Journal of Biourbanism Volume VIII # 2/2019
Editor’s Note: Killing the God Janus
by Stefano Serafini
Editor in Chief, International Society of Biourbanism, Italy
To Sylvan Janus
By pioneering, among other views, biophilic design more than 15 years ago (Salingaros, 2006) biourbanism has been nonconformist and, I dare say, for the good. However, we never lacked the awareness that a consistent “biowashing” would have followed our and others’ research and educational work. Nowadays, in fact, biophilia has become the fashionable equivalent of last decade’s “drawing trees on top of skyscrapers,” as Tim De Chant (2013) wittily put it. What was once an exoteric theory looked down upon by most academic architects is now burgeoning in newspapers, journals, and on social media, letting us contemplate the misinterpretation of our intention. The ultimate salvation doctrine even proclaims that the urban future cannot be but biophilic in order to balance the original sin of hosting too many humans (McDonald & Beatley, 2021), which reminds one of Le Corbusier’s totalitarian cité radieuse with its green spaces for machines à habiter to keep their hygienic distance.
The doctrine of Friedrich Nietzsche must have taught all of us that a deification is needed to accomplish a deicide. Possibly, this is why the city has become the latter, minor deity of our time—the “urban century” (Ibidem, pp. 1–22), where 68 percent of the world’s population is going to live by 2050, et cetera. The impression is that biowashing is the last shroud of this lesser god’s cadaver, meant to delude us with a hope for resurrection.
The Journal of Biourbanism has already devoted an issue to this matter: The city smells of decay (2016). Let me take a step forward here, reminding that the death of the city is two-fold.
First, we observe the death of the city precisely in what the majority presents as life’s evidence, i.e., growth. Of course, nowadays, cities not only keep burdening this planet but also sprawl, expand, and absorb life—as cancer does, monstrously. This is more than a metaphor. Ryan and colleagues (2010) found significant morphofunctional homologies between urban sprawl and the invasiveness of a tumor. On the other hand, Sepp and colleagues (2019) studied the cancerogenicity of the urban environment even on wildlife, suggesting to use “urban wild animal populations as models to study the association between environmental factors and cancer epidemics in humans” (Ibidem). The way modernism broke up traditional urban organisms into organoids that fight each other to death was sharply diagnosed by al-Sabouni (2016).
Modern urbanism ripening into gigantism is a deadly process, an omnivore rupture of boundaries and identity inside and outside the city. Megalopolises and their fluxes of energy, matter, and humans follow the extrinsic impulses of a corrosive urban decay that is also killing the planet. This self-consumption masquerading as progress and endless growth evidently affects the environment, the inhabitants, and, above all, any biourban dynamics. Its social markers are solitude, fear, conflict, deconstruction of any civic language and memory, and, finally, war, urbicide, and omnicide.
Sergio Los has explained how contemporary cities lose their internal “organs.” These organs—Los calls them the “eight institutions”—have been dislocated outward on a global level (Los, 2019, pp. 126–139). For example, the megacity outsources its own food production to faraway countries, its defense to an international organization, etc. This way, the city loses its autonomy and freedom, and its inhabitants their common purpose. The city is emptied for consumption fluxes to fill it all.
This hollowing process explains the second aspect of the global city death: as an empty shell inhabited by the hermit crab of immaterial capitalism, it offers no room for citizens. For over a century, modern urban singularities have attracted land, money, and labor beyond their horizon of events into the inescapable kernel of an economy of simulation (Baudrillard, 1993), where the sign is all that matters. Karl Polanyi (1944) stressed how the transformation of human institutions into tradeable “fictitious commodities” deprives communities of their chance to participate in making the world. In the end, a marketed landscape reduces humans to nothing other than passive consumers dependent on an urban structure that, in turn, depends on a global network based on the power of signs. No decision about the city comes from inside the city itself. Urban people are no longer citizens but stuff—exactly as the goods that circulate the city system to serve the invisible master. Communities are atomized into individuals that cannot produce meaning and are subjected to a monistic signification that predates them. A city without citizens is a machine à consommer that consumes itself.
The evidence of this final form of decay is not just the collapse of every civic, moral, and political production but its brutal substitution by simulacra.
From a political point of view, contemporary cities are the stage for the global oligocracy to disguise itself as local democracy. This includes the mimic of voting for unknown, pre-set “representatives,” after the eventual discussion of pre-set “opinions.” Indeed, people have neither the chance nor the drive to make decisions, because they have been stripped of their linguistic ability to co-create local-based worlds (Los, 2019, pp. 10–25).
From an ethical point of view, cities permit the dramatic exhibition of every shade of moralism, reducing morality to fashion and a show of outrage and rancor. Data production and consumption in a self-representing virtual space have taken on the role of moral action and responsibility.
