BNieuws [BN]: Hello René. Your book is very provocative. To formulate the Smooth City concept, you draw from multiple sources, from architectural and urban studies to critical theory and even music, as you quote Brian Eno many times. Can you explain to our readers what the Smooth City is?
René Boer [RB]: The concept tries to point at a development happening in cities around the world, which is an ongoing push for perfection, optimization, control, and comfort that is increasingly dominating urban landscapes worldwide. I think it is a problem because it is happening for a few people and excluding others. I also think that this rise of a new kind of perfect, smooth, urban landscapes is creating a kind of city that is maybe no longer a city.
BN: In the book, you bring in a historical perspective. You examine important urban transformation projects, from ancient Rome to 19th century Paris, through the lens of smoothness, as projects that have flattened or homogenised the city. However, when coming back to the present, you imprint a sense of
urgency, calling it a “landmark shift.” Can you expand on this urgency to deal with the Smooth City?
RB: I think many of the historical examples were often singular projects, like Haussmann’s plan for Paris, which obviously had many consequences for other cities: they were copied; they were tested in the French colonies. It was more than one project, but ultimately, it was a paradigm that centered on Paris. I feel that the Smooth City is more of a global phenomenon that occurs in cities around the world. It is not a singular project with leaders and proponents but rather a perfect storm of various developments that leads to smoothification in cities around the world. I think it is also escalating in many ways.
This push for perfection has always existed. Modernism was also an attempt to control and perfect environments through a complete tabula rasa to create a new kind of perfection. Since the 1990s, however, there has been a perfect storm of various developments that continue to intensify, and we are rapidly losing the notion of what a city is orshould be. It is a very urgent problem indeed.
BN: Globalisation has made the Smooth City an aspiration. When analyzing singular cases, it is easy to find agents and individuals that were promoting changes, but the Smooth City appears as a generalised advance that makes it difficult to identify singular agents.
RB: Exactly. Even to the point that it is in us ourselves. I also argue that there is a broad cultural shift, a ‘smooth turn’ that we embody in many ways. The fact that we all bring our smartphones to the urban realm with the potential to film everything and upload it immediately introduces a level of control to the urban environment. If anything happens that is just slightly outside of the norm, it might be filmed, uploaded, or live-streamed. We are all part of this smoothification, we all bring this level of control to the urban realm, and this pushes for a certain conformism to behave in a certain way because it might be filmed by anyone at any time. However, to say that we all embody this process ofsmoothification is not to say there are no power relations with larger actors who are most responsible for contributing to it. There are large project developers, political structures, political parties or political movements that are more proponents of smoothification than others are. I think it is possible to make an analysis and pinpoint certain, let's say, pushers of this process.
BN: You mentioned that the Smooth City threatens the essence of the city. When you describe the concept in the book, the image that comes to mind is of new, private-led developments like Hudson Yards or Canary Wharf, the kind of pristine urban development that caters to specific users. In the book, you dedicate some time to your own city, Amsterdam. Can you tell us how the Smooth City operates in a historically rich, textured, and complex context, like De Wallen in Amsterdam?
RB: It occurs in many different forms. Indeed, it can emerge in new developments or historical areas in
many ways. By demolishing everything and building this new kind of environment, it is very easy to create something that is completely smooth and controlled. In a historical area like the Amsterdam city center, there is a very complex and intense layering, which is rich and textured, with many references and points of contact for people. The Smooth City homogenises and flattens this complexity. Amsterdam's historical city center has come into existence over the last 700 to 800 years and continues to be a place where new generations create and intervene in their own ways, adding their own architecture. In the 1980s, for example, some historical buildings on the canals were demolished to build new University buildings according to the architectural fashion dominant at the time, Structuralist architecture. What is happening now is that everything is being flattened into this one singular smooth layer, so in essence, there's only this fully controlled, completely cleaned out urban environment where you now have to follow certain UNESCO regulations, like all doors being painted a certain green. There is no way that a new generation can say, “This is how we want to shape our city. This is how we would like our city to develop.” That is not possible anymore. It is a completely frozen historical urban environment.
However, there are many ways in which smoothness can exist around the world. It can be completely cleaned out Hutongs in China. It can be an archipelago of shopping malls and gated communities, or historical areas that have been completely homogenized. There are different ways in which the Smooth City appears and exists.
BN: What is our part as designers? What is the role of architecture in countering smoothness?
RB: Historically, architects and designers have been quite complicit in creating smoothness. For example, the architects working to Haussmannify Paris, which was very much an architectural project of control and displacement. This is also still happening today, as many architects are being educated to become part of this smoothifying machine. New buildings, the renovation of old buildings, and interior design are very much complicit, but this is not to say that there is no need for architecture or that we should stop educating ourselves to become architects. Architects and designers play a role in countering this trend, and this is difficult because, historically, architecture and planning have been about creating order. However, in environments that are completely ordered and controlled to the point that it is almost robotic, the question is how can you bring in a certain disorder? How can you facilitate a process of creating disorder or even designing disorder, if thatis possible? This is something that should be taught in architecture schools. How can we disorder a controlled urban environment? Or, as I argue in the book, how can we create a ‘porous’ urban environment that allows people to relate to the city again? That is an important question that needs to be addressed in environments like TU Delft.
