Christian de Portzamparc

The Challenges of Urban Despatialization

Urban interchange in Bangkok © Creative Commons

For Christian de Portzamparc, the prehistory of the contemporary urban revolution can be traced back to the mid-twentieth century, just sixty years ago, and to the age of discontinuous urbanization and functional zoning by isolated pockets that reflected a negation of the street. Today, the effects of the new environmental challenges and the ubiquity of technologies are provoking a change of scale in our approach to cities. Digital technologies are transforming our relationship to space and time, and we experience the city as a dislocated and disjointed structure. Confronted with this “despatialization,” we must start afresh from the physical places themselves and reconsider materials, territories and infrastructure in order to envision the true goals of architecture.

Christian de Portzamparc is a French architect and urban planner, recipient of the Pritzker Architecture Prize 1994 and of the Grand Prix de l’Urbanisme in 2004.

Stream : Since 2000, global urbanization, which has transformed our human condition into an urban condition, has been widely accepted. A number of factors (including environmental awareness and the digital era) have become more important. What do you think are the key factors in the evolution of this global urbanization? And do you feel that we are living in a time of rupture or capitulation, rather than just an evolution?

Christian de Portzamparc : While I was growing up in Rennes, in the northwest of France, I watched enthusiastically as the clean, white buildings of the HLM low-income housing projects were built on farmland. Armies of city buildings came to conquer the countryside. Whether from the rural exodus or from post-colonial migration, every day for thirty years, more than three hundred people came to live in Paris. In places such as Istanbul and Mexico City, the number was even greater—upwards of one thousand per day. In the huge slum that was Nanterre, I remember having seen families that didn’t even have corrugated iron; they made their houses by burrowing into the garbage heaps. The French priest Abbé Pierre led a call to action, and with a swift efficiency that today seems unimaginable, a majority of the citizens were housed. Urbanized peripheries of a surprising scale sprung up around the traditional city centers, where the fields, the hedgerows, and the trees were chopped down in order to make way for large-scale building schemes.

Rennes, France, 1960 © Christian de Portzamparc, AECDP

The new age of the city

Sixty years ago, this “big bang” became our prehistory. It marked an essential, global-scale rupture, and the sudden appearance of a new era: that of discontinuous urbanization on a global scale. Pockets of land were zoned according to function and connected to one another by high-speed transportation routes. We have already moved into another age, even as this one continues on elsewhere, completely out of sync, as each region of the world plays out its own scene; its own politics and/or its own economic flows. Everywhere the poorest are attracted to the metropolis in greater and greater numbers, as their ultimate hope.

That is how, well before the year 2000, the feeling emerged of living in a time that has revealed itself to be in constant evolution, layered with successive contradictions. IIt was a time when beet fields were put up for sale, already checkered by high-speed routes which cut through the land in order to make way for future enclaves. It was an era that saw public efforts turn themselves over to private investment. Planning was discreetly put on the backburner and modern urbanism was slyly left to the wayside by all the European urban planning workshops. The HLM-subsidized housing projects were transformed into ghettos for the most disadvantaged citizens, and even if everything had already been tried in terms of city politics, rehabilitation, and architectural style, large-scale chaos still continued to take hold. Urban space was pushed to dizzying heights, and when the “global cities” described by Saskia Sassen appeared, they were the sign that we had already moved into a different era of the city.

Global commerce was accelerated by immaterial connections, and the necessity of quick returns on investment flourished in the short-term, circumventing all forms of urban planning in many countries. Compared to many others, our country is in a comfortable position, yet as each year goes by the economic crisis shows a different face. People’s time and energy are wasted, the air is unbreathable, public transport remains insufficient, hazards increase for those that are the least protected.

These things cannot be measured quantitatively. The big change has not just been in the shift into an urbanized majority, but in the overall upheaval of the world in the past sixty years. This has led to the appearance of an environmental consciousness, and the permanent state of flux that the world is—and, we hope, will continue to be—in. Because for those who act upon space, which is part of the urban phenomenon, we have to continue to modify, to attenuate, to revive, review, repair, reconstruct, link up, and live in these cities that grow much too quickly.

Stream : Do you feel that there has been a radical change in our relationship with space-time, particularly as a result of the omnipresence of technology?

Christian de Portzamparc : It has been a second revolution. Technology has increased the speed of mathematical calculations, of database management, of big numbers. With the Internet, with its cables under the oceans and our extraordinarily quick mastery of long-distance information flows, our relation to space has completely changed. Space is no longer the same because it is no longer our only medium. This transformation has been truly amazing. Coded by a language, the information that can be transmitted and stocked seems absolute and “sufficient” to fulfill the vital need for social exchange. The ideology of the times is information, because it reigns over communication, commerce, and the transmission of commands. Management, in short.

The first time we had ever used GPS in a rental vehicle was in Dallas, Texas, nearly twenty years ago. We had to get to a number of different addresses in the city, and everything sounded vastly simplified: “Next stop, turn right.” We were still seeing the city through our attempts to understand it spatially—so much so that if we wanted to drive towards what we saw, we found ourselves more often than not in contradiction with the commands of the GPS device. After having taken a number of mistaken exit ramps, we understood that we had to forget about any and all desire to locate ourselves within the city, as otherwise, we would get lost. We had to let ourselves be guided by the sound of the recorded voice, the arrow directed by a satellite that would lead us through the interlaced meshwork of high-speed motorways. Seeing the city was out of the question, we had to forget about orienting ourselves by way of our bodies.

With immaterial forms of communication, people are living a dichotomy, a rift even, between material and immaterial space. Nowadays, we live cities (and I use this term intentionally) as spaces with disjointed layers and dislocated structures—that’s the nature of the profound change in our relationship with space-time.

The successive levels of communicational progress are the result of the age-old human desire to overcome distance. In every era we have imposed our rules onto urban space, in that we have each changed our practices, be they from the wheel to the printing press, to trains, cars, telephones, or the Internet, in our time. Different territories are the result of the facilities that have been built up around such artifacts.

The industrial stage of mechanical speed overcame the friction of distance, set up the pipelines for motorways, and split up the remaining zones into enclaves. The immaterial communications phase seems to have eliminated distance altogether: the speed of exchanges increased and a new type of space was created: cyberspace. It sprung up around offices in urbanized areas that had otherwise fallen through the cracks. Despite their distance from city centers, and their lack of viability, neighborhoods arose where the city had created separations—obstructions and semi-ghettos. The fact that space was no longer the only medium from which to forge connections gave way to a transformation that could be qualified as a progressive “despatialization.” Big cities and metropolises are no longer continuous physical spaces—they ignore hierarchies and matters of physical proximity. We no longer speak of “nested scales,” as Michel Lussault would have it. Space is no longer a unifier.

Slab city © Christian de Portzamparc, AECDP

Looking on the bright side of things would mean thinking that this transformation of the urban-human-animal is unavoidable and that cyborgs are well-adapted creatures. Technology is, however, the last development in a long process that started with the acquisition of language, and then the ability to write. Neolithic humans, followed by Parisian pedestrians, have practiced and come to know the world in space, through a succession of proximities branching out through a broad spectrum of spaces, images, predispositions, and memorable sensations. People speak, they read—we are language-oriented beings.

All this, and today we have become technology-oriented beings! Yet the walker is still within us; recognizing addresses in the street in the same way we browse the Internet looking for one service or another.

