Citizen Designer and Architectural Assistant at Herzog & de Meuron Raneen Nosh on city planning for social connectivity, the influence of the developer economy on urban design, and the role of Google Maps on a growing Dubai.

Tracy: You and I once had a conversation where you were asked to be part of a project about public space and public parks. They teamed the participants with others who had different practises, but similar experiences or bodies of work. Want to tell me about this project?


Raneen: Yes certainly. I was teamed with a woman who was a psychologist focusing on memory, and because some of my work in the past had to do with memory and space, they thought we'd be a good fit. We discussed all sorts of things about memory and place, but particularly the idea of sitting in a park with your cell phone. There seems to be a new use of public parks, or public space, for our generation, whereas before, people would go to a public park to be engaged socially - to take a step out of their day-to-day and wind down, meet people, or connect to people. They've just passed a law [in Canada] where they're wiring up public parks with wifi, so that brought us to discuss the question of how that's going to change the public experience of being in a park. Instead of public spaces being public, it's now almost as though they are private spaces. Now it's a private experience in a public space, because everyone is engaged in very private things on their phone. This brings up fascinating things about youth generation. So my thesis was based on internet phenomenon and internet infrastructure; I researched the hell out of .. well, the internet. [Laughter]


Your research also focused on memory, space, along with the internet? 


In my undergraduate thesis I focused on displacement and cultural personal memory for those who had been displaced; those who had been disconnected through war. How they recreate a sense of memory and home in displacement. But I'm always interested in the phenomenological experience of design which ties into public spaces, and I think that's really changing for the younger generations because of the internet. There's a lot to say in terms of how the internet is reconstructing the social realm, and its impacts socially.


Because they're not in a present place; they're no longer there to experience where they are, they're there experiencing where they want to be?


Right. And I see these social platforms as platforms of research as well. For example, Instagram as a platform to look at: how we use it versus how teenagers use it is very different, yet we're using it simultaneously. When you look at our grandparents and the technology they were brought up around, there's a 40 or 50 year gap between us. The technology available was completely different. But now when you look at our parents' demographic versus our kids' demographic, (that same age gap) everyone's using the same technology at the same time, but how we use it is completely different. I follow my cousin's daughter [on Instagram], and I've been watching her grow up through it, and when you look at how teens use Instagram, it's all about the 'Likes', and it's all about the comments: "You look so beautiful today babe". There's all of this seeking of self confirmation - it's a massive popularity contest. Remember the idea of popularity in the halls in high school? Those natural social conditions that happen at that age are now transformed into this medium where the amount of likes, or the amount of confirming approvals - not even from people you personally know, are so impactful. It's no longer simply the halls in high school, but now a global platform that is telling them: "Yes continue to be narcissistic". I really think it's troubling because it's confirming that this generation could, and should, care that much about these very trivial things.


Tell me about the time you were watching this happen on the bus in Vancouver.


Yes, so a perfect example of this is when I  was sitting on a bus one day beside a girl who was around 20, and she had her phone out. It was hard not to watch her because I'm so fascinated by these kinds of concepts. She was going through pictures of her and her friends, and she was spending time zooming into her own face changing her complexion, changing the brightness of her eyes, and she sat there staring endearingly at her constructed self. It wasn't about who she was with - she didn't seem to care at all what her friends looked like, or the composition of the image - she was just focused on her own image. And I just sat there fascinated, thinking about how that's okay now; that's encouraged. I mean, I would feel embarrassed if I were to do that in public or for someone to see how narcissistic I could be, but it's publicly okay for this generation to be that consumed with the self over others. You know, it's socially acceptable for a young generation who don't know otherwise. They're going to grow up thinking their sense of worth is what they look like, how many 'Likes' they get, how many other people say, "You're cool, you're beautiful, you're hot."


It's important to keep reminding ourselves that the value in us all is what we do for others not what we look like or who we know - which is easy to get caught up with in a commercial society. Today we're looking at people who actually do good in the world vs people who just think they look good. But who gets more public attention? The Dan Blizerians of the world. It can be embarrassing to look at when you take a step back.


Right. Exactly. And these platforms can be used in such a more meaningful way. I use it to capture things that I see in a day that inspires me: how the light hits a wall, or a captivating focus or conceptualizing shape. It's an interesting time to be part of that transition while being involved in a creative field. And with that, hopefully we can start reflecting back somehow.

Going back to public space being designed for social connection, you once mentioned international influence on municipalities that are accustomed to building a certain way, and how it might help to bring a more dynamic solution to problems that arise with constantly using the same city planners. How can bringing in new minds help to circumvent these issues of stale planning?


