The Design Museum's Deyan Sudjic on his book, The Language Of Cities


This interview first appeared in Issue 16 of Umbrella
Umbrella: Hi Deyan. One of the themes you touch on in the book is urban transformation. We’ve seen this happen in London’s Docklands – how did those changes come about?
Deyan Sudjic: Never underestimate the power of unintended consequences. When an American shipping tycoon set out to speed up the transit of cargo and protect it from from theft by standardising the shipping container, he had no idea that a quarter of a century later his low-tech innovation would’ve wiped out every upstream dock in the world. Huge areas, from the Isle of Dogs in London to New York’s piers, were transformed into urban wastelands.
U: Can you expand on that?
DS: In the case of London’s Docklands the first attempts to deal with the dereliction were to have equally unintended consequences. Canary Wharf – now Europe’s second-largest financial centre outside the City of London – was first envisaged as a business park containing warehouses and light industry in low-rise tin sheds.
The idea was that companies would be encouraged to set up there thanks to the government lifting planning controls and offering tax breaks. Nobody expected one day those tax breaks would be used to build skyscrapers! 
The result has been a distortion of London’s public transport system in an attempt to catch up with the tens of thousands of job created there, and the rebuilding of the entire area twice in the course of 25 years.
U: Has there been a loss of faith in the idea of ‘grand planners’ such as Baron Haussmann in Paris or Robert Moses in New York? 
DS: People love Haussmann’s Paris, the most self-consciously planned of cities. They also love Beijing’s Forbidden City, an idea of urbanism based on a diagram of Heaven to consolidate the Emperor’s symbolic place at its heart. They love the astonishing paradox of the order of Manhattan’s grid, and the visual anarchy of its skyline.
However, they’re suspicious of grand planners – after all,  we’re living in an age in which Michael Gove says the British people are “sick of experts”. Instead we rely on the often frivolous gestures of ambitious mayors keen to leave their mark so we end up with pointless cable cars and garden bridges.
When the internet was young we thought that it would turn us all into home workers living in a kind of William Morris-inspired rustic utopia. Like the paperless office, that never actually happened. We still commute to work, but that doesn’t mean the urban environment hasn’t been turned upside down by the digital explosion.  
There are benign aspects to it: for example we can navigate our cities more effectively using real-time traffic data made available by TFL in London and other transit authorities around the country. We can use Airbnb to find alternatives to hotels, and Uber is transforming how we move around. 
U: But it’s not all good, right?
DS: There are more troublesome aspects: smartphones have created a kind of ‘always available’ digital slavery rather than the freedom they initially promised. The rise of Amazon is killing the traditional high street, and its impact is only going to become more and more pronounced. 
Grindr and Tinder provide all the sexual encounters anybody could possible hope for, but what is the future for cruising in the physical world? Self-driving cars are going to radically impact car ownership, changing the face of our cities once again.
Perhaps most alarming of all, the smartphone has killed off the idea of privacy – an essential aspect of urban life for millennia. A city was once a place in which anonymity was possible, where you could be yourself, choose who you wanted to be. Now the digital lynch mob of social media has taken us back to the Middle Ages!
U: How important are monuments in defining how a city sees itself?
DS: Hugely important. The histories of Berlin and Moscow show how much significance politicians place in manipulating the identity of their cities through the symbolic meanings of their monuments. 
In Berlin at the height of the Cold War, the East Germans blew up the old Royal Palace and replaced it with the bronze-mirrored structure known as ‘The Palace of the Republic’. After reunification, the new Germany decided to wipe it out and rebuild a replica of the lost Royal Palace – without even knowing what they would use if for. The politicians blamed asbestos for the wasteful demolition of a 25-year old building, but it was the idea of the city that was at stake. 
Something very similar happened in Moscow. Stalin demolished The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to make way for the megalomaniacal – and unfinished – Palace of the Soviets. Following that, Khruschev marked the end of Stalinism by turning the palace’s foundations into an open-air swimming pool, and, after that, in the dying days of the Soviet Union, the mayor of Moscow rebuilt the lost cathedral. The whole thing came full circle.
U: Umbrella is an admirer of post-war modernist architecture – in particular the egalitarian ideals that underpin it. What do you make of the craze for demolishing these buildings and replacing them with more fashionable alternatives? 
DS: Laver's Law – formulated half tongue-in-cheek by a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum – sets out to explain how the cycle of fashion works. It states that when clothing that is ahead of its time first appears it is seen as ‘outrageous’ or ‘shocking’. Over time as it becomes more familiar it reaches the right moment to be considered ‘chic’. This is the high point. After this it ages, moving into ‘dated’, and ‘dowdy’ territory. As yet more time passes it becomes ‘hideous’, then, if it survives long enough it becomes regarded as ‘quaint’, and finally as ‘historic’ and ‘beautiful’. 
In the world of fashion that cycle now moves at warp speed, but for architecture it’s much slower. You can see it in the case of the former Commonwealth Institute which is now the home of the Design Museum. When we considered it for the first time it was regarded by many as hideous, but then the 20th Century Society had it listed. Now, like so much mid-century modern architecture, it has heritage status. 
Exactly the same thing had happened in the 1960s when ‘unfashionable’ Victorian buildings were being knocked down to make way for modern ones. Over time the brutalist buildings of this period have gone from being regarded as new and exciting to eyesores to an amusing acquired taste to the status of cherished heritage.
U: Do you believe that we feel more pride in calling ourselves residents of cities – Londoners, Muscovites, Mancunians, Berliners for example – than our national identities?
DS: I’m not sure it’s a question of pride that makes us see ourselves as Londoners or Muscovites rather than as Brits or Russians, but that an urban identity is somehow so much more appealing than a national identity. Donald Trump would have a hard time building a wall to stop suburbanites from pouring into Manhattan!

The Design Museum's Deyan Sudjic on his book, The Language Of Cities Comments

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