The Urban Society

By Albert Dijk

the wane of the industrial city and the importance of technology

In my opinion the influence of the contemporary political context on architecture is not described well enough. Examples as to how Walter Benjamin and Modern Times grasp the zeitgeist are helpful to understand our contemporary society and will be an exemplar. Today, we notice a shift in contemporary values. This indicates that the descriptions of Benjamin and Modern Times are outdated. How is it possible to give an answer to new urban questions if we don’t understand the political context?

When the current situation is described and made public, like the texts of Benjamin and the film of Chaplin, people will be able to understand and come up with solutions for new urban questions. The goal of this essay is to make visible the existing political situation and the existing values, not to answer the new urban questions. This will open up society to participate in answering these urban questions.

Interesting in this case is how Nicolas Sarkozy has summoned ten leading architectural firms to develop a vision for Paris. They were asked what Paris would be like in 2030 in the ideal situation, with the only restriction the Kyoto-protocol. [1] In Paris every president feels the need to make a mark in history. De Gaulle changed Paris drastically, Pompidou built the Centre Beaubourg, Giscard d’Estaing transformed station Orsay into a museum, Mitterrand build the immense new library and Chirac build the museum Branly. Now Sarkozy has to leave his mark on the city.

Let us start by the development of Paris in the late ninetieth century. The rise of modernization is leaving its mark on the city. The city is changing from a labyrinth into a functional city. The city is witnessing the third major shift, defined by Henri Lefebvre, in the urban: the rise of the industrial city.

The first and perhaps most influential intervention was made by Baron von Haussmann. First of all, the increasing rents in the inner city drove the proletariat into the suburbs which led into a changing characteristic physiognomic of the inner city. The inhabitants of the city became alienated from the city. [2] Second Haussmann introduced the boulevards of which the main intention was gaining control and preventing the outburst of a civil war. The boulevards divided the city into controllable parts and barricades on the streets were not possible anymore. In the boulevards we can see the changing of the city of Paris into an industrial city. The functionality was the main reason for the urban developments. But there was also an urban aspiration in these boulevards: the ideal of the vista.

Next to the boulevards, the passages are rising. Corridors with a glass coping and marble paving. In this creation of industrial luxury glass and steel were used for the first time. According to Benjamin, the passages were ‘…a turnover in the development of the city. Suddenly they were the mold in which the image of modernity was shaped. The century reflected his most recent past.’ [3]
As we can see the intervention of Haussmann was a dictating one. The climate is still one of Napoleonistic imperialism designed to favor the big business. [4] A small part of the inhabitants are dictating the way the city is shaped. The interventions only serve one goal: to keep the money coming towards the powerful elite. We can say that it is a local system that only influences Paris. In the arcades the rich are able to show off their money and the shops are filled with the luxury products to serve the elite. You had to fit a certain dress code to comply with the character of the passage.

After these developments, it is interesting to look at the Eiffel tower. As described by Vesely, the Eiffel tower worked as an instigator of modernization [5] At first the Eiffel tower was an alien object to the inhabitants of Paris. Yet only a few decades later, the tower was hailed as a symbol of Paris. [6] The technology of the modernisation became part of the city in a few decades. The people adapted the new image. The Eiffel tower was part of the Exposition Universelle of 1889, the origin of which was because of the 100th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille; an ultimate expression of freedom. The building itself was linked to the new movements in painting. The industrialisation became a part of the modernisation and the Eifel tower was picked as a symbol of it. ‘Delaunay’s celebrated work of 1910 – 11 depicting the Eiffel tower was perhaps the most startling public symbol of a movement that tried to represent time through a fragmentation of space; …though the choice of the Eiffel tower as symbol reflected the fact that the whole movement [cubism] had something to do with industrialism.’ [7] Again an intervention that at first hand is not wanted by the people became at a later stage a strong symbol of the identity of the city. However we can distinguish some differences with the earlier interventions. This intervention was one that was showing the freedom and the power of this city.

