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Urban Design

The Whereness Of Cities

Tautological as the statement sounds; Cities are places. It is an oft forgotten reality that urbanism is a phenomena that is as much geographical as it is cultural and economic. The location and geography of a City is critical to its form, its flows, exchanges and its transformations; perhaps more significantly than other conditions that allow cities to exist. But how crucial is this notion of ‘Location’ to Urban form and culture? Can cities be transported from one place to another without losing their sense of themselves? Given that Globalisation and the Internet are beginning to reinforce what Arjun Appadurai once called the “Despatialisation Of The Local”, thus fundamentally de-coupling of space and culture; is the City moving towards a paradigm that can escape the geographical  constraints of Urbanity? Is context becoming obsolete?

Cities themselves however permit a variety of juxtapositions and displacements that have no real roots to the context upon which they find themselves; a process that deeply enriches the urban experience while allowing the Cities to exist just that much longer by injecting a dynamism into systems that would usually be more than happy just to exist unchanged and eventually decay. These complex interactions allow for the emergence of new forms of culture and subculture that elevate the original constructs that create them. 

The very Cultural diversity that enriches a city, can simultaneously ravage it through violent or non violent dissatisfaction if disparity of opportunity and income exists along those very cultural lines. Geography could in this case become an arena for politics and struggle that expresses itself through spatial boundaries that mirror cultural and economic divisions within an Urban Society. These spatial manifestations of politics and economics create an Urban Geography that fragments itself and is alienated from the actual physical presence of its location. This potential for great Beauty as well as great Horror resonates throughout the City’s culture, its forms and its spaces; perhaps even to its  very spirit.

All of this is rooted in the search for identity within the City – a need to proclaim allegiance in a context so uprooted from History; which reinvents all associations and establishments that were once considered eternal. All relationships in Cities are therefore in a perpetual state of tension as they seek to avoid and sometimes embrace oblivion. A tension that swells and shrinks throughout a city’s history, expanding and contracting its size and its populations. This physical manifestation of an Urban order or disorder is thus linked to the City’s tenuous sense of self and situation.

However deep the requirement for identity, the City also offers perhaps a greater gift – Anonymity. That the City can supply a form of Tabula Rasa in terms of personal identity  and condition is one of its most attractive qualities; explaining the massive influx of people towards it. This potential for reinvention of self and condition allow for the creation of an Urbanism that constantly redefines itself as new ideas and cultures gravitate towards it as long as it can sustain them. This centripetal response to the existence of the City utterly changes it and aggressively competes with its yearning to be itself.

Although transformation is an inalienable aspect of urban existence, the inescapable physical inertia of a city is its defining characteristic and allows it to be unique. It cannot help but respond to its earth, its water, its climate or its air. All quests for permanence and transmutation are subject to this physical reality. Therefore, there are things in the City that are more appropriate than others to its context. Yet context is also temporal. The appropriateness of a particular mode of urbanism is unfixed through time, and varies wildly from era to era; searching for a lasting, permanent identity which may not exist.


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