City as political form


Pier Vittorio Aureli focuses on the category of archetype as an alternative to the idea of type. Four examples – the axial streets of Renaissance Rome, the 17th-century Parisian place, the 19th century independent block in Berlin and the 20th-century Viennese superblock – are explored here to describe the emergence of modern urban forms that explicitly embody power relations.

The city is the most explicit index of power relationships. Walls, squares and streets are not only meant to support the functioning of the city, but they also form an extensive governmental apparatus. Without proposing a cause-and-effect relationship between form and politics, the intention here is to trace the political origin of quintessential city projects within the history of the modern city. The aim is to test the political instrumentality of architectural form. For this reason, instead of focusing on the city at large, the focus will be on paradigmatic architectural archetypes. The category of archetype that will be advocated here will not be the way Carl G Jung defi ned it, as a universal contentless form, nor as innate pattern of behaviour.

Instead, following Giorgio Agamben, the idea of archetype as example will be proposed: neither a specifi c nor a general form, but a singular formal event that serves to defi ne the possibility of a milieu of forms. Following such defi nition an archetype could be Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon (1785) whose form was interpreted by Michel Foucault not only as the model for that type of surveillance, but as an example through which it is possible to defi ne a particular paradigm of spatial governance.

The category of archetype is advanced here as an alternative to the idea of type. If type traditionally indicates the idea that regulates the development of a group of forms (and for this reason is irreducible to any particular form), archetype offers the possibility of addressing a found singular form as a defi nition for a possible group of forms. In architecture, an archetype is thus a paradigmatic form through which it is possible to illuminate a particular critical passage in the development of the city.

In the following notes, the political form of the modern city will be defi ned by addressing four archetypes: the papal axial streets of 16th-century Rome, the Parisian plàce of the 17th century, the independent building block in 19th-century Berlin and the 20th-century Viennese superblock. The sequence of these four archetypes attempts to synthetically describe the emergence of modern urban forms that embodied specifi c power relationships within the city, especially those related to the rise of economic accumulation and management as a response to particular confl icts in the city. The aim of this essay is to attempt a short and concise outline of a political history of the modern city, and the way its ethos, made of urban management on the one hand and confl ict on the other, was embodied and represented by the use of certain architectural forms. The argument is that while the changes of the city can be thought of as the evolution of urban types, its realisation can only happen within a political ‘state of exceptions’, in which the exemplarity of specifi c and singular forms plays a leading role in resetting the urban condition. The essay counters the current mainstream of evolutionary and empirical research on the city that portrays urban space as an evolutionary and self-organising organism.

Against this idea, the city emerges as a locus of a permanent political confl ict of which architectural form is one of the most extreme and radical manifestations.

Axial Rule in Renaissance Rome

The reinvention of Rome as the capital of Christianity between the 14th and 16th centuries can be considered as one of the most antagonistic processes of urban transformation in the Western world. This was mainly due to two specifi c conditions of the city: its complex topography and geography, and its idiosyncratic political regime. Unlike any other major medieval city in Europe, the major symbolic and power centres in Rome – the Capitol, the Cathedral of St John and the Vatican – were not located in the city centre, but at the city margins. This geography contributed to make the city centre an unresolved multipolar fi eld of forces contested by the different powers represented by these centres. The political regime consisted of a non-dynastic monarchy where each pope was elected at a very old age in order to prevent too long a span of his reign, meaning he had only a very short time in which to implement reforms and to leave his legacy on the city form. The extreme political discontinuity between successive papacies meant popes’ efforts most often did not follow on from one another, and at best had contrasting aims. These extreme conditions resonated within a chaotic urban form made of an archipelago of clusters, each of them dominated by competing clans or dynasties.

On top of everything, the confl ict between secular and religious power – represented within the city by the polar contraposition between the Campidoglio and the Vatican – gave to the different forms of confl ict an acute political dimension that triggered the church to engage in the management of the city. It is for this reason that, parallel with the building of new monuments and the restoration of ancient ones, those popes who wanted to leave their mark on the city’s urban form engaged with the design of new city streets. This took the form not only of the opening of new or the completion of old streets, but also in a diffuse management of urban space. Facing a situation of extreme backwardness and political uncertainty due the consequences of the Great Western Schism, and the exile of popes in Avignon (1378–1417), Pope Martino V (pope from 1417 to 1431) instituted the Magistri Viarium, public administrators who were responsible for the management of the streets. Their task was not only the physical maintenance of space in terms of circulation and hygiene, but also to reclaim political control of this space from the opposing clans that contended it. It must be considered that in Rome at the time there were no proper streets and public space was more the interstice between the different clusters of buildings. Instituting the Magistri Viarium created the possibility of an organic totalising space of control that would surpass the local scale of the building. What is interesting here is that this was organised not in terms of military control, but through the institution of a civic body whose power was administrative and managerial rather than coercive, and thus more adaptable to being diffused within rather than simply imposed on the city.

The opening and management of new streets was also directed towards the possibility of making the city a Biblia Pauperum, an urban text whose message could be accessible to the pilgrims coming to the Eternal City. Yet the central issue of the street project was that, like in ancient Rome, representation and urban management were fused in the same architectural artefact. In Rome urban circulation acquired this ambivalent meaning of both ceremonial display and urban control.

The awareness of circulation as a means of power soon resulted in a precise and archetypical form: the axial street, of which Donato Bramante’s design for Via Giulia (1508) can be considered the most radical example. The almost 1,000-metre (3,280-foot) long street that cut through the city fabric running parallel to the river Tiber (and to Via della Lungara, its twin street on the other ‘suburban’ side of the river), was, above all, a strategic link connecting two important elements of medieval Rome: the 15th-century Ponte Sisto, the only bridge built after the fall of the Roman Empire, and the commercial core of the city inhabited by the emerging class of bankers. The spatiality of Via Giulia is the direct product of the culture of perspective and its application in the representation of reality. The evolution of the science of perspective during the 15th century needs to be understood not only as a means to represent in a mathematically correct way the depth of space, but also because its mathematical implications were a framework within which to reimagine the reform of urban space according to the universal and abstract principles of spatial organisation. The unprecedented axial form of Via Giulia represents the concrete application of this culture to the real body of the city. The perfect linear geometry of the street was intended to organise in one spatial gesture not only a proper circulation space but also a strongly defi ned interdependence between public and private space, by making the public space – the perfectly shaped void of the via recta – both the access to and control of the private properties along the street.

Economic Empowerment in the Place Royale, Paris

The formal ‘genericness’, the emphasis on space over the monumentality of architecture, can be seen as an anticipation of the biopolitical techniques of urban management implied in the theories of the raison d’état in which power is no longer identifi ed in the symbolic and plastic fi gure of the sovereign, but is distributed throughout the whole social body of the city.

A similar concern informs the design of another fundamental archetype of modern city spatiality: the Place Royale (1605, later known as Place des Vosges) in Paris. If Via Giulia was meant to be the urban pendant of a gigantic monumental form – the Palazzo dei Tribunali where Pope Julius II intended to concentrate all the juridical and administrative functions of the city – the Place Royale was conceived as a monumental space enclosed by a cohesive and quasianonymous residential architecture. This architecture consisted of a row of apartments with a portico on the ground fl oor. The portico was the circulation space for the silk workshop that, according to the original project for the square, was to be located on the ground fl oor. The square itself is thus an empty space carved within the fabric of the city. Its extreme regularity, its lack of outstanding monumental features, the sense of calm evoked by the endless fenestrations and the repetition of a few decorative elements, realised the political desire to overcome any specifi c symbolic identity.

This desire for a ‘generic’ architecture can be linked to Henri IV’s impetus to overcome the extreme religious confl icts that were characteristic of France towards the end of the 16th century. The formal ‘genericness’, the emphasis on space over the monumentality of architecture, can be seen as an anticipation of the biopolitical techniques of urban management implied in the theories of the raison d’état in which power is no longer identifi ed in the symbolic and plastic fi gure of the sovereign, but is distributed throughout the whole social body of the city. In this respect it is interesting to note that although the square was intended for royal gatherings and representations, its planning was guided by the requirement to gain income from the rental of apartments on the upper fl oors and the commercial activities in the workshops on the ground fl oor. Instead of a monumental architecture, the pragmatic monarchy of Henry IV assumed the economic management of the city in the form of production workshops and houses for rent. The economic raison d’être of the city thus becomes the very source of the square’s architectural grammar.

As in the case of Via Giulia, it is evident how the evolution of an urban type depends not only on use, but also on the political instrumentality of the most immanent conditions of the city, such as circulation, the relationship between public and private space, economic regime, and organisation of production.

For this reason the neat form of the Place Royale can be seen as the urban space that inaugurated an architecture of the city made of distances, voids and repetitions of the same architectural elements, and thus able to be the fl exible framework for the city’s development and its consequent (often unpredictable) economic transformations. While the architecture of Via Giulia resulted in the contrast between the overall layout of the street and the individuality of the buildings along it, in the Place Royale the individuality of the architecture is totally absorbed in the uniformity of the space. In this sense, the ‘empty space’ of the Place Royale, its uniformity, its regularity, represents precisely the ubiquity and the infi nity of the space, and not only the image but also the substance of power within the city.

Space is here a framed void: the mere potentiality of social and economic relationships, the possibility of circulation, and thus of empowering the state per via economica.

Bourgeois Berlin and the Independent Building Block

An alternative to this type of urban form that characterised the development of the European city between the 17th and 18th centuries is Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s ‘incremental’ masterplanning of Berlin between the 1820s and 1841. If 16th-century Rome and 17th-century Paris were developed through the opening of regular spaces within the medieval fabric of the city, Schinkel returns to the archetype of the isolated building block as the primary element of the city.

Examples of this are his most important buildings in Berlin, such as the Neue Wache (New Guard House, 1816), the Altes Museum (1823) and the Bauakademie (1832). All were intended by the Prussian architect not only as objects per se, but also as strategic stepping stones for a punctual urban reform of the city. Indeed, the pavilion-like appearance of these buildings implies a space characterised no longer by the cohesive spatiality of the Baroque city where all the buildings are rigidly aligned along the streets and squares, but by the free and unpredictable association of the buildings themselves.

