AbdouMaliq Simone: The feral city is a city given over to the instigation of incomputable eventualities, even as regimes of calculation have taken over the production of urban space. But there seems to be a rush to exceed time, to produce urban environment and sociality for which we have no language, something that goes beyond speculation, something cut loose from having to make sense now. The city cut loose from what it had embodied or promised.
At the same time, the capacity for the city to reflect on itself and to continuously regenerate has always necessitated the creation of a surplus population. That which is to be mobilized with minimal cost for agendas of which they have no part. But now, increasingly, there is a generalization of this expendability, everyone as surplus. So, in conditions where everyone is surplus, maybe it’s important to take a look at how the majority—the majority within poor working class, lower middle class districts of South and Southeast Asia, the ethical machines that have enabled them to live with each other. And what are some of the important kinds of aspects of these ethical machines?
Differences in how things are built and places lived, they do indicate specific instances and embodiments of power, interest, and identity. And these may be at work, and be worked out, through the divisions, configurations of space. Through different ways in which land, building, and material are used.
But the divisions do other things in a political ecology where heterogeneous inclinations and operations push and pull at each other, attempt to work out how people and things will impact upon each other, so that no matter people’s aspirations, backgrounds, and capacities, the differences operated on each other in ways that no one person, no one agenda could completely control.
Different statuses of land, different trajectories of agglomeration and parceling, reinvestment and accommodation to decline. Constant incremental improvements, and acts of doing nothing. Trends toward accumulation and consolidation, as well as letting things disperse and dissipate. All of these different trajectories prove that they could all exist next to each other.
The choreography of commonality is a matter of modulating all different kinds of contact among residents, shaping multiple ways in which residents witnessed and engaged each other. The key challenge was always how can people and their actions appear in ways that enable them to be relatable, but at the same time where the differences brought into the relationship do not necessarily implicate the bearers of those differences as either culpable for, or dependent upon, the differences of others. Your difference from my difference…I’m not responsible for it, you’re not respon— Your difference doesn’t have severe implication for my ability to live the way in which I do. Instead we see each other’s differences as potential resources for each other, so that when my way of doing things doesn’t work, who do I turn to? Who can I learn from?
How can residents in a district enact their ways of life such that they are “known” by others, but where that knowledge is not necessarily construed as a commentary about the manner in which specific lives are conducted? And this was seldom a matter of statements, seldom a matter of sort of conscious ideological principles, or calculations of the “weightings” each person or thing brings to or bears from being in a particular relationship. Rather, it is a way of finding ways for things to become simultaneously visible and invisible to each other, where a definitive line between them is not possible to discern. It is as if one sees something going on without seeing it, and therefore has no basis from which to issue statements about it.
It is a matter of generating rhythms and techniques that emanate from the densities of heterogeneous activities and forces to impact on the neurophysiological circuits that modulate affect, sympathy, and a preparedness to act. What on the South Side of Chicago they call “collective tek.”
And the built environment of popular districts was critical to such tek. The physical demarcation of plots and households and functions were often intentionally made ambiguous. This intensive compactness of built forms, with their widely divergent materials, angles, architectural vernaculars and uses, rendered whatever took place intensely public and singular, at the very same time.
These were limited opportunities to withdraw or hide the critical features that might define the appearance of any resident. Attenuate the need to make statements about defining things, since everything appeared more or less in some kind of common view. At the same time, what appeared in such a public perspective was contingent upon the particular positions that bodies assumed while being viewed. And given that these positions were so materially and architecturally diverse, it was never clear just exactly what was being seen, once it was being seen.
Also, the ability to continuously build a “block chain” of stories…how one thing leads to another. Residents of these popular districts always have the capacity for re-description. There is always living through what might be taking place without the need for the empirical evidence that it indeed was taking place. So, it’s almost a having a foot in two worlds. What you could empirically demonstrate was going on, but also living in a world of what might be going on, without ever necessarily having to prove it.
So there was always this kind of fundamental importance of dissimulation, where homes pretended to be factories, factories pretended to be homes, prayer groups pretended to be political parties, pretending to be commercial associations, pretending to be clubs. “One thing is not one thing” was the continuous mantra of everyday life within these districts.
And so, there was a sense on the part of residents of the need to update, update, update. Residents know that they cannot sit still, and so continuously have to re-describe their aspirations and capacities into new formats. And therefore, the epistemology of the quantification of the vertical, for example floor space ratios, does not in any means stop negotiations over how residency is composed but can actually intensify it, where the vertical is the new terrain of proletarian auto-construction.
We think that just shipping people into vertical high-rises automatically means that the process of people building their own sense of communities is at an end. But it’s exactly not the case. Vertical residences in much of South and Southeast Asia become a new locus for auto-construction. You begin to see extended families, you begin to see collective formations, people who run informal markets, collectively putting their assets into buying whole floors or two floors in a vertical high-rise building. That is, the sense that somehow we’re redomesticating the urban body and that the vertical isn’t a site of ongoing creation just isn’t proving to be the case. It is a new kind of locus for a kind of proletarian auto-construction.
And then given that, that’s just one example of a capacity to experiment with new forms of living-with, often using the language that is often used against the very idea of neighborhood, the popular, or the common. So why not see neighborhoods as holding companies? Why not develop local forms of securitization, with varying statuses and ambiguities of land? Why not design ownership and tenancy systems that are concretized laterally as a transect over a patchwork of properties and residencies?