After these interventions which had a huge impact on the structure of the system we can see a new development; individual buildings that strived for modernisation. Of course the buildings affected the city, but the interventions were on a totally different scale than the interventions at the end of ninetieth century. It was not possible anymore to drastically reshape the city. The modernisation had been visualised by the use of steel and glass, both in buildings and in transport, but the city was entering a new stage of the modernisation. The political situation had changed and an individual could not enforce his will. The presidents of the fifth republic all tried to leave their mark on the city. The following passage is one of Jean-Louis Cohen. He describes the pictures of Henrard, who photographed Paris at the end of the fifties of the twentieth century and is compared with Benjamin as he also paints a picture of the city. The city in transition.

‘The string of Citroen factories in Saint-Ouen, Levallois, and Javel is still apparent in his photographs, as is the Renault fortress along the banks of the Seine – where the buildings were often laid out without any overall plan, as property was acquired piece by piece. The aeronautics industry still occupied sites along the River, and a number of workshops were active around the main companies. The Seine was a decisive element in the activities of the large Parisian factories, as it was an important transportation route for raw materials and, sometimes, for the export of finished goods. The branch Lines of the railway network were also inseparable from the industrial districts. Above all, the trains provided a vital link for the commuter traffic between the suburbs and Paris; indeed some of the tracks had been laid before the development of housing areas, some of which, such as Meudon, had primarily been weekend destinations in earlier days.’ [8]

The first president at work was Charles de Gaulle. ‘Industry was still flourishing as Henrard flew over the towns that were part of the Seine département surrounding Paris.’ [9] ‘Flying aboard a helicopter… …Charles de Gaulle remarked: ‘Clean up that mess for me!’’ [10] Under his command the peripherique was realized which put a strong mark on the development of the city. The train and the water lost importance as a transport mode while the car took over this position. ‘The first section of the peripherique was completed in 1960, while the entire 22 miles were opened to traffic in 1973.’ [11]

Centre Beaubourg was built in 1977 and a statement of President Pompidou. This building, emphasising the greatness of Paris, is an interesting edifice for a new experience of culture. In the book Mass, Identity and Architecture Boudrillard is pointing out the importance of this building. He states that ‘…it was consumption rather than production which was the main drive in capitalist society.’ [12]
This is an important shift in society. It changes from a society controlled from above into a society that is controlled by the individual. The building has been made for the people. Pompidou insisted that there should be a public building in which modern art and different forms of expression could flourish. The popularity of the president became important for his decisions had to be supported by the people. Without support he was not able to realize them. ‘But still the French people, the real financers of the project, had no voice in the subject.’ [13]

Perhaps the best example of this new approach is the musee d’Orsay which was finished in 1986. It was a transformation of a train station that had been built for the Exposition Universelle. The modernisation made the trains too long for the station and the building lost its function. The building indicates the rapid changes in the city for it was only usable for half a century. The train was not fast enough anymore and surpassed by new modes of transport. This illustrates well the time-space compression of Harvey. After closure of the train station different functions were housed in the building and finally Giscard d’Estaing insisted that it became a museum. Now it houses mainly French Art from the period 1848 till 1915. Already the early stage of modernism was displayed in the museum.

The Grand library is a project of Mitterrand initiated in 1988. It was supposed to be the most modern library in the world and has its origins in the royal library founded at the Louvre. A competition was held for the design. Among the contestants were O.M.A. and Tschumi but eventually Perrault was chosen to design the building. The construction took over 15 years and the building was finally opened in 1996. Public criticism became an important factor for the development of the building. ‘…controversy boiled in academic and government spheres, where fears were expressed concerning the division of the library into two distinct sites (pre-1945 publications were to remain in the original National Library), the principle of storing books in towers, the cost of maintenance and the time it would take to convey books to the readers.’ [14] The public was able to delay the process and this indicates the turnover in power relations.

The museum Branly is realized at the end of Chirac’s term of office. The building, designed by Jean Nouvel, is only open for three years. Chirac’s personal passion for art beyond the European orbit resulted in a museum ‘…and it was as responsible as any single factor for bringing about the recent reshufflings in the Paris museum world and changes in the delicate relationship between traditional Euro-based art history and the works it once so unquestionably excluded.’ [15] The building was a piece in the war against cultural elitism. Interesting is that the idea for the museum was initiated when he was not the prime minister or the president, but the mayor of Paris. The project is also more known for the architecture of Jean Nouvel than for the content of the building. The green façade has been exploited as a reference. The building is showing the temporal social awareness in relation to the environment. Like in centre Beaubourg, the building is known because of the façade.

