Avatars of an Elusive Concept
Avatars of an Elusive Concept
We know of a lost work called De urbanitate by an Augustan poet Domitius Marsus, a work that, according to modern reconstructions, may have played a significant role in establishing the Roman epigram as a distinct literary form. Quintilian describes it as an attempt to define that elusive quality of urbana dicta by using urbanitas as an instrument for literary analysis of what was particular to Rome, and still discernible in refinement, in language, or in humor. Concerned with the orator’s education and with retrieving the rhetoric style and methods of past centuries, Quintilian himself attempts to decipher the conditions and to define the rules of urbanitas as a key factor of that lost “good taste of the city” and of that “flavor of erudition derived from conversing with the learned.”
After a long and syncopated history, urbanity entered the discourse on city building together with the lexical and semantic whirl produced in recent decades around the “urban” and its cognates, agents and victims alike of the criticism and (over)theorizing of architecture and urbanism. Urban planners and architects have been using the term as a catchword, as a fashionable way to acknowledge and explain the connection between people and places, as a critique to functionalist urbanism, and as a new concern with restoring use in urban spaces. It is still being employed in vague, inconsistent, and abstract manners, which limit its possibilities and often render it as nothing but a linguistic ornament in approaching the urban physical space.
The intention of this volume was never to set the meaning of urbanity. We rather tried to gauge the current interest in the topic, to probe into its relevancy, and to identify its instrumental role in understanding the city in various cultures, times, and places. The variety of tales we selected puts forward the resilience of the concept and its plurality, as well as its thought-provoking potential for opening up different layers of meaning and different contexts, and for understanding the circular relation between forms of subjectivity, ways of life, and the formation of urban fabrics and artifacts. Ultimately, all contributors capture ways of conceiving urbanity as a relation between space and culture, between theoretical constructions and people, between professional ideals and everyday life… today or ever. The conceptual path of “urbanity” is a tale with many facets, pertaining to rhetoric, to the art of conversation or to the studies of propriety, but also easily transferable into the field of urban design. In all of its appearances, the term encloses some mythical attributes of a former “glorious age” of the city, pure, vibrant and refined, opposing the coarse, dispiriting, and disaggregated present.
This is why the volume actually has a dual opening, with two keynote writings. From the field of architecture and urban design, Thomas Sieverts guides us through the topicality of the concept, within the active present of emerging new forms of social and spatial occupation of the urbanized land. From the field of philology, Pierre Maréchaux takes us back to the sources of the term, highlighting its meanings and its ambiguous relation to the city and city building.
Maréchaux shows how the urbanitas theorized by Cicero towards the end of the Roman Republic acted as a means of resistance against the overwhelming foreign influences brought by the growing urbanization that disintegrated the city and the spiritual existence “within one’s kind.” The article unfolds the struggle to retrieve the unity in the play of differences in the early stages of the Empire, in the spirit as well as in the grammar of the city. It shows how this unifying aesthetic value of urbanitas helped nurture the plurality of styles in elocution, via the work of Quintilian, and lays the foundations for further analysis of how Vitruvius endeavored to translate these principles into the art of building.
Sieverts’s interview sets the scene for the contemporary tales of urbanity as an agent of social and political enfranchising, respectively of the assertion of urban space as the stage of this emancipation. By distancing himself from the nostalgic views of a small-scale urbanity, inherent to the European city of the Enlightenment, the author of Zwischenstadt invites us to cherish the casual, and to search for a new urbanity in the ruins of the industrial and the functionalist urbanism, in the informal, alternative, non-conventional territories of the sprawl. By refusing the catastrophic views of the dispirited present, he points to the mobilizing forces of this myth of a former “glorious age” of the city as resource for new models of urban planning and design. His hope resides in the revival of solidarity, and in the opportunity of the recent refugee crisis to give way to renegotiation of the commons and of the coexistence of plurality in nowadays Germany.
Thus, Maréchaux explains the genealogy of the concept of “urbanity” and gives the gist of its initial uses, while Sieverts brings up the contemporary construction of the term as a fundamental theory of urban design, which informs and gives meaning to the procedural theories of this field. The two texts set the initial premises of our volume. First, they lay the grounds of the contradiction between urbanity and urbanization, a contradiction that is very present in the contemporary urban condition, and which also prompted the theme of our current issue. Second, they illustrate how this contradiction is actually a cyclical crisis that fuels the renegotiation between parts, and their abilities to accommodate each other’s differences.
A virtual, wide-ranging and open-ended dialogue takes shape between the epochs and the fields of knowledge and action presented by the two prologues. Inside this dialogue, the volume ventures into the spacing of this dialogue, where the contributors spotlight different instance of the concept of urbanity, around three central questions: what experience of the city is stimulated by this concept? What forms of subjectivity and, respectively, of community, become articulate in relation to modern urban spaces? Which is the functional role of the concept of urbanity within urban design, and which are the cultural practices in which this role is rooted?
These questions permeate all contributions in various measures, interspersing and cross-fertilizing one another, revealing glimpses of urbanity, partial answers and new questions. Their thematic assemblage is difficult and inevitably imprecise, but several threads can be followed along the texts. The first one is the thread of urbanity as an alternative way to articulate knowledge about the city and its history.
Monique Webber illustrates it by means of her narrative on the role that the (mis)identification of Ara Pacis played in creating a subjective, yet potent, urban experience and practice. She presents a new insight into the power of the historical lens to foster the understanding and the creation of the early modern city (of Rome). History becomes thus not only an active contributor to contemporary learnedness but also to contemporary construction of the self and of the city. Hanna Derer presents another case of misreading the past of a city. She takes us to Bucharest, in a voyage through the eruptive modernization at the turn of the 20th century, when the traditional morphological features of the city were being rejected as non-urban, but did, however, turn out to be more valuable and stronger than the prevailing state of mind of the epoch was prepared to accept. This is a tale about a wavering negotiation between planning, prejudices and changes, granting the city its urban identity and hinting that the visual dimensions of urbanity elude preconceived constructions. Alioscia Mozzato also discusses this distance between the grammar of the city and the unseen forces that shape and reshape its appearance, through the parallel reading two significant authors, Banham and Rossi, at an important turning point of the theory of the city. This essay exposes urbanity as a loose-fitting construct engrained in the tradition of the European city, but which can also find home in cities like Los Angeles.
A second thread discerns urbanity as loyalty to a place, from the superposition of attitudes and layered histories that are sheltered in that place, be it in Savannah, Kiev, or Macau.
Udo Greinacher’s story of downtown Savannah illustrates the power of a few open “disobedient” minds to change perception and turn a slum into a “diamond in the rough,” thus mobilizing forces to “reinstate the atmosphere of urbanity and exuberance in the American downtowns,” as Jane Jacobs put it. This tale of self-preservation is followed by the storyboard of self-transformation of the Maidan in Kiev. Thus, Olena Oliynik takes us through the numerous reinterpretations of this epicenter of all protests in Ukraine, seeking to spotlight the difficult role of the architect to (re)shape symbolic public spaces of the capital city of a new democracy, so as to strengthen their democratic character, besides fulfilling significant emancipatory functions. Philippe Forêt adds an account of spatial and temporal configurations of otherness that subvert the constrained environment of a neighborhood in downtown Macau. He enquires into the representations of urbanity and alterity at the street level, in a multilingual setting, and sets forth the negotiated construction of heterotopia by means of alien practices legitimated through the use of a language on the verge of extinction.
Almost all articles reveal that there is always a form of conflict, more or less manifest, which catalyzes the renegotiation between parties, and underlies the articulation of new spaces and behaviors. The conflict is often diffuse, vague, undefined, but can also become urgent and can find powerful expressions, often subversive, sometimes anarchical. From these collisions arise new forms of urbanity, that presentness articulates as underground ferments around difference and otherness, which become keystones of alternative scenarios and actions that breach the mainstream, eventually subjecting themselves to criticism.
Such is the story of the hardcore punk scene in New York, as depicted by Alan Parkes. The gap between the initial intentions to create an egalitarian, inclusive space, as an alternative to social affliction and urban decline in Lower East Side, and the overpowering context that reduced it to a subculture of hyper-masculinity, show the possibilities and also the limitations of such actions in relation to the governing forces at play. By looking at a recent case of Romanian Roma immigration in Berlin, Theodora Müller-Balauru underlines the situation of the other as litmus test for urban stakeholders. The research goes beyond the mere examples of alternative uses of urban space, to prove that the presence of the other can make visible the emergence of new types of spaces, as manifestations of various scales of conflict. The four sites analyzed (a park, a squat, a church and a refugee camp) are seen as other spaces (in line with Foucault’s heterotopia) irrevocably transformed by the interaction with the group of Roma, not only in their physical traits, but in their socio-political relevance. After Berlin, Celia Ghyka brings us back to the landscape of conflicts in Bucharest, this time between the savage neoliberalism unimpeded by a corrupt and dysfunctional state apparatus, on the one side, and a rising civil unrest of a new generation with a strong urban conscience and willing to fight for their right to the city (as theorized by Lefebvre and Harvey), on the other side.
This article echoes Greinacher’s account of the “civil disobedience” which prompted a new regard and understanding of the built heritage in the Savannah of the 1950s, but also some of Sieverts’ observations regarding the role of new media and virtual space in enticing and sustaining new modes of solidarity, of loyalty to the city, and of occupation of its spaces. At the same time, this article opens towards the remaining four contributions to the volume, which delineate urbanity as a source of theoretical positions that underpin professional strategies and guide the professions involved in urban development and design. This final thread of the volume navigates the cities of Zurich, Skopje, Bucharest, and Cluj.
Starting from the same conflictive scene of our present, Ileana Apostol proposes to look at the consequences of the social unrest of 1968, to better grasp the social movements today and their potential for renegotiating the commons. She contextualizes Lefebvre’s work in the aftermath of 1968, and illustrates its long-term effects on the new imagery of communal life, through her own professional experiences with three housing cooperatives in Zürich. The interest in building professional attitudes transpires also from the text co-authored by Jasna Mariotti and Divna Pencic, who are trying to discern and understand fragments of urbanity between the blocks of flats epitomizing the socialist city, and the detached single family house proliferating in the market economy. Concerned with a similar post-Communist context, Tudor Elian gathers some of the new attitudes and tactics of the informal into a typology that reaffirms the significance of conflict and of its negotiations as a possible source of learning for planners and for the future edification of the city.
Nowadays urbanity seeks its pattern in a maze engendered by a new actuality: social restlessness, discontent, dynamics of otherness…. It also confronts the conceptual conflicts that consume the professions of urban planning and design, the doctrines challenged by the reality of the city, the clashes between the institutional context and our need to conceive and negotiate the future of the city. It is not only by chance that the two Romanian cities presented in the volume, Bucharest and Cluj, although approached in different manners, are seen under the sign of learning, against a political and professional backdrop for which the city is mainly a quantitative matter indifferent to urbanity. As a matter of fact, Hanna Derer’s zoom in on the evolution of two streets represents the lesson the architectural historian wants us to absorb in order to preserve Bucharest’s urban character that seems threatened again under the pressure of imminent planning interventions. In his turn, Șerban Țigănaș is an active architect in Cluj, directly involved in planning, and whose criticism concerns his profession’s mission, since decisions, projects, their completion or distortion are continuously contributing to urbanity. We chose to close the volume with his contribution explicitly focused on learning as it underscores the delays between ideas, theory and practice in shaping our city. It also sets forth an inspiring conclusion regarding our need to constantly learn. In a way, it takes us back to Sieverts’ comments that the urban designer can become relevant to the new urbanity to the extent that he is able to keenly observe trials, errors, emerging conflicts, shifting contradictions, and people.
This overview is highly approximate if compared to the various ways in which ideas can be connected into cross-dialogues between articles. In fact, the articles fit together not by the static rules of a puzzle, but rather by the unexpected and vivid rules of a kaleidoscope. The theme of urbanity crystallizes, first and foremost, as an experience of the mind, as an intellectual exercise that drives us towards other themes, concepts, and questions through which we seek new orders for the city. All the different uses and meanings of urbanity as resulted from the contributions in this volume seem to make sense in their own right. They offer rich and productive readings of different spatial and cultural constellations, and this in itself justifies the continuing use of the term – slippery and ambiguous as it may be.