Herzog & de Meuron

How Do Cities Differ?

It seemed there was nothing more to be said: history was finished. Reality was an illusion, a fiction, a simulation. Cities had become interchangeable, a blind, bland and indistinguishable backdrop for the one remaining urban activity – shopping. We thought that virtualization and simulation would rob cities of their bodies and souls, ultimately sucking them up in a kind of body snatching. End of history. Eternal life. But the bodysnatching was all in the mind of a single generation of thinkers and urbanists. So what happened? Nature made a comeback. Out of nowhere? And terrorism returned. History rolls on, unstoppable and uncontrollable. Reality has suddenly become real again. And finite.

Terrorism is not an illusion; it is not a simulation. It has a very real impact on cities and city dwellers. The physical damage may be patched up, but the aftershocks keep coming. The source of the shocks, as in terrorism, is countered homeopathically, as it were, using like to combat like. Suddenly terrorism is omnipresent, physically and mentally, on the streets and in people’s minds. The vulnerable beauty of American cities appears more radiant and seductive than ever before, but now with a touch of the specifically museum-like quality of something that has survived. The American city, an urban model from times gone by.

On Sunday, 27 September 2003, a power failure plunged much of Italy into darkness. Rome experienced a notte nera, a black night. Out of nowhere. Worse yet, that very night was scheduled to be a notte bianca, a white night of open doors and brightly illuminated museums. Nature, in all its sublime rawness, quite literally reappeared overnight, a menacing force that people had been lulled into believing was under control.

These menacing forces do not flare up on remote uninhabited islands in the ocean; they concentrate on the city, as platform and stage, and throw it entirely off balance, forcing upon it a painful confrontation with its own historical transience and vulnerability. Cities have always been subject to immanent, existential threats: sieges, conflagration, famine, rape, the plague, earthquakes, raids, floods, gangs, unemployment, outages, organized crime.

Every city grows and takes shape in relation to its own specific scenario of menace, which emerges in the course of its history, channeling it into an unmistakable and inescapable pattern. Not a single city has ever succeeded in liberating itself from the real, simulated and cultivated bonds of its local context in order to reinvent itself. Not even after real and radical catastrophes. On the contrary, the reconstruction of Germany’s cities after the war aptly illustrates how much the (ideal) picture that cities had of themselves varied, leading to equally varied scenarios of reconstruction. The differences between them were greater than any that had marked cities in the course of the centuries before they were leveled by wartime bombing into uniform rubble. Those differences have continued to become more and more pronounced, even putting their stamp, by way of simulation, on newly emerging neighborhoods.

Take Frankfurt and Munich. The former a city of burghers, of citoyens, who have consistently taken the initiative in forging ahead and using their city as a platform for trade, business and urban services; the latter a city of princely tradition, with a royal line that reinvented itself in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries after the model of its Italian counterparts and essentially recreated a piece of Italy on German soil. Postwar Frankfurt chose to start with a tabula rasa and opted for a vertical skyline; Munich remained loyal to the imagery imported from the royal court and followed a path of reconstruction and historical simulation.

Frankfurt (tabula rasa) vs. Munich (reconstruction, historical simulation). Expressions of cultural and cultivated difference. It almost seems as if the bombing had brought to light a specific urban character which had hitherto lain dormant. Just think of Rotterdam, Beirut or Jerusalem’s new quarters in comparison to those in Tel Aviv. Every city cultivates and internalizes defense mechanisms against the sediment of real and imagined threats that have accumulated through time. As Baudrillard puts it, for want of a real catastrophe, one must resort to simulation to induce equally great or even greater catastrophes.

Mass evacuation, gas-attack exercises, barricades, terror – anti-terror, mafia – anti-mafia. The carpet of nuclear-bomb shelters, sprawling through Switzerland’s underground like an invisible replica of above-ground civilization, is a characteristically Swiss form of urbanism. Possible only in a country where the withdrawal mentality and the need for security have acquired an almost hysterical reality.

What all of these defense strategies and scenarios have in common is that they do bring about a specific modification of the city. Preventative or corrective interventions have a real and lasting effect on the reality of urban development. A kind of substratum results. This substratum is not immediately apparent and sometimes not even visible, precisely because it is much more invasive than mere folkloristic details or decorative frills. It has a profound, formative and programmatic effect on the artificial and natural topography of cities.

Hence, far from becoming increasingly uniform, generic or even faceless, cities are actually becoming more and more individually distinctive. They drift into a self-referential focus, immersing themselves in their own self-contained world. They become specific, like a singular species, with all the attendant fascination, as well as the unbearable and inevitable self-absorption and idiosyncrasy. This specificity applies to and permeates all cities. It describes their ugliness and their beauty, their culture, subculture and lack of culture, their rise and decline, their real catastrophes and threats as well as their simulation and substitution. Such is their inevitability and finiteness.

Finite City? Real City? Specific City?

“Finite city” sounds too tautological and misleading because it plays to those who believe that a culture of immortality is approaching. “Real City” is ambiguous because we are then looking only at the physical reality of the city and we certainly don’t want to open the Pandora’s Box of a discourse on reality. Nor does “Specific City” fit the bill, unless the specifics target the mental morphologies and transformations that are causing cities to become increasingly wrapped up in themselves. How about the Idiomorphic City. Or the Idiosyncratic City? Or perhaps even the Idiotic City, given that we are incapable of grasping this most complex and interesting of all things ever created by human hand? The Ideal City abdicated ages ago, as have Aldo Rossi’s Rational City, Rem Koolhaas’s Generic City and Venturi’s Strip. Not to mention Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse. All of these attempts to describe the city, to comprehend and reinvent it, were both necessary and useful. But today they leave us cold. Like water under the bridge, they no longer concern us. We cannot relate to them because they refer to a world that is no longer ours. The time has come to relinquish our longing for labels, to abandon manifestos and theories. They don’ t hit the mark; they simply brand the author for life. There are no theories of cities; there are only cities.

All cities have one thing in common: their decline and ultimate disappearance. Paradoxically, the potential that determines the fundamental difference between individual cities lies in this single common denominator, in the specific threat that is the lot of all cities. City planners have long ceased being instrumental in creating difference. If today’s planners want to contribute to the transformation of cities, they will have to become accomplices and adepts of this potential threat. In even more pointed terms, they should adopt the single-mindedness and accuracy of the terrorists. Their work will have to be unprejudiced, a blank sheet, devoid of theory and – as we have seen – fathomless. It will have to address the physical, built reality of the city, where the life of the city is as unmistakably manifest as climate change is legible in the drill cores of polar scientists. Only there – in the physical body of the city – can we also discover examples of the neuralgic spots that Barthes called the punctum with respect to the photograph and Baudrillard “worthwhile targets” with respect to the Twin Towers.

When the Towers were struck with the precision of a surgical operation, the bumbling helplessness of contemporary urban construction was instantly made manifest. Hardly ever do urban projects truly impact and change cities; they serve only to retain the status quo. They merely multiply what is already there. Urban development today does not begin with Barthes’ punctum and it does not seek the most worthwhile targets; it occurs wherever a plot of land happens to be or become available. Yet the Twin Towers affect every city and their destruction affects urban dwellers everywhere. Terrorists see in them the destruction of a symbol; urban dwellers see in them a massive attack on their neighborhoods and their homes. The specific, the unique, that which distinguishes us from others, the indestructible: all these have become vulnerable, and so we have to protect ourselves. Time and again. But how? The best protection would be to aspire to “indistinguishability,” the “Indistinguishable City.” And that is the greatest illusion of all.

Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron, 2003