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Conference "Architecture and Cities for the 21 Century"

Valencia, July 1998

By Minja Yang

As the century approaches its end, the oracles of the day have set about prophesying doom or utopia in the next millennium at conferences, in the media and even in board rooms where marketing strategies are developed for just about anything from soap to satellite dishes. After a century of unprecedented commodities production through the massive and often unplanned exploitation of natural resources, a new fin de siècle malaise, as it were, is setting in. The shift from production-based economic growth to speculative financial "engineering", widespread unemployment in the West, the delocalisation of production centres to developing countries, and post-Cold War international relations have all contributed to the sense of uncertainty. Globalisation in practically every field subjects individuals to forces that are increasingly beyond their control. Even though wars have been fought and blood spilt for the noble causes of democracy and human rights, people today, ironically, may have less say in their own destinies than they did at the turn of the last century. These and other factors have turned environmental issues into matters of direct concern to the individual as well as the State. For most people the overriding concern, however, is not how to save Planet Earth, but rather how to improve the immediate environment in which we live.

Most ordinary people spend the bulk of their lives moving from one building to another, travelling ever-increasing distances in cars, buses, trains or on foot, with more and more chores to carry out in less and less time. Individuals find that their quality of life, whether in the developed world or in developing societies, is conditioned by the quality of the environment being built around them by others - increasing the sense of individual alienation, especially among the underprivileged.

Rapid urbanisation is expected to continue, drawing two-thirds of the world population into cities by the next century. By the year 2030, the urban population in developing countries will be twice the size of the rural population. In some cases, urban sprawls will not only dominate a country's economic life but take up most of its physical space, turning it into a vast urban territory.

If the future of humanity is irrevocably linked to the city, then this future - political, economic and cultural - must be addressed from a global perspective but also at the local level. Following on from discussions of new ideologies, water resource management and human responsibilities at conferences organised under the Valencia Third Millennium Programme, the Conference on Architecture and Cities for the 21st Century will also have a global theme. But the aim is not to prophesy, nor to make international resolutions or even recommendations. The conference has no such pretensions. My aim, as general coordinator, has been to select a few issues that will animate the debate of ordinary people on architecture and urbanism today. Rather than making a tour d' horizon of the grand theories of urbanism or of the stylistic evolution of architectural design and its rationalisation, I have invited the guest speakers to describe the multitudinous ways in which they have tackled architectural and urban problems. If, within the limited time of two days, they share with us the professional lessons they have learned as architects, urbanists or local politicians in the development of cities, the ambitions of this conference will be fulfilled.

In presenting their work, the speakers will naturally address the fundamental questions of architecture - concerning the planning, design, construction and use of buildings - as well as the city as our human environment. The first theme of the conference, "Avant-garde and Heritage", encompasses a range of questions: How have landmark architectural projects contributed to the advancement of new building technologies or served in the transformation of social relations in the city? Have these and other public projects involved the participation of the people they are to benefit? How can new building technologies and architectural design contribute to environmental sustainability? Is new architectural creativity being stifled by the shift from a zeal for great architectural masterworks towards the appreciation of a historic sense of place and from the monumental to the vernacular under the changing philosophies of cultural heritage preservation? Is the tug-of-war between architectural continuity and architecture as rupture a false debate? Does cultural pluralism have any chance of survival against the growing domination of so-called international style dictated by mass produced building materials?

The second theme concerning urban projects and their dynamics focuses on the city as a human environment. Some cities' historic centres have been taken over by the elite, while the poor have been pushed out towards disadvantaged suburbs. Elsewhere, it is the middle class who monopolise the fashionable suburbs, abandoning the centre to the underprivileged. Property speculation and the resulting ups and downs of the real estate market threaten the city with cultural and social impoverishment. In the urban fringe, power plants, waste-treatment facilities, industrial parks and mega-sized shopping malls are further blighting and enlarging urban sprawls. Highways, railroads, bridges, tunnels and other transportation infrastructure have come to define the "cultural landscapes" of our times. Can such infrastructure and public equipment - clearly essential to our mode of life - be built in harmony with our natural environment to create a more convivial human environment?

The fortuitous invitation extended to me by Sra Rita Barbera, Mayor of Valencia, to organise this conference with a carte blanche regarding the selection of both topics and participants, and the authorisation granted by Dr Federico Mayor, Director-General of UNESCO, for me to devote part of my energies to this endeavour, gave me a rare opportunity to reflect on the issues I treat on a day-to-day basis. As the UNESCO World Heritage Centre exists to protect and conserve cultural and natural properties of "outstanding universal value" by promoting the implementation of the World Heritage Convention, we are called upon to help address a wide range of problems. Considering that nearly 150 of the 418 cultural properties on the World Heritage List are located in living historic cities, it is no surprise that the World Heritage Centre is reminded daily of the clash between heritage preservation and urban development. This need not be the case, of course, but in most cities, compatibility between heritage and development - let alone their inseparability - is no more than an elusive theoretical ideal. In the over-populated cities of the developing South, other than in a few "museum towns", the demolition of entire historic urban sectors, the abandonment of unique historic buildings, and the construction of new buildings that are incongruous, to say the least, with the integrity of the historic urban fabric are combining to transform the cities' very identity. Furthermore, work to upgrade roads and improve mass transport systems, while necessary, may unfortunately be done without due regard to maintaining the integrity of historic centres.

If the essence of heritage protection is to preserve the ingenuity of the past for future generations, as well as to stimulate new creations, heritage must have a meaning in contemporary society. This is a fundamental precept of the World Heritage Convention, contained in Article 5. For heritage preservation that denies modernity, that obstructs development, that attempts to freeze time, would be counter-productive to the ultimate goal of human progress.

Despite globalisation, the reality of each individual city is unique and complex. There are no "urban models" of reference, only case studies. I hope that the architects, urbanists and mayors who have kindly agreed to participate in this conference will demonstrate to us, through such case studies, the ways in which each city's future can be anchored in its individual identity. Let us all strive to protect and build an "urban heritage" as the basis for developing urban policies for the city of the future, the city of the new, democratic age.