Observations on the open city: An interview with the filmmakers behind ‘The Quito Papers’

A still from “The Quito Papers: Towards an Open City”, which is currently on tour through select cities.

In 1933, Swiss-French modernist architect Le Corbusier led a coterie of fellow architects on a boat from Marseille to Athens. As they sailed the Mediterranean, they debated and elaborated what a “functional city” would look like. The results delineated what’s now known as the “tower in the park” model, with residential areas kept separate from commercial ones, all connected by highways with the private automobile as the primary form of transportation.

This marine meeting — officially, the fourth International Congress of Modern Architecture (abbreviated CIAM in French) — proved to be extraordinarily influential, shaping the look and feel of post-war cities across Europe, North America and beyond. Many of the key ideas hatched aboard the ship were published by Le Corbusier in 1933 as “The Athens Charter”, commonly referred to as the Charter of Athens.

More than three-quarters of a century later, a new group of highly respected urban thinkers with their own ideas about the future of cities are poised to try to knock the Charter of Athens off its intellectual pedestal. Even if the charter’s principles have fallen out of favour in most contemporary urban planning and design circles, its modernist ideals continue to sprout up in isolated tower blocks on the periphery of megacities across the developing world. Meanwhile, corporate interests are buying up large swaths of the urban core, rendering cities more and more homogeneous and sterile.

These trends alarm the quartet behind a project that’s being called the Quito Papers, a 21st-century intellectual rejoinder to the outsize influence of the Charter of Athens. Consisting of sociologists Saskia Sassen and Richard Sennett, urbanist Ricky Burdett, and former Barcelona mayor and UN-Habitat Executive Director Joan Clos, the authors behind the Quito Papers unveiled their project in October at the United Nations’ Habitat III conference in the Ecuadorian capital. (The book is expected to be published in the fall.)

[See: The Quito Papers: An intellectual counterpoint to the New Urban Agenda]

Since then, the four have embarked on a world tour to drum up interest in the project. Having stopped in Paris in December, they will present the Quito Papers publicly in London (31 January), Beijing (25 February) and New York City (sometime in April).

Those cities are among the world metropolises featured in an accompanying 15-minute documentary, “The Quito Papers: Towards an Open City”, directed by Cassim Shepard and Dominick Bagnato. The film splices scenes from the initial public lecture by the Quito Papers authors at Habitat III with images of daily life in Beijing, Karachi, Lagos, Quito, New York, London and São Paulo — bringing to life the conditions of cities in the 21st century.

Shepard is the founding editor of the online Urban Omnibus and teaches at Columbia University, where Sassen also is a professor. Bagnato is the assistant director for urban initiatives at the New York University Institute of Public Knowledge and manages the New York office of Theatrum Mundi, a network of artists and urbanists affiliated with the London School of Economics. (Burdett directs the LSE’s Urban Age Institute, Sennett has appointments at both NYU and LSE, and Theatrum Mundi hosted the initial workshops that sketched out the Quito Papers.)

See “The Quito Papers: Towards an Open City” here:

Citiscope spoke with Shepard and Bagnato from their New York office about the film and its role in translating the ideas in the Quito Papers. This interview has been edited slightly.

Gregory Scruggs: How did you represent the ideas behind the Quito Papers visually?

Cassim Shepard: It was important from the get-go to really play with this idea of the specificity of very distinct urban conditions. The Charter of Athens had this approach: This is how wide a street should be; this is how far apart the buildings should be from one another. Our desire was to come up with something that was a lot more based in the lived experience and the existing conditions of cities today.

One of the methodologies that we hit upon right away is a semi-collaborative or participatory approach. Rather than parachuting in to some of these very diverse urban contexts and trying to make sense of them cinematographically on our own, it would be much better served if we were to reach out to filmmakers who were based in a wide variety of urban contexts who knew their cities well, were sensitive to these issues, and put out a call for unedited footage from a wide variety of filmmakers in these diverse contexts.

Q: What surprised you in what came out of that open call?

Cassim Shepard: We were pleasantly surprised by cohesive scenes of urban dynamics that didn’t reify stereotypes. For example, we were looking for scenes of the formal economy, the interdependence of formal economic systems and informal economic systems in situations that we tend to equate exclusively with the informal. We were looking for scenes of hard infrastructure that reflected Charter of Athens functionalist principles, but then defined moments of human connection or reconfiguring of those spaces through informal actions that humanize some of this large infrastructure.

There’s a scene that we really love from Beijing of this highway overpass that on the one hand really represents in its design a key functional principle, which is that the main priority is to get the cars across the city as fast as possible. Pedestrians will figure out another solution after the fact, which will be to have them march up this steep set of stairs and across this overpass to get to the other part of the city from which the highway has disconnected them.

[See: A Clos-up view on urbanization]

What we loved in the footage was the way in which it revealed how this overpass had been turned into a market, where people were nodding hello to each other as they passed by. Eyes on the street [became] connections while engaging with a very hard, modernist piece of infrastructure that had been transformed through human ingenuity, innovation or just plain necessity into a market space.

