Architects Versus Economists: The Battle for the Future of Urbanism, From Honduras to Upstate New York

A rendering of a transit materials lab by Masha Pekurovsky for Building Exhibition Hudson Valley/Erie Canal, 2014-2024
(Courtesy the Pratt Institute)

Great cities are works in progress. Their forms are nurtured over time, left over by generations like layers of geological strata. But in the past few years, the demand for cities has spiked exponentially, with little time allotted for their painstaking maturation. Seven billion people are predicted to live in cities by 2050 — twice the current urban population — and, as if a global biological clock had gone off, government leaders and developers are now attempting to leapfrog centuries of gradual development and erect entirely new capitals from the ground up in Honduras, South Korea, China, and beyond. Yet, as entire metropolises are being built from scratch, the role of the architect remains curiously uncertain. Two theories have emerged at this dawn of rapid urbanization: one that threatens to wholly dismiss architecture and another that places immeasurable faith in its faculties.

The Lure of "Charter Cities"

In a 2009 TED talk, economist Paul Romer unveiled a "radical idea" for the future of cities. A good city, according to Romer, is built not on street layouts, transit designs, and housing projects, but on good rules. Rules are what predicate Romer's contentious "charter city" concept, which instructs countries to graft new cities onto unused land and govern them with imported "charters." Host countries would thereby relinquish their jurisdiction over areas of their unpopulated terrain, and third-party countries would draft charters to govern fledgling cities, thereby attracting citizens to populate and invest in their respective geographies. The charter city par excellence is Hong Kong, a city that can boast a developmental success story that eclipses the stigma of its colonial past.

Though boiled down to simple diagrams and syllogisms, Romer’s 2009 TED talk caught the attention of the Honduran government, and shortly thereafter in 2011, the government voted to start their very own charter city. Legislators passed a constitutional amendment last year that would make quasi-independent "special development regions" possible, a big step for the future of charter cities. Romer attributed his first success in Honduras to his argument that "Cities are worth so much more than it costs to build them." In a second TED lecture on the subject, he flashed an image of Songdo, South Korea's newest city. The slide was a snapshot of an archetypal Asian business district, stocked with towering high-rises and sculptural low-rises. Tinted in a soothing palette of aquamarines, grays, and whites, South Korea's clean-slate metropolis is portrayed as a collection of shiny, immaculate buildings, all constructed within a mere four years. It represents, for Romer, the potential of building from scratch.

To Romer, this comfortingly utopian image is built on a foundational concept far greater than the architecture itself. Architecture is merely the period after the sentence. It is an afterthought. Cities are worth more than it costs to build them, exactly because cities are so much more than their buildings. "It's important that buildings don’t catch fire or fall down when there’s an earthquake," Romer told urban issues writer Greg Lindsay in Forefront, while discussing his charter city model. "Otherwise, I don't think it matters all that much."

The IBA Model

Can architecture really be so trivial in the discussion of urbanization? Could it really not matter all that much? Not surprisingly, another approach to city-building — one driven by architects — suggests otherwise. Earlier this year, New York-based architect Meta Brunzema and a team of eight architecture graduate students at Pratt Institute pitched an idea to revive the swath of post-industrial towns hugging the Hudson River in upstate New York. Unlike Romer’s charter city concept, Brunzema’s proposal implies that thoughtful architecture can be an important catalyst for effective urbanization.

Brunzema’s project, tentatively called "Building Exhibition Hudson Valley/Erie Canal, 2014-2024," suggests retooling the Hudson River Valley with urban design prototypes that will attract a young, creative demographic and subsequently revive and repopulate the area. For their speculative proposal, Brunzema and her students envision a vibrant new Hudson River Valley, one studded with eclectic mixed-use facilities and new sustainable industries ready to lift 46 riverfront burgs out of depression.

The project’s name and its flashy early prototypes beg comparison with the 1987 International Building Exhibition in Berlin or IBA Berlin (the abbreviation coming from its German name, Internationale Bauausstellung Berlin). Architecture writer Jeff Byles links the two accordingly in the Architects' Newspaper: "Brunzema has borrowed a page from Germany's famed International Building Exhibition…which over the last century has leveraged design intelligence to tackle urgent social and urban challenges. These farsighted efforts include monumental housing built by Alvar Aalto, Walter Gropius, Oscar Niemeyer and others during the 1957 Interbau and the 'critical reconstruction' of Berlin's historic core…which pioneered sensitive alternatives to slash-and-burn urban renewal."

An even more appropriate precursor (as Byles mentions later in the same article) might be a more recent building exhibition in Germany: The 1999 IBA Emscher Park, a regional urban renewal effort targeting a former coal-mining district in Germany's Ruhr Valley. Over the span of 10 years between 1989 and 1999, the program added landscaped parks, infrastructure, housing, and business and cultural institutions to over 80 cities. Not only did this new IBA result in 5,500 new and renovated housing units, develop 26 garden cities, convert industrial ruins into cultural destinations, and add hundreds of miles of bicycle paths and walking trails, but imagine my surprise when I discovered that the Newtown Creek Digester Eggs — four impressive steel additions to the Brooklyn landscape — are actually among many duplicates of a wastewater treatment plant built in Emscher Park in 1996!

The Emscher Park scheme is little-known, but in some ways that is a mark of its success: how this massive urban initiative managed to dodge public disapproval is arguably a testament to its thorough integration into the Ruhr Valley community, both socially and architecturally. Though inspired by the star-studded 1987 IBA Berlin, the 1999 IBA was a very different building exhibition, one built upon the efforts of civic organizations, private enterprises and the local communities of the Northern Ruhr Valley, not on the design philosophies of architecture icons.

Which Path to Take?

The IBA building exhibition model stands adverse to Paul Romer's abstract vision for charter cities. They present two unfolding strategies for urbanization, and their bipolarity brings into question the capacity of architecture to enact substantial change within a municipal frame. Though Romer is an economist, not an architect or a planner, his disregard for design stems from a valid premise: that great architecture can only be as strong as its framing social substructure, a lesson learned when the public turned on modernism for its failure to build us into utopia.

Any plan to inject a landscape with architectural prototypes could potentially overlook an honest shortcoming of the field. Yet at the same time, architecture is much more than an afterthought to rules and hierarchies. There is a reason we might cringe when we see clones of Hong Kong and Singapore popping up on manmade islands and other unpeopled territories. Architecture connects us to our geographies; it roots us in place and time and provides us a "foothold on the future," as architecture critic Douglas Murphy writes. It is careless to reduce architecture to a mere means of shelter and safety.

A difference that skews the comparison between the IBA and charter city models is the fact that the IBA model attempts sweeping renewals of existing cities while the charter city model spawns entirely new ones. The former has the potential to respond to traces of the past and present, while the latter is untethered, free to drift into the abstract. But both approaches risk designing cities without context. To do so is to take a major leap of faith, which every act of building requires. The question is how big of a leap we should take, and whether or not we have the choice to act otherwise.

To see the images proposed for "Building Exhibition Hudson Valley/Erie Canal, 2014-2024," click on the slide show.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed the design of the Newtown Creek Digester Eggs to Ennead Architects. This has been corrected.