PRINT November 2010



JUST WHO MAKES and unmakes our cities? The identities of urban planner and urban designer have become increasingly blurred over the past decade. If the former was traditionally about crafting policy and the latter concerned with macroscale drafting, these previously discrete practices now mean little in isolation from each other: We are witnessing a new hybrid activity across the larger discipline of urban intervention. At the forefront of this development has been STEALTH.unlimited. Comprising principals Ana Džokić and Marc Neelen, the Serbian-Dutch practice has been quietly unraveling the axioms of architectural solipsism, challenging the stale and outdated model of top-down urban design, and keeping alive the ethics of participatory urbanism that first arose in the decade following World War II.

STEALTH does all this in an oblique manner, navigating the knots that form at the nexus of urbanist theory and practice. Best known for a series of projects in the Balkans that addressed a community and its terrain, recently riven by ethnic conflict, while embracing the muddled incongruences and wildly divergent agendas of various interest groups—from displaced minorities to development-craving government officials—the practice tackled head-on the messy business of reintegrating a severely frayed social and topographic fabric. Though conventionally trained, STEALTH’s principals maintain a critical distance, both ethically and practically, from the technological enticements that so frequently tempt other urbanists (such as ambient computations, data smog, or expertly animated growth projections dutifully compiled and presented with an eye toward spectacle). And although the practice does produce visually compelling documents and graphs with each project it undertakes, STEALTH’s work is largely about process, and thus belongs to an intellectual project far more delicate than simple policy analysis, because it is contingent on group consensus, yet more reliable, because it is honest about the fragmented and chaotic manner and multivalent realities of how cities develop. The practice foregrounds neither the visual emphasis of data structuring nor the facile accumulation of knowledge for its own sake. True to its name, STEALTH treads these fragile interstices as observer, activist, interloper, interlocutor, designer, and ethnographer all at once.

This instability is best embodied by STEALTH’s compulsive invocation of the word wild. The word encapsulates the practice’s refusal to adapt to conventional boundaries of either theory or practice. Wild City, an early project (1999–2002) carried out in collaboration with Milica Topalovic and Ivan Kucina that examined Belgrade after the ethnic upheavals of the 1990s, compiled a visual archive of ad hoc architectural and urban evolutions, from morphological prototypes such as mushroom roofs used to mask illegal building extensions to the implementation of car trunks and hoods as improvised spaces of display and commerce. The creative use (or misuse) of scarce resources provides any number of solutions for addressing topics of urban sustainability, more often intuitively than explicitly.

Long before the current fixation on sustainability, architects working on a macroscale understood the need for citizens’ collective participation as a means of creating a metropolitan context that responded organically and developmentally to the endlessly transformable characteristics of a given urban population. Whether it was Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck’s insistence on the critical role of play in his Amsterdam Orphanage (1955–60) or Giancarlo de Carlo’s 1972 project for a renovation of the city of Rimini, Italy, the crucial task of the collective working for the betterment of the greater number has been held for nearly half a century to be the best road to success in urban design. STEALTH, however, emphasizes the exposure of unseen authoritarian networks as a form of empowerment for the disenfranchised, through the shockingly simple means of laying bare the inner logics of urban morphologies and the undercurrents of power that dictate their growth. Indeed, STEALTH attempts to foster what it calls the “collectively authored city,” inspiring different interest groups to rise up and speak on their own behalves. This approach shows that urban sustainability and urban growth are not as opposed as many have claimed: Cities can evolve and change in ways that take into account present-day demands while also providing for a future in which resources will inevitably be depleted. The practice’s urban interventions represent a first step in achieving a paradigm of urban homeostasis, one that acknowledges the necessary provisions and accommodations for change.

STEALTH’s modesty in doing so is noteworthy: The practice acts primarily as a generator of frameworks, a poser of questions, a facilitator of discussion. Cities Log, for example, its ongoing project that began in the Western Balkans in 2009, is a means of visually tracing historical events, emergent infrastructural investments, and the vicissitudes of interventions by public and private concerns. First exhibited at Albania’s Fourth Tirana International Contemporary Art Biannual, Cities Log comprises videos by activist groups (e.g., Abuse of Office, 2009, by Belgrade’s Insider RTV B92), publications, and long scrolls set onto simple metal frames and displayed in a staggered grid within the exhibition space. The scrolls narrate the actors and events, arranged chronologically, that STEALTH has identified as critical to various cities’ development (or lack thereof) and that have emerged from interviews and research conducted among a group of activists, journalists, architects, planners, and critics.

