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Jeremy Melvin, curator of the World Architecture Festival and programme director at the Royal Academy of Arts, explores the relationship between culture and commerice in the history of great cities

16 min read

Over the last 30 years, more and more cities have shown they can recover from the havoc the first phase of industrialisation in the 19th century wreaked on their urban form, culture and social life.

As manufacturing became so noxious and demanded so much space for storing and moving goods, entire urban areas grew up where individual people were little more than functional ciphers for processes over which they had no control. Anyone rich enough to choose would tend to move to districts preferably up wind and up stream, but their lives increasingly needed the power, processes and goods that emanated from these nether zones.

But cities can recover from this blight. As industry has changed its methods and locations, people have again gained the ascendancy. And where only a few cities depended on visitors for their economic health, now they are seen more and more as the answer to factory flight, and visitors can just as easily include people from other parts of the same city as from other parts of the world.

Northern European cities, such as Oslo, Copenhagen and Reykjavik, are among the most effective exploiters of these new opportunities. It may be because they are essentially strong in economic terms, or that their settings mean they all have former docklands close to their centres, or even the simple, inherent drama of their settings, but they are pointing the way towards new strands in the age-old relationship between culture and cities.

Copenhagen, where the former docklands are both larger as a proportion of the city and closer to its centre than London, has reconceptualised its own extensive waterfront. The first result was the Schmidt Hammer Lassen’s “black diamond” extension to the Royal Library opened in 1999, Henning Larsen’s Opera House in 2005, followed by Lundgaard and Tranberg’s Royal Playhouse in 2008.

The Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik

The Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik

All face – or in the case of the playhouse project into – the harbour, marking the waterfront as a distinctly cultural district. But unlike London’s South Bank half a century earlier, these institutions are placed at intervals along the embankment and integrated both into their immediate surroundings and into the broader urban context.

The Opera House, for example, lies on an axis with the historic Amalienborg Palace across the water; its sides were deliberately blank in anticipation of development on either side, and to its rear are formal naval sheds which, among other organisations, provide the home for a school of architecture.

All these institutions are woven into waterfront development, which includes offices and homes, slowly building a vision for a 21st-century city were culture, living and working are all part of an integrated whole, rather than separate layers or zones. The implications for an inclusive society are obvious.

Each of these architects did not just opt for contemporary design: the sites and, to some extent, the programmes of major cultural facilities demanded innovation. Until then, Copenhagen was largely a small-scale city, its central district focused on one side of the harbour and most of its cultural institutions followed 19th-century patterns.

Even its modernist buildings, such as Arne Jacobsen’s legendary SAS hotel, were marked by the quality and human scale of their detailing. Faced with larger sites and seen from longer distances, these new buildings adopted bold and powerful forms, with robust and eye-catching materials. Over time they may become as familiar an image of Copenhagen as the Little Mermaid.

Even more innovative in terms of rethinking its building typology is Snohetta’s Oslo Opera House. It too occupies a former industrial site on the Oslo Fjord and this location directly inspired its most striking external feature, the sense of an object rising mysteriously from the water.

At a glance it does not reveal itself as an opera house or even a theater and the visitors swarming over its inclined, marble-clad planes would trouble opera-goers whose attitude to their art is rooted in Richard Wagner’s quasi-religious sense of pilgrimage.

But in an era when opera can only exist with state subsidies, it is arguably far more appropriate to find a way of folding the rarefied space and experience of opera into a democratised and participative public realm.

Interior  of the Harpa Concert Hall

Interior of the Harpa Concert Hall

Ever since Frank Gerry’s Guggenheim Museum opened in Bilbao in 1997, it has been clear that cultural buildings can help to regenerate derelict industrial infrastructure and reposition entire cities.

Well into the 1990s, the Basque capital was politically troubled and economically challenged, but its visitor numbers shot up and its acts of political violence tapered off. About 80 per cent of these visitors spend some time – and money – at the museum, so its presence brings significant benefit to the urban economy.

But the underlying reasons for the success of this strategy – whether in north or south Europe, or anywhere else in the world – lie in the rediscovery of the prime purpose of cities as meeting points, than in showy design of “iconic” buildings. The great urbanism Jane Jacobs understood this better than most architects.

The Economy of Cities – a follow-up to her classic Life and Death of Great American Cities, which broadens its geographical scope and deepens its historical range – argued that cities pre-dated agriculture, precisely because they provided the motive and practical possibility for exchanging wild animals and seeds, which led to their domestication.

For Jacobs, whose sympathies always lay with communities and individuals rather than corporations of state or commercial power, cities provided mental as well as physical space for innovation. Constantly bifurcating streams in the division of labour encourage new methods and approaches, where failures could be re-absorbed and successes nurtured within the continuum of economic and social life.

Jacobs was not especially interested in art or architecture, but she had a great deal to say about urban life. In her example of the mass-produced bra, which originated as by-product of bespoke dressmaking, she showed how creative commercial innovation can come from the sort of urban society that often fosters artistic developments.

