Some Reflections on Urbanism: Part ONE.

Some Reflections on Urbanism.

Kevin Rhowbotham; Preston 2013.


Definition of terms

Modernism:     Not merely an international architectural style but a means to render the world under a single and unitary vision: a philosophy of the all the same. The logistics of international development funding and the global building industry which serves it, conspire to foreclose any prospective pluralism beneath the necessity of competition and sentimentality.  

Post Fordism:    Post-Fordism is the name given by some scholars to what they describe as the dominant system of economic production, consumption and associated socio-economic phenomena, in most industrialized countries since the late 20th century. It is contrasted with Fordism, the system formulated in Henry Ford’s automotive factories, in which workers work on a production line, performing specialized tasks repetitively.

The City
If there is a question of moment, which addresses the conscience of the late twentieth century in cultural terms, by which I mean a question broached in terms of the human spirit; a question which weighs heavily on architecture as the material manifestation of a cultural and spiritual ideology: ……. then it might run something like this:-

Did Modernism secure a shift into the territories of instrumental abstraction called forth by the mechanisms of capital trade and capital accumulation?

Did it not perhaps, and in a very real sense, assume, promote, even conspire with and ultimately facilitate the forces of capital transformation, dissolving, in an act of artful metastasis, the social materiality of the city proper, by removing its history?

Was it not, and does it not continue to be, the ultimate Faustian vehicle by means of which the very stuff of the earth, the tellurian constituents of cultural reality itself, suffer continual transformation into the vaporous matter of trade and exchange?

And does this not manifest itself in us; in the very WE of things; in our shared but decaying sense of spirit?

‘Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.‘
Max Weber quoting Goethe in his book ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’.

First question of conscience:-
Is the contemporary city, in its various guises, at its various levels of magnitude, town, city, metropolis, megalopolis, the least significant form of industrial capital; that is to say, the most inflexible and ossified of its assets; its weakest commodity and to such an extent indeed, that it poses a threat to the material stability of the post-industrial economic complex itself?

First question inverted: –
Will the increasingly global form of commodity capital and capital exchange, under the current yolk of neoliberalism ,  suffer a constriction, a staunching of its much vaunted free flow, as a consequence of the physical inflexibility of contemporary urban morphology?

To put it plainly; is physical morphology, the urban figure of the contemporary city, preventing capitalism from fully entering into its new global phase?
Is the city in its manifold forms; social, cultural, economic, political, legal, but primarily physical, preventing capitalism from fully condensing a global miasma; a planetary marketplace?

Second question of conscience: –
For all the efforts of Postmodernist  cum post-structuralist attempts to dissolve the dogma of Modernism, have we not returned, and so quickly, to its unitary vision, in the prescient form of a global economics?
Is this not the unitary vision returned but now as a sublimated stratum, at a level above the merely aesthetical?
The city may be plural, at least insofar as it remains an aesthetical experience, retaining the superficial gloss of plurality over a rigid and ossifying conservatism – political correctness, cool Britannia, Mac-culture, notwithstanding – but surely it has ceased to be pluralizing; ceased in a very real sense to be a productive core of indigenous cultural production?

A mere station along a global ring of points, the generic city is increasingly subject to a transcending determination, certainly political and economic, but hardly cultural and spiritual, to achieve the singularity of a trans-global communications network; a virtual meta-national web in the service of profit. Ironically the singularity of the city, its personality if you will, has been surrendered to the community of the market in a disingenuous act of social compliance; this, in nuce, is the arbitrary fait of the twentieth century. The global market which is itself contrived to deliver a pre-eminent platform for capital exchange, re-establishes the conditions of a unitary Modernism not in cities, piecemeal, but between them.

And is this not the key Faustian problematic re-animated?
Precisely the problem of a heroic Modernism which perversely identifies violent and autocratic transformations -conditions of general cultural change forced by arbitrary economic revision- with a renewal of the human spirit?

To put it axiomatically; globalization is the ideology of Modernism restored; for your own good! And for why?
Kraus delivers it without any irony…

‘…the sentimental teleology of contemporary culture was not God or even harmony but exchange, and that for all its pretensions to assume a civilized posture that (hu)mankind consists of customers.’

Is the city, once the apogee of human creative intellectual achievement, in danger of being by-passed as a consequence of what has come to be known in the jargon as a paradigm shift from space to time?

Certainly history has it that the metropolis instigated the conditions of bourgeois modernity and the consequent vectors of capital accumulation. It has been established, in the common memory at least, as the birthplace of progress, the wellspring of cultural and capital advancement; the fulcrum, the center, the very apogee of social discourse and commodity exchange. It was also a discrete, contained, even a personified phenomenon; individual, characteristic. In this sense histories, which align the advancement of capitalist culture with the conditions of metropolitan life, are histories of specific sites within extended and varied fields of capital accumulation. They are histories of the specifics of managed capital within the material context of the city itself, where the city plays the role of the instrumental machine optimizing the conditions of capital production. The analysis of this specificity, this formal elaboration of characteristic conditions of capital accumulation at a fixed point, its relationship to site, to geography and to topography has been known as urbanism.

For industrial capitalism the city was a fulcrum for the topographic management of capital resources. Capital trade was tied to its site by factors of time; specifically to its immediate geographical context for the supply of the raw means of capital production. Once the production of capital ceases to be dependent upon this physical contiguity; once its dependency on local raw materials and upon local labour has been broken, the role of the city in the topographical management of resources ceases to be required for capital creation. In the current post-Fordist phase of capitalism, the necessity for the city as place, as a fixed topos in which the physical remnants of a social oeuvre, in Lefevbre’s sense, decorate the instrumental distribution of capital factors throughout the city plan, has been superseded by the city as condition; by the city as a state of the global market.

From this perspective the city has the appearance of virtual entity. Divorced from its geographical context by the global network it is fast becoming a state of the global market, acquiring capital as a consequence of global position and differences in time, rather than from the physical exploitