Intensive Farming / Urban grid by NASA / eoimages.gsfc.nasa.gov

At The Edges, Everywhere

An interview with Arjen Oosterman on the limits of the city by Nicholas Moore

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An interview with Arjen Oosterman

An interview by Nicholas Moore

“The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed.” ― William Gibson, The Economist, December 4, 2003

Urbanism is already here ― it’s just not evenly distributed.

In the 60s and 70s, Archizoom drew plans of No-Stop City; meant as a critique, in many ways we can read their typewriter drawings as diagrams of contemporary urbanization ― infinite distribution of capitalist density supported by infrastructure of consumption, production, and parking. But the scene on the ground is much less consistent. While urbanization, chariot of capital, may be ubiquitous (even, increasingly, extending to outer space), cities, their material and people, live with(in) specific limits. These limits may be political, economic, geographic, demographic... They can be built or unbuilt, but they have implied or delineated edges to be explored.

Arjen Oosterman lives in Amsterdam and is Editor-in-Chief at the Volume Project. He spoke with Nicholas Moore from Shenzhen, where he is working with the Team Ole Bouman at the Shenzhen Biennale.
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I would like to talk about edges and limits. You were trained as an architectural historian, and you’re a journalist, Editor-​in-​Chief at Volume. The motto of Volume is “TO BEYOND OR NOT TO BE” ― you and your team constantly seek the edges of architecture, of urbanism, and of the tools for working in these disciplines. How have ideas about the edge of the city changed over the course of your career?

Well, they changed and they didn’t. They didn’t change in the sense that the avant-​garde ideas of the 50s, 60s, and early 70s are resurfacing, in publications and schools and projects. It supports my idea that it takes a revolutionary idea 35 or 40 years to become widely acceptable. It seems that it takes that much time, from the first phase when an idea is so strange and difficult that it can’t be accepted. Gradually, an idea takes hold, and after that period it becomes possible to recover the value in that original idea. In new projects, we can see a historic reflection; Team X, Superstudio, Structuralism, all of a sudden you see those images again, you see those ideas inspiring a new generation of students. And the “Edge Condition” is very much a part of that legacy.

It takes a revolutionary idea 35 or 40 years to become widely acceptable

Looking back at the Netherlands specifically, regarding the last century of urbanism and planning, there is a history of difficulty with the metropolis — let’s say a fear of the metropolitan condition. That fear was manifested in policy — the Netherlands is a totally policy-​driven society— and you can see policies that were meant to keep the metropolis from coming into existence. The solution was to focus on the places beyond the major city centers, beyond the edges of the cities as they existed Metropolis was actively prevented, through the creation of a totally distributed kind of urban fabric, the Randstad. The larger cities, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, were forced to export part of their population to other, smaller cities. And it was forced, although not by any sort of totalitarian means, but rather through more intricate mechanisms for diminishing density, for building other cities.

In what ways was distribution of the population effected?

For instance, my grandparents were born and raised Amsterdammers. When they reached retirement age, they changed their lives and moved from Amsterdam to a smaller town because there they could live for a reasonable price in a nice environment, in better space. They moved into a new building, a new part of town. Before, in Amsterdam, they’d always lived in older parts of the city; at that time, the older city fabric was certainly not great, it hadn’t been maintained, and was to some extent in a state of decay. In some cases, in Europe, inner cities were derelict, in really bad condition. The city was a ruined project in some ways; people concentrated not on the city but on a periphery, on a village, on a countryside. For my grandparents, it was simply a question of improving their living conditions. It was easy to begin living in newly developed areas, through special financial projects and special policies. By creating new settlements and by extending smaller towns 20 to 50 km from main cities, the government persuaded parts of the concentrated urban population to move to these other cities and new towns. For younger people, these new towns were very boring. They were looking for another experience, and, being young, were willing to live in less comfortable situations. Since many people had left city centers, the real estate there was available at low prices. So in effect, the suburban youth, artists, students, they moved back into the cities, re-​inhabiting this older fabric, investing in it, continuing another phase of the cycle.

And now city and country have met in the middle?

Yes, now when we talk about the Netherlands, when we talk about cities and the countryside, we talk about one thing. The Netherlands is a metropolis, it is a nation in the form of a metropolis. It’s a metropolis between nodes, obviously, but actually it is one. Looking at the country today we can see it has a totally urban population.

