In recent decades, human civilisation has experienced a profound tipping point which, after millennia of the opposite, switched the balance of our populations from the countryside to the cities. The urban has come to define modernity to the degree that those of us who live in metropolises experience them as indispensable and singular symbols of what it means to live now. But the city’s tremendous achievements—its consolidations of technology, culture and efficiency—can extract costs of which we must remain ever mindful. From the wear and tear of particulate matter on our bodies to rush-hour transport congestion to such unforeseen effects as the precipitous decline and alteration of birdsong, the city is an entity, an organism, a concept that presents relentless challenges to the policymakers, architects, engineers, artists and—above all—the sundry residents who confront it. This month, we celebrate the consciousness-raising task of examining ways to exist within and appreciate the city, and to rise above its flaws and inequities to explore its joys and the possibilities of its history and future.
If you have a medical emergency in Mexico City, you might take your chances calling on the public ambulances—just forty-five are meant to serve a population of 9 million—but you’re more likely to turn to one of the city’s privately owned ambulances. Midnight Family (2019), a documentary by the twenty-six-year-old filmmaker Luke Lorentzen that won an award for cinematography at Sundance, follows the Ochoas, who run a single-vehicle family ambulance service, as they respond to emergencies and try to collect payment in a catch-as-catch-can environment. Fern Ochoa is the ostensible head of household, but his health is unstable, and it mostly falls to Juan—a seventeen-year-old still in braces who hugs a stuffed animal during interviews—to direct operations. At night, Juan sits in the vehicle—a decommissioned ambulance from Oklahoma that was shipped to Mexico, where the Ochoas bought it—in idle, jittery anticipation of the call that will have him racing rivals through congested thoroughfares in an effort to be the first on the scene. The Ochoas face numerous roadblocks: patients unable or unwilling to pay for the services they receive (before or after the fact), police who cite them for spurious infractions or demand bribes outright. One harrowing scene, in which the Ochoas transport a child who has suffered a traumatic brain injury to a hospital, palpably imparts the adrenaline and lightning-fast ethical calls their work demands. Midnight Family is never preachy or didactic, but the situations it depicts are an implicit critique of multiple systems—health, transport and social safety net—in disarray. ‘When you put good people into a broken system’, Lorentzen told an interviewer, ‘the things they end up needing to do are really complicated.’
By 2050, 75 percent of the world’s population will live in cities, and for the urban theorist P. D. Smith, this is good news. ‘In this dynamic, cosmopolitan space’, Smith writes in his lively and accessible 2012 primer City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age, ‘lies the wellspring of our creativity as a species. The greatest cities nurture and stimulate ideas in science and the arts that are the very heart of human civilisation. For this reason, sustainable, humane and well-governed cities are our best hope for the future.’ City needn’t be read in a straight line. ‘As in a real city’, Smith tells us, ‘you can follow any number of pathways through this book. And don’t worry about getting lost. Some say it’s the only way really to experience a city.’ Like many scholars, Smith contends that the world’s earliest city—ergo the first instance of urban planning—was likely the Mesopotamian centre of Eridu, now an archaeological site in southern Iraq. Much of what characterises any city, however, has little to do with bureaucratic intentions. In this vein, a chapter on walls considers graffiti and street language, ghettos and slums, red-light districts and museums. Another chapter asks what the ‘Ideal City’ might be, exploring the models and fantasies of Italo Calvino, Tommaso Campanella, Le Corbusier, Ebenezer Howard, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas More, Plato and Vitruvius. In Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo confides in Kublai Khan: ‘Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.’ Smith contrasts the variegated density of a thrumming hub like New York or Hong Kong with the concentric sprawl beyond them, repetitive stretches of outer suburbia that support the theorist Peter Droege’s definition of the 21st-century city as ‘a fossil-fuel construct in search of rapid restructuring.’ Smith’s jazzy, well-researched paean to the magic and mystery of urban existence quells anxieties about long queues, brusque strangers and painful parking tickets. Dip into City and you’ll be tempted to wander, flâneur-like, in some as-yet-undecided direction. But keep your wits about you; Smith’s next book looks at the intersection of cities and crime.
