What we are witnessing of course – at the basest, most frivolous level – is the globalisation of uniqueness, the internationalisation of the particular, the homogenisation of the peculiar.
We are witnessing the specificities that we pay lip service to being rendered generic.
We should not be complacent about this process. At a rather more elevated level it has been going on for a long time. Look back a century to the means by which a gamut of states and cities attempted to assert their individuality and nationalism. Riga, Brussels, Nancy and Genoa all resolved at just about the same moment to renew themselves through the architectural employment of art nouveau. They proclaimed their aspirant uniqueness by resort to a common device. So distant places became similar by striving to be idiosyncratic.
This homogeneity is entirely at odds with the homogeneity of the Hansa cities that wittingly, deliberately, shared an architectural idiom of crowstepped gables – from Bruges to Stralsund to Tallinn – to proclaim the strength and unity of that league, which was God's first try at the EU. Recall, too, the Catholic church's use of the baroque as architectural propaganda for the counter-reformation: again the intention was to advertise indivisibility and might. Then there was the Roman empire, whose buildings paid little heed to crude vernacular idioms and adhered to the same archetypes from northern Africa to northern England. Again the aspiration was the proclamation of indivisibility.
The homogeneity we are witnessing in cities across the world at present is not the result of a deliberate strategy of this kind. It is, rather, caused by an unconscious corporatism. By a flock mentality. By the misapprehension that the responsible stewardship of cities is best addressed by copying the ploy of some other city – and that other city is invariably Bilbao.
Gehry's Guggenheim fulfils its function, which is not to be an effective museum or even to be a resolved building. Its function is to be sufficiently unusual, sufficiently photogenic and telegenic to cause Bilbao to be talked about. It has succeeded wonderfully. Like the Veterano Osborne bull, which used to stand on every roadside in Spain, it is a memorable logo. In this case, a 3D logo. Its potency resides in its novelty, not in its long-term, sustainable utility. But at least it belongs to Bilbao, which it has put on the map – for the moment.
Now the clamour by other former heavy industrial, rustbelt cities to commission a building by Gehry or a building that might be taken for a building by Gehry or at least a non-orthogonal landmark gesture … this clamour is as pitiful as it is loud. It presumes that any city is susceptible to the Bilbao effect. This would be rash enough, were the Bilbao effect proven by time. But given that the Guggenheim has only been open for half a decade, the rush to follow its example points both to a failure of imagination and – the same thing, really – to a thralldom to fashion. Which is, of course, hardly surprising: the history of architectural and urbanistic endeavours from single buildings to entire cities is that of one goat leading an entire flock of broadly plagiaristic sheep.
When that plagiarism is confined to decorative styles – round arches or pointed arches, classical or gothic, concrete or glass – it is not too grave a matter. But when that plagiarism informs devices on which the commonwealth of a entire region may come to depend – then we're in trouble. The notion that inward investment to a region will continue to be attracted by what may be called gestural engineering is surely naive. Especially when the gesture has been made before, elsewhere, and often. These gestures are add-ons. Their very essence is that they are economically, socially and culturally – if not physically – peripheral. They both bypass the core problems of a deregulated, diffuse world and they are agents of a new homogenisation. Gestural engineering is a bit like the UN – set up to provide the solutions to problems that belong to yesterday. For all their synthetic modernism, gestural engineering's products are retrospective. And reactive.
We talk of regeneration. Not generation.
We are obliged to travel increasing distances to where we work and the stress of that process is such that we travel to escape where we are obliged to live. Voluntary travel has become the cure for mandatory travel, a kind of mad homeopathy
The electronic cottage and the wired apartment that have been predicted for the last quarter-century have not come to pass. They may one day become reality. But there is a very good reason why they may not. There is a very good reason why we are not eager to work alone in virtual space – and that is that the workplace remains, as it has done since the industrial revolution, the primary site of social intercourse. We might all harbour idle dreams of living like a fictive poet in a garret, dying of consumption for the sake of an adverbial clause – but we pretty soon dismiss such dreams. They are idle. We need the workplace because it is a club, a dating agency, a forum, a colloquium, a congregation, a perpetual if too-sober party. It is going to take much more than the telephone, the fax, the web, conference calls, electronic mail, video links and so on to make the workplace disappear. When we discern even the vaguest possibility of its disappearance we act fearfully and we invent quasi-workplaces – they're called conferences. They are workplace substitutes. They are mutable workplaces. But whether the workplace is fixed or shifting it is still physically separate from home.
