CRITICISM | Urban writing

Posted on 31/12/2012

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Cultural criticism plays an important role in developing the critical faculties of audiences. It not only provides a link or a bridge between audiences and artsworks but also provides a means to educate audiences. In this context, ‘educate’ sounds a bit patronising. Perhaps I mean attunement. I was recently reading an excellent piece in The Guardian about a proposed masterplan for an urban development in London, which considered the masterplan from the perspective of citymaking, planning and design. I recall my reaction to it was “we need more of this kind of writing”. Such critical writing rarely happens in the Australian press and yet it potentially very useful for the kind of public engagement and governance that needs to happen in planning. Trotting out numerous community information sessions about new developments, I am often surprised by the ways in which people engage in the process.

What is it that we really understand about planning? An article about planning diagrams has been doing the online rounds, highlighting the history of spatial planning, with this comment by Andrew Shanken, professor of architecture and urbanism at UC Berkeley: “Planning indulges in the same world of image making that artists and advertisers do … Every plan is an act of persuasion, an argument for an alternative way of life that attempts to posit or convince an audience of that alternative.” There are news reports on conflicts over urban development and proposals but not the kind of critical and exploratory writing that discusses what makes a proposal good or bad planning, or considers what it will contribute to the urban environment. The usual reporting is more descriptive than it is analytical or critical. It appears to be an extension of marketing driven by the publicity machinery of developers or some overture for advertising dollars, often appearing in the property section of the press or describing the benefits in terms of population growth or job creation e.g. this story from Adelaide or this story from Toowoomba. What do these stories really say, if anything, about the vision for these cities and the decisions which shape them? Owen Hatherley describes A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain as an autopsy of the urban renaissance. After nearly two decades of urban renewal, Hatherley describes cities scarred by mashed-up architectures and urban design misfits: monuments to politics and profit. Like my own perplexity when I consider my suburb, I wonder how this was anyone’s vision. There are moments of ‘they should have known better’, even considering the example of King George Square in Brisbane which was found to be unbearably hot after its construction.

Now, at this time when there is unprecedented attention being paid to our cities and their remaking, it is curious to note that there is no concommitant public discourse about citymaking and masterplanning evolving in our media. Perhaps in the professional, independent and trade press. Often news reports are calls for public comment on the masterplan but offer no means for setting the compass of the reader or ready them to offer comment. As David Carrier says, it involves people in ‘a conversation about some thing’. Paul Carter’s Dark Writing and Ground Truthing are likely to be instructive for this discussion in considering the translations across writing, drawing and experience. The development of cities is intimately connected to the press. Another Guardian piece offers a perspective on social housing rarely, if ever, seen in Australian media. There are signs of a smarter urban journalism emerging in Australia, like this piece in The Age, warning of the social divide developing through current urban decision making and dynamics.

In some of my previous projects, I have explored different aspects of cultural and art criticism, recognising that we are, indeed, talking about many criticisms, many writings and many publications. Some developments destroy cities. We have seen this happen over and over again because we do not understand or appreciate how a plan is translated into built forms and structures that surround us. This perhaps evokes or warrants new practices practice of writing the city. Some projects, like New York’s Highline, seem to capture the imagination and emerge from the pages of plans and press in profoundly celebratory ways. Other projects need more exploration and engagement to really understand their implications for cities and communities e.g. Barangaroo, a project that is enmired in controversy, profiteering and politics. It’s not enough to just take sides. I am suggesting here that a particular approach to critical or cultural writing is integral to the kinds of urban challenges and changes we need. Urban writers can bring their knowledge to bear by developing urban writing practices that are enmeshed with civic responsibility, urban/regional experience and pressing priorities.

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Posted in: writing