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Why is the image of the city a central point of contestation in property development processes?

Why is the image of the city a central point of contestation in property development processes?

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Ireland) Competition by Petra Skyvova. Originally submitted for BASocSc at University College Dublin, with lecturer Dr. Michael Punch in the category of Modern Cultural Studies
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Ireland) Competition by Petra Skyvova. Originally submitted for BASocSc at University College Dublin, with lecturer Dr. Michael Punch in the category of Modern Cultural Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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SOC30160 Cities in a Global Context – Essay topic 4
Why is the image of the citya central point of contestation in property development processes?
‘What is the city but the people?’(
Coriolanus)Cities are not just hollow capsules of streets, roads and buildings. They are sociallyconstructed and as such they represent a variety of lives and multiple identities. Every city isdiverse in its inhabitants, from the wealthy, influential ones to the poor and marginalized.However, all these people with their subjective memories and ideas have their respectiveattachments to their city whether their realize it or not. The images of the city each of these people may have in their minds will not be identical. City is art, a theatre of humanity(Mumford, 1938); it evokes emotions and stimulates social action.In my essay I will discuss how the city image can become the focal point of contestation in planning processes. I will draw a number of analogies and comparisons fromtwo very different cities and disconnected examples. First example is the long-lastingdisputed over planning permission to development the Bank Junction area in Central London.Second example is the public response to the winning design for the new Czech NationalLibrary in Prague. The two cities, London and Prague, seemingly have very few commoncharacteristics; however there are distinctive connections and similarities in the underlyingreasons, which have driven both arguments. National character, issues of identity, and thesymbolic strength of the city’s image are at the heart of both contestations. I will discusswhat the city image represents and why is often becomes such a contagious issue in planning processes and redevelopment proposals.
Faces and forces shaping the city image:
The city image is not an accidental or random creation. It is a physical representation of thecity’s content; its inhabitants and their ideas, thoughts and beliefs. The spires of Gothiccathedrals pointing towards the sky in austere piety were the images of their times.Baroque monumentality with its ornate and sumptuous style was regarded as theexpression of the state consolidation of power. The arrogance of its ornate and voluptuousforms, resplendent in their physical might was its distinguishing mark.
SOC30160 – Cities in Global Context  Petra Skyvova 07763379
The design of the former Soviet Union era was also prone to idealizing physicaldeterminism. Its monumental, menacing and large-than-life buildings were mimicking theinflated ego of the system. In the former USSR more than anywhere else physical form had been equated with political ideology and propaganda (Angotti, 2000:112-113).The Berlin Wall was not just a barrier drawing a line between two places. It was asymbol of two worlds, so close, yet so faraway.As ideas change so do cities. The Eiffel Tower originally expressed the symbol of revolutionary modernism, but as time went by it entered the contemporary realm of memoryand became part of the nostalgic architectural poetry of Paris (Benton-Short in Hall et al,2008: 91).The shape of cities shifts according to the ideas within and conflict arises from competinginterests and differing claims to the symbolic ownership of the city. There are always manystakeholders involved in the planning process. Each of these comes to the planning boardwith an agenda and objectives of their own. These reflect the many layers of cities, wherehuman creativity clashes with pragmatic business enterprise. City planning is the applicationof human consciousness to the building and preservation of human settlements. It is anobjective process which is inseparably linked with the material development of society.(Angotti,1993: 166). The city provides an interface between individual experience andcultural representation of that experience (Benjamin in Savage et al., 2003: 145). Cities havemany layers and planning has to attempt to transcendent them all without offending mostsensibilities, because there is more involved than just function, profit or infrastructure.
London and Prague: ‘It’s all in the heart of the beholder’
Every city contains something symbolic and untouchable as e
ach generation leaves arepository of civic and national memory, something tangible that defines virtues, celebratesheroes and speaks of the great events that built that society
(Benton-Short in Hall et al, 2008:87). The above statement well supports the events surrounding the planning disputes over thedevelopment of the Bank Junction area in central London that lasted for over forty years. Thearea proposed for redevelopment has often been referred to as ‘the heart of the empire’. TheBank Junction was viewed as the historical monument to the core of the old British colonial power and it was argued that the distinctive skyline and ‘townscape’ of the City would bedamaged by the proposed new development. ‘The Heart of the Empire’ as depicted on the
SOC30160 – Cities in Global Context  Petra Skyvova 07763379
1904 painting by Neils M. Lund was the most powerful symbol of the past and it becameclear that there was much more at stake than the physical destruction of old Victoriandevelopment to make space for a state-of-the-art office complex. Something else would bedamaged in the process - the sense of pride and arrogant superiority once so ingrained in thenational subconscious of the English. Here was an almost classic example of planning proposal in conflict with the politics of memory and identity.The process was only resolved in recent history, because the image of London hasgiven way to a new redefinition and transformation of the city into a modern global financialmetropolis. The historical conservationists were finally defeated. Yet, the forty years periodof planning contestations and arguments was a necessary time needed for the nation (andespecially the political elite) to adjust to the loss of the empire and become comfortable withthe renewed regional alignments to Europe as the financial and trade crossroads of theglobalized world (Jacobs in Massey 19999: 138-139). The result is a testament to thefollowing statement.
‘To save itself, every great city must rebuild its centre.
(Hall, 2002: 224)In May 2006 an international competition was announced to devise an architectural design for the new depository of Czech National Library. The winning project, chosen from over sevenhundred entries from all over the world was submitted by Future Systems Architects and itsfounder and renowned architect Jan Kaplicky. If the project was realized it would have beenKaplicky’s first building in his homeland, from which he emigrated in the autumn of 1968.The design’s octopus-like fluid shape in green, yellow and white colour scheme of theouter façade, with additional purple spots and a large viewpoint window (‘The Eye abovePrague’) caused quite a stir. The public has been shocked, enchanted and divided. The mainopposition of the design was led by the country’s current president Vaclav Klaus along withthe Mayor of Prague Pavel Bem. A heated debate ensued and occupied the public discoursewith comments and petitions for months. Kaplicky’s design was simultaneously ridiculed and praised. It was nick-named ‘the green blob’ by the opposition, to which its supportersresponded with the affectionate ‘our pet-octopus’. A strong political undercurrent enteredinto the matter and this reaffirmed the underlying symbolic nature of the debate and inevitablydivided the public even more.The design, a frankly daring creation, for a city famed by its uniquely preserved collection of historical architecture, brought out memories of the nation’s collective past on the surface
SOC30160 – Cities in Global Context  Petra Skyvova 07763379

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