be like. Besides a limited but very spectacular series of projects, the role of the architect and the urban planner was very secondary. That’s why I referred earlier to the role of designers in the project in Madrid. Architects and urban planners were never asked about the needs of the city, the opportunity of undertaking such project, where, or when. Everything was already decided beforehand by politicians.
If you’re a young designer or you’re a small practice and you have the opportunity to build at the scale we are talking about, the likelihood that you’re going to turn it down is slim to none.
CM: I think maybe one point of clarification that I would make here is that if we look at why architects or landscape architects or designers are excluded from those upfront conversations, it is that there’s a desire for efficiency and speed in implementation. I think in the case of Spain, in particular, you had civil engineers who were laying out new settlement and the assumption was that “design” would somehow fix any imperfections or over-scaled aspects or whatever problems that might emerge. In some ways, the fact of the matter is that design does have a certain complicity because of the way that it has operated. It has willingly participated in these kinds of projects because it has lost much of its own agency. And once designers are separated from the decision-making process, there’s a willingness or desire on their part to become reengaged in any way possible. If you’re a young designer or you’re a small practice and you have the opportunity to build at the scale we are talking about, the likelihood that you’re going to turn it down is slim to none. I think in some ways design has been confronted with a choice. It is either going to try to push back and potentially lose the work, or it is going to participate in the projects and simply take what is given to them.
GW: In a lot of cases architects were probably brought into the process too late, but then it also feels a little bit self-serving and predictable to say, “Oh, if architects were only brought in earlier, it would be so much better.”
CM: I completely agree! I think it’s not that they weren’t brought in too early or too late, rather it’s a matter of the contribution and products of design. The tools that design is using to conceptualize and project and organize new settlement are oriented towards the end-product, not the catalyzing of future effects. We as designers need to begin thinking in terms of contingency, in terms of scenarios, in terms of variability. And frankly, I think the problem is defining what those other ways of working are. There needs to be engagement with the market, with the politics, with the economics of these projects in developing what these new formats can be and the tools that are being used to imagine them. I also think it is a matter of a shift in the model of practice, away from the kind of “siloing” of the different disciplines. In order to understand what’s useful as a tool and what’s not useful can’t be done within one discipline itself, but actually has to be measured against what’s demanded by the other disciplines that are involved in the city-making process.
GW: Let’s talk about Spain more specifically, which is where the majority of your research has been focused. For people who don’t know anything about what’s going in Spain, which is pretty difficult at this point as The New York Times seems to write about it every other day, describe the situation.
At a point in 2005 almost 20 percent of Spain’s GDP was tied to the construction industry–which meant that when that all disappeared, millions of people lost their jobs.
JA: The situation is dramatic. Before talking about territory or the city, we cannot forget to acknowledge the social consequences of this crisis. There are almost five million people who do not have a job in Spain: the unemployment rate will probably hit a 25% record next year. Moreover, about one million citizens left the country in the last 18 months. Regarding the construction industry, urban planning or architecture, there’s not much going on since the country’s economy collapsed. We the citizens were living in a dream where growth was endless. At a point in 2005, if I remember correctly, almost 20 percent of Spain’s GDP was tied to the construction industry–which meant that when that all disappeared, millions of people lost their jobs. Nowadays, all reports from the European Union or the International Monetary Fund state that our future remains extremely uncertain. I think that’s the most frightening fact: projections beyond the present reality are even worse than reality itself. When you walk or drive around any Spanish city you encounter leftovers of the construction boom– just like the images shown on the Architectural League’s website [Ed.–here and here]. You find empty buildings, vacant developments, and underused infrastructure, not only in the peripheries but also within the city cores.
CM: I think in some ways it is the vastness and the pervasiveness of the thing that’s so striking. Growth and market expansion were projected to continue and every municipality, regardless of its size or scale, felt that it should get in on the action and expand its own physical territory and build. And they felt that inevitably this new settlement would be occupied and as a result, would produce economic growth. There was very little coordination between the different agencies or governments involved. So you had massive amounts of redundancy, massive amounts of over-scaling–multiple airports, multiple highways–that were all being built more or less at the same time and were essentially competing with one another, in some ways guaranteeing their failure. That’s something you see if you walk around the core of the city. You see it if you’re at the periphery. You see it as you drive between metropolitan areas in the hinterland. And you see it along the coast. The thing that’s astonishing is that there are very few areas of the country that seem to have escaped this desire for expanded settlement.