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Netherlands Density Map /​sedac​.ciesin​.colum​bia​.edu

For an urban planner now any urban condition is by now global

In this respect, we can see that ideas about the edges of cities have changed. In the past, even in the times of those avant-​garde projects I mentioned, there was a very strong inclination to think of the city in contrast to the countryside, to consider these as two different conditions. As an urbanist you dealt with the one condition, as a landscape architect you dealt with the other. That idea has gone. For example, for an urban planner now any urban condition is by now global. It’s not only that landscape architects have become successful urbanists, have occupied part of urbanism’s territory, but also that the divide between land and city has been replaced with “conditions.” Dense, less dense, mixed or not, more urban or more suburban. That understanding has changed the appreciation for the “edge.”

You mentioned avant-​garde projects of the past. Beyond influencing new student works, where do you see these ideas in play? You’re in Shenzhen now, for example; can you see evidence on the ground that these ideas are emerging?

Shenzhen is quite young, it’s existed as city for maybe thirty to forty years, but it has a population of 14 or 15 million people. Before, it was a collection of villages, rural by nature. You can already begin to see an older urban fabric that has to be re– used, re-​purposed, and in fact, it is being re-​used. The parts of town that were becoming derelict or marginal, the fringes or edges of the city fabric, these are being revived and new programs are being developed in these areas. So I think that does illustrate that a growing appreciation for these sites is not confined to Europe or the US but develops as places change from industrial production to post-​industrial production.

Shenzhen / Chris Master / flickr.com

Shenzhen /​Chris Master /​flickr​.com

At the Shenzhen Biennale, Olé Bouman was selected as director for “Venue A,” which is a former float glass factory. He was able to persuade the owners of the building, China Merchants, not only to sponsor the Biennale but also to invest in the building. He persuaded them into the position where they would not want to erase that in which they had just invested. Instead they begin thinking beyond the Biennale, to invest in future programming, instead of the customary, finite formula. So there is a sense of easiness, flexibility, understanding that the mechanisms that exist for building cities are not the only way that things can be. There is space for negotiation, space for change, for ideas, there is a receptiveness. Not among everyone, of course, but it’s growing. This is reflected by this biennale: it’s focusing very much on potential for reuse, potential for reprogramming, potential for the future, in part to show that development can’t be done by only erasing what exists. It seeks to investigate the relationships between transformation in China, especially this part of China, which is founded on cheap labor and cheap production. The Biennale asks what will take place with the emergence of a ‘higher’ form of production, a more service oriented economy.

Do you see the pace of change being maintained, even as the region transforms to a different kind of economy?

Yes, it’s incredible. In terms of a European notion of how life functions, how politics functions, how countries develop, it’s really different. When I was first here fifteen years ago, on a sort of grand tour through South-​East Asia, we visited the university, which was eccentrically located in relation to the city center at that time. There was a show of graduation architecture projects, and there was one project of five apartment towers, five high-​rises, pink in color. And I looked out of the window, and in the far distance I saw five pink towers.

I said to the dean, ‘Hey that’s interesting, the student copied, more or less, the new project, the buildings that are there. How come, how can that be?’ And he said, ‘No, no, it’s the other way around. The student built those buildings, based on his graduation project.’

It illustrated exactly the kind of speed we’re dealing with here, in China. But I’m also impressed with their understanding of their own situation, they’re working in sophisticated ways with their condition. They’re generally well-​informed and quite aware of the mechanisms that are required of them, of the shortcomings in the country, and how to move in the directions that they want, to try to improve the situation. It’s a really interesting and challenging experience.

It makes me wonder where industry goes. For all of these creatively driven cities or higher economies, there must be a source of raw materials, an origin of the product. Will industry keep moving around, to the source of lowest wages, to the source of cheapest labor, forever, or do you imagine that somehow industrialization will settle at some point?

That’s a very tricky question and of course I’m not an economist. In the end, I can only tell you what I see. There is this shift, a drive of cities to initiate a higher level of producing. Industrial production keeps moving around, but I suspect that this cannot happen forever; eventually there must be a moment where either the entire system collapses, or it develops into a new system. There are alternate views on that. One suggests that production will become totally industrialized, totally mechanized, computer, remote driven. That would replace labor as such, which would open up all manner of other dimensions. I don’t know enough economy to judge, but that sounds unlikely, to me, as a final solution. I have a hunch that capitalism simply comes with poor people, that that is in the definition of the industrialized world, especially in the future. That within the capitalist system there has to be an upper and a lower class, that riches for all is not an option.

