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Shrinking ideals

review - Shrinking Cities At the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Auguststrasse 69, Berlin, until 7 November

The exhibition 'Shrinking Cities' presents, without doubt, a fascinating issue. Fascinating because it probably tells us more about what is in the mind of architects today than about the reality of everyday life in the struggling cities.

It all started in the mid-1990s when Patrice Goulet took highly aesthetic photographs of malls and their commercial signs (he was, for sure, helped conceptually by Robert Venturi). Now, architects and artists go to the deepest suburbs and leftover parts of cities to romanticise post-industrial ruins.

There, like explorers of the 19th century arriving in Egypt, they look for exoticism, inspiration and novelty. And they come back from those regions with beautiful photos of a rather cruel reality.

'Shrinking Cities' shows that urban utopias of the past century (from Le Corbusier's Ville Radieuse to Archigram's Walking City) do not seem to fascinate architects and urban planners that much any more. But the project, intentionally subtitled as being 'international research' (the proposals will be displayed in a second exhibition in Leipzig in autumn 2005), shows perfectly a lack of political and social awareness of a tragic process.

With Detroit, Manchester/Liverpool, Ivanovo and Halle/Leipzig as the subjects, a good overview of deindustrialisation, depopulation, deurbanisation, destruction and demolition is given. If the 'datascape' has become a real trend for displaying numbers and facts during the past 10 years, one should now start being critical of beautiful, but often pointless, graphics. The ground floor of the KW is overcrowded with a wooden construction that tries to resemble analytic curves and timelines - yet it provides less information than the exhibition's 730-page catalogue (unfortunately only in German).

The works and documentation about the four cities are distributed on four different floors. That is quite pertinent, but does not provide the links that one could expect, because if those cities are shrinking, they react to the problem with various positions - some similar, some different. For example, the importance of popular music in Detroit and Liverpool/Manchester has no equivalent in Halle or Ivanovo. The role of communist monuments has no equivalent in England.

(By the way, one should stop thinking that record covers can be relevant documents in an exhibition. ) If Detroit is the city where the shrinking process had already started in the 1950s, with people leaving the centre for the suburbs, it is also the one where communities react with the greatest humour or enthusiasm. As in the brilliant documentary from Andrew Donsunmu depicting the 'Hair Wars' (Hot Irons, 1999), a contest of Afro-American hairdressers. At least, compared with most of the other documents, it is not a piece based on ugliness and despair.

Black-and-white photos from John Davies show industrial areas in Rochdale in the early '80s and today from exactly the same viewpoint. Factories have become malls with car parks. David Haslam and Aidan O'Rourke's wall of portraits of ex-users of the Hacienda in Manchester - showing their relics of the club, with some characteristic 'boom-boom' as a background sound - is a nice and funny presentation (even if the mythological disco has been demolished and is now a luxurious apartment building).

Just because things are going badly, one shouldn't cry at every corner: it is the chance of 'Shrinking Cities' to develop new forms of living and communities. Loss and deep nostalgia are more present in the German example of Halle, dealing with the inhabitants and their stories rather than the buildings themselves. Here again you get the impression that, ever since the Berlin Wall disappeared, people are still looking for their landmarks. As if the private and collective history had completely dissolved too. It is melancholic and desperate, like the video from Clemens von Wedemeyer or the narrative slide show of Axel Do¯mann, Anne König and Jan Wenzel.

The Russian situation, more critical than the others, is displayed in a cynical way. A Survival Manual, designed by four architects and graphic designers, explains how to earn money by making alcohol, collecting mushrooms or exchanging flats. But, in trying to find a connection between the four cities, one feels that nostalgia for the '70s - a time when things started to slow down, but when having ideals was still possible - is strongly present.

According to the exhibition, words such as urbanisation and, especially, urbanism, should be redefined. The economic ideals of the 19th century in which those cities emerged are now long gone. What stays after a visit to 'Shrinking Cities', apart from the depression that cheerless documents can provoke, is the feeling of hopelessness.

And that poverty, like richness - be it Russian, German, British or American - always looks the same. Can the utopia that once was in the best Modern projects save those cities and their inhabitants?

Thibaut de Ruyter is an architect and writer in Berlin

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