THE CONVULSIVE BEAUTY OF CONTEMPORARY CITIES

2014.10.02

TEXT OF COLBOC FRANZEN & ASSOCIÉS 
PUBLISHED IN THE MONOGRAPH "COLBOC FRANZEN & ASSOCIES, ARQUITECTURA 2004-2014" - TC CUADERNOS EDITIONS



The European city of the 21st century is marked by the phenomenon of "urban sprawl": the city spreads out in a "diffuse" and "generic" shape. Walking these contemporary cities leads one to understand that the antagonism of centre/periphery is no longer a sufficient way of characterizing them. The grouping of these urbanized territories constitutes a constantly shifting subject that is developed and grows, before decaying, dying, and being reborn in a different manner most of the time. This organism in continuous mutation must be understood in a dynamic and relative way.
 
The concepts commonly used to understand and act on the urban subject free them from an often anxious search for an urban apparition, that of the established European historic core. In it, one wants to give shape to "continuity and urban plurality" and pursue the ideas of "durable" and "density". One must not forget that density is quantitative data, a statistical summary of a given population based on a spatial element (length, area or volume) used to break down a population. The desire to see within it the guarantee of whatever urban quality tends to be a preconceived idea. This does not mean that density is the enemy of urban quality, but rather that in no case is it a sufficient guarantee as there is no ideal spatial density. It would especially forget the "convulsive beauty" of contemporary territories that are often "beautiful like the chance encounter on a worktable of a sewing machine and an umbrella." (Lautréamont). We must make, therefore, a shift in values and aesthetic considerations: the practices of collage (rupture) or exquisite corpse (continuity without purpose) may allow us to understand and act on these contemporary territories.
We observe, out of pragmatism, that for our societies to be viable, they must generate programs generate of an important critical mass. They are mastodons, often monofunctional, whose feet of clay are the optimal profitability of parking spaces. Instead of the quantitative notions of "density" and ideological "continuity", we prefer the notions of "polarity" and "intensity" which, for their qualitative, relative and dynamic natures, seem more efficient in helping us to understand and intervene in these contemporary territories marked by urban sprawl. We assume, therefore, that we produce "singular objects".
These "singular objects" make up the contemporary city. They act as intensifiers, generating new polarities. They possess the ability to accelerate the process of spatial transformation of the territory. Because of their uniqueness, they make zones of fracture and stress appear, conducive to confrontation, to putting things in doubt and, therefore, to evolution.
These "singular objects" are transient elements: an accelerator of change or a revealer of existing qualities. Therefore, we must be able to consider them not as perennial and accept a future contextual obsolescence bringing about their destruction.
 
Situationism
 
In the founding document of situationism – "Report on the construction of situations..." – Debord states, in 1957, to expect "the most liberating change of the society and life." "We must not reject modern culture, but rather seize it in order to deny it. (...) We must (...) specifically oppose, in all cases, the reflexes of the capitalist way of life, other desirable ways of living; destroy, by all the hyper-political means, the bourgeois idea of happiness."
 
Can a better definition of the role of an architect be found? Anchored in a sovereign materialism - choice of tiles, budget control, respect for rules, etc. – The architect aspires paradoxically for only one thing: to push the boundaries and open breaches of freedom. Is this serious "capitalist anarchy" in vain? Does architecture only exist by means of power? To some extent, yes it does. A bankrupt society loses interest in architecture. By contrast, the Greek, Roman and Japanese temples, the palaces, blockhouses, experimental associative structures, towers of public housing, exist, on balance, owing to the ability of a society to create appropriate legislation, unlock funds, mobilize resources that allow dreams to sprout. Miraculous creations that escape the rule will always exist – castles of the "Postman Cheval", wonders of vernacular architecture, cabins in the woods – but they remain anecdotal in relation to the mass of human production. There is no architecture without clients, whoever they may be!
 
The path of flexibility
 
Legend says that to establish the principles of judo, its creator Jigoro Kano was inspired by the sight of trees covered with snow during a rigorous winter. He noted that the cherry branches reacted differently to that of reeds: under the weight of the abundant snow, the cherry branches broke, being rigid, while the reeds, with more flexibility, bent and freed themselves from the "aggressor" with flexibility. Thus was born the path of flexibility.
 
All non-conformists in the 21st century – from the political artist to the producer, the entrepreneur, the communicator or the architect – all must learn that lesson.
 
