I will be spending serious quality time this coming week with both my sisters. Where to go when in need of quality time on the east coast? Disney World! We all have not been there in ages and thought it would be a good idea to find the elusive r + r with Mickey. I will keep you all posted on how it goes but for now I wanted to talk about fantastical urban developments in the vein of Rem Koolhaas.
"A city cannot be a work of art," Jane Jacobs once wrote. Well, the renowned architect Rem Koolhaas has designed an enormous city-district that looks like a gorgeous work of art. To call it a mega-project would be a gross understatement. How about "giga-project"? Above is what it's supposed to look like.
It's one-square-mile of man-made island to be built on an artificial harbor in the Emirate of Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates, the cost of which, even before buildings, will be probably reach the tens of billions of dollars.
You can read about it on the website of Mr. Koolhaas's firm, The Office for Metropolitan Architecture, here. The idea is to mimic the density of Manhattan on an immense scale, combining mixed uses (what else?) in the context of his celebrated concept of a "generic city," which he has defined as "the city liberated from the captivity of the center, from the straightjacket of identity…it is the city without history."
So why can't a city be a work of art? Because a work of art is the creation of a single mind that abstracts from the complexities of life to achieve a particular end, however definite or ill-defined that may be. To the extent that the artist intends to create one thing and not something else (though she may change her mind often) she shapes parts of reality to realize her vision as effectively as she can — something the artist and the engineer have in common. A living city, on the other hand, is something that emerges over time from the mostly unplanned interactions of those who live in it, creating complex inter-relating patterns — social, infra-structural, and architectural — that defy deliberate construction.
"To approach a city, or even a city neighborhood," Jacobs continued, "as if it were a larger architectural problem, capable of being given order by converting it into a disciplined work of art, is to make the mistake of attempting to substitute art for life." Which is why (as I've said before) architects usually make bad urban planners.
Whether the result of private or public planning, or some private-public planning hybrid, construction on such a massive scale has serious, negative long-term consequences. First of all, even though Mr. Koolhaas's island district is designed to look heterogeneous and diverse, true architectural diversity is the result of buildings and public spaces being built in different eras, each with its own tastes, technology, and resources. A single mind can't design that kind of genuine diversity, any more than it can invent a living language. Visual homogeneity, no matter how cleverly done, is fundamentally bland and deadening at the street level.
Second, in addition to this deep and unavoidable visual homogeneity is an inherent temporal homogeneity. That is, since the structures will be built over a period of years rather than decades or centuries, they will mostly be of the same vintage. This will tend to make the district affordable when it's new only to the very rich and well-established, and it will all age together — good for married couples, but bad for long-term economic growth. Having some old and worn-out buildings sprinkled around offers cheap space for young entrepreneurs and artists with little money to experiment and exploit opportunities in a wealthy district with high concentrations of people. "New ideas need old buildings." They serve to significantly expand the diversity of tastes and knowledge that are necessary for the vitality of the city over time.
If ordinary mega-projects have trouble grappling these problems of homogeneity, giga-projects don't stand a chance.
I suppose if enough foreign wealth floods into this commercial and residential playground, it will achieve a sort of Disney World success. That's perhaps the best that deliberate planning at this scale can hope for, but it's as far from real urban success as Disney World is from Manhattan.