From a civic point of view, the dead city has banned communitarian work and language by establishing an impermeable exchange interface, an ineluctable economy of signs and spectacles. This has brought the real subsumption of living matter to capital (Bontempelli, 2008) at the level of good intentions. “Local, regional, and transnational collective action,” which is “the ‘favored child’ of official development agencies,” has substituted political engagement “to integrate individuals into markets, to deliver welfare services, and to involve local populations in development projects” (Fisher, 1997, pp. 439–440; 442; 443). New forms of charities and NGOs have emerged consistently with the global rise of neoliberalism. Their technical solutions to technical problems have been implicitly endorsing and making the unquestionable, political background invisible (Ferguson, 1990). In our field, the simulations of “tactical urbanism” and “placemaking” confirm the complete commodification of space in a very different context than Jane Jacobs’ time. They replace civic architecture to decorate the one and only system of consumption.
For example, it is no surprise that the Placemaking movement (originally meant to favor creative, spontaneous, and bottom-up participation) has been coopted in the greenwashing of the Saudi autocratic regime, which seeks to “jumpstart the kingdom’s non-oil economy” (Daraghai & Trew, 2020) by investing in the immaterial value of “smart,” “human-centered,” and “biophilic” urbanization. Laudatory articles, such as those by Helmy (2020) or Mohamed and colleagues (2020), speak for themselves. So does the visit of Fred Kent—the founder of the Project for Public Spaces who partnered with UN-Habitat—to the Prince Sultan University in Riyadh in 2019; and so does the role of Ken Wallace, as the master planning director of Neom and the “director of placemaking” at the MiSK Foundation in Al-Riyadh.
Slogans, smiles, and advertising hide a dreadful, stale reality. The self-serving construction of Neom, a city of one million, into a 105-mile long straight line over nine years turned out to be linked to the killing of Abdur-Rahim al-Huwayti and to the displacement of the Howeitat people (Malekafzali, 2021). This is just a repetition of the evictions occurring all over the world (Bissen, 2017) and it relates to the assassination of Yaqub Musa Abu alQi’ and the death of Erez Levi in Umm al-Hiran, Israel (Forensic Architecture, 2019); the forced uprooting of millions in Syria (al-Sabouni, 2016), or the urbicide of Sur in Turkey and the building of “a new Toledo” on the rubbles of its ancient heritage (Lepeska, 2016; Ortona, 2018, and Nistiman, n.d.).
It is obvious that Neom’s urban “ideals” are mostly fake and crooked, but that is not the point. Nor is the political extreme of the Saudi Kingdom at stake here. In fact, no good idea is enough for producing good urbanism without a civic context. We cannot pretend that such a civic context falls outside of our consideration and responsibility as designers or that it exists per se somewhere else within the 21st century global machine. Imagine if any other state or corporate power invited biourbanists to design a city. By accepting, we would not lead: rather, we would serve a destroying “capitalistic urbanism” that is the opposite of biourbanism.
A final note on tourism is due. Tourism represents the peak of urban immaterial consumption and is already on its way to morphing into an AR virtual “experience.” The transformation of the city into a spectacle, “capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image” (Debord, 1992 , I, 34, p. 32), iconically represents our exile as citizens from our own places and history. As the former inhabitants of gentrified historical city centers, pushed away by tourism, we no longer inhabit our own lives. Rather, we experience our own existences as tourists do with our former cities by looking at them, trying to own them in their representations—consuming them.
These trivial observations about a crystal-clear phenomenon aim at stressing that the relevance of the border between the dead and the quick is also evident. We need to go back to the threshold of our roots to rethink the entire direction of our society and the concept of design itself. The repurposing of simulation, commodification, and exploitation can happen only if the original intention gets lost. The interface of the sign traps and kills it in a mask that pretends to represent, while indeed, it misleads.
The ancient Roman and Italic religion had a mighty, ubiquitous god for beginnings, ends, and boundaries who was accordingly invoked before making a sacrifice to any other deity: Janus. Represented with two, three, and sometimes four opposite faces, young and old, he was believed to guard trust and borders, especially in rural fields and urban passageways. He represented the eternally fresh flow of becoming from the eternal sphere of being, a balance that our current civilization seems to have lost and even reversed.
Janus is keen to the rural environment from where the primal cities have been born. While the omnicity/omnicide looms on the imaginary horizon of capital, we shall look at the other side: the global ager effatus where signs have no reach. There rise shantytowns, illegal squatting, semi-abandoned borghi, rural villages, and repurposed, churning spaces where megalopolises fall apart under their own material waste. There, the center has already been reversed. There, peasants of the world (“oblivious to their own non-existence,” see infra, p. 18) are farming cities of silence by perfectly disregarding the smart, “perfect crime” of the dominion of the object.
This work calls for the silence of design. Homecomrades are those who trespass the fences of interfaces, stop mourning the simulacrum, and design the lifeworld.
The doors of the temple of Janus are open. We, the peasants, are silently harvesting every meaningless code. We will even scythe the two-faced god himself, if we meet him on the path.
Long live Janus.
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Cover artwork by Sara Bissen (2021).
Serafini, S. (2021). Editor’s Note: Killing the God Janus. Journal of Biourbanism, 8(2/2019), 11−15.