The city in its complete sense, then, is a geographical plexus, an economic organization, an institution process, a theatre of social action, and an aesthetic symbol of collective unity. (Mumford 1970:480)
The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flaneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, aimed at the ebb and flow of the movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world-impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. (Baudelaire 1964:9)
It may not be an exaggeration to say that cities are where the majority of people are born and die. By 2050, it is expected that seventy-five percent (75%) of the global population will live in megacities (Naik 2009:9). This could be due to the rapid urbanisation of all regions spanning countries and continents. The scale of these urban transformations is daunting and difficult to comprehend. But, in terms of the environmental impact on our daily lives, what does this rapid rate of urbanisation imply? What does this created space mean for our social interactions and behaviour? What do the built environment and urban design mean in terms of democracy or liberation? These are the questions that guided my investigation and research into how we perceive our cities.
As Richard Sennett observes, 'A city isn’t just a place to live, to shop and to go out. It’s a place that implicates how one derives one’s ethics, how one develops a sense of justice, how one learns to talk with and learn from people who are unlike oneself, which is how a human being becomes human' (Sennett 1989:4). In our daily lives, we inhabit cities, buildings, streets, and rooms. As a result, the decisions made by designers and architects will have an immediate impact on our social behaviours and identities. As Kim Dovey points out, 'the built environment reflects identities, differences, and struggles of gender, class, race, culture, and age. It shows the interest of people in empowerment and freedom, the interest of the state in the social order, and in the private corporate interest in stimulating consumption' (Dovey 2007:1-2). Furthermore, through architecture and urban designs, new forms, social orders, and spatial experiences emerge. This could imply that our subjectivity is conditioned and influenced by those in charge of city planning and urban design based on their specific interests. Space is framed and given a specific shape and design through architecture. Everyday residential buildings, offices, and workshops are pre-planned environments that influence the actions and behaviours of those who live in them. Keeping this in mind, such environments can foster a sense of belonging among those who live and work in them, with which they may share a collective identity and historical memory.
Many mega urban projects are developing in Asia and the Middle East, including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Thailand, and China. It may come as no surprise that Iran is also in this race and is following the same pattern. Between 2017 and 2020, I travelled to Dubai, Thailand, and Iran. Based on my observations, discussions with colleagues, and conversations with locals, it became clear to me that all of these countries are on the path towards a market-driven and economically dominating way of organising life. It appears that in most mega-cities, social-governmental policies, spatial and economic developments are all centred on the same initiatives. Transformation of places and spaces as a metaphor and symbol of modernity, as well as participation in a global market-driven culture, could be thought of as such initiatives. As Anthony King notes:
Townscape, building and landscapes, produced by the common adaptation of ideas, techniques, standards, design and ideologies and the worldwide diffusion of information, images, professional cultures, and subcultures(of architecture, city planning, urban design, conservation), and supported by international capital flows. (King 2004:3)
This could imply that planning and development initiatives based on the foundation and adaptation of ideas, design, and ideologies, such as construction of mega shopping malls, tall office towers, high rise residential tower blocks, and suburban housing projects, can be classified as global development type initiatives. It may now suffice to state that what can be understood from global consumerist culture is its relationship with the global expansion of market capitalism. This may serve as a reminder of the uncertainties and ironies of modern life and ‘global capitalism’. Furthermore, it is possible to argue that construction projects are a type of discourse. According to Dovey, any form of discourse is structured and represented in accordance with the state’s interests. By ‘global capitalism’, I mean a focus on a ‘global architectural culture’, how a particular culture and way of organising life imposes itself on other cultures and attempts to produce a universal cultural form and discourse. As Paul Ricoeur notes:
The phenomena of universalization, while being an advancement of mankind, at the same time constitutes a sort of subtle destruction, not only of traditional cultures, which might not be an irreplaceable wrong but also of what I shall call for the time being the creative nucleus of great cultures, that nucleus based on which we interpret life, what I shall call in advance the ethical and mythical nucleus of mankind. (Ricoeur, 1965:272)
This universalisation of cultural form can also be viewed as a global urban expansion strategy: mega-construction projects that increasingly use land and natural resources for the construction of massive shopping malls, high-rise residential areas, and suburban housing development. Such discourses endanger the distinctive aspects of other cultural systems by erasing local differences and transforming the world into a global uniformity. Orlando Patterson refers to global culture primarily as 'nothing more than American cultural imperialism' (Patterson 1994: 103). This transformation from local to global has altered the experience of distinct places. However, for Dovey and Giddens, this transformation does not necessarily imply a loss of ‘place’, rather a loss of self-identity; the construction of places in accordance with global architectural style has ‘collagist character’, creating tension and confusion rather than telling a historical narrative. As Dovey explains:
An understanding of the nexus of place and power requires that we move beyond philosophical conceptions of place to an understanding of how such a place experience has been transformed under conditions of global capitalism. There is no scope here for a detailed account of globalization, which is generally understood as a cluster of interrelated conditions, two of which are particularly pertinent here: the collapse of lived distance through accelerated global flows of capital, people and information … and the production of global cultures…. (Dovey 2007:53)