The “cyber” being is still a spatial being. We cannot avoid walking, seeing, or hearing in exactly the same conditions as our ancestors did fifty thousand years ago. Today, however, we live in simultaneity with several epochs of human existence. The Neolithic, the industrial, and the virtual-cybernetic combine with, and contradict, one another. Faced with the immaterial genius of our era, however, our ability to work in physical space has been weighed down, slowed up, and become generally incompatible with the system of public finance that has weakened in every corner of the globe. Yet space is still a public matter. We can think that the essential spatial construction and infrastructure in the Île-de- France region around Paris has already been completed, and that it will be impossible to go back and change things in a few years to come. Things will change nonetheless—new, lighter lines will traverse the old and the built environment will be in constant transformation because we will always need material space. That is what the digital genius of our era will have to resolve.

The third age, Mobilities / Accessibilities © Christian de Portzamparc, AECDP

The life and death of the street

Stream : The overall approach to urban phenomena seems more and more difficult, given that there are so many significant issues. Do you think that we live in an era in which the notion of the “complex” has become the new paradigm, and has put into question the simplification of classic scientific approaches? What sorts of new conceptual tools do you think will be needed in order to understand the future of our cities?

Christian de Portzamparc :  “Complexity” in itself cannot be a paradigm, or an ideal reference model. It appears to us as a degree. In The Urban Revolution, in 1970, Henri Lefebvre wrote: “Today, the urban phenomenon astonishes us by its scale; its complexity surpasses the tools of our understanding and the instruments of practical activity. It serves as a constant reminder of the theory of complexification, according to which social phenomena acquire increasingly greater complexity.”

What is more complex than the street, for example? The street, which pieces together the distribution of air, light, energy, and water, and which provides for diverse types of circulation in addition to the legibility of addresses—in other words, the relation between everything and everything else. The street, which houses businesses, public services, and residences or offices; the street, which sets the boundary between the private and the public spheres, or which organizes the trade in real estate and property. It is a collective oeuvre, open to randomness and to the unknown future. It can be rebuilt and changed in pieces; it is multiplicity in its simplest unit.

"Rue qui assemble tout" © Christian de Portzamparc, AECDP

Our metropolis is a city whose space has been constructed according to the principles of the industrial method, which are comprised of simplifying and clarifying processes. That is why the street has been rejected. Le Corbusier declared its “death,” even before analyzing and deconstructing it, cutting up its complexity, and then isolating each of its functions. Each one was provided for: the need for movement, respiration, light, vegetation, and plant life.


"Rue déconstruite" © Christian de Portzamparc, AECDP

Home life, logistics, work, and play each had their special zone and way of being accounted for. Each was treated in a practical way, global in scope, perfectly adopted by the private economy and its sectors. Still, questions arise. We often speak about administrative complexity, or of the separation of work into public and private technical services that maintain, transform, and develop the metropolitan system and its networks. Each one has its own budget, schedule, and agenda.

They are like swimmers in lanes; each one separated from the last. Our cities rely upon sophisticated technical systems in order to function, and it is upon these vital techniques that action is programmed. We have seen different types of project appear without there being an overall urban planning initiative to bring them together; to make sure that they are cohesive enough to design for alternative forms of quality of life, as opposed to what is on offer in the city center.

The difficulty of thinking differently about—and acting on—our contemporary space lies in the ability to understand the interfaces that lie at the heart of the technical divisions between trades. The idea of urbanism itself forces us from the beginning to go through this process of understanding, but the technical trades themselves have their own sense of independence and inertia. We must go beyond their mode of working in order to access (or return to) a kind of complexity that is able to account for randomness. Only one action remains, and it requires us to rely upon the tools of our own era—one in which technical authorities and private communities use digital technology.

Man and the environment

Stream : Environmental pressure has led a certain number of the actors whom we have met to believe that we have entered the Anthropocene—a geological period during which humans have become the primary vector of evolution of the planet, and which requires us to rethink our relationship to the biosphere. In this context, how do you understand the abundance of metaphors of living organisms, from the organic to the metabolic, in the approaches to urban phenomena? Does this seem pertinent to you?

