Interrogating the political production of space.

Posts tagged “junkspace

What is a Post-Utopian Urbanism? From the Modernist Utopia to the Postmodern Dystopia: What’s left ? (guest post 2/3)

 “The [urban] problem is the largest we have ever known. And we confront an urban wilderness more formidable and resistant and in some ways more frightening than the wilderness faced by the pilgrims or the pioneers.”

Senator Robert Kennedy 15 August, 1966
(cited in Yates 1977)

Our three-part essay on the definition of a ‘post-utopian urbanism’ began by surveying the four registers according to which Urbanism and Utopia share a common basis, as encoded within the modernist project for the city. Around the late 1970s-1980s, however, this relationship tended to loosen and was gradually undermined as new divergent dynamics emerged. Put differently, the rupture between Utopia and Urbanism coincided with a dual emergence: of the postmodern in the cultural, aesthetic, and academic fields, on the one hand; and that of more flexible means of capital accumulation, on the other. This is not to say that the rupture was brutal and complete, however: as David Harvey has highlighted, many aspects of modernity are to be found in its postmodern offspring, suggesting the need to elucidate the intricacies of such a historical rift (1989a).* Accordingly, as a second step in grasping what could be a Post-Utopian urbanism we believe that this historical shift from the modernist utopia to the postmodern dystopia deserves further analysis. Using the previously laid theoretical background, this part thus sets off to conceptualize what this postmodern dystopia might be: what is to be found instead of the modern utopia? How does this affect the production of space through the use of new instruments? And why are the outcomes ultimately unsatisfactory, requiring us to go beyond by looking for a Post-Utopian urbanism?

Around the 1970s, the planned economy instituted by the Bretton Woods system went through two successive crises, one quickly followed by the other.** Since then, the attempt to plan has seemed unable to match itself to the hastening of the outer world, its unpredictability, and its complexity. Subsequent events, it would seem, proved how the plan failed to counter a series of deep systemic contradictions: the emergence of massive unemployment due to deindustrialization; deepening segregation in the wake of the ‘white flight’; rising crime, and the like. While the modernist utopia aimed, at least theoretically, to further social progress and/or moral betterment, over the past thirty years certain urban spaces have been the theatre for the worst inequalities, if not pure ungovernability (see earlier DCDB post), to such extent that the Anglo-Saxon literature adopted the term ‘dystopia’ when surveying the growing urban inequalities and/or the crisis of the right to the city (Harvey 2000 and 2008, Jameson 2003, MacLeod et Ward 2002,  Pinder 2002).

In the following, we argue that these dynamics deal with the end of the alliance between Urbanism and Utopia as encoded in the modernist agenda. Further, we believe that this shift towards the postmodern dystopia cannot be fully grasped if taken out of its socio-economic context. In this way, dystopias are related to larger trends in late-stage capitalism, and can be seen as the urban manifestation of its disruptions, which actual governing tools such as the ‘urban project’ fail to regulate. These many disruptive places (or future representations thereof) enter in friction with the modernist project that conceived of cities with a peculiar science-based and state elite-driven utopia, giving life to coexistant but mutually exclusive spaces within cities (cf. Koolhaas 2002). Be they ghettoes, derelict suburbs, gigantic malls reproducing towns in the New Urbanist fashion, homeless shantytowns between the cities’ outskirts and hyperconnected highways, airport cities, these spaces jeopardize the modernist utopia, if it were not yet a mere dream of the past.

Entering Dystopia

At the Doors of Dystopia in C. Nolan’s Inception (2010)

Entering Dystopias – Leaving Eutopia

If the postmodern dystopia contradicts the modernist project in various ways, it should however be noted that on conceptual grounds it does not mean the absence of utopias. Rather, dystopias rely on utopias in a dialectical fashion, for they both appeal to another topos:

In the peculiar form of dystopias, utopian thinking may alert us to certain tendencies in the present, which, if allowed to continue unchecked and carried to a logical extreme, would result in a world we would find abhorrent.

