All Great Cities are Built to be Destroyed

Certain popular terms, after spells of confinement in academic journals, either from fortune or misfortune, slip back into the collective memory and evolve into everyday life concepts. It might be misfortune, arising from protests against police brutality, that brought a term like anarchy into sudden exposure. Soon after anti-racist protestors, at least in New York City, demanded the defunding of the police, graffiti of anarchist symbols—of the letter O encircling a distended A—covered boarded store fronts. And then every night, for the last week of June, firecrackers shredded the silence of the night.

But these spontaneous acts of disturbances, taken as expressions of discontent, were almost subterfuge to the stalemate between authorities and protestors. Some clamored for normalcy. In return, in New York City, for example, the authorities imposed dusk to dawn curfews. Subsequent protests were less rambunctious. Authorities had adjusted to the randomness of the earlier protests, and they appeared to lead—rather than react to—the protesters. During protests, police officers drove and cycled ahead and at the rear of the protesters. With this acclimatization the authority appeared to, once again, assume control.

No doubt, when considered as organized performances, these anti-racist protests, as with many other forms of protests, are essentially site specific. They dominate urban centers, where they attract sufficient media attention, but occasionally arise in remote villages. Cities, as reshaped surroundings, represent spaces in which, as Guy Debord notes, workers have been dangerously brought together by conditions of urban production.1 These workers and urban migrants exist in constant restlessness. But, existing social structures are fashioned to inhibit a change in the narrative, to suppress reversal of the separation process, in order to sustain economic growth and control. Within urban zones, humans are constantly negotiating for acceptance and inclusion. Being in constant flux, with people and goods moving in and out, urban centers are spaces in which antagonism must be sustained.

It would seem appropriate to attribute all forms of antagonisms within urban centers, first and foremost, as resistance against architecture’s claim of neutrality. The primacy of compliance in urban planning, and which trickles down to architecture, transforms into a machinery of control. As structures are proposed and erected to comply with clients’ needs and general regulations, they positively change into tools of power. As Keller Easterling writes, in the essay Believers and Cheaters, “architecture often believes itself to be innocent of the wide world and its operators—somehow different from the activities of the organization men, diplomats, hacksters, resisters, and terrorists.”2

Because the work of architects, and the blueprints formulated by urban planners, determine movement within public and private spaces, they are entangled in a hierarchy of one-sided power relations. Though there are many requirements, at least in urban centers, architecture and urban planning accord priorities to circulation, safety, and control. All these are necessary, but they are also implemented with the desire to exert power over the citizens, and to operate under assumptions that there is a constant threat to peace and order. So, urban planning can be reduced to the description of what is evil or not. Here, anything “evil” is that which is contrary to the regulations, and which are grounded to commerce and control. For example, road patterns are not meant only for motorized access, but most importantly to enhance movement of police patrol cars. Urban landscapes are the utopian police states. Arrangement of building along streets is designed to maximize commerce and to optimize shop spaces.

And so, the reemergence of anarchist sentiments can be taken as a reproach of the methods employed in urban planning and architecture, and as elements that must be deconstructed. While urban planning, for example, has expanded to include civic participation, technocrats are probably the most influential of participants. Yet the idea of anarchy, to those who believe in the existing systems, represent evil—a sense that control is lost. But then, urban centers are built on a cycle of exploitation of cheap labor and implementation of modes of circulation that favor motorized movement, and in consequence surveillance (all of which can be singularly oppressive).

Perhaps, these sporadic anarchist slogans aim at extricating those in cities from past oversights in urban planning and architectural systems, which place surveillance and control above any other social needs. But those who insert anarchist ideals, do so and suffer foreboding suspicion, for they advocate for contradictory beliefs. And because they are a risk to the existing system, their actions are evil. It is also worth mentioning that such antagonism is tolerated in a few places. Not all protesters benefit from authorities’ indulgence, such as those, for example, in New York City. The protesters in Belarus, on the other hand, who have been contesting the election results, have been met with ineluctable intimidation. In the third week of the protests, the embattled President Alexander Lukashenko appeared in public brandishing a rifle, and the protesters in Minsk, numbering tens of thousands, were met with columns of soldiers behind barbed wires.3

