To lead this off I want to start with Rem Koolhaas’s Generic City, which is in his book Small, Medium, Large, Extra Large. Admittedly, this was not the first major Rem reading that I did in this process, but it felt like the one that really could be the main foundation for an idea. The main reason why is because it is exhaustively comprehensive when describing what he calls “the Generic City”, and another reason was that it felt like there were characteristics that described Omaha (which I will get to later).
The Generic City is simply Rem understanding what the city is now. It has become a placeless and paranoid machine of repetitive production of form supported by sprawling infrastructure. The Generic City tries to create an identity, but the more that happens the more cities are universally similar. Identity and history are where the Generic City becomes the clearest. The city can become whatever it needs to be for whatever time it exists in. The market drives the production of space, but understand that only happens in the certain parts of the city. Historic preservation only happens on a superficial level, but once you experience the “revitalization”, identity and place dissolves quickly.
I am not really here to describe the reading verbatim, and even if that was the point of this blog it would not do any good because the reading itself is generic. It describes place, yet is based off of no place. To me, the generic city is the abandonment of the idea that architecture is urban design and a tool in strengthening social structures within society. I will repeat this often on this blog, but our cities are the manifestation of economic and political forces, and architecture is merely the tool they use to build their reality. Even back in the mid 90’s when Rem writes The Generic City it takes the tone of him forfeiting architecture’s place in society. Every city is looking to build entertainment districts that are anchored by bars and arenas, while surround by the ghosts of the industrial revolution waiting to be reincarnated as high end loft apartments. Do not get me wrong, I like going to these places too, but place, more than ever, is driven by economic output. These places become beacons that continuously rise, decay, and rise again, only connected by infrastructure existing in blank space. We no longer understand the city because we zone the city, and within those zones only a small percentage can be slated for added detail. What happens to the rest of city? That’s easy, it becomes a product of mass production repeating itself for the sake of efficiency, just ask the suburbs. Urban planners (not urban designers) have sucked the life from the city with master plans, design standards, faux preservation, and more. The worst part is designers and architects accepted that as fact.
Being a critic of this does feel a bit obvious and idealistic for someone who is just finishing up architecture school. That being said, I am not sure that this is the fate of the relationship between architecture and the city. When people talk about the future city the conversation revolves around sustainability and technology (smart cities). Those are inevitable truths with the future of advancement, but the conversation stops short of reimagining how to rethink our approach and process as designers of space for people. How can we better understand identity of place? How can we better design for human interaction, efficiency, and safety? I do not believe that policy and standardization is the future of design within our cities. Design is uniquely tooled to create a better future because it can be localized, empathetic, and flexible. The notion that architecture and design does not have a role in this conversation is exactly what has lead to the continued proliferation of the Generic City.
The next step is to better understand what that role was, is, and what it could look like in the future…