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Optimism in the face of urban adversity

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I had the pleasure of chairing a Radio 3 lecture by Rem Koolhaas at the South Bank Arts Centre last week (it will be broadcast as part of the station's 'Sounds of the Century' series in the autumn). The title of his talk, 'Metropolitan Apotheosis', was designed to draw attention to the conundrum that cities are flourishing at astonishing and ever-increasing rates, just as the Western idea of the 'city' is on its last legs. A parallel might be the way in which the proportion of retail spending taking place in retail outlets is decreasing (thanks to mail order, internet and cable shopping) just as the number of retail outlets expands effortlessly, not just in shopping centres but in galleries, museums, stadiums, churches and so on. In the midst of calls for control, and planning policies based on yesteryear's notions of land use zoning, the thing itself expands inexorably.

For architects, the phenomenon of city expansion in less developed or undeveloped countries is scarcely appetising. Small villages which grow into multi-million-inhabitant cities in the space of a few years, in southern China for example, have little time for architectural niceties or for the finer points of urban design. Their dynamic comes from demographics and the requirements of civil engineering-led infrastructure.

Yet Koolhaas himself seems reassuringly unpessimistic when it comes to the future. This may be because there are enough cities where architects can still make a contribution - he himself lives in London, which he likes because of its resilient groupings of communities. And it would be hard to deny that his reading of the nature and possibilities of the new city derive from his own experience of architecture. In answer to the last audience question of the evening, whether he supported a particular football team, Rem paused, finally answering, 'It depends.' He didn't say that in his own football-playing days he was a goalkeeper, thus requiring the sort of optimism needed by those who think city life can prosper, however it may change.

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