Designing Urban Transformation
Many practitioners who combine professional experience with an academic role seek to reconcile the two, drawing lessons from one to apply to the other. Assem Inam is in this territory, having undertaken projects in diverse locations, from deprived Karachi to the affluent fringes of Los Angeles, and taught at institutions including Parsons and MIT.
Designing Urban Transformation seeks to draw threads between these direct experiences and a range of interventions in cities around the world. The thesis underpinning these references is that existing design methodologies lack a suitably holistic view of the conditions shaping the city, and tend to prioritise the aesthetic and spatial over other characteristics.
Inam advocates an approach that he terms Pragmatism, building on a philosophical model developed in the United States from the last quarter of the 19th century onwards. Its proponents argue, in place of a dogmatic and ideological outlook, for an attitude of knowledge applied to practical problem solving. In pursuit of his argument, Inam draws on a wide range of seemingly disparate reference projects, which he assesses not in visual terms but in the context of the wider urban forces they have shaped or help exemplify. These projects include the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Village, Boston’s ‘big dig’ and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Each of them is discussed in some detail both in terms of their physical form and location in time; the broader trajectories of the cities in which they are located and their social and economic characteristics, are also covered. The book is organised according to a series of thematic chapters building towards ‘urbanism as a creative political act’.
Designing Urban Transformation declares it is aimed at practising urbanists, including but not limited to those classifying their practice as urban design, architecture or landscape, with a broader sweep including urban policy and development. Inam’s sincerity is not in question, but the text is so broad and the loci of intervention so varied and seemingly random, that it is hard to draw coherent or practical threads that most readers would find useful. Inam’s urbanism is close to New Urbanism but distinct from it. His text includes many truths and truisms, but its call to arms is cast so widely that it lacks the incisive and radical edge that one might have hoped for. His studio at MIT proposed comedic improvisation as a design methodology; it is a shame that the book as a whole did not carry this wit and lateral approach all the way through.