A question of perspective

A question of perspective
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Mexico City

We’re all in this together

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If you’re ever in one of those frenetic metropolises scattered across the globe and can’t get a grip on the geography, I’d recommend catching a taxi across town at midday. Late for an appointment in New York with Mark Wigley, the expat New Zealander who is now head of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University, the photographer and I counted off each cross-street between Chinatown and 116th Street as we raced uptown. The cab driver, happily, dealt to the seven-mile stretch like a NASCAR racer on meth, but still, each block seemed to stretch a mile, every inch packed with buildings and people, detail and activity. We’d estimated a 20-minute cab ride: it took more than an hour in fast-moving traffic.

I was half an hour late—the unflappable Wigley didn’t seem to mind. The campus, just below Harlem, is your quintessential world-with-a-world, where neoclassical buildings are the backdrop for high-minded pursuits. However, at its western corner, there’s a new kid on the block—a 14-storey interdisciplinary science building by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, clad in shimmering aluminium. From the tenth floor—the rest hadn’t been built when we visited—New Jersey was a hazy low-lying idea across the Hudson.

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New York

We, the three Kiwis and Kelly, the Brooklyn-born project manager, all looked at the view with something like reverence. Whereas at street level the city was dense, at that height Manhattan’s urban fabric rose like a man-made mountain range around us. “You can count seven bridges from here,” Kelly said proudly, and pointed to New Jersey. “There are people who live over there who won’t even come to Manhattan.”

Wigley came to America in 1985 to escape the limitations of New Zealand academia. He loves New York, not just as an idea but palpably—his face lights up as he talks about where he lives, in a loft in the 24-hour madness of downtown SoHo. It’s rare to meet a New Zealander in his 50s who takes such relish in the pressing rush and information high of a big city life rather than the bach, the boat or the beamer with which we measure success. And it’s really refreshing.

But when I asked if he considers North America the centre of the architecture and design world these days, rather than Europe, he laughed. “Neither. When 50 percent of the world’s building is happening in China, that’s statistically the norm— everywhere else is the exception.” He describes cities there, and in India and the Middle East, which have grown by ten million over seven years, which kinda puts our anxiety about clocking up an extra decimal place every year or so in the shade.

I was reminded of a friend who’d spent years living in China telling me, “There are cities with ten million people living in them that you’ve never even heard of.” Yet. In 20 years, 85 percent of the world will be living in cities. They’ll be as big as New York—but mostly, much bigger. In global terms, New York isn’t very big at all. It just looks huge compared to Auckland, our biggest city.

But it’s all old technology, says Wigley. No one is looking at the Big Apple, or London, or Tokyo, or any of the crucibles that traditionally shaped our ideas about design and architecture, for ideas about what will happen next. The future is happening in Beijing, Oman, Rio, Mumbia and Moscow.

In this context, New Zealand is in a funny old position. We don’t have the artistic and intellectual pedigree the old centres have, and our geographical isolation and low population density means we won’t have much to learn from the new ones either.

The funnier thing is, no one really seems to give a crap, as long as they’re on track to scoring a comfy retirement. More and more, we seem content to pop our heads above the parapet of our gated community to confirm our belief that the outside world’s a nasty place full of people doing weird things we don’t need to understand, and go back to our national preoccupations: taxes, real estate, weather and crime. As I write, protests in Egypt have dominated front pages around the world for the last month; in our national paper, they’re relegated to the back section.

As a thirtysomething Aucklander, an assumption my elders regularly make is how good it must feel to be home after seven years in London with all those crowds. Ugh. Crowds. The provincial New Zealander’s bête noire. But crowded cities are where ideas are born. Brushing up against the good, the bad and the downright confusing is the stuff that real life is made of.

With this in mind, perhaps we need to approach design—for policy, products or architecture—not from an embattled perspective, but an expansive one that recognises how lucky we are to have those things many other places lack (natural resources, social mobility, and fresh air, for starters) and a willingness to learn from others’ mistakes and successes.

About 12 years ago, I did a stint in the chief exec’s office at London Underground HQ. Each morning we’d get a printout for the rush hour passenger figures between 6.30 and 9.30am. In those three hours, every weekday, 3.3 million people caught the Tube. “That’s the population of New Zealand,” I announced to general office merriment.

And public transport that’s good enough to get people out of their cars would be the obvious place to start. We don’t share well in New Zealand—particularly on our roads. People are prone to jumping into their metal safety blankets and disappearing to a far-flung suburb. If you have an automatic garage door and internal access, you don’t even have to make eye contact with the neighbours. As Auckland, this dysfunctional family of five centres, grows, that’s going to be impossible to maintain—if a city the size of London can’t deal with a quarter of its population driving to work, neither can we.

When you use public transport, not only do you pool resources, you face the realities of how other people live, whether you’re a homeless guy looking for a warm place to sleep or a captain of industry. Mass public transit is also a great way of spreading information—via public announcements, advertising, and the organic way any meme develops when people interact. It’s no accident incoming London mayors are traditionally papped using the common man’s mode of transport in their initial PR offensive— Ken Livingstone famously on the Tube, and Boris Johnson on his bicycle—it’s their way of claiming commonality with everyday people.

It sounds idealistic, but developing that sense of solidarity could be the first step to seeing each other as humans rather than obstacles on the road.

However big the city, it’s a sense of community that makes it liveable. Maybe this is why smallscale, grassroots design and community-led programmes are taking hold in larger cities, where people are looking for a sense of personal ownership and connection based on shared values—and often, shared resources.

Recently, I saw a shared-bike scheme in Mexico City that puts Auckland’s to shame with its efficiency, affordability and the cool factor of its graphics. With kiosks dotted around the inner city, it was well-mapped, nicely designed and—get this—people actually used it. Incidentally, the city—one of the planet’s most crowded at 21 million—also maintains a bafflingly efficient and super-cheap underground train network.

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Los Angeles

In Los Angeles, I also visited 826LA, a cooperative that runs creative writing programmes for six-to-18-year-olds out of an imaginative shopfront called The Echo Park Time Travel Mart—a store specialising in novelties like ‘caveman flint’ and tinned nanobots (tagline: “Our nanobots make competitors’ bots look like megabots”).

In New York, a derelict elevated train line in the Meatpacking District has been turned into an enormously popular public park, The High Line, with striking geometric landscape architecture designed by Diller, Scofidio + Renfro.

All these projects have an economic value equal to their social value. They’re simple ideas, but carried out with integrity and an eye on the bigger picture—that small things, like a green place in a dirty city or giving kids something more meaningful than the mall, can foster civic happiness and productivity on a personal and macro level.

No feature of city life, whether that’s economic development, sustainability or society, exists in a vacuum. Maybe, if we don’t want to end up as the New Jersey of the South Pacific, full of shopping malls and suburbs, it’s as simple as learning to share all over again.

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