“In the face of these developmental dynamics, we believe there is an increasingly urgent need to rethink our most basic assumptions regarding the site, object and agenda of ‘urban’ research. The ‘urban question’ famously posed four decades ago by Lefebvre, Harvey and Castells remains as essential as ever, but it arguably needs to be reposed, in the most fundamental way, in light of early 21st-century conditions. In other words: do we really know, today, where the ‘urban’ begins and ends, or what its most essential features are, socially, spatially or otherwise? […] More radically still, a case can be made that Lefebvre’s postulate (2003 ) of an incipient process of ‘complete’ or ‘planetary’ urbanization is today being actualized in practice. Despite pervasive sociospatial unevenness and persistent territorial inequality, the entire fabric of planetary settlement space is now being both extensively and intensively urbanized (Schmid, 2005; Soja and Kanai, 2005; Madden, 2011). In the face of this prospect, and especially given the unprecedented pace, scale and volatility of contemporary worldwide urbanization, it seems essential to consider whether inherited concepts and methods for understanding and transforming cities remain at all adequate to contemporary conditions. Quite simply, the oft-repeated mantra that a global ‘urban transition’ has recently occurred due to the apparent fact that over half of the world’s population now lives within cities does not even begin to capture the intellectual, representational and political complexities associated with grasping the contemporary global urban condition.”
Neil Brenner, “Assemblage Urbanism and the Challenges of Critical Urban Theory” (2011)
“Le problème permanent d’Unibail est de devoir concilier la vaste clientèle captive des 800 000 «banlieusards» qui passent quotidiennement par le pôle RER juste en dessous avec celle des «Parisiens» de la rente immobilière et du tourisme du dessus. D’autant que cette dernière avait pris ses distances, en même temps que des enseignes prestigieuses comme Dior, Cardin ou Céline, lorsque le site fut estimé envahi de banlieusards durant les années 1980. D’où le projet aujourd’hui énoncé de faire revenir les «Parisiens», «requalifier» le commerce et la clientèle, «reparisianiser», pour contrer «la mauvaise image » des Halles […] Paris est à présent un pôle métropolitain […] Les jeunes de la métropole expriment très exactement cette situation lorsqu’ils disent privilégier les Halles parce qu’elles sont «moit-moit» des divers lieux, des gens, très fractionnés et éloignés les uns des autres. «Moit-moit» est ainsi bien autre chose que la centralité, ou l’équidistance de la fonction transport, pour désigner d’abord la qualité d’un lieu, d’un territoire. À cette contextualisation s’ajoute le privilège d’une dimension festive. La densité de gens de tous les horizons parisiens aux Halles est ainsi spécifique de ces lieux particuliers qui caractérisent toutes les grandes métropoles modernes. Le problème est que ce passage du statut de centre de la capitale à celui de territoire investi des affects de multitudes de métropolitains n’est pas pris en compte par l’ancien centre, ni par ses institutions ni par ses bobos. Il exigerait en effet des équipements, des espaces communs, dont nul ne parle. On en donne ici deux exemples […]”
Thierry Baudouin & Michèle Collin, “Territorialisations métropolitaines et projet urbain” (2008)
“If space-junk is the human debris that litters the universe, Junk-Space is the residue mankind leaves on the planet. The built (more about that later) product of modernization is not modern architecture but Junkspace. 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 . . . Although its individual parts are the outcome of brilliant inven- tions, lucidly planned by human intelligence, boosted by infinite computation, their sum spells the end of Enlightenment, its resurrection as farce, a low-grade purgatory . . . Junkspace is the sum total of our current achievement; we have built more than did all previous generations put together, but somehow we do not reg- ister on the same scales. We do not leave pyramids. According to a new gospel of ugliness, there is already more Junkspace under construction in the twenty-first century than has survived from the twentieth . . . It was a mistake to invent modern architecture for the twentieth century. Architecture disappeared in the twentieth century; we have been reading a footnote under a microscope hoping it would turn into a novel; our concern for the masses has blinded us to People’s Architecture. Junkspace seems an aberration, but it is the essence, the main thing. . . the product of an encounter between escalator and air-conditioning, conceived in an incubator of Sheetrock (all three missing from the history books). Continuity is the essence of Junkspace; it exploits any invention that enables expansion, deploys the infrastructure of seamlessness: escalator, air-conditioning, sprinkler, fire shutter, hot-air curtain . . . It is always interior, so extensive that you rarely perceive limits; it promotes disorientation by any means (mirror, polish, echo) . . . Junkspace is sealed, held together not by structure but by skin, like a bubble.”
Rem Koolhaas, “Junkspace” (2002), p. 175-6
“Haussmann clearly understood that his mission was to help solve the surplus-capital and unemployment problem through urbanization. Rebuilding Paris absorbed huge quantities of labour and capital by the standards of the time and, coupled with suppressing the aspirations of the Parisian workforce, was a primary of social stabilization. He drew upon the utopian plans that Fourierists and Saint-Simonians had debated the 1840s for reshaping Paris, but with one big difference: he transformed the scale at which the urban process was imagined. When the architect Jacques Ignace Hittorff showed Haussmann his plans for a new boulevard, Haussmann threw them back at him saying: ‘not wide enough . . . you have it 40 metres wide and I want it 120.’ He annexed the suburbs and redesigned whole neighbourhoods such as Les Halles. To do this Haussmann needed new financial institutions and debt instruments, the Crédit Mobilier and Crédit Immobilier, which were constructed on Saint-Simonian lines. In effect, he helped resolve the capital-surplus disposal problem by setting up a proto-Keynesian system of debt-financed infrastructural improvements.”
David Harvey, “Right to The City” (2008), p. 26
Guest post and all photos: Antoine G.
“Something has evidently happened to the preconditions for the existence of malls in the first place. But what were those preconditions? As in Aristotelian causality, they come in a variety of forms and shapes: the physical or engineering preconditions are staged for us at once, in the very first letter of this abc of shopping: namely, air-conditioning—to which we will return shortly in a more appropriate place. As for the pre-history, we have certainly been treated, in recent years, to a host of interesting predecessor forms, if not generally going as far back as Catalhöyük. Most notably the arcade itself, essentially developing in the early nineteenth century and reaching its crisis in the 1850s and 60s—exactly the moment when the next form comes along: the modern department store, whose emergence Zola immortalized in Au bonheur des dames (Ladies’ Delight is a fictionalized version of real-life names like Au printemps and La Samaritaine, which have also been exhaustively stud- ied in recent years, for their urbanistic as much as their commercial consequences: for one thing, they are roughly contemporaneous with Haussman’s immense transformation of Paris). As for our form—now falling into decay in its turn?—we will come to it in a moment; indeed we will even put names and faces to it. Like a novel or a poem, it actually has an inventor or author, although the inventor of a whole genre is a more appropriate parallel; something one does not come across very often.”
