Eleven Canonical City Plans and a Note on the Conceptual Practice of Architecture: A few reflections on a recent teaching project
The city itself is the concrete embodiment and the collective historical sum of manual and mental human labour. The city plan – whether theoretical or as built, a precondition of the city, or not – is the representation of singular values, common beliefs, critical sensibility, and a manifestation of a particular way of looking at the world, and of ways of living.
With this position in mind, we assigned our students a canonical city plan as a lead-in to this years Rooms + Cities Masters Unit. The selected city plans were the following: Filarete’s Ideal City of Sforzinda (c1460), Giambattista Nolli’s La Pianta Grande di Roma (1748), Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Campo Marzio (1762), Ludwig Hilberseimer’s Hochhausstadt (1924), Le Corbusier’s Ilot insalubre no. 6 (1937), Archigram’s Instant City (1969), Rem Koolhaas’ Exodus, or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture (1972), Oswald Mathias Ungers’ (et al.) Berlin: A Green Archipelago (1977), Costantino Dardi’s panel for Roma Interrotta (1978), Bernard Tschumi’s Street in The Manhattan Transcripts (1978), and finally Pier Vittorio Aureli’s Stop City (2007). Each plan, in different ways, analyses the city and sees something in it – features, qualities, forms, objects, events, geometries – that was not seen by others. Once seen, the particularities become the basis for project thinking and design.
Most of the city plans are theoretical projects by architects motivated by the possibility of influencing the urban condition through architecture’s formal potential by means of framing and representing the space of confrontation and coexistence, which is the city; and who take the view that architecture is a conceptual practice and intellectual pursuit.
The emphasis on architecture as a conceptual practice – as a theoretical project – is important because it is by being presented as theory – a category autonomous yet in dialogue with design – that architecture goes beyond the art, craft or pragmatic construction of building to propose an intellectual contribution that addresses the potential for an alternative future urban life.
After being assigned a plan, each member of the Rooms + Cities Unit was required to produce a series of diagrams that describe the formal, conceptual and organisational principles of their plan, and to delineate a room within their city plan. Then a representative area of 500 metres square was redrawn at the scale of 1:500. Accompanying these drawings was a short explanatory text to historically situate the city plan.
The purpose of this project can be summarised in the following three ways. First, the act of redrawing the city plan is itself a form of architectural inquiry by means of architecture’s quintessential critical tool: the drawing. For this reason the drawings produced should not be viewed as illustrations of a canonical plan (although they are that as well), but as critical examinations into the ideas that underline each city plan and therefore produce knowledge about the particular plan.
Second, by discussing the principles of each city plan a conceptual vocabulary was developed to help describe the relation between room and city. Theoretical categories particular to each plan were debated – including “cell,” “event,” “bigness,” “limit,” to name a few – as well as categories common to all plans, including “enclosure,” “context,” “type,” and “the other.”
Third, the city plans act as critical reference points to be manipulated and transformed, and which can be used to generate ideas and city forms for the studio projects that follow.
This project is developed with Lorens Holm in the Masters Unit entitled Rooms + Cities at the school of architecture in Dundee.
While it is clear that architecture is not autonomous from culture, it is possible to understand architecture as autonomous in relation to culture because architecture is a discipline with its own rules, values, formal and conceptual principles which are put forward in theories, drawings, built and unbuilt examples. Yet architecture gives concrete form to culture and came into being with the first traces of the city. Architecture is rooted in the formation of culture and civilisation so that the history of architecture, which is the city, is also the history of culture. Architecture, culture and the city are therefore relational and co-determinate. The purpose of the following notes will be to briefly reflect on these points.
“Mind takes form in the city;” said Lewis Mumford in The Culture of Cities “and in turn, urban forms condition mind.” Mumford’s words remind us of architecture’s formal condition and that the city embodies the sensibility, attitude, and dominant worldview of any given culture. Then, urban forms – architecture as such – condition the sensibility of any given culture because the architecture of the city is both a human creation of manual as well as mental labour and the willed expression of power, whether in the name of the state, religion, corporate patronage or some other authority such as a single figure. The city thus embodies private passions and desires, shared beliefs and needs, as well as the conflicts of a people, which always results in both the construction and destruction of the city. Think of the construction of great arches during the Roman Empire to celebrate war victories; or infrastructural projects like Haussmann’s Paris boulevards that destroyed vast areas of the city to represent an affluent Paris as a crucial centre of Europe; or the production of “iconic” buildings in the 1990s and 2000s that attempted to turn relatively unimpressive cities into global tourist attractions. By understanding architecture and the city as the embodiment of culture – of shared beliefs and needs as well as common sensibilities and attitudes – we can ask what is the culture of our current condition and how is this formalised in architecture?
