The Turbine Hall at Tate Modern
The Tate Modern art gallery in London has hosted many stunning art installations in its Turbine Hall during its short existence. Anish Kapoor’s ‘Marsyas 2002’ and Olaf Eliasson’s ‘Weather’ were two that drew visitors from afar, wowing with their presence in the immense space one can see in the photo above. An aspect of these installations that critics often questioned, however, was how they could be followed; who or what next could ‘do the turbine hall justice’? It has become an increasingly difficult ask, and sadly the current exhibition 'Global Cities' fails to continue this tradition of inspiration. A ‘lite’ version of the 10th Architecture Biennale from Venice last year was never going to fill the space in the same awe-inspiring way that some of the previous installations did, but then it’s not that kind of exhibition. All the more disappointing then that the content is hollow and dull - lacking any real forward-thinking, or thought-provoking outlook.
Andreas Gursky's Image of the harbour at Mumbai
The subject is of obvious interest to many – as the greeting to the exhibition suggests, for the first time over 50 percent of the world’s population now live in cities. It is also not too great an exaggeration to suggest that how cities develop and change over the next few decades (and they are changing as never before) will dictate - to a great extent, whether the planet can continue to function properly. But in trying to tackle a subject so huge ‘Global Cities’ merely skims the surface – constantly asking banal questions such as ‘Can cities promote social justice and greater equality?’ – which it then makes no attempt to answer. The imagery is alluring – artists such as Andreas Gursky’s famous photographs of Los Angeles and Mumbai punctuating the relentless aerial maps and quotes – but one comes away with very little sense of the excitement that the world’s great cities often provide.
The reason for the failure is that the curators have decided that the best way to communicate the importance of the world’s biggest cities is to bludgeon the viewer with statistics. Surely, as any researcher, writer or designer knows, provision of facts is only half the task – it is the insight and analysis that really count. There is precious little of that here.
One of many sets of statistics...
The undercurrent theme is concerned with the expansion of cities – and suggests that their growth will put huge pressure on a location’s inhabitants, its natural resources - and that problems such as poverty, congestion and pollution will only go on getting worse. Although it goes mostly unsaid in the text, the giant aerial shots help convey to the viewer the vulnerability of cities like London, Mumbai and Istanbul should the worst effects of global warming come to pass.
But the exhibition has ignored the effect that the technological revolution has had on cities. Although cities are still defined, physically, by the buildings in them, their pathways, public spaces and parks – the two things that have had the greatest impact on the lives of many city dwellers in recent years have been the mobile phone and the internet. These two things have changed the way we communicate with one another, how we gather information, and they often affected where and why we move around. This might be seen as a western perspective (and less than half of the cities featured are in the developed world) but the mobile phone is argued by some commentators as the thing which will have the greatest impact on the future lives of people in an entire continent – Africa.
Nigel Coates and RCA students' 'Mixtacity'
The exhibition briefly flickers to life with the commissioned architects and artists projects – such as Nigel Coates’ amusing ‘Mixtacity’ – reimagining the planned Thames Gateway development outside London. But most of these prove short on answers to the questions posed in the exhibition, which surely it would have made sense for them to explore?
Perhaps ‘Global Cities’ falls down because it is trying to look at a rapidly changing world through old-fashioned spectacles. In pointing out well-known issues with cities, and failing to provide any new analysis or directions for the future – it highlights our rapidly changing, and often difficult relationship with the built environment. Maybe the intention is that one comes away questioning a number of things about city life. What will have the biggest effect on shaping cities in the future? Will it be new building typologies – and great new city spaces, such as the '100 squares' that have been planned for London - having being such a success in making Barcelona a vibrant, exciting places to live and visit. Or will it be that a new invention – or a technological innovation; something like the mobile telephone or the internet, that we are unable to imagine right now, might appear in twenty years time and change the way we live? Might some cities become places where mobility and movement are constrained by authorities due to fears over congestion and pollution - and thus [because one of the fundamental concepts of a city is that it is a machine for moving in] people begin to desert them – leading to decline?
All of this is unknown – but what I extrapolate from Global Cities, is that no one party or group can shape the future of cities alone – and that collaborative, multi-disciplinarian efforts are likely to be the most successful, impacting ones in the future. Architects - as this exhibition shows, are often great thinkers and creative visionaries (they train for seven years for a reason) but are not usually the people best placed to understand and interpret the changes that new digital technologies will have on the built environment – a key area to watch for the future.
Global Cities as viewed from above
Ultimately, the most important thing missing in the exhibition is the most important ingredient in cities: people. People - the way they use, interact with and inhabit the built environment is the most important aspect of a city. They create the sense of wonder that this exhibition is missing.
Writing in yesterday’s Guardian Newspaper, Peter Preston dismissed the latest ‘seven wonders of the world’ awards, instead suggesting:
“No: the true wonders of human existence involve humanity itself. They are living, breathing, bustling, constantly changing things. Unfashionably, it seems – because we spend most of our time complaining about them or trying to escape from them – they are cities.”
Going on to say:
“Cities are different. Great cities hum with restless energy. Small cities and towns need communities to make them whole. Their amazement lies in the inter-action between surroundings and people. You don’t get that tramping the Colosseum behind a Japanese guide.”
Sadly, Global Cities was far too much like being shown around the world’s cities by a tourist guide. As anyone who knows a city will tell you, the things that make it great generally lay away from the tourist trail.