Fredric Jameson, “Future City” (2003), pp. 69-70
“ ‘In the end, there will be little else for us to do but shop’. Does this not reflect an extraordinary expansion of desire around the planet, and a whole new existential stance of those who can afford it and who now, long since familiar with both the meaninglessness of life and the impossibility of satisfaction, construct a life style in which a specific new organization of desire offers the consumption of just that impos- sibility and just that meaninglessness? Indeed, perhaps this is the right moment to return to the Pearl River Delta and Deng Xiaoping’s post- modern socialism, in which ‘getting rich’ no longer means actually making the money, but rather constructing immense shopping malls— the secret of which lies in the fact that to shop does not require you to buy, and that the form of shopping is a performance which can be staged without money, just as long as its appropriate spaces, or in other words Junkspace, have been provided for it.”
Ibid, p. 79
Guest post and all photos: Antoine G.
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.
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:
- that the birth of dystopia cannot be properly understood without reference to larger socio-economic changes in late-stage capitalism;
- 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.
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:
- 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).
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
“If the break that Haussmann supposedly made was nowhere near as radical as he claimed, then we must search (as Saint-Simon and Marx insist) for the new in the lineaments of the old. But the emergence of the new (as Saint-Simon and Marx also insist) can still have a not-to-be-denied revolutionary significance. Haussmann and his colleagues were willing to engage in creative destruction on a scale hitherto unseen. The formation of Empire out of the ruins of republican democracy enabled them to do this. Let me preview the sorts of shifts I have in mind (…) The provisioning of Paris through Les Halles had long been recognized as inefficient and inadequate. It had been a hot topic of debate during the July Monarchy. The former prefect Berger, under orders from Louis Napoleon as President, had made it a priority to redesign it. Figure 7 shows the old system (soon to be demolished), where merchants stored their goods as best they could under the overhanging eaves of the houses. Louis Napoleon suspended work on Baltard’s new building of 1852—known locally as “the fortress of Les Halles”—as a totally unacceptable solution (figure 8). “We want umbrellas” made “of iron,” Haussmann told a chastened Baltard in 1853, and that, in the end, is what Baltard gave him, though only after Haussmann had rejected (thereby earning Baltard’s perpetual resentment) several hybrid designs. The result was a building that has long been regarded as a modernist classic (see figure 9). In his Mémoires, Haussmann suggests he saved Baltard ’s reputation (when Louis Napoleon asked how an architect who produced something so awful in 1852 could produce such a work of genius two years later, Haussmann immodestly replied “different prefect!”)”
David Harvey, “Introduction” in Paris, Capital of Modernity (2003) p. 12
“This issue of how to see the city and how to represent it during phases of intense change is a daunting challenge. Novelists like Balzac and artists like Daumier pioneer ways to do it in interesting but indirect ways. It is a curious fact, however, that although there are innumerable studies and monographs on individual cities available, few of them turn out to be particularly memorable, let alone enlightening about the human condition. There are, of course, exceptions. I have always taken Carl Schorske’s fin-de-siècle Vienna as the model to be aspired to, no matter how impossible to replicate.19 An interesting feature of that work is precisely how it manages to convey some sense of the totality of what the city was about through a variety of perspectives on material life, on cultural activities, on patterns of thought within the city. The most interesting urban writing is often of a fragmentary and perspectival sort. The difficulty then is to see the totality as well as the parts, and it is on this point that fin-de-siècle Vienna works its particular magic. This difficulty is pervasive in urban studies and urban theory. We have abundant theories as to what happens in the city but a singular lack of theory of the city; and those theories of the city that we do have often appear to be so one-dimensional and so wooden as to eviscerate the richness and complexity of what the urban experience is about. One cannot easily approach the city and the urban experience, therefore, in a one- dimensional way.”
Ibid, p. 18
Guest post and all photos: Antoine G.
Mature technological systems – cars, roads, municipal water supplies, sewers, telephones, railroads, weather forecasting, buildings, even computers in the majority of their uses – reside in a naturalized background, as ordinary and unremarkable to us as trees, daylight, and dirt. Our civilizations fundamentally depend on them, yet we notice them mainly when they fail, which they rarely do. They are the connective tissues and circulatory systems of modernity. In short, these systems have become infrastructures. Infrastructures simultaneously shape and are shaped by – in other words, co-construct – the condition of modernity. By linking macro, meso, and micro scales of time, space and social organization, they form the stable foundation of modern social worlds. To be modern is to live within and by means of infrastructures, and therefore to inhabit, uneasily, the intersection of these multiple scales.
Paul N. Edwards
The Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands is the largest in the entire Western Hemisphere. Located less than 24 hours by road or rail from every EU capitol, it has for decades been the heartbeat of the European Union, and a cornerstone of the entire world’s economy. But now, that cornerstone is in danger of collapse. With 90% of products today shipped by container, Rotterdam’s container terminals are nearing capacity, threatening to become a trade bottleneck that could cripple a continent already devastated by recession.
To make sure this doesn’t happen, the Port of Rotterdam has launched the Maasvlakte 2 Project — an ambitious $4 billion plan to triple the port’s container capacity by 2013. But in a country with literally nowhere else to build, that means undertaking the biggest land reclamation project in history, turning 8 square miles of the stormy North Sea into Europe’s new gateway to the world. And it’s much more than just earth-moving. To keep the port running 24-7, they’re building 3 new power plants, and to house the army of workers servicing Europe’s largest construction project, they are building the biggest hotel in the Netherlands — entirely from recycled shipping containers.
To plan for the future, everything at the Maasvlakte 2 will be super-sized to accommodate the mammoth container ships of the future. Upon completion, it will be the most valuable port facility ever, providing the largest ships in the world direct connection to Europe’s industrial heartland. [...] engineers literally reshape the Dutch coast, all while keeping one of the world’s busiest ports up and running.
Infrastructure has changed radically. Whether the Los Angeles freeways, the New York subway, the London Tube, the motorways outside Dublin, or airports just about anywhere, much of our infrastructure exists in a state of perpetual overload. It is under massive stress from the pressures we place on it: overburdened, aged, little loved. This is not only true for transportation. The news is filled with failing infrastructural systems: electrical grids overload during peak season, petroleum refineries break down, floodwater control systems overflow in heavy storms, wastewater plants spill sewage, aqueducts mysteriously leak.
[...] Curiously, infrastructure is a new word. The Oxford English Dictionary identifies its first use in 1927. The word only achieves real currency in the 1980s after the publication of a scathing public policy assessment entitled America in Ruins: The Decaying Infrastructure, which raised many issues. To understand the technical systems that support a society roads, bridges, water supply, wastewater, flood management, telecommunications, gas and electric lines as one category, it was first necessary to see it fail.
Narcissistically mesmerised by hackers, interns and precarious academics, radical theorists of post-Fordism have ignored what Bologna calls ‘the multitude of globalisation’, that is all of those who work across the supply chain, in the manual and intellectual labour that makes highly complex integrated transnational systems of warehousing, transport and control possible. In this ‘second geography’ of logistical spaces, we also encounter the greatest ‘criticality’ of the system – though not, as in the proclamations of The Coming Insurrection , in the isolated and ephemeral act of sabotage, but in a working class which retains the residual power of interrupting the productive cycle – a power that offshoring, outsourcing, and downsising has in many respects stripped from the majority of ‘productive’ workers themselves.
