Is it possible to speak buildings into being? The exhibitors at annual property fair MIPIM may try, but they need to come up with far more extreme fictions, says Sam Jacob in his latest Opinion column.
"The beginning, as every one knows, is of supreme importance in everything, and particularly in the founding and building of a city," so says Plutarch, the ancient Greek historian.
In his Life of Romulus, he tells us of the varied myths of the founding of Rome. His explanations show how the superstitious and the practical were intertwined in the classical world, how gods mingled in the same space as everyday life.
For Plutarch and the ancient world, the origin of cities often involved both improbable myths and rational practicality. One one side would be advantageous geography, rich natural resources, climate and good planning. On the other would be strange stories.
Think of the Athens that sprung from the olive tree gift of Athena, or the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan that was the prophesied by an eagle holding a snake perched on a flowering prickly pear cactus, or the Viking cities sited by throwing logs from a longship and seeing where fate washed them ashore.
These are stories rather than histories. Retroactive imaginings that provide things like moral validation, character and destiny. They seem anachronistic when you compare them to today's world of city-making, which operates with bureaucratic banality, impersonal corporateness and flat PR spin. But if cities don't come from superstitious belief, where exactly do they now come from?
This is the annual property industry jamboree where the mechanics of modern city-making are laid bare
On the shores of the Mediterranean, millennia after Plutarch, is MIPIM. This is the annual property industry jamboree where the mechanics of modern city-making are laid bare. Here, inside a hulking lump of geometric concrete affectionally known as the bunker, you find the whole food chain: developers, agents, investors, lawyers, politicians and everyone else. Even architects. Each pitching to the other, each selling up the chain.
MIPIM is a place where it can be hard to distinguish extravagant buffets from models of vibrant new urban quarters, where vases seem interchangeable with skyscrapers, where the rhetorics of the property industry are spread slickly over the surface. And though, like any trade show, everything here is all surface, MIPIM's shallow surface affords a deep view of an industry that usually remains heavily veiled.
Here, banners, models, fly-throughs, free gifts, Oculus Rift headsets, tote bags, business cards, dinners, yachts, brochures and panel discussions form the modern machinery of city-making. It is this machinery that produces the holes in the ground, the cranes in the sky, the hoardings and the piles of materials that will provide our cities of tomorrow.
From this, we can understand that the universe is five-sixths dark matter, a hypothetical substance that can't be observed directly, only inferred by its gravitational effects on the motions of visible matter. Likewise when we observe the city, we are only seeing part of its reality, the visible one-sixth.
MIPIM takes us one step closer to being able to see the dark matter of the city, the invisible forces exerting influence on its substance. It reveals that little bit more of the interaction between the visible and invisible, of how investment and politics shape projects. How pension funds, mayors, agents and more exert tidal forces on the built environment.
MIPIM takes us one step closer to being able to see the dark matter of the city
MIPIM shows that modern city-making is neither smooth nor inevitable. Far from it. It shows just how difficult it is to put things together. Though termed real estate, city-making is an activity that spends most of its time in an unreal state, a haze rather than a form. Only rarely do real things emerge from this fog. Mostly they stays in a state of generative flux – a soup made from vast amounts of effort, money and expertise that boils as if in a hydrothermal vent, in the hope that something real might at some point be catalysed and emerge into the world.
It is to the spectre of the unreal that much of MIPIM's rhetoric is addressed, and why so much of the rhetoric is presented in figures. 8 Billion Euros Under Management! 5 Million sqm Total Surface! 14 000 + New Homes! 128 000sqm + New Retail Space!
Because figures give a sense of metric fact and objectivity. They suggest something worked out, thought through. Statistics, in the face of the haze of the unreal, act as a structure, an armature of solid possibility.
"This time, its really real" say local development leaders. They talk of "real places for real people" while ministers are quoted in super graphics saying: "It Isn't Just A Slogan, It's A Reality". The idea of the real is invoked repeatedly in the face of so much unreality.
It all echoes the words of Jay-Z, who in his autobiography Decoded, wrote: "I believe you can speak things into existence." MIPIM is one big performance whose purpose is exactly that: an attempt to speak cities into existence.
It's useful to think of classical myth and contemporary business in the same frame, to imagine their deep similarities rather than their obvious differences. In fact, to remember that they are intrinsically connected through the golden thread of civilisation.
Though termed real estate, city-making is an activity that spends most of its time in an unreal state
MIPIM might be the place where we go to try to write contemporary city-making myths, but beneath its 21st century corporateness we might discern faint echoes of classical traditions. Beneath the obvious differences, our modern rituals contain deep similarities.
We could think of all the stands and tents, for example, as pop-up temples, each with its own dedication. The athletic efforts of the property industry cyclists who ride from London to Cannes to raise money for charity might subconsciously be channeling the original Olympian role of religious dedication. And of course MIPIM’'s famous drinking culture must surely echo Bacchanalian ritual.
And if we squint a little more, we might even be able to make out Plutarch himself arriving here at the bunker, his delegate pass hanging in the folds of his toga. And if he were to visit, what might he make of the new narratives of city-making on display? What, as he stroked the crumbs of another canapé from his beard, might he make of the origin stories we tell about our cities?
Plutarch might well look around and nod his head, recognising much of what he sees. Yes, he would say, things are spoken into existence. Places become real through first being imagined, then being performed, and at some point the performance is no longer just a performance but a way of precipitating reality.
But looking around at the paucity of imagination in the stories we try to tell, he would shake his head. At the terrible slogans, awful branding, shocking graphics, the abject nature of the messages and the way they are communicated, he might also shake his head. Offering his business card – one of the 1,000,000 MIPIM claims are exchanged each day – he would suggest you attend his keynote presentation in the main area later that day.
So we gather in the vast theatre buried in the bunker. To warm applause, Plutarch takes the stage, adjusts his Madonna mike and looks deep into the auditorium before proclaiming the thing we've come to hear: "The beginning, as every one knows, is of supreme importance in everything." Striding to the centre of the stage, he continues "…and particularly in the founding and building of a city."
From here with a swish of his toga, Plutarch might tell us that for all our sophistication we still need origin myths. Stories, narratives, ideas that give cities a place to come from and a place to go. Because still, thousands of years later, origin myths have the power to shape the city yet to come.
Places become real through first being imagined, then being performed
"Of course," Plutarch might continue. "You still need numbers. Don't think for a moment that the Roman Empire was founded on whimsy. We knew a thing or too about organisation and about how to get things done. It wasn't because we believed the fictions of our city's origin myths. It was because they helped us make our cities real."
And that, perhaps, is the silent cri de coeur behind every MIPIM exchange. The desire for real-ness amongst all that real estate. The sensation that drives the megamodels to be quite so mega, the superbuffets quite so super. Because that might be enough to make things real.
Later at drinks in the Manchester Bar, in his new guise as a 21st-century urban consultant, Plutarch would take us aside and convince us to commission an expensive report. This dossier, worth every penny, would tell us that the secret to making cities real is to be found by looking in exactly the opposite direction from the place we are looking. Sack your corporate PRs, the report would say. Dump your brand consultants. Instead, find yourself some real myth-makers. Hire poets and visionaries, people from whom really convincing fictions – the more extreme the better – will emerge.
Myth, Plutarch's report would conclude, is the only way that cities, even now, are spoken into existence. And without compelling imaginative stories, our cities are doomed to reflect the banal origin myths we use to create them.