BN: Indeed. Architecture is ultimately a problem of control, and letting go is a mentality shift for architects. Let’s talk about porosity. What is interesting about the Smooth City is that it not only flattens the urban experience, but worse, it also flattens everything it excludes. It is a doubly flattening process, in a sense. However, porosity is not the opposite of smoothness, as roughness would be, but it's more about connecting across or making punctures, which is a different conceptual operation.
RB: Exactly. I do not want to advocate for the opposite of smoothness as something dangerous, dirty, not functioning, or messy. I don’t want to romanticize that. I would like to transcend the binary between the smooth and unsmooth. When I bring up this conversation, there is often this nostalgic idea about the Amsterdam of the 80s, for example, as rough, messy, and dirty. I don’t think we should romanticize that; there's no way we can go back to the 80s. We should look forward and think about the conceptions we want for the spaces where we want to live, work, and be ourselves. We should transcend this smooth and non-smooth binary. I find inspiration for this notion of porosity in what otherauthors have also talked about, like Walter Benjamin or Richard Sennett, which I think provides a very
interesting framework to elaborate on. Indeed, porosity stands in contrast to smoothness as a flattened, complete, and serviced environment onto which you cannot attach anything. It is almost like a Teflon plan, right? Anything that you put on it will fall out. Instead, I would argue porosity is a metaphor for a kind of uncertain environment, which is characterised by conditions that allow us to mark our presence and mark the presence of time but also allow us to create collective interventions without them being repelled immediately. The notion of porosity is almost a human ambition: to be able to touch, be touched, and relate to others rather than only see yourself reflected in the smooth surfaces of the city.
BN: The book does not go directly into climate change and environmental issues. Many of the discussions, at least in Europe, for dealing with climate change have to do with accepting a certain level of discomfort in our lives, especially about lifestyle choices, travel, and consumption patterns. Porosity, as a metaphor, is about opening up to other processes, to diversity and multiplicity. Is there also the possibility to latch on to broader issues like climate change?
RB: It is difficult because climate change is also calling for more efficiency. We need to build as efficiently as possible, with minimal use of materials, which I completely agree with. This push for efficiency resonates with a push for smoothification. There is definitely tension there, but it is up to architects to deal with this tension. How can we addarchitectural quality? How can we add spontaneity, porosity, or complexity without reducing everything just because of the need to reduce material use? That is a very interesting and important conversation to have within the architectural field nowadays.
A transition towards the porous city may be uncomfortable for some. That is especially true if you are used to living in closed-off environments, moving about in Ubers or closed-off and prearranged taxis, with food being brought in pre-packaged, without any human encounters. I don't want to take away necessary comforts from people who need them because we all need certain forms of comfort, but we need to move towards a city where this is not the norm, in which we relate to each other. It is a cultural shift, and there needs to be a rebalancing of comfort and discomfort. That means creating more comfort for some people, which will be uncomfortable for the people who fence themselves completely in. People who have been excluded in many ways from the Smooth City then taking up the porous spaces of the porous city will be disorienting or uncomfortable for the people who were used to having everything arranged for them. I think this will be, let's say, an uncomfortable transition in many ways.
BN: When Richard Sennett speaks of openness and porosity, he brings up the idea of “a loose fit” between form and function. He likened these ideas to tolerance, which could help transcend binaries between the comforts of some through the discomforts of others. Public space is or should be a place where frictions or conflicts are dealt with.
RB: Yeah, exactly. As urbanites, we need to have a certain tolerance. That should be part and parcel of how we understand the city. There needs to be an openness towards friction. I mean, for some people to claim porous spaces will be a process that is friction-full, noisy, and messy. Rather than the call to control or police this, it needs to be accepted, responded to, and engaged with. This is not to say that it is going to be a fun or easy thing to move towards. The establishment of a democratic city will be a messy process that will be uncomfortable for some while creating more comfort for others.
BN: What is next for the Smooth City?
RB: I would be curious to work further on the notion of porosity. The book is mostly an analysis of smoothness and the first forward-looking elements of the Porous City. It would be interesting to work more with architects and designers to understand how we can facilitate the emergence of the Porous City. There is definitely a role to play for architects and designers, planners, civil servants, artists, and social movements. Where can we find each other to constitute forms of porosity? That is what I would be interested in elaborating on. There is a role for architecture students there, I think. It is something that should be brought into the curriculum rather than being servants of capital and designing new
towers. How can we work on this together? I think that would be an interesting question.
BN: Can you tell us about the collages in the book?
The collages in the book are by Kees de Klein, a graphic designer and visual artist. He made them as part of a conversation on contemporary smoothness. We have been collecting and sharing photos, art, articles, and advertising, and he brought them into this world [the collages]. We avoided using photos of certain parts of the city, even if it is Hudson Yards, King’s Cross, or Central Amsterdam. Smoothness is also a kind of extreme horizon that we are working towards, but I do not think it exists in its purest form. The purest form of smoothness is, of course, a completely dictatorial environment, right? You can give examples of how you think it looks, but it is really not there. That is why we used Smoothscapes as a way to visualize this world. The Smoothscapes in the book also have fractures and frictions in them, which may hint that the Smooth City is very fragile. Sometimes, it comes across as very organized, fixed, or as something that is given and that there is no way to change. In the collages, we try to give a hint that it might fall apart soon. If you stop maintaining the Smooth City every day, it probably falls apart in no time. The porosity is always there, always around the corner and closer than we think.
BN: Thank you so much, René.