Friedman 2000, 462 quoted in MacLeod & Ward 2002, 153

Dystopias are not the exact negation of utopias, yet they nonetheless imply the abandonment of their second meaning, eutopia – a better or good place. In this light we can elaborate two slightly divergent meanings of the word ‘dystopia,’ that refer to different temporalities. On the one hand, we take dystopias to represent actual states in certain cities, where urban ills–such as segregation, socio-racial apartheid and policing, social eviction, privatization of certain spaces and,unsustainable development–are already happening. It is in this fashion that, along with Mac Leod and Ward (2002), we refer to the emergence of various dystopian places together forming what we call the various ‘landscapes of dystopia.’ This sense of dystopia which developed in the 1970s (on the back of classical Dickensian visions) might stem from the U.S. tradition of anti-urbanity whose most obvious manifesto can be found in F. L. Wright’s Broadacre City (Choay 1965). On the other hand, we consider ‘dystopias’ to be spaces that do not yet exist, but could in the future, given present and dominant trends. The American hyperghetto, for example, portends the calamitous outcome of Welfare state retrenchment and austerity (e.g. Wacquant 1992, 2006); gated communities alert us to the tendency of certain social classes to quarantine ‘otherness’ (often their own). Nevertheless, drawing from the Marxian theory that establishes a difference between the notion of ‘class in itself’ and ‘class for itself’, we should underline that the label “dystopia” may vary. One person’s dystopia is not necessarily another’s: labeling a place as such depends on the interest one has invested in the future of that space. For instance, gated communities can be marketed to their residents as desirable places, in spite–or in virtue–of the socio-economic apartheid and privatized security they engender.

Hugh Ferris’ artwork, 1916: the Invisible Dimension of the City or Outopia

 

If utopia and dystopia share in common their gesture towards otherness–towards a space between here and there–it is because they are, on the flipside, characterized by their socio-historical embededness. It is because of the very embededness of dystopias and utopias (in the actual conditions of production, Marx would say) that they can precisely make the ‘other’ take shape and happen (Jameson 2004). As if the there potentially existed in the here, so to speak, dystopias are like utopias, “always already here” (Lussault 1994: toujours déjà là).  In our case, this would therefore imply:

  1. that the birth of dystopia cannot be properly understood without reference to larger socio-economic changes in late-stage capitalism;
  2. and that there subsists some sort of continuity between the modernist agenda, its methods of planning and its built environment, and dystopian dynamics. This dialectical continuity is of course not void of frictions.

Accordingly, our survey of the departure from the modernist utopia requires scrutiny of the socio-economic conditions under which modernist planning underwent a decline in parallel to the ascendance of the postmodern dystopia. This cross-movement between the two gestures, which has profound consequences for the urban built environment through planning tools, is however left open: the postmodern dystopia made no tabula rasa with the built environment born out of the modernist utopia, nor did it dispense with modernizing discourse, actually suggesting elements of continuity both in the urban form and urbanism. The resulting tension is a crucial challenge for actual socio-cognitive instruments, such as the urban ‘project’ (Pinson 2009) that seem to have arisen as so many (insufficient) responses to the systematic development of dystopian places in late-stage capitalism.

Picture from Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s famous Learning from Las Vegas (1972-77),
considered a seminal analysis of the postmodern Dystopia

Junkspace: The Death (and Life) of the (Post)Modern City

Among the many multiplying landscapes of dystopia, the shopping mall stands out for its remarkable impact on the previously-existing system of production and consumption which gave birth to it in the late 1950s. At first a suburban phenomenon mostly located outside U.S. inner-cities, it then slowly but surely regained the center, accompanying the development of affluent classes and their return to the city in the late 1980s. Today the mall serves as a vehicle for regeneration projects aimed at producing “vibrant” and “dynamic” neighborhoods. Malls have developed gigantic spaces in which all functions are reunited, or rather, juxtaposed, so that the consumer will not ‘lack’ anything while there, so that all its ‘lacks’ might be satiated through consumption. Recent trends in developers’ strategies for mall development focus on the “experience,” which they seek to enrich by ever-adding new functions and new spaces. Malls today thus contain spaces within spaces, but at the same time encapsulate all the functions that remained ‘outside’.

