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No pause for breath

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Breathing Cities: The Architecture of Movement Edited by Nick Barley. Birkhauser, 2000. 127pp. £20

The fixed architecture of a city is only one aspect of its character and structure. The rest is formed through crowds, culture, traffic, infrastructure, history and weather. As cities swarmed during the nineteenth century, observers were spellbound by the new life of the street; in the twentieth century, Modernists celebrated the city as a system syncopated to a mechanical tempo, or regulating itself like a living organism.

Metaphors of both motion and the organic reappear in the title of Breathing Cities: The Architecture of Movement, though the city that emerges in this book does not seem to enjoy very much by way of easy respiration. Ingest ion and excretion are metaphors that more readily come to mind, as the book exposes the acquisitiveness of Western urbanism, the mess it creates, and the rude plumbing upon which its standard of living relies.

We see how New Covent Garden sources produce year round; there are close-ups of the pipework of the Paris Metro, and of gulls picking over the landfill at New York's Fresh Kills; there are archaeologies of waste discovered in the street and dredged from the Thames, and analyses of the fingernail scrapings of a city-dweller. While the book as a whole serves as the sampler of a current mood in urban studies, academic and artistic, its poignancy derives from the detail of certain images, facts and observations it contains.

It appears in Breathing Cities that the modern city is barely capable of looking after itself, and for that matter is uncertain about who, what or where it is. Is it the city of God or a Babylon? Material or immaterial? Where is its edge? Can it acknowledge, in its locales around the unstable crust of the Pacific rim, the nearness of its own oblivion? Evidently the city is pragmatic, living a conundrum, pursuing solutions to the very processes that make it what it is - inexorable expansion, congestion, waste, inequality.

Such pragmatism is essential to the contemporary city as a node in capitalism: an acceptance that capitalism is the only current global mode of urban organisation is apparent throughout the book, reiterated in its minutely searching images, of the redevelopment of Potsdamer Platz, and the meshing of air traffic, distribution networks and commodities. Other urban cultures can seem like hangovers of parochial and coercive ideology - towards the end of the book, a map of Belfast stands for a city formed through sectarianism.

But are there city dwellers out there wanting something other than possession and consumption? Actually people are largely invisible in Breathing Cities; they exist through things they leave behind, like a dropped mobile phone or a swimming towel. In its text, nonetheless, the book is satisfied that cities are manifestations of 'living, breathing corporeal human beings arrayed in various creatively improvised networks of relation and affinity', as Nigel Thrift puts it. The contemporary 'telematic city' is, Thrift argues, a little misrepresented by those 'slowly-moving rivers of headlights, and all the other sub-Bladerunner cliches we now see almost nightly on television documentaries'.

Having said that, the cover image chosen for Breathing Cities is Stefan Ruiz's photograph of streaming Tokyo traffic. The iconography of the book, juxtaposing urban junk with the smooth flows of data and traffic, is very much of the hour, which is reflected in the architectural projects that are interspersed - Shigeru Ban's Loghouse (made from cardboard tubes) and Studio 333's Dutch Mountain (built from waste) set alongside the sleek forms of OMA's Euralille, FOA's Yokohama Terminal, Zaha Hadid's LF One and Kas Oosterhuis's Saltwater Pavilion.

Simon Sadler is lecturer in history of architecture at Trinity College Dublin

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