Yes, going back to one of the conditions of Vancouver is that we're a young city but we're also a beautiful city: our natural environment is really stunning. We're very preoccupied by our landscapes so we've turned our back on our cultural diversity and personality. With it being a developer city where it's developing for a certain value per square foot rather than a dynamic public space, it's a frustrating thing to be a citizen of. As a designer [who lived] in this city I think about it often. If I were to be involved with planning I'd think how I could give back in terms of creating cultural diversity and excitement. How you grow a community of connected people is you give them open public forums or public spaces where they can just spend time. I remember certain parts of the cities I love: the canal in Paris where people could just go and bring their wine, bring their bread, have picnics, drink in public, and have conversations with strangers. Perhaps part of the notoriously 'cold' nature of Vancouver is that we don't have flexible public space where you don't have to buy a coffee or otherwise, in order to be social. Where is Vancouver's place where people can go, where anyone can throw an event, anyone can throw a party? We're missing a place that could be used by so many different demographics which is huge for the happiness of a city - that intergenerational dialogue where you don't have to spend money to have it. 

Vancouver is locked-up in a certain way of city making, and by having international thinkers and makers come in and to hear how they read this city would be enlivening. Herzog and de Meuron gave a lecture about their reading of the city, and it was neat to hear a different perspective. There were things that they thought were really beautiful about Vancouver that I had never really seen before, but they also noted what we're lacking in terms of our thinking about city making. As a citizen of Vancouver I know that there is a lot that is often criticized. I mean how many people do you know that say they need to get out of Vancouver, or that it's hard to be inspired or creative in Vancouver. And why are we having those conversations?


Most people I know often leave in search for more vibrancy, soul, or culture. There are also more fulfilling opportunities elsewhere, so it leaves you to wonder why Vancouver is not connected enough, diverse enough, or more advantageous.


I realized that difference when I was living in Tokyo. They'd have one block of many different types of buildings and awkward little crevices made into others in between. At one point their building bylaws and zoning changed every ten years, so a building goes up under a certain code and regulation - which means certain height restrictions, skyline heights, materials, etc - and then it changes ten years later. Because of this they have a city block that grows more organically; it's just more natural in terms of what types of buildings, or programs, or other uses are being applied. This way you also have a mash-up of different economies; you could have a porn building right next to a noodle shop, beside a weird crevice of two meters wide that is being filled by something else really unfitting yet so fascinating. There's this very rich urban fabric and comparatively looking at a block in Vancouver, code and bylaw here is notably restrictive. Of course you could work within those restraints and create something innovative out of that, but we tend to just build very homogeneously - they don't let a lot of diverse talent in. I'd say it's a very singular layered city as well: there is no mash up of different programming, or of different buildings on top of each other.


Compared to Tokyo, Vancouver is a very new city is it not?


Well Tokyo is fairly new as well - they had an economic problem in the 80s but what's interesting about Tokyo is that the urban plan is based on the the Edo period, in the 1800s or even further back, yet the buildings are fairly new, so there's this contrast of new development over an old plan. There are really interesting sliver conditions and really awkward sites that a building footprint would go on; they have really fascinating buildings that go up out of necessity, because it's an island and they don't have that much space for expansion. I felt more than any other city I've been in that it's a city of verticality. You're always going up into overpasses, then underground, and into underpasses; you're always going up and down, then back up again, and down again after that.


I remember going so deep into basements to restaurants and then up so high to a tiny dance club in Shinjuku.


Yeah, you've been! There's always this mystery: you don't know what you're getting into. You're going downstairs or you look up and there's Sushi on the 7th floor. There's this movement that is unlike so many other cities; it's a very corporeal bodily experience I find, navigating in that city. You would be squeezed into these small alleyways and then it shoots you out into these large boulevards. It's a very somatic experience.


Not knowing what to expect, whereas in North American cities you can guess what the width of almost every road you turn on is going to be. And you can very well assume what's going to be on that street. Interesting to think about. So what did you notice when you first went to Switzerland in terms of experiencing the city plan there?


So I went to Basel which is a very small mythical town with cobble streets, and the scale is smaller which I like. I didn't go to Geneva, just Zurich and Basel and then I went up to an area in the mountains called Vals where a Swiss architect named Peter Zumthor did a really neat building for a thermal bath. It's an incredibly spiritual experience, as kind of a pilgrimage--or an architectural pilgrimage I suppose. It's something that you study: it's a very important building and you could spend all day in it. There's this rural hillside with goats and a very beautiful landscape. Inside you walk through these different tempered baths which are at different temperatures - some are body temperatures, others warmer. One small room you'd walk into, the aroma was incredible and then you realize it's all flower petals. It's a really fascinating thing. They're all thermal baths that are natural to that area.


