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.


Discussion

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.


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