What does success mean in urbanism? A reflective and superficial introduction

Jonas R Bylund

This section is a short investigation and conceptual frame for our part of the excursion (we may have to manipulate, improvise, and break this frame altogether in exploring Berlin). I most certainly am taking advantage of the situation. Because (1) I am getting to know a lot of things while preparing this excursion, and I probably will learn a lot more partaking in it (and this goes for my dear co-producer Judith as well). For instance, I’m getting to know architects and urbanists. And (2) I take the chance to dwell upon one of my favourite topics – planning, urbanism, and why nothing ever really turns out as expected in this field – through this reflection.

What is Bergen 2020?

This is what I know about Bergen 2020. In Bergens Tidende (Pedersen 2003) there was an article on Ole Berrefjord and Lasse Thomassen’s scenario for Bergen 2020, which is commissioned by the Bergen Chamber of Commerce. The future vision key concept is 2+2=5, which means that if you can get two plus two to become five, then you get (new) growth and wealth. If you get four, then the future is an even grey routine, things just keep on as they are. If you get three, then you will have stagnation.

This concept is ’stolen’ from a rather dystopic source – Orwell’s 1984 – but in contrast to his use the Bergen variant suggests that illogical thinking in one area, here arithmetics, might generate effects in another area, here society. What it says is that you have to believe, trust and take risks, set your mind to that truth and then the fortunate path forwards opens up. Hence the social constructivists’ point that discourse produces truth serves Berrefjord’s conceptual framing and formulaic approach.

Berrefjord states that he wants to find strategies that releases the forces who makes a city into a magnet for people, i.e. finding strategies for attraction. The substance in the scenario then turns out to be ideas (circulating around the notion of åndsverk, which I translate to creations of the mind) and the key to future workplaces lies in creating products and experiences. This is not a radically new approach, since the human being have been doing this for the last couple of thousand years (at least). The newness is in how it will be done: Instead of relying on the rather risky oil-business, which means having all the eggs in one big basket, diversification and many small baskets is called for. Literally it means that small and middle sized enterprises (SME:s in the jargon) are the ones to compute two-plus-two in the future. (This is, by the way, a late revelation for many Social Democrats around Europe, not a very unusual position found in many other contemporary national and regional economical strategies on this continent.)

The main reason for his concept building on small dynamic units instead of big collosses, Berrefjord says in the article, is that he has seen and met people with a lot of creativity and intense devotion in Bergen. The trouble, though, is the usual Janteloven and the mis-communication between different sectors – private-public, intergenerational and so on.

So for 2+2=5 to happen, intercommunication (samtal på tvers) is needed, which in turn entails the production and re-production of discursive images. In urbanism this means that planning and project-management have to keep the multitude alive and well and not thread on the spiring creativity. In other words a clear perspective on what and how to regulate and stimulate. This should not be a problem, or? When today urbanism, in theory at least, sees itself more as tendering potential and giving ground services – rather than, metaphorically as well as literally, building squared houses for the city along with the citzens to inhabit through meticulously planning every detail with ’instrumental reason’ (see Lilja 1995).

A generic city with urban sanctuaries?

From a small misunderstanding I thought that the framing notion for this excursion was urban sanctuaries. As I am not familiar with this notion I started to search on the Internet. Sometimes natural zones in the city came up. Sometimes projects around at-risk-youth and physical education entered the screen. A lot of the time homepages for spas in the anglo-american world turned up. I now know that the notion had more with to do Haikus.

But I could not stop reflecting a little bit more on what this notion could mean and I present it here as what it could mean in connection with Berlin. Urban sanctuaries reminds me of something the urban sociologist Scott Lash said (personal info, Darmstadt): That the europeans are obsessively trying to keep a heritage – the built structures in the city and the forms of life connected to them. It is obsessive or fanatic, if I remember correctly, in comparison to the Chinese and contemporary Shanghai (he was just returned from a trip there). But also and to some degree, I would add, to the USA way of urbanism and building: The dynamic way of building and then replacing as soon as there is no need for those buildings anymore. Although, this is a somewhat generalized perception.

In my view, then, urban sanctuaries could stand for the preoccupation and the establishment of criterias for what to keep and what to delete in a cityscape. The etymological roots of sanctuary suggests the holiness or untouchability that the EU in its urban policies lays on the Traditional European City, which is taken on by Richard Rogers, the Urban Task Force, and very clearly in the Berlin Stadtforum. In this institution for a more public planning urbanists’ sometimes drew hard lines between what was perceived as Berlin traditional urbanity (i.e.19-20th century urban structure) and the East Berlin city center (i.e. GDR post-second world war modernism), calling the latter an urban desert which imperatively has to be rebuilt. This view is implicitly reflected in the more traditional urbanist conception of the Inner-City Plan, the Planwerk Innenstadt.