Sounds amazing. Did you find Zurich has more eco-forward building methods or architectural innovation compared to the West?


I had talked to someone who was discussing construction methods there, and they're very considerate about the building envelope - their construction practises are really strong. They physically make buildings really, really well, so they last long. Having a good envelope (which would be the surrounding walls) can be so much more energy efficient than what we know over here. However Vancouver has apparently come out with a new bylaw (or will be doing so sometime this year) requiring thicker window panes and better envelope assembly which means they aim to be more energy efficiency. So Vancouver's definitely not too far behind.


I've heard you use the term "Eyes on the Street". Can you explain what this concept is about?


Yes, it was coined by Jane Jacobs who was based in New York. She's a well known author who wrote a book called The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She often discussed the urban fabric of New York and how she was opposing "planner" ideas of city making. She came to it from more of a citizen problem, or a street level discussion about what makes a more dynamic city. She argued that urban renewal did not respect the needs of most city dwellers, and introduced concepts like Eyes on the Street, and Social Capital, coming from an understanding of diverse urban conditions throughout history. Every new city she would start thinking of, she would come from that level and those points of view.


So getting people out from their apartments and onto the streets to connect and discuss their own city - taking back that power of say?


Yeah, she mentioned those brownstone walkups and this subsequent urban life on the street: the 'eye' on the street created a safer street because you know there are people looking out for everyone else - your community or your neighbourhood watching the city and interacting with the city and those hustling about within the city. It gives citizens more autonomy when they are involved in those ways.


I noticed exactly that in Italy. In Santa Margharita Ligure, this tiny town on the Riviera that tourists pass through on the way to Genoa or Portofino. There was a lady's small but very fancy boutique clothing store next to another man's traditional restaurant. Walking by, I noticed she stepped out to chat with the restaurant owner, leaving her businesses unlocked - no 'closed' sign or chained doors. It was as though they knew that because their community was so strong it was safe. They would laugh and catch up everyday like this - sweep the storefronts outside every morning - chatting to everyone who passed by. They didn't have that individualistic fear of: "My business is all that matters, and others are only competition." Another night, I watched as a 17 year old boy enjoyed a glass of wine with a 75 year old man, and they would both chat to anyone who came into the cafe. It was a very comforting feeling.


Yes, that cross-generational interaction - which we're loosing a little bit here. Growing up hearing stories from our elders or growing up sitting around talking with people of different age groups is massively important. That's how you hear life experience from different vantage points. There's this theory that came up after Carl Jung, called the Erikson Stages of Development which has a chart showing from zero to two, from two to four, etc. All the different ages that you go through in life have different existential lessons that you need to learn at that age, like basic instincts. From zero to two you learn about trust which comes from the mother and if you don't get these kind of existential confirmations from your network - first the mother, then the parents, then the family, then school, and lastly from society (it keeps expanding as your world does). So if you don't get certain things at certain points then [your nervous system] can't call upon the experience later and you develop problems. So part of this in the later years comes through conversations with elders or hearing stories from your older community. You learn as a child from those with more experience everyday, but later on we're missing out on a big part of understanding life, and also the compassion that comes with those experiences.


Also perhaps because we don't grow up in large families here? I met this woman from Pakistan who was raised in such a way that if her mother couldn't interact with the kids one day, there were aunts and cousins living in the same house, her grandma right across the field in the back yard, and they knew every neighbour their whole lives. So it wasn't as demanding for women to be this powerhouse expected to do everything herself, with responsibilities isolated from others. If her parents were exhausted from work, they could have a nap and she wouldn't be stranded for stimulation and affection - things that, going back to Erikson's Stages, are requirements for a child's healthy brain development, and mental illness prevention later on in life.


Yeah it's kind of like the community or the tribe raising the child - a community effort grows that security and confidence. And then take those points compared to where you're living in a high-rise because that's all that is available in your city. Families who don't have the backyard or the neighbourhood with friends to go run around outdoors with.


Which makes you wonder, why are we seeing the popularity of these high-rises in the mass amounts they're being built if they're not conducive to a healthy lifestyle?


