thenextwave

The plug-out city

Posted in cities, design, emerging issues by thenextwavefutures on 31 August, 2012

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The future of urbanisation is a future of shrinking cities. It will need a new kind of architecture whose future has already been foretold.

In The Future of Futures, which I blogged about a few weeks ago, the architect and futurist Cindy Frewen has an essay called ‘The Temporary City’, which opens up the idea that as the global population starts to shrink, so our cities will start to shrink as well. Globally, this may not happen until the 2040s or 2050s, although others see it as happening sooner (Jorgen Randers, in 2052, projects it to the 2030s). But whatever the global picture some countries and some cities will experience depopulation and de-urbanisation sooner, as the case of Detroit shows us.

I liked the essay because it takes a familiar futures idea – the apparent inevitability of urbanisation – and points a bright light at it, challenging our assumptions. And we know from our recent history that de-urbanisation can be ugly; there is a quality in some of the pictures of Detroit’s abandoned public buildings which is reminiscent of the about-to-be abandoned Precinct 13 police station in John Carpenter’s film. Similarly, when New York shrank in the 1970s, the city’s collapsing tax base brought it close to bankruptcy.

London, too, shrank in the ’60s and ’70s, perhaps with more positive results; the empty housing in the city centre areas attracted activists and innovators to the city, I don’t want to stretch the point too far, but it as least arguable that London’s eminence now as a cultural hub is at least partly due to the wave of young people who found their way into the city through that cheap housing (see, for example, Joe Boyd’s account of the creation of the Notting Hill Carnival in White Bicycles.

Temporary structures
As it happens, the London Olympics has just had some experiments with temporary structure. The Stadium itself was designed to be demountable, so it could be reduced in capacity after the Games to 25,000, while the Basketball Arena, pictured at the top of this post, will be removed completely. (Rumours that it might be boxed up and sent on to Rio for 2016 seem to have been LOCOG propaganda.)

And right on cue comes a monograph, The Stadium, by Tim Abrahams, that looks at the history of the Olympic stadia and also, along the way, the history of demountable and remountable buildings. Abrahams, by the ways, is more impressed by the giant Meccano set of the Basketball Arena:

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“The aesthetic of the arena is very much a kit of parts. The stands won’t touch the external envelope. Metal staircases will rise above the scaffolding ringing the lower levels. It is an aesthetic familiar from music festivals. … Far from limiting the work of architects the temporary uses at the London Olympics shows their ingenuity, their skill, their thoughtfulness, their understanding of the media.”

The plug-in building
He explores the history of this idea back to the 1960s, and the idea of ‘plug-in buildings’, developed initially by the architect Cedric Price for the ‘Fun Palace‘ project developed in conjunction with the radical theatre director Joan Littlewood for the same Lea Valley site (history rhymes) eventually occupied by the Olympic buildings. Price in turn was influenced by the Situationist Ivan Chtcheglov whose essay ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism‘ had been published in Situationiste International #1 in 1953.

Chtcheglov, writes Abraham, positioned himself directly against Corbusier’s architecture of reinforced concrete, suitable only for ‘factories and prisons’.

He had a rather different vision:

“The architecture of tomorrow will be a means of modifying present conceptions of time and space. It will be a means of knowledge and a means of action. Architectural complexes will be modifiable. Their aspect will change totally or partially in accordance with the will of their inhabitants. . . .”

In passing: Chtcheglov’s essay is the origin of the phrase ‘The haçienda must be built’, which also inspired Tony Wilson to build the music venue in Manchester.

Designed for change
In turn, the Fun Palace influenced members of the radical architecture practice Archigram, such as Michael Webb and Peter Cook, who were already thinking along similar lines. Their ‘plug-in city‘ project, in 1964, included plans for “a computer controlled city [in 1964!] designed for change, with removable elements which can be attached to a massive superstructure”.

(Some of this language and theory, incidentally, reminds me of Martin Pawley’s proposal for radical modular housing project based on a Citroen car plant, made at a conference in Allende’s Chile as a way to overcome a shortage of parts and materials. His proposal ought to be revived now to deal with Britain’s housing shortages.)

This is an engineering-led architecture, not so much design-led, although the distinction is more than a little artificial. But it is fairly clear that plug-in buildings need to have a clear basis in their engineering.

Scaling down
When HOK won the contract for the Olympic Stadium, with its specific requirement to be scaled down after the Games, the company brought in Peter Cook, the former Archigrammer, as an adviser. Of course, as Abrahams notes, the requirements had changed. The Olympic Stadium was a plug-out building, waiting to have elements removed, not a plug-in one. And sadly, the elements of mechanics and computyer control had disappeared. The debate on the plug-out for the Stadium turned, mostly, on whether whichever football club took over the stadium would be required to keep the athletics track. (So far: yes).

Peter Cook, certainly, has expressed frustration about this:

“You can imagine a situation where part of the stand could be placed by a recreation ground in Leicester?”, he was asked. “Why not?, he said.”

Shrinking cities
It is hard, of course, to predict which cities will shrink, and on what timescales. In the ’60s one could have thought that Detroit’s future was secure, although the oil shock might have caused doubts a decade later. In the ’70s, there were few in London or New York optimistic about the cities’ futures, let alone willing to predict the triumphalism that we see in both places now. But despite the long swing from the country to the city, the demographics don’t lie.

It may take 40 years, but in the rich parts of the world it will probably take less – less time, anyway, than the gap between Chtcheglov’s essay in SI#1 and the London Olympic Stadium, but we are heading, with the Talking Heads in our headphones, for a world of plug-out buildings in plug-out cities.

The Stadium, by Tim Abrahams, with drawings by Nigel Peake, is published by Machine Books. The photographs in this post are by Andrew Curry. They are published here under a Creative Commons licence.

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  1. […] out, they created spaces for public and social innovation which reinvigorated a city in decline. As I’ve written before, how this works is spelt out in Joe Boyd’s memoir White Bicycles, where he writes of the […]


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