There has been considerable recent discussion by commentators who describe culture today as a “crisis of social imagination.”  Let us note two examples. According to Paul Virilio, “Progress has become excess.” In the past, progress was the shared improvement of living, working, and education conditions. As Virilio states in The Administration of Fear progress is now excess. For Virilio, excess means the proliferation of unnecessary objects so that we are saturated with images, sounds and words. These are produced at an excessive speed with the purpose of feeding our desire for immediate satisfaction. The excessive speed of contemporary culture and the constant speed of post-industrial society has caused the fragmentation of rhythm, whether daily and habitual, seasonal, or something other. Virilio extrapolates this to various scales including human, city, and military. He comments that society accelerates at all times and without pause for reflecting on our desire for new things. The planned obsolescence of technologies such as phones and computers (as well as cars and new homes) is an example. We dispose of them at a quicker rate because they are produced at a quicker rate so we endlessly consume. Virilio reminds us that the need to constantly update our Facebook and our Email is another example of the acceleration of reality. The implication of the desire to “update” is that we are always behind where we need to be: behind on work, family, and friends. Because of its banality the sense of “being behind” goes unnoticed as a way of controlling our sensibility that results in deep feelings of anxiety. Lastly, Virilio reminds us that modern culture equates progress with economic expansion and the excessive proliferation of facts, figures, percentages, profits, and statistics, which is what Virilio calls the “mathematicisation of reality.”
Let us recall another example. In Factories of Knowledge, Industries of Creativity Gerald Raunig says the following: “Knowledge economy, knowledge age, knowledge-based economy, knowledge management, cognitive capitalism – these terms for the current social situation speak volumes. Knowledge becomes commodity, which is manufactured, fabricated and traded like material commodities.” Here, contradictory keywords are conjoined: knowledge and economy, knowledge and management, cognition and capitalism. Knowledge is understood as collectively produced shared thinking and is founded on human cognition which is immeasurable and cannot be controlled nor quantified. By contrast economy, management, and capitalism represent mass-individualisation, extreme competition, and hierarchical control. In Raunig’s reflections, we can read the struggle between the human value of knowledge versus its gradual commodification by dominant power.
The points made by Virilio and Raunig on the quantification of life and knowledge help frame the following architectural examples which can be read as symptomatic of a deeper cultural pathology that increasingly rejects the human sensibility for critical and creative imagination. Koolhaas’ (et al) Mutations, although now a dated text, is worthwhile recalling because it is the model of numerous recent texts. It surveys contemporary global urbanisation from cities and city-regions in Europe, America, and Asia. The text measures cities through statistics and indexes, and is illustrated by countless charts. Significantly, Mutations opens with a series of page spreads that comment on global population trends. The first reads: “At the outset of the twentieth century, 10% of the population lived in cities. In 2000, around 50% of the world population lives in cities.” This is a tiring statistic which is constantly repeated.
Another text, Content, is a history of OMA/AMO since S,M,L,XL of 1995 and situates Koolhaas’ practice within the scope of global culture. In the chapter entitled “An Autopsy” global culture between 1989 to 2003 is charted in relation to the production of “iconic” buildings and the Dow Jones Financial index. It makes clear the link between architecture and its commodification within the framework of economic markets. In the photomontage that illustrates the chapter, we see buildings by Zumthor, Gehry, Foster, and SOM amongst many others. We also see photographs of Kofi Annan, Princess Diana, Bill Clinton, and images of nuclear tests by India and Pakistan, as well as art exhibitions such as Damien Hirst’s in MOMA, New York. Comment should also be made on the objecthood of the book: a small, thick, glossy paperback magazine, saturated with images, photomontages, ideograms, advertisements, essays, interviews and statistics about global culture. It is an analogical reflection of the loud consumerist ethos of our age. Yet, to qualify this, Content still asserts the role of culture and understanding the city as a prerequisite for the production of architecture. While these are only two examples, we can cite many others to indicate the recent emphasis on quantifying the city, architecture and culture via technological-scientific language. For brevity, a few book titles should suffice: Weak and Diffuse Modernity, Recombinant Urbanism, The Endless City, A New Urban Metabolism.
The preceding examples – from the critical reflections by Virilio and Raunig on the implications of “mathematicisation of reality” and social imagination, to the quantitative analyses of Koolhaas and others – serve as illustrations of our current cultural condition and its interplay with architecture in general. To end, here is the crucial point: instead of constructing complex mathematical models to “measure” architecture or endlessly analysing the city through “data,” we should remember that architecture is a form of cultural production and based on human sensibility, which is of immeasurable importance. Let us remember that architecture is an intellectual inquiry that questions urban life as such by putting forward alternative ways of living and critical interpretations of existing conditions.
 See for example the following: Franco Berardi, The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2012); David Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (London: Profile Books, 2014); Eric Hobsbawm, Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century (London: Abacus, 2014); Antonio Negri, Art and Multitude: Nine letters on art, followed by Metamorphoses: Art and immaterial labour, trans. by Ed Emery (Cambridge; Malden, MA: Polity, 2011); Paul Virilio and Bertrand Richard, The Administration of Fear (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2012).
This essay can also be found at http://issuu.com/level6portfolio