03 April 2013

Urban Identity

Basel design competition

An international competition on Urban Identity for the city of Basel, Switzerland has sparked me to think on the overall topic of identity.

The dictionary defines Identity as:
  • [mass noun]   The fact of being who or what a person or thing is:  i.e. "I want to develop a more distinctive architectural identity"
  • [as modifier] (of an object) serving to establish who the holder, owner, or wearer is by bearing their name and often other details such as signature or photograph: ie. an identity card.
  • A close similarity or affinity: an identity between the company's own interest and those of the local community.
Origin: Later 16th Century. In the sense "quality of being identical". From late Latin Identicas, from Latin idem "same".

Over this month, I will be developing ideas for a project to create/strengthen urban identity. Thinking of what identity means and how this concept relates to a particular city is important. Quite often attempts to increase urban identity are well thought by architects and planners but unfortunately never implemented or "lost in translation". 

Urban identity is a state of mind which lives with us and continues to develop over a life-time . It is certainly not something one could place overnight such as a piece of furniture - identity is a mental construct that takes place in the mind an built over years of inhabiting a place. Still, planners and politicians can provide environments conducive to develop strong identities mainly through public and social spaces but also street art (arguably the most utilitarian and tangible benefit of art).

Some cities develop a strong identity via their magnificent natural setup to start with, such as Rio de Janeiro, Sydney or Zurich others create a strong identity via their built form such as Dahka, Brasilia, Brasil or Barcelona or Bilbao.  Open areas or spaces can also eventuate into a strong motif for identity such as Central Park in Manhattan.

Urban identity factors can also be attributed the size and turbulence of a city. Places such as Mexico City, Sao Paulo or Tokyo have developed a strong identity on their largest chronic problem, the sheer size of megalopolis.

Melbourne, Australia has created a strong identity as the most liveable city on the planet. A place not particularly known for any remarkable landmarks, no breathtaking landscapes, a large town a small metropolis, with a narrow and muddy river Yarra, an orthogonal (translated into boring) road system, an attempt to a land mark Federation Square a building voted on a number of times on popular polls as the "ugliest building on earth". Melbourne has created a strong identity amongst its citizens of being the most liveable city one earth (perhaps with the assistance of international polls such as The Economist).

San Francisco has created a strong identity based on its transportation and infrastructure systems such as the tram and the Golden Gate and Oakland Bay Bridge. Venice, for its canals and gondolas. Mexico City with its VW-Beetle taxis. London with its double-decker bus... and even Curitiba, Brasil with its peculiar bus stops and sustainable transport system.

ICOMOS, the UNESCO branch for the listing, cataloguing and protecting of sites and monuments has introduced in recent years the category of non-tangible heritage where customs, traditions, festivals are also protected along with built heritage.  Such activities provide a strong identity to places. It comes to mind Rio, Salvador or Luzern carnivals. Sports and other cultural events.

The reality is that Identity is not the result of a single act or place. Identity is formed and forged over a mixture of history, events and built form. Built form can provide a stage to cultivate identity and this is some food for thought for my next design competition.

Guillermo Aranda-Mena 
Zurich 3 April, 2013

P.S. Since I wrote this blog entry I keep thinking of what really glues people together into a strong identity, especially nowadays that often have multicultural towns and cities. Sports is something that glues people, Melbourne for instance has a strong passion and identity with its own invention, the Australian Football League "AFL"....  the sports precint by the Yarra its architectural stage (and a true weekly carnival) with no doubt an excellent legacy which continued developing since the 1956 Olympic games hosted in Melbourne.

Reference: http://prixtoffol.ch/urban-identity
Images below taken at the 2013 Luzern Carnival.

Guillermo Aranda-Mena © 2013