Few forms have been so distinctively new and so distinctively American, and late-capitalist, as this innovation, whose emergence can be dated: 1956; whose relationship to the well-known decay-of-the-inner-city-rise-of-the-suburb is palpable, if variable; whose genealogy now opens up a physical and spatial prehistory of shopping in a way that was previously inconceivable; and whose spread all over the world can serve as something of an epidemiological map of Americanization, or postmodernization, or globalization.

Jameson 2003, 70 [our italics]

In parallel, malls are increasingly assuming the functionality of cities, when not formally replicating them as in some cases. This capacity to spill over by ingurgitating the built environment and recoding it with consumerist functions has been conceptually captured by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, where he speaks of junkspace. For our purposes, this term will relate to changes in the architectural and urban form at the meso level (thus an object), but will also reflect shifts in larger dynamics at the macro scale, related to the uneven mode of capitalist development. In the former sense, junkspace is defined by the way the built environment’s form has been shaped by the modern innovation of air-conditioning:

Air-conditioning has launched the endless building. If architecture separates buildings, air-conditioning unites them. Air-conditioning has dictated mutant regimes of organization and coexistence that leave architecture behind…Junkspace is a Bermuda Triangle of concepts, an abandoned petri dish: it cancels distinctions, undermines resolve, confuses intention with realization. It replaces hierarchy with accumulation, composition with addition. More and more, more is more.

Koolhaas 2002, 176

In Koolhaas’ perspective, the accumulation of spaces within the built envelope is permitted by the crucial introduction of air-conditioning that allows the coexistence of spaces, without ever reaching their combination. It adds up and goes on, throwing everything in its vortex and thereby giving birth to an architecture of the collage in which space is copied, pasted, quoted, recoded to fit site-specific purposes. This goes on all around the globe (Harvey 1989a), but with no other rationale than that of maximization itself, no other aim but to ‘redevelop’ and ‘revitalize’ derelict spaces: waterfronts, abandoned inner-cities, old industrial brownfields, railway hangars, etc.

Architects thought of Junkspace first and named it Megastructure, the final solution to transcend their huge impasse. Like multiple Babels, huge superstructures would last through eternity, teeming with impermanent subsystems that would mutate over time, beyond their control. In Junkspace, the tables are turned: it is subsystem only, without superstructure, orphaned particles in search of a framework or pattern. All materialization is provisional: cutting, bending, tearing, coating: construction has acquired a new softness, like tailoring

Koolhaas 2002, 178

The tailoring of superstructures: Workers during the New York’s World Fair, 1939-1940

On that account, dystopia may be seen as the replication of this crisis in the built form of a building to the urbanity at large, that once served as the vehicle for change through the right to the city (Harvey 2008). Junkspace and dystopia convey the same very distinctive atmosphere of urban decay and catastrophe. Further, besides this imaginative appeal, the former partakes in the latter to the extent that it turns space in an uncontrollable consumerist nightmare, and reserves the admission to the city to the happy few.

Junkspace is what remains after modernization has run its course, or, more precisely, what coagulates while modernization is in progress, its fallout. Modernization had a rational program: to share the blessings of science, universally. Junkspace is its apotheosis, or meltdown…

Koolhaas 2002, 175

The junkspace is a leftover of the modernist agenda precisely because it was born under its auspices but subverted its purpose. For instance the mall was born in the late 1950s out of the U.S. suburban model: its development paralleled the development of mass consumption through spatial organization; the built form mirrored the system of production and consumption acting as a “spatial fix” (Harvey 1989a) in the capitalist postwar stage, enabling mass consumption as a drive in a Keynes-inspired economy. Built outside the inner-city at a time when the middle class adopted the suburban lifestyle, the mall was promptly reintroduced in downtowns in conjunction with gentrification and redevelopment plans. If first generation malls where the corresponding architectural form and spatial fix for the white flight, in the 1990s their successors adjusted to the coming-back-to-the-city of middle and higher classes reinforced by entrepreneurial discourses praising the creative class and urban diversity (Harvey, 1989b). And after having expanded to city centres, it absorbs the urban as a whole: the contemporary mall integrates and recodes its functions in a single venue.

