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12. 5. 2003

Around Autodentity*

Blaž Križnik
“A city made for speed is a city made for success.”
-Le Corbusier-

“We take unrestricted motion of the individual to be an absolute right. The private motorcar is the logical instrument for exercising that right, and the effect on public space, especially the space of the urban street, is that the space becomes meaningless or even maddening unless it can be subordinated to free movement.”
-Richard Sennet-

I start this lecture with two quotations that I find exemplary when talking about automobility. Both illustrate the complexity that is inherent to the phenomenon of automobility and its meaning in modern societies and cities. The first statement comes form an architect and urban planner. It reveals that automobility was an integral part of the modernist ideology from its very beginning on. As such automobility has become an inseparable part of the urbanization process and thus a key part of the modernization project.

A sociologist has made the second statement exactly fifty years after the first one. At that point it had became clear that automobility was not only a spatial but also a social and cultural phenomenon. At the same time it had become a problem too. Automobility is delirious, but it simultaneously constrains cities and societies in ways no one has previously imagined. Sub-urbanization and sprawl, demise of the public space, social fragmentation and alienation are just some of the problems attached to automobility. And not to forget the huge environmental problems that car-use causes.

In contrast to the West, Eastern cities seem to owe a car their propulsive, unpredictable and booming centres. Though the relation between automobility and cities is not to be taken too simple it is impossible to overlook a fact that cars in Beirut, Istanbul or Beograd have turned out to be the prime cause for the densification of the city centres. The car has accelerated the recent growth of those centres considerably. One might even say that the automobility contributes a great part to the characteristic rough atmosphere in Eastern cities. In order to understand this profound difference between the East and West and differences how automobility is practiced there, one has to introduce a city and mobility not merely as a technical or planning problem, but also as a political phenomenon.

When talking about city as a political form I am referring to ‘political’ as a way of how to organize a life in a society. As a political form the city has recently undergone some important changes. Everyone acknowledges that a nation-state has already lost certain political influence. One nevertheless wonders, who is occupying the political ground traditionally belonging to the nation-state?

There seem to be three candidates. Maybe the most obvious are so called trans-national corporations. As the diagram reveals it is no secret that yearly income of some TNC's outscores the GNP of middle-sized European countries. What is still less clear is how this economical power is translated into political influence. New concepts of political organizations beyond national level are discussed, able to deal with the global influence of trans-national corporations or new ecological or financial risks. These new institutions are the second player gaining the ground of a national policy.

The third and the last candidate next to TNC’s and NGO’s are metropolitan regions and cities. Jordi Borja and Manuel Castells argue that “nation-states remain too large to address adequately the rich diversity of needs found within cosmopolitan urban areas. Where the nation-state is unable to act effectively, local and city governments may be more agile forms for managing the global.” By knowing the local habitat city authorities easier provide a social base for economic productivity. Local authorities are also more successful in dealing with problems of social disintegration and exclusion. Metropolitan areas are by default places of cultural diversity, where individuals with different ethnic, religious and social background are brought together. Finally, local governments have two advantages over national – they enjoy greater legitimacy and have more flexibility. Nation-state is often too distant to represent specific interests of major cities.

Why this rather long introduction into city policy? I want to talk about three cities, where automobility prospers. As we will see later different political concepts condition directly how automobility is exercised in each of the cases.

Let’s begin with Beograd. Unlike Rotterdam, where each square meter is planed, in Beograd countless spontaneous activities pop out all the time, overlap, create series of unpredictable situations and let the city run out of control. Though this lack of control is to some extent culturally related, it is the very absence of consistent urban policy that mainly shaped Beograd in the past decade. Not only because of a crisis that Yugoslavia experienced in the nineties - the ideology on power was in fact heavily dependent on such anti-urban policy and supported it until the break down of Milošević regime. As a consequence automobility manifests itself rather dramatically in Beograd.

At the same time the collapse of the country’s economy has accelerated emergence of a privately initiated trade. The later is above all concentrated along main roads, freeways, junctions, public transport stations etc. Spaces of intensive mobility have simultaneously become places of booming commerce. Traditionally – not to forget – commerce was one of the main functions related to the existence of public space in cities. In this sense car environments in Beograd, now transformed into drive-in markets or shopping streets, can be considered as the ultimate public space in the city.

The phenomenon of Boulevard reveals the complexity of such environments. In contrast to the other places in the city, where similar activities are centrally organized, Boulevard is a linear development along nearly nine kilometres straight-line road. It directly connects vast dwelling areas of suburbia with the very city centre. It is a space of intensive social exchange. As such it represents a natural playground for privately initiated trade. In its early days Boulevard had depended on cars much stronger then today, when many of formerly illegal activities have been institutionalised. Comparing its structure, meaning and position within the city, Boulevard could be compared to the Strip in Las Vegas. The main distinction may be that in case of Boulevard program is not connected to the road like in Vegas– here the program is the road itself.

According to Sanford Kwinter Houston actually is “no real city at all but rather a loose confederation of industrial profit centres that together form an ethereal web of shared infrastructure and economic partnerships.”; As such it is an outcome of a cowboy profit-driven neo-liberal policy, which sees a city as nothing more than a gigantic machine for making business. There are no local or state taxation and the city is known to have one of the poorest services considering quality of drinking water, sewerage or air. On contrast its mobility infrastructure is one of the most efficient in the world. In fact the automobility overwhelms other modes of transportation. Some even claim Houston to be the ‘capital of automobility’ and one of the least congested cities. Traffic is highly efficient not because the city is constantly widening existing and constructing new freeways. Houston also has one of the most sophisticated traffic control systems.

TranStar, partly privately owned company, controls and manages the traffic. The system includes 894 sensors, 107 ramp controllers, and 275 TV cameras surveying more than 1.300 junctions. As a result of improvements in the traffic system the average speed during the rush hours has increased from 62 km/h in 1982 to 78 km/h in 1998! At the same time this development caused one of the worst sprawls in States. The city has become an enormous freeway network connecting autonomous and sometimes completely privatised enclaves such as Texas Medical Centre, Houston Galleria, Clearlake area etc.

In case of Houston life exists only in cars. They have become an extension of homes, a kind of intimate mobile dwellings making journeys on the destination home – somewhere – home possible. People leave a house, enter a car, drive to work, enter a car, drive to shopping mall, enter a car and drive back home... All the time drivers seem to be safely hidden in a car, no exterior exists in Houston anymore. The car is thus becoming highly domesticised intimate place. It’s turning into a living room on wheels as advertisements try to convince us – "we believe you shouldn't have to give up home comforts when you go out... Pontiac TransSport resembles a living room complete with a stereo system, climate control and comfortable seating." In this way automobility transforms city into a car-only environment, which John Urry describes as “neither urban nor rural, local nor cosmopolitan. They are sites of pure mobility within which car-drivers are insulated as they dwell-within-the-car….”

There is hardly a city on the world, where more infrastructure has been built recently as in Shanghai. Investments into the mobility infrastructure have raised for 15x from 0,72 billion in 1990 to 10,9 billion Yuan in 1998. There are two main reasons. The first is specific historical and economical development of Shanghai and its position within China. In a country where politics and economics are closely interlinked Shanghai’s economic power has made it an important actor in national policy. It has become the so-called ‘Dragon’s head of China’s economy.’ Therefore Shanghai represents one of four municipalities in China under direct administration of the central government. The national policy influences the city considerably. On the other hand the mayor of Shanghai has a substantial political backup to run the city. In this way it is not surprising that the Chinese president Jiang Zemin was prior the party leader and the mayor of Shanghai.

The other reason why infrastructure booms in Shanghai is rather obvious – Shanghai is enormous and vast. In a city where in the newly developed Pudong area more projects are built than in the entire Spain there is little space for a reflexive urban policy. Here the concept can be summarized in ‘build efficiently and more.’ Yet beside the facilitating role that infrastructure has in Shanghai, one has to point out also its ‘speculative role.’ Maybe this role of infrastructure is less obvious in Shanghai as it is in other parts of China. Nevertheless, in Europe modernist ideology considered transportation as key part of every city, making the city operational as a whole. In Shanghai infrastructure activates possible future urban situations, speculates and in a way disintegrates city into enclaves.

Many still think that globalisation leads to a single global culture. On contrary, I believe, that transformations that we recognize as modernization do reflect the diverse starting points. The future of the world seems more likely to be one in which all societies will undergo changes and some may be parallel. But the societies will not converge. New differences are emerging from the old; multiple traditions are evolving into multiple modernities.

