AD Interviews: Saskia Sassen

By Becky Quintal – August 22, 2013

Arch Daily

Sociologist Saskia Sassen researches and writes about the social, economic and political dimensions of globalization, immigration, and networked technologies in  around the globe. Her books and writings—published in over sixteen languages—have sustained the interests of architects and planners who seek to better understand the city via the systemic conditions that find expression in the reality of urban space.

Now actively involved in teaching Columbia University, we caught up with Sassen at the Arquine Congress in Mexico City, where she shared some interesting views on the role of architects, her contemplations on the future of the city, and her thoughts on the impact of the internet on the city.

Saskia Sassen: I’m Saskia Sassen, professor at Columbia University, and I work on a series of types of events that are windows into larger, complex, often intractable realties. One of those spaces is the city. Not just public space—the city. The center of the city especially. I’m not an urbanist; but the city, the national state, migration flows—they are all windows, lenses into larger, systemic conditions.

ArchDaily: What is Architecture?

Saskia Sassen: For me architecture at its best is a form of knowledge. It is not just putting up walls. It is incorporating all the knowledge we have.  How can we use biospheric capabilities and how can we insert them in buildings? How can we use technologies, light, existing breeze, etc? It really is a form of knowledge; but a form of knowledge that is an axial condition that brings together many different forms of knowledge to come up with something. I make a big distinction between simply building a building (construction, the construction industry) and architecture. A lot of what goes under the name of architecture, I think, is a very mediocre form of knowledge. It’s not living up to what it should be.

ArchDaily: What should be the role of architects in society?

Saskia Sassen: The architect faces a challenge; the architect increasingly has to work with engineers, with topographic experts, with seismic experts, with climate change experts, with flooding experts and, what is at the top of the agenda, is with biologists. How do we begin to use the biosphere? And how do we insert its capabilities in building? That, to me, is at the top of the agenda. And that is where most architects are not up to the task. They know now that they have to work with engineers because otherwise buildings would not stand. They are beginning to know that they need to work with seismic and flood experts—it’s on the agenda. The biological bit is not as strongly on the agenda as it should be. It’s not enough to plant trees on balconies; it goes much deeper. For me, the architect is somebody who has to work with experts in many different disciplines.  It also means that if you are going to do architecture in low-income, precarious environments you need to know the topography of the place. You need to know what is going to happen to the water and run-off.  It is the obligation of the architect to have a lot of knowledge and the only way you can be good at it is to work in a networked-knowledge space.

ArchDaily: What kind of architectural school do you prefer?

Saskia Sassen: I am not focused on architecture in terms of education; I intersect with architecture and I have my own ideas about architecture and the city. I know that at Harvard there is a whole group of students that have a totally different agenda. Same thing at Avery Hall in Columbia. It’s variable: at this end maximizing the use of technology to build scenarios, possibilities and at the other end the environment in between a lot of more artistic interventions where they are almost artists. Coming back to your question, I do think that very interesting things are happening. I was at University of Michigan two or three years ago and I spoke about cities and war. The dean wanted me to speak about that. These are totally different ways of understanding what it means to educate an architect in a very broad sense. Not the nuts and bolts of building a building but all the other dimensions that need to come into the picture. The other school that I’m impressed with is MIT. Those are the schools that I know. There are so many schools that I don’t know that might impress me more. I happen to know all of these top universities in the united states but it’s a very biased perspective. But they are all doing very interesting stuff – that’s one point to make.

ArchDaily: What will cities be like in the future?

Saskia Sassen: Well I have two scenarios: a very optimistic one and a very dystopian one. The dystopian scenario is that we will have a lot of private cities. Abuja is de facto a private city. It is how not to be in Lagos in Nigeria. The mechanism is very simple. Everything is super expensive. The milk, the houses, everything. It de facto eliminates all kinds of people. But I think we’re going to take it further. Songdo is sort of a private city. There are now big firms that sell you a city. They will build you a city. And some of them will rent you the city. So that’s the dystopian scenario. That’s the dystopian scenario; in other words we will have vast settlements with probably many toxic conditions, where a lot of people—modest, middle-class people—will be living in slums. In a country like Brazil, many people who are in the civil service of the government live in the slums. Same thing in India. This is contrasted with these brand new perfect cities that aren’t really cities in that full robust sense of the term.

At this end, my utopia is that when so many new people come to cities there is going to be a lot of making—making of sub-economies, not the economy. Making of urban agriculture, making of buildings that work with the environment. People of modest means will use their imaginations; they will understand how to make air circulate so that mosquitos are less likely to come in. They will work and have that knowledge—that is my optimistic scenario. So even a modest, poor slum will have people that know that the shack that they are building is part of larger systems. Then of course, the rich will be the rich and the upper-middle class will be the upper-middle classes. I think the modest middle-classes will keep on splitting up. The splitting up of the middle class has been happening for 25 years. I wrote about it in the late 1980s and people didn’t believe me. They said, “That’s not happening. We’re all becoming richer.” Well, no. Now we know that.

On a larger systemic map about cities, I think that the desirable, optimistic format is multiple articulations of the territory—not one endless metropolitan zone. I think we will have understood that the vast metropolitan area does not work.

The option is articulations. China is building all of these cities so they build nine small cities around Shanghai rather than letting Shanghai become an endless stretch. In my optimistic view, I see a different way of articulating the urban with territory. Moving away from metropolitanization.  Now, my Dutch, practical sense tells me that we’re not going to be able to do that. We’ll build something unmanageable and then the elites will move out and build a new private city.

Those are the two scenarios. There’s much more to be said but it’s a complicated question.

ArchDaily: What is the role of architecture in growing cities?

Saskia Sassen: I think of the city as a complex but incomplete system. There are other such systems; the city happens to be one of the most complex and the most incomplete. It is an extreme condition—a big working city. I like to work with extreme conditions. My assumption is that they are heuristic: that they produce knowledge about more than the thing itself. So I look at the city to understand all kinds of other things.

Architects could be doing much more in the city. But it would mean expanding the range of interventions that architects do and thinking of the city as a complex space where there are multiple very diverse points of intervention—looking at the slums, low-income neighborhoods, degraded spaces, toxic spaces. At the other end, we look at architecture as a form of art, where it is a beautiful work and it amplifies the experience of being in that place.

Click here for the full interview.