Features

Venice Biennale: The Fear Free City

October 26, 2010

Barrie Shelton examines a proposal that would see urban density serve as a catalyst for a richer, and safer, way of life.

This scheme formed part of the Now+When: Australian Urbanism exhibition at the 2010 Venice Biennale, curated by John Gollings and Ivan Rijavec.

Each day we wake with dreams of better lives, but these are thwarted by a plethora of fears in a climate of dwindling hope. Fuelled by a media that concentrates on disasters from tsunamis to city crime, our fears are reinforced to stifle imagination and, even worse, deter action. At its heart, Justyna Karakiewicz, Tom Kvan and Steve Hatzellis’ contribution to the Venice Biennale this year, Fear Free City, is a reflection on this condition, an exploration of an alternative urbanism, and an attempt to steer aspirations towards new horizons.

Manifesto and Dreams

The original five panel submission of elegant drawings and short sharp statements are arranged in the sequence of classic urban manifestoes, commencing with bleak diagnoses of present ills and closing with vision, hope and an alternative form – not unlike, for instance, those of the garden city masters, Ebenezer Howard, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, all of whom started with the tumours and traumas of troublesome towns as the backcloth to their respective green and spacious low-rise, vertical and almost agrarian ‘Broadacre’ cities.

The first part, ‘Now’, is a shorthand list of people’s dreams followed by a forlorn picture of urban reality. In its wake is a set of principles that give direction for the future and underpin the ‘Then’, which offers impressions of life in and on an urban landscape where the forms are both building and ground. A short manga-like animation, produced after selection, adds a stunning if slightly eerie glimpse of Fear Free City.

Dreams revolve around safety and freedom, public and private spaciousness, easy access to everything, the supply of fine food, and eco-friendly practices and lifestyles. But for the vast majority of Australians, the suburban reality is dominated by excessive driving that dulls minds, drains energies and wastes time; a false sense of security and spaciousness that is both delusive and confining, food and goods that have travelled too far, and a nagging and debilitating knowledge that the very nature of our largely suburban existence is running down the planet that sustains us. To this last point, we could easily add the fragility and uncertainty of our whole economic system.

Tyranny of the Ground

Fear Free City’s principles are gathered by reading between the lines and images of panel three. The overriding idea is to pile high the city (more in heaps rather than stacks) but without jettisoning certain qualities of traditional urban structures, including the kind of permeability that comes from a lattice-like pattern of streets and other spaces. In other words, it is the qualities that are important rather than the specific forms of streets, alleys and squares (here, there are strong shades of the Smithsons and Team X who, in the 1960s, stressed the ‘idea’ of the street, but in elevated form). In Fear Free City movement and connections are recognised as the keys to successful form, with very visible links occurring across and between all levels, rather than at grade.

The contention is that as long as we remain wedded to the natural ground for all essential movement between sites and buildings, then the form is likely to be too restrictive in generating both density and activity. This is the case even if tall towers are employed along a road; for the lift-and-landing circulation of, say, a row of cruciform residential towers is as tree-like (as opposed to lattice-like) in its structure as a town of Radburn cul-de-sacs, loops and superblocks. Topologically, a group of independent towers is the vertical equivalent of a string of cul-de-sacs laid out horizontally on flat earth. Towers do not a city make. Yet so many utopian visions of urban density have taken the vertical route with taller towers or even more extensive tree structures, with Arata Isozaki’s Clusters in the Air proposal (1960-2) as the most iconic. The Fear Free City authors are reacting as much to such design ideas as to any immediate urban plight.

Images as Diagram

In their emerging model (for it is more exploration than product), movement is not limited to ground level, and public circulation pervades the volume. Hence, the traditional quality of small block permeability is reinterpreted in volumetric form. Contemplating this material prompts the mind’s eye to jump to many parallel scenes and visions, to take Fear Free City beyond the aesthetic and the forms of this particular exhibit. There is the deck idea of the street from Team X, coupled with the ramps, stairs, lifts and green community spaces that abound in Ken Yeang’s realised and theorised towers. There seems also to be some kind of cross-pollination between Babylon and Babel, and even of Osaka’s Namba Parks and the stepped wells of Chand Baori, though this may be stretching analogy. Greek hill town meets Kowloon Walled City, with the facility in both for walking the roofs. From my Japanese experience, I glimpse a fusion of several Hara buildings: the hilltown-like Yamato International, Umeda Sky’s linked towers and Kyoto Station’s thoroughly volumetric slab. And through the animation, it is difficult not to be drawn to scenes from both Fritz Lang’s and anime artist Osamu Tezuka’s respective renderings of Metropolis, albeit in a more fractured appearance. This is to name but a few. Interestingly, none are singular images but combinations: towers lock with megastructures, old mixes with new, and examples cross cultures. Thus, while the panel images are monotone and rather singular in their aesthetic, if viewed as diagrams, they infer hybrid complexity.

