Book Review: Open City

Open City: Designing Coexistence edited by Tim Rieniets, Jennifer Sigler and Kees Christiaanse, published by SUN Architecture, 2009. Paperback, 416 pages. (Amazon)

One of the exhibitions in the 4th International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (IABR) was Open City: Designing Coexistence, curated by Kees Christiaanse with Tim Rieniets. The exhibition and accompanying book ask not "if we want to live together, but how to live together -- how to share the resources and opportunities cities offer." From the perspective of someone living in New York City, the question certainly is not easy (it probably isn't for anyone in any context), but at times it can seem impossible. Opportunities for lower- and even middle-income individuals and families are more sparse and difficult than ever, particularly in Manhattan, as the city draws the small percentage of the upper-upper-income bracket with developments that price out the many. These and other practices point to the inverse of coexistence, a segregation of movement and opportunity linked to gentrification. But at other times I have a much different take on the openness of New York City, as much of its pleasures are available baseically for anyone for free, given the relatively unencumbered physical interaction the city affords. Sure, we can't all dine at the Four Seasons, but the Seagram's Building's plaza allows people of any ilk to enjoy the space, even as public space in Manhattan becomes more restricted. My point is that what we consider the Open City is a matter of perspective as much as it is a measurable quality.
Tackling the complex issues of the exhibition's theme requires defining what the Open City is, how it came about, and what affects it. These theoretical explorations comprise the first half of the book, influencing how, for example, my own definition of the Open City presented above can be expanded or nuanced to incorporate other considerations. In the second half "architects and urban designers were asked to explore ways in which spatial design practices could be applied to create the conditions needed for an Open City." These explorations made up the physical exhibition at the IABR, such as Interboro's two-part look at American communities; the Arsenal of Exclusion/Inclusion is especially interesting and analogous to the overall exhibition in terms of its complexity and the importance of defining and articulating what the Open City is. Interboro obviously focuses on the US, but a plethora of other countries and regions are represented in part two. This makes the exhibition truly international and more a survey of how practices and thinkers tackle the idea of the Open City, rather than a kit of parts for different cities to implement.