The politics underpinning urban infrastructural transformation are rarely more evident or visible than in times of crisis or rupture. When water, energy or transport networks suffer extreme pressures or collapse completely, the underlying urban power geometries become somewhat more perceptible. [...] Infrastructure crises are the precursors and outcomes of changing societal consciousness, both in terms of destabilizing the taken-for-granted nature of infrastructure and in terms of unsettling the social order and urban experience which reflect how people relate to and use (or not) infrastructure on a day-by-day basis. [...] These accounts of enactments of the politics of the urban fabric (in contexts of inequality or crisis) can be seen to demonstrate some of the diverse and contingent ways in which urban infrastructure may be ‘re-materialized’.
Colin McFarlane & John Rutherford. 2008
All images by DCDB. Text from various sources (see hyperlinks).
When “God is dead, the author is dead, history is dead, only the architect is left standing” (Koolhaas, 2002: 18) without utopias, what (or who) is actually left for the planning and development of our cities?
Besides its appeal to a longue durée analysis, the topic of urbanism and utopia – and their links, of course – is today rather fashionable, whether one speaks of current exhibitions, critical insights on the idea of a capitalist Utopia, or even indirectly among the latest parliamentary reports.
In this series of three guests posts we will explore the definition of a Post-Utopian Urbanism, on the basis of various readings ranging from Lefebvre to recent writings of Jameson and Rem Koolhaas, and to a great extent indebted to David Harvey’s seminal analysis of the links between capitalist transformation and our (post)modern perception of space and time (1989).
The enterprise of surveying the intimate relationship between Urbanism and Utopia consists of reading the dynamics and transformations that affected cities and their planning over the centuries, together with the discourse surrounding this practice. Put otherwise, the topic at hand here is one of epistemological concern, and is conducive to a two-part analysis: it is as much a study of the urbs, the City itself, as of urbanism, the self-reflective scientific discourse underpinning the city’s development.
The definition of Utopia, the City, and the contextualisation of their problematic encounter is a controversial undertaking. Despite the canonicisation of utopian literature through Thomas More, there is no strict consensus on what a utopia is. And the task of tracing the archaeology of that which makes a City, and of that which makes possible its existence through planning and building, is equally broad and subject to debate. In what follows, the many links between the two will be scrutinized, with special attention paid to the tensions inherent to these links.
Postmodernism as the End of History and the Crisis of Representations
Destruction of the Pruitt Igoe housing ensemble,
designed by Minoru Yamasaki in accordance with the planning principles of Le Corbusier and the International Congress of Modern Architects.
St Louis, Missouri, 1972
We can deal with the topic as an exercise of reading the “City” as an object through time: on the one hand, with reference to the transformations that have affected empirical practices and discourses of the planning métier; and on the other hand, by analysing the capacity of this object to embody and be the scene for social change – whether simply aiming to produce otherness, or, more ambitiously, to proceed towards betterment. This ability for ‘change’ came into question around the 1970s, as urbanism gradually divorced from the modernist project of utopia, one based on a ‘science’ of social improvement through technical progress.
In his comprehensive and insightful survey of ‘postmodernity’ – a key concept in understanding the development of post-utopian urbanism – David Harvey recalls the anecdote of Charles Jencks, whose Language of post-modern architecture (1984) indicates 3.32 p.m. the 15th of July 1972 to be the precise moment marking the death of modernity, and the subsequent passage into postmodernity. At this date, Yamasaki’s Pruitt Igoe complex was torn down.
Besides its aesthetic dimension, we find this photograph compelling. Firstly, for what it represents: the fall of modern urbanism (Choay 1965), which had considered scientific progress as a utopian engine. And secondly, for the crisis it forewarns: precisely of our contemporary difficulty to represent things. For indeed, to survey the changes affecting urbanism and utopias in their kinship is to study nothing but the crisis of representations: whether it is that of politics (crisis of liberal democracies and of the link between governing bodies and the governed); that of technique (crisis of the economic and urban plan); that of architecture (crisis of comprehensive projects, giving way to an aesthetic of collage, and small scale); or that of social representations (crisis of the pluralist society, the dissolution of unitary identities), and so on (Harvey 1989, MacLeod et Ward 2002, Pinson 2009).
Historically, this crisis of representations had been gaining momentum since the 1970s, riding the wave of a broader set of social and economic troubles. At first an economic crisis, it then spread, whether in a causal chain or in concomitance, to various spheres, and may nowadays lead us to wonder if the one-time crisis has not became the norm of our societies, in a transformation similar to what Agamben (2005) noted about the state of exception in liberal democracies.
Urbanism versus Utopia? An Etymological Inquiry
In order to study the many ways in which urbanism and utopia work together, and to bring in to light the resultant tensions, let us start with a brief self-sufficient definition. At first glance, urbanism and utopia appear to operate within different ontological spheres. The former literally deals with concrete matter, in the sense of buildings and infrastructures, whereas the latter operates necessarily in the domain of speculative abstraction.
‘Urbanism,’ at least in French, is rather recent; it was born in 1910 as the “science and theory of human establishment” (Choay, 1965: 8). As its etymology implies, it is the science of the urbs; Latin word for the walled city, the solid city then, as founded by Romulus when he traced down the limits of what was to become Rome. The fact that the birth of ‘urbanism’ is connate with the Industrial Revolution is anything but fortuitous. It reflects the historical turn from the country to the city, where today the vast majority of the world’s population lives. As a ‘science’, urbanism became a discipline per se: with its own tools, its own history, and its own discourse. It is important that urbanism’s ‘scientific’ status not obfuscate its deep political involvement: its object is no less than the form of the communal life that takes place in the immense ensembles, whose density distinguishes them from the country. It is in this attempt to condition the dynamics of communal life that urbanism finds its kinship to utopia.
On the other hand, utopia is first a literary genre, one that can be traced back to Plato’s Republic but which seems to have acquired its canonical status in Thomas More’s eponymous book, published in 1516, before being strongly developed during the 19th century among early socialists like Proudhon, Ledru-Rollin, Herzen and Fourier. The utopian gesture is characterised by its force of projection; it ‘throws’ two visions of a topos, together into a single place. On the one hand, outopia (οὐ τόπος), a nowhere: an-other land that does not exist. And on the other, eutopia (εὖ τόπος), a better or good place: one in which harmony prevails (Choay 1965, 25). Utopia thereby articulates a capacity of abstraction with moral insights.
Urbanism + Utopias = Urbatopia?
The City functions as the privileged nexus in which urbanism and utopia enter into contact. As mentioned, the fundamental common ground of urbanism and utopianism consists in their attempt to condition the harmonious community, the vivre ensemble. We can sketch this common ground along four more registers.
- Throughout their history, urbanism and utopias have shared a reliance on a spatial basis: they imagine and lay down the principles of organizations for ideal places, that is, power relations between groups that are embedded in a given territorial conception (Choay 1965, Harvey 2000).