This ability of the drawing to trigger parallel imagery is important because, while seductive, the scenes are slightly clinical, and indeed ‘short’ of the life that the depicted forms are supposed to generate. In fact, I feel as I do when I enter the grey-scale of Kyoto Station: I imagine the messier dimensions of human occupation (kiosks, banners, advertising, performance, graffiti, vegetation, washing and much more) pervading the landscape, and think how much better it would be that way.

Wider Questions

Which leads me to some larger issues relating to the ‘making’ of such places that step beyond design. These are ancillary but crucial. Who develops, and how is ownership divided? Who is responsible for the public space? How, for instance, do you ensure public access through all points of public circulation and recreation – can the multi-level public spaces be truly civic? How do you ensure multiple and multi-level connections with the wider city? How do you subdivide volumetrically in complex irregular structures, and how do you allow for the renewal of parts within the whole, or even for the personalisation of space? To respond to such questions, we need operational frameworks to marry with the forms – in fact, a parallel exploration. And we need test sites for both to turn into experimentation and demonstration, which sadly we don’t have.

Fear and the City

The title is also food for thought – fear and the city is a persistent issue in urban literature and current media. Particularly important in civic life is to feel free from fear on stepping from private into public space. While this is as much related to social conditions as physical conditions, the latter are vital. Here, the idea is that density, mixed activities and a well-connected and visible network of multi-level routes bring with them a measure of ‘natural protection’. This borrows from Jane Jacobs’ principle of eyes-upon-streets – the safety equivalent of Bill Hillier’s ‘natural movement’, the theory that movement in an urban place is determined primarily by its spatial configuration, the two being closely related.

In a broader context, fear has led to many kinds of resistance to density and retreat from urban life within our cities – from withdrawal into gated communities, to the locking up of vast tracks of inner ring suburbs (best positioned for increasing density) in the name of heritage, to more general resistance to urban intensification and increased densities. Yet the need for change is urgent for the reason that is most commonly advanced: to avert global warming by reducing carbon emissions, which means a great reduction in the use of cars and shifts in lifestyle.

Some change is occurring, with more people living in townhouses and apartments at higher densities in and around our metropolitan centres than a decade or two ago. These are, however, proportionately small and probably less driven by any environmental imperative than the more pragmatic conditions of demography, employment and economic necessity. More singles, childless couples and single parents are working, studying and playing in less predictable ways, and require ‘urban convenience’ – which translates into ‘proximity’ to each other, facilities and connections. And the suburban dream of the free-standing house, however modest, is becoming more and more expensive. The notion of environmental concerns as a driver may be more incidental than real – a convenient and cosy feel-good explanation for something that is happening anyway, if with resistance.

Further, the design precedents for density that have emerged are often far from satisfactory. Guiding frameworks hark back all too literally to pre-modern forms. Or they result in apartment forms with residences literally jacked up and stacked up over car parking, to give at best a beautified but dead streetedge and a single-use solution – respectively in the names of townscape and urbanity.

For many, density conjures fear, and the media reinforce these fears by focusing on criminal and violent incidents at the expense of contextual explanation. For instance, a relative handful of drunken brawls among the countless thousands on Melbourne’s central streets are perceived as many more and are given greater significance than the fewer (in absolute terms) but proportionately greater number of violent incidents in some country or suburban centres. We could go further and speculate, not unreasonably, that most of the centre’s incidents have their origins in the suburbs, where many assume ‘the city’ to be a site for misbehaviour. At yet another level, many politicians know that density targets and urban transformations are not enough, but also have their fears – for their seats and futures.

As philosopher AC Grayling wrote: “fear itself is more to be feared than most of the things that people usually fear, and that gives us pause for thought.” Going a step further, he identified “fear as the enemy of endeavour”. This modest package of images, words and animation is a pause for thought, a call to face our urban fears and to do more than imagine new futures.

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