Urban form, a story of human actions and interactions
Assignment 1Urban Form, A Recording Of Human Actions And InteractionsThe urban environment is as much physical in appearance as it is conceptual, its form and its connotationsdramatically changing through means of perception. Thinking about tourism, a city is known by its form andremembered through its people or, to be more precise, by the way its people manage to transform space,from the urban politics applied to the way its inhabitants accept or fight against them.I chose Bucharest for I am experiencing a love-hate relationship with its form. This urban landscape isincoherent and chaotic, a true patchwork of everything. It consists of significant details to such extent that Isee it as a pointillist painting. However, I consider that understanding its history provides a mechanism ofanticipating all that appears unexpected, so I will try a brief display of the human actions in its history thatcreated a root for its contemporary development.
A trip down memory laneRiver, high points and low points (not too high, nor too low), perfect conjunction of merchandise roads,seems like the winning ingredients for an urban soup and they were, in 1459. Sure, it started as a bunch ofhouses around the emperor’s court, as most medieval cities did. However, it continued pretty much in thesame form until the 19th century, as stated by a visitor in those times: “Bucharest looks like a village” he says.Nothing far from reality, with small districts organized around churches (a lot of them) and displayingprofessional segregation. Commerce flourished in those parts transforming the way houses were built(dense housing on narrow plots, with first floor commercial spaces) and urban gathering space meant thespace around churches and the interior courts of inns (many of them hosted by the churches). Thisconstitutes what is known today as the old historical center of Bucharest.Things moved quickly in the late 19th century and by the 20th century Bucharest was called Little Paris, thecity grew quite a successful economy, and it developed intellectual and administrative sectors which pushedoutwards the limits of the town and generated different types of housing and land usage. In short, everybodywas happy and socially segregated to an extent (quite naturally, a segregation that ensured functionality), butthey formed a community in which everybody had its role and public space was a frame for inhabitants’display and socialization, being used accordingly.WW2 then offered a context to implement a more structural take on the city, creating urban axes orreinforcing naturally developed ones. Nonetheless, it generated space for new architecture and urbanstrategies, consolidating an emergent city. The loss meant development, the most natural thing in the world.Those nostalgic fruitful years were rapidly clouded by the socialist regime, that big bad wolf that firmlychanged the evolution of Eastern Europe. Romania has, or at least had, a deep rooted rural society that isquite obvious in the urban evolution. If it helps you to better visualize, what Western Europe calls medieval,we reached it in the 19th century. What did communists do to change the urban environment besides alltheir “I love symmetry and mass” philosophy, properly known as “the cult of personality”? They populatedcities with uprooted villagers while they forced industry in direct relationship with cities, building largehousing districts that offered high vertical density and poor conditions (uniformity, minimal space, lack ofservices) and an unhealthy public space consisting in the large spaces between buildings which lackedidentity. Welcome, ladies and gents, to the future “ghettos”!
It was then decided that the inside of the inner ring (low rise and low density) does not represent the overallgreatness of Bucharest. In more or less 5 years, all Romania’s resources went on literally rebuilding its center asa symbol. Where were people considered in this decision? Well, what people? They all had a place to live, neartheir factories, in their 3.5X3.5m module apartments. The result was massive and not populated. Funny fact,it still is to some extent. This is a boulevard called The Socialist Victory, a new urban axis that was built only to be a symbol of the regime. Older friends tell me that people were not actually allowed to have much activity here, since this was an official road only to be used by the dictator and its staff. As a paranthesis, Bucharest is a pedestrian nightmare, with cars parked all over the place and people forced to walk on the street. Strolling in this city is as difficult as it can get. However, this area (photo) was so poorly designed in terms of functional zoning, that nowadays people often avoid walking these streets, although it’s probably one of the only places here that is pedestrian friendly in terms of space.
Then 1989 came and people regained their precious liberty, they fought for identity and did not understand athing. In 20 years Bucharest outgrew itself in such a way that it resembles a child who resented his early yearsof education and went in a separate way only to follow the same pattern.Urban politics“We don’t really have money so let’s use what we have and add some more, here and there”We still rely on the socialist infrastructure which was scaled, head start, to respond to more that it needed atthe time. However, it didn’t anticipate all that was about to happen in such a short amount of time. Unbearabletraffic, no parking spaces and, while focusing on the so much wanted (not needed) cars we forgot about publicspace as an “agora” (I’ll come back to this later).In the early 2000’s, a known local architect emerged the theory that Bucharest, as a result of so much visuallyreadable layers, is a picturesque patchwork that must remain as such, offering the wonderful context ofbuilding anything, anyhow, anywhere. (As far as I am concerned, such a patchwork deserves its recognitionbut in the attempt to reconciliate its flaws and to generate dialogue. Moreover, urban architecture is a meredisplay of personal aesthetic decisions if, and only if, it is part of a coherent, healthy urban strategy thatimposes boundaries.) Needless to say, people started to build wherever there was space, under the directapproval of the municipality, and they obviously attacked the low density city center. Old was not goodand new was a sign of identity, although not educated. The coexistance of two banks (one old, one new - both as institutions and as buildings) in what was once the financial district of “Little Paris”And here we reach the private investment sector. The old financial center was, of course, in the old city, buta new democratic society does not function with only banks and administration, so investors also used every bit of land they could get in the inner ring. This completely changed the urban scale, but rarelyconcentrated in one place because there was no space to do so. Slowly, but firmly, they moved, bit by bit,on the outskirts. However, nobody touched the “bedroom districts”.