"Le Corbusier's new city", 1922-1925 © Christian de Portzamparc, AECDP

Christian de Portzamparc : Fresh out of the earthly garden, long before the Neolithic period, hominids saw nature as their immense home, their domain. The gods we found there were not all good, and we had to share: nature kept her share of hostility. Humans came to reassure themselves in future generations that they were a unique species, free and therefore radically distinct from nature. With the invention of geometry, humans discovered a visible realm that did not exist in nature and that was governed by abstract laws. To use a metaphor, this visible ream became the symbol of humans as unique beings in the face of the nature that surrounded them. Be it in Egypt or in Greece, ancient architecture is not organic, it represents an eternal notion of fixity, complete in its passion for the presence of humans as anti-natural forces. Later, Descartes set the agenda: master and exploit the planet as manifest destiny. The Anthropocene, in a word. An essential branch of modern architecture is in continuity with Antiquity and derives from this superb affirmation of the “otherness” of humans in the face of nature. Geometry is no longer that of the Greek temples, indeed; it is now focused on the object lifted from the ground. The new, independent object, stemming from the machine. We have a long tradition of anti-natural metaphors, and a few stark moments of assimilation into nature, such as art nouveau and a recent tendency, which is in drawings as much as in vocabulary.

Following the unfolding of the Anthropocene and the deft mastery with which the Earth was“expropriated” and “hijacked,” came the awareness that the Earth could one day be squandered. In his 1949 lectures on technology, Martin Heidegger asked questions about the threshold that humankind had crossed in its relationship with nature. For him, when humans made the transition from the windmill, which used natural energy, to the dam, which introduced the need to stock energy, this integral relationship had shifted. (One could, of course, ask if this question came up when thinking about gas chambers—he never did comment).

To speak of built forms as opposed to enumerating the marketing arguments of urban planning, two axes of meaning seem to coexist in our time. Architecture presents them according to two poetics: on one hand are the metaphors of difference—and even of opposition—between humans and nature, and all of the modern and classical tradition that is connected to Platonic geometries; and on the other, is the increasing occurrence of the image of unity and integration between humans and nature, with all its irregular and curved geometry, and its biological metaphors.

Stream : In the competition between metropolises around the world, cities must find strategies to maximize their attractiveness and their competitiveness. Based on your experience in Paris and Rio de Janeiro, cities that are so different and yet so rich with history, what vision must be developed in order to plan for intelligent and sustainable development while maintaining their level of attractiveness? What are their prospects?

Christian de Portzamparc : During the first phase of the “urban Big Bang,” one marker has flagged the way: urban planning. It has provided us with the confidence to finally master the city, far from what appeared as the random concatenation of building practices and materials of previous centuries, and it has meant having to take an authoritative stance on future realities. The real future and its share of unknown was negligible in this directive vision of planning according to immutable layout plans.

The major shift during this period of constant transformation was when time began to contradict the expected course of events. We navigate today in terms of the foreseeable future; we are afraid of tomorrow; our projections have slowed down. Yet we can go back to places and imagine forms of the future. First, confronted with “despatialization,” acting on the metropolis has meant an ambitious return to physical space; working with the materials themselves, with the territory and the region, and often on the infrastructures that make it livable. Naturally, this has implied a return to long-term action.

All this has meant taking care of the planet, ecologically speaking. Of great urgency for both metropolises is the redevelopment of their peripheries. We debate on the scale of territories, provinces, and regions, on the number of poles, on the possibility or the impossibility of multipolarity—but we have to think above and beyond that, to the ability to maintain the continuity of urban space. Public transport that does not close off spaces from one another must be built (aerial train lines), rail and road services must be combined, making use of clean engines. Paramount in this regard are hybrid thoroughfares, public spaces that link neighborhoods, and bridges and tunnels that keep enclaves from forming. Indeed, no one will walk for miles, but it is this continuous chain of life-lines that creates close-knit links, and in the end, the positive development of all neighborhoods, rich and poor alike.

(This article was published in Stream 03 in 2014.)