Please do not misunderstand my critique here. I find the discussion and reflection on what to keep and what to loose very important – too important to let any kind of expert solely decide from criterias that are not reviewed by the public. And, yes, Berlin tried to bring these questions to the fore in the Stadtforum, which developed into an alibi for expert rule anyway (Bylund 2001).

In this light the urban sanctuary could be contrasted with Koolhaas’ Generic City (Koolhaas 2003). Identity, and urbanist conceivements of urban identity especially, has become absurd in European cities. The absurdity lies in that this obsession – everything must comply with the imagined Identity – generates a path dependency which is conservative, restraining, and at the same time creative – but only creative insofar as what is produced is in line with the stated Identity. Because identity is equalled to a center, and creating identity in this European discourse is essentially the same as creating and maintaining center-periphery relations (tensions). The center is or has to be the space where identity is made visible or tangible: This is where Tradition is demanded to put its marks in the built environment. This space then, according to Koolhaas, excludes expansion, interpretation, renewal, and contradiction (the themes usually presented when someone tries to define what ’urbanity’ is). At the same time, and here the paradox becomes clear, as the center is the most important part of the city it also has to be the most modern and dynamic part.

Koolhas’ provocative answer to this is to build or produce cities that are constantly regenerative in the sense that they reflect or answer to the needs of the ones using them for the moment, able to take on a new identity the next monday-morning – instead of only catering to the commercialized image of the city. The generic city is thus maintained at the cost of one and only one dominating identity. This way of handling urban space would better reflect or suite the multifacetted and -networked cities we actually have (and always had?).

The identity question is of course pushed to the fore in a city like Berlin. What is really central and what is peripheral in this city? The city officially polycentric, it has at least three centers, which some visitors find confusing but the establishment wants to keep it this way. On the other hand, there are a lot of identity production through various city-marketing institutions trying to define and characterise Berlin outside and inside the city. The following tension is quite interesting, if it was not for the sad under-tone of the city’s desperate economic situation permeating these images.

Koolhaas’ notion is provocative for this reason: The european modernist technocratic and accompanying social engineering failures – failures because we tried to short-circuit the necessary political work (Latour 1999) – and the consequential pendular snapback on identity and rescuing what is left of the heritage. Center-periphery questions aside, Koolhaas’ disrespect for the urbanist totalizing-totalitarian Identity makes it understandable why he was thrown out of Berlin in the 1990s as he was and is on a crash-course with the Berlin establishment’s concept for reconstruction (he was in the jury for the Potsdamer Platz-competition; Lautenschläger 2004).

This led me to think about a theme I have used once before: Anachronism and anarchisms (Bylund 2002; the idea was initially suggested by my friend Daniel Genberg). This binary half-opposition was not designed to capture all that which makes a city, it was rather to point at two important elements in contemporary urbanist and ’citizen’ or ’public’ practice in Berlin. Anachronisms in this sense was a way to identify the images that this obsession with tradition and identity produced – images and effects in the built urban spaces. Anarchisms, one the other hand, was an intention to bring in the people doing things not quite the way expected from planners and architects, the small things that happens and turns a place into something lived but also not obeying a center or, reversely, finding possibilities in the so-called periphery (i.e. not acknowledging the depreciatory tone in it).

Urbanism and architecture

I find it important to discuss urbanism and architecture, what innovative projects are, and the role of the image in this, because both professinal fields often has to do things never done before (either a new solution, the situation in which old solutions worked has changed drastically, or the problem is reconceptualized).

First of all I would like to comment on the ambivalence that Koolhaas (I’m starting to like him) experiences between architecture and urbanism. He makes the distinction that ”urbanism generates potential, creates possibilites and causes events, whereas architecture is a discipline that exhausts this potential, exploits the possibilities and only restricts events.” (Koolhaas 1996:120) That is, in physical space and in the materialized outcome of these activities, architecture wraps up and makes a finished product, but urbanism is always unfinished – it is sisyphusean to a larger degree, since a finished city is a dead city.

Although I think the difference that Koolhaas tries to formulate has more to do with what knowledge we have of the world and how predictive actors, artefacts, and objects seems to be when viewed formalised or coded knowledge. Hence in architecture, one could argue, the finalized product is possible because we (or the building sector) has a comparably detailed knowledge of how things work, and this knowledge draws extensively from the Natural Sciences. In urbanism the knowledge needed is still rather hypothetical and fuzzy, because urbanism embraces more of the Social Sciences in its activity. This is why Koolhaas as an educated architect is able to make the statement that ”there is a certain degree of looseness in urbanism and a certain fixity and rigidity in architecture” (Koolhaas 1996:121).