The designer and theorist Alexander Eisenschmidt cites Ildefons Cerdà’s 1859 plan for Barcelona, Le Corbusier’s ‘Plan Voisin’ of 1925 and Ludwig Hilberseimer’s vision for 1950s Chicago as lodestars for his Visionary Cities Project, a platform dedicated to studying the contemporary city and imagining new iterations of architectural urbanism through research collaborations, design studios, workshops and exhibitions. Eisenschmidt, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is the author of The Good Metropolis (Birkhäuser, 2019) and an editor of City Catalyst and Chicagoisms. He has curated exhibitions and shown his own work at the Architecture Biennale in Venice and the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2015, he and a group of students and colleagues put together a portfolio of competing visions for the development of the English city of Ilfracombe, on the northern coast of Devonshire. Their gorgeous, mischievous drawings, some intended to be viewed with 3-D glasses, rather outshone the plan put forth by the site’s official developer, the artist Damien Hirst. Hirst had partnered with the firm Rundell Associates to produce a rendering that looked, to a number of architecture critics, surprisingly prosaic: an eco-village by the name of Southern Extension that would contain 750 affordable, identical homes. (Indeed, in 2016, Hirst and his company, the aptly named Resign, withdrew from the project, handing it over to the property group Inox. It is expected to take fifteen years to complete.) Had the residents of Ilfracombe had the chance to consider the speculative inventions of the Visionary Cities Project, perhaps they would have opted to venture in a more daring direction.
Through 22 March 2020, the Tate Modern presents ‘Living Cities’, an exhibition of artists working in and making art about cities across the world. An immersive digital space allows visitors take a tour of Bangalore with the artist Sheela Gowda and listen to Ai Weiwei describe how his experiences in Beijing have shaped his pieces. The photographer Stephen Shore captures a range of cityscapes from New York City and Chicago to Oklahoma City and Gallup, New Mexico, while Naoya Hatakeyama’s photographs of light patterns in Tokyo, Maquettes/Light, are displayed on light boxes, giving them a crisp iridescence. Pavilion (2016), by the Polish artist Monika Sosnowska, was inspired by the architecture of the Osiedle Slowackiego housing estate in Lubin, Poland. Sosnowska’s 2000-kilogramme black-painted steel sculpture looks like an architectural fragment, with crumpled, rectangular, door-like apertures embedded in tangled latticework. Kader Attia’s Untitled (Ghardaïa) (2009) is an ingenious scale model of the Algerian city of Ghardaïa moulded out of 350 kilos of cooked couscous, wallpaper paste and salt, framed by photographs of the Swiss architect Le Corbusier and the French architect Fernand Pouillon (Le Corbusier visited Ghardaïa in the 1930s and applied the minimalism of its architecture to apartment blocks he built with Pouillon in France; Attia, born in the Paris suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, grew up in a Pouillon building). Mark Bradford’s Los Moscos (2004) is a paper collage formed out of scraps of posters, flyers and packaging Bradford found near his studio in South Central Los Angeles. (Los moscos means ‘the flies’, a derogatory term applied to migrant labourers in the San Francisco Bay Area.) The words and slogans that crowd the piece are a reflection of South Central’s ethnic diversity. According to Bradford, the scraps ‘act as memory of things pasted and things past. Peel away the layers of papers and it’s like reading the streets through the signs.’ To create it, Bradford added layers, sanded them down, added new layers and sanded those; he has compared his electric sander to a paintbrush. Marwan Rechmaoui’s Beirut Caoutchouc (2004–8), a rubber map of Beirut that visitors can walk on, bears the tracery of its roads and is divided up by city district. Temporary Dwellings (1974–7), by the Turkish artist Nil Yalter, depicts Turkish, Kurdish and Puerto Rican immigrant communities in Paris, Istanbul and New York City in a style reminiscent of ethnography. This absorbing exhibition illuminates the fast-changing vastness of urban life with both depth and whimsy.