In their practice – or operational mode – urbanism and utopias partake in the dialectical gesture of projection. By abstracting from the here and the now, they both seek to lay out a legible space, one that does not yet exist but might. Such projections are generic – models capable of being reproduced (Choay 1965, 25). This “spatial game” (Harvey 2000) projects an-other space. In such a way, urbanism until the 1970s, equated this ‘otherness’ with betterment: its utopias conveyed a sense of social and moral progress. Here it is important to signal the centrality of repetition in utopian and urban projection, an aspect of their model-oriented production. Are utopias – as models at once generic but virtuous – suitable to reproduction, or are they unique? Put otherwise, can they be reproduced independently of the context in which they were conceived?
This in turn raises the question of the third feature on our list: totality. This common concern of both utopian and urban practices explicitly appeals to the issue of openness in political regimes, and that of political theory more generally (Jameson 2004). Generally speaking, utopias conceive closed and self-sufficient spaces, not foreign to the etymological notion of the walled urbs. Today however, the forms of our metropolises or edge cities seriously hamper this capacity for self-enclosure.
Last but not least, urbanism and utopias are united in crisis, as presaged by the photography of Pruitt Igoe’s destruction. In the late 1970s and early 1980s the twofold crisis – of capitalist economies and liberal democracies on the one hand, and of any alternative to these systems, on the other – was mirrored in the crisis of urban societies (Pinson 2009). The ‘crisis of the plan’, whether economic in the Keynesian doctrine, or urban/strategic in the practice of zoning, epitomizes this predicament.
It is on the basis of these four points of contact between utopias and urbanism (space, projection, totality and crisis) that we seek to conceive of a post-utopian urbanism.
Motifs in Urbanism: The shift from Urbatopias to Urban Dystopias
This attempt, though interesting, should not preclude a brief examination of the contradictions within the very objects of inquiry themselves (Harvey 1989), and their dynamics. Indeed, the term ‘urbanism’ may sound strange to the Anglo-Saxon ear, accustomed rather to the term ‘urban planning.’ This semantic difference encapsulates quite succinctly the dramatic shift in the discipline, the original attempts at ‘planning’ having been confronted with, and to some extent superseded by, ‘design’ (Rode 2006), related to the fading away of utopias.*
This echoes Antoine Picon’s statement that urbanism is nothing but “a series of historically determined propositions” (2004: 4; our translation), suggesting the need to understand the widening rift between planning and the modernist utopia within the socio-economic context that urbanism inhabits (Harvey 1989).
Born as a clear-cut motif in the academic literature and among planners around the turn of the 1970s, Dystopia points to the anti-urban dimension of a whole school of previous utopias, ‘initiated’ by Frank L. Wright. While the term ‘school’ may be far-fetched, this planning tradition presents identifiable traits based on a common denominator: the formal disappearance of the City, with its centrality and industrial nuisances, superseded by small, decentralized, and multipolar introductions of nature in Garden Cities (Choay 1965).
This repugnance vis-à-vis the city is discernable in the postmodern understanding of dystopia. This is true of the U.S., where the avatars of urban studies’ nightmares abound: Los Angeles, Las Vegas, edge cities, gated communities, and, of course, the hyperghetto (MacLeod et Ward 2002, Pinder 2002). The appearance of this dystopian figure is anything but fortuitous. It is deeply rooted in the crisis of the 1970s and develops parallel to the apparition of postmodernism in the aesthetic and academic domains.
The city, once the nexus through which urbanism and utopias worked together towards betterment through the Keynesian mode of regulation (Harvey 1989, Pinson 2009), seems to have become the place of all nightmares: segregation, endemic crime, socio-economic inequalities. Where the projects once offered a shelter to the dispossessed of the inner-cities, there are now to be lofts and branches of globalized brands. This historical shift deserves substantial attention, for it is the nexus of understanding how, and maybe why, urbanism departed from utopias and thus went from planning to design, from comprehensive projects to a small scale-based architecture of collage, and from the plan able to regulate – for a time – the contradiction of capitalism to the ‘urban project,’ whose object is now the undecipherable city as a whole (on the notion of urban projects, see Pinson 2009). It will also allow us to examine the embedded nature of this shift in a greater capitalist evolution (Harvey 1989).
The divorce between urbanism and utopias is indeed inextricably linked to, and may be the expression of, the inability of the urban society to regulate the inner contradictions of capitalism and the subsequent growth of inequalities. The next step in understanding what could be a Post-Utopian Urbanism will therefore focus on the shift from Urbatopia to Dystopia, so to speak, and examine the consequences and implications for the ‘plan’ as a scientific tool, and by extension for urbanism.
* to go further on the distinction between ‘planning’ and ‘design,’ see Rode “City Design — A New Planning Paradigm?” (2006). See also David Harvey’s major work on postmodernity and its passages on the aesthetic of collage, pp. 40-60 and chap. 4.
Encampment Today: The Space of the Community Without Identity (Michel Agier bootleg translation with photos from Heiko Schäfer)
The following excerpt is from Michel Agier’s Gérér les indésirables, an impressively broad and comprehensive investigation into the socio-spatial strategies of the institutionalisation of the ‘camp’ as an apparatus for the management of the disqualified populations of the planet. The truly remarkable thing about this work is that it is enriched both by wide-ranging and well-researched empirical data (that is presented with a healthy dose of scepticism) on the one hand, and on the other, by a brilliant philosophical investigation into the ontological status of the liminal figures it presents. The work has been translated into English it would seem, but I have neither the access nor the rights to it, so here’s a bootleg excerpt from the original french. Photos from Heiko Schäfer, see description below.
[Speaking of the urban squats and self-installed camps inhabited by internally displaced persons...] All of these situations are marked by an extreme material precariousness, and by the sentiment of those that settle there that they will only be there for a short period. If such a sentiment is generally the case, these zones are nevertheless also firmly-established turntables, and sometimes places of urban stability.
This incomplete portrait of the ‘gray zones’ is the first stage of the grand edifice of camps in the world today. But it also provides an opening onto research directions that must be briefly evoked before proceeding with our inventory of encampment.
I) On the one hand, a continuity of purpose and function interlinks these different campements and their occupants.
The space of self-made refuge can thus be drawn: it runs from the huge tents of the guineo-liberian border to the peripheral neighbourhoods of the african and asian cities, passing by the forest camps and certain squats of european cities.
These refuges are frontier spaces, or more precisely, between-frontier spaces. They are the extreme figures, the most distant, the least visible and least ‘integrated’, no-places [hors-lieux].
They invoke conceptions of the locality at the limit - in the political just as much as spatial sense of the term. Effectively, we can associate the precarious forms of tents, of camps, of ‘invasions’ and of urban wastelands with the figures of the threshold and the interstice. These figures are contained in the relationship of the State to space which evokes the ban-lieu: the physically and juridically uncertain territory of the ‘ban’, at the limit of society, and yet still detained by the State who retains the power to control and abandon it.
The maintenance of this paradoxal relationship at the limit of physical and social life is perfectly reified by the ambivalence of the ‘ban’. Expression of the law (a formal proclamation: publish the ban, open the ban), the ban is expressed in banishing, la mise au ban.
The ban-lieu is not, strictly speaking, a space, it’s a relation: that which links public power – generally represented by the State, but also by the ‘international community’ – and the borders of precarious life, be it that this precariousness manifests with regard to the habitat and the urban space, to employment and income, to civil rights or social frameworks.
