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things 17-18
spring 2004
on the road to where?
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John Weich
Roads to freedom

Mobility: A Room with a View
Edited by Francine Houben and Luisa Maria Calabrese
Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2003
448 pages, EUR 35,00

We’re in big trouble, very big trouble. This much is clear from Mobility: A Room with a View. The room referred to in the title is, ostensibly, the car window, and the view from that window is pretty grim. Worse, if things don’t change that view is going to get a whole lot grimmer.

To set the score straight right from the start, this tome, which is published in conjunction with the first International Architecture Biennale in Rotterdam, has little in common with E.M. Forster’s witty little classic about middle-class Brits travelling abroad. If pressed, I could probably compare the two books on the virtue of the word ‘travel’ alone and survive. But there’s a world of difference between travel and mobility – the difference between missing your Easyjet connection at Paris Orly and suffering a six-hour daily work-home commute in Jakarta. Missing your flight is a drag, but living in the tropics and spending your life in darkness ranks among the worst fates imaginable. Mobility undoubtedly empathises with the former, but its nearly 450 pages focus on narrating the perceptions of a commuting culture. Leisure travel barely warrants a footnote.

Mobility originated as a study of the Dutch freeway system. More specifically, the 150-kilometer ring road that bobs and weaves its way through Holland’s Randstadt, a delta metropolis comprising the cities of Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Utrecht and The Hague. Under the curatorship of Francine Houben, a Dutch architect and founding partner of Mecanoo Architects, the study ended up encompassing eight countries, nine so-called ‘world cities’ – Los Angeles, Tokyo, Beijing, the Pearl River Delta, Jakarta, Beirut, Budapest, the Ruhr area and Mexico City – eleven universities, 1,000 participants and 1200 km of mobility routes. The choice of cities is a random conurbation to say the least, a judgement that sticks to the end; the link between these cities is never convincingly clarified other than the fact that each has a local authority or international school of architecture willing to supply facts, install cameras onto automobiles and deconstruct a stretch of local road. Be that as it may, it is this jumble of first-, second- and even third-tier cities that keeps you reading to the end.

Graphics and facts rarely function as drivers of narratives, but in a study more interested in moving civil engineers and politicians than it is consumers this approach is de rigueur. Each chapter begins with a few facts to set the mood, such as estimated economic loss caused by tailbacks ($0.8 billion in the Randstadt; $400,000/day in Jakarta), total length of LA freeways (34,000 km) and the disheartening growth of individual car ownership in Beijing (22.5 per cent). With these statistics, the editors want to instigate and catalyse discourse and, ideally, bridge the chasm between architects, road contractors and urban developers, precisely those professions that have the power to transform driving into a more aesthetic experience. The statistics are supported by a bevy of student snapshots, demographic, highway and metro maps, sketches, aerial photography, digital imagery and photographs nabbed from historic archives. The pictures and 20-point font captions alone are enough to move even the most impassive traingoer to conclude that something has to be done about the current incoherence, infrastructure contamination and visual formlessness dominating mobility landscapes.

A few examples. After a half century of unmitigated horizontal growth the Los Angeles freeway system no longer enjoys the luxury of real estate to continue its crash course of expansion. The dense network is already pressing up against suburban neighborhoods, and heavy seismic activity rules out vertical lane stacking. The freeway has reached critical mass. Efforts to encourage light rail, bus and rail alternatives are noble but largely ignored; 91 per cent of the population still travels alone in their cars. The only real solution to then is to encourage people to stay home or close to home, preferably in one of the many edge cities that will have to be built to accommodate the explosive population influx still to come. To solve its congestion, Jakarta introduced a three-in-one policy (no less than three people to each car) during morning rush hour, but instead of dissolving traffic it conjured rent-a-kids, students and homeless who trade their corporeal car presence for a free ride or cash. A similar policy in Mexico City that prohibited cars from driving on certain days based on their licence plate numbers led to an exponential increase of car rentals and second car purchases. Contemporary society is unwilling or unable to make profound choices between transportation modes, and the historically independent approach to infrastructure planning has become obsolete. That much is clear.

What isn’t clear is how to tackle these pressing issues. Mobility’s greatest attribute is not that it provides a blueprint to future mobility. On the contrary, it asks more questions than it answers. Sorely lacking are pages dedicated to conceptual solutions, however far-fetched, to provide an indication, any indication, that all is not lost. If for nothing else, to give us hope. Architects – particularly in the Netherlands (MVDRV, UN Studio, et al.) – are CAD geeks and this was the perfect platform for them to entertain us with their visions. Moreover, not every city was up to the task. Whereas the essays on the Randstadt, the Pearl River Delta and Los Angeles excel, those on Beijing and Budapest are dullish both in terms of the amount of information they provide and how they present it. Maybe it is a semantics thing, but a sentence like the following on Budapest is a killjoy: ‘Metaphorically seen, exaggerated mobility bears the dangers of remaining on the surface, speeding away in the smoothest, least dense medium, loosing the depth of life.’ Mobility is strongest when it avoids generalisms in favour of empirical data.

Because you can judge a book by its cover, a few words on the layout. Mobility is wrapped in the type of simple, understated elegance of a Real Madrid shirt, and therefore looks good on the bookshelf without usurping it. The creative use of fonts and colours inject coherence to what I can only assume was a snafu of data and pictures pouring in from eight countries. At times, however, the designers collapsed under the weight of their Macintoshes. The page layout of the Beijing and Budapest sections are as uneventful as the texts themselves, whereas the dwarfish font used for Mexico City had me moiling over the text like a purblind old man. This is less a critique than it sounds; the layout habitually lends a dose of frivolity to a topic that lacks professional sport appeal.

For the rest, this book’s inherent value is the role as heartbreaker of mobility myths, some of which have been debunked before but many of which have not. Those who are convinced that George Haussman transformed the French capital solely to deter vigilantes and quell civil upheavals will be interested to know that the boulevards of Paris were actually part of an ongoing urban renewal initiated by Napoleon III to beautify the city. Another one: Hitler did not invent the Autobahn but was the first to make its construction state priority. And: America’s freeway culture was less a repercussion of Ford than of military prerogative. In the immediate post-First World War period, the US Government conceived the idea of transcontinental roads and fluid intercity connections so as to be able to mobilize an army across the continent. The Department of Defence closely monitored the construction of this National System of Interstate and Defence Highways and made sure that the end product was suitable for potential wartime needs.

Mobility also shines as a lexicon of culture-specific peculiarities. For example, that license plates comprise seven digits because that is the maximum number humans can reliably remember, or that Japanese electronic gadgets are developed to be used in tightly packed (Japanese) trains. The book is full of information you probably didn’t know, didn’t think you needed to know, but which will make you the star of any erudite cocktail gathering. And for that it deserves a prize.

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John Weich is a journalist and writer who has yet to publish a serious work of fiction but is not yet fretting it. Enjoying the spoils of dual American-Dutch citizenship, he recently abandoned his post as travel editor of Wallpaper* Magazine in London and gladly moved back to his home in Amsterdam where he is working on that serious work of fiction as well as contributing regularly to Blueprint, Grafik, Surface, the Daily Telegraph and the Toronto Globe & Mail.
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Image at top of page taken from this visual tribute to St Petersburg

things 17-18, Spring 2004

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