The sort of interaction she describes between thinking, making, innovating and living in general is reminiscent of F.A. von Hayek’s characterisation of a market-based economy, where numerous tiny pieces of information, mediated through a myriad of small-scale commercial transactions, all feed into a commercial system, which is able to respond to social demand more quickly and efficiently than planned economies.

It is also a reminder of Giorgio Vasari’s perception that competition and a demand for innovation underlay the Florentine Renaissance as much as the inherent artistic superiority of his Tuscan compatriots. There are, of course, many other ways of expanding the point that the value of cities lies in being places for exchange and interaction, but these very brief references set out a possible route for exploring how cities exchange culture as much as commerce, and that the interaction between the two could be fundamental to urban life.

Cities are both the subjects and objects of creative activity. They provide space, an audience and a market for artists and their work, and they are examples of creative activity in their own right. If cities are works of art, they are collective productions, where chance, accident and contradiction are at least as important as direct individual intention. But that heightens their significance as artefacts to the discourse of contemporary art. The roots of this characterisation of cities go back much further than Duchamp.

The great 17th-century English political theorist Thomas Hobbes declared at the beginning of Leviathan that “by Art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMON-WEALTH, or STATE, (in Latina CIVITAS)”. In using the word “art”, Hobbes was not anticipating all the connotations Duchamp would give to it, and we have to extrapolate from the Latin word “civitas” its English derivations of civil, civility and city, but his sense that there is a relationship between conscious intellectual intention and social behaviour and organisation is clear.

The number of visitors to The Southbank Centre has gone up from 27m to 29m in the past year

Hobbes did not explicitly make the connection between the abstractions of a state and the physical spatial structure of a city, but he was writing at time when architects and builders were beginning to evolve specific building types and spaces for commerce. His ideas for society were part of the intellectual milieu that informed the rebuilding of the City of London after the Great Fire of 1666.

The political scientist C.B. Macpherson goes as far as labelling Hobbes a theorist of the bourgeois state and he certainly had to address the ascendancy of commerce over the monarch. For Hobbes the relationship between “art” and commerce may have been implicit, but his concept of the civitas is at least a possible tool to consider the relationship between art, commerce and society in general.

Even before Hobbes, architects and city builders had begun to address ways of providing the functional spaces needed for trade and the sort of imagery which might appropriately represent it; in other words, how to translate the civitas into physical form.

In the Dutch town of Haarlem that meant putting a carved stone figure of a steer’s head over the entrance to the meat market. Antwerp and slightly later London, by the time of Hobbes’ birth in 1588, developed the idea of an “exchange”, a space where merchants could exchange ownership of goods without those goods being present. Trade began to take on a degree of abstraction and the effects on urban form were profound, but slow to evolve.

No one understood how to work the relationship between urban architecture and capitalism better than Nathan Meyer Rothschild, the founder of his family’s presence in London. Arriving in the City in 1809, he deliberately chose to base himself in a narrow alleyway called St Swithin’s Lane, but every day, at a regular time, he walked the short distance to the Royal Exchange where he placed himself in front of the same column. He used the spatial structure of the City to control his visibility and his accessibility to commercial interaction.

Everyone knew when and where to find him. N.M. Rothschild & Sons, the house he founded, has remained in St Swithin’s Lane ever since though subsequent redevelopments, notably and explicitly in the most recent by Rem Koolhaas, which deliberately upgrades the public space around the new building, opens a long-concealed view of Wren’s great church of St Stephen Walbrook, and provides a high-level hospitality suite where Rothschild directors and their guests can observe the City from above, without being seen themselves. The contrast to Nathan Meyer’s use of the City’s spatial structure could not be stronger.

No one understood the relationship between architecture and capitalism better than Nathan Meyer Rothschild, who placed himself in front of the same column at London's Royal Exchange every day

No one understood the relationship between architecture and capitalism better than Nathan Meyer Rothschild, who placed himself in front of the same column at London’s Royal Exchange every day

In the early-19th century, new technologies for transport and manufacture began their influence on urban form that would give most cities in the development world the basic form they still have. Steam ships, railways and vast iron-framed warehouses intensified the separation between trading goods and the location of the goods themselves.

Civil engineering superseded both architecture and handcraft, and posed as many aesthetic challenges to artists and commentators as they posed social and economic challenges to politicians. Developments in commerce made Hobbes’ notion of the civitas, with its implied connection between “art” and social organisation increasingly hard to maintain. Architects would continue to struggle with varying degrees of success to represent and provide the physical needs for exchanges and the offices which supported them, but very rarely ventured into the forbidding territory of industrialisation and infrastructure.

In retrospect, the era of the industrial city is a relatively short historical episode, but its impact on urban form and the possibilities for urban life are vast. Indeed bringing formerly industrial parts of cities into the public urban realm – making them function as part of the civitas – is the biggest challenge facing most conurbations in the developed world. London set an early precedent with its South Bank Centre, a heavily bombed industrial area designated as an arts district in Sir Patrick Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan of 1944, and developed in various stages during the 1950s and the 1960s.

