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. 

Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Cash App, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.