Urban SprawlSoon, the reasonable spaces filled out and people wanted more: space, luxury, personal expression.The housing districts built by the socialists were right on the outer shell of the inner ring and did notoffer proper conditions, forcing them to consciously move to the suburbs. Suburbia reflected luxury,although lacking infrastructure. People knowingly accepted to waste more time to and from work,bought more cars to ensure independence for all family members, but managed to achieve theirdreams: an unreasonably large living space to submit to the public game of comparison. The result?Thoroughly aligned boxes in a psychedelic display of shapes, sizes and colours and no community space,since there was no rooted community and people powerfully resented to share anything. Oh, we wouldn’twant to forget the fences. Yes, people fought the uniformity they experienced during the regime, butdemocracy couldn’t provide for all. Criminality became an issue, so security measures became a must.Security must be opulent too: “What’s mine is mine and you should not cross the line, or else!”, workingpretty much like the “bad dog” sign on the cage of a Chihuahua.With investments moving in the suburbia, people had more incentive to move there as well, but not all ofthem could afford to live in a dream house. They had to accept shared living, but in newly built high-rises.Not perfection, but still, better they thought. They thus gave a new meaning to uniformity and isolation,this time by choice.In the meantime……the housing districts started to decay, not only because of poorly-constructed buildings, but because of lowincome and rising criminality generated by the death of industry, the motor that gave them sense. In addition,this need to individualize their living space combined with lack of financial support, boosted their creativity.There was a whole trend in the 90s of using old bus windows to close and insulate their open balconies andnow, supported by the public endeavour of thermally insulating the apartment buildings, they found a reasonto use colour (also fighting against the “communist grey”).
Ironically, some investors found space here and “complimented” the urban fabric with more massive sharedhousing which, in essence, offers the same uniformity. Nonetheless, the identity of individuals started to showbecause not even these provided the necessary comfort.Use of public spaceSo, we’re left with a city center that struggles between saving the valuable old and renewing the same old inorder to meet contemporary needs. A patchwork that is to my personal liking, but it’s poorly managed. I findmyself back to public politics which, to my concern, are inconsistent and a continuous instrument to cheat“public affection”. This endeavour generated, over the years, a long line of idiosyncrasies and aberrations.In a way, although I resent these decisions, they give an outstanding personality to the city and also generatepowerful insights on urban sociology reflected by the reactions of the inhabitants: unused newly created publicspaces, use of unconventional public space for gatherings, creative use of new urban objects etc. Also, the artisticsector flourished in this area over the last decade, generating, for the first time in years, an urban community thatis finally rooted in the urban environment (which couldn’t happen with the uprooted rural people that are stillmelancholic and act out negatively in the urban space). One statue alone generated a collection of urban reactions that became viral on the internet.
During a street festival I installed see-through panels all over the place and asked people to draw how they’d like tochange the public space they’re looking at, adding objects, reinterpreting buildings or erasing parts. The results werenot to my liking, but it was interesting to study the balance between people who tried, people who intentionallyhave drawn away from the subject asked, people who experienced shame when they had to draw and people whohad no opinion at all. University Square, used as an unconventional space to raise awareness on reading books.
An interesting subject is that part of the public space that should function as an “agora”. Due to the “proto”-urbandevelopment of Bucharest until the 20th century, when public space for meeting was directly related to churchesand the small communities did not need a large area to do that, the old fabric of the town does not provide for thecontemporary society. Moreover, the socialist regime knowingly fought against this type of public use of space, sothey created large isolated parks and large intersections to be used by cars. The direct consequence nowadays isthat the few spaces that could function are not used as much, but unconventional spaces became embedded inpeople’s conscience. A relevant example is University Square which became the symbol of democracy when thestudents started the revolution there, in 1989. Although unfit for such a purpose, in 2012, when people decidedto take action against the government, they used the same space, part as a conscious reminder of a definingmoment, part as an unconscious natural act. As a parallel: This installation is a metaphor of probably the most common use of public space during the communist regime: staying in line.
Inside cities...Further going into the matter of “agoras”, Bucharest has a long history of making bars the center of social life.From the small neighbourhood bars that make the delight of every community, to the downtown spaces thatwere the meeting places of last century’s intellectuality where they would make strategies for social reforms.Nowadays, the best example I could give is the social revolt I talked about earlier. Every night, for the whole twomonths of social gatherings, the pub nearby became the unofficial headquarters of the emerging revolutionists.Shopping malls are another good example, virtually recreating a “perfect” city atmosphere in a shallow,consumerist manner. This is, however, a general tendency that reflects, to my opinion, a concerning directionof the human kind. But sometimes even malls became reminiscent of the former rural life of the citizens...... versus turning on the insideAs an attempt at a conclusion, I think that in the particular case of Bucharest people resent the shared use ofpublic space. I guess that the logic of this lays behind all the facts I presented above. However, the result isunappealing and destructive and I’ll let it speak for itself: A former shared housing neighbourhood built in the 40’s became a visual fight over property.
ConclusionsNowadays, most people consider that urban life is the only option, probably lured by the fake promise ofprosperity. Things are moving rapidly and seem uncontrollable at times, markets rise and crash generating newurban forms and leaving them in decay short after. People’s actions generate the form of the city, but thecause-effect scenario does not limit to the moral author. Moreover, people, although fighting for individuality,rarely realize they unknowingly follow the crowd.All these leave me with one question: how can the people responsible for urban development manage toeducate the masses fast enough so they can prevent incoherence, while still allowing things to developnaturally, providing freedom of choice and expression? In this particular case, how can we deal with such abruised society that often has no sense of responsibility towards the public space or themselves for thatmatter? Strongly firm on my position that a start-over is not an option, it often seems we have reached a deadend and no general action could match the speed embedded in the urban organism. Or could it?