P+ARG Biennial Conference 2020
University of Michigan
January 31st – February 1st
Keynotes by Saskia Sassen & Rodolphe el-Khoury
What is the city? The answers to this perennial question remain endless. It does the question no justice to simply ask it once more. Perhaps the fall of cities can better tell us what they are. When the Americans sought to break the Japanese metropole’s resolve, they knew what they had to do: annihilate a couple of its cities. Already depleted by war, the Japanese government decided to throw in the towel rather than depopulate its urban centers: cities, no less than inhabitants, had to be saved. This is all to say, the human lifespan is much too short to sustain the nation but the city's long history documents (and sustains) the suprahuman life of political geography. We contend that the city is where the national image is born. That the city is where national identity simultaneously resides and is challenged. While social media networks a movement, it is still the mass of feet on Cairo’s Tahrir Square and more recently Hong Kong’s streets that encrypt the image of protest in the global mind. And even as political and economic systems shift and realign, the fable of the city persists: Detroit, from one of the world’s fastest-growing cities to a paragon of urban decline; Mexico City, from Aztec capital Tenochtitlan to colonial capital to the most populous city in the Americas; and Delhi, through at least eight cultural and political reincarnations. Perhaps urbanism is humanity's true soteriology.
Is it not irksome then, that the city is never perfect? Is it not ironic that humanity's worst depravities fester in the city? Is it not unsurprising that many have thought up ideal topos beyond the shortcomings of material (read: urban) existence? Why else would utopia be imagined? Is utopia the goal of human progress or but society expiating its sins? If so, is utopia the city’s salvation? Was Lewis Mumford not amiss in pronouncing that “the first utopia was the city itself"? Is utopia the city to end all cities? Is it the mythical Atlantis, philosophy’s Virtuous City, comicverse’s Wakanda, or the New York or Paris of movies, fetishes of the geographical imagination? Does utopia have any other purpose than to help us escape the drudgery of real life, if only for a moment or two? But is utopia itself not too selfish? Or can it be universal? Are there those who aspire and those who conspire? Why do architects and planners think they can do both? What ploy allows us to be both idealists and cynics? Is it simply a marriage of convenience—a stoic wed to an epicurean, a suburb to a city center, a New Cairo to an Old, a Frankfurt to a Munich, a Chandigarh to a Delhi, a Shenzhen to a Hong Kong, an Eswatini to a Pretoria, a Brasilia to a Rio de Janeiro?
But a city is much too complex for a single human being to plan and design; utopia then delimits the possibilities and attunes the mind to a manageable set of variables, foregrounding what its conceiver values. If utopia is a value-laden empty canvas, then the city is a value battleground. Can utopia be ephemeral or nomadic, or must it be moored to time and space? Can utopia be an experiment or is it simply a simulation? Is utopia a smart city? Is utopia BIM’s telos? Is utopia the final extinguishment of the law of the jungle? Is utopia post-DEI? Is utopia nature’s true metropolis? How awephilic it must be—how singular! But is utopia not a mere fancy in this dystopian present? Is utopia the city of the bored? Is the city the utopia of the spontaneous? Must utopia and the city be at odds?
Is all this triggering? Is all this risible? Is it infuriating? The conference is an opportunity to question and challenge all this; utopia vs. the city seeks to grapple with this primal binary: of the immaculateness of imagination and the nakedness of life.