To be saved, downtowns have had to be given the suburban kiss of death

Harvard Design School 2002, quoted in Jameson, Future City 2003, 70

What was at the core of the modernist utopia under which malls were developed though, has been neutralized: the gesture towards a better space through the right to the city. As such the junkspace mirrors dystopias: it portends another, yet not a better, future, one in which the urban theatre is the scene for the worst inequalities and catastrophes. In its built manifestations we foresee anything but the abandonment of social progress as a universal aim. That is not to imply that the modernist utopia and its spatial fix, Keynesianism, was exempt of exclusion however, but rather to emphasis that the tension towards collective betterment (as in the vivre ensemble) is endangered if not left void in the postmodern dystopia.

Because it is so intensely consumed, Junkspace is fanatically maintained, the night shift undoing the damage of the day shift in an endless Sisyphean replay. As you recover from Junkspace, Junkspace recovers from you: between 2 and 5 A.M., yet another population, this one heartlessly casual and appreciably darker, is mopping, hovering, sweeping, toweling, resupplying…Half the population produces new space; the more affluent half consumes old space…Through Junkspace, entertainment organizes hermetic regimes of ultimate exclusion and concentration: concentration gambling, concentration golf, concentration convention, concentration movie, concentration culture, concentration holiday.

Koolhaas 2002, 179-181; 185 [our italics]

Further, the conditions for change, and condition of change in junkspace-s are delicate to the extent that they may even bring outopia (the prospect of an-other space), the very root of dystopia, into question (e.g. Jameson 2004). If we come back to the built form of the junkspace as a concept, its main characteristic is its perpetual envelope, the lack of an outside. Therefore, the issue we face is to know whether change, i.e. outopia, can happen at all within a closed, hermetic, and ever-expanding space. As long as the production and consumption of space is kept under (junks-)pace(s), can there be any breakthrough? Or, put in a difference perspective, can it be sustained when the aim of betterment is cast away? Without entering the philosophical debate needed here, let us remark simply that totality is not necessarily incompatible in theory with eutopia, as it is part and parcel of many urban utopias which conceive of their ideal space in closed and self-sufficient spaces.

Change has been divorced from the idea of improvement. There is no progress; like a crab on LSD, culture staggers endlessly sideways…

Koolhaas 2002, 178

So far, we have emphasized the decay of the modernist utopia and parts of its built environment through Koolhaas’ junkspace, the concept through which we tried to capture the shift in space production and consumption that developed with the emergence of the postmodern dystopia. Through the example of the mall taken as a built manifestation of junkspace, we hinted at the embededdness of the landscapes of dystopias: just as is the case with the modernist utopia, they cannot be taken out of the socio-economic context in which they are produced and consumed. Through the expansion of malls to inner-cities, we witness how a spatial fix originated in the late 1950s has come to be the vehicle for subverting the exact modernist agenda which gave birth to it, by sustaining and reinforcing gentrifying dynamics and their corresponding politics towards otherness, from rent-driven eviction of former deprived communities to revanchist urbanism and policing targeting the homeless (on gentrification see Smith 1972; regarding public art see Deutsche 1988).

London could-be junkspace in Koohlaas, Exodus, or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture, The Strip, Project, 1972.
In MoMA’s collection.

The postmodern demise of the author seems not to have completely restricted the call to grandeur associated with its demiurgic gesture, however – this is but one indication of the need to investigate more closely the deeper trends of continuity that persist and result in an exacerbated tension between the modernist utopia and the postmodern dystopia. Put otherwise, while the postmodern stance would openly question the basis of any authoritative discourse and thus deconstruct any form of definitive relationship to supreme knowledge (or meta-narrations, see Lyotard 1975), claims to authority, that is, the accumulation of legitimacy through positioning, persist. Consider, for example, the contemporary paradox that will recall many revitalization projects flourishing here and there:

Through Junkspace, old aura is transfused with new luster to spawn sudden commercial viability: Barcelona amalgamated with the Olympics, Bilbao with the Guggenheim, Forty-second Street with Disney. God is dead, the author is dead, history is dead, only the architect is left standing…an insulting evolutionary joke…A shortage of masters has not stopped a proliferation of masterpieces.

