BY Julian Myers in Reviews | 06 JUN 07
Featured in
Issue 108

Shrinking Cities

BY Julian Myers in Reviews | 06 JUN 07

After the failure of the great urban resistances of the 1960s, the theorist Henri Lefebvre wrote in La production de l’espace (1974) of a ‘despairing attitude’ that was sweeping the radical left. ‘It is argued’, he writes, ‘that only bulldozers or Molotov cocktails can change the dominant organization of space, that destruction must come before reconstruction.’ As it happens, the nihilists needed only to wait. Over the next 40 years the ‘absolute city system’ they loathed would begin to unravel of its own accord. No bombs or bulldozers necessary.

A project supported by the German Kultur-stiftung des Bundes (Federal Cultural Foundation), ‘Shrinking Cities’ is a collective of ethnologists, architects, artists and others, led by German curator Philipp Oswalt, that aims to describe one aspect of this great unravelling: the rapid depopulation of industrial cities in the ‘global north’ because of disinvestment, deindustrialization, ‘white flight’ and other large-scale superstructural changes. Their project investigates four regions emblematic of this dramatic shift – Halle/Leipzig, Detroit, Manchester/Liverpool and Ivanovo – focusing on what sorts of life are lived in such fragmented places, and on how new spaces generated might be put to use. Empty factories and tower blocks represent catastrophe and dispossession for this group, but also a crucial opening of possibilities for reconstruction, cultural practice and per-formative ‘interventions’ (thereby marking their difference from Lefebvre’s disappointed and nihilistic radicals).

Staged in Detroit’s Museum of Contemporary Art in association with Cranbrook Art Museum, ‘Shrinking Cities’ put forward some of these studies and practices in the form of an exhibition – the first outside Germany. The Cranbrook exhibition (subtitled ‘International Research’) took a sociological, quasi-documentary approach, presenting population diagrams, marketing schemes, maps and graphs (such as Project Office Philipp Oswalt's, World Map of Shrinking Cities, 1950–2000, 2006; Atlas of Shrinking Cities, 2002–6), documentary photographs (Bas Princen, Palech Cultural Center, 2003–4; Nikolas Brade, View Over the Mansfelder Land, 2002; Stan Douglas, Detroit Photos, 1997–9), dozens of documentary videos (including Albrecht Schäfer’s Urban Scan, 2003–4 and iCUE/Kyong Park’s vitriolic Detroit: Making It Better for You, 2000) and modest, illustrative installations (Andreas Siekmann, Collateral in Hand…, 2005; Sergei Bratkov, A Glass of Soup, 2004; Scott Hocking, Pictures of a City: Scrappers, 2001–4). Their ‘research’ was sometimes visionary in nature: Mitch Cope presented Fortifications Detroit (2004), a drawing of an imagined neon embankment – almost like a blast shield – separating dilapidated Detroit from its wealthy, consumerist suburban surround.

MOCAD presented ‘Interventions’, an altogether more whimsical set of productions. Several works examined or enacted forms of urban agriculture. In Cow – The Udder Way (2004–5), several ‘Shrinking Cities’ principals set loose a herd of cows in Toxteth, a disadvantaged district of Liverpool that had once sustained small-scale dairy farms, simply ‘to see what would happen’. Photographs show the bovines eating grass outside a factory or wandering through a car park as city kids go wild with excitement. Ingo Vetter’s Detroit Industries – Urban Agriculture (2003–4) showed scrappy gardens growing food among ‘inner-city’ projects and sidewalks – a DIY version of the green fields Le Corbusier once pictured outside the tower blocks of his Ville Radieuse. With the ‘city system’ of Detroit in a state of extravagant decay (and commercial supermarkets relocated to the suburban periphery) hardy city dwellers find other ways to get by.

‘Interventions’ also included a few key works from earlier in the 20th century. Their (sometimes ironic) Utopianism had a palpable presence in the show. There was Cedric Price’s plan for transforming a disused network of porcelain kilns and factories in north Staffordshire into a new cybernetic infrastructure of applied education, open to local workers as well as students disabused of Britain’s élite universities (Potteries Thinkbelt, 1963–6). Prints of Oswald Mathias Ungers’ The Green Urban Archipelago (1977) made the fragmentation of deindustrialization of postwar Berlin a virtue – making the chaos of whatever empty sheds and sudden boulevards had not yet been demolished into a sort of creative principle.

Continuous Conveyor Belt City (1972), one of Superstudio’s ‘Twelve Ideal Cities’, imagined ‘a grand factory’ in a state of constant growth and decay, where ‘luckily, it is not possible to live in the same house for more than four years after its construction; after this period, objects, accessories and the structure of the houses themselves decay, become unusable and soon after collapse’. Fighting, fucking and crazed picnicking were to be included as a matter of course. Were these strange schemes, now so definitively part of the past, to be seen as missed opportunities, bad jokes or negative examples? A banner for ‘Shrinking Cities’ (designed by Bastien Aubry and Dimitri Broquard, 2005) answered with more questions: ‘Can cities die? Are ruins beautiful? Is vacancy a luxury? Is this utopia?’

Julian Myers

Julian Myers is an art historian based in San Francisco. He is an assistant professor at California College of the Arts.