It goes back to the developers. And then I guess the city needing to build vertical as they get more dense. Going into the history of the tower, Mies van der Rohe did one of the first high-rises in New York, and that tower became a symbol of the economy and capitalism: an artifact of the economy. When you think of development you're using less square footage of land, so going vertical of course means you could make more money off of each square foot. There's so much to learn about the politics of the tower, the tower being such a political symbol. But essentially all space is political and that's what's exciting about working in this field - it could also be seen as a political platform to create or induce social change, to push back up against the larger forces and build a society that is more community forward. And I think that's exciting.


We always see rendition images of cement structures turned into green spaces: gardens overgrowing window sills, trees planted on every exposed area of commercial buildings. It's like these are plans for cities that were forbidden to materialize. Stefano Boeri's Bosco Verticale is an example of something I'd anticipated for years. There are so many wonderful ideas sending the message that 'green' will be the future of cities, but there are the same 'eco-forward' photos or drawings from the 60s and 70s that only collected dust. Why is it so hard to fight for something so beautiful?


It's a pretty loaded question, going into the history of beautiful city movements and all these movements to make greener urban spaces - like the garden city movement, and then acting more on a micro level with how a domestic space can have that access to nature. I did one course and wrote a paper about Biophilia - which is a natural human need or desire for the natural environment. I wrote this paper particularly in regards to the biophelic rift, where not that we don't engage with nature anymore, but I think we engage with it differently. Our understanding of nature could possibly be different. No one is ever going to argue against going into a forest or getting away from technology by walking through a forest - everyone who experiences it understands that. There's this inherent need to connect to nature, which has been written about many times. So that will never go away but the way of accessing it might be different, and the way we think of nature might become different. I call it second nature, and maybe technology might be part of our second nature too. It's important to see how our society is changing and how that ideal could change with it. In the 1800s with the Industrial revolution, the idea of protected nature was huge. When industrialization was happening in the city, there were very oppressive factories and the idea of escaping that world mushroomed among workers. Parks in London grew from that, the idea of no city without a park became of that; there's a long history of our relationship to nature in the city from that point. Of course I'm stumbling to talk about this because there are so many layers that you could discuss it in.


You had a fascinating theory on Dubai that drew in the role of Google Maps. Can you discuss that a bit?


Yeah so part of that research was writing about the role of Google Maps and how it's affecting our understanding of the terrestrial landscape and nature. I talked about it though the example of Dubai because it was such a colossal and quick uprising of development. So looking at the history of the UAE and how Dubai needed to be on the international map to gain investors in order to fuel its developer economy, you begin to notice some parallels. There's a thick history as well on how that happened, but I was focused more on the fact that it needed Google Earth to be able to put itself on the global map, so essentially it was developed for, and by, Google Maps. Of course that can have you running into trouble. We saw how investors in Europe and the UK buying into these Palms that you could own - Palm Jumeirah and Palm Jebel Ali which were these manmade palmtree-like artificial islands they developed. And after the first island was fully invested into and bought out, it started sinking. So it was like an empty transaction - they already bought land that was now sinking, so what do you do with that? Talking about the problematics of understanding landscapes for, and from, above was case in point with Dubai. Our understanding of the inhabitation of land and the shifting landscape becomes disconnected when we just understand it from above. When you're in Dubai, as when I used to live there, the experience of the city is not a very connective experience - not to mention the shitty building construction methods, but things are so grand that it's not bodily. You're driving down a highway and you have to do all these extra turns to get to the other side. Things don't make sense on a body scale.


Because they're made mostly to look at from above.


Exactly, because it was built for viewing from above - to see in a plan and then to see from above - and it looks cool. I mean it really looks cool when you see all these stunning structures and these crazy landscapes from afar. So of course people think, "Hey I want to buy that island, what a beautiful world that is." But when you're there, things don't work, things aren't to scale of the body, or for the personal experience on the ground. I remember being in a mall and trying to find a washroom and it was absolutely massive. And you're thinking - "Where's the fucking washroom?" It's just missing some common thought.


Things are so grand you don't see much of the beauty on the street level? You don't see how impressive and intricate it is from so close as you might think would be the case.


Yeah, you don't experience it. The body is kind of lost on that scale. And zooming out to how the city was developed was actually not for the scale of the body, but for the scale of foreign investors being able to feel a part of this urban planning. To see from afar, not to visit. To own but not to live in.


Very interesting and something to think about. We're out of time but thanks again Raneen for sitting down to discuss all of these ideas and concepts. Best of Luck in Basel! 

Capture Queue is a one woman team, so it's always greatly appreciated if readers feel inclined to bring my attention to any typos or corrections.