“This is a film that is exploring existing conditions as a way to inspire thinking about how those conditions contain the seeds of their own regeneration, as opposed to creating imagery of an alternate, imagined future.”

Cassim Shepard
Columbia University

Dominick Bagnato: Rather than us being descriptive — “We want you to get a shot of X” — it was more, “You know the city better than us, and we want some sequences of the informal.” That is a relatively vague thing to ask for, but when you get talented filmmakers, they know how to visualize that, and what they gave back to us spoke to what hopefully the text does as well. It shows that these things are not specifically prescriptive, but they’re open in their own way.

Cassim Shepard: The city is the product of many authors. So it’s not a situation where the normative principles for 21st-century urban development should be, “This is how you build a city.” Rather, whatever those principles are, they should emerge from observation of how people are using space.

There was a big desire in the film to identify sequences from the footage that we collected that showed people interacting with space where they had agency in the interaction with that space. They weren’t passive victims of modernist age master planning, but were in fact going about their daily lives in ways that showcase the human capacity to transform urban space.

Dominick Bagnato: Largely what wound up what going into the film is just that. It’s examples of people dwelling in spaces in cities.

Q: Were there examples of wildly different cities that, when juxtaposed, showed a common thread?

Dominick Bagnato: Yes and no. In the details you see how things are different, but obviously when you put street food next to street food, and they’re two different cities, you see people are using this space informally. Still, with editing, you can do that with almost any footage.

Cassim Shepard: There are two major expository frames that really determined how the footage is arranged. We needed to explain the basics of Habitat III and the collaboration between Dr. Clos’s team and the team that included Richard [Sennett], Saskia [Sassen] and Ricky [Burdett] among many others. We also looked at the footage first on its own terms, in terms of making these sequences that were slightly counterintuitive and slightly challenged our received wisdom or stereotypes about these places. That was level one.

[See: Lessons for Habitat III from the Venice Architecture Biennale]

Level two was how do these reflect the need for a new set of principles that really question ideas of the openness of the city, which is what Richard talks about; the ownership of the city, which is what Saskia talks about; and the design of the public realm, which is what Ricky’s main contribution to the discourse has been. We were not using this footage in any way to be symbols of, “These are the answers of what the 21st-century open city should look like” — not by any means. These are places that are very much contending with the legacy of the Charter of Athens planning.

While we find a lot to be encouraged by in the ways that human beings and neighbourhoods are using these spaces, and making them work for themselves, there is a lot of work to be done in terms of humanizing these environments and making them more emancipatory, more environmentally sustainable, have more economic opportunities, etcetera.

We were very conscious that the footage was not to be presented as normalizing crisis conditions in megacities and fetishizing the informal by any means. Quite the contrary — we were trying to show both the resilience of neighbourhood spirit in diverse contexts as well as how all of these places have a lot of challenges in common.

The challenge of single-purpose infrastructure and single-use zoning ideas comes through for me really strongly in a diversity of contexts — whether it’s the construction scene of an entirely new mega-development on the outskirts of Lagos or similar construction happening in the outskirts of Karachi. And then that compares and contrasts with both positive and negative examples that come from the redevelopment of East London for the Olympics, which also is in there.

[See: Placemaking and the promise of the New Urban Agenda]

“If there is any type of prescription, it’s really just prescribing that certain questions should be asked more so than others. And definitely not that any one thing is the answer, which is the big difference from the Charter of Athens.”

Dominick Bagnato
New York University

Q: The Charter of Athens has plenty of architectural sketches, but it did not have the benefit of video technology. Do you think that this film component is not just a documentary but in a way part and parcel of the Quito Papers?

Cassim Shepard: First of all, I teach filmmaking techniques to architects, urban planners and urban designers for a living, and so I’m a big believer in the fact that moving image and audio-visual representation and storytelling is essential to understand and represent the complexities of urban conditions today. However, I would be very hesitant to in any way compare with the drawings and diagrams that went with the Charter of Athens, because there’s a very important difference between this kind of filmmaking and that kind of image-making that goes beyond the technological differences.

This is a film that is exploring existing conditions as a way to inspire thinking about how those conditions contain the seeds of their own regeneration, as opposed to creating imagery of an alternate, imagined future — which is what a rendering is that doesn’t yet exist, and has limited relationships to what already exists.

So this is more of a documentary exercise than a manifesto exercise. It’s meant to be a backgrounder that inspires thinking about the diversity of these conditions and how they might be thought about differently in the future. But the main prescription, if any, is to proceed from observation of what’s working and not working at the local level, rather than to create an image of what might be as some imagined the future.

[See: What Mexico City learned by devoting an office to designing public spaces]

Dominick Bagnato: If there is any type of prescription, it’s really just prescribing that certain questions should be asked more so than others. And definitely not that any one thing is the answer, which is the big difference from the Charter of Athens.

Cassim Shepard: There was a choice made at a certain point not to title this whole series of works the Charter of Quito. It’s much more interrogative. It’s much more about trying to provoke local actors on the ground to think differently. It’s less an overarching vision. It’s a product of many authors, which is very different than the product of [CIAM]. It’s not an institutional product so much as a collective plural project that celebrates collectivity, plurality as elements of what the open city might be.

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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