Sarkozy has now given order to ten design teams to radically change Paris. The plan is however not created by one man. Within these design teams a broad spectrum of intellectuals is included. The proposals for the city are thus realized by architects, urban planners, sociologist and philosophers. The only restriction given by Sarkozy was the Kyoto protocol. Hereby Sarkozy left the teams free to develop whatever they wanted, and the influence of the government can be diminished. It resulted in proposals with new ways of transportations, expansion along the Seine, radical changes of the existing built environment. Before the plan will be executed an exposition is now organized to inform the public what is happening and create support for the radical proposals. In this project the ultimate collaboration of the public is needed. Also Saskia Sassen points out that ‘…this project lived a submerged life for one and a half year. Now it merges and we must speak of the priorities, collaborations, of the level of which decisions have to be made. If that will be done properly, new projects will be possible.’ [16] It can be the crown on all the interventions initiated by Napoleon.

The projects above all show the transition of the role of the public. The modernisation created industries needed for the execution of power. The capitalistic system created an industry which was dependent. It was not possible anymore to enforce from one point of view. In the projects you can see how they are realized with a gradually growing team. The more players are involved, the more support is arising. Instead of a small elite that was dictating the beginning of the modernisation, the public is the one that can enforce decisions.

The modernisation develops during the twentieth century. David Harvey already wrote down the time-space compression. Interesting to see here is that the modernisation repeatedly exceeds itself. The glass and steel that were dictating the beginning of modernisation are replaced by ‘…a century in which the idea of communication is at the core of everything we do.’ [17] In Paris we can see a shift from competing in a race to create a building that is on the limits of what is technically possible towards a more informational driven modernity. The library of Mitterrand includes features as an overall wireless internet system and the library is to be connected with other important libraries all over the world. A modernity which strongly affects the way people use the city. The singular interventions contribute to a change in the use of space whereas the interventions at the end of the ninetieth century contributed to a change of this public space. ‘The celebrated Great Presidential Projects, and the new urban policies adopted by the City of Paris, especially in the East, produced profound changes in the architectural scene, with interventions by foreign architects and the simultaneous emergence of young French designers capable of original work that was nonetheless compatible with a certain respect for the urban tradition.’ [18]

According to this quote the space for new architecture has been given by the urban policies. ‘Changes in regime are more powerful than the most radical architecture – a conclusion both alarming and reassuring for the architect.’ [19] Koolhaas already pointed out the importance of policies. But this twofold explanation in the last part of his sentence is an important notion. The use of architecture is not a one-way street anymore. On one hand, all the projects are initiated by the president. Chaslin is speaking of Great Presidential Projects, written with capitals. On the other hand, the presidents need the renewal of thoughts of the designers. Perhaps like Napoleon, they need an architect who can create this radical design. But they do not just give one architect all the power. The projects become open competitions in which every architect can give his opinion. The choice for a certain entry is not restricted to one man, but it has to be approved by the city. Also architecture becomes a means to convince the people of the single vision of the president. The image is the most important mean to do so. ‘Design is a political activity’.[20]

David Harvey emphasises the importance of the scale broadening urbanisation of Haussmann with contemporary urbanisation. ‘This global scale makes it hard to grasp that what is happening [mega-urbanisation projects] is in principle similar to the transformations that Haussmann oversaw in Paris.’ [21] But Harvey is still convinced of a dictating power on the urban. ‘In the past three decades, the neoliberal turn has restored class power to the rich elites.’ [22] ‘Harvey maintains that it is in fact industrial capitalism which continues to create the conditions for urbanisation, rather than vice versa.’ [23]

Henri Lefebvre regretted that the projects of urbanisation were made without the ‘…massive involvement of those affected.’ [24] A political movement is lacking. In the revolution lies the power to be creative. There is a need for a long period of disorientation. Even Foucault is stating that ‘…what we need is a new economy of power relations. It consists of taking the forms of resistance against different forms of power as a starting point.’ [25]

