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AAJ Press
Architecture & Design, Art & Public Space, Ecology, Environment, Exhibitions & Events, Urban Design

Urbicide – Dead cities: ‘ruin porn’ and the urban imagination, Battle of Ideas at the RCA, London, 30th October 2011

Marshall Berman created the term ‘urbicide’ to describe the destruction of the South Bronx neighbourhood, New York, where more than 300,000 people were displaced in the 1970s as their homes were destroyed. A couple of years ago, the thinktank Policy Exchange argued controversially that the regeneration funds being pumped into declining Northern English cities should be stopped, effectively abandoning them to their fate. And just as Liverpool, Sunderland and Hull ponder their future, so a discussion on the problems of shrinking cities has emerged in countries as diverse as Germany, Russia, Japan and South Korea. In the US, of the twenty largest cities in the 1950s, no less than sixteen have shrunk. The term ‘urbicide’ was coined to describe the fate of the Bronx, the hollowed out neighbourhood associated with the dark days of 1970s New York. More recently the disassembly of Detroit has commanded attention, its abandoned structures testament to the loss of half the people who once lived there. Today, to the cheers of some who detested this sprawling monument to American industrial might, the Motor City appears increasingly unable, or unwilling, to resist the encroaching forces of nature, and sprawling vegation fills emptied-out factories.

As attention turns from boomtowns to doomed towns, and urban boosters lose out to purveyors of ‘creative shrinkage’, what’s behind the interest in ‘shrinking cities’? Why for example have artists, authors and filmmakers been so keen to record a requiem for Detroit, creating in the process a booming new cultural industry based on the imagery of urban decay? From Greek tragedies to the Grand Tour, ruins have long loomed large in the cultural imagination. Is it true, as one commentator alleges, that ruins are ‘good metaphors for human nature, for our ability to create and destroy’? Is a crumbling edifice an eyesore, or a healthy reminder that cities are mortal too?

‘Urban memory’ and industrial heritage have become big business. In Liverpool, the preservation of the industrial-era ruins of the Albert Docks was central to the city’s regeneration vision. Award-winning architects like David Chipperfield regularly incorporate traces of the past in their buildings of the future. Are these useful acts of preservation, or cynical attempts to create a feelgood factor? Is the rise of ‘ruin porn’ simply an aspect of Western decadence, with new, dynamic cities flourishing in places like China? Or does it reflect hard-earned wisdom and humility about our place in the world?

Alastair Donald. urban designer; researcher; co-editor The Lure of the city: from slums to suburbs

Professor Paul Farley. professor of poetry, Lancaster University; author, Edgelands: a journey into England’s true wilderness.

Professor Jeremy Myerson.Helen Hamlyn Chair of Design, RCA; co-founder and director, Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design; member, international selection panel, ICSID World Design Capital 2014

Eric Reynolds. founding director, Urban Space Management

Chair: Michael Owens . director, Global Cities; contributor, The Lure of the City: from slums to suburbs; member, editorial board, Local Economy

Event: Debate on Sunday 30 October, 3.45pm until 5.15pm, Students’ Union Provocation Zone, RCA, Kensington Gore, London

www.battleofideas.org.uk


About jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space - creator of art projects - writer on art

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