Last year, in a world capital, a fire in a tower block caused the death of many of its poor inhabitants. This event prompted the national government of that country to immediately bring forward a radical policy to improve the urban conditions of that city. Of course, this swift response should immediately alert the reader that this was not the Grenfell tower disaster. Beijing’s municipal authorities have just completed a “special operation” targeting building safety violations in the city after a fire in poorly constructed apartment building killed 19 in Xinjiancun, an area described by Reuters as “a ramshackle village of migrant workers on the far southern fringe of Beijing”.
Most of the dead were workers who had migrated to Beijing from elsewhere in China. The cure however is proving to be an even greater problem to the lives of those they left behind. The clearing of temporary or poorly constructed buildings throughout the city without replacement has led to homelessness on a grand scale. By the end of November, the Beijing government told Reuters that it had acted on more than 25,000 code violations, which it had hitherto overlooked. No replacement housing was built. Again, workers from the outlying regions of China suffered – activists believed the figures was in the tens of thousands. It is assumed that these individuals would simply return home. Wherever that might be.
Whist the clearing of Beijing has been felt most keenly felt in the suburbs, it has been felt in the city centre too. Hutongs – the traditional single story courtyard buildings typical of the city – have been wiped clear of any temporary buildings. Temporary shops and improvised structures long a feature of the city have been removed. Many alleys off the main boulevards of Beijing are now freer and easier to pass. Public space is not as commercialised as it once was. The messy reality of urban living has been removed and the city left that bit more austere. One of the most beguiling aspects of Beijing is the way that the street is layered in ribbons from the semi-domesticated apron of the building, to the pavement then on to the bike lanes, and thence to the boulevard.
The people of Beijing have always rendered the city’s authoritarian architecture – from the imperial to the Maoist – more human. The apron of even the most official building is co-opted for public use; ad-hoc meetings or the sale of lunches. Yet this is now under, one hopes, temporary threat. There is a deliberate attempt being made by the Chinese authorities – coming from the very top of the national government – to reduce the population of Beijing which has been manifested in removing the temporary structures that make this street life work. Should anyone doubt how serious this move on Beijing is, they should remember that prior to the fire it was announced that the municipal government of Beijing be moved to the suburban district of Tongzhou. It was also announced that another new city called Xiongan 100km southwest of Beijing be built to spur economic growth outside the capital.
Meanwhile in Russia, the city authorities in Moscow will have spent 200 billion roubles (around $3.5 billion) on a programme called Moya Ulitsa or My Street the name given to the scheme to repave the centre of the city. My Street is the pet project of Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin a Putin loyalist and his former Chief of Staff. In a deliberate decision to distance himself from his predecessor Mayor Luzhkov who became known for profligacy and corruption in large building projects, Sobyanin has identified the public realm as the area where he can make a difference and ultimately garner votes again. In the first two years of the project over 100 streets were repaved in high quality granite and 80 more should have been completed by the end of 2017. World prices of the stone have shot up and now this kind of granite is – as those working on the public realm in London have found – largely unavailable.
The Russian capital is easier to navigate on foot. The pavements on major thoroughfares such as Tverskaya Ulitsa are now two meters wider on both sides; the street has the same number of traffic lanes but they are now narrower and the cars move slower. Elsewhere a new river walk has been created which helps link Gorky Park back to the historic centre of a city. Again, what some call the commercialisation of public space by small retail outlets has been reduced. Yet collectively the work should be a timely reminder to our preoccupation in the UK with the idea that privately owned public space is inherently bad and state-owned public space is inherently good.
When the World Cup kicks off in the summer of 2018, the centre of Moscow, formerly a riot of haphazardly parked cars and temporary shops will be a sea of cold grey granite: impressive, easy to navigate, even stylish in places but also unforgiving and austere. Moscow is generally a more organised place, but also less informal, less spontaneous and arguably less free. It is a conundrum: an urban improvement but one which largely relegates the informal and the spontaneous to forgotten corners of the city. This is why the new Zaryadye Park designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Hargreaves Associates and Citymakers is so important, giving hope that designers can be agents for good.
Completed this year, Zaryadye is a 10.2 ha park that sits between the Moscow river, Red Square and the Kremlin. It is an incredibly significant site that was due to be developed by Luzhkov but under Sobyanin has been handed to the citizens of the city as a rolling park, interrupted by the mushroomed forms of strange new pavilions. Imagine the flat linear High Line in New York spread out over three dimensions, undulating over biomorphic structures, covered in landscaping designed to reflect the various climates of Russia; the steppes and tundra. As one walks around the park views are hidden and revealed. Its contrast to the My Street project is pointed. Not only is it green where the streetscape is grey, it is also a place where the public may constitute itself as it sees fit rather than as the authorities might want them to.
