Should our Cities Survive?

Should our Cities Survive? was the question that animated young avant-garde architects of Europe nearly a hundred years back.  These architects, divided by ideology and politics, but united by belief in the socially transformative power of design, came together to form CIAM.

Founding of CIAM, the French acronym for International Congress of Modern Architecture in 1928 was a watershed moment for city planning and architecture.  Not only because it brought into vogue the word urbanism to frame, conceptually, deliberate design and planned development of large scale habitations, but also in bringing to fore, hitherto unknown idea of a Functional City, which subsists even today in the subconscious of all urban planners irrespective of their ideological positions.

By the second decade of the 20th century, the trauma of industrialization that was unleashed more than hundred years earlier had settled down. That is not to say the contradictions between capital and labor, tradition and modernity, past and future were resolved, but the ground on which these frictions would be played out had shifted and the terms of debate reframed.  The Capitalist modernity had triumphed.  What the founding of CIAM signifies is that the industrialism came to establish itself as the core and universal principal of reorganizing of all life that was, to begin with, disrupted by the industrialization. Sigfried Giedion, one of the founders and most active members of CIAM wrote years later that “mechanization [today] is inextricably woven into the patterns of thought and custom.” That is to say, the machine had entered surreptitiously into the consciousness of human beings.  

During its three decades of existence until its dissolution in 1959, despite the irreconcilable differences, ideological conflicts between its members and organizational splits, what CIAM asserted time and again in its deliberations, planning and orientations, is that the organizing principals of all life are Henry Ford’s assembly plant and Fredrick Winslow Tyler’s productive efficiency.  What this means is that the very meaning of life was redefined.  Now life no longer means living and being, but productivity and efficiency. This notion was not just advocated by the capitalist Europe, it was firmly rooted in the communist Soviet Union—Lenin was a great admirer of Tylor—as well as liberal and left-leaning intellectuals. Almost all members of CIAM would fall into either one or the other of these camps.

The members of CIAM, either progressives in Amsterdam, socialists in Frankfurt, communists in Moscow or liberals in Paris, all believed in the power of architecture and design to transform the social reality.  Therefore, urbanism, as they defined, is the total organizations of collective life irrespective of whether it is urban or rural.  The reorganization implied categorizing life activities into four: Working, Dwelling, Leisure and Transportation. In order to achieve this vision CIAM advocated vociferously and repeatedly, land subdivision, i.e, zoning, building legislation and regulation of traffic. Even utopia needs coercion! 

At the founding of CIAM the advocates of modern architecture and city planning asked, Should our cities survive? The question was posed to their own context, the ideas of neoclassical and Haussmannian city that dominated the architectural thinking and disseminated through the academies.  Proponents of modern architecture were like the avant-garde artists who wanted to assassinate painting.  They rejected everything that was historical, inherited and traditional.  They were the Futurists who embraced the industry, automobile, rationalized production, efficient distribution of space and speed.

We are living today in the cities that the avant-garde architects of 20th century dreamt, which have become our nightmare. In the next few decades a billion people will be urbanized.  There will be over 100 megacities—more than 10 million inhabitants—most of which will be located in the “global south,” especially China and India.  Cities already stretched to the seams will explode.  The accelerated global warming and extreme weather events will only make the situation worse resulting in unimaginable consequences.  Currently, two predominant conceptual models to confront this bleak future are gentrification and smart city.  While the gentrification is driven by certain notions of living, lifestyle and forms of leisure embodied in acculturative environments, the smart city believes in the technological intelligence as an inevitable destiny and a singular solution, because of its ability to measure, monitor and apportion all resources, including human, in real-time.  But, both the models—not incompatible with each other—are embedded into a broader idea of city: a space of conglomeration of large number of people who flow between distributed and demarcated zones of activity.  The foundational blocks of this conception of city—planning, monitoring, measuring and intervening—which was born with CIAM have lost their effectiveness in the face of overwhelming growth and the environmental challenges. So we ask this question again Should our cities survive?

The ambition of our gathering over the next two days is not to find answer to this question, instead to start a conversation. A dialogue that should expand beyond planners, infrastructure, zoning, transportation, automobile—in sum we should overcome the industrialism to embrace life.  What interests us is city as a space of representations, of events, objects, actions, celebrations, laughter and melancholy. This is the reason why we have brought together people of different backgrounds: artists, architects, writers, poets, designers, urban planners, social scientists, humanists and non-denominational to reimagine the city ex nihilo, because what is threatened is not the minimum dwelling that worried the modernist planners, but this earth as our dwelling.

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