Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Book - A Manifesto for Sustainable Cities

A manifesto for sustainable cities is definitely a task with two diverting possible outcomes to it. On one side this is a winner, because everyone is talking sustainability and if you can offer this bound knowledge on the topic you are clearly up to the task. However, there is also the other side, you can only fail with this approach. It has been over used and become a real media word without meaning or program. Furthermore some sort of resignation has settled and a lot of practitioners think it is just too complex to fit in one field of expertise.
This book here with the title: ‘Albert Speer & Partner: A Manifesto for Sustainable Cities, Think Local, Act Global’ by Jeremy Gaines & Stefan Jaeger, published by Prestel in 2009, is probably such a candidate for this kind of black and white judgement. It is either great and you love it, or you will find it terrible and you don’t bother. However, the topic is kind of urgent and it has to be taken seriously globally to tackle the issue and every little helps.
This book is not a little, but 220 pages think and therefore must have something to say?
It is organised in ten chapters each in command style what you have to do and how you have to do it. It looks kind of more like a manual than a manifesto. The content is put together from practice examples drawn from all over the world, both in house Albert Speer & Partner (AS&P) projects and external projects by leading practices.

Image by AS&P, taken from german-architect / Artist impressio nof the proposal for Abuja, Nigeria. Note the six lane boulevard running down the length of the proposed development. This not only creates two parts or reminds us of Haussmanns Paris, but it also is clearly planned for individual traffic - cars - sustainable? More ilustrations can be found HERE.

The guys at Albert Speer & Partner really seem to know what they are talking about and they know it so well that they have to tell everyone else that they know it. So what you get with the book, is a set of ten rules, and I have to stress the importance of these rules, on how to do it. I have to repeat it again, this book tells you how to do it and of course also tells you how not to do it. It comes as a surprise to actually find such an old school approach to the complex topic of sustainable urban design especially because planners and designer only begin to grasp the extent of the topic and the required complexity of processes needed to address some of the issues at hand. But with this publication in hand you are saved and with you the planet, if this is not sarcastic enough.
There seems to be a never ending list of complex interwoven topics that render this book impossible to acknowledge as serious beyond a marketing publication. The text starts right away in the introduction with a sharp critique on the Fosters and Partner project ‘Masdar’, the zero carbon city outside Abu Dhabi. I agree with the critique in some points, but why would you choose to open a book with such a statement? Is there such a need to establish this distance between oneself and the others, dealing with the same problems? Similar, at a later point, there is talking about the new Alianz Arena in Munich, a new Football Arena built for the World Cup in Germany 2006. AS&P somehow had a part in this project, but the actual architect is not once mentioned in the paragraph. And who do you guess the architect was? A famous architect of course and not Foster and Partner. Yes, it was Herzog and de Meuron. This strategy of not mentioning seems to go through the book and frequently not the whole context is revealed. Other examples can be found again in the introduction where the talk is of another mysterious zero carbon city, this time in the United Arab Emirates called Ras al-Khaimah, who do you guess is the project author for this one - O(h)M(y)A(?). The name of the architect must have gone lost somewhere on the way. Also in the paragraph ‘Icons and Idiosynchrasies’ where only specifically selected icons are presented, such as the Guggenheim in Bilbao, but with great care not mentioning the architect. More is in ‘Current Mobility Fosters Immobility’ with the example of the Curitiba Bus System but no reference to where it came from and who invented it.
Either it is a decision to keep the descriptions extremely simple and this information is considered as clutter or it is strategical non-placement of references that would distract from the glory of AP&P.

Image by AS&P / perspective view of the master plan for Changchun JingYue, Ecological City in China. Extreme axial organisation again, as in the previous example, while creating a lot of physical boundaries in addition with transport and water features. Surprising her is the lack of clarity regarding the definition of space or voids. The parcels seem to be developed under aspects of value and dimension along a grid of roads. The buildings are then detached isolated placed floating around inside the plot. It is only a diagram yes, but one that clearly states the road in with it the individual car traffic as its dominant factor,

The glory really doesn’t end here. You have probably by now understood that the book must be in ten chapters - reference, what comes in ten chapters down from the hill, somewhere in the desert? AS&P must also have picked it up somewhere in the desert as they ... sorry this is going to far, but yes The Ten Commandments are, according to Wikipedia: “a list of religious and moral imperatives”. As if this is not good enough, there is an eleventh chapter, the conclusion. This is the book killer, it is entitled: ‘Applying The Ten Commandments: Cairo’ ??? Is this some sort of 21st Century Christianization? (I am aware that the Ten Commandments do also play a role in Islam, but the context and the way ideologies are thought directly by the head teacher is truly astonishing.)
A note on the style of the text, it is surprising at times and lets one wonder who actually is telling the story here. From the first impression you would expect that this is some kind of a knowledge output by an architectural practice, they talk about what they learned and experienced. But then after a few lines you come across the first third person reference and then follows the first quote of someone, apparently a board member of AS&P. After a few times this lets you wonder who is writing here. Do architects also have ghost writers?

Overall there is very little good to say about the style of the book. However, it has to be said that it covers different aspects of sustainability, illustrates them and through this can offer a perspective on the topic. It is just that one has to like the style to like the book, I guess. This is a half hearted recommendation, but have a look at the book and see what you think of it.

Gaines, J. & Jager, S., 2009. Albert Speer & Partners: a Manifesto for Sustainable Cities: Think Local, Act Global, Prestel.

1 comment:

Helsinki_Dave said...

10 is the number of christianization? Maybe not, the magic number for Christians might be better said as seven, just ask The Pixies.