This project led to the more performative and continuously unfolding Who Builds a City (Ko gradi grad), a series of public talks held among various players central to the development in the region. As the multiplicity of perspectives unfolds in real time—onstage, in a space specifically designated as a temporary and uncontested “public sphere”—and with the understanding that these conversations have no precise parameters, the idea of urban planning and design as a dialogic process begins to emerge. The institutional context of these discussions mirrors the types of organized debates and negotiations in which STEALTH had already engaged in the Balkan cities of Zagreb, Skopje, and Tirana. In each, STEALTH invited social scientists, planners, activists, artists, and, most critically, citizens to address local issues that were, by consensus, the most problematic and most fundamental, such as how to reconcile the needs and demands of clashing factions in the service of the greater good.

Currently, STEALTH is ensconced in Medellín, Colombia, where it is expanding on a project titled Social Urbanism (see, initiated by then mayor Sergio Fajardo in 2004. STEALTH has held a series of workshops, similar in scope to Who Builds a City, in a socially and economically marginalized area within Medellín called Moravia. These sessions involve not only direct dialogue with residents but also the physical expansion of the neighborhood’s cultural center and involvement with myriad environmental issues (a settlement within the neighborhood, El Morro, was essentially built on landfill and is about to be walled off for detoxification)—a communitydriven effort to entrench the citizenry in the area. Like many of STEALTH’s urban interventions, this project has a frontier quality about it, and the instability of the enterprise is the hallmark of its working method.

One shouldn’t be tempted to read wild as a pejorative, a symbolic throwing up of hands in the face of rampant congestion and virulent ad hoc–ism. For STEALTH, wild signifies the open-endedness of urban development and the need to regard the city as an organism susceptible both to unanticipated transformation (immigration, densification, natural or man-made disasters) and to the kinds of political maneuverings that benefit the few at the expense of the many. STEALTH portrays the situation in the Western Balkans, for example, as one in which “privatization, clientalism [sic], creative abuse of laws and regulations seem commonplace in a context affected by ‘wild’ urbanization and fast capital investments set within the horizon of a neoliberal context.” However, these unruly field conditions cannot be dismissed as pure corruption or as mere impediments to the smooth functioning of a constantly regenerating city. Instead, they have to be seen as part and parcel of the larger servomechanisms of the urban entity, always in competition with the strident actions of self-organization, the components of the city that exploit legislative and policy-based obstructions in order to achieve a state of self-actualization. As Stealth has written on another city (Belgrade):

This project is an attempt to find logic and outline inventiveness within what appeared or was commonly described as chaos . . . smart public transport that functions without a central brain, new trading locations that find and intersperse the city’s most profitable spots without a zoning plan[. W]ild housing areas occupy huge territories without apparent functional problems, with zero master planning involved, even wild leisure areas grow along the river banks of this emergent city. Why should they be neglected?

Such statements defy any attempts to establish normative conditions or presuppositions that might reify ethical or cognitive claims. An ideological position like STEALTH’s is always in danger of falling prey to its own internal incoherence—if you preach inconclusiveness, you achieve inconclusiveness. Yet STEALTH has managed to avoid such pitfalls by pursuing what might be termed reciprocal pedagogy: The community evaluates its state of affairs based on questions and provocations staged by STEALTH, and in turn the practice utilizes the responses as a means of proposing alternate and more effective means of action. In this sense, STEALTH might be said to be as much anthropological archivists as designers or architects. The shifting landscape of human habitation and its manifold characteristics (especially when dealing with adversity, whether extrinsic, such as war or conflict, or intrinsic, such as congestion and residual growth) requires no less than a chaotic, fragmented, yet persistent voice of inquiry in order for fleeting moments of clarity to emerge.

Noah Chasin is an assistant professor of art history at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY.