Cities, or the missing vision for ’em in Australia

Dear reader, I have been busy beyond description. I have had no time to tweet, let alone post considered long-form writing on this blog, which is still incredibly dear to me. Instead, I have placeholders in my mind, things I think about when I’m running up and down Melbourne (literally, physically running), and things I can list here as a sort of physical placeholder:

– criticism as judgement and as philology;
– the role of the audience, and critic as an audience member;
– short taxonomy of live art;
– on Christoph Schlingensief (I have recently submitted by interview with Anna Teresa Scheer on the book she has edited with Tara Forrest on Schlingensief, of which I am tremendously proud – I will re-post here when RealTime publishes it, but I was going to write a few other things too).

However, I’ve been also itching to write more about cities. I’ve realised I don’t publicise the other half of my life enough – many people don’t know that I have spent 14,600 hours (I calculated tonight) studying and working on cities, which makes me at least fluent in urbanism. I am a geographer, there’s about half of an urban planner in me, and I’m also being trained in urban design. I research, I design, and I write about urban problems to almost the same degree as I write about theatre. And it was only recently, when I realised that my ex-boyfriend had somehow managed to sell himself to the world as the theatre and urbanism expert who just happened to be going out with me, that I started wondering about whether I am perhaps too reticent about these things. I mean, I do have this whole other area of interest, if not exactly expertise.

So, I’ve spent the best part of this semester completely engulfed in urban design (when I wasn’t completely engulfed in the break-up with the said ex-boyfriend) – urban design which, in Anglophone countries, has been detached from urban planning since about the 1960s, which has resulted in some important problems. I’ve been grappling with those problems, as well as learning to master the expectations, the tasks, the problems and the opportunities of the design-based teaching process. It has been absolutely hectic, but extraordinarily rewarding so far. I am very fond of the design teaching process, which is studio-based, which is to say problem-solving and creatively oriented, but at the same time homework-driven and hugely demanding of the student. It seems to me that almost any discipline or area of knowledge could be taught that way, and that the practical component (the having to make something and present it in class twice a week) enhances one’s knowledge in a fairly significant way.

I have also been offered to teach studio-based subjects, which is humbling and incredibly exciting at the same time. I am getting interested, very interested, in combining performance training practices with design practices, in one way or the other (in performance exercises being used to generate design, or design exercises being used to generate performance). And when I say design, I really do not mean buildings, but solutions.

You see, the divorce between urban planning and urban design in the Anglophone countries has resulted in a peculiar state in which neither the left nor the right hand have the tools to effect change, and are, on top, working in mutual hostility. Urban design has gone the way of architecture (on which I will say only: I am yet to meet an architect who isn’t incredibly ignorant of most of the world, yet smugly convinced of the superiority of his discipline over all others – other than my friend Pouria, who doesn’t count because he’s Iranian). Urban planning has gone into public policy. The result is that urban design is only interested in shapes from bird’s eye perspective, and urban planning in equitable processes of consultation, and policies. The latter has no interest in Really Existing urban conditions, not as far as I can see. The former, while it has an appreciation for Really Existing urban conditions, has no understanding of the social processes that form and perpetuate such conditions – which makes it essentially unable to replicate them through design. The result is the deep stasis we see in Australian cities, a failure of imagination and governance.

Dan Hill has recently published an extraordinary article on this failure of imagination and governance in Architecture Australia, and re-published it on his excellent blog, City of Sound. I recommend the article even if you never cared about a city in your life: it’s very thought-provoking. Dan makes a point that governance isn’t simply management, that it needs a vision for the future (which is what design could give urban planning); but also that ocularcentric (pretty-pictures) design, of which we currently have bucketfuls, cannot give us the solution. This is why I previously made a distinction between designing an object and designing a solution: the latter can be invisible, yet it has to work. At the same time, paradoxically, it is urban planning in Australia that has the ‘strategic’ epithet in front of it, the long-term thinking and acting. Design is short-term and product-oriented, while strategic planning is without vision. No wonder we’re fucked.

In another, recent blog post, Dan also addresses this, somewhat obliquely:

Strategic Design is, to me, potentially the most interesting recent development in design. It’s neatly defined at the Helsinki Design Lab site:

“Helsinki Design Lab helps government leaders see the “architecture of problems.” We assist decision-makers to view challenges from a big-picture perspective, and provide guidance toward more complete solutions that consider all aspects of a problem. Our mission is to advance this way of working—we call it strategic design.”

It feels (and is) quite different to design thinking, which is a term and way of thinking I think will fade quite rapidly, for some good reasons (the incorporation of its basic tenets into everyday processes) and bad reasons (the lack of rigor, awareness and responsibility on the part of many who have been actively pushing it in recent years). Either way, strategic design feels like something else, and its careful, integrated and thoughtful focus on meaningful, systemic challenges like health care, education, and climate change is particularly relevant. It’s also sketched out well here.

I have seen ‘design thinking’ appear in many places recently, even creeping into the world of theatre (through people such as Esther Anatolitis and Ming-Zhu Hii, who are very interested in design). I am quite wary of the term, because I am under no illusion that designers have the general knowledge needed to find solutions to problems. I work with designers, and I can attest to the inordinate focus they place on packaging, as opposed to function. But what design disciplines do have is a method of ploughing through a problem – a process.

What is needed, however, is greater emphasis on learning how a city works, what a city needs, how a city changes – in an abstract, non-targeted way – before a designer has actually gained enough knowledge to put their drawing skills to good use. See, for example, the eminently reasonable curriculum offered at Delft university (the Dutch are particularly good at teaching this stuff right). (ADDENDUM: I didn’t want to be mean when I original wrote this, but now I think it may make sense to compare this to the similar curriculum at Melbourne University. As you can see, the design subjects are strongly focused on design methods, such as digital modelling; while the planning subjects are mainly concerned with legislation. The focus on actual processes shaping the city is just about negligible.)

On a related note, I saw Timothy Morton give a lecture last week, at Melbourne University. The gist of it seemed to be that the age of theory is over, and the age of doing has begun. This is a peculiar thing, coming from a theorist, who in the question time admitted that all he knows how to do is sit in libraries and think, and that there must be a place for such activity too. Of course, yes. But I’m finding it interesting that this sort of thinking has been creeping into humanities and philosophy: a sort of glorification of the doing, of labour, of the physical, unthinking world, over abstract synthesizing of the world. The problem is that it very easily slips into glorification, precisely because it comes from people who don’t know what they’re talking about.

Similarly, there has long been an interest among designers in philosophy; but this is always in the most utilitarian, de-abstracted terms: ‘let’s design smooth and striated space, as theorised by Deleuze and Guattari’.

It seems to me that neither of the two is particularly smart as an approach, and that the trouble comes from a certain lack of general knowledge, or specific knowledge, on both ends. There is a place in this world for abstract thought, and for creative problem-solving. They can be immensely useful to each other. But it is only in their non-compromised forms that they are actually what they are, and only as such can they be useful to each other…