Nor was this homogenising tendency something that existed solely in states with authoritarian regimes. Albeit in a manner less injurious to lives and livelihoods, in the USA the sense of public space as a place of polyphony; of clamour; of multiplicity; a place where different voices and needs are expressed, came under attack – again for reasons which we can understand but which are potentially more damaging than the issue which they attempt to resolve. There were several statues removed in the USA including four removed in Baltimore. One of these immortalised Roger B. Taney, a Supreme Court Justice who wrote the Dred Scott decision that included the lines “[blacks] had no rights which the white man was bound to respect”.
What could possibly be gained by retaining the effigy of someone who espoused such pernicious ideas? And why should he stand when the Iraqis tore down the statue of Saddam Hussein in April 2003? It is a deeply problematic subject and it should be said that once society deems the political significance of a monument as paramount it becomes almost impossible to argue for its historic or aesthetic value. The removed Taney for example was a major work by William Henry Rinehart, arguably American’s greatest neo-classical sculptor, and a native of Maryland.
Yet this consideration is utterly subordinate to the political discussion and those politics are focused primarily on revenge: just as it was when the statuary of the GDR was removed in 1991. Now we may understand that urge, even have it ourselves but can we say that the political or historical movements of today that are removing statuary of ‘politically objectionable’ eras are of the same import as others? Especially when it transpires that not even a majority of Black Americans want to remove confederacy statues. What about the lasting testimony that this figure was once deemed worthy of memorial?
2017 was a year in which our understanding of public space went under a profound change. In one of the best books about architecture published last year Four Walls and a Roof by Reinier de Graaf, the author writes about how difficult it is to assess public space. “It is the essence of public space that it constitutes a break from the need to perform, a liberation from any other purpose than just to exist as such.” Concluding his essay on the subject, he writes: “public space has been in trouble ever since we identified it as such.” For me one of the key aspects of 2017 has been the contrast between a global situation in which the state has proved pernicious to freedom in the public realm, even as we insist in the UK that it is its only guarantor.
2017 was also the year in which the historical turn in contemporary architecture began to manifest itself. The Chicago Architecture Biennial, curated by Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee, showed were both the great boon and the potential pitfalls of this tendency might emerge. The exhibition championed the contemporary architect as skilful form givers and as inheritors of a centuries old expertise. The crowning exhibition was a set of monumental skyscraper models that reimagined the historic competition in 1922 to design the Chicago Tribune Tower.
The highlight was a golden aluminium model by the Portuguese practice Barbas Lopes which made a play on Adolf Loos’s entry to the 1922 competition which was in the form of a column. The Portuguese practice have replaced elements of the column with modernist references, including the inverted dome of the National Congress of Brazil by Oscar Niemeyer instead of a capital. It was a bravura means of highlighting how the contemporary architectural approach which incorporates historical tropes into its design should always be cognisant of the boldness and bravery of Modernism which attempted to supersede historical examples. The Biennial was often delightful, frequently beautiful but also provided a timely warning that if architects are to engage with architectural history form, they must not neglect the context of human history.
On a more personal note, it was also the tenor of the talks on different architectural styles that Machine Books hosted at Sir John Soane’s Museum. The speakers such as the architects Karl Sharro and Patrik Schumacher and academics such as Penny Lewis and Barnabas Calder gave short insightful histories into different architectural styles but were compelled by the audience to explain not just the relevance to architecture today but also precisely how architects in any specific period had imbibed the prevailing ideas of their age and related them to the public. Physical form became a manifestation of a particular relation.
As much as the exhibitions on the art and architecture of the Russian Revolution which we witnessed in this centenary year provided a beguiling template of a creative class at the vanguard of rapid social and political change, the truth is we live in very different times. What relationship then does architecture have with the public above and beyond something to enjoy visually? To what degree does architecture reflect the aspirations of the public? The truth be told following Brexit, the people that create that architecture have never seemed further from that public. On one hand the profession is seen as the metropolitan elite profession nonpareil, on the other the public – the real public, not an abstracted idea of it – has never looked to many architects more like a horde of oiks. That must change.
As we look towards the outcome of the inquest into the horrendous Grenfell fire of 2017 which killed 71 we should be wary of the event being used for political ends. It is still very unclear as to what happened to cause the blaze although this one senses is a key part of the problem. The processes of managing works according to complicated codes – never mind their assessment – are so convoluted as to utterly diffuse responsibility away from management throughout a complex system. It is telling that the enquiry expects over 200,000 documents to be submitted all relating to the refurbishment of a single structure. One hopes though that it will lead to a simplification of codes and a greater clarity in authority and liability in the professional rather than legal sense.