Mohsen Mostafavi on city specificities

Mohsen Mostafavi is the Dean of the Harvard University Graduate School of Design and the Alexander and Victoria Wiley Professor of Design. An architect and educator, he has been the Gale and Ira Drukier Dean of the College of Architecture, Art and Planning at Cornell University, and the Chairman of the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. Mostafavi has edited a series of books with Lars Müller Publishers, the latest of which, Ethics of the Urban: The City and the Spaces of the Political, comes out this year and is exclusively excerpted in this issue. He talked to Thomas Roueché over Skype from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Thomas Roueché Why is it that public space remains the quintessential utopian space?
Mohsen Mostafavi I think that whether you are in London or Paris or New York, the construction of public space is increasingly becoming the responsibility of private companies. In Paris, there’s a different tradition of building the city than in London, so it makes each of those two cities, in one sense, very specific. But now, these places are becoming more similar, as private companies take on the kinds of projects that the government used to pursue, and these companies’ shared attitudes shape public space. These similarities are emphasised by the lack of government involvement, and its lack of the resources necessary to manage public space. And I’m not even sure that the desire is there—the techniques are not there, the enthusiasm is not there, the commitment is not there—to really be responsible for creating what we think of as public space, which is the streets, the lamps, the city, what used to be the squares, and so on. And so it is the logic of the economy that is shaping the outcome of our public spaces. But at the same time, it is clear that public space and the visibility of public space is a key component in the notion of the public, in the sense of people coming together. Those public spaces remain very important in terms of identity formation, in terms of the creation of agreement and consensus, political belief, which is represented through the occupation of some kind of significant public space. That, I think, is interesting because 20 years ago, we were being told that television had replaced public space, and basically there is no such thing as public space. The whole idea of public space has now entered domestic space because of the way that television, especially when it was new, brought the public and the world into domestic space. We’re now seeing the extension of it through social media. But then, what is it that still makes public space such an important symbolic domain within our cities, that we are always running to those places to make ourselves heard or to share with fellow citizens our commitment to a certain set of goals or aspirations?

TR Public space was what was so special about the city in the late 19th century through the late 20th century, but it’s now accessible from wherever you are, whether you’re in a small village or on an isolated farm with a good Wi-Fi connection. What is really particular about urban space today?
MM I’m not sure that I agree with you. I think the question of access and accessibility is fundamentally different from one of living. Access to information, access to data, access to questions of public space, access to opinion—which I could have if I’m in Cambridge or you’re in London or if someone is in some tiny village and so on—is different from living the city, being in the city. There is still something about the physical dimension, the very physicality of the built environment and its impact in terms of how one lives, that is a very important thing. In my book In the Life of Cities, we grappled with a lot of these questions. It was about the relationship of cities to literature but also: What is it that makes a city different? And that’s very interesting when you start reading descriptions of various cities and the city as a kind of setting, as a site of action—different cities have different narrations. So, London, the fact that you are there—the narration and the way that Tom lives in London—is very different from Tom’s life in Paris, is very different from Tom’s life in Berlin. And I think this comes from the built environment, it comes from the fusion of cultural conditions with this psychical situation. The forthcoming book that we are talking about is really trying to push the question to issues of spatialising democracy: What’s the relationship between the built environment and democracy? I want to make sure that we’re not saying that technology now means that public space is everywhere, and whether you are living in a village in Yorkshire or in Leeds or Birmingham or Paris or Berlin, it’s all the same, because now we are connected in the same way. Is our experience all the same? I doubt that—I think our lives are still radically different because of what we experience, what we move through. The specific condition of London is something very different from Manchester or Edinburgh.

TR To what extent do you think that looking at the city in a historical framework helps us understand contemporary cities?
MM One thing I would say is that we need all the help we can get in terms of the future city. Part of it is that the experience of the modern city is not all positive. In terms of the tools, the methods, and the ideas of the modern city, if we’re thinking about the future and the contemporary city, it’s really quite important to find what I would call this idea of “the catalyst of imaging.” I’m not interested in the consequences of replication of the historic city; I think that’s a dead-end project. You know, the “if we make it look like what it used to be, then life will all be wonderful and all of that” idea. You’ve got people in the UK who do that, as well as in the States and Germany, but I think it’s an illusion. There is no one-to-one correspondence between an image of a place and the performance of the place, as much as some of those things have certain qualities in terms of their specific physical formation, and produce certain performative acts. Of course, it’s possible to see some correlations between the idea of, for example, the historic city and our situation today. The necessity of a kind of plurality of modes of thought—and not seeing this plurality as solely a manifestation of individuality, individual subjects, exercising their right to creativity, to a way of life—is also important so that we can see how these differences come together, to make something that is more the consequence of their proximity, the consequences of people working together. §

  • Mohsen Mostafavi on City Specificities