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Saturday, May 09, 2009

Book & Exhibition Review: 49 Cities

49 Cities by WORKac
Storefront for Art and Architecture, 2009
Paperback, 127 pages

On display at the Storefront for Art and Architecture until the end of May is WORKac: 49 Cities, an exhibition with accompanying catalog generated by a studio at Princeton University's School of Architecture with WORKac's Amale Andraos and Dan Wood. The project presents the "fantastic projections" of architects and planners from 500 B.C. to today, with data, scale plans, archival photos/illustrations, and explanatory text. Comparisons between the 49 cities are accommodated by keys (fear factor, form, realization, expandability), pie charts (surface use, land use, built space, green space) and ranking (density, F.A.R., green space, population). The layout is consistent from city to city, (partially) real or imagined, minus a change in scale from one to the other. The format (PDF sample pages) reiterates the importance of comparison, as well as the reliance on data in all its guises for doing such.

49 Cities @ Storefront

The exhibition is laid out along the long wall of the space, moving from small scale to large scale from the tip to the wide end, while the book moves chronologically, from the Roman Empire to the Abu Dhabi. Each ordering holds its own rewards, the former illustrating how considerations and detail change as scale increases, with the latter showing how the avant-garde has shifted over time, among other things. The book includes a scale comparison after the table of contents, in effect recreating the gallery layout in book form. If one needed to choose just one means of presentation for investigation the gallery would surely prevail. While it doesn't have the advantage of the book's portability or longevity, the large-scale plans at Storefront are clearer than the publication, whose small scale combined with the drawings' fine level of detail mean some information is lost or hard to read.

49 Cities @ Storefront

On the swinging doors opposite the plans in the gallery space, and coming at the end of the book, is the comparative date. These ten charts are primarily visual displays of the rankings mentioned above. Like the long list of data that accompanies each city, these charts are more rewarding for those willing to spend longer than a cursory glance -- to see that Radiant City has the most green space, for example. The plans and data may answer why Radiant City has a higher percentage of green space than the runner-up (Peter Cook of Archigram's Mound), but value judgments about how the form of a city relates to the lives taking place within is mainly up to the reader/gallery-goer, as it is outside the scope of the studio and its professors. If anything it is irrelevant, standing in the way of exploring and analyzing new ideas for building cities. WORKac calls for more radical thinking in the face of environmental crisis, rather than piecemeal schemes like urban infill or green building.

49 Cities @ Storefront

It's easy to be seduced by the presentation of 49 Cities, its consistency, its rigor, its appearance. But it's hard to dismiss the fact these are all top-down strategies that impose themselves from what in many cases are individuals, contrary to the reality of cities as an evolving mix of top-down and bottom-up strategies stemming from the various urban actors, be it politicians, corporations, neighborhood agencies or citizen groups. Of course this is a reality that WORKac and their students choose to set aside, so they can look at how imaginative plans stack up to ones realized in some form or another. This is the exhibition and book's most valuable asset, the flattening of real and imaginary cities onto a common plane of understanding, extracting today's important concerns (density, green space, infrastructure) from plans spanning time, space and thought.

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