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.

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