JA: I think it’s important to point out that this is situation is not exclusive to Madrid, where we have focused our research. This happens all over the country. Obviously, it is difficult to move forward. However, that’s the spirit behind this conference: learn from the mistakes and look ahead.
CM: In some ways, I think what’s interesting for the audience of this conference and for the members of the Architectural League is that the things that we all care so much about–design, building, urbanization–were held up as the rationale and emblem of the economic successes and the maturation of Spain’s economy. It was amazing to see the Museum of Modern Art exhibition in 2006, in which Spain was celebrated as this hotbed of design. There were really, really spectacular pieces of architecture happening and they were being appropriated as the emblem of growth, the emblem of a mature economy, the emblem of global ascension. And now, all of a sudden, you’re confronted with those things and they look like false idols in some way. And what now? What do we as designers do? It could be a very depressing situation but as Javier said, I think we want to look at it as an opportunity to really rethink what the role of urbanization and building is in contemporary culture. And that’s the kind of larger question at hand here.
JA: Yes, that’s correct. In essence, laws required that those parties interested in the construction of, say, a new neighborhood, must provide all basic infrastructure before selling the plots. Street, sewer and lighting systems must be provided. Once infrastructure is in place, plots may be marketed and sold. Generally speaking, municipalities built this infrastructure with the idea of selling those plots to private developers. The problem is that with the crash, the influx of private developers stopped: cities, towns, and villages all over Spain found themselves with huge amounts of unoccupied urban infrastructure.
The problem is that with the crash, the influx of private developers stopped: cities, towns, and villages all over Spain found themselves with huge amounts of unoccupied urban infrastructure.
GW: So now you have all of these roadways and sewers and street lighting laid out but there are no houses or buildings, or if there are, they’re completely vacant or only partially occupied. But couldn’t you say that this is now deferred investment, that the towns will eventually be able to occupy these settlements when the market recovers and that at least now the basic infrastructure is there? Or is there something so fundamentally wrong with the planning to begin with that these developments are permanently uninhabitable?
JA: In the short term, nothing’s going to happen there. Nevertheless, all this vacancy should become a lesson. I think we have to take this situation as an opportunity to stop and reflect about how we want to plan our cities in the future. I don’t know if these sites should be completed as they were conceived at first. They were planned as monofunctional developments for residential use. They are completely detached from any other form of urban life; they are separated from the rest of the urban tissue by massive transportation infrastructures and they have very little connection to their immediate context.
CM: I also think it’s worth distinguishing between kinds of development that you find in Spain. There is development that is at the periphery of established cities that is within what would be considered an acceptable commuting time. They’re not the greatest places. They’re a bit over-scaled. The public realm is frankly depressing. Those places–I think you’re right, Greg–will eventually be occupied in some capacity. It may be a few years before that occurs, but yeah, those are deferred investments. But I think the real issue is that you have developments that are not just at the periphery of Madrid or Valencia or Barcelona. You have towns of five hundred people some distance from a major city that started building infrastructure for five thousand people. There was just no reason that people were ever going to settle in those areas. There was never the proper rationale behind them to make them work urbanistically or economically. Places or mobility networks that have been built in the hinterland or that exist outside of the pressure of the market are probably never going to have any real reason for use, so you just can’t consider these deferred investments. So what is to become of these places in the future? It’s interesting to look at what’s happening in other contexts. The situation in Ireland is somewhat similar to what happened in Spain. In Ireland, they’ve actually started ripping out and removing some of these incomplete settlements because of the psychological effect that they are having on the population. It seems wasteful, economically and environmentally wasteful, but at the same time removing these abandoned developments is maybe a way to move forward. You don’t think about the consequences in the same way when they are not staring you in the face.
CM: The interesting thing for me about Spain is its particular economic and political context. After the fall of the Franco regime, the country basically went through a significant process of upgrading from a third-world country to a first-world country that was initially subsidized and funded by the European Union. The bubble that we’re talking about is really from the mid-90s forward and was a result of some of the early successes that Spain had in terms of that initial transformation. There was this impression that the Barcelona model in particular was a model of growth and urbanization that would lead to prosperity. The Seville Expo was another model that could be reproduced or transported elsewhere in the country. There are these examples of early success that politicians and developers elsewhere in the country gravitated towards and tried to replicate. And they were reproduced in excess and at a range of scales, without necessarily thinking about the particular circumstances of the place or the original project. What I find fascinating about Spain is that the overall development period is relatively compressed, less than forty years, and we are really only looking at the most recent 15 years or so. As such, it has tendencies or characteristics of both an established economy but also an emerging economy. And I think the fact that this development occurred during this transition from one to the other in many ways allowed what happened to happen.