Historians such as Fritz Neumeyer have interpreted such urban forms as implied in Schinkel’s pavillionaire architecture as the spatial rendering of the emerging bourgeois ethos of 19th-century Berlin. According to Neumeyer, Schinkel’s archetype of the building-as-individual can be understood as the architectural analogue of the free bourgeoisie initiative no longer constrained by the social and political rigidity of Baroque absolutism. In this sense it is important to consider that Berlin’s urban form was strongly defi ned by the application of the Polizeiwissenschaft, the apparatus of political and social control developed through a sophisticated regime of urban policing. The tenets of such a regime consisted in the ubiquitous internal control of the city through pervasive economic and social legislation in which power was completely identifi ed in the principle of economic and social utility.

Within such a liberal framework where control is exercised by the production of situated freedoms rather than by imposition of a strict social order, the city is no longer a rigid setting for the representation of power, but a fl exible and incremental accumulation of always changing urban situations. The multiplicity of urban space that forms between Schinkel’s isolated blocks can thus be interpreted not only as the analogue of the bourgeois liberal initiative, but also as the topographical product of the regime that governed such an initiative. The urban incrementalism implied in Schinkel’s archetype of the isolated block can be interpreted as the product of an urban ethos in which the growth of the city requires a certain openness of the city space. For this reason the spatial openness that has always been emphasised in Schinkel’s approach to the city can be seen as the ultimate liberal tactic in which topographic fl exibility and dissolution of rigid masterplanning becomes the ultimate form of urban governance.

Closure and Obstruction: The Viennese Superblock

The archetype of the closed monumental courtyard clearly separated from the city but fully accessible by the community of workers that inhabited each superblock introduced a type of space that is neither public nor private.

The tradition of urban form illustrated so far can be summarised as the progressive prevalence of space over form. The archetypes that we have seen share the common denominator of being the result of politics via urban management rather than of explicit political representation. As we have seen, the emphasis on urban management fi nds its spatial analogue in a city where fl exibility and openness towards urban development is the raison d’être of the city archetypes. It is not by chance that the legacy of such a tradition will fi nd its logical conclusion in the emergence of social housing for the workers.

As is well known, the discipline of urbanism emerged from the crisis brought about by industrial development, but the heart of such a crisis is precisely capitalism’s attempt to tame and control the labour force needed for its own development.

Such control consisted of the evolution of rational criteria for city planning where rationality is the reduction of urban form to the principles of utility and social control. A decisive counterarchetype to this tradition (and in this discourse to the tradition of urban form illustrated so far) is the development of the Gemeindebauten in Vienna, the social housing superblocks built by the Social Democratic Party between 1923 and 1934. The fundamental archetype of such development is the rather introverted urban form of the Hof: the monumental courtyard of the historic city. Rather than the rational forms of the Siedlungen (prewar housing estates) in Berlin, or the tradition of the Garden City, the Viennese municipality revisited the monumentality of the Hof in order to counter the principle of utility and control implied in the typologies of mass dwelling.

Moreover, they decided to locate the superblocks within the historic city in close proximity to its strategic points, such as the metro stations, bridges and important traffi c routes, rather than to expand the periphery. Within this framework, the closed forms of the superblocks countered the managerial workings of the city by opposing its fl ows and networks with the obstructive closure of its introverted space.

As we have seen, the category of public space has developed as a means to defi ne, frame and control the access to and the maintenance of private property and its urban dimension: landownership. The defi ned geometry of Via Giulia or the Place Royale was intended, above all, as the instrumentalisation of private property for the sake of urban development. In this case, public space is the binding force, the common interest that forms and defi nes the development of private space. It is for this reason that public space has to remain open, neutral and universal. The archetype of the closed monumental courtyard clearly separated from the city but fully accessible by the community of workers that inhabited each superblock introduced a type of space that is neither public nor private.

Such space is common and shared by those who live around it. The proximity of the Hof refl ects the necessity for the limits that each community requires in order to manifest itself. However, the limits of such community are not economic, but political, motivated by the desire for political emancipation (and separation) rather than just (economic) upgrading of the urban condition in the name of social utility.

If the urban openness and rationality implied in archetypes such as Via Giulia, the Place Royale and Schinkel’s self-standing building blocks were intended as a way to accommodate the economic and administrative conditions of the city, in the Viennese Gemeindebauten the same conditions in the form of social housing were turned into an archipelago of fi nite monumental forms against, yet within, the very body of the existing managerial city. In the urban gesture of the Hof, the city is no longer conceived as an infi nite space for development, but as a dialectical arena of confl icting parts (the Hof as the architecture of the proletariat versus the apartment blocks of the bourgeoisie). Yet this confl ict is not left before or beyond the project. In the Gemeindebauten it is instrumentalised as its very core.

The sense of closeness implicit in the archetype of the Hof resonates the working class’s partiality against the bourgeoisie’s general interest. Unlike many archetypes of the modern city, the Hof was assumed not as a managerial apparatus, but as a critical challenge to the ubiquity of urban space, and thus as a political caesura within the infi nite and totalising apparatus that is the modern city.

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