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.