Friday, 8 April 2011

Initial Ideas

CGI of London's NEO Bankside development due for completion in May 2011

Neo-utopianism is an online repository for ideas, texts and resources on urban regeneration and the production of space.  Managed by a team of MA Visual Cultures students at Goldsmiths College, it documents the development and evolution of a unique, collaborative project.  Still very much in its infancy, the project began with a series of informal discussions based around notions of space, urbanism and counter cartography.  Texts such as Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space and David Harvey's Spaces of Global Capitalism - amongst many others - have provided a rich loam from which to develop our own intellectual preoccupations.

   Conflating theoretical, philosophical, social and economic contexts, our aim is to approach the contentious issue of urban regeneration from a distinctive (and challenging) perspective.  By researching and scrutinising the semantics and rhetoric of regeneration schemes - from the claims made by speculative developers, corporate bodies and local councils; to the voices and statements of affected residents and community activists - we aim to develop a project which reveals the problematic relationship between the producers and the inhabitants of space.

   In our reading, the so-called 'failure' of late modernist utopian developments, such as Elephant & Castle's Heygate Estate (completed in 1974), has made way for a new kind of utopia; a utopia that cares less about social progress and more about luxury living and capital gain.  As seen in Elephant & Castle, long term residents are 'decanted', their houses (soon to be) demolished, whilst councils and 'property solution providers' make plans for shiny, new mixed-use developments 'where every aspect of life is catered for'

Illustrative sketch of the site of the current Heygate Estate in Elephant & Castle, a new Town Park will become the focus to a new residential quarter.

   Whilst we are interested in the social, aesthetic and economic affects of these neo-utopian developments, our main preoccupation is how these affects are produced.  By whom are they produced and who do they affect?  How do development companies operate and present themselves?  How do communities organise themselves in response to the social, architectural and spatial transformation of the areas they live in?  How do they defend, encourage, or actively challenge the incremental process of urban regeneration?

   By comparing the desires, demands and aspirations of the producers and inhabitants of areas undergoing urban transmogrification; we hope to develop an archive of original research from which to produce a publically accessible project – a website, a campaign, an event, a catalogue, an exhibition, a company... or a dynamic collection of works -  which cogitates the various ways in which value – both cultural and monetary – is perceived and produced through space. 

   It is important to note that whilst many residents have been displaced and angered by the proposals and processes of urban regeneration projects, many areas and communities have greatly benefited from them.  In turn, we are aware that the regeneration of local and historical areas is not a case of black versus white; of preservation versus development or change, but a complex and delicate dialogue between communities, councils and capital investors. 

   By focusing on areas in the interstitial stages of development – such as London’s Bankside – we wish to map how value; an abstract and intangible concept, is construed by different members of society.  Subsequently, we hope that our research into the rhetoric and presentation of regeneration projects will provide an interesting framework from which to develop our own opinions on how space is valued, transformed and commodified.   

      From their initial linguistic construction to their eventual implementation, urban regeneration projects are steeped in hyperbole and promotional language.  Live like a King in a 'a visionary, 21st century living environment'; in a development 'unsurpassed anywhere in the world'.  It goes without saying that the transmogrification of the built environment requires more than just bricks and mortar; it requires a vision, a plan and a persuasive development strategy. 

One Hyde Park - a living experience 'unsurpassed anywhere in the world', completed in January 2011
   The language of urban planning; primarily speculative in nature, promotes social and economic advancement, cultural benefits and the general betterment of an area.  Fundamentally, it endorses a space which does not yet exist; a space in a state of becoming.  This fascinating semantic field; itself a utopian construct, is littered with bromidic sentiments like - the development will  'improve the life chances of individuals'.

   Full of grand claims and ambitious (or utopian) objectives; the language used on company websites, advertisements and marketing campaigns verges on the platitudinous and, in turn, provides an interesting contrast to the more empirical observations of the inhabitants and users of space.  

   Dependent on an impending, and volatile, future, the idealised visions of urban regeneration projects often fail to match up with the lived reality of (social) space.  How will these new neo-utopian projects fare in comparison to late modernist housing projects which, as Bernard Tschumi suggests, have failed to fulfil their utopian aims.  Writing in 1975, he states;

Most people concerned with architecture feel some sort of disillusion and dismay.  None of the early utopian ideals of the twentieth century has materialized, none of its social aims has succeeded.  Blurred by reality, the ideals have turned into redevelopment nightmares and the aims into bureaucratic policies.  The split between social reality and utopian dream has been total, the gap between economic constraints and the illusion of all-solving technique absolute. [sic] (from ‘The Architectural Paradox’)

   Revealing the limits of architectural remedies, Tschumi implies that the ‘split’ between representations of space (as created through architecture, design or development projects) and the representational space of the lived (to use Lefebvre’s terms) is irresolvable.  A fascination with this distinction (which according to Tschumi forms part of the very ‘nature of architecture’) lies at the heart of our project.  A mapping not a tracing, an enquiry not an answer; our project is an open, experimental investigation into the dialectics of space, value and urban regeneration.

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