Koolhaas 2002, 184 [our italics]

If junkspace cannot pretend to be about architecture because of its ever-expanding envelope, a flipside of the renouncement to separation that would be truly the architect’s craft, it still does. The abandonment of the genuine architectural gesture has paradoxically left us with star architects and their simulacra, from Dubai to Bilbao. To a certain degree, there still persists a discourse about mastering space production. Likewise, the inability of the modernist agenda to regulate space through its comprehensive land-use planning (which aspired to the status of a science) has not resulted in a totally anarchic landscape, in which the conviction of scientific reasoning and controlled land development would have been superseded with nightmarish urban ungovernability. Rather, given the inability of the zoning plan and its corresponding political-bureaucratic body to regulate post-Fordist capitalist self-contradictory developments around the 1970s, new forms of planning such as the ‘urban project’ (Pinson 2009) were developed in response to the growing landscapes of dystopia.

The Mall as the Future for Urban Living? Wai Think-Tank Architecture

‘Planning’ the Landscapes of Dystopia

During the turn of the late 1970s, every built output issued by the modernist utopian machinery seemed to host of the panoply of urban ills that made cities appear almost ungovernable: fragmentation, income and cultural discrepancies, segregation, riots, etc. all along social and racial divides. This dysfunctionality was in part attributed to the planning system itself. This system not only bluntly ascribed to spaces mono-functions according to the belief in a scientific division of production and use of space, but was also a token of a state-centered, biased socio-political elite, whose partiality was out of touch with a society becoming increasingly plural (Pinson 2009). It is in this context of change that the ‘urban project’ developed as a new tool for urbanism, geared towards coping with political and sociological pluralism on the one hand, and new modes of capitalist accumulation on the other (Pinson ibid.). Project-led urbanism differs in several manners from the plan, not only encapsulating changes in the tools themselves, but also a set of changes affecting our space-time framework and the regulatory system that corresponds to this framework. This ‘regulatory’ shift  can be partly linked to changes in the conditions of how we distinguish what is true from what is not (i.e., episteme):

We know that we do not know, but that is almost the sole thing that we do know: there is no better definition of uncertainty.

Callon, Lascoumes & Barth 2001, 40

The regulatory modalities that the ‘urban project’ seeks to embody must cope with the new complexity that pervades every pore of the urban: the multiplication of players, each with their claim of legitimacy to the city; the multiple identities, whether national, local, gendered, political, cultural; the multifaceted environmental and technical risks; the intricate and ever-growing channels of finance capital towards and within the cities; the increasing “derivatization” of the built environment as it is translated into financial risk-trading goods (O’Neill 2009). Such “uncertainity” as Pinson calls it (ibid.) is clearly analogous to the indeterminacy of postmodern cultural and social forms. The traditional plan seems useless, its production outdated.I ndeed,  “successive transformations mock the word plan” (Koolhaas 2002, 182), the iterative and less exclusive form of the project which emphasizes process rather than the fixity of the ‘plan’ determine the modalities of postmodern space production. Both coexist yet diverge in their regulatory forms; two different models of a spatial fix in capitalism’s efforts to resolve its self-contradictions. The ‘urban project’ is not innocent of reinforcing dystopian trends, however: pluralism is eventually conducive to those able to play by the rules of the urban project thanks to their cultural or social capital for instance. Accordingly, the landscapes of dystopia are both a consequence of the modernist utopia’s dysfunctional features and a by-product of the urban project.

The Deconstruction/Recomposition of Planning Through History.
Ric Stephen’s Periodic Table of City Planning Elements

Urbanism – Utopia = Dystopia?

