Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Speed and Position: The Post-Event City

You can’t take the rush out of a gold rush town and get it to stroll or sit down. The rush is its nervous system fueled by large and singular events. Johannesburg likes to think of itself more as drag strip racing than random family outings in sensible cars. So the 2010 World Cup is the turbo kicking into Johannesburg’s already accelerated history.

The Heisenberg Principal of Uncertainty – more as metaphor than scientific fact – argues that speed and position cannot be measured simultaneously. Or in a nuanced understanding, the more precisely you know one, the less you know the other. It’s a question of concentration and degree, a question in which the observer is implicated.

Right now Johannesburg is concentrated on the Big Event accelerating it into another “World Class” future. It’s laying down fast infrastructure to prove it, from the Gautrain to the BRT, and like Haussmann’s Paris, it will be hard to ignore the spokes of World Class in 2010. It’s an undeniably exciting time for Johannesburg and South Africa.

But what remains of the city, or of cities generally, or of the societies and architectures that compose them, after the Big Event has rushed on to another part of the world? Do cities have other times to return to, or do they just get busy on the bid for the next World Class race meet?

In the uncertainty dilemma, Johannesburg favors speed. It’s a young city. Position is more of an afterthought, the grabbing of styles or the deployment of staging techniques. Or in that secluded moment, buckled up in an airline seat thumbing through the duty-free magazine and feeling compelled to want something, position is just a listless pause before takeoff.

Positions-making-and-having-their-own-times do not often occur in urban thinking in South Africa. It’s why Johannesburg has a problem understanding that immigration - as seepage more than tourism or business trips - is forming more complex urban situations, a cosmopolitan awakening that is continental. Johannesburg could become a unique city to live in, rather than an estate agent’s brochure to read, or a “World Class African City” to visit.

But lurking in Johannesburg there is always a yearning for the fast Las Vegas gambling town– a city where no one is born or dies, but everyone visits for at most two weeks: to make a fortune or lose one, to get married or get divorced, to get laid or hold forth with bourbon. Speed comes at a cost. At high speed, position is a post-modern desert on the way to a craps game - a dumping ground for retreads, sign posts and this week’s failed lottery tickets.

The Heisenberg dilemma of speed and position is not unique to Johannesburg as a city. The dilemma has occurred in all cities growing quickly from provincial origins into metropolitan futures, as more and more people demanded to live in them for whatever reason.

When the dilemma presented itself towards the end of the 19th Century, Chicago conveniently burned to the ground and infrastructure gave rise to the 20th Century version. Sentiment was a non-starter in Chicago’s new beginning. But other cities grappled with measuring the new slang of urban expansion against their outdated design and social dictionaries. In the case of 19th Century London or Paris, it was a repressive classical dictionary where tidiness, beauty and infrastructure were successfully deployed against the “social anarchy” of new urban societies demanding and making new urban forms.

Nowadays property values do the excluding work of classicism in World Class Cities and “New Urbanism” has become the solution for also-ran cities. Prepackage and fence-in, the pocket bourgeoisie add instant property value to World Class Satellites. A few extra bucks for a cappuccino is a small price to pay for hefty guards at the gates ensuring the pockets remain uncontaminated and free to believe they’re in that arcade in Milan.

In cities like Lagos or Sao Paulo, the slang is overwhelming and the dictionaries can’t cope. The organism is too large to put under current design macroscopes, despite heroic efforts by architect-visionaries like Rem Koolhaas, with unfortunately too little time to turn their full attention to Africa, South America or other exotica.

Philosophically, we no longer live in a Newtonian universe where space and time are neatly separated and can be discussed mechanically. To discuss position or speed now is to discuss each with the adjunct of the other, and acknowledge the observer in prejudices. It is relative, yes, but more it is a paradox that demands continual shifts in viewpoint and thinking.

Simply put, position accrues time(s) as depth. Positions are stained by social force and habit, cultural bric-a-brac, topography and climate, each coming laden with ideas and demands. They resist speed and suggest that other times be recognized and built upon. Position is not a nostalgic desire to stand still, but more like having dinner in a motor home speeding down the highway, the concentrated and existential time-within-Time we occasionally call living-for-life or savoring-the-moment.

