The world's cities are no longer what they used to be. Landscapes and skylines, especially in Africa and Asia, have taken on a new form as urbanisation develops at a pace like never before. Over two centuries ago, only 3% of the world's population inhabited cities. Today, just more than half of the population is concentrated in metropolises. Closer to home, two-thirds of South Africa's population now live in urban areas, according to 2013 World Bank data. So naturally, as these landscapes evolve and more people inhabit an expanding environment, conversations will undulate and flow to the rhythm of the pulsating and transforming cities.
Discussions on urbanism, that involve topics such as urban planning based on economic constraints, climate change and even homogenous-hipster neighbourhoods, are ubiquitous. From Twitter to TedX talks, people – including famous ones like film director Spike Lee, who recently lambasted gentrification in Brooklyn, New York – are openly engaging in these dialogues as a way of making sense or protesting varying degrees of urbanism.
And it is with this premise of talking about developed spaces that Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) has launched Studio-X in Johannesburg. Studio-X is a global network of what it calls "laboratories", aimed at exploring the future of built environments through creative and academic engagement.
"Studio-X hopes to expand and shift the registers we use to think and write of, and design the city; by drawing on advanced computer technologies, critical transdisciplinary engagements and creative outputs," says Mpho Matsipa, director of Studio-X Johannesburg.
In Johannesburg, Studio-X plans to create "an open platform of enquiry for those in the design and related fields to play a meaningful and reflexive role in the shape the city might take", says Matsipa, who is also a lecturer at the Wits School of Architecture and Planning.
Started in 2008, Studio-X began as a pilot project in New York where, according to its website, it established a reputation for innovation through research projects, exhibitions, workshops, publications and debates. It now has laboratories in Istanbul, Beijing, Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, Amman and Tokyo.
In Metropolis magazine, Mark Wigley, dean of GSAPP, describes the "spirit of experimentation behind Studio-X" and the meaning of its name in his statement: "The 'x' just means we don't know what's going to happen."
Asked about this experimental approach to engaging in talks about cities like Johannesburg – South Africa's economic capital, which, according to President Jacob Zuma's 2013 State of the Nation speech, is under pressure as a result of great urbanisation – Matsipa breaks it down. "The 'experiments' are experiments in knowledge production and collaboration, rather than viewing Johannesburg as an object of knowledge – which has troubling colonialist connotations …. Knowledge about African cities needs to be rethought."
Rethink ideas on urbanism
Some might find it hard to rethink ideas on urbanism in a city like eGoli that has faced a constant influx of people since the Gold Rush in the late 1800s. Johannesburg's ever-changing architectural landscape to accommodate mass streaming of people invokes political theorist Fredric Jameson's take on future cities: "Modern architecture has been bound up with questions of urbanism since its eighteenth and nineteenth century beginnings."
But with the emergence of platforms to engage creatively about cityscapes, can initiatives like Studio-X provide unique answers to questions about urbanism? Can it ensure each city's cultural diversity radiates amidst the dull and inevitable uniformity that arises from homogenous mega or world cities?
GSAPP's Mabel Wilson, who is also a co-director of Global Africa Lab (Gal) – an initiative that undertakes design research and projects, and works closely with Studio-X – touches on the importance of diverse metropolises. "Globalisation does indeed produce homogeneity … But with any city there are always particularities [and] socio-cultural histories that shape its physical contours and give a city its character. By having a network, disparities can be understood relationally rather than merely just the outcome of localised conditions."
Despite this, Studio-X kicks off its global network in Africa with a three-day launch event in Johannesburg's Maboneng Precinct – a neighbourhood that in itself has seen the effects of gentrification: the arrival of middle class, brogue-clad residents, along with trendy restaurants and high-end residential high-rises in a precinct previously inhabited by mainly poor, working-class people living in once dilapidated buildings.
"Gentrification is a manifestation of gross inequality and capitalist developments globally, and Johannesburg is no different," Matsipa says, responding to questions about Studio-X's new home in the contentious locale. "I'm interested in understanding how urban redevelopment could proceed in a way that improves the quality of life for all urban residents. Perhaps Maboneng might be the best place to ask these questions."
Spike Lee, the Do the Right Thing director is clearly not a fan of the "motherfucking hipsters" and asks the question: "Why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the south Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed-Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better?" When comparing his thoughts to what has happened in communities such as Maboneng and Cape Town's Woodstock, one wonders if his reference to gentrification in Harlem has anything to do with Columbia University's expansion into West Harlem – an area once filled with Hispanic and African American residents.
From 2007, resistance to the Ivy League building campuses in the historically black quarters made international news. "Harlem takes on university in battle of town versus gown", read one headline, while another said "Black Architects say Columbia shut them out of $6.3-billion Harlem campus".
The university's Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification group even commented on the development programme, saying: "Columbia is a mostly white university that has proposed building a new campus in a neighbourhood whose residents are predominantly people of colour. The university's past developments are largely responsible for the transformation of [Harlem's] Morningside Heights from a racially and economically diverse neighbourhood to an affluent white one."
But urban renewal projects are not new to the once-famous locale, known to have housed literary greats like Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. Arthur James Baldwin, who was born in Harlem, referred to urban renewal programmes in the vicinity in the 1960s as "Negro removals", which, according to Baldwin "means moving the Negroes out".
Since Baldwin addressed the implications of private companies buying up property in lower-income neighbourhoods, that often results in the displacement of its poor residents, how much has really changed? Will a continued conversation on this topic, fostered by the likes of Columbia University linked Studio-X, change a problem prevalent since the birth of cities?
It's hard to predict, but it's also hard to ignore how Studio-X, with affiliations to Columbia University and Maboneng (it thanks Jonathan Liebermann, brainchild of the precinct, in its press release), is able to provide a neutral platform for thinking about future cities.
Neutrality of Studio-X
"Neither knowledge nor institutions are ever neutral," says Gal's Wilson, responding to Columbia's West Harlem expansion programme in relation to Studio-X, an institutionally sponsored platform. "Knowledge production is always tied to circuits of power – that is a given. Studio-X operates as an experimental platform for exchange that allows people to productively nurture the creation of new forms of knowledge, creation [and] new types of imaginaries about urban life that promote transformations .. "
So as the city makes way for Studio-X, with it's weekend-long event featuring musicians, academics and corporates, as well as open panel discussions, which Matsipa hopes "will carry on beyond the parameters of this weekend's activities", one can only hope for a discussion on future cities to be inclusive of its residents and useful to them to too.