It's back the economy, stupid!

gepubliceerd op 26.11.2018 | tekst Nadia Casabella

Architectural Ethnography: Atelier Bow-Wow

The design of urban manufacture has made its comeback: the last two editions of the IABR (2016, 2018) gave much attention to the question of the ‘productive city’, proudly displaying plans for warehouses or workshops. The last Europan session was dedicated to ‘Productive Cities’, hunting for innovative environments that combined living and working. Education has followed suit, and many architectural design studios, in Belgium and abroad, dive into the effective conception of spaces for a rejuvenated urban manufacture. The time is ripe to ask ourselves what this manufacture will be made of, its actual contents in as much as the material and energy resources that could propel it. Is the ‘Productive City’ a first building stone in the transition to an alternative production and consumption model? And is this shift something spatial designers have all interest to harness?

In the early 1900s, the city was a lens for understanding larger, worldwide processes -a role it lost due to large scale urban destruction and reconstruction. It was Jane Jacobs who taught us again to view the city in a more complex way, re-emphasizing dimensions that were usually expelled from the analysis of the urban.  The search for the essential qualities of urbanness brought her to study the economy of cities (in a memorable, homonym book published for the first time in 1969). Urbanness, she stated, is indiscernible from economic development: a concentration of need happens in cities, and with it the incentive to address problems in new ways, triggered by the arrival of diverse people bringing new ways of understanding and doing things. She asserted that no matter how electronic and globalized the city might become, it still has to be “made” somewhere. Even the so-called intangible economy summons a vast range of stuff and people. Urbanness thus equals economic development, not espresso bar.

Somehow, we lost this understanding by the end of the 70s of the last century. Ever since, architecture and urban design have been busy with the social and cultural reproduction in cities, what would be called collective consumption, but little with the foundational industrial processes supporting urban economies. The vital links between industrialization and urbanization were largely ignored or simply relegated to other disciplines. If you look into the older issues of the established architectural magazines you will see what I mean: if in the 60s and 70s the design and construction of industrial halls was regarded as part of the architects’ legitimate job, from there on only cultural building and residential structures were considered.

Mark Brearley invented a nice motto to admonish this evolution: cities were eating themselves up! Cities were getting rid of the industries that were creating the jobs and feeding literally their citizens. The image shook policy makers all around, and city departments started looking fiercely into it. Short before, Europe had already initiated a campaign to boost re-industrialization, increasing from 15.1% (2013 value) to 20% of GDP by 2020, believing that strengthening such industrial base will make Europe more resilient faced to global volatility. The course has shifted for good, also in Brussels. The last issue of “Bruxelles en Mouvements” is dedicated entirely to the question of why to re-industrialize the city-region and examines a series of initiatives led by the regional government (from the Industrial Plan to the research CoM) to orient this process.

Disappointingly enough, barely any reflection is made about the material and energy resources necessary to such re-industrialization process: Where these resources will come from? Could they be generated rather nearby the places where they are transformed? Could the creation of new resources become an opportunity to disrupt our entire production and consumption system, breaking up the current linear, petrol-based system we are embedded into and allowing us to develop more circular, regenerative economic forms? Which skills would be required or which qualities will make specific places to stand out? Particularly if we are well aware that such re-industrialization will need to partly rely on the local exploitation and closing the material flows that cross our regions, by interlocking the resources and capabilities that are locally available, while still being dependent on an unremitting globalization dynamics.

At first sight, cities seem well positioned for this circular challenge: in the sense that Jacobs pointed at, as places of concentration of need and of skills, but equally as locations where global flows get articulated and where infrastructures abound. The more urban an area, the higher the stakes of finding a bigger density and diversity of flows to which we could ‘latch on’. Primary but also secondary flows, residual streams that could be valued again and generate jobs (e.g. extending the life of about-to-be-demolished buildings or of some of its components).

But are spatial designers taking responsibility for this shift too? Generally, architects and urbanists look awry and wonder whether this systemic shift is actually a spatial question. The image herewith reproduced corresponds to the Bow-Wow’s project “The Timber Network, for the Kurimoto woodlands. It represents the opposite attitude and shows the potency of architecture design when it approaches the ‘Productive City’ also from the flows and skills that would be required, embracing systemic change. Faced to post-industrial decay, they propose to rejuvenate the old timber production, empowering locals to take their destiny into their hands while simultaneously regenerating the landscape. They break down all the steps involved in timber handling, identify the missing links, and end up proposing a planting strategy, they list the species, they plan a care-farm that will train and lodge the workers, they recycle old timber techniques… The productive city shouldn’t limit itself to topping warehouses with towers, or should it?

schrijf je in voor de nieuwsbrief