Bit by bit, a ban-lieu of the world is being formed; it is neither strictly urban, nor rural, but peripheral to these sectors, and it is this intermediary, this liminal position that characterises its political and physical existence.
II) On the other hand, these refuges are not simply self-settled but also self-organised. Hierarchies compose themselves within the emergency of survival, power relations a minima assure the installation of an order within the disorder of the event, or of the ‘jungle’. Faced with situations of extreme relegation, faced with crisis or emergency, temporary communities form – within the framework of flight, of clandestinity, of disaster – from the very moment that the persons pulled together by circumstance share a minimum of moral and political protocole.
What are these rules that found, in the emergency, shared purpose? Even if, in the cases evoked herein, the observed social frameworks derive more or less from a common basis, the frame of reference is broad, it goes from the family to the nation, and very rarely bears witness to pre-existing social networks or shared social milieus.
We can at very least remark that, if these groups thus formed through crisis indeed share values or languages in common, they are not for as much founded on an identitarian recognition, but on the situation, the shared space and event.
The communities of survival are all singular communities, to be sure, but they tend towards the formation of communities without identity. The ‘jungle’, the ‘ghetto’, or the ‘camp’ (when the term is used as if designating a neighbourhood) are symbols formed on the basis of shared place names.
What’s more, amongst the most globalised of their kind, these names are without identitarian distinction. The groupings are situational and, in this sense, exemplary of a social modernity that includes and transcends the sole case described by self-made refuge. In a more general sense, in effect, this kind of grouping, created by the dynamics of a situation, puts seriously in doubt the realism and social effectiveness of identitary affirmations and the divisions of the world that their ideologies support.
About the pictures from Heiko Schäfer
translation from website:
The series ‘Maritime Incidents’ shows the boats of African refugees, seized off the Sicilian coast by the italian coastguard.
Every year an estimated 10,000 people attempt to enter illegally into the EU over the Mediterranean. The human tragedies and catastrophes play out over our media sources almost daily. These victims, presented as criminals, thereby remain nameless. Given the ever-growing human masses, the authorities have abandoned any attempt at a detailed record.
“Strategic bombardments are indispensable to the analysis of the urban phenomenon…”
The following excerpt from Paul Virilio’s L’insécurité du territoire was published almost exactly one century after Nietzsche’s Human all too Human. Nietzsche’s work promoted a departure from the heavy methodological systematisation of his day, and saw him fully embrace the aphoristic form of philosophical inquiry. In aphorism 22 he describes an almost suffocating vision in which the scale of human life has become increasingly limited to a non-transcendental universe:
“One crucial disadvantage about the end of metaphysical views is that the individual looks his own short life span too squarely in the eye and feels no strong incentive to build on enduring institutions, designed for the ages.”
100 years later, after the chasmic ravaging of the European landscape of the 20th Century, it seems that Paul Virilio had exactly this crippling sense of human limitation in mind, this same inability to conceive enduring institutions designed for the ages. War, and its effects upon human cohabitation accelerate this post-metaphysical limitation to stellar degrees of ubiquity.
It seemed a shame to leave it untranslated, so here you go:
Urban, all too urban
I remember that balcony in Nantes, on the rue St-Jacques, a factory chimney emerged from behind the façade of the building across the road. Aligned with its smoke, I navigated like a captain at the helm… Those days, everything came or went from horizon to horizon: the refugees from the north who passed through the Loire towards the freezone (exodus), an armed column of invaders popping up one afternoon, after the retreat of the English at Saint-Nazaire. Those long lines of vehicles, abandoned upon the streets, empty.
That ominous plane, shot down, which a long succession of onlookers came to contemplate, as if coming from another world. Another epoch was commencing, that of the sky put to use, put into practice, into conquest… All those people looking into the air, abandoning their labours as soon as the noise of an aircraft, high and far-off, made itself heard: another world.
The aerial spectacle, the cat-and-mouse chase of the fighter planes, the screeching Stuka’s vertical dive meant to terrify the ground, just as one wears hideous markings in primitive warfare, the primitive sky of the second war. The mysterious night alarms when nothing came to pass except for the black-out and the furtive sneaking towards the walkways and shelters of the town’s inhabitants. The joy of the unfamiliar… everything moved, was exchanged, bartered: uniforms, goods, things, languages, come and go, hello, goodbye, from here to there, from one to the other, mobilised.
I remember, upon that balcony, not far from the bridges of the river Loire, an acquaintance calling me from the opposite footpath, and myself replying to him, all the while imagining that which was his vision at that moment… games of the mind and of space, of the dimensions low to high, from here to there, transparence and ubiquity, movement, the future and the future-now [l'advenir et l'advenir présent dès maintenant]. The conflict of a war, effectively global between sky and earth, ruptured and overcome for the first time.
Transparency was embodied in those goings and comings, those bursts, those artificial clouds, that immense dark smoke, immobile, suspended above the town after the bombardment. That crimson tissue turning slowly in descent, the raining thousands of silver shells that we pursued like gifts from somewhere else. The pamphlets, news from the other world.
We did not properly foresee the advent of the above, the saturation of space to the detriment of the below, perennially fascinated as we are by the inside and outside.
Our daily life, horizontal and bi-dimensional. The length, the perspective according to the horizon, the flattening, henceforth perceptible, which was to upturn all, flip the head over heels, ideas, customs, means and men.
The destroyed cities were not made so by accident, by cruelty; besides the strategic considerations of the aerial offensive, equally implicit is the fact that these cities had forever punctuated the conquest of the earth.
From the tiniest town to the hugest capital, these cities were to be the ports of a new coastline: the vertical. The point of descent in the spatial range, infinity began at rooftop-level [au ras des toits].
This enormous overturning of the world did not sufficiently warn us, we’ve been caught up in it ever since, unknowingly, we live leaning limply against the earth, we’re askew, we stumble unceasingly, unknowingly. The plane that flies overhead slices through our route. We stagger like the bent hominoid, primates, our objects and constructions are already unusable, uninhabitable: the depth of the sky gives us vertigo, but we don’t even know what it means when we sense the dread and attraction of distances, the agoraphobia responsible for the conquests of Empire and the claustrophobia that serves to this day to repress our enemies, to sequester our friends. Vertigo and freedom are not synonymous. The ceilings preserve us… yet no one has considered that they limit us better than walls. When we move in the street or in the field, our step is comparable to natation. We contemplate the background, recumbent, we escape into slumber where our dreams repeat the geometry of the day before, and when briskly we fall, we find ourselves standing, awake, facing the horizon.
The hominoid, upon its four members, never contemplated its feet, it looked straight ahead; straightening itself up, only its body moved in manual effort. One must still straighten the head, cease the narcissistic consideration of one’s hands and their works, in order to see the deep expanse of space without horizon, with the time as the final landmark. The stretched expanse above our heads, our roofs, is already a field of action, a barely known field but one which we must learn to put into practice if we want to begin all over again…
The horizon of regional or national appropriation hides that of range and duration. The horizon’s line is the first frontier of mankind, the worst (la pire). The blue line of the Vosges is the line of fire (la ligne de mire). “My future is the country that lays before me”, wrote Apollinaire in the poems of the first war.
