It's Not Just You: Euro Cities Are Looking Eeerily Familiar

New book 'Familiar' by Luca Picardi looks at how new developments in different cities are becoming formulaic echoes of each other.
October 18, 2016, 2:05pm
From 'Familiar' by Luca Picardi

Ever walked around the newer parts of a city and thought it all sort of looked weirdly familiar? Like you'd seen it all before in another city or country, or some variation of it? This homogeneous generation of urban sites is documented in Familiar, a new book by strategic designer Luca Picardi. In the book, Picardi looks at "patterns of mimicry in urban regeneration projects" across Europe.

From newly built blocks of flats in London to plaza squares in Stockholm, Picardi archives what he calls "the age of the familiar." Renders, architecture, even the marketing jargon and placemaking methods, the book is a record of how uniform these strategies can turn out to be.

Familiar by Luca Picardi. Image courtesy of Picardi

The idea for it was born on a walk. Picardi was documenting the cities for his residency at the British Council for Helsinki Design Week. "I found the experience of wandering around Helsinki’s new neighborhoods Jatkasaari and Kalasatama in Helsinki eerily familiar to exploring some of London’s latest regenerated areas such as Nine Elms and Kings Cross." Picardi tells The Creators Project. "This triggered an urge to understand the extent of which developers are duplicating swaths of cities on a larger scale. Eventually the scope of the study spanned London, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Oslo, and Helsinki."

Familiar by Luca Picardi. Image courtesy of Picardi.

These 21st century cookie-cutters, of course, were explored first in a typically 21st century way. Picardi browsed developments on Google Earth to grasp their geography and topology, and strolled amidst them virtually on Google Street View. He then looked at and analyzed online open-source data and stats for new developments, used pattern-recognition to explore renders, blueprints, geotagged images, planning programs, and marketing brochures. "This sampling and re-framing of existing material became the shape of the design output itself, so the project’s process was actually a form of imitation of the subject matter," Picardi explains. "The result is not a production of new work but the presentation of a familiar reality."

Familiar by Luca Picardi. Image courtesy of Picardi

It's difficult to know whether this familiarity comes from a purely economic desire to save money, a symptom of local planning not wanting to offend, or something more. Picardi ponders whether it's the result of a "highly idealized, hyper-efficient, master-planned approach to architecture" causing buildings to "no longer feel individually imagined by architects but fragments of larger systems."

The deeper you go, in fact, the more of this similarity can be found, from the plazas to the grid layouts of the flats, their interiors, and the marketing copy. "The result of this form of replication across cities is the wholesale denial of the very idea of locality," says Picardi. "Regenerated areas become separate, exclusive enclaves no longer interwoven with the city fabric and local built environment. Walking through Jatkasaari in Helsinki is almost an extension of strolling through Nine Elms. How are these developments collectively shaping the experience of the city? What are the effects on our modes of thinking and feeling?"

Familiar by Luca Picardi. Image courtesy of Picardi

Cities with buildings that look the same is nothing new, Picardi notes. Catholicism and the church bred familiar architecture, like the Hanseatic League in the Baltics, who from the 15th to 19th centuries established trading hubs for merchants and guilds that replicated and spread through cities across Europe. Kindred factories and ports emerged from industrialization, too. What Picardi recognizes may be the latest strain. He likens the industrial "non-places" he chose to study, places which have deteriorated and decayed causing them to be earmarked for development, to the commercial centers of the Hanseatic League. As the League caused enclaves to spring up within cities, so now are cities sprouting interchangeable neighborhoods.

But these aren't built for trade, and the effect of all this homogenized, sanitized designing, these "replicated aesthetics," is a further detachment from our cities. We become lost, not in the good sense of roaming anonymously through the hustle and bustle, but just in the sense that we feel indifferent and disconnected from our environment, adrift in the sterile familiarity, left absent and detached by its urban preciousness.

Familiar by Luca Picardi. Image courtesy of Picardi.

So is there any hope that these antiseptic developments can get some individuality back, some of the charm that we associate with, say, Stockholm's Gamla stan, or an ounce of the afterdark charisma of the nightclubs once housed in the old Victorian warehouses and railway arches that the Kings Cross redevelopment replaced? Are they doomed by their regulated and cloned design patterns, or might history look back at them more kindly, like we do now at Brutalism or Post Modern buildings we once derided?

"Quite possibly, yes," opines Picardi. "These large-scale regeneration projects are still in their embryonic phases. Many of them are ongoing construction sites. Perhaps in time they will be perceived positively and hopefully become more dynamic through the way that people negotiate the space."

Familiar by Luca Picardi. Image courtesy of Picardi.

Learn more about Familiar and Luca Picardi's other work on his website.


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