Thursday, December 13

Learning from Lagos

Urban planning of the future will be characterized by chaos. But, according to architect Rem Koolhaas, chaos can be productive. A case in point: the development of the city of Lagos, Nigeria.

Superstar architect and Priztker Prize winner Rem Koolhaas spends considerable time traveling through cities around the world; in fact, he estimates that he is on the road 300 days a year. When he is not working, he enjoys the calm that swimming affords. His schedule is so tight, the best place to interview him is in a car—usually one taking him to a meeting or a departing flight. Koolhaas loves motion, both as a personal state and as a fundamental aspect he looks for in a city. On the drive to the airport, he talks about his vision of a hyper-mobile city of the future—a city in constant flux that is both spontaneously self-organizing and pretty much in chaos.

Koolhaas points to cities exemplifying this new urbanism in two geographic regions that seemingly have little to do with each other. One is portrayed by China’s new, quickly growing epicenters of Asian capitalism. Surprisingly, the other is the chaotic Nigerian metropolis of Lagos. Koolhaas’s thought-provoking verdict is that “In many ways, Lagos shows how other cities may look in the next 100 years.”

For years, Koolhaas and his colleagues have studied how urban structures are created in Lagos, and how the city of 10 million continues to survive despite poverty and disasters such as exploding oil platforms. The answer he provides, which will also appear in a forthcoming book, is that the city gets by on self-organization and improvisation, economic and otherwise.
Economic improvisation is best characterized by markets spontaneously appearing amidst cars and trucks stuck in Lagos’s daily traffic jams. The city’s streets are prone to gridlock that lasts several hours, and the associated sudden emergence of a market atmosphere. Within minutes, hundreds of roving sellers swarm around the vehicles offering all kinds of things, from food to basic services to auto parts (some of which will have been just removed from another, functional car immobilized by traffic).

The market as an organizing principle for a city was something that Koolhaas saw for himself in his youth in Indonesia. “Asian societies have always been strongly influenced by markets,” he says. “In this part of the world, markets produce their own social structures.”

Lagos: In a state of permanent flux

It should be noted that these social structures are never long-lasting; instead, they quickly morph into another form. Consequently, cities are no longer static, but continuously evolving phenomena. Lagos is one such urban center, characterized by its constant state of “becoming.” The failure of one form of planning is recycled as an opportunity for something new. If bridge parts do not meet properly, then the entire bridge is quickly assigned another function, such as a lively pedestrian zone. This type of improvised urbanism is what intrigues Koolhaas about Lagos.
The idea of cities turning into centers of flexible self organization does not mean that urban planning has become superfluous. Instead, it tends to occur at a moment’s notice rather than according to a master plan. And that, says Koolhaas, is what Lagos has in common with China. The economically booming giant does put up massive urban structures in green spaces, and well-known Western architects do stay busy designing new urban regions in China. However, there seems to be no overarching aesthetic or uniform vision at work in this planning.

“They put up huge buildings in no time, but they can become obsolete just as quickly,” says Koolhaas. The result is that planners do their planning and architects do their designing for projects not oriented toward any kind of permanence, but intended more as a provisional measure until the next organizational shift.

“Capitalism is a demanding, stimulating system”

Simultaneous fascination and skepticism also reflect how architects are generally dealing with the present situation. Visions emerge that are anything but comfortable. Koolhaas loves the confrontation between harmonic humanistic aspects and hard, structure-destroying ones.

The biggest source of structural change is the globalized economy. Capitalism is a destructive force, but it also forges innovation and frees creativity. “Capitalism is basically a demanding, stimulating system.” This particular characteristic is increasingly losing ground. “These days, capitalism is interpreted less and less as a self-organizing concept. Instead, companies and governments are relying on rigid controls.” They are moving away from an understanding of the market economy as a place of spontaneous self-organization and reflexivity.

Koolhaas himself has demonstrated that capitalism is capable of reflexivity and criticism of its own principles, in his design for the Prada flagship store in New York. His method can be described as “participatory criticism”—the idea is that to understand something it is necessary to be part of it. This approach also explains why he is building a 500,000-square-meter building for China’s state-run television station CCTV in Beijing, to the great displeasure of many political observers. Critics argue that he is thereby symbolically supporting a regime that undermines the freedom of the press. Yet the CCTV building is not evidence that Koolhaas is an apolitical architect. He sees China’s ambivalence but he is also aware that “the country as a whole is developing in a very impressive direction.”
His work in Europe is also testament to the fact that he is a political architect, evidenced by his designing an alternative European flag for the EU Commission. Furthermore, he defends his idea of a creative Europe at events such as the lecture series titled “Speeches on Europe,” which is sponsored by the Allianz Cultural Foundation.

These views do not mean that Koolhaas would agree to sing the praises, as many do right now, of the “classic European city.” It is “not a model for the rest of the world,” and its approach to controlled growth would not function anywhere else. The bottom line, he says, is that “people in China or the Middle East don’t want simple Americanization.” Thus he believes the concept of ever-bigger shopping malls is outdated.

In the meantime, our car has arrived at the airport 40 minutes before his boarding time. “Perfect timing,” says Koolhaas—the chaos enthusiast who is still occasionally surprised that things sometimes work out as planned.

This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared in the August edition of Roland Berger's award-winning magazine think:act.

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