But, when conceiving the Hayward Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall in the 1960s, the Greater London Council made the fundamental error of excluding all forms of activity that were not entirely cultural: no shops, no cafes and no restaurants as to have them would detract from the “pure experience” of art.

Opinions may be divided about the architectural quality of these buildings, but even the finest architects would have struggled to bring them to life with these conditions, which fly in the face of the purpose of cities as points for meeting and interaction, where chance encounters between people, products and ideas can help them to make the leap from one sector to another.

It was almost as if Richard Wagner’s vision for the Bayreuth Festival, with its quasi-religious neglect for physical satisfaction so as to obtain the highest level of mental fulfilment, was translated to the bank of the Thames, though the GLC panjandrums would have been most uncomfortable with Wagner’s politics. With the advantage of hindsight, this exclusivity can be seen to be a barrier to making the South Bank work as part of the city as opposed to a cultural ghetto.

After numerous failed proposals, a consensus is emerging around the need to integrate commercial space, at least shops and restaurants, around the cultural facilities, and the number of visitors to the whole centre has gone up from 27 million to 29 million in the past year. Bringing culture and commerce together has helped to reconstruct the civitas.

For most architects, regenerating the city is very close to nurturing and reinvigorating the civitas. But Richard Rogers takes this a stage further.

For him the public realm, not individual buildings, is the key. Buildings need to be flexible enough to respond to whatever technological and social change may occur during the sustainable life-cycle of the building fabric, but not to suggest or impose particular patterns of use. This helps to explain why the Pompidou Centre in Paris has those vast uninterrupted floor-plates where, in theory, curators, performers and artists could interact and redefine their own and each other’s artistic practices.

These new practices would ripple through the building and beyond, across the piazza and into the streets and alleyways of the Marais. Commerce is perhaps not an explicit part of this equation, but what brings the public realm to life are the numerous tiny interactions, which even if no money is involved, recall Hayek’s characterisation of a healthy market, where a constant flow of information rather than dictat drives its development.

From this viewpoint, the physicalities of architecture and the boundaries of legislation have complementary roles as guidance for setting out opportunities rather than prohibitive restraints.

Above all, culture and commerce originate in human activity and instead of being embedded in legal codes or mute buildings. These social constructs can be representations and catalysts of new forms of activity, but are not those activities themselves.

The relationship between culture, the public realm and the market becomes clearer in another project which Rogers’ firm Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners is about to complete in the City of London, the Leadenhall Building. It is, on the face of it, as uncultural a project as could be, a giant speculative office building. But, at its ground level, it is one of the City’s largest public spaces that expands immediate public realm and provides an amenity for Lloyd’s building, design by the Richard Rogers Partnership 30 years ago.

This new ability to create public realm within a commercial design brief, coupled with the trend for City institutions, such as the Bank of England and Rothschild’s, to include museums of their own history, identifies a trend in the relationship between architecture, commerce and culture which could be more profound if less glamorous than if every northern European port-city built itself an opera house in its former harbour.

Detroit’s filing for bankruptcy on July 18, with debts of up to $20 billion, might appear to be the final stage in its apparently terminal decline. The city, where Henry Ford and Alfred Sloan’s General Motors paid wages and made products, which helped to bring about the mass consumer society, has sunk from the tenth to eighteenth largest metropolis in the US, and postal workers trying to cover its thinning population run the gauntlet of 20,000 stray dogs.

At ground level the Leadenhall Building offers one of the City of London's larges public spaces

At ground level the Leadenhall Building offers one of the City of London’s larges public spaces

But despite owing the sort of sum that would cause the eurozone to quake, there are signs of life and these depend to some extent on rediscovering Detroit’s history and culture. The lavish Art Deco architecture of its downtown district is attracting investment, visitors and residents, resulting in the renovation of long-neglected landmarks, such as the Cadillac Hotel and David Whitney Building.

Architecture also played an important part in its success in the early 20th century. Its leading architect was Albert Kahn, who could knock out a mock English manor or neo-colonial suburban home for automobile makers, while adapting the High Renaissance to high rise for their downtown offices, and pushing industrial functionalism for their factories beyond anything that his European counterparts achieved.

This ‘inconsistency’ may have contributed to his exclusion from standard histories of modernist architecture, but he did provide the spaces for Ford to apply Taylorism to manufacturing, for Sloan’s executives to match standard products with a vast range of choice, and justify Detroit’s wartime soubriquet of “the arsenal of democracy” as well-paid American workers outstripped in quality and quantity the regimented societies of Germany and Japan.

Some of his iconic buildings, such as the Packard Factory of 1903, the first to benefit from the increased scale and fire resistance of reinforced concrete rather than timber, remain derelict and others have been demolished.

But reinvigorating such sites is meat and drink to imaginative architecture schools. This sort of thinking may well be what the corporate slate of consultants, accountants and lawyers, currently charged with bringing the city back to health, need.