Els Leclercq on Radical Contextualism

Radical ContextualismLondon_Skyline

The TU Delft chair of Urban Design recently organized a symposium around the theme of ‘Radical Contextualism’, as a farewell to their professor Henco Bekkering. Design as Politics’ PhD candidate Els Leclercq attended the symposium, while wondering what contextualism really means for the fast growing cities of the 21st century

Radical contextualism was the aptly selected theme of a recent conference held as part of a series of events to bid farewell to the visionary Professor in Urban Design, Henco Bekkering.

The concept and theory of radical contextualism was discussed and explored – from both a local and a global perspective. Is design based local and regional  contextualism a parochial response that ignores our increasingly globalised world, or is global contextualism one that ignore the traditions, history and culture of indigenous place and space?

A number of speakers made an eloquent call for a strengthening of a regionally and city based context driven design approach in order to sustain places that display a strong resonance with their historical culture and established urban morphology arguing that the alternative is merely leading towards homogenized, and increasingly characterless neighbourhoods; places that could be anywhere around the world. The globalised context was generally considered a threat and not a solution.

The prospect of creating the ‘generic city’, as spoken about by some of today’s urban thinkers – eg Rem Koolhaas – was shunned by the majority of the speakers. It was argued that such an approach does not create the longue duree, the key ingredient that has and continues to elicit such enduring love with certain cities; cities that have so demonstrably evolved within a given identifiable context following long established parameters.

While following this argument and considering the practical application of designing and developing parts of cities into practice, I couldn’t help wondering if this vision on city design, is feasible in the fast growing cities of the 21st century. Increasingly in large expanding cities around the world, private developers are building for their primary market – the investment industry; they are producing a ‘product’ and that product is becoming increasingly standardized and recognizable regardless of whether it’s on London’s or Shanghai’s riverside. The focus seems to be rapidly shifting from the secondary market – the local habitants, to this transient investor led primary market.  Who benefits?

Showing a potential Chinese developer around development opportunity sites in London recently, the interest was not in the contextual. It was in the location in terms of reputation and transport links combined with the ability to build quickly and tall, in phases, to prescribed parameters that produce a product known to ‘shift’ quickly to an international investor hungry audience. The developer felt sure globally recognizable design standards were what his potential buyers are after.

So how do we address the need for radical contextualism as promoted by the speakers at this conference with the reality of private investors, money and globalizing and hence homogenizing spaces in a world where clients are less and less made up of public bodies and local people but more and more by internationally operating corporate bodies?

Els Leclercq is an urban designer and researcher and is currently undertaking a PhD at Desgin as Politics, examining how users perceive the inclusiveness of our contemporary urban public space in times of a retreating government and a growing role for market forces in all facets of our social, economic and cultural life, including the development of our cities. She also is a partner in studio Aitken, a practice for urban design and research.