Myths of Permanent Cities

The original you can find here.

When there is a general change of conditions, it is as if the entire creation had changed and the whole world been altered, as if it were a new and repeated creation, a world brought into existence anew. —Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, 1377 CE

I. The Settlers, No More
Can the practice of architecture—so often delivering solutions as settlement—design for change and passage?

If so, architecture should engage one of the age’s most crucial topics: the global movement of human beings. Migration is not a matter of “crisis” but a factor of humanity. Its occurrence increases every day.

By seeking out new ways for the architect to engage how hundreds of millions of people actually encounter cities, the studio will also take the opportunity to reset for whom cities are designed and visualized.

II. The City, Anew
This studio will seek to design a new city that acknowledges the transient nature of city populations: configuring its rules of engagement, its economies, and, of course, its forms. Some questions to be addressed: Will this city perform differently if its residents acknowledge their transitory nature? Should the city, explicitly run by a temporary population, provide new kinds of amenities and infrastructures? Should its form reflect the impending arrival, and departure, of its residents? How is it governed? Who builds it? Who represents it?

Does one have a say in the realization of a city where she does not, in the mythical sense, belong?

III. The Movers, In Short
This new city accepts the reality already lived by at least 258 million people. According to the United Nations, that is the world’s population of international migrants, defined as those who have crossed a national border to get to where they are today. This count is roughly equivalent to the sum population of the world’s twenty largest cities. Of these migrants, around ten percent are described as refugees who are “forcibly” displaced as victims of violence. Violence, for the UN, does not include systemic poverty and the repercussions of global warming.

Journalistic narratives of migrants rely on a limited supply of tactics. The most obvious is fear (for example, “caravans”). Another tactic seems more sympathetic to migrants, but still pivots on a false dichotomy: the itinerant and precarious lives of migrants are contrasted with “our lives,” portrayed as stable and steadfast. Similarly, refugee camps and cities with high migrant counts are depicted as dangerous and ad hoc, while “our” cities are reliable and deliberate.

The global population is of course not in uniform danger, but such a setup sustains the myth that some cities are assured permanence and that others are not. This split-screen portrait protects the Western news-gazer from the realization that every person’s sense of refuge should be felt as fleeting.

This new city will be based on the presumption that cities have been freed from their mythical sense of permanence. With that, they have been released from illusions of belonging and, in the end, might therefore be more humane and more welcoming.

IV. The Site, So To Speak
The studio’s site is, in some ways, Dubai (United Arab Emirates). The city will be the semester’s ongoing case study for investigating the temporary nature of urban living. A counter to Dubai will be Amman (Jordan), where we will investigate an entirely different manifestation of the urban temporary.

Dubai is not endowed with the myth of permanent cities. In fact, many critics have envisioned Dubai’s collapse at cataclysmic scales, even its physical dismantling by the blowback from its own hubris. The studio will inspect how the city has materialized over the last sixty years for and by a dynamic, global population.

Dubai is often described as a crossing of East and West. It’s been called a “miniature United Nations.” About 90% of the city’s three million residents have no permanent status. This means that nearly everyone will eventually either return to where they came from or, more simply, leave. This fact often leads critics to conclude that the temporary nature of life in Dubai is exploitative and unjust. There is no utopia or ideals to mine from Dubai’s history, but there are strands of calculated ambition and reasoning that have attracted millions from many provenances to the city’s ports.

The studio trip to Dubai will seek out the links between physical form and histories of global migration. The studio will also visit Amman for a comparative view of how migration is absorbed by city life.

Information about the actual site for the new city will be provided on January 10.

V. The Means
At first, the studio will focus on three topics for enquiry: 1.) the historical development and economic “rise” of Dubai; 2.) the ways which cities are visualized and represented in the 21st-Century; and 3.) the challenges confronting the global movement of people, including those of economic migrants, refugees, and global elites.

For the first category of enquiry, there will be guided readings and seminar-style discussions in preparation for the studio trip. The studio trip will include investigations of how the urban fabrics of Dubai and Amman accommodate residents and how they are marketed to attract even more. Discussions and interviews with residents and experts will explore the physical effects resulting from a city operated and occupied by people with two- to three-year visas.

The second category involves textual and visual analyses of work by visualizers of new cities, including management consultants, filmmakers, literary writers, and artists.

The third category will include investigating terms such as “migration space” and “humanitarian space” and how these terms might be reframed in a city redefined. Furthermore, students will analyze the current and arising dilemmas that face international migrants.

VI. The Work
Changing the narrative of the city also requires changing how we visualize it.

Since this studio focuses on the temporality and dynamism of a new city, the means of representation will have to be carefully considered for these aspects. Final projects might take the form of films, investment roadshows, animations, CNN commercials, and free-zone charters.

Throughout the semester, visitors to the studio will include experts from fields outside architecture, including human-rights activists, humanitarian analysts, social entrepreneurs, and journalists. The diverse audience will require editing architectural language for a broader reach.

In this way, a presentation is a pitch, wherein relevance is the currency at stake.

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