“Cities exist for citizens, and if they do not work for citizens, they die.” An interview with architect CEDRIC PRICE on the limited lifespan of cities.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST: One of the reasons your work has been so important to many architects in Asia has a lot to do with the notion of time and the ephemeral, something which is understood better in Asia than in Europe.
“Cities exist for citizens, and if they do not work for citizens, they die.”
CEDRIC PRICE: A short lifespan for a building is not seen as anything very strange in Asia. Angkor Wat in Cambodia is so vast and yet it lasted for less than three hundred years. I liked your dependence on change in the “Cities on the Move” exhibition you curated and I particularly liked the Bangkok exhibition where time was the key element. I see time as the fourth dimension, alongside height, breadth and length. The actual consuming of ideas and images exists in time, so the value of doing the show betrayed an immediacy, an awareness of time that does not exist in somewhere like London or indeed Manhattan. A city that does not change and reinvent itself is a dead city. But I do not know if we should use the word ‘city’ any more; I think it is a questionable term.
What could replace it?
Perhaps a word associated with the human awareness of time, turned into a noun, which relates to space. The paradox is that the city changes all the time, so it would have to be a word in permanent mutation; it could not be a frozen term.
But let’s return to the idea of dead cities, tell me more about why they die!
Cities exist for citizens, and if they do not work for citizens, they die.
Which is interesting because you also talk about the fact that buildings can die.
Yes, the Fun Palace was not planned to last more than ten years. The short life expectancy of the project had an effect on the costs, but not in a limiting, adverse way. No one, including the designers, wanted to spend more money to make it last for fifty years and we had to persuade the generators and operators to be economic in terms of both time and money. The advantage, however, was that the owners, the producers and the operators, through necessity, began to think along the same lines, as the project created the same set of priorities for everyone. That should be one of architecture’s aims; it must create new appetites, rather than solve problems. Architecture is too slow to solve problems. I suppose we should ask what is the purpose of architecture? It used to be a way of imposing order or establishing a belief, which is the purpose of religion to some extent. Architecture does not need that mental imperialism any more. As an architect, I do not want to be involved in creating law and order through fear and misery. I see the creation of a continuous dialogue as both interesting and also perhaps the only reason for architecture. In the sixteenth or seventeenth century, someone defined architecture as “commodity, firmness and delight.” Commodity equates to good housekeeping, particularly in terms of money; firmness is the structure; and the delight factor is the dialogue.
Could you talk a bit about your time-based project in Glasgow and how that opened up a dialogue between the city and its citizens?
The city hall is in the centre of Glasgow. They are very proud of it and people are not allowed in very often, unless they have got a complaint against the city. We decided to improve the lift to the top of the tower – putting a carpet in, installing lovely mirrors, spraying it with perfume – and invited the public in. We did not tell them why; all we said is that they could go to the top of the tower and for free. In the lift was a tape announcing “tonight, all the areas which we think should be saved without question will be floodlighted red.” Only parts of the city were lit up, so their attention was focused. You heard comments like: “Well of course that church should be saved” and “Why keep that slum?” The next night, different areas of the city were flooded green, indicating districts they decided should be improved. On the last day, the floodlights were white. The public was invited to tell the city what they should do with the spaces lit in white. There were no “superiors” involved, no architects with patches on their tweed jackets around for miles. The city was saying, “We’ve thought about it for years and still don’t know what to do with the white areas. You tell us. But don’t tell us next year, tell us within a month, because after that it’s too late. As you go down, pick up a free postcard and mail us your response.”