Defying The Endless City

Image: Brett Ian Balogh

This summer, at Dia: Beacon, the palisade of late Modern art born from the ruins of a Nabisco packaging plant along the Hudson River, I came across a pair of thick books put out by the Urban Age Projecton the “endless city.” The idea for the Project and the books was to pull together some of the world’s most incisive urban observers to deconstruct the mind-boggling global migration that has turned most human beings into city dwellers. And indeed, with places like Mumbai, Kinshasa, Dhaka, Delhi, and Lagos increasing in size by 40 or 50 people an hour, by 2050 75% of people will inhabit cities.

Does this leave us with the “infernal world” imagined in Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, in which “each city takes to resembling all cities, places exchange their form, order, distances, a shapeless dust cloud invades the continents?” This is one of the questions the Urban Age folks explore without dispassion but with a seemingly endless data set, on everything from carbon emissions to slum conditions. They pull apart and point up nine cities, including Istanbul, Mumbai, Mexico City, and New York. At heart of the endeavor is to help posit the ways in which cities can serve humankind, and in so doing, not become lost particles in a shapeless dust cloud, but particular nodes of human ambition, innovation, and endeavor.

This impulse, I believe, is what was behind John Gallery’s thinking in my piece in today’s Inquirer. Faced with a choice between emphasizing the historic character of the street or contemporary forms and spaces, he says, “it’s the question of what it is you think will make Philadelphia a distinctive city in the future.”

I hope we all can agree there’s no straightforward answer. In this regard, I think often about Istanbul, which for quite opposite reasons than Philadelphia, is forced to think about this question. In 1970, Philadelphia and Istanbul were the same size, about 2 million people. Since then, of course, Philadelphia shrunk considerably and Istanbul exploded, to about 13 million. Most Istanbullus live in placeless and formless (and endless) high density rings, far from the distinctive center. Like Philadelphia, Istanbul has done a poor (some say criminal) job preserving its considerable architectural heritage.

Now, then: how to make the Istanbul of the future distinct? The recent answer–possible when your city produces a quarter of the national GDP–has been to think big. A new canal to divert commercial shipping from the Bosphorous to free it up for pleasure craft; the adaptive reuse of the massive old electrical power station, Sentral, into a university-culture-innovation campus; Zaha Hadid’s plan for Kartal-Pendik, a new urban nucleus in an old warehouse district on the Asian side of the Bosphorous–these are signs that contemporary urban ideas and desires, and not just the inherited ones–the two in dialogue, in tension–can, as Calvino wished, help us see our way out of the inferno.

I’m not sure I like everything about the work of Hadid, one a handful of truly global starchitects, but I’m more than willing to listen. She will be here November 19 to receive the 2011 Collab Design Excellence Award at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Oh, how I’d like to drag her down to the Navy Yard, the Conrail coal transfer yard, to the Frankford Arsenal…

About the author

Nathaniel Popkin is co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and author of three books of non-fiction, including the forthcoming Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City (Temple Press) and a novel, Lion and Leopard (The Head and the Hand Press). He is the senior writer of the film documentary "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment."



Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.

Recent Posts
Monument Lab Artist Stands Up For The City's Lost Stoops

Monument Lab Artist Stands Up For The City’s Lost Stoops

August 17, 2017  |  Vantage

Artist Kaitlin Pomerantz is on a mission to save Philadelphia's castaway stoops. Her project for this year's Monument Lab will memorialize the city's proverbial outdoor living room with a collection of salvaged stoops inside Washington Square Park. Contributor Star Herr-Cardillo has the story > more

In The Aftermath Of Charlottesville, Counting On The Catto Memorial

In The Aftermath Of Charlottesville, Counting On The Catto Memorial

August 15, 2017  |  Soapbox

As Southern cities erupt in protest and race-fueled violence over the removal of Confederate memorials, historian Amy Cohen looks at Philadelphia's lack of diversity in public monuments > more

In

In “Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture,” The City Is A Muse

August 11, 2017  |  Buzz

Groundbreaking exhibit of the work of Louis Kahn brings his ideas to life, says Nathaniel Popkin > more

Convention Center Survivor A Symbol Of Philly's Faded Industries

Convention Center Survivor A Symbol Of Philly’s Faded Industries

August 10, 2017  |  The Shadow Knows

The Shadow takes us for a spin to the corner of Race and Camac Streets where the city's commercial sectors have shifted gears for over a century > more

A Sneak Peek At <em>Cai Guo-Qiang: Fireflies</em>

A Sneak Peek At Cai Guo-Qiang: Fireflies

August 8, 2017  |  Buzz

Michael Bixler has this behind-the scenes look at Cai Guo-Qiang's interactive dreamscape, "Fireflies." The Chinese artist will debut his mobile art project on September 14 in celebration of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway's centennial > more

City Mobilizes Against Trash With Zero Waste Action Plan

City Mobilizes Against Trash With Zero Waste Action Plan

August 7, 2017  |  News

Can the City eliminate Philly's litter epidemic by 2030? Nic Esposito, director of the Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet, says it can be done if government and residents work together. Michael Bixler catches up with the 'litter czar' to discuss an ambitious, municipal action plan to tackle the issue > more