A Guide to the City

The Dubai City Skyline. Image: Keit Trysh/Unsplash


Malaysian architect, ANG CHEE waxes lyrical about ‘the City’, that great construct of civilisation that goes back centuries. Both an ode to the City as we know it, and a lament on her evolution, he lists the most pertinent issues affecting our cities today.

The City is over 8,000 years old. Everything you may know about her is true, and everything about that is possibly untrue. As old as history, the city remains an enterprise of complex transactions, incomplete yet finite, vivid and immediate, present yet fleeting. It is an ongoing experiment, a laboratory coordinating and configuring the production of desires and imaginations. It is the stage, the subject, the foreground and the backdrop of the human condition.

The city is the sum of your unfulfilled ambitions, your unrequited love. An abstraction at once fleeting and contingent, it is the image of you and the image of your reflection, separated by the sheerest plane of glass. It is visual, it is flavourful, it is immense and overwhelming and yet absent. When you believe you have conquered her, she escapes. And once again you give chase.



In the era of the market economy, everything is for sale. The primary means of production is diverted from the making to the simply selling. Piece by piece, parcels of space are marketed for the equivalent of an Apple iPad per unit square-foot.

Entire cities are re-branded, some with clever catchphrases, others with giant ferris wheels, glass walkways, twin and triplet towers with surfboard decks on top, landscaped bridges —and the most recent—transparent gondolas crossing the skyline.

All very iconic, fabulous and superlative! In the global competition of cities, what was once authentic and real now needs to be surreal. Ambiguities and nuances of spatiality and experience now need to have a Unique Selling Point, a WOW factor.

The relentless effort to feed the machine of capitalism continues to test the limits of ingenuity in the city – both material and conceptual. Confronted with the finite qualities of physicality, the city is ‘invented’ where once it was impossible. Where there is no land, simply add sand. Or go underwater. Where there is desert, put in a golf course. For the supermodels and the billionaires, comes the rise of uber-luxury, newly branded instant cities, ready for buyers, providing the prospect of re-selling the same to the next punter for an opportunity to buy more, sell more. Do Buy!



In mid 2013, it was recorded that corporate property purchases of real estate surpassed USD $600 billion in the top 100 cities. A year later it breached USD $1 trillion. In a biting piece for the Guardian, renowned urban analyst Saskia Sassen writes, “at the current scale of acquisitions, we are seeing a systemic transformation in the pattern of land ownership in cities: one that alters the historic meaning of the city. Such a transformation has deep and significant implications for equity, democracy and rights.”

Once in Paris, in 1968, protesters exclaimed ‘Sur les pave, la plage!’ (‘Underneath the pavement lies the beach!’). Now that ‘beach’ is for paying guests only. How then to reconcile with a city when no one can afford to be in it, where one is not in the brochure? Across the globe, from cities in South America to New York and London, the people are standing up and they are saying, ‘we are here, and this is also our city.


“…the people are standing up and they are saying, ‘we are here, and this is also our city.” Image: Tim Gouw/Unsplash



And as more people are left out, the more people want to be in it. Which brings up an interesting scenario. Half of all mankind now live in cities. The unprecedented urbanisation and migration of the world’s population is rising rapidly and numbers indicate a one-sided directional flow. A byproduct of this effect is the draining out of the rural countryside, leaving in its wake a bipolar state of emptiness perhaps to be re-conquered. As it approaches a void condition, the relationship and concept of the city-rural duality will need to be adjusted. Perhaps, at the moment of its abdication, the countryside offers a new refuge, a new opportunity.


Mass urban migration has affected rural spaces. Image: Tim Evans/Unsplash



It is obvious and trite to state that the City is a battleground for agendas. It is and always has been. Where much is at stake, every hand and roll of the dice counts.

The rate of plot changes is interesting and amusing. From the 70’s resource crises to the beginnings of climate change alarms, a veritable and productive range of apocalyptic and empathetic ambitions mask the profitable rise of expert specialists, TED-talking prophets and acrobatic cheerleaders.

In the recent decade or two, we have witnessed one after the other, the Humanist city, the Green city, the Sustainable city, the Liveable city and of late, the Resilient City. Now, how about that Rakyat City? Oh wait…

While urban projects used to be the domain of architects (think of the major cities designed by architects over the last few centuries), that position has been smartly absorbed by the polished spokespersons of mighty powerbrokers and private lobbyists. Yes, climate change is real and we need to be smarter in our use of resources, materials and processes. But first, let’s hear it from a movie star.. after all, Leo has taken time off from his super yacht and come a long way via private jet.



So many apocalypses, so many solutions.

Yet the city outlives, outsmarts, outwits them all and simply endures. The City lives on.


And yet, urban insecurities about the world’s longevity (or simple nostalgia for it) remain an immovable trait. Perhaps rightly so, one cannot be sure. One estimate is that today, approximately 12% of the earth’s surface is placed under a protection and safe-guarding forcefield, be it cultural or natural heritage. This represents a very sizeable and growing quantity of physicality that cannot be intervened with, adjusted or amended. It threatens design liberty.

