Urban eternal or rubble inevitable: who wins the wardroom argument?
I listened to a debate last weekend.Nothing trivial of course, more the sort of thing that in the British Navy used to be called a wardroom argument. A bald assertion followed by a flat denial and personal abuse. On this occasion the subject of the 'debate'was terrorism, and in particular what chance there was of any urban renaissance continuing in spite of it.
The bald assertion - that there was every chance of traditional urbanism surviving a prolonged bout of terrorism on the scale of the four recent Istanbul bombs, let alone the long ordeal of Baghdad - was advanced with extraordinary tenacity on the strength of the flimsiest of evidence by a youthful fanatic who had obviously read about the 'Dunkirk spirit', enjoyed an audience with HRH Prince Charles, been to see Poundbury and Seaside, and had absolute faith in the power of all of these to see off any cohort of suicide bombers. This young man, who nevertheless cultivated a beard to match his furry trousers and a fixed expression of boundless optimism that he not once let slip, clearly had many friends among the audience. His opponent was a man of an altogether different calibre. In his middle years but quick-moving, and with a polished bald head and a suit he seemed to have been poured into, he had brought with him a pile of reference works upon which he frequently rested his right hand as though he were swearing an oath. In addition, he had a sheaf of word-processor printouts from which he read passages from time to time to make or amplify a point.
This speaker's flat denial was simple but all embracing. According to him, architectural style was an irrelevance, conferring no advantages where bombing was concerned.The German city of Dresden, he went on to explain, was a baroque architectural marvel until it was destroyed by aerial bombardment in 1945. Other than that there were abundant examples of cities that had been destroyed in history, starting with those cited in the Old Testament and ending with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the vast majority of these cities too had been sufficiently retro in appearance to outclass even Poundbury and Seaside. Rather than try to find a formula for eternal urban life, it would be wiser to concede that eventually all cities are destroyed for one reason or another.
More important, this man urged his audience to accept that all cities survive on the brink of disaster, and steadily lose populations until they are entirely overwhelmed by a powerful coalition of forces that they barely acknowledge the existence of. Forces like intraspecies aggression, which leads to the optimal dispersal of species in the animal world.
Forces like the transport crises of the 19th and 20th centuries, which have sapped the energy of old urban centres and raised the cost and difficulty of new urban construction. The communications revolution of the same period, which has reduced the exclusivity of urban space. The GM agricultural revolution of the 20th century in food production - freeing massive amounts of rural land for potential settlement. The self-destructive removal of industry, commerce and distribution from urban centres.The globalisation of industry, commerce and finance. The suicidal reversion to antiquated technologies - walking, cycling, mass transit, wind energy, pedestrianisation, solar heating and natural ventilation. The rise of heritage/theme park culture and stealth building. The rise of tourism and phantom populations. The growing incidence of schizophrenia, phobias, alienation, crime and antisocial behaviour. And finally the rise of terrorism and public disorder.
There was no vote. Instead everyone withdrew to the bar where a marked preference was shown for the views of the younger speaker.