The articulation of our relationships is based upon this flattening, upon this crushing weight of the sky that constrains us to horizontal escape; all of our past conflicts originate in the flat, worldly, land. The nazi Lebensraum was nothing but the last avatar of this geographic archaism. Hitler himself recognized it as such, where he avowed, just before the end of the war: “Why did I never dare to believe in the conquest of space…? If we had already had our rockets in 1939, the war would never even have been…” In effect, war would have been useless.
We have seen what follows, the passage to sidereal imperialism between the Soviets and the Americans, reconciled by technological adventure. But what has changed, perceptibly? Nothing, or almost nothing for the commoner… almost everything for the dominator. Formerly, the height of the turret indicated the range of the lordly estate, currently the altitude of the orbital watchtowers signals the range of planetary imperialism, and the city pursues its goalless appropriation… They walk over us, but we don’t go anywhere. Sedimentary, our societies cover and recover the preceding. More and more, we sense our enclosure within the horizontal borders of mankind, they speak of the science of habitat, of ecology; it would be a matter, they say, of conserving the equilibrium of the elements… but where is the place of expanse and duration in this new science? The recognition of the limits of habitat forces us into a consideration of the relation of here to there, of one to the other: put succinctly, which orientation are we to choose? Which mode of duration… which range? Will we have the freedom to re-orient ourselves?
The second war was my mother, my father. The extremity of the lived situations instructed me. It’s not a matter of complacent violences, like that decapitated head in the gutter or those trucks of dead and wounded ascending the street (my street) towards the Saint-Jacques hospital after the destruction of the Hôtel-Dieu, but of a vision of the world, inalterable. The second war is a reservoir of meaning indispensable to the understanding of our second peace.
The historical advent of the sky; the height, henceforth common; the above, present and omnipresent starting from year 40. Strategic bombardments are indispensable to the analysis of the urban phenomenon. It does not consist of a morbid taste for cataclysm, but rather of the cruel necessity for clinical consideration of the agony of cities in order to foresee the future construction, new life. Towns, mirrors, agonies, mirror games of the destructuration-construction of mortal life and living death.
I remember the month of September, 1943. That same morning I had been to the rue du Calvaire, in that street teeming with life, in those shops brimming with objects, with toys… that night, everything had disappeared, excised by the event, the event on top of the event, the war upon the peace of the everyday: the main street of a city – hundreds of kilometers from any front, bustling with the most diverse uses, with exchanges and with collusions, with the sun on the footpathes and the reflections in the shopfronts, had become Verdun. Untimely, everything had moved; buildings, perspectives disappeared; the rows of façades, volatilised… the sky, the transparency and the shadow of the ruins in the midst of piles of pebbles and rubble.
That which educated me, it wasn’t the horror of those buried alive in the basements, asphyxiated by ruptured gas pipes, drowned by the burst water mains (basically, since, whenever an alert sounded, I refused to descend into the shelters, preferring the gardens and courtyards, prefering to risk the impact of the blasts than the enclosure by rubble), but rather that sudden transparency, this change in the view of urban space, this motility of the inanimate, of the built.
Besides, the situation of French citizens was surprising, the enemy cohabited here below in the pacific everyday, even if ordinary life was from time to time punctuated by his excesses; he was there, next to us, made banal by the years of occupation, whilst the allies, ours, dumped their bombs all over the town. Paradoxically, however, it was impossible to condemn those who, from the heavens, crushed the tranquil assurance of everyday habits. The greatest horror, the most appalling crimes, the victims’ innocence, the fatal levelling of urban silhouettes, all of this seemed acceptable if not friendly…
Strange reality where death itself could not be condemned for the fact of ideological conflict. From that moment, it did not require much time to pass from that paradox to the following: the brutal vanishing of the urban décor was also an acceptable fact, a necessary dépaysement [change of scene / disorientation / exile], a forwards fleeting: in brief, an information, like those pamphlets raining upon us.
But one must not forget the infancy of the witness who played this grievous reality and collected the wreckages of the sky: blasts of bombs, of shells, weapon fins from the allied projectiles, pamphlets, windows, the debris of shot-down aircraft, like so many relics of another world, the allied world from which we were all exiled in this pseudo-everyday of the German occupation. Provisional our reality like our freedom, provisional the city that a tragic instant demolishes. The important, the durable, comes from elsewhere, from above; the sky and space are doubly the place of transcendence and ‘excedence’ [dépassement]. To watch the shining points of planes in the azure, to listen to the deaf rumbling of squadrons of flying fortresses, is to be elsewhere, with one’s people, exiled to the ground, the hour of ascension still to come.
The traces of condensation from the four-engines seemed to us like the signs of a language. Of course, one must protect oneself, escape if possible from death, but the sky is right: if we were to die, it would be by error, the bombardiers who navigate so high only desire the destruction of the décor’s fixture, of the facilities, to make our habitat transparent, which is to say corresponding to the space of their flight.
“Jéricho”, the anti-prison operation is the keystone of all the bombardments of the occupied zone. We are the prisoners not simply of the occupying forces, but also of the walls of our cities, they are our own constructions which serve to sequester us from one zone to the other. From that realisation, it did not take long to deduce that the liberation would also be the abolition of the city, of this treacherous city that could so easily turn itself against its population. For many young people, despite a tragic sentiment, the ruin of the cities was not as grave as one might suppose; the friends, the allies, had mutated us into so many Néros contemplating the torching of Rome.
Everything moves with the apparition of the sky in history, in the 20th Century. Our homeland is movement… but watch out! Not necessarily displacement [déplacement], there is even a debate pronounced between these terms with the question of displaced peoples, deportation. Exodus is different from obligatory displacement, this difference is essential to the understanding of the movement that initiates here. We’ve seen it, it’s firstly the sense of the environment which moves in relation to the zenith. It’s also the declared impossibility of being able to condemn totally the destruction of the milieu, which valorises the meaning of the event: the very fact that the enemies co-inhabit down below symmetrically devalues those here to the benefit of the beyond, of the allied above. Just as the sea yesterday unknown becomes the element allied to the navigator, space, the unpractised sky of yesterday becomes the milieu of man. The terrace and the roof become so many seawalls, from which we contemplate that which comes, and that which goes. The citizens are all of a sudden resemblant of the fisher’s family, in wait of that which comes or comes back from on high.
I remember another kind of game which consisted in gluing oneself to the façade of a building and, the eyes raised, watching fixedly the sliding by of the clouds. This quickly gave the feeling that the façade punctured by windows was upturning. I pursued this experience until the point of vertigo. The verticality de-materialised slowly, that which only dominated the confines of the landscape appeared short to our parallel view; perpendicular, to the ground which we barely saw any longer, elevation lost its meaning, altitude didn’t really count any more. The walls held us in, they literally crushed us, it was the height of the buildings which, in the collapse, buried their inhabitants.
