Category Archives: Geography

Braudels Donkey – Historians and the Mediterranean as a Political Project

Design as Politics’ professor Wouter Vanstiphout has recently contributed to Harvard’s New Geographies magazine about The Mediterranean. The article is now turned into one of our own publications. Available here, especially for you!

The Mediterranean region, at the intersection of three continents, is one of the most important areas on earth–culturally, politically, and ecologically. In the article, Wouter looks through the eyes of the French historian Fernand Braudel towards recent political and financial developments, and wonders: what unites the Mediterranean? What can Braudel teach u about the region? And what about our ‘own’ European cities?

Electoral geography by Josse de Voogd

For our graduation studio “We the people – Democracy, Architecture and the City”, we organized a series of workshops and lectures from professionals in the field. For the first session we invited Josse de Voogd – an independent researcher on electoral geography – who gave us a fresh, new perspective on the relation between voting behavior and the built environment:

The electoral map of the Netherlands shows a multi-colored mosaic of different regions and neighbourhoods with their specific voting behaviour. Although the Netherlands is an egalitarian country, there is a remarkable segregation when it comes to voting behaviour and to issues like lifestyle and education. The planned nature of Dutch urbanism leads to clearly recognizable areas that attract specific people. For example, almost every city has a nineteenth-century ring around the old core and almost everywhere these gentrified quarters, with their façade plants, hip cafés and carrier bikes, are the strongholds of the green and social liberal parties. Simultaneously, shrinking regions in the periphery of the country and declining earlier postwar neighbourhoods are the breeding grounds for right- and leftwing populism.

The pattern is not static, people move to places they can afford, and above all, to places they like. Living in the central city is getting more popular for some, while others prefer to live in villages or on the countryside. This development means that the intermediate suburbs, built on large scale between 1950 and 1990, with few services and a weak identity, are losing popularity. They suffer from social decline and are changing their voting preference. It are primarily the affluent ‘blue’ (liberal right) voters that move to newer areas, while the social degradation of neighbourhoods leads to more populist votes. Urban planning can influence all these patterns and developments. Making neighbourhoods more attractive and creating a more diverse housing stock can keep the social-climbers within the area.

Josse de Voogd(1983) works as an independent researcher on electoral geography. See his articles (in Dutch) on ‘Geografie magazine’ and ‘Sociale vraagstukken’ and his book ‘Bakfietsen en rolluiken’ .

Geopolitics by Leopold Kohr

There seems to be only one cause behind all forms of social misery: bigness. At least, that’s what the Austrian philosopher –and convinced anarchist- Leopold Kohr (1909-1994) believed after witnessing the Spanish Civil war and fleeing Austria after the Nazi takeover in 1938.

In his book ‘The breakdown of Nations’ (1957), he argued that geographical size not only influences how countries see themselves, but more important: how they interact. As Kohr saw it, the problem with Europe’s geopolitical situation was the fact that its states were not equal in size, allowing the ‘big ones’ to dominate the rest, ‘the dose makes the poison’. The wrong mix of sizes could be disastrous for the international equilibrium and the main question for society was therefore “not to grow, but to stop growing. The answer: not union but division.

To achieve his utopia, Kohr supported the independence movements of Puerto Rico, Wales and Anguilla, and opposed grand unification projects like the European Union. He appealed for the breakup of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, long before they happened. And he published his ideas about how such small states should be formed and governed. He even devised a concrete upper limit for “smallness”: “The absolute maximum to which a society can expand without having its basic functions degrade, is about 12 to 15 million people.”

To illustrate the unequal balances of Europe, he projected a Europe-like division on the USA to see how different American history would be if the union had looked like this:

His conclusion: Wars would be as frequent as in Europe. So what if Europe could have been sliced up -like America- into rectangular chunks of territory, disregarding most existing cultural, religious, linguistic and natural boundaries.

Kohr’s studies on Europe and North America were unique at the time and influenced other great minds to develop similar theories. One of them: Eurotopia by Freddy Heineken – Yes, the Dutch beer brewer- but that story is for another time.