Because if we were really paying attention to the way in which the majority world, the majority districts, of cities within South and Southeast Asia have been making themselves over the past four decades, we would see that many of the modalities of operation being used by financial institutions were really stolen by the financial institutions from the majority themselves. Thank you very much.
Rahul Mehrotra: Thanks. I’m going to try to give the translator a respite now, so I’ll go slow. But thank you very much for that. I mean, I think that was intense. Also I think it brought a kind of complexity to the discussion, which is interesting. And by choosing Southeast Asia and South Asia, I think you’ve pushed us into an extreme condition to sort of jostle us into thinking about cities and the future of planning, urban design, and all the other questions that have been raised.
I think using “all exist next to each other” is a true description of that condition. And I couldn’t but help think of what Saskia said earlier about how while we were seeing high density development, you were actually seeing a deurbanization process. And this is exactly the reverse, where you have an intensity that is absolutely mind-boggling. But I think also in your presentation with the words, the emblems, the images that you picked, I think you also posed for us an intense clash and intersection between what we are all struggling with, and I think it’s the agenda of the Urban Age, to look at the physical and the social and try to make sense of the implications, vice versa.
So what I’m going to do is just sort of list a few questions which might help us, I hope, in the discussions unpack that. Of course from the social perspective, questions of the ethics of cohabitation, what are its implication on urban form? Is this, the new form of the city where all exist next to each other, a new kind of hybrid, as you sort of referred to. I think that becomes an interesting question. Citizenship. I think yesterday in a discussion someone said ownership, which is a legal instrument, is clearly different from a sense of belonging, and what that means. And clearly in the feral city that you’re describing this is tense, ambiguous, simultaneously.
And so how do we actually develop a vocabulary to talk about the simultaneous validity of these different streams that you describe? But also the way the social and the physical might actually intersect. In fact, I think I was struck by the implication you sort of made where in a city like this, meanings are shifting, meanings are unstable themselves. Whether it’s the land use that you describe, but also the spectacle of the city is no longer architecture in these contexts. It’s festivals, it’s things in motion, it’s other forms that the subaltern kind of express themselves through. Its not even public space. Or it’s a different use of public space. And so this notion of shifting meanings I think is again the implications and the idea of the open city are immense, and I think it’s worth sort of beginning to discuss this.
But then when we look at the physical, Abdou, I think this is where we begin to struggle with what might be the instrumentality so to speak of designers, planners, people in governance. You know, Charles Correa the Indian planner once described Bombay as a great city but a terrible place. And so I look at your images, I can’t but help think of that quote because these are incredible cities but they’re really terrible places. And we talk about sanitation, let’s say, public health. I don’t want to overstep that description. And I think someone earlier today said we shouldn’t be saying “housing” because you design or build a house, but then it’s neighborhoods. And again, I think you touched upon that.
So I think, how do we translate this into physical—into even a vocabulary to describe its physicality, the role of design governance, how we dissolve the binaries? I think one issue that I’d really like to put on the table— Because when we talk about design, the moment we create binaries, we actually begin to imagine different worlds. It’s a good way to explain the world, but design is about synthesis. Design is actually about dissolving these binaries. And you show us brilliantly, actually, how this happens by default in these conditions. So how can we reverse engineer that to extract a vocabulary that might be useful for design?
And of course then there are questions and design challenges which have to do with scale, adjacencies, plural aesthetics, the hybrid. What is the armature within which all of this can come together, whether we’re looking, Suzanne, at the streets you showed us— I mean, these have happened by default, in a sense, through accretion, but how do we create that armature?
And so I just want to end by saying that I think the complexity you’ve presented to us very poetically is important. But what is contingent then on us as designers and those concerned with the physical environment is how do we also create a more nuanced vocabulary, and methods of thinking about the implications of what the social sciences are throwing at us through another set of lenses in terms of their observation?
And I want to put three questions more broadly for the conference on the table. The first is you know, we’ve been using the developing world, the Global South. And of course the developing world comes from a perspective of economics, at least the way I see people using it. The Global South has implications of culture and political and post-colonial kinds of implications, and therefore there’s always that baggage that seems to be present. And I think a Bangladeshi photographer recently coined “the majority world” as a way of describing a combination of all of this as a more neutral political kind of term. But these all have an aesthetic baggage that as designers we begin of connect to, and how do we nuance that more carefully is very important to respond to the kinds of things that you’re bringing up.
The second question is just this idea of you know, aesthetic modernity was the social modernization process. And in South and Southeast Asia there’s an amazing disjuncture because we aesthetically modernized before we socially modernized. And I think Africa and a lot of the majority world in this post-colonial situation, that’s where it’s a good term, where these political entities collapse is very very important.
And the third thing I’d like to just put on the table—and I saw that image of the mosque and the places you showed us which I am sort of familiar with. And you know, we’re looking at public and private space, and we’re looking at public and private partnerships. You know, the big elephant in the room is religion. We don’t talk about sacred spaces. And often we talk about radicalization, for example. We can’t neutralize it so much. And what does religion mean in the city, I think, is a subject that for some reason—for political reasons—has disappeared. So I just want to put those points on the table. Thank you very much.