The extent of that physical separation increased throughout the 20th century. Suburbs have different meanings in different countries. In the UK and the USA, "inner city" is a lazy shorthand for crime, for drug-ridden degradation, for despair. In those and other anglophone countries, the word "suburb" is invariably prefixed by "leafy" – that is, desirable. In France it's the other way round – you can substitute "banlieu" for inner city: I have seldom felt so threatened as when I spent some days filming in Marne La Vallée. The fact is that inner cities, whatever their sociopathic potential – which in the UK at least is showing a certain diminution – are, by definition, finite: a few hectares, a few arrondisements. Most of us, faute de mieux, live in suburbs, or suburbs' suburbs, or suburbs' suburbs' suburbs – in subtopia … which is now dignified by the epithet of exurbia. And exurbia is infinite. Look at this city, look at London, look at Paris, look at the Ruhr, look at Lille/Tourcoing/Roubaix, look at Los Angeles. Now look at where the locational magnets that draw inward investment are sited. They are in the very centres of those places. Those centres are being fed like ducks and geese whose livers are bloated by gavure. Inward investment is currently exacerbating the arteriosceloritic condition of the developed world. It is diminishing the quality of life that we, as individuals, endure.
I am not so fastidious as to suggest that exurbia does not create a sense of place – but I'm realistic enough to believe that the sort of sense of place it creates is a place to escape from. But where to?
Forty seven per cent of Britons want to emigrate.
The entire population of Holland often seems to be in the Lozère, the supposedly most depopulous department in France. The anthemic We've Got To Get Out Of This Place is a condition of exurban Europe. We are obliged to travel increasing distances to where we work and the stress of that process is such that we travel to escape where we are obliged to live. Voluntary travel has become the cure for mandatory travel, a kind of mad homeopathy.
I recently remarked to what we must call a workplace audience – a conference on transport – that the swiftest means of curtailing indiscriminate travel would be to abandon all security checks. Let anybody on: no scans, take the risk. This was intended against itself, ironically, as a jest. Yet it didn't prompt laughter – to my astonishment it occasioned applause: there is a growing recognition that it is our dependence on and addiction to mobility that is the paramount topic to be addressed. But since it is evidently unrealistic to inhibit mobility even by such drastic means as I've suggested, the appetite for mobility must be harnessed as an instrument of renewal.
The curtailment this involves is that of ceasing to increase the capacity of already unmanageable agglomerations. There is here an obvious cultural force that can be allied to mobility. And that is the fact of capital cities' having effectively seceded from the countries they supposedly lead. Take the example I know best – an extreme example, admittedly: London. It has, over the past few decades, turned its back on Britain to first gain and then sustain a place at the high table of world cities. It corresponds with New York, Paris, Tokyo, and so on, in a way that it doesn't correspond with Bristol, Manchester, Leeds. There are chasms between London and the British regions – there is a gap of wealth that is largely created by the grossly disproportionate heft of inward investment; there is a gap of opportunity, there is a gap of economic and social expectation. Yet at the same time the quality of life enjoyed or, rather, suffered by Londoners is diminishing: Greater London now extends 80 km east to west and 60 km north to south. It is incoherent, undesirable and unworkable. It is a Victorian Los Angeles built for horse transport, and dependent on an internal mobility that its very size and exceptionally low density militate against achieving.
London's obese dysfunctionalism is a more powerful spur to the renewal of the UK's regions and of de facto regional capitals than any qualities those regions possess.
This may sound entirely negative. It is.