Cities gone wild

As the world has undergone the largest wave of urban growth in human history, is the city slipping out of control? Geoff Manaugh paints an emerging picture of metropolitan wildness in which an increasing number of cities become the sites of military conflicts and political, economic and social decay. Could the city be reverting to a medieval model in which illiterate power – criminals, gangs and urban warlords – predominate over rational politics and legitimate government?

Digital solipsism and the paradox of the great ‘forgetting’

Neil Spiller counters the main theme of this issue by questioning the dominant focus on production and new technologies in architectural culture, which places a premium on the generation of ‘ever more gratuitous complex surfaces and structures’. Could this inward-looking emphasis on process and obsessive love of new technologies be at the expense of the final product? Are we in danger of producing artefacts that lose sight of human expression and poetics in the competitive drive for greater complexity? Are we, in fact, heading towards a great ‘forgetting’ in which humanity is subtracted from the architectural product?

The new structuralism: design, engineering and architectural technologies

Architecture is in the process of a revolutionary transformation. There is now momentum for a revitalised involvement with sources in material practice and technologies. This cultural evolution is pre-eminently expressed in the expanded collaborative relationships that have developed in the past decade between architects and structural engineers, relationships which have been responsible for the production, worldwide, of a series of iconic buildings. The rise and technological empowerment of these methods can be seen as a historic development in the evolution of architectural engineering. If engineering is frequently interpreted as the giving of precedence to material content, then the design engineer, in his prioritising of materialisation, is the pilot figure of this cultural shift which we have termed the ‘new structuralism’.

Baroque exuberance frivolity or disquiet?

Robert Harbison defines the Baroque in the 17th and early 18th centuries, which is so often characterised in contrast with the Renaissance by its excess and drama. In doing so, he challenges the reader to consider whether this artful style of subversion, tension, movement, gravity-defying feats and freedom was really one of whimsical frivolity or subversive disquiet.

The tree canopy as blueprint

As the opportunities for new territories become more limited, the only way is up. Mitchell Schwarzer explores the dizzying heights of the ‘last biotic frontier of arboreal architecture with its high platforms, walkways and canopy craft. Challenging in construction and engineering terms, the tree canopy also requires engaging with a different atmospheric and climatic range to those conditions encountered at ground level.

The architecture of the mouse

The mouse is a potent prosthetic. When placed in front of our desktop we do not even have to think consciously about reaching for it. Mark Wigley’s eulogy to this seemingly humble but transformative technology highlights the power that such a discrete device can have on the human ecosystem, providing a seamless interface between body and brain that is still only to be dreamt of in architecture.

City as political form

Pier Vittorio Aureli focuses on the category of archetype as an alternative to the idea of type. Four examples – the axial streets of Renaissance Rome, the 17th-century Parisian place, the 19th century independent block in Berlin and the 20th-century Viennese superblock – are explored here to describe the emergence of modern urban forms that explicitly embody power relations.

Latin america at the crossroads

Latin American citizens are constantly reminded of the social polarities in our cities through the urban form where 3-metre (9-foot) tall security walls and bars on windows are the norm within island-like enclaves of wealth. Within this context, architects currently work to produce well-designed interior spaces that deliberately turn their back on the public realm – streets and public spaces – resulting in large sections of cities where the street is overlooked only by inactive walls. Until the last 20 to 30 years, with obvious exceptions such as Curitiba, there has been little consideration among Latin America’s architects and urbanists as to how practitioners might mitigate strong social and spatial polarities and challenge the prevailing architectural language of segregation and fear.

Rebuilding from below the bottom: Haiti

The devastation of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on 12 January 2010 makes this issue of especially pertinent, and the subsequent earthquake in Chile shows that strategies to rebuild after each crisis must be very different. Jayne Merkel and Craig Whitaker argue that, although there is much to be learned from previous disasters, no single response pertains. In Haiti, international architectural talent and expertise are irrelevant – even undesirable – until the social, cultural and political factors that helped devastate this once verdant and prosperous land are better understood. It is important to move slowly at first in order to go faster later.

Fearscapes: caracas postcards from a violent city

Venezuelan architect, artist and educator Eduardo Kairuz reveals how beneath the stereotypical view of Caracas as the ‘Murder Capital of the World’ lies a history of savage imposition, dating back to its founding in the 16th century and its colonial past and manifested today in the stark social segregation between parts of the city.