Tom Avermaete | Maren Harnack | Owen Hatherley | Michelle Provoost | Stalker

Between Common Good and Good Intentions


As urbanisation is growing at incredible rates in many countries from China to Africa, the instrument of the planned city is increasingly seen as a way to accommodate the population growth. This reminds us of New Towns in the post war era built in the UK and other Western European countries. They represented architecture’s most ambitious effort at working for the common good. New Towns were the result of the political ambition to construct the Welfare State. Beginning in England, and spreading through Europe the New Town model was exported to post-colonial Africa, South America and Asia. They were the ideal projection of the new society to be created. But in the decades thereafter, the difficulties of building a city from scratch have become obvious. A lot of the cities in the West are now perceived as failures, no matter how idealist their origins. On the other hand, their African counterparts are being perceived as successful.

In this talk I want to make a comparison between to cities which are conceptually very similar, but have been built in a very different socio-political context: the New Towns Hoogvliet in the Netherlands (near Rotterdam) and Tema (near Accra) in Ghana. Both are generic social-democratic worker cities designed according to the neighbourhood principle, hierarchically structured and without any eye-catching or iconic architecture. Both were model cities setting a new standard for housing and living environment in their respective contexts. Hoogvliet’s popularity declined starting in the eighties, parts of it became seen as a ghetto and large scale renewal has taken place, demolishing ca. 30% of its housing stock. Tema’s popularity is still rising and the city is proving to be a magnet for migration from the countryside, which is accommodated by taking advantage of its modernist open structure.

Western cities of the generation of Hoogvliet were the example for cities like Tema. Now that migration puts forward a new challenge to Western cities, can they learn from the way African cities like Tema have dealt with migration, flexibility, adjustment and resilience?

Can and should designers and planners nowadays still engage in planning for large scale urbanisation? Should we admire the strive for the common good or discard it as naive good intentions?

Michelle Provoost PhD is an architectural historian, author, curator and consultant in the field of urban planning and architecture. With Crimson Architectural Historians (1994, Rotterdam) she worked on many research and design projects and published articles, chapters and books. From 1997-2007 she was a staff member of WiMBY!, an urban regeneration project in Rotterdam-Hoogvliet. In 2003 she wrote her PhD Hugh Maaskant. Architect of Progress. From 2008 she has been the director of the International New Town Institute, a non-profit think-and-do-tank engaged in the research and design of new cities.