That relates to a question of measurement, is economic growth the only way we can measure the success, the thriving of a city. Tokyo is a good example of a so-​called Still City, and it’s the subject of an interesting project (MONNIK http://​www​.mon​nik​.org/, STILL CITY http://​still​city​.org/). That research proposes that growth is not the only way, that an urban society can achieve a level of dynamics without expanding. The project shows that it’s not only possible but actually visible. The Japanese society has existed with a stationary economy for a decade and a half, also without population growth. Suddenly now there’s growth again, but only of half a percent or maybe one percent, something really small, in terms of growth rates. So this rational, economic growth measure as a way of thinking for the future can be challenged, and it has to be challenged to cope with the conditions that we see emerging.

I hold the suspicion that there is an urbanization bubble. Can you anticipate the bursting of such a bubble as world cities develop and build, competing for a future?

There are whole buildings, whole neighborhoods, even whole cities that are newly built that are empty

Well, there are many bubbles. One of the things that strikes me is that here, in China, there are many people who will invest in a second home, in a third home, or apartment, as a kind of pension, because there is no stable financial system for that. Then, they don’t allow anyone to inhabit the apartment in order to preserve its value, to keep in in good condition. Especially because someone who might move in could be from the countryside, and wouldn’t know how to live in it properly, in a ‘modern’ way. This leads to an insane situation because it means there are whole buildings, whole neighborhoods, even whole cities that are newly built that are empty.

I’m particularly interested in the relation of cities to land, and in the farm.

Koolhaas has an essay called Typical Plan in which he writes about the rectangular bays of American office buildings in the 20th century (Koolhaas, Rem, Bruce Mau, Jennifer Sigler, and Hans Werlemann. Small, Medium, Large, Extra-​large: Office for Metropolitan Architecture, Rem Koolhaas, and Bruce Mau. New York, NY: Monacelli, 1998. Print. P. 336). He describes the tiny labyrinths of services and toilets that remind us that we’re still human. It seems we see a similar phenomenon on the scale of an entire global landscape: there is a logic deployed by the nebulous mechanisms of capital, and even places like the farm where our most basic needs are satisfied are drawn into the system.

I think that’s fairly true, in the sense that the urban is everywhere, the farm is part of the city. Farmers today are graduated from university. They run a factory called “farm.” They are totally integrated into the urban project of production.

Intensive Farming / Urban grid by NASA / eoimages.gsfc.nasa.gov

Intensive Farming /​Urban grid by NASA /​eoim​ages​.gsfc​.nasa​.gov

In the future I think that there will probably be two different, maybe even opposing, developments. One is that in general, we’ll see developments in urban farming and the re-​arrangement of food production and distribution. That is clearly spatial, and thereby an architectural project. There are architects beginning to work on that, for example MVRDV. As that project evolves, it will bring a change in the way we do things, will change configurations, will probably mean, specifically, a change in the way animals are raised. Of course the other option is going synthetic. This would mean a total industrialization of food as well, the creation of food products from ingredients, processed in factories and labs, with even more distance from the land than we have now.

As I understand it, one of the Chinese government’s greatest priorities is food security. Do you see a difference in the way that that urban food landscapes have developed in China, as compared to the Netherlands?

Well, it’s hard, I don’t know that much of China and so can’t judge very well. What I have seen so far, is that there seems to be a contradiction in the way things are moving forward. Part of that contradiction is the system of Hukou. Hukou is a person registration system that says where you are from: a village (so countryman) or a city (so citizen). So if a country person, a farmer usually, looks for work in the city, he or she is a migrant without access to social security, healthcare or education. For those services, he or she has to return to the village of origin. These are the people who live in the urban villages in very cramped conditions. Second rate urbanites, not citizens proper. So Hukou is a rule for tying people to the place that they were born, to the land. It’s a means of creating a stable community, but it also means creating a static society of agricultural laborers. It means the creation of a split between who can prosper and who cannot, with the enforced division of the population into urban and rural. One could also, of course, argue that it’s a response to the reality of the situation; they can’t have the whole population move to the cities, and the cities can’t do without food produced in the countryside, so it’s simply a fact that has to be addressed. At the same time, China expands its territory far beyond mainland China, specifically to Africa, to secure food. So there are other, somewhat hidden dimensions to the question of edges of the city, and of the rural territory, and of the country.