AHRA symposium at AA London

May 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

Just a quick post to link a video of the AHRA symposium that took place Saturday, May 14 at the Architectural Association. It’s the video of the panel about City and Politics I took part in.



Inconsiderate Hardness: Paris – Barcelona 1853-1870

May 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

My PhD presentation at the Berlage Institute, on thursday April 28

Nous en a-t-on assez parlé du « personnage » !(…)Il est certain que l’époque actuelle est plutôt celle du numéro matricule. Le destin du monde a cessé, pour nous, de s’identifier à l’ascension ou à la chute de quelques hommes, de quelques familles. Le monde lui-même n’est plus cette propriété privée, héréditaire et monnayable, cette sorte de proie, qu’il s’agissait moins de connaître que de conquérir.

Alain Robbe-Grillet, Pour un Nouveau Roman, 1963


For French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet the twentieth century is the “époque du numéro matricule” – an era that has discarded the humanist paradigm to rather embrace a post-humanist point on view – one in which “objects are seen as ideas independent of man”.[1] Contemporary criticism has traced the demise of the humanist paradigm[2] back to the modernist artistic and literary experiments of the 1910s and 1920s; and yet, a process of reification of human existence had already started since the mid-1800.

This process is a hallmark of a mature capitalist system, as Georg Simmel had pointed out in 1903 with his seminal essay “The Metropolis and Mental life”[3]; money economy becomes the lens through which society – and the city – is understood and projected. The transformation of Paris led by Georges-Eugène Haussmann and the expansion of Barcelona planned by Ildefonso Cerdà can be seen as exemplary projects of a rising managerial attitude towards the city. In their works, Haussmann and Cerdà treated the city for the first time as object of rational inquiry rather than the locus of transcendental values.

As such, they can be seen as the peak of a humanist urban culture, but also as the beginning of a post-humanist genealogy. It is the objective of this paper to discuss how the process of reification inherent to modernity has been dealt with, used by, and resisted to in these two paradigmatic cases.

Haussmann’s Paris and Cerdà’s Barcelona have been criticized at length as instances of top-down, repressive design. Their bourgeois ethos, their spatial genericness, and their ambitions at social engineering are all well-known commonplaces. But the present inquiry does not aim at giving an assessment of their effectiveness in social, or even spatial, terms: it is rather an attempt at uncovering the archetypical precedents of Haussmann’s and Cerdà’s choices, as well as their working method, through a rereading of their written texts. Haussmann’s Mémoires and Cerdà’s Teoría General de la Urbanización can be seen as projects in themselves, through which we can reconstruct the authors’ epistemological approach to city-making.

The essay will then try to lay out the key categories articulated by Haussmann’s and Cerdà’s works: urbanization, subjectivity, spectacle, tactics, pedagogy, and, lastly, the idea of city as heuristic device. To discuss these terms means to reconstruct the political aspirations that shaped the metropolis of the XIX century, but also to problematize the cliché of the ‘human’ city that has become an obsession in recent architectural discourse[4].

Simmel believed that the modern metropolis – such as Paris or Barcelona – breeds a political subject that is marked by the ‘blunting of discrimination’[5], that is to say, the incapacity of value judgment. Fifty years afterwards, artists and writers such as Robbe-Grillet will look for new emancipatory possibilities within this supposedly alienating condition. Looking back at where the blunting of discrimination had begun ultimately means to ask ourselves whether only the humanist city can truly be a human city.

[1] Peter Eisenman, “Post-Functionalism”, in Oppositions 6 (Fall 1976): unpaginated.

[2] Eisenman, op. cit., and K. Michael Hays, Modernism and the Posthumanist Subject (Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press, 1992).

[3] Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life”, in The Sociology of Georg Simmel (New York: Free Press, 1950),

[4] The debate between acceptance and refusal of post-humanism has had an interesting output in the vicissitudes of the magazine Oppositions, with Kenneth Frampton heading a group of critics that still believed in direct, ‘humanist’ political agency, and Peter Eisenman attempting to reconstruct, on the contrary, architecture as an autonomous field.

[5] Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life”, in The Sociology of Georg Simmel (New York: Free Press, 1950), 415.

Upcoming: The blunting of discrimination

April 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

The next chapter of my research on Commonplaces

The blunting of discrimination:  Producers and consumers between the Stalinallee and the Lijnbaan.

During the 1950s, in a world polarized by the ideological divide between Capitalism and Socialism, the reconstruction of war-stricken (East) Berlin and Rotterdam was more than a mere matter of social utility. It was under this pressure that Europe produced its last significant street paradigms: the Stalinallee and the Lijnbaan. Standing on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain, these street spaces epitomized two radically contrasting takes on architecture, the city, society, and ultimately human nature itself.

In Rotterdam, van den Broek and Bakema rethought the centre as a place for intense consumption, shelving away the rising class of tertiary workers in tall residential slabs perpendicular to the first-ever pedestrian commercial spine in the world. In Berlin, Herman Henselmann planned a new expansion spearheaded by a monumental axis lined by neoclassicist apartment buildings. The choice of urban setting, function, and language is so diametrically opposed as to become almost a caricature of the effort to construct two different political subjects: the consumer, and the producer.

As far as architecture was concerned, blessed were the times such a choice still seemed possible – for, as this reading of these paradigms will uncover, the two conditions shared more than we would like to admit. In a macroeconomical framework where money and wage labour could not be eradicated even by a socialist regime, Simmel’s “blunting of discrimination” is the sine-qua-non of contemporary urbanity merely because consuming and producing are actually one and the same. The Lijnbaan and the Stalinallee were the manifestos of a wonderful world that almost was – one in which boundaries were still clear, zoning still made sense, labels still held their power.

In both cases these streets spell out an ambition to create a believable narrative, a narrative that would be able to hold together the splinters of an urban context that was irredeemably leading towards extreme fragmentation – and extreme genericity as well. If the consumer paradise borrowed the rationale of modernism, the monument to the producers leaned on an attempt at reviving a Schinkelian classicism of sorts. This search for a forced identity produced results that verge on the tragically ridiculous, or the ironically heroic – and it is anybody’s guess whether still today we can reject the Stalinallee as ridiculous and hail the Lijnbaan as heroic, or rather see the matter the other way around.

The story of these two streets is also a bittersweet parable on the power (and occasional weakness) of architectural language. In ten years, the Stalinallee paradigm withered and was quickly abandoned between harsh criticism, while the Lijnbaan model thrived and influenced not only the western world, but also key spaces of East-German cities such as Dresden and Chemnitz. While it is obvious that consumption has risen to the foreground of an increasingly rarefied production cycle, this fact alone does not suffice to explain the dynamic that saw the Lijnbaan model proliferate, and the Stalinallee paradigm die. Was it the demise of Stalinism that decreed the end of a turgid yet readable monumentality, or was it rather the strength of Modernism that endorsed a new model of urban centre based on shopping as a quasi-pedagogical activity? Is it politics that trumps architecture, or isn’t it rather form that, at times, influences function?

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