The activity of planning as such–i.e. giving an orientation to the production of the built environment through the “science and theory of human establishment” that is urbanism (Choay 1965, 8)–is not dead with the ‘plan’, and indeed survives through the ‘project’. Nevertheless, following the shift in the collective and socially-produced status of science, tensions have developed within and through spaces produced under the modernist utopia and the postmodern dystopia. The city, once the privileged nexus through which urbanism and the utopian gesture intersected in the form of the modernist utopia, has been colonized by the postmodern dystopia that partly disjoins the two by disavowing eutopia, the reach to a better place. Instead , deindustrialized, seemingly ungovernable, and consumption-driven urban (junk)spaces are fostered. The tension between these two dynamics questions the previous conceptual scheme in which we sketched the common ground between modern urbanism and utopias along four registers:

  1. Whereas utopias and urbanism once shared a reliance on space to cast an ideal outer society through planning – whether economic, social, and urban – they now seem disunited. Avatars of the modernist utopia are castigated as failed pieces of demiurgic gesture; such as the large housing projects of Pruitt Igoe or the French grands ensembles - spaces for the relegation of the urban ‘underclass’ (on this notion, see Wacquant 1996). However, space is still relevant to dystopias; its representational power may even be more salient in the dystopian projection of a “world we would find abhorrent” (MacLeod & Ward 2002, 153).
  2. However, if the spatial basis is still at heart of dystopia, its status has changed. While urbanism and utopia partook in the “spatial game” (Harvey 2000) of projecting an-other and better space, the dystopian gesture is amputates the latter. The right to the city that was part of the modernist agenda is put in danger in the landscapes of dystopia, where segregation is a pressing concern, whether in ghettoes abandoned by the Welfare state, or in gentrified neighbourhoods whose former populations have been displaced. Rather than comprehensive plans producing serial spaces, the project tends to focus on a smaller scale (e.g. at a sub-city scale), emphasizes site-specificity, and blends in an architecture of collage (Harvey 1989a) through iterative and flexible modes of space production (Pinson 2009, Taşan-Kok 2012).
    Nevertheless, convergence in schemes of redevelopment plans and collage architecture recall the repetition in the production of generic spaces at heart of the utopian gesture. The revitalization projects around flagship urban items such as waterfronts, downtown markets/malls, and cultural centres altogether indicate that beneath the argument of site-specificity and the demise of scientific planning, some patterns emerge. As mentioned, these are related to changes in late-stage capitalism (Harvey 1989a) that reproduces spatial fixes geared towards derivatization (O’Neill 2009) and attracting the affluent urban class through entrepreneurial local politics (Harvey 1989b).

    Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin pour Paris (1925): reason and technique united 

  3. The ability to effect social change is put into question by the openness of the utopian and dystopian gesture. On the one hand, most utopias implied some sense of totality or closing in the spatial form – for instance Thomas More’s Utopia was an island – but might act as a drive for change by opening perspectives and uncertainty (Jameson 2004). On the other hand, because dystopias renounce to a better space by turning urban spaces into “hermetic regimes of ultimate exclusion and concentration” (Koolhaas 2002, 185) or threatening them, they imply some sense of closing, too. While the postmodern rationale may precisely be the lack thereof, and may thus hint towards greater openness sought through iterative and flexible modes of planning through the project, social betterment is restricted to an economic and culturally affluent fringe, while those deemed (or de-facto) ‘misfits’ are denied their right to the city.
  4. Last, being united under the modernist agenda, urbanism and utopias consequently underwent the same predicament as epitomized in the ‘crisis of the plan’.  Turning to the postmodern dystopia, it is not established whether urbanistic practices as such may survive the contradictions and limits of the urban project that are gradually being documented (e.g. Taşan-Kok & Baeten 2012).

While we speak of a shift from the modernist utopia to the postmodern dystopia, there remains strong evidence for elements of continuity as much as of contradiction. The development of dystopia as a divergent dynamic has resulted in tensions between the two models of spatial fix that may be interpreted as moments–or spaces–of creative destruction during which capitalism strives to renew its mode of accumulation and the corresponding ways in which space is regulated.

