What About the Last Urbanisms?

Potentially Valuable

What About reconsidering the last (Hardcore) Urbanisms?

By Nathalie Frankowski and Cruz García (WAI)

L’urbanisme n’existe pas : ce n’est qu’une « idéologie », au sens de Marx.

-Attila Kotanyi [1]


Urbanism is not a profession; it is ideology in a pure state. Often confused with urban planning, its real value gets undermined; its potential spoiled. Urban planning can be taught in school, and like architecture, it has become a conformist result of endless discussions, bureaucratic dialogues, constant editing and undesirable modifications. On the other hand urbanism implies an intoxicating faith in the power of design to transform the city and whoever that lives in it. Urbanism is architecture’s oxymoron: if Architecture is constrained, urbanism is unlimited. How to explain that urbanism as a belief has ceased to exist just when prosthetic architectural reincarnations of yesterday’s ideal cities seem to be proliferating everywhere? Are those architectures organs without a body? Would we be able to unearth the corpse?


A contingent of statistical failures has forced urban visionaries to abandon utopia in exchange for taxable facsimiles. Usually accompanied by totalitarian regimes the potential of urbanism has been abandoned, overlooked; never again seriously considered. After declaring “all the solid melted into air”, urban production has been reduced to a belated and partial reclaiming of the city. Paradoxically, architecture has become the immediate substitute for urbanism at the very moment that architects stopped talking about architecture and concentrated all their “manifestoes” on the city. We have read an endless list of (post-modern?) arguments about generic cities and junkspaces, metacities and datatowns, spaces of flow, green cities and virtual networks, and all the other speculations about contemporary urban understanding, but we have failed to see the staggering potential of the last real urbanisms. More than forty years ago urbanism was declared dead, and after that nobody has even tried to resurrect it. Conformity with the status quo and the role of the architect as a rockstar has forced a prolonged disqualification of the wholesome ambitions of urbanism. In order to claim relevance the architect has remained irrelevant; the urbanist has become nonexistent.

Bolshevik Urbanism


Despite its premature abandonment urbanism is not finished. The inevitable resurgence of Brasilia fifty years after its creation proves that ideas don’t die. A statement on the belief of the spatial politics of Juscelino Kubitschek, Brasilia reinforces the notion that the true value of urbanism doesn’t lie in the conformist policies of categorized living standards, but in the potential to establish visionary plans with a strong determination. A newly founded Brazilian capital marked the apotheosis of a period characterized by an intense intellectual urban brainstorming fueled by social reform and political ambition. Motivated by decades of social instability, urbanism became a tour de force in the hand of visionaries. From the Bolshevik constructivists, to a Le Corbusier led CIAM, urbanism was the ultimate tool for change; a deus ex machina for social transformation.

Le Corbusian Urbanism


Urbanism’s passionate involvement with utopia has evaporated into the air. The twentieth century alone saw urbanism dissolve from the most volatile, experimental and intellectually fertile period into a passive analytical phase that extends right up to today. [2] It’s not a coincidence that the heroic period of Modern Architecture was not driven by architecture but by the appeal of the city as a hotbed for social, political, and economical transformation. After the Bolshevik revolution urbanism was highly fueled by ideology and ideology was being catalyzed by urbanism. The series of stratagems utilized by the architects of the revolution were not only relegated to the creation of propaganda, the city, and hence its architecture, became a monument for the class struggle and a collective infrastructure for the highly mechanized communal lifestyle of the new “ruling” working class. As strongly as these ideologies were manifest in the projected urban landscape, the palette of proposals could not have been more diverse; une autre ville pour autre vie was easily translated into whatever form urbanism can take. During this same period Le Corbusier went from declaring a war on the actual city with his publication Urbanisme and the presentation of the Plan Voisin (both released in 1925), to using the CIAM—the most ambitious modernist enterprise—as a screen to project his urban intentions. [3][4] After him, a fluctuating series of sublime urbanisms took shape, from the rapidly multiplying Metabolist cities in Japan, to the high flying Architecture Mobile of Yona Friedman and the GEAM, to the Walking, and the Instantaneous and Plug-In Cities of Archigram. Even the Situationists with their sharp critique on modernist urbanism –especially on Le Corbusier, went on to develop their own customized version of urbanism: Constant’s New Babylon.

Situationist Urbanism


Forty years after those clouds of tangible possibilities dissolved from the urban atmosphere, the remaining forms of urbanism have been turned into an exhaustive catalog of pessimistic explanations and uncompromising arguments. No matter how strong the convictions can be, or how inevitably obvious the ideas can seem, urbanism appears to be unable to be crystallized into concrete forms. What would happen if, with the humorous sense of a Foucaultean genealogy, we decided to carry out an archaeological survey of the remnants of the last specimens of urbanism? What if we decided to analyze them not by their known fate, but by their conceptual value? What if for once we stopped admiring that last breed of hardcore urbanisms by their seductive aesthetics and their aura of naïve ingenuity and evaluate the potential they had to carry out the hedonistic utopias that the old reformers envisioned? Maybe then, we would stop looking at urbanism as a fossilized enigma, reconsider its true value and grasp its ultimate potential.

Archigram Urbanism

Metabolist Urbanism

[1]. Attila Kotanyi, “Programme élémentaire du Bureau d’Urbanisme Unitaire” originally appeared in Internationale Situationniste #6 (Paris, August 1961).

[2].Ideological Urbanism or Hardcore Urbanisms as stated in this article passed through three main phases during the Twentieth Century: revolutionary, reactionary and analytical. The revolutionary period started to reach its peak during the 1920’s with the Bolshevik revolution, the multiple ideal cities proposed by Le Corbusier and the creation of the CIAM, and lasted until the upheavals of 1968 following the dismissal of the CIAM. The reactionary period post 1968 includes projects like Superstudio’s Il Monumento Conitnuo, Archizoom’s No-Stop City (both 1969) and Rem Koolhaas’s Exodus or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture(1972). These proposals were created as ironical critiques on urbanism and its tools of representation. The beginnings of the analytical period could be traced to the publication of Robert Venturi and Denisse Scot-Brown’s Learning from Las Vegas (1972). This category marks a distancing from the proactive urbanistic proposals of the reactionary period and creates a more descriptive attitude towards the city. The projects –between them Rem Koolhaas’ Delirious New York, and all the other observations on Atlanta, Lagos, Pearl River Delta, Singapore (just to mention a few) —are more observations that incursions on the city.

[3]. The Plan Voisin was an adaptation of the project for three millions of inhabitants or “Ville contemporaine de trois millions d'habitants.”

[4]. A Le Corbusier fueled CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne) produced documents like La Charte d'Athènes, that summarized under an official document that the future city relied under the four canonical values of travailler, habiter, circuler, et le cultivar le corps et le spirit.

No comments:

Post a Comment