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January 12, 2006 || 9:34 pm
Ricky Burdett on cities

I didn't think this piece in the New York Times was up to much, regarding Ricky and his ideas. This is not to say that Ricky doesn't have good ideas on 'cities'. But to say that the debate around "people, society, architecture" is one that "five years ago might have been a gently heated discussion among colleagues, [but] is now a global flashpoint" is, well, to be a bit five years ago. Burdett's colleague at the LSE, Richard Sennett, has been talking about this for years. Mike Davis's seminal City of Quartz was published over ten years ago. Jane Jacobs first brought it up over 25 years ago. Everyone in the developing nations sector has talked about nothing but the challenges of urbanism and civil society for a long, long time. Even little ol' me, I was talking about the crucial links between urbanism, democracy and social cohesion five years ago, and the debate was pretty live then.

Which is really to say that maybe even the NYT doesn't have enough perspective to see that the pre-9/11 world thought that urban development was important on a political level. But I might also question - at least, given the evidence in this article - what new Burdett is really bringing to the debate. What he is quoted as saying is old hat, despite there being some really interesting and innovative work out there that he doesn't mention. Even the cities on his longlist - Shanghai, Mumbai, Tokyo, Mexico City, São Paulo, Bogota, Caracas, New York, Lagos, Johannesburg, Beirut, Istanbul, London, Berlin, Moscow, Copenhagen, the 'urban regions of Catalonia', Milan, Turin, Genoa - seem a bit 'five years ago'. What about Manila, Tirana, Addis Ababa (where the mayor recently won 'World Mayor of the Year' from the UN); why New York and not Phoenix, Arizona; what about Tijuana; why three Italian cities but not Paris (given the recent events), and where the hell is Jerusalem?

The Biennale is a difficult candidate. On the one hand, architecture is the most important thing for society, or at least that's what architects like to preach; on the other, nobody but architects actually goes to the Biennale. So the real purpose of a good exhibition there should be to give the profession a shot in the arm, not to preach to the converted, or to try and sell an message to politicians and others who quite frankly will never visit. 'Meta-cities' is definitely preaching to the converted. Every single architect is obsessed with urban ecosystems, favelas, uncontrollable social forces creating crazy urban spaces, gated communities vs. the starving hordes, etc, etc. Burdett, in icon magazine a couple of months ago, said "The visual manipulation of data – I'm very interested in that. Like what Bruce Mau did with the Rem Koolhaas book [S,M,L,XL, 1995] - taking dry statistics and turning them into something visually exciting. Like the fact that 50% of the world's population lives in cities; that in 20 years it will be 75%; that 100 years ago it was only 10%. That is quite a story to tell, but you have to make it visually rich so you can put it on the wall rather than in a book." We know. Yawn.

Well, if he's still stuck with mid-90s graphics, I hope that Ricky at least manages to do two other things with this Biennale:

Get a bit super-serious on the profession and ask, why aren't you engaging? Why are you churning out 'non-human species as a model for architectural form' or (outside of the student sphere) bullshit (sorry, Zaha) about how the "urban repertoire of deconstructivism and folding is geared up to create complex, polycentric urban fields which are densely layered and continuously differentiated...Key concerns are layering, interpenetration of domains and multiple affiliations of figures". World to architects: You what?

Get ahead of the game. Forget books by Rem from ten years ago - lets look at ecocities by Arups in China, the rebuilding of New Orleans, the stuff that's absolutely of today and tomorrow. There's a helluva lot of interesting stuff out there - whether you think it's 'good' or 'bad' is, to me, not the point. We don't want the Cities Programme lecture course distilled into an exhibition, thank you, nor a publicity job for the Thames Gateway. I want radical, I want heart-on-sleeve, I don't want any more of his big, bland statements.

I respect Ricky, of course, and having dealt with him in the past I know he's smart. But he's playing a good game right now, getting everyone to love him by peddling home truths with none of the difficult detail . To quote himself, "I start from the position that you can have your cake and eat it" - well, he's doing great at that. But curating the Biennale is a chance to really show your hand. He said, in that Icon article, that "It will end up with a series of propositions about how to change the world". That's a big statement, and I hope he can live up to it.

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