JA: I think that much of the Spanish development we are looking has many aspects in common with recent urbanization in China, Dubai, Angola or Panama. What I think is exceptional about Spain is this, let’s say, degree of delirium.
GW: So, this is probably an unanswerable question, but one of the shocking things about your research is how seemingly indiscriminately such massive amounts of capital were invested in building and development. When you’re talking about investment on the scale of hundreds of billions of dollars or more, you’d think that there would be much more rigorous thought and analysis behind the target of that investment. Maybe this is naïve of me, but you would assume that a lot of thought would go into choosing where development will take place and what kind of development and for whom that development is intended. Even without 20/20 hindsight, it seems that the decisions about how all of this money was invested were pretty stupid. Can you explain this?
JA: [Laugh]. Well, that’s a very good question. We keep on wondering how this could happen for so long. It’s a very difficult question to answer. But I’m going to give you an example. Madrid and Barcelona were recently competing for having Sands Corporation build a project called EuroVegas, which finally went to Madrid. For months, both cities were hurting to get the project in their metropolitan areas. Barcelona’s immediate answer to not getting the project was to launch another huge casino complex south of the city that will compete with that of Madrid. One wonders how this can happen again? Regional governments embarked in the same adventure, trying to attract the same type of investment with the same results we already know over the territory and the social tissue of the country.
The situation in Spain was delirious in every way. In terms of the physical outcome, but in some ways also the rationale that drove the kind of decision-making process.
CM: An additional reason may simply be that there was just a general surplus of capital globally during this period of time. Say the local municipality or the comunidad wanted to gain access to this capital; they would simply invent urbanization projects in order to be able to pursue potential sources of investment because a precedent of economic and urbanistic success had been established elsewhere in Spain. In many cases, these were places that otherwise would never have been even thought of as destinations for this scale of capital outlay. And I think to a certain extent this becomes a matter of momentum–Alan Greenspan’s “irrational exuberance.” People saw the kind of things that were being built and the scale of building and they wanted to invest more and more in it. And that led to the delirium Javier referred to. The situation in Spain was delirious in every way. In terms of the physical outcome, but in some ways also the rationale that drove the kind of decision-making process. I think your question is exactly right. I mean, in hindsight, how could this happen? Why is it still happening? In Javier’s example of EuroVegas, the fact that it’s a casino project is especially interesting. We’ve talked a little bit about the kind of transportable, reproducible spatial products that cities seem to think will guarantee success in generating capital. There’s obviously a lot of discussion here in the US about the use of casinos for this purpose, whether it’s in Philadelphia or upstate New York or the Midwest–that somehow the building of a casino is going to solve the city’s ills. And in Madrid–less than three years out from a massive financial collapse induced by a building boom and bust–that they would think the construction of a casino is going to solve the issues that they have in front of them is just a delicious irony.
JA: [Laugh]. And this decision was made just last month [in September 2012]. So, we see that the very same agents responsible for delirious investments in the past are again wasting public resources promoting the same kind of projects that failed. It seems like the only solution to the problem they find is to go back to the old recipes: “What do we do to create jobs? Let’s build a casino!”
GW: You pointed out earlier that this is cyclical and that we keep repeating the same mistakes. If this example is any indication, it looks like we’ll keep repeating the same mistakes. I wonder if the economic and investment momentum is so powerful that it is impossible to redirect it.
CM: That’s why this question of what the alternative products of design should be, what other disciplinary tools we should develop is so important. One might complain about a sort of late capitalist market economy, but the reality is that the urban design disciplines are not going to necessarily affect that reality to any great degree. But as you pointed out, these kinds of bubbles are going to continuously occur. If we know that there are going to be these kinds of ebbs and flows of available capital, that urbanization is going to go through periods of activation and dormancy, then shouldn’t we start taking that into account in terms of the way we plan for future urbanization? It is no longer viable to simply plan and elaborate a singular, preferred outcome. I believe design needs to start concerning itself more with failure and with pause than with the idealized solution, the sexy image at the end of construction. That for me is where the opportunity lies. How do we engage the realities of failure and pause and inflection and speculation in the way that we conceive of, design and plan for a large-scale new settlement? That’s the challenge ahead. I don’t believe that we’re necessarily going to shift the economic model. I think we actually have to shift the way that we as urban designers participate in the economic model.
This conversation took place on October 15, 2012.
All images courtesy of Google Earth. For more information about the images in this interview, click here.