With the projects above, I have tried to explain the fundamental difference between contemporary urbanism and the urbanism that Haussmann was creating. The power relations within society have changed. It cannot be compared. Like I mentioned above, the people are getting involved. The uprisings in Paris illustrate that it is not possible to dictate the will of an elite onto a whole city or even a society. Koolhaas has summarized this in the following quote. ‘One hundred years later, the Panopticon Principle, with its mechanistic ideal – the naked power exercised by the authority in the centre over the subjects in the ring – has become intolerable. In fact, without a single change in the architecture of the Koepel, its principle has been abolished.’ [26] So it is not the built environment that has changed, but society. Of course, the text of Lefebvre and Foucault are from respectively 1970 and 1994. The change has merged in the past decade.

The rising critics of capitalism as such and the disbelief that the total globe can not live in Western conditions indicate that a revolution already has taken place in the mindset of the public. The industrial society has become the urban society. In 1970 Lefebvre told us that ‘…today’s society is undergoing a transition. The phenomena and implications of industry are only now beginning to wane.’ [27] Now, as illustrated by the developments in Paris, these phenomena and implications of industry have moved out of daily life.

But what do we have to do next? If all theory is based on an outdated society how can we think of solutions? Luckily Lefebvre provided us with an answer for the question of this course. ‘Strategy contains a key element: the optimal and maximal use of technology (all technologies) for solving questions to improve everyday life in urban society.’ [28]

The goal of this essay was to create ‘…historical awareness of our present circumstance.’ [29] Paris illustrates well this transition and can provide us with a good understanding of the changes. By understanding how the city has developed into the industrial society and subsequently into the urban society we can develop new interventions and solve the new urban questions.

1. Ariejan Korteweg, Parijs, wereldstad in het klein, 02 april 2009, De Volkskrant
2. Benjamin, W, Kleine filosofie van het flaneren, 1992, Uitgeverij Sua, Amsterdam, p. 23
3. Ibid, p. 118
4. Ibid, p. 23
5. Vesely, D, Architecture in the age of divided representation: The question of creativity in the shadow of production, 2004, MIT press, New York, p. 303
6. Vesely, D, Creativity in the shadow of modern technology, p. 304
7. Harvey, David, The condition of postmodernity, 1990, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, p. 267
8. Cohen, J.L, Above Paris, 2006, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, p. 22
9. Ibid, p. 22
10. Ibid, p. 23
11. Ibid, p. 38
12. Proto, F, Mass. Identity. Architecture. Architectural writings of Jean Boudrillard, 2003, Wiley-Academy, England, p. 11
13. Daru, M, Beaubourg: supermarket van de cultuur in: Plan nr 5, 1977
14. Chaslin, F, The state and the city: major projects for Paris in: Paris La ville et ses projets, 1988, Editions Babylone, Paris, p. 69
15. Price, S, Paris Primitive – Jacques Chirac’s museum on the Quai Branly, 2007, The university of Chicago press, Chicago, p. 3
16. Sassen, S, in: Ariejan Korteweg, Parijs, wereldstad in het klein, 02 april 2009, De Volkskrant
17. Lecture GSD Harvard Dialogue: Manuel Castells
18. Chaslin, F, The state and the city: major projects for Paris in: Paris La ville et ses projets, Editions Babylone, Paris, 1988, p. 69
19. Rem Koolhaas, S,M,L,XL, 1995, The Monacelli Press Inc, New York, p. 239
20. Lecture GSD Harvard ‘Networks and spheres: two ways to reinterpret Globalization’ 02/17/2009
21. Harvey, D, The right to the city, New Left Review, p. 30
22. Harvey, D, The right to the city, New Left Review, p. 32
23. Vollebregt, A, Hidden places, hidden powers, phd TU Delft
24. Lefebvre, H, The urban revolution, p. 182
25. Foucault, M, Power, 1994, Penguin Books, London, p. 328
26. Ibid, p. 327
27. Lefebvre, H, The urban revolution, 1970, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, p. 138
28. Ibid, p. 143
29. Foucault, M, Power, 1994, Penguin Books, London, p. 327

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