The Human and Urban aspects of Globalization

Subject: Globalization and the city
Author: Nadine Khalil

Paul Ardenne, author of "Humain et Urbain a l'Ère de la Mondialisation," (2005 : Archibooks), presented his research at ALBA on March 8 on new aesthetic forms such as radical architecture and how they have been affecting the human aspect of living in cities. And it was this articulation between the human and the urban that particularly interests him. Ardenne is predominantly a critic and curator of contemporary art, but he explained in his introduction that he also feels "like an archaeologist of the present," in his passion for cities and their transformations. "How do we reside in the contemporary city today? And what has the city become in today's globalizing era?"

Much like a curator would add to his or her concept mapping, Ardenne claimed that his talk would not be theoretical, but rather based on the places he has frequented, as an avid traveller. One of the questions that constantly comes to his mind is: "Are we constructing cities well? And if not, are we managing to inhabit them in new ways?" "We must always remember that architecture is not merely a construction; it is also a representation of the world in a cultural context," Ardenne asserted after remarking that even the library at ALBA signified such a normalization of the Western model by capitalizing on Western architects such as Koolhaas.

When referring to the context of globalization, Ardenne did caution that he was also referring to the Occident and its development, since "globalization does reflect the continued cultural hegemony of the Western world and is also related to areas of economic exploitation and an intense circulation of capital and exchange of technology. Furthermore, mass displacement of people has caused a boom in urban planning due to the exodus in population.

"Does this city, which is evolving so quickly, have a relation to the individual?" Ardenne posed again as a question to his audience. "Often the cities that the press has designated as most livable in the world are on the other side of the Pacific, with at least 9 months of winter; that is not livable. And there is this general sense by architects and urbanists that cities have been well 're-done' or renovated, but the cities that are being created are those that can be copied anywhere. Beirut for example, is a very Mediterranean city, but for me, it looks just like Lima in Peru, not to mention that there has been an overall confiscation of public space instead of restoration."

Ardenne's irony was not lost to his audience: "I no longer see vibrant metropoles, but banale cities like 20-million strong Shanghai. These models of uniformity and controlled urbanism are in fact depriving due to all this replication. Such cities may look magnificent from afar, but not from up-close. They don't allow you to dream. The former ancient Chinese village, which was replete with distinguished roofs and closeness between the houses, is now exchanged with something less communicative and duplicated to infinity." Indeed, Ardenne made a strong argument that the urban future requires some thought.

Ardenne's talk was not completely critical however and he gave examples of promising projects in the field of urban planning. The first included his on-site study of Sao Paolo, which revealed an extraordinary initiative of creating characteristic Brazilian landscapes bordering the urban fabric, with housing settlements surrounded by fields. What made this project so unique was its demonstration of the need for ecology instead of the usual low-cost social housing projects or informal slums that develop in such overpopulated areas where there is a level of rural-urban migration that cannot be accommodated for by the city.

What the inhabitant ended up with was a skyline adjacent to rivers and wildlife, in what can be considered a rather rough transition for lanscape urbanists, and literally,  "a rupture with the autoroute. But at least it hid the urban miseries and subverted the predominant international style of building without taking a neighborhood quality into consideration." This old city was the economic capital teeming with "favelas, which are parasitory upon the water and electricity of the city, a fatal system accepted by the government who are worried about riots by gang members. Usually cities have a special, architectural emblem or monument to speak of, the most typical example being the Eiffel tower in Paris, but Ardenne explained that Sao Paolo had no touristic signifier that was identifiable, despite its age as a city.

Another stricking example of gross distortions in the ways cities are represented was Miami. "You have to keep in mind," Ardenne astutely commented, "that the Miami beach you often see in photographs or on TV, is only a 200 meter strip, and Art Deco district. The rest of the place is actually quite ugly and repetitive." And hence the politics of the image and visual representations when it came to glorifying cities.

Paul Ardenne then moved to a phenomenon in the West that has particularly fascinated him: American suburbia for the bourgeoisie, especially the Hamptons in New York where Ardenne claimed one would find "European palaces, no less, constructed astonishingly of a micro-city, almost a village. In the case of the Hamptons, Cocoa Brown, the PR agency was responsible for "exploiting the idea of escapism which was revelled in the literature of distraction by the upper classes - escapist literature with roots in the hippie movement. This led to an active disengagement from the 'world' and the city along with it, embodied by the classic adventurer, the maverick of society." Great architects such as Richard Meyer were chosen for this  "postmodern, ostentatious display of fine architecture amid primitve nature in order for the inhabitants to live in luxury, but at a distance. This is the perfect model of a gated city, fortified and closed off frm the hub of the actual, or real city."



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