To develope this point a bit more we could take Marcus’ distinction (relying heavily on Hillier (1996)) between vernacular and architectural building or knowledge into the picture. In his view, the 20th century was remarkable because it was the first time in history that ”building can be said to have been a failure” (Marcus 2000:2). If the definition of vernacular building is that it is a ”direct spatial answer to local needs and values” in a given cultural context then:

Purely technically, there have certainly been flaws that were experinced as problematic, but it is difficult to talk about functional or aesthetic failures in a more fundamental sense. The architectural building of this century [the 20th], by contrast, has been continuously criticised on both the functional and aesthetic planes, and has even been accused of being a strong contributory cause of many of the social problems shared by the western welfare states. (Marcus 2000:2)

Marcus’ distinction draws attention to the kind of project that architecture can be: One the one hand using routines, proven solutions, and fairly stable relationships to create a material fact, on the other hand an experiment to produce something original, answering to needs interpreted anew or not formerly known (remember the generic city), and without the relative security of black-boxed routines. It follows that the ”strength of architectural knowledge thus lies in its generative capacity, while it demonstrates a noticeable weakness in foreseeability or predictive capacity. In vernacular building, the opposite condition tend to apply.” (Marcus 2000:4)

In this sense – vernacular on the one extreme and ’architectural’ on the other – there is no difference between architecture and urbanism, urban planning and design. Or one could say that urbanist practice follows closely the architectural practice – in some projects you do ’business as usual’ and in others you face the unknown. But in the knowledge they use to carry through a project there is a vast difference.

To wrap it up, I would say that both architecture and urbansim are innovative projects (or not). Both, in all their forms, are dependant on a policy, i.e. a vision of why it is done. In other words they both depend on meaning. And meaning is usually and ubiquitously found in the representations produced during a project, as they are the first trial of intention and feasibility (See e.g. Robbins 1997). Of course, these images can change along with the development of the project (the façade of a building or the shift from functionalism to postmodernism).

Successful projects?

The question whether a project is successful or not can be reformulated and perhaps answered through: What is a project and a project’s shifts between discourse and materiality?

Images is imagination, and imagination is essential for creation. Thus, having an idea and a vision (creating an image) is an important part in urbanist practice. But there is also the project. If one launches a project, there is always a tricky thing called ontological variability to reckon with – there is no certainty of the outcome unless you do something which already has established relations and procedures, i.e. not an innovation. It means that one has to consider the experimental side of urbanism, one has to take into account the goals and intentions not only stated by politicians and investors (the usual suspects in contemporary urbanism), but also every imaginable actor and object. Their counter-acting activities (intentional or not), their views on things and desires has to be translated and negotiated. And so compromise and manouverability is part and parcel of any project. This is why Marcus states that the generative phase in architecture has a lot of theoretical support but that theory helping architects in the predictive phase is lacking (Marcus 2000:5-6).

In the case of urbanism and architecture the image or vision sets a certain path dependency once actors have bought the definition or picture (i.e. translated it to suit their interests). This is the reason for our take on the production and adoption of city images. We have tried to pinpoint successful (and by the same coin unsuccessful) building projects in Berlin through the creation and the subsequent ’hit’ or utilization of these representations. We try to discuss the projects presented here in terms of production, reception and acceptance of the image(s) surrounding or permeating the projects. We have focused the cases and sites on the official production of images.

The point is how much an image (discourse) means to the production and reproduction of urban spaces. How and why are these images produced? From where and who? And what happens when they become adopted and serve a specific project? This entails to ask who is the target group, addressee of the building or site? Is an image the precursor for a physically built environment? Is staging the city and the production of images the unbanist project per se? For example, is it building for the Berlin citizenry, tourists, or representation of the new Germany? And to try to describe impacts and effects: Which are the buildings that define or stand (in) for Berlin outside (in Germany and internationally).

Because the image or the vision is a discursive fix, it locks some positions and stakes out the general path of what character or elements are necessary for the project to still be the same project. Lefebvre (1991) certainly did not out of a whim define the representations of space as dominating all other spaces in western culture.

The role of the architect in this is to translate a premise or a discursive statement (produced by anyone, including the architect herself) to a physical fact. This is ’easy’ when she has to do it in a more ’vernacular’ situation, a stable frame or in an incremental set-up for the project. But when they are supposed to try out something new, to innovate radically, then it is more of a laboratory. And you need a theory, and theory is a temporary image of what the world looks like (do not mistake theory to be eternal and stable truth – then you have ideology not theory).

It is thus quite easy to define a successful project as long as we have stable criterias to measure them with. (Is it ecological sustainable? Economically viable? Social impact?) But in for the architect and urbanist, who has to do something innovative, it is (1) impossible to foresee all actors and things that has to be drawn into the project to make it a physical fact, and (2) the criterias are not necessarily (or usually not) as stable as they might seem.


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