Sunday, May 01, 2011

Book Review: Urban Future Manifestos

Urban Future Manifestos edited by Peter Noever and Kimberli Meyer
Hatje Cantz, 2011
Paperback, 168 pages

As Ulrich Conrads asserts in Programs and Manifestoes on 20th-Century Architecture, "Nearly every important development in the modern architectural movement began with the proclamation of these convictions in the form of a program or manifesto." Yet today, a time of acknowledged social and environmental crises, manifestos seem to be a thing of the past. Rem Koolhaas may have subtitled Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan, but that was back in 1978 and it hardly resembles the calls for action in Conrads's collection, such as "Ornament and Crime" by Adolf Loos and "Futurist Architecture" by Antonio Sant'Elia and Filippo Tomassa Marinetti. Later Koolhaas wrote about "Bigness" and "Junkspace," but these and other writings on architecture and the city resemble observations more than declarations; if anything they embrace the city's conditions instead of offering alternatives. Even Icon Magazine's 50th issue, its Manifesto Issue in 2007, asserted that "the age of the manifesto is over," all the while feature 50 "manifestos" (many could hardly be called such, hence the quotes) by Koolhaas, Bruce Mau, Peter Eisenman, Zaha Hadid and others.

So into this context comes this collection of manifestos contributed by architects, artists, designers, and urban scholars from around the world. The book is the product of the MAK Vienna/Los Angeles, inspired specifically by its Urban Future Initiative Fellowship Program, whose contribution makes up the second half of the book. Manifestos come from Bernard Khoury, James Turrell, Zvi Hecker, Dana Cuff, Saskia Sassen, Edward Soja, Norman M. Klein, Teddy Cruz, Michael Sorkin, Keller Easterling, Ai Weiwei, Lebbeus Woods, and many more. For the most part the manifestos are concise, each about one to three pages. This actually goes along with the manifestos collected by Conrads; while some are excerpts of longer essays or even books, many of the texts from last century are intentionally short, distributed as leaflets or part of other publications. The brevity in Urban Future Manifestos results in a multitude of voices (going hand in hand with Icon's quote, "there are as many potential manifestos as there are people") and statements that get to the point; the latter is furthered by bold sentences called out in each contribution, important statements within the manifestos.

Given the theme and format, the best pieces are the ones where the author takes a strong stance and/or experiments with the writing. In the former camp is Teddy Cruz, who calls for ways to reconsider density and social exchange, and Ai Weiwei (in the news for his strong life-as-art convictions), who embraces the local, as does Norman M. Klein. Highlights of the latter include Michael Sorkin's "Merry Manifesto," a list of what the "city will be," and Robert Ransick's "Manifesto for the Present," which takes snippets from various writers, from Hannah Arendt to Saskia Sassen. Readers will similarly latch on to certain manifestos as avenues for inspiration or further research, but the collection is also valuable as a snapshot of thinking on the urban condition at the beginning of the 21st century.

The book's design should be briefly noted, specifically the way the table of the contents is found on the front and back covers, the bright red head/top of edge, and the chamfered top-right corner. These combine to signal something different, something that stands out from other books on architecture and the city.