Now in its sixth year in its home city of Prague, reSITE is a conference that has consistently taken a broad view of urban issues, bringing together the largest concentration of the world’s top architects, urbanists, urban planners, landscape architects, and economists under umbrella topics such as Cities in Migration (2016), The Sharing City (2015), and Cities and Landscapes of the New Economy (2014). However, when it comes to events like this, such broad-ranging ambition can be a double-edged sword, flattening and obscuring the nitty gritty details of complex issues. Perhaps reflecting a concern that cities and the challenges they face be seen in full, reSITE 2017’s chosen theme was In/Visible City.
That particular lens reflects a shift in recent years for events such as this to bring into focus that which has typically remained firmly out of view: infrastructure. An allusion to the technical was manifest in the conference’s visual identity: a human heart, with pipe-like arteries and vegetation growing in between the cracks. The heart is to the body like infrastructure is to the city – but just as the body is much more than its circulatory system, the infrastructure cities depend upon is not limited to the obvious, billion-dollar construction projects that make headlines. Urban infrastructure spans all scales and numerous disciplines, ranging from design details to the small print in city policy. In/visible City brought forth the invisible features that give shape to the visible city demonstrating that cultural vitality, social fabric and citizen participation are infrastructural as well.
But while the focus on infrastructure was a useful device for initiating these kinds of discussions, a danger of the approach is the predominance of an “above/below the bonnet” dichotomy; cities are not cars, nor are they computers. The speakers partaking at reSITE 2017 offered perspectives along a wide spectrum of architecture and urbanism. This international mix encompassed architects such Kazuyo Sejima and Winy Maas, as well as writers, academics and city officials, such as Deputy Mayor of Paris, Jean Louis Missika. His scheme Reinventer Paris serves as a leading model for participatory, quality-based architecture that can be scaled accordingly to have local and citywide impact.
The night before the conference’s two days of workshops, lectures and panel discussions, world-renowned lighting urbanist Leni Schwendinger kicked off festival proceedings and cast some light onto an oft-overlooked dimension of cities: night time. Schwendinger introduced her Nighttime Design initiative, a time-based discipline that develops innovative approaches to the urban after-dark environment and goes far beyond public safety and security concerns. Armed with a megaphone, Schwendinger led a group of over thirty night-time enthusiasts through the streets of Prague to observe the shades of the city after dark. Under glowing lanterns and colorful window displays, participants discussed heritage and gentrification – both topics with a significant nighttime dimension. Later in the festival, Schwendinger’s lecture illustrated how holistic after-dark strategies can engender social infrastructure, healthier communities and vibrant 24-hour economies, as well as improved safety and security.
Other speakers illuminating the debate included Monocle’s Editor Andrew Tuck, who explained his approach to making cities visible and audible by asking crucial questions in a range of media – from print to podcast. In this way, journalists act as a channel between city hall, architecture and design professionals, and the reader, explaining what is going on in everyday terms – and what is at stake. The discourse of the smart city, for example is a ubiquitous topic at events like this and has an interesting relation to reSITE’s 2017 theme given its tendency towards a nomenclature of the visual, with terms such as “transparency” and “vision.”
Such lofty framings can mean that much of the debate around cities and what’s happening in them is conducted away from ground level. Tuck’s take on infrastructure emphasizes alternatives to smart city promises, the schemes made by tech companies with grand visions that will cost billions and will probably never be delivered. He identified reSITE as a space that offers real opportunity for city planners to learn from each other. Journalists, says Tuck, must find ways to broadcast some of the challenges, positions and responses that arise to those who are not in physical attendance.
One city official in attendance was Marlena Happach, the recently appointed Director of the Department of Architecture and Planning for the City of Warsaw. Happach expressed her interest in “sharing expertise and cross-checking it with professionals in similar fields around the world.” For Happach, making visible doesn’t just concern her own role, but also applies to processes of participation through which the citizens she serves can themselves be shapers of the city. Her personal trajectory to city hall has informed this approach – prior to her current role, she worked as an architect with an NGO, Odblokuj, which promoted participation in architecture and the planning process in Warsaw. Happach’s approach in the Polish capital speaks to reSITE’s core mission to promote the design of people-centered cities via processes that react and adapt according to what’s happening below rather than merely prescribing from above. Happach references a recent decision to change plans laid out ten years ago, which had assumed the Warsaw’s population would hit 2 million. But instead, emigration levels rose over that period and because of the lack of density, the city has now made the decision to designate terrain previously slated for development as green space.
David Bravo, secretary of the European Prize for Urban Public Space, spoke about the importance of public space, arguing that it should not be reduced to its technical or aesthetic facets but also considered in terms of its ethical and political qualities. Noting the etymological root of “politics” coming from the Greek polis for “city,” Bravo argued that we should be considering “if – and in which ways – urban transformations are serving to democratize our cities.” He pointed to one such transformation being European cities gaining back public spaces previously taken over by cars; they become more attractive as a result but this can then lead to further transformation via the forces of touristification and gentrification. Likewise, he noted that the digitalization of public spaces must be seen critically, but also as an opportunity to for the technological to complement the physical realm.
Many speakers at reSITE bridged local case studies and global discourse, such as Matthias Einhoff of ZK/U (Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik) in Berlin who ran one of the weekend’s workshops, producing materials for an on-site demonstration. Through its activities, ZK/U engages with artistic and research-based projects concerning the city and public space, combining a focus on local practices with activities such as the Hacking Urban Furniture initiative and an international residency program. The aim is to establish exactly the kind of link between municipal administrations and the normal populace that reSITE explores. Remarking on the diverse range of participants at the conference, Einhoff acknowledged another benefit: being exposed to ideas one doesn’t necessarily like, adding that an informed critic is a more effective one.
Teddy Cruz’s participation in the conference perhaps embodies the most important section of the architecture/urbanism spectrum that reSITE split through its In/Visible City prism. In his research-based studio, Cruz uncovers a city that is, for many, undiscoverable. He is invested in making processes of practice – of participation, decision-making, of change, of adaptation – visible, be they actions of city hall or the manner in which immigrants respond to mechanisms of marginalization. By turning our gaze towards this hidden city comprised of hidden processes, Cruz, whose work focuses on the border region as a site of urban and political creativity, argues that we also uncover hidden values.
Cruz delivered the festival’s final keynote reflecting upon the fact that border regions are increasingly demonized as sites of criminalization and polarization, yet they are places “from which to reimage our own procedures as architects, a site from which to confront inequality, reimagine citizenship, from which to return ourselves to do this in a more equitable and inclusive city.” This notion of “reimaging” is really what an urbanist consideration of the visible/invisible should be about: not just bringing to light what was once unseen – for that reinforces the initial dichotomy – but actually bringing into view complexity. Such complexity is unseen not necessarily because it is invisible, but because it can be difficult to apprehend when it arises from activities outside of traditional discipline boundaries. But those kinds of entrepreneurial, bottom-up collaborative processes that might exist across a neighborhood – all entailing transactions or negotiations with space, boundaries, resources – amount to what Cruz says is “a lot of information that continues to be ignored by planning agencies.” The benefits of widening the spectrum of consideration and turning attention to these activities are clear: “The spatial, social, and economic practices embedded in these environments can be incredible ingredients for enabling communities to be developers of their own housing or their own public space.”