How then does a city function and breathe, within temporality and the human condition, or simply with a history to come? UNESCO, an instrument of the United Nations, has been revising its definition of the Historic Urban Landscape, which describes heritage as no longer considered as a single object or urban ensemble, but as ‘all natural and historical layers of a site, its empty spaces, its infrastructure, and its social, cultural, and economic processes’.

This denial of potential conversations and engagement renders a new impotence, a crippling sentimentality that chooses to live alongside a frozen fragility. The Masterplan is dead, the Manifesto stillborn!


Old Chinese shophouses given a new lease of life in Singapore. Image: Annie Spratt/Unsplash



The problem posed by Heritage, they say, is a need for history. While the time frame for landmarks, buildings and settings to be gazetted under protective lists are shortening, with some modern buildings almost immediately accorded special status, the new game in town now is the industry of salvage operations.

Entire recent and not so recent artefacts and structures are repurposed and refurbished, signalling the profitability of the enterprise and aesthetic of nostalgia. Disused railway lines, abandoned industrial-era utilities, etc., are studied, dissected, handled with care and reopened within a repertoire of new intentions and happy endings. Thus, the future is now announced as inscribed in parts of the past.


“…the City is a battleground for agendas.” Image: Alexa Mazzarello/Unsplash



Buildings are becoming larger. When a building is beyond a certain scale, it achieves a condition that is now popularly referred to in design circles as Bigness. And so it is for our cities.

In recent memory, a city only achieved megacity status when its population numbered 10 million pax. Now the standard has been updated and the criterion for the new Supercity is approaching the capacity of 25 to 30 million people!

As for buildings, once the city has grown to that scale, the city achieves its own logic and scope. A city that has grown so large that it becomes its own country, a city-state.

Despite the burgeoning dominance of technology and digital space, our physical cities continue to grow and grow. Or perhaps it is technology and its click ability to reconfigure daily rituals that has allowed the supersizing of urban space in a super-efficient reorganisation of erstwhile logistics and relationships.

Every inconvenience is resolved with a new algorithm, every problem resolved by a proprietary search engine! IT knows what you need, want and by the way—here’s the sponsored ad.

With the ever-increasing masses, even that familiar commentary about human connection and alienation in the big city is already coded… you can find your match on OK Cupid, but if a more direct approach is needed, an itch needing attention, please swipe right on your Tinder / Grindr app…


Over history, walls have been critical to the defence of cities and its people. One of the grandest illustrations, visible from outer space, is the 21,000 km Great Wall of China, built to resist marauding Mongolian invaders. Similarly, and across a parallel universe, there is a Wall 600-feet tall protecting the sovereignty of Westeros and the Seven Kingdoms from the savage wildlings on the other side. Thus the fortification of the city’s edge for security has been a traditional deployment for urban centres.

In an age of borderless control, CCTV surveillance and digital firewalls, security threats and the control over them have taken on more sophisticated and sinister forms. The proposed Trump Wall defending (and defining) perceived white superiority against the onslaught of southern brown sassiness and hustle can only be what it is, a wall of bigotry! Once upon a time, another American president defiantly declared, “Tear down that Wall!”

Cities are the installations where complex relationships are activated and launched, where diverse groups and ideas meet and engender possibilities and potential. The best cities are those that welcome open access to all that it offers and reciprocates, constructing a metropolitan milieu. That last wall in history, the Berlin Wall, built to demarcate an ideological divide, is testament to the futility of its typology.


“…the circle of life, cause and effect, are all laid out within one’s surroundings and daily passages. To see all this is to read, and to read is to contemplate, the text of the city.” Image: Kukuh Himawan Samudro/Unsplash



The Greeks used to believe that a proper city was one where the resident could see with their own eyes the complexities of life. One in which a person can behold the institutions and landmarks central to their position within the world and the universe: the hospital where one is born, the school where learning begins, the marketplace for supplies, baths for cleansing, the prison where one is sent to for punishment, the pleasure houses, the workshops, the graveyards where one departs from the world, etc. In short, the circle of life, cause and effect, are all laid out within one’s surroundings and daily passages. To see all this is to read, and to read is to contemplate, the text of the city.

In contemporary market-driven cities, the rise in land values have despatched many of the key architectures from the city core towards more affordable, lower priced satellite sub-urban locales, leading arguably to a disruption in this ‘reading of the city’. The erasure of such key markers of life and experience, and how this fundamental and essential lesson is now given over to denatured societal control and surveillance is palpable in its effects and consequences.

The City is over 8,000 years old. Everything you may know about her is true, and everything about that is possibly untrue.


Ang Chee is a lover of cities and an independent architect working in Kuala Lumpur. He maintains a broad interest in art and culture and is currently the Director for the Kuala Lumpur Architecture Festival 2018.

This story has been edited for The Citymaker and was first published under the now-defunct “Think City Channel”.

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