Speed, on the other hand, is more often than not taken as a singular metaphor that becomes a mechanical solution or a psychosomatic internal combustion engine, a physical or mental force urging us all into a future that necessarily remains just out of reach.

Flying is still an unlikely miracle to most human beings. The unlikely miracle gave rise to the Uber-Bourgeoisie, a World Class that inverted immigration from a movement of the very poor to a movement of the very rich. To the Uber-Bourgeoisie, architecture and cities are an interactive string of spectacles and events designed in fast time. The Uber-Bourgeoisie hit the pause button when they need a moment to dwell in extruded apartments where the kitchen is in New York and the bedroom in Shanghai. World Class Architects are the designers and event managers of this new immigration, the iconic Moses accelerating the Uber Bourgeois into the promised stratosphere of spaces mimicking the space-time continuum and making reluctant concessions to local gravities to prevent champagne glasses falling off tables.

Glancing for a moment out of the aircraft window to look at a stretch of the Sahara that still takes weeks to cross on foot, then returning to read the Economist, it is justifiable to think that humanity now lives in irreconcilable times, and that the humanist, if mechanical proposition in Newtonian thought where space and time seemed predictable and cohesive and could form part of a social solution, is now impossible.

But then suddenly, as happens in the stratosphere, whether financial or architectural, the Uber-Bourgeois Shuttle hit an airless pocket and dropped thousands of meters. The ground and its footsloggers seem not only worthy of thought, but imminent.

Thomas Jefferson envisioned a productive agrarian state in which he hoped cities would play a minor role. His cohort, Ben Franklin, made terse, dismissive edits to Jefferson’s meandering texts, probably because Franklin was impatient to get back to Paris, a city he loved to live in. Philadelphia he reserved for homilies. In the yin-yang of two thinkers carving a Humanist United States out of a soon to be indigenous-free stretch of land some 3,000 miles long, Franklin retained his emotional attachment to the continental European city as an interesting, enjoyable and elaborately social place. Jefferson, on the other hand, foresaw that in the New World, the city would become a mechanical wealth-making device where the rich exploited the poor - the translation of Newtonian mechanics into urban purpose.

Implicit in the 19th Century Industrial Revolution was the growing idea of the city as a functional device. 20th Century Modernism made this explicit and fine-tuned the parts - Corbusian houses as machines-to-live-in – to fit the idea of the city as a productive machine. Lately, with the functional device established, the post-Modern city can now be marketed worldwide as a consumable object or service.

In Heisenberg terms, the continental European city, by and large, through agglomerations of position established by long histories of occupation, resisted the singular idea of the city as speed-turned- device-turned-service. Cities in the New World were less able to resist this; they still fill and empty like a factory floor in economies measured by housing start-ups and foreclosures, as if dwelling were beside the point in contexts based on movement.

Johannesburg is a 20th Century city whose reason for being was the mining and processing of gold. It was born of industrial purpose and would have few references other than speed had it not occurred in Africa, the only continent, other than Asia, where viable indigenous populations had position enough to survive colonialism, then gain independence. So Johannesburg, if it emptied as a factory floor like Pittsburgh or Detroit, would always be guaranteed further occupation. It would lose one value, only to quickly gain another.

There should have been something reassuring in this, that Johannesburg was not weakly positioned in a desolate middle-class landscape like the Mid-West, where immigrant nuclear families were connected like vacuum cleaners sucking wealth from a fluctuating New World grid. Johannesburg might have understood its position more like Rome - a rock on the edge of an ocean, corroded and added to by consistent social tides.

But in the Heisenberg dilemma Johannesburg continues to ignore position and insist on speed. This is because Johannesburg understands itself as a New World City, rather than an Old World City, or Another World City.

Uniquely in sub-Saharan Africa, Johannesburg was founded by settlers neither as an administrative capital, nor a commodity-based city or port. From the outset Johannesburg was an industrial city. So it embraced the paradigm of American cities like Pittsburgh and subscribed to the wealth-making ideas of New World cities, more or less as middle-class processing plants. The wave of post-World War II wannabe-middle-class European immigrants into South Africa certainly reinforced this idea.