ZATO – Secret Soviet Cities

The Harriman Institute in New York was recently exhibiting the exhibition: ZATO – Secret Soviet Cities during the Cold War on the dynamics between politics, urbanism, and cartographic manipulation. Unfortunately we couldn’t go there, but secret cities based on the communist ideology of ‘the Party’, for sure drew our attention.

These closed cities or so called ZATO sites (Closed Administrative-Territorial Formation / Zakrytoe administrativno-territorial’noe obrazovanie) were areas for secret military or scientific research and production in the Soviet Empire. Weapons were produced there and medical experiments took place on nearly 250,000 animals to understand how radiation damages tissues and causes diseases.

Built in the remote areas of the Soviet Empire, they followed a unique architectural program – inspired by ideal cities, based on perfect geometric plans, articulated by progressive modernist architectural language, reflecting the ideology of the Party. However, these “realized utopias” were camouflaged and blurred into the environment. The cities were not to be found on official maps and those who worked there had special passes to live and leave, and were themselves hidden from public view. Most of the scientists and engineers who worked in the ZATOs were not allowed to reveal their place or purpose of employment.

Today there are still 43 ZATO on the territory of the Russian Federation. Their future is uncertain: some may survive; others may disappear as urban formations within the context of Russian suburbs.

Exhibition by Malkit Shoshan

Who thinks about the Israeli Palestinian conflict does not directly pictures a zoo and two white donkeys dyed with stripes to look like zebras. Our PHD candidate Malkit Shoshan did, resulting in the exhibition ZOO, or the letter Z, just after Zionism which is currently exposed in the NAiM / Bureau Europa. Her award-winning book ‘The Atlas of Conflict’ about the processes and mechanisms behind the shaping of Israel-Palestine during the past 100 years forms the base of this new project.

The exhibition starts with page 437 of the book and unfolds in a fascinating exploration of ideas, snapshots and associations that can be devised after seeing a white donkey, tied with a rope and covered with beige tape. A white donkey transformed into a zebra, to meet the desire for normality in Gaza. In this case, the possession of a zoo as space for urban recreation.

‘ZOO, or the letter Z, just after Zionism’, is part of a research project to the relation between war and architecture that contains an archive, two books and an installation which is a mix between a house, a cage a UN-shelter and a zoo.

The exhibition runs until May 20th in NAiM / Bureau Europa in Maastricht. To get the whole experience we recommend you to go in the weekend. There will be real donkeys.

Avoid Ghetto App

There is no such thing as
bad publicity, right? Well Microsoft will probably disagree. Their recently registered patent for a new GPS feature was nicknamed the ‘avoid ghetto app’.

This new software for smartphones and other portable GPS devices is intentionally meant to help travelers avoiding bad weather, tough terrain and unsafe neighborhoods. It uses a combination of information from maps, weather reports, crime statistics and demographics to determine the most effective route to their final destination. Sounds harmless and even useful, but Steve Ballmer (Here in Nova Collegetour) and friends are now being accused of potential racism and reinforcing stereotypical views of certain ethnicities and socio-economic classes.

Might be true, but even more alarming is its possible influence on cities. Dividing them into save and unsafe areas will chop the city in two, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by further isolation of already weak areas and marking whole communities as ghetto or no-go zones. The social and economic impact can be huge and many fear that a Ghetto mark will lead to abandonment, disinvestment and degradation of areas. Microsoft refused to comment.

And now for something completely different: Urbicide. Violence not only against city dwellers, but against urbanity itself. Read this: an article on US army activity in Sadr City, a district of Baghdad masterplanned by Greek visionary urbanist Constantinos Doxiadis. Obviously, destroying urban tissue and erecting huge concrete barriers have become important military tools since the cityscape has become the ultimate battlefield in the 21st century.

Please note, by the way, how the Wikipedia-article also lists New Orleans (next to Sarajevo and Zimbabwe) as a victim of urbicide: in this case the violence against urbanity has been fabricated “not by military action but by policy and ideology,” according to Andrew Herscher. The passive-aggressive approach, or something like that.