The caricaturist George Grosz’s vivid, wicked paintings of Berlin street life revealed a post–World War I demimonde twitching with shadow and lust. Hannah Arendt wrote of Grosz that ‘[his] cartoons seemed to us not satire so much as realistic reportage.’ In a trenchant essay in the Paris Review Daily, Dustin Illingworth uses Grosz to introduce the writer Alfred Döblin, in particular Döblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, reissued in 2018 by New York Review Books. The cover of the new edition, translated by Michael Hofmann, features a work by Grosz, Panorama (Down with Leibkneicht). The sordid, morbid painting is well suited to the story of the violent, feckless, down-on-his-luck Franz Biberkopf, Döblin’s antihero, who is navigating life in Berlin after a term in prison. Biberkopf’s adventures and travails are breezily told in short, episodic chapters with colloquial titles (‘Reunion on the Alex, Bitching Cold’). He tries to lead a life of relative respectability, hawking tie-holders and newspapers in the gritty district of Alexanderplatz. But he soon falls back into the underworld and is taken back into custody, where he decides to starve himself into catatonia. A dramatic encounter with the spectre of Death jolts him into a subdued will to live, and after his release, he ekes out a living as a menial labourer. This weird, grim fable is electrified by Döblin’s patchwork impressions of Berlin. Meditations on popular music, biblical scripture, advertising and animal husbandry lend the narrative its strange vibrational power. ‘Somewhere between Walter Ruttmann’s dissonant montages and John Dos Passos’s “Camera Eye”’, Illingworth writes, ‘Döblin confers a form of consciousness on the metropolis itself.’ Born in Stettin, Pomerania, in 1878, Döblin moved to Berlin after his father, a tailor, took up with a younger woman, forcing him, his mother and his four siblings to relocate to Berlin’s blue-collar Blumenstrasse district. Memories of this period of poverty were perhaps a factor in Döblin’s decision to become a doctor, whether out of self-preservation or a sense of duty (he wound up serving patients who were mostly slum-dwellers). He also wrote steadily—novels, poems, reported pieces, plays—but none was a success until Alexanderplatz. Döblin admired the writing of James Joyce, and like Joyce told stories of individual consciousness pulsing and straining within the welter of urban life. Döblin perceived the glimmer of fascism in the corrupt lassitude of late Weimarism and fled to California before the Nazis took over. For the contemporary reader who is ‘alert to the … rising of the far right worldwide’, Illingworth notes, ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz may prove a kind of cracked mirror.’
Bosco Verticale, or Vertical Forest, is a pair of residential towers—the taller measuring 111 metres, the smaller 76—near Milan’s Porta Garibaldi railway station. Completed in 2014, they are a riot of plant life, festooned with 900 trees, 5000 shrubs and 11000 perennial plants; the 400 condominium units tucked into this verdant facade house happy urban dryads. Designed by Stefano Boeri with help from a team of horticulturalists and botanists, the project was inspired by The Baron in the Trees, a 1957 novel by Italo Calvino. A microhabitat that converts 44000 pounds of carbon each year, the site is home to hermit wild bees, bumblebees, hoverflies and over 20 species of birds. The shaggy exterior also moderates temperatures inside the buildings and protects against wind, dust and noise pollution. Solar panels provide renewable energy, while filtered grey water, from basins and baths, irrigates the greenery. Boeri’s urban forestry is a dazzling antidote to the environmental impact of cities, and he is replicating his model across the world. In Paris, he is building Forêt Blanche, a 54-metre tower whose walls will constitute a full hectare of woodland. His Forest City in Lishui, China, will contain 40000 trees and one million plants.
Illustrations by Audrey Helen Weber
‘Through this broad street, restless ever, ebbs and flows a human tide…’