When it comes to the categorization of what is evil or not, the responsibility rests with the state. For regimes to thrive, they must portray themselves as righteous, and to maintain this quality, the quality of being intact, they reinforce a system of righteous violence. “The more righteous and innocent the regime, however,” writes Keller Easterling, “the more it needs to cheat. It requires an evil enemy to harden the borders.”4 Most cityscapes, to this end, can be taken as objects of righteous violence. For there is first the declaration or an anticipation of an enemy, and then the formulation of urban plans and architectural guidelines that respond to the imaginary evil. Once this evil is defined, sometimes as an error, it is then established as a pedestal for further flaws within cityscapes.

Although cityscapes are ideal spaces for the sustainment of antagonism, they are founded with the notion of control, and it is this presupposition that anarchist sentiments threaten. But to reflect on what some of these new slogans present, let us turn for a moment to the tactics developed by the Situationists International. For example, to reclaim the freedom of thought that comes from a free, inhibited movement, the Situationists recommended dérive. Dérive is a strategy that involves a behavioral pattern that contradicts the confinements of urban landscapes. When applied in everyday life, dérive tactics include trespass. Of course, such tactics were and are still absent in the protests. And so the anarchist sentiments are still abstract, still a remote threat to the establishment, and yet to find a conduit for direct action.+

Being a form of heterotopia—a space in constant flux—urban landscapes are contested, as new occupants arrive and depart. But it is the resistance to the new entrants, offered by those already established, and who have amassed resources. With new entrants, enters new layers of contradictions. Reconciling these contradictions to the preexisting stability, is itself an act of disruption. Perhaps this disruption is the natural response, given that, as Guy Debord’s notes in “Society of the Spectacle,” urbanism is a technology of separation.5 And, in extension to the emerging situation, these protests and the call of anarchy is a process of bringing isolated individuals together.

In reflecting on the current obsession with anarchism, urban societies are not only dealing with total domination by a section of the inhabitants, but also accounting for pervasive material and cultural deficits in urban planning. Yet the advocacy for a drastic change is a call for reconfiguration, and with every adjustment the status quo—who thrive on and benefit from the existing conditions—is bound to decline. Still, the absence of centralized control, projects uncertainty, and unpredictability is essentially “evil.” Discussing matters of urban-planning, and of sustenance of antagonism, through the lenses of evil and righteousness is a tempting position. But it is also worth it, as it accounts for the persistent cultural deficits, and whose consequences are perennial neglect and injustice.

While the pandemic and the subsequent protests have been unsettling, they also offered a vacuum of regulations. As New York City was gradually reopening, the city underwent a duration of uncertainty. In a show of generosity, for the first time, open restaurants flourished in New York. Before the pandemic, drinking in public, outside pubs or restaurants, could earn an offender a ticket. In addition, some streets were cordoned and dedicated to pedestrians. Some said New York City reminded them of European cities. With clubs closed, and with social life stultified, revelers parked cars on pavements, playing loud music, and interacting all night. After a few weeks, and also a few complaints, the authorities formulated new policies, clamping on the disarray of street side parties. These spurts of decentralization of power, as a result of regulatory vacuum, demonstrated the potential of cities in the post-pandemic times. Things are never returning to normalcy. New laws will be enacted, and human and motor circulation, within cities, are bound to transform.

The question of contradictions in urban-scapes is eternal. But perhaps there are lessons to learn from the decline of some of the modern and ancient cities. Matters of sustainability of urban centers are evasive, and if we turn attention towards cities like Detroit, which, after the decline of motor industries, faced insurmountable devaluation, then it is possible to rethink what cities mean for those they outlive. The same can be said of Berlin, destroyed after the war, was stripped of its allure. Only when occupied by artists, who induced an authentic life, did it recover the cultural surplus that increased the property value. Still, when cities are founded on a balance of consumption and production, they are bound to decline. For both consumption and production are elastic to unpredictable elements, such as natural disasters and conflicts. Maybe the protesters are right in their anarchist slogans, for, after all, all great cities are built to be destroyed.