Punk, new wave, MTV and Hollywood
 
The visionary manager of the Sex Pistols and former art school student, Malcolm McLaren, was nourished during his studies with situationalist writings and emerging pop art. A sensible impresario and born entrepreneur, he becomes aware of the conceptual impasse in which his London fashion store "Sex" leaves him. Located halfway between marketing and revolution, how can he maintain a rebellious message? In 1975, he decides to launch the Sex Pistols, his new anti-establishment boys band. Was it a mercantile raid on the protest movements of the era – which it achieved, or was it a desire to force our societies to evolve by playing with and making fun of their mechanisms? Here, the answer is unimportant in so far as the result is the same. McLaren understood his epoch like an architect must, by latching on to the phantoms of a society in order to redirect them.
The great energy of punk changed quickly into a movement whose aesthetic, smooth and cool codes went hand-in-hand with radically nihilistic words: the appearance of new wave. Dandyism rhymes with decadence. Joy Division and then New Order, Depeche Mode and The Cure imposed a stylish nihilism. Music clips, a new weapon of mass diffusion of the eighties, were a perfect means of expression for these groups, offering the possibility of linking image to sound. The creation of MTV in 1981 accompanied this global development. The answer was "global" and "communicative" and for this very reason – a priori – deviant. Thanks to music clips, the link between the non-conformist movement, music, film and consumer society ended up being fully realized. From this art scene emerged the "moviemakers", many of which would feed, with their tormented aesthetic visions, Hollywood productions. One of its purest products, David Fincher, trained by Lucas in Star Wars before becoming the director of clips and ads, even achieved the impossible: the creation of a antiestablishment film costing $65 million. In 1999, "Fight Club" offered us the possibility of believing in the link between order and freedom. Staging the story of the improbable destiny of a man fighting against himself and society, Fincher succeeded in producing an anarchic studio film.
 
The provocation of the "building maker"
 
Let’s return to architecture. What profession are we talking about? One of the only that, along with the cinema, evokes art and industry in its identity. The craftsmanship so evocative, from the "Arts & Crafts " to "three-dimensional photocopy", was overwhelmed by the industrial process. Convened by some pioneers, such as Bauhaus of Dessau or Le Corbusier's "Toward an Architecture", industry took control of construction. PVC imitates wood, resin replaces stone, and painted paper substitutes for leather.
Should we complain? Not at all. Let’s follow instead the path of flexibility. What are the sensory qualities that the industrial catalogs offer? The senses of sight, sound and touch are mocked. What remain of the five Aristotelian senses, taste and smell, are so little requested when it comes to "savoring" a building... What "constructive truths" to defend? The industry allows for the creation of a consistent quality that is standardized, imitative, but in fine coherent. In the same way that the moviemaker, for his technical mastery, seeks control of the film industry, the building maker searches for that of the building. For the domain of the process, the building maker seeks to anticipate, monitor and contribute to the improvement of the uses established within the scope of the construction. The extreme attention given by the building maker to the technical quality of their work underlines, by way of contrast, the fracture that exists between a standardized typical day and the qualities that users may require. What is the interest of the "well built" if not to try to shake up by its extreme minuteness the construction industry and, in the same way, the society?
The "singular objects" punctuate the territories of contemporary cities, convoking the art of the building maker. The level of precision will contribute to their singularization. Is it enough to transform these buildings into "subversive objects"? No.
 
Uses and deregulation
 
The "singular objects" call for a change of use in favor of the surprising and the unexpected. A shopping center fulfills its primary function – the guarantee of a volume of business – only if you create an event attractive to the curious. It becomes, thanks to an extra-"ordinary" animation – an autograph signing by a local beauty queen or the exceptional presence of a forgotten TV star – something other than a consumer device: a place of attraction and, therefore, of life. These changes of uses and feelings allow us to believe in the impossible. Can’t your parking area be transformed during a holiday into an antique market, a giant rave-party, an open-air music space or an improvised kart track?
We try to develop in these "singular objects" zones of no-rights. Various existing uses would gain legitimacy in these spaces and many would find their place. We try to dodge the current regulations in order to introduce "temporary autonomous zones" that allow for the unexpected. We authorize ourselves to finally see, in the "sprawling", a bountiful zone of freedom, a land of exploration, a place where anything is possible.
How, therefore, not to believe in the intuition of Debord? – "We want the most liberating change in the society and the life in which we are locked. We know that this change is possible with the appropriate actions (...)"