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Megacities offer toxic mix of modern apocalypse

by Pankaj Mishra

Bloomberg

The Mexican Nobel laureate Octavio Paz once wrote that the non-Western world was “condemned to be modern.” This uncompromising verdict headlines the Mexican pavilion at the 14th Venice Biennale of Architecture.

The Dutch architect and thinker Rem Koolhaas has perceptively curated the Biennale this year around the theme “Absorbing Modernity.”

This could have been an invitation to boastful displays of grand monuments and much arcane and pompous theorizing about architectural modernism. Happily most of the 65 national pavilions highlight what Paz identified as the key aspect of modernity, something more important than awesome buildings or routine elections: the capacity for self-criticism.

France, the world capital of the international style in the early 20th century, leads the way with an exhibit titled “Modernity: Promise or Menace.” Part of the presentation examines the once hopeful construction of modernist housing in the outskirts of major French cities. Blighted by isolation, poverty and crime, these banlieues today are breeding grounds for political disaffection and religious zealotry.

Japan stresses the prudent course correction of its architects in the 1970s after a long period of diligently imitating international trends. The re-examination of older architectural traditions, dating back to the Taisho Era (1912-1926), enabled a young generation to break free of the dogmas of modernism and to design buildings with greater responsiveness to Japan’s unique social and physical environment.

Kosovo’s contribution states bluntly that modernity in the hands of the socialist rulers of Yugoslavia became synonymous with vandalism. Thriving urban neighborhoods with their own cultures were destroyed to make way for broadened streets and new buildings.

Argentina’s pavilion is suffused with melancholy at having embraced the prejudice that anything old was no good and needed to be discarded. Rough storyboards and black-and-white films stress the great discrepancy in how architects conceived of cities and how Argentines experienced them.

Claude Levi-Strauss once observed that new Latin American towns pass from freshness to decrepitude without ever becoming old.

The Brazilian pavilion is at pains to show how the country’s many brilliant architects tried to adapt imported techniques to local conditions against a backdrop of political instability.

Still, the dream of rational order and national glory that motivated the construction of these gridded metropolises belongs to an innocent past now. “Asia,” Koolhaas writes, “has been in the grip of a relentless process of building, on a scale that has probably never existed before. A maelstrom of modernization is destroying, everywhere, existing Asian conditions and creating completely new urban substance.”

The present and future of urbanization seems to be determined, from Jakarta to Karachi, by the “megacity,” whose shantytowns showcase the strange phenomenon of our age: extensive building without architecture. Aesthetic form can be the ideal of only a privileged few when running water and sanitation are scarce and the majority of the tens of millions that crowd Dhaka or Mumbai toil in the informal sector of the economy with subsistence-level wages.

Politically networked realtors in megacities have overcome urban planners; the great architects have been reduced, as the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer feared in 1958, to “satisfying the whims of the wealthy classes” or fulfilling the Pharaonic fantasies of Persian Gulf plutocrats.

Meanwhile, the challenges of urbanization multiply. The United Nations reports that by 2050 the number of people living in cities will have grown to 6.3 billion from 3.9 billion.

Urban dwellers will constitute 54 percent to 67 percent of the world’s population, with the biggest population movements to cities occurring in large countries with agrarian hinterlands, such as India, China and Indonesia.

The trend is unstoppable, according to the much-cited book “Planet of Cities” by Shlomo Angel; attempts to control it, by limiting rural migration or land use, are doomed to failure. Angel argues that cities should “make room” for the people arriving from the hinterland. This can be achieved not by building Le Corbusier-style master plans but by erecting “platforms” that expect and accommodate new populations and provide public services, such as roads and parks, to them.

This sounds like another kind of grand master plan — one that might quickly evaporate in the intense political and social disorder of cities such as Dhaka and Lagos.

It was hard to imagine such plans working out as I stood in the pavilion at the Venice Biennale devoted to Cairo.

Here, a multimedia presentation plunges the viewer into nightmare images of traffic, Malthusian overpopulation, and the racket of the city that cannot sleep because it is too busy surviving. I couldn’t help but think of the city’s infamous former resident Mohamed Atta, architecture student and angry critic of modern urban planning before he became leader of the 9/11 hijackers.

Surely, the urgent challenge for many societies is to prevent the megacity from becoming a byword for multifaceted apocalypse, mashing together poverty, corruption, violence and fundamentalism.

“The urban condition,” Koolhaas writes, “seems to be least understood at the moment of its very apotheosis.” We are, it seems, condemned to be urban rather than modern. But we are still struggling to decipher this verdict, let alone appeal against it.

Bloomberg columnist Pankaj Mishra is author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia.”