Auroville’s masterplan, an actual Utopian town founded in 1968 in Tamil Nadu, India,
and designed by architect Roger Anger

The Dystopian Fallacy or Why We Need A Post-Utopian Urbanism

While simultaneity in the shifting dimensions of time and space is no proof of necessary or causal connection, strong a priori grounds can be adduced for the proposition that there is some kind of necessary relation between the rise of postmodernist cultural forms, the emergence of more flexible modes of capital accumulation, and a new round of ‘time–space compression’ in the organization of capitalism.
But these changes, when set against the basic rules of capitalistic accumulation, appear more as shifts in surface appearance rather than assigns of the emergence of some entirely new postcapitalist or even postindustrial society.

Harvey 1989a, vii

While the emergence of the landscapes of dystopia can a piori seem loosely connected to changes in the late-stage capitalism, they are nevertheless causally inscribed within these. Let us consider the regulation side: the fiscal and social crisis of the late 1970s pushed local politicians and planners to adopt growth-oriented or entrepreneurial policies geared towards attracting the affluent classes back to the inner-cities, along with capital markets. In the ‘uneven’ capitalist game, increasing competition between countries and cities saw the modernist utopia castigated for being partly responsible of the urban ills that were now turning certain spaces into dystopias. The unevenness of capitalist development, i.e., the constant shift of capital, or creative destruction, encouraged the political elite and planners to innovate in the development of new tools such as the urban project. Utopia and dystopia interrogate both the political and the polity not only because they are representations of a collective story, but also because they are socially and economically situated and produced. They are not a given out there, but rather furthered through instruments of regulation inscribed in the capitalist regime of accumulation.

Opening screen from Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987).
A masterpiece on the yuppies’ world and its aesthetic, codes, and urbanity

Last but not least, as shown with the large public housing case, the ideological blame of the modernist utopia pleas for the strong connection between the emergence of dystopias and the restructuration in late-stage capitalism, insofar that the argument establishing the connection between the architectural form on the one hand, and the endemic crime and massive employment is prone to the illusion of the ‘spatialist assumption’. As Harvey puts it,

If there is a crisis implicit in all of that, it is by no means clear that it is the modernists, rather than the capitalists, who are to blame…The blaming of physical form for social ills has to rest on the most vulgar kind of environmental determinism that few would be prepared to accept in other circumstances

Harvey 1989a, 115 [our italics]

After all, large public estates are one among many spatial fixes contained within the Keynesian framework, which, put roughly, sought to address the right to the city for the masses in exchange for their cheap labor.

The tearing down of the Cité des 4000, one of the most famous French grands ensemble in La Courneuve

If contemporary modes of regulation such as the project are insufficient–for they do not counter the junkspace, but in fact further certain dystopian trends such as socio-racial segregation, market-based greenwashing, and exclusive right to the city–we should seek to go beyond them. The modernist utopia and the postmodern dystopia may just be coexisting yet conflicting temporalities that need to be addressed through a ‘post-utopian urbanism’ that would consider the utopian gesture necessary while nonetheless aware of its fallacies in the historical form of modernism. As Latour puts it, “the postmodern is nothing but the modern discounted” (2005, our translation), inviting us to reconsider the divide between the two–which, as we tried to show, is not that straightforward in the case of the utopia/dystopia–but above all to quit the postmodern posture that seems to be more conducive of exclusion and inequalities rather than the right to the city.


* Harvey 1989a refers to
The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origines of Cultural Change (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell); while 1989b is indicative of “From Managerialism to Entrepreneurialism: The Transformation in Urban Governance in Late Capitalism,” in Geografiska Annaler 71, no. 1, pp. 3-17.

** For an exhaustive and critical survey of the shift in 1970s and onwards in macroeconomics, see Martijn Konings, “American Finance and Empire in Historical Perspective,” pp. 48-69 in Leo Panitch and Martijn Konings (eds.), American Empire and The Political Economy of Global Finance, 2009.


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