Book Review

Performative Urbanism

Generating and Designing Urban Space
Sophie Wolfrum and Nikolai Frhr. v. Brandis (Eds.)

This is a collection of academic essays based on the symposium Performative Urbanism held by the Technical University of Munich in 2013. Starting from the notion that architecture is the art of articulating spaces, the book explores the relationship between the built form and the urban realm, or how the space is used while experiencing the architecture around it. The book cites Jean Baudrillard’s theory that buildings or cities without scenic space would just be merely a structure or an agglomeration of structures.

While this debate has so far been carried out mostly in cultural and theatre forums, the aim of the book is to transfer the discussion onto the streets and explore the potentially performative ability of architecture. By simply walking or strolling along the streets, one becomes part of a play or some other sort of event.

To take it further, this concept is applied to everyday urban spaces. A square is a set of soft and hard landscaping without any urban relevance unless it is used. According to the authors, the shift is that we are no longer interested in signature architecture but in good quality public realm. Spaces are designed to have a level of unpredictability and ambivalence in the way that people perceive and use them, and have an intrinsic ability to transform and adapt. Nevertheless, personal perception and subjective disposition play a key role: for example walking through a space would be a different experience than seeing the space from above.

While most essays in the book try to define the concepts of performance and performativity – meaning the act of performing and the creation of a new reality – others showcase examples like those by Assemble, a London based design group, whose work can be described as performative in the sense that it’s less about the building, than about the process of getting there and using it.

I question who the book is written for and how relevant it is for urban designers. Despite the subject being urban spaces and the public realm, the text is very academic, making it inaccessible and for a narrow audience. If the authors aimed at sparking ideas to create places that are inclusive and accessible to all, a more concise version around the key points and in plain english, would have probably been enough.

URBAN DESIGN 143 Summer 2017 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 143 Summer 2017

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Performative Urbanism  Publication Urban Design Group
978 3 86859 304 4
Reviewed By
Daniela Lucchese, an independent urban designer and masterplanner