URBAN VOLATILITY: a Contemporary Recuperation of an old Paradigm

URBAN VOLATILITY: a Contemporary Recuperation of an old Paradigm

This paper aims to investigate the advantages of the idea of volatility as seen through history in order to redefine the prevailing urban paradigm. Shedding the associated negativity, volatility aims to encapsulate impermanence, adaptive capacity and flexibility. Understanding the city through the lens of volatility is not new at all but one which has been dismissed in modernist urban agenda. Volatility was fundamental to the way traditional cities evolved that allowed both growth and shrinkage, as shown by Rome’s incredible urban flux. It was in the romantic recovery of the ruins starting from the 18th century that this perception of natural evolution of the cities gave way towards the lofty goals of permanence. Until that moment, city ruins were either architectural quarries that provided material for new constructions or bequeathed to nature. During the 19th century the city was beginning to be considered as a mechanistic organism planned to last and it was in that moment when urbanism made its more monumental gestures. The drastic inclusion of new devices such as cars in the hardly planned city caused a quandary that remains unsolved to this day. Some of the attempts of visionary architects such as Le Corbusier’s reformulation of the city failed radically due to recently acquired romantic condition of permanence. In the American cities, where planning took in consideration the existence of the car, the inflexibility of the plan has fixed the way of living with seemingly no way to go back. In this case, the permanence of the city is forcing the preservation of an unsustainable way of living.

In a contemporary era marked by uncertainty in all spheres we, as architects, need to question if it makes sense to think about the city as a fixed organism. Leon Krier’s defense of the permanence of the city claiming its artistic condition is part of the modern confusion between the disciplines of art and architecture. This intentional confusion comes from an elitist aspiration of modern architects of working freely from an intimate perspective, dismissing their social role and with this, denying the most fundamental role of architecture in the complexity of urbanism.

Planning with the consideration of urban volatility instead of resisting it, is the more natural and humane way of thinking. By stressing impermanence we are addressing adaptation, flexibility and the possibility of resetting entropy. Dismissing the modernist notion of constant opposition between city and nature, urban volatility recuperates the old tradition of a synergistic flux between the two. With this understanding of volatility, to cite an example, Detroit’s agony in life support would be put to an end by accepting its death, and Venice should be, in the coming age, just an image in the collective memory lost at sea and not anymore another city in pain converted into a pathetic thematic park and cosmetically propped up.

The ephemeral urbanism shows us not only the feasibility of the idea of cities that are impermanent, adaptive and thus resilient but this paper argues that urban volatility is the necessary paradigmatic shift for a more sustainable way of living.

By Tanzil Shafique and Paco Mejias

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