A CONVERSATION BETWEEN ERLING FOSSEN AND THOMAS MCQUILLAN
The explosion of information and communication technologies has affected many aspects of architecture, but perhaps none so much as the formulation and practice of urbanism and regional development. The clear identity of traditional cities has given way to more nebulous, open and dynamic urban forms. Increasingly, urbanism is not so much a matter of developing models and projecting visions as it is a work of collaboration, interaction and politics.
As a result of this transition, the notion of context has expanded. In addition to the physical qualities of place and space, and the social norms that underlie them, contexts are increasingly layered with planning gestures, political programs and investment strategies. On the one hand, this change has introduced new frictions and viscosities for project realization, creating a wickedly complex environment of practice that resists planned urban change. On the other hand, however, this new environment has opened participation in urban development to a wider and more representative range of actors.
In a city like Oslo, where a positivist social-democratic system of planning and investment has been the norm for almost one hundred years, the emergence of market oriented politics has made this dilemma very clear. Oslo has suddenly found itself in a local network of European legislation and spending, and a global network of markets. But the local context of planning and legislation has been slow to address these new conditions, creating a political situation in Oslo that is out of step with the forces that affect it.
Recently, though, new political alternatives have begun to emerge. One of the most interesting new political groups is the Oslo Urban Forum, a loose grouping of academics, sociologists and artists, whose basic program is founded upon the organizational model of the network. We spoke with Shadow Parliament Chairman Erling Fossen about how politics is shaping Oslo.
TMQ: As a small city in a peripheral location, Oslo would seem prime for the kind of changed role that recent urban theory has championed: decentralization, mobility and globalism. What sort of role do you see for Oslo in this environment?
EF: Oslo is not dissimilar to many other European cities in this respect. Earlier, these cities had a more clearly defined position within a nation state, especially smaller capital cities such as Oslo. But with the growth of a global awareness of knowledge, economy and production, we see that the nation state and the city have different agendas. Examples of this are the American cities that mounted a vocal protest against the war in Iraq; cities don't profit from war in the way that nation states do. Cities are becoming increasingly interested in commerce, while nations still seem to be more interested in territory.
Globalization opens up new relations between cities, irrespective of their national locus, and provides them with a strong potential arena for action and influence. At the same time, these cities become exposed to competition in ways that they have not been previously. And survival in this new context is dependent upon the creation of what for the lack of a better term might be called 'foreign policy'‹ in other words, an interurban or intercity connection.
TMQ: What are the terms of this relation?
EF: The main impetus for this new situation is the loss of an industrial and manufacturing base, and the growth of an information or knowledge based economy. As a result, the way in which the generation of value occurs has also been transformed, since knowledge based enterprise has its own logic, based both on the speed of new communication but also on the long term burden of developing ideas. A postindustrial environment sees the city in a network of global connections rather than as a locus in a local context of materials and labor.
TMQ: But can Oslo really be called postindustrial, since it hardly seems to have ever been industrial?
EF: True. As Engels wrote in one of his travel letters, "the preconditions for modern society are both a proletariat and an industry," and of course, Oslo really never had either of these in a European sense, since at that time it was still really agrarian—occupied mainly with farming and forestry. But if we look at Oslo at the end of the 19th century, a majority of workers were employed in jobs that we would call industrial, such as manufacturing, production, packaging, distribution. And in this way, despite lacking the built artifacts of an industrial culture, Oslo behaved like an industrial town.
TMQ: How would you summarize the effects of this postindustrial development for Oslo?
EF: At the risk of sounding overly Marxist, I think it is true that an advanced society requires some form of production in order to allow it to operate within an environment of interurban competition. But production should not be understood in the old sense of the manufacture of goods, but rather as a product that can generate value. And in order to do this, a number of conditions need to be met.
The city needs to be actively networked both downstream and upstream, and understand its dependence on establishing and maintaining these connections. In addition, the increasingly heterogeneous population should be more integrated and activated‹remember, at the present time, Oslo is about 20% ethnic minorities. I believe in what Charles Jencks calls the heteropolis: "heterogeneity in itself becomes a positive cause of economic and cultural growth‹a reason for moving to the city." Another condition is venture capital, and this is where Oslo is most challenged.
Oslo is one of the smallest capital cities in Europe‹and there are more than 500 cities in the world that are larger. And despite the relative wealth of the state, there is very little indigenous risk oriented capital, and the scale of capital here simply doesn't correspond to the scale of markets. Additionally, foreign investors still consider the political and economic landscape of Oslo as too uncertain and too remote, and are unwilling to risk their money here. Finally, state capital, while relatively plentiful, has been generally focused on regional and rural development rather than on the city.
TMQ: An odd paradox considering that Oslo was recently found to be the most expensive city on earth, surpassing even Hong Kong, Tokyo and New York.
EF: Oslo has one of the best educated populations in Europe according to Eurostat, as well as one of the youngest populations. In addition, there is a high degree of technology penetration and savvy. This makes it kind of a research environment for the future. At the same time, there are active subcultural scenes, that make it an ideal place for 'slackers'. This is perhaps Oslo's most notable feature: that it is both subculturally active and technologically advanced. A noted local trend analyst told me: Oslo is a great place to find recreational violence or cocaine.
TMQ: You are a proponent of mobility and networking, but you seem tightly bound within the fabric of Oslo. Would you consider relocating to another city?
EF: Somebody told me once that in order for things to gravitate to a place, there has to be something there to gravitate around. Global nomadology still requires fixed locations. My more traveled friends make fun of me and try to intimidate me with the stories of their travels, but I am more interested in maintaining a sort of "working culture" here, where I can be part of making Oslo a genuine place to arrive. My project is one of implosion, of narrowing the radius of my circle of movement, while everyone else is exploding, expanding, extending, I am becoming more concentrated. Thus my movements have become much more focused in the center of town. I have my favorite places: I live right downtown‹I go to Original Nilsen on Rosenkrantzgate when I need to think; I go to Robinet on Mariboesgate when I need to drink; and I arrange 'InterCity', a political discussion bar at Zoo Lounge on Christian Augustsgate. And this describes a circle that is not more than 500 meters in diameter.
TMQ: So you are trying to become Oslo's focusŠ
TMQ: Some commentators have speculated that Oslo has few urban problems aside from its extreme indecisiveness, and that the real issue for it now is not so much the solution of problems as the creation of them, much in the way Deleuze calls philosophy 'creating problems'. In your political program, you call Oslo a 'virgin awaiting her first intercourse'. What kinds of problems do you foresee for her?
EF: In many ways, Oslo has come to the end of the line, the end of history, and thus also to a new beginning. Prosperity has become distributed widely among its inhabitants. So politics is not only about developing solutions to problems, but about creating meaning. One of Oslo City Action's most important tasks now is to reunite individuals with their political essence. Representative political systems divide people in two zones‹ individuals focus on civilian goals, while politicians take care of the political sphere. The goal of our organization is the development of a participatory democracy in which individuals take control of their city‹this is the only way to become a producer of one's own life, rather than simply a consumer.