The instability of this vertical orientation did not seem to us compensated by any advantage: one could burned alive up there without knowing it. We filled our attics with sand in order to avoid incendiary products unleashing running fire from the top to the bottom of the edifice. We lived in a house of cards, the city had become metastable, its buildings which, just yesterday, manifested the domination and hubris of the bourgeoissie, were rendered fragile in the extreme, and we were in the street a little like these sailors of the past who, docking alongside one another in multi-decked ships, feared at every moment that these would capsize them.
Capsize, this word reconstructs the exact situation. There was, moreover, a locomotive not far from the Pont-Rousseau depot, installed on the top of a hangar, a plane-tree upon the roof of a six-story building… sur-reality.
A factual sky, one which no longer completed the peace returned. Even if the social consensus was re-established, even if the pedestrian everyday [quotidienneté terre à terre] regained its rights, the pacficication served only to mask, as always, a new situation, and the reconstruction of European cities was only to be a repetition, an urban redundancy, a negation of the spatial fact made apparent during the course of the second world war (as you make your bed, so you must lie in it), only the armies, once again, will benefit from the event.
Imperceptibly, this aerial ocean in which the clouds flocked became the last natural element of the cities, after the vanishing of the vegetal, the rarity of the animal. But the profile of the urban coastline now reflected against an atmospheric element returned to its initial vacuity. It was the illusion of resuscitated cities, standing cadavers, symbols of the pseudo-society that had raised them.
Some wanted to reconstruct the cities elsewhere, next to their former implantations (Caen, for example); it was useless. Once evaporated, the cities, like the reverse projection of a collapse, fell back into place, into the same place… simplified but analogous, in their volume, smoother, higher, and the transparency of an instant discovered to be newly disappeared.
The sky above the roofs, the blue space changing to the rhythm of the season and the days now replacing the absent green space. We live henceforth at the edge of the atmosphere, literally at the limit of the world, at the aplomb of the void.
And while each turned to their customary occupations, strategic flights and aerial lines developed simultaneously as if the ‘Strategic Air Command’, Panam, Air France or Aéroflot no longer constituted a sole and identical company destined to colonise the new territory, to saturate it with waypoints and immaterial corridors.
For a moment, the creation of the aerial bridge at the occasion of Berlin’s blockade recalled the aero-portal character of every city, but then, once more, the sky was devalued, disqualified by the beginnings of the space-race, as if the sidereal conquests constituted a disconnect, as if a mysterious ceiling limited the value of space (one level, one story further, higher…). In fact, it was the very terms of altitude and apogee that lost their meaning, no longer able as they were to designate a last movement towards the void, towards the universal absence.
Then again, I remember that twilight when, watching the sun decline upon the horizon, I strained to forget the apparent movement in order to watch the line of the earth climb, like a crest at its zenith.
Montreuil zone industrielle Nord.
The Montreuil Industrial Zone.
A vision, utopian but sad, haunts this roof upon which we walk. We pass a garden of satellites, amongst which cicadas buzz, veiled in the grass. And turning to the west, we find ourselves confronted by a tableau completely unexpected upon the roof of this concrete monolith, this monument to so-called inhuman architecture: an orchard of symmetrical trees framing the immense urban expanse of the horizon. Who envisaged such a building with its wooded roof? To whom do we owe this feeling of faded utopias? These perspectives, this vision, Claude Le Goas conceived them, a certain Mme. Delhommeau tells us. He wanted to “construct the city upon the city”.
In 1963, under the communist administration of André Grégoire of the PCF, the decision was taken to build MOZINOR. And, in 1975, the work finished, it became the first “vertical industrial zone” in France. On the roof was to be found the orchard, with its fountain and its beautiful view, in addition to a cafetaria, so that the factory workers may go and dine together in a pastoral setting, or even go and eat a picnic under their trees with their family during the lunch hour.
All the same, MOZINOR is one of the only buildings in the world that permits articulated lorries (heavy-load trucks) to access every level of the building, which is made possible by a dual-spiral central ramp which leads all the way to the roof. The global vision consists in a holism which envisages the reunion of ostensibly separate domains, namely: the pastoral and the urban, work and rest, the industry of Montreuil and the agriculture of the surrounds.
The warehouses and factories below propped up the restful scenes above, the building could accommodate a large quantity of industrial production and storage, without taking up much space, without creating an alienating environment, and everything at the building scale, at the scale of the city block. In this manner, the idea of MOZINOR recalls the primordial dreams of the skyscraper, which Rem Koolhaus explained in Delirious New York as “the utopian device for the production of an unlimited number of virgin sites upon a single metropolitan location”.
Now, MOZINOR is a strange mix of activity and inactivity. In such, it resembles the rest of les Hauts de Montreuil. The warehouses now accommodate artist studios, there are still trucks on the ramp, but there is no body upon the roof and the fountain has dried up. It would appear that in the 1990′s MOZINOR was one of the best-known techno-rave spots in the Paris region, but that after several murders in which people were thrown from the roof, it found itself increasingly securitised, enclosed by an immense fence, with rigid opening hours, 10AM-8PM. It remains to be seen whether the the original holistic spirit of MOZINOR can be better effectuated on the neighbourhood scale, through the Hauts de Montreuil project…
[translated from urbanist project written in French]
If there is one virtue of human beings which deserves to be spoken about in a philosophical way, it is above all this: that people are not forced into political theme parks but, rather, put themselves there. Humans are self-fencing, self-shepherding creatures. Wherever they live, they create parks around themselves. In city parks, national parks, provincial or state parks, eco-parks – everywhere people must create for themselves rules according to which their comportment is to be governed.
Rules for the Human Zoo – Peter Sloterdijk
“What’s the most resilient parasite? An Idea. A single idea from the human mind can build cities. An idea can transform the world and rewrite all the rules.”
Cobb – Inception
“Case 1: Canada Helps a Hong Kong Blossom in Cuba”
As with all truly seductive ideas, Paul Romer’s idea for Charter Cities is equal parts brilliance and misguided insanity. Basically, the idea is this: take an ‘unoccupied’ piece of land within a given territory big enough to build a city, find a group of foreign experts and investors to govern and invest in it, create a strict charter detailing the rules for foreign governance, and wait for the influx of capital and cheap labour to begin its deluge.
Of course, one problem is that, basically, the idea for colonialism was this: search the maps for a region with the tantalising label ‘unoccupied’ (in 1629, Governor Winthrop asserted that most land in America “fell under the legal rubric of vacuum domicilium because the indians had not ‘subdued’ it” – The New Nature of Maps), find a group of pioneer settlers to go settle there and set up a system of government, create a constitution or treaty between the colonial sovereign and the proxy, and wait for the influx of new migrants and investment to begin its deluge.
My idea is to build dozens, perhaps hundreds, of cities, each run by a new partnership between a rich country and a poor country. The poor country would give up some land for the city, while a developed country like Britain or Canada could contribute a credible judicial system that anchors the rule of law. Citizens from the poorer country (and perhaps elsewhere around the world) would then be free to live and work in the city that emerges.