My little exercise has exposed three distinctive characteristics related to automobility in the three different cities:

·intensive trade and social exchange that automobility accelerates in Beograd
·intimisation, disappearance of public realm that automobility causes in Houston
·privatisation of traffic infrastructure and its speculative character in Shanghai

As urbanization is an integral part and even an eminent process of modernization – so are mobility and automobility the ultimate expressions of urbanization. One is therefore inevitably faced with question – to what extent is the process of urbanization, and thus also the phenomenon of automobility culturally conditioned?

Corporations seem to have less trouble recognizing cultural differences than architects. In order to expand their business the HSBC bank had clearly abandoned ‘one fits all’ strategy and started to recognize distinctive local practices. ‘The world’s local bank!’ goes the new concept. On contrary, one of the icons of modernist urban planning is much less encouraging. Believing in an universal ‘top-down’ approach – in this case in an efficiency of highly structured traffic – Le Corbusier propose seven separated levels of roads and a strict division between different modes of mobility in a country, which is characterized by completely mixed up, slowly moving traffic masses.

If we are to understand the complex character of the contemporary cities one has to go beyond the cultural concept, within one operates. Studying cities and automobility in Europe does little good without recognizing how automobility is exercised in other societies around the globe and what cultural and social meaning it has there. And finally – what kind of space does automobility elsewhere generate. Yet in this case, a different political agenda would have to be considered. One that would recognize automobility not as an obstacle but rather as a potential for the development of cities. Spaces of pure mobility, transport and transition should in this case become place of intensive cultural exchange and identity as well.

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Jasmin D.
Odziv, 29.9. 2003, 12:04

Članek velja pohvaliti, ker nedvoumno artikulira, da obstaja več auto-identitetnih praks. Tega zavedanja nisem opazila v novo nastajajoči Magni Carti našega planiranja (Strategija prostorskega planiranja)
Pohvaliti velja tudi metodološko zanimivo rešitev: definirana je matrika Rotterdam - Beograd - Šanghaj, ker večina praks pade v ta prostor.
Mala družboslovna sugestija: morda bi veljalo v tekstu bolj umestiti NGO-je, pa kakšno korelacijo med NGO-ji in prometnostjo (čeprav je definiranje korelacije statistično družboslovna muka sama po sebi).
Sicer pa upam, da bo še kakšen tekst na to temo, še posebej z referenco na prostore nekdanje skupne države. Namreč, najbolj zanimivi infrastrukturni projekt v naslednjih 15 letih v Evropi je dokončanje 10. prometnega koridorja in navezave na ta koridor.

Komentarji odražajo mnenja in stališča uporabnikov Trajekta. Možnost komentiranja je namenjena spodbujanju javne debate in odzivom na članke. Uredništvo si pridržuje pravico odstranitve komentarjev v primeru, da so žaljivi, spodbujajo kakršnokoli nestrpnost ali napeljujejo na kriminalna dejanja. Za vsebino komentarjev uredništvo ne odgovarja.
*Autodentity (avtomobilnost + identiteta) je raziskava o mestih, avtomobilnosti in identiteti, ki jo je organizirala Akademija za arhitekturo in urbanizem Rotterdam. Ta tekst je del predavanja s konference 'Who's Afraid of Automobility?', ki se je odvijala 8. decembra 2001 v Rotterdamu. Na konferenci so sodelovali: Maarten Struijs, Bert van Megelen, Michelle Provoost, Aaron Betsky, Blaž Križnik, Jan Duursma in Jan de Graaf.

* Autodentity (automobility + identity) is a research on cities, automobility and identity organized by Rotterdam Academy of Architecture and Urban design. This text is a part of a lecture held on 'Who's Afraid of Automobility?' conference held on 8th December 2001 in Rotterdam with Maarten Struijs, Bert van Megelen, Michelle Provoost, Aaron Betsky, Blaž Križnik, Jan Duursma and Jan de Graaf.

A16 freeway, Rotterdam

NGO’s growth

Bulevar, Beograd

Trading on Bulevar, Beograd

Beltway, Houston

Pontiac TranSport, advertisement

Nan Pu bridge, Shanghai

Abondoned infrastructure, Shanghai

Sketch for traffic in Chandigar, Le Crobusier's

Hauptbanhof, Frankfurt

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