Article: The world turns to the cities

By Flemming Wisler, Futureorientation November 2007

When more and more people turn to the city, the explanation is simple. The city is equivalent to hopes, prospects and well-being, and it affects people everywhere like a magnet. That creates great challenges – not only in logistics and traffic, but also to a great degree in social innovation

You stand at the town gate. It’s low and narrow and built of rough-hewn stones with a deep patina and is held together by its own weight and a minimal use of mortar. The road in is paved with large flat stones, which lie without structure and undulate up and down into small elevations and depressions. It’s worn as smooth as glass by centuries of use. Within the gate, the road turns sharply and falls steeply, after which it rises again. You look down a narrow avenue with houses on both sides, two or three stories high. The windows are small and often lopsided, with shutters in ancient weather-beaten wood. Earth colors dominate, relieved by flowers, laundry and pots with plants.

It is warm, but it is pleasant in the shade this time of day, when the sun no longer reaches the bottom of the street. It buzzes with life, but there is no noise. People pass each other, and pass in and out of the shops and the small art galleries, which are installed in the shady businesses on the ground floor of the small houses.

You are sucked in. You are sold and are on your way into a living museum. The town is situated in Provence and is 500 years old. Why do the old stones and the curved architecture speak to our hearts and do seduce us with soul and warmth? Can we use it for something in the town of the future?

The city is the hope.

The town is an old idea – actually, one of the oldest we humans have had. It has always existed as the natural center for safety, trade and social togetherness. The bigger the town, the more powerful the attraction, not least because the city also contains one of the most important driving forces for us human beings: hope.

Cities of a certain size and position tempt us with new prospects, freedom and anonymity – and often reveal themselves to promise only the last! But the town as gateway to dreams has never lost its power of attraction, and that is both its strength and its wildly-growing nightmare. Urban planners, architects, politicians, researchers and develop struggle to make the city’s enormous engine room work, and the city of the future is always on the world’s drawing boards in different competitions and discussion forums.

The hypothetical ideal

In the autumn of 1957, a new Danish village was inaugurated. The town, called Carlsro, was named after the farm that, since the 17th century had graced the fields of Rødovre parish, about 10 kilometers from Copenhagen. At the time, it was an unheard-of experiment. The new town was built in the shape of a longhouse, with 270 apartments and a hinterland of 600 small and medium-sized rowhouses in a closed and almost traffic-free area.

The village was designed according to modernistic and functional principles about light, air and minimalism, with relatively small apartments stripped of any non-necessity. To get the modern families, with many children and working mothers, to function, central parts of the town were given over to joint facilities with all modern conveniences.

As something fairly new for a town, a central kitchen was furnished for the residents. A part of the rent went for payment to be able to eat in the common restaurant five times a month, and if you were entertaining visitors, the kitchen could take care of dinner.

Modern washing machines were not a part of the individual apartments; instead, there was a central laundry. And there were a range of services: doorkeeper service, non-prescription drug sales, postal facilities and a news kiosk were all part of the longhouse, which boasted Denmark’s first convenience store twenty-five years before anywhere else.

Once you arrived home from work, you didn’t need to leave the collective down again. The town had its own baker, grocer, butcher, fishmonger and specialist merchants. In addition, there was a hairdresser, a lawyer, a dentist and an infirmary so the working mother wouldn’t miss work on the child’s first sick day. Even a maternity ward was part of the concept, as was a residential hotel for overnight guests, a sports center, daycare, kindergarten, after-school center and a youth center.

The collective-town Carslro was a full-service luxury liner that was launched like a flagship, and which represented the social town of the future, straight from the social democratic playbook, right down to the town hall designed by Arne Jacobsen. Rødovre found itself in the world atlas, and the collective down was visited by delegations from the whole world. It managed to work according to the original ideas until the end of the 1960s, when individualism and prosperity caught up with the Danes, who started wanting bigger kitchens and their own washing machines.

At the same time, the collective-town’s unique buffet of shops, services and institutions became ubiquitous for most Danes. Many of the area’s more affluent families moved to the new status symbol of the times: the detached house. In other words, the experiment was overtaken by the general increase in living standards, and the crises of the 1970s marked the decline of the town, which attracted difficult social problems and became ghettoized.

But Carlso still stands today, and after extensive renovation is once again one of the most popular social housing complexes in greater Copenhagen. The village, however, is no longer rural, collective or unique.

Weeds in the concrete town

It was great thinkers like Corbusier and Niemeyer who managed to put the rational town on the map before and after the Second World War. It was “machine for living,” as Corbusier called his idea about the modern home. The main emphasis was on the physical arrangement, where innovation, faith in the future and technological conquests put the scaling of the modern town in motion. Modernism won big in the reconstruction and the expansion after the war, but lost its innocence with the first demolitions of skyscrapers in the 1970s in the wake of the ghetto hell the concrete suburb brought to many cities.

The unruly people, with their wildly creative and social behaviors, simply choked the planned town. Creativity cannot be steered by rational planning. The modernists saw the city primarily as a physical manifestation of buildings and infrastructure, but in reality, it showed itself to be just as much a social arrangement.

Thoughts about the city of the future still have deep roots in the modernistic intellectual baggage. Rationalization, efficiency and elimination of disorder lie deep in the spine of the deeply on the planning elite, but it is increasingly difficult to make the city’s users stay on the straight-and-narrow.

The first sign of a town that doesn’t work is its missing pulse. You feel it at once or, at least, after one night. The city has its towers and squares, but it is missing something. It is a “machine for living” and not an inviting anthill.

The big headache is how to get life to throb in the planned and projected cities in a time when there is such a great need to build the city space quickly.

Bazaar-town in Valby

One of the first to build outside the ramparts, when Copenhagen finally gave in and threw off its fortress mentality in the late 1800s, was the Danish industrialist and brewer J.C. Jacobsen.

He moved his growing beer business to the countryside, where there was plenty of spring water and lots of room, and he conquered the small village of Valby. The rest is history, including the fact that the beer is today brewed mainly in Fredericia.

When Carlsberg finally decided to end beer production in the old industrial district, it caused a great stir among Copenhageners. A great architectural competition was announced for the area, which, over the years, had become a part of central Copenhagen and one its largest coherent areas.

With such a large new city space now available, many of the largest and best-known architectural firms attacked the prestigious task. So it was a great surprise when the winning entry announced. The small, creative Danish firm Entatis captured the first prize – ahead of Henning Larsen’s firm and 219 other proposals from 35 countries.

The winning project depicted an urban area that is a tribute to the dense, lively and not-least living and almost bazaar-like city. The city of is mix of habitation and small business, trade and culture, café life and sport. The project takes its starting point in the existing buildings’ disparity in size and height, and shapes complicated and varied street- and experience course that tie the area in intimacy.

In many ways, the concept is a revolt against strict modernism and tries to build in intimacy, and maybe even coziness, into the city space. It is a different and almost philosophical concept of the future of the city, with clear links back to the whole area’s history, where brewing, Danish cultural history and self-knowledge go hand-in-hand with social togetherness.

Maybe the brave and creative solution, invented partly as a provocation, won the prize because Jacobsen’s spirit still hovers over Carlsberg. Here it isn’t about staging in the shape of sets and props, but about preparing the ground for people’s own energy according to the old idea of gathering habitation, work and leisure in a town whose heart beats day and night.

Now the project faces the true challenge: getting contemporary Denmark’s modernistic planning laws and functional regulations to fit the narrow streets and quirky angles.

24-7-365

Much indicates that the city of the future will be a place where life is lived day and night, all year round. Where the tight zoning dividing home, work, education and leisure is relaxed, and where the pulse comes from a space for living rather than a machine for living.

Much inspiration will come from the social revolution taking place on the Internet these days, where self-organization is a mantra and where communities of interest connect the functional and the social. The challenge is to give MySpace a new meaning in the physical world, so that social networks also reflect the way we live. Moreover, the enormous chaotic cities of the developing world, where people have largely taken over and defined the city in disorder that still functions, may contain the seeds of new ideas.

Right now, we are legalizing one of the most fascinating town projects in Denmark, where self-organization, creativity and social network have been the mainstays. The town is called Christiania, and is totally outside the legal and architectural frameworks, yet it has for many years pointed to the future – long before there was something called cyberspace. Maybe we will need to look to Valby to see the city of the future, when “normalization” has extinguished the last joint in Christiania!

THE EXPERIMENT IN HJÄRUP

In a village in the beautiful country between Lund and Malmö, Sweden, lies Jakriborg – a medieval town built within the last ten years with room for 300 families. The town was founded by two idealistic brothers and developers, who own the area and rent out the apartments. The town is still under development and thousands of people are on the waiting list. The brothers, who build entirely according to their own principles of medieval architecture with modern content, are expanding the experiment to nearby areas, where they are building small clusters of modern Middle Age houses.

They think long-term, according to a vision that Lund and Malmö will grow together over time as an element of the regional city Copenhagen/Scania, and that the whole area, with increasingly more effective infrastructure, will become one of Northern Europe’s most important cities. One of Europe’s largest suburbs is close to it, and the exciting thing is that the search for soul in architecture, in the shape of Middle Ages coziness, is one answer to urbanization without ghettoization.

It is probably no accident that Jakriborg has been realized in IKEA-country, not far from another true original, Ingvar Kamprad, who, just like the brothers Berggren, is unafraid to forget good taste and give people what they want. Criticism, of course, has rained down on the town from intellectuals who “understand” architecture and urban planning. You cannot cheat. Or can you?

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