Create pockets of foreign sovereignty with freer economic rules and more modern governmental constraints as a way of incubating the nation’s future prosperity, city by experimental city… the city as petri dish… the city as idea… the idea as city…
If this idea reminds of you of Deng Xiao Peng’s Special Economic Zones – those metropolitan fusion-reactors in which the impossible nucleosynthesis of capitalism and communism took place – that is probably because Paul Romer founded his model for Charter Cities upon them. Hence the focus on Hong Kong, which, because of its strange existence between Imperial England and Communist China – the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ approach – managed to attract massive amounts of foreign investment capital and Chinese entrepreneurial talent (oh, and dirt cheap manufacturing labour). Romer describes Hong Kong as nothing less than “an intervention”, which has “done more to reduce world poverty than all the world’s official aid programmes of the 20th century combined — and at a fraction of the cost”.
He actually uses Guantanamo bay as an example for an area in which the legal framework for such a project already exists, arguing that “In a new treaty signed by the United States, Cuba, and Canada, the United States could give up its treaty rights, and Canada could take over local administration for a defined period of time.”
Francis Fukuyama (in)famously claimed in 1989 that “the triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism”, and that “we may be witnessing the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
For Fukuyama, the litmus test for the effective spread and ubiquity of such a “universal homogenous state” is the presence of “liberal democracy in the political sphere combined with easy access to VCRs and stereos in the economic”.
With the coming ‘end of history’ the task is left to the forerunners of neoliberal ubiquity to ensure that those still ‘in the grips of history’ may be progressively brought out of it through political and economic modernisation. Central to this task of modernising the political and economic worlds is the global technology of development. In this light, Romer’s plans for ‘commy Cuba’ can be seen as another conclusive step towards the neoliberal eradication of alternatives:
The legal protection and institutional stability that the Canadians provide would attract foreign investors and foreign citizens to the city. As the city grows, the Cuban government would gradually allow freer movement of people and goods between the land it governs and the charter city. At the same time, supporting cities and suburbs would grow up on the Cuban side of the city’s boundaries. The charter city itself would eventually return to Cuban control.
Is this not the very premise of Inception? One builds a city in the mind of the unknowing dreamer (the utopian?), but a city with a latent set of ideas and rules. One plants an idea there, and it spreads like a parasite. Before they know it, the dreamer is awake and has come to accept the idea as their own: inception.
Chosen Colonialism and Romer’s iconoclastic brilliance
Many, including Romer himself, have drawn parallels between the notions behind Charter Cities and those that propelled centuries of colonial settlers around the world. Aditya Chakrabortty of the Guardian, for example, has highlighted the depressing déjà vu character of this proposal:
This idea isn’t prompted by dreams of a new imperialism – because this California economist doesn’t know enough imperial history. If he did, he’d realise that the English Whig Thomas Macaulay said it all before, when he said of India in 1833: “It is scarcely possible to calculate the benefits which we might derive from the diffusion of European civilisation among the vast population of the East . . . To trade with civilised men is infinitely more profitable than to govern savages.”
“Romer makes it sound as though setting up a charter city is like setting up a fairground,” Elliott Sclar, a professor of urban planning at Columbia University, told Sebastian Mallaby, in the latter’s excellent article for The Atlantic “We take a clear piece of land, we turn on the bright lights, and we create this separate environment that will stand apart from everything that’s around it. I wish it were that simple.”
“To some this sounds like colonialism”, acknowledges Romer, but to others, the idea of Charter Cities “sounds like a feasible way to scale up the benefits from migration. Like migration, this approach would give poor people a chance to choose the rules they want to live and work under. All residents in new charter cities would be there by choice.”
Chosen Colonialism: sick, megalomaniacal, imperial, orientalist, eurocentric – call Romer whichever slur from the post-colonial lexicon you like, but the idea does have a certain genius to it. Most crucially, the scale at which the intervention is aimed is climacteric for the 21st Century: We live in a world of Dubais, Las Vegases, Calcuttas, Port-Au-Princes. “There are large swathes of uninhabited land on the coast of sub-Saharan Africa”, claims Romer, “Most is too dry for agriculture, but with desalinated and recycled water a city can pop up in the driest location.” He points out that change, if it is to come, will not come from the nation – it is too big, any top-down radical reform is seen as coercive, its scale is too large to have an intimate understanding of every locality that is the necessary basis for governance. Villages, communities, neighbourhoods – these are too small to compete, too personal to govern effectively, too weak to count.
But cities, cities are the vessels of civilisation… the crafts of the future… what if, like Inception’s dream thieves, we could steal Paul Romer’s idea, and put it in the hands of the left…
Megalomaniacal materialism in an urban, all to urban, world
Roughly 3 billion people from the world’s working poor will move from villages to cities over the next few decades. The choice is not whether the world will urbanise — it’s doing so, fast — but where and under which rules. Cities are so valuable that people will choose slums over rural poverty if that is their only choice. But charter cities would give them another option. For this new global urban population, these new cities can provide safety, affordable housing, education and jobs.
Whether we like it or not, the coming century will be urban, it will be capitalist, it will be based on models of growth. It will also be beset with ecological crisis, energy shortage, overpopulation, massive waves of immigration and local resistance to this, the abandonment of the countryside, shrinking cities, growing cities. Revolution won’t save us: the only prospects of revolution come from the far right, the Tea Parties, the new European nationalist parties springing up like evil daisies every new election season. Possibilities for radical reform, however, pop up at every moment.
Of course, the idea of Charter Cities is disgustingly neoliberal, Fukuyama’s wet-dream of capital’s vermicular spread… but could it also represent something that comes after the end of history? A post-neoliberal paradigm? I realise the iconoclasm of the suggestion, I’m nevertheless tempted to quote a song from Brecht’s 1930 Lehrstuck ‘The Measures Taken’, a didactic piece of communist drama that centers around three comrades sent to agitate in China:
CHANGE THE WORLD: IT NEEDS YOU TO
Whose company would the righteous reject
In order to do right?
Which medicine tastes too disgusting
For the dying?
Which ignobility would you not commit
In order to stamp out the ignoble?
If you could finally change the world, for which means
Would you be too righteous?
Who are you?
Sink into filth
Embrace the slaughterer, but
Change the world: it needs you to!
Die Maßnahme, B. Brecht (my translation)
Sure, the play has been smeared as an apologia for totalitarianism, but it has one central message: you have to break a few eggs to make an omlette. Or, “They know what they are doing, yet still they’re doing it”… Just like Sloterdijk’s enlightened false consciousness, explored in the Critique of Cynical Reason, published a year before Fukuyama hailed the end of history:
It is that modernized, unhappy consciousness, on which enlightenment has labored both successfully and in vain. It has learned its lessons in enlightenment, but it has not, and probably was not able to, put them into practice. Well-off and miserable at the same time, this consciousness no longer feels affected by any critique of ideology; its falseness is already reflexively buffered.
To act against better knowledge is today the global situation in the superstructure; it knows itself to be without illusions and yet to have been dragged down by the “power of things.” Thus what is regarded in logic as a paradox and in literature as a joke appears in reality as the actual state of affairs.
Peter Sloterdijk – Critique of Cynical Reason
Could we however harness the ‘power of things’? Transform our cities into crafts, petri-dishes, fusion-reactors, arks?