But in populated Africa the paradigm was far from convincing. In the New World Continents of North America and Australia, indigenous populations were quickly decimated and an inversion was possible - immigrants became permanent and middle-class and the already marginalized locals stayed marginalized. These were continents that could fully embrace speed and create more or less convincing fictions of position on the blank pages of uninhabited landscapes.

It is almost as if, in realizing its mistake, Johannesburg was forced into denial and developed an obsessive-compulsive need to prove that is was not only part of the New World machine, but could develop it in alarming new ways.

In forcing the necessary immigrant-local inversion during the golden era of the New World City after 1945, Johannesburg and other South African cities began to conceive themselves as countries-within-countries with quality checks to control influx - plants that could then choose raw material from local populations to process into urban middle class. After the International Socialist rhetoric of pre-war South Africa gave way to a National Socialist government after the war, their constituents, the 80% rural Afrikaans population, were first in line to benefit. By the early 60’s, 80% had been urbanized.

Johannesburg was a highly efficient machine, often bemused by bad international reception of its resounding success. In obsessive compulsiveness, it not only kept up with New World infrastructure, but in things like plumbing surpassed the wildest expectations of Modernism, managing to keep the shit of 6 distinct groups of human beings separate and create spaghetti-like facades on factories - an unprecedented addition to Modernist design vocabulary.

The choice of speed and its translation into urbanism as a wealth transferring process, still lingers in post-94 Johannesburg’s thinking and behavior. Johannesburg’s World Class criminal efficiency can be seen as part of this habit, a consequence of propagating the city more as process than position.

But strangely enough, in the singular lead-up to the World Cup and the frenetic construction of mega-public transport systems, the city is showing interesting signs of establishing position, socially, politically and mythically.

The taxi drivers, a growing constituency since the waning years of apartheid, have worked South African cities into a web and lexicon of flexible connectivity, and relish the iconic value of their popular limousines in a city infatuated by smart cars. In the lead-up to the World Cup they are throwing a spanner in the public works, claiming not only their economic and functional role, but also their position as part of the city’s new mythology.

Other than the Russian Constructivist exuberance just after 1916, Modernism with its terse functional and protestant attitude to the human condition, had little to offer that was celebratory. On New Year’s Day in Durban, the taxi drivers eschew the merely functional role of getting people to work. Hundreds gather on the beach front, laden with passengers taking a holiday and setting up barbeques – a busman’s holiday of sorts. To an outsider this might be confused with large family outings, but in the sense of Heisenberg, it is the depthening of position as the 16 person taxi has developed a distinct urban sociability and along with this a political resistance to the one-machine idea endemic to both apartheid and post-apartheid political thinking in South African.

The mark of a city is how it deals with both celebration and tragedy. Whether it is tied to singular events like the Nuremburg Rally or other nation building tactics to gain a sense of social connection and belonging, or whether it develops these from the organic give-and-take and frictions of daily urban life. In South Africa’s continuing social insecurity there are still far too many National Holidays. It’s alarming in a country with a notorious history of collusion between capitalism and the national socialist state that being South African, being sociable and feeling worthwhile as a human being should still be considered the exclusive patronage of the central government or of the marketing ploys of capitalism galvanizing a nation into wanting what it cannot afford.

In the lead-up and aftermath to World Cup 2010, it would be good to remember the street traders and the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002. By 2002 street traders had staked their claims, like early gold prospectors, across the horizontal plane of inner city Johannesburg. In the interests of putting on a smart face for international visitors, traders were removed from many city streets for 2 weeks. 2 weeks is a short time in the speedy history of the world, but street traders could not suspend trading for longer than 4 days. So ironically a World Summit on Sustainability put an end to the fragile sustainability of many street traders.

2010 is a much different time from 2002. South Africa’s situation is now reflected globally in the crash of international capitalism and the reappearance of the ground. It seems a better time to concentrate on the experimental possibilities and implications for design and architecture in Johannesburg and other South African cities, than cling to maligned speculations on what is or what is not a World Class City.

By Rodney Place
Place is a Johannesburg artist. He has spent a few years in Eastern Europe.