4.241J | Spring 2013 | Graduate

Theory of City Form

Lecture Notes

Lec 19: Form Models I: Modern and Post-modern Urbanism

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Lecture Summary

Various themes that underlie the ideology and practice of modern urbanism are surveyed as an introduction to an analysis of the contemporary city. The presumption that cities are capable of being formed according to scientific principles derives principally from German sources. The planning handbooks of Baumeister (1876) and Stubben (1890) regard traffic engineering as the basis for the city’s organization, while others emphasize the new control of hygiene “which made the science of public health a German one,” and yet others advocate the invention of legal controls and zoning as the major components of the modern city. To articulate the confused nineteenth-century city, the modern city must be separated into distinguishable areas of life, as argued by the CIAM group of European architects. The division of the city into categories of living, working, leisure and circulation was a strange attribution to scientific thought at a time when science was primarily preoccupied with relativity and indeterminacy. Rationalities such as the optimum space between parallel buildings and the minimum space in dwellings were seen as important. There was the obligation to be modern, which had been set, according to Gideon, first by painters and engineers as an antidote to nineteeth-century eclecticism, and the need to conceive of the city as subject to its own zeitgeist, schismatically independent of any other time. Some, like Tafuri, have criticized the modernists’ naïve devotion to the idea of progress and the belief that physical arrangements have great social consequences. The modern building was to be made through the advent of universal new technologies such as prefabrication or minimal structure, and the modern city was to be shaped with an enthusiasm about the new automobile and limited-access highway. For some, the modern city would best have a universal form independent of local culture, an agnosticism of the time of the League of Nations and Esperanto. The modern environment would not have to fight conservatism but simply accede to the progressive values of the enlightened new corporate clients (Fruget et Pessac) and the new civic authorities (the LCC in London). Coupled with the idea of the dispensability of other times in the life of cities was the thought that modern city plans could be fixed (Corbusier’s “right” plan) and not be subject to adjustment over time. The architect of the modern city is at times seen as the heroic producer of original solutions and at other times as the provider of widely spread knowledge (Hilbesheimer: “The only situation that matters (is) that dictated by organization”). And finally, the forms and the spaces of the modern city follow certain patterns. Often, forms are in spatial isolation from other forms. There is an urge to achieve clarity of form and an absence of multiplicity and conflict; single meanings, as with single use zones, are most appropriate. Often open space is regarded as independent of private or public distinction and streets are seen as avenues for traffic rather than as places with many overlapping possibilities. (See Le Corbusier’s Voisin plan and the substitution of streets by general landscape.)

The reference to post-modern urbanism here is mainly as a contrast to the understanding of the city in modern theory and practice. Post-modernism seems to have more specific content in architecture and literature than it has in reference to the city. For theorists such as Harvey, the contrast between “Fordist modernity and Flexible postmodernity” allocates to post-modernity notions such as heterotopia and spectacle, eclecticism and pastiche, homelessness and diversity. Soltan refers to a history, “corporate fantasy encampments,” and frivolity. Habermas speaks of “rhetoric that still seeks to express in ciphers systematic relations which can no longer be architecturally formulated.” Jameson associates the construct of post-modernity with a particular period in capitalist logic when, amongst other, aesthetic production is integrated with general economic production. Gitlin focuses on contemporary post-modernism as having consumed and reproduced nature. The “Collage City” propositions of Rowe and Koetter are perhaps better regarded as suggested improvements on modernist city plans than post-modern urbanism, however the term is defined.


Handout for Lecture 19 (PDF)

  • Page 1: Aspects of modern urbanism
  • Page 2: Annotated text from Oscar Newman’s Review of CIAM Activity

Referenced Texts

Table 4.1 from Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquity into the Origins of Cultural Change. Wiley-Blackwell, 1991. ISBN: 9780631162940.

Examples, Precedents, and Works

Graphed distance between buildings (Walter Gropius); Barcelona plan (Ildefons Cerdà); Flachera project (Giovanni Astengo); Milano (Michelangelo Antonioni); Rome, and Genoa (Italy)

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