The two most devastating urban catastrophes of recent memory in America, 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, also appear to be the most frequently cited examples of the failings of urbanism today. In rebuilding New Orleans, the only architects who were organized enough to immediately respond were the New Urbanists, and even their primarily prescriptive plan was quickly undermined by political, economic, and cultural forces. Similarly, at the World Trade Center site in New York, even the powerful vision of a singular, virtuosic architect has been compromised and transformed beyond recognition by the local political and market conditions.
In this post-Katrina, post-9/11, post-Bilbao, post-2008 moment, the principal players in the process of city-making (namely developers and policy-makers) have repeatedly treated architects as irrelevant in the battle for control. It is in this opportunistic urban landscape that Fast-Forward Urbanism seeks to reconfirm the role of architecture. Edited by Dana Cuff and Roger Sherman of cityLAB (a think-tank in the Department of Architecture and Urban Design at UCLA), and stemming from the proceedings of a 2006 symposium on the topic, the book puts forward a collection of essays, opinions, and design projects that together lay the groundwork for a new theory of architecture-as-urbanism.
Fast-Forward Urbanism is based on the proposition that change today occurs as a series of jump-cuts, with effects appearing as if out of nowhere, without any sense of how we got there. The result is a fragmented urbanism that is only understood in retrospect, when historical narratives help piece together the disparate events. The editors propose eight principles of the fast-forward urbanism that call for a “rejiggering” of existing behaviors, encouraging an accumulation of interventions as a means of catalyzing change, and demanding a renewed connection to the local political economy.
The manifesto builds upon the infrastructural outlook of landscape urbanism but articulates a concern for the limited progress that the field has made in urban settings. At a time of unstable economic horizons, the grand gestures of a modernist tradition fail to address specific conditions, while “everyday urbanism” rejects the top-down flow of capital and all-too-readily relinquishes the role of design in shaping cities and stimulating their recovery. Fast-Forward Urbanism seeks to fill in the city’s weak spots not with unique projects but with systemic transformations that are neither top-down nor bottom-up and instead negotiate a middle-ground through applied research and the direct interaction of architecture with commercial and political spheres.
Armed with examples of the success of "festival marketplaces" and excitement about the “experience economy,” the editors profess that despite the rising mediatization of society, there remains a continued interest and desire to be a part of unique experiences in the physical realm. Throughout the book one is reminded of Reyner Banham extolling the virtues of the Los Angeles highway network as both infrastructure and a thrilling form of entertainment. In the world of Fast-Forward Urbanism, the urbanist of the future is an urban designer-cum-imagineer, melding usage and experience, infrastructure and play, criticality AND the commercial.
While the intentions are sound, one can only hope that in the desire to attract audience and investment we don’t end up with corporate logo-tecture, as the cover image of Roger Sherman’s “Duck and Cover” project might suggest. Some other example projects similarly lean more towards a performative than practical impulse: CityLab’s “Chia Mesa” redraws the strip mall as monumental green gardens that grow brand names, while Darren Petrucci’s “Stripscape” is an inventive installation of light-filled shelters that act both as signs and places of informal activity but also manifest a branded control over the adhoc, entrepreneurial variety of the strip.
Despite the restricted display of only a handful of projects, there is much to be gleaned from the essays by esteemed contributors such as Stan Allen, Keller Easterling, Penelope Dean, and Michael Dear. Linda C. Samuels’ essay “Stitches and Insertions” presents thoughtful compromises between top-down and bottom-up approaches: Interboro’s “Improve your Lot!” is a call to loosen policy, encouraging use and ownership of underutilized space, while “New Suburbanism” by Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis proposes to capitalize on the massive scale of existing built form by urbanizing suburbia on the rooftops of big box stores. This last project features a shared structural grid and infrastructure, creating a symbiotic relationship between housing, commerce, and site and demonstrating the unique ability of architecture to create such a livable system.
There is an urgent need to propel replicable, ecologically mindful, and context-sensitive design into the urban and suburban realm. It seems plausible that in the face of stronger market forces architecture in the future will increasingly seek its own sites of intervention and embrace innovative renovation as a primary means of city renewal. Fast-Forward Urbanism outlines a supporting theory for this shift, but as the manifesto predicts, we will have to wait for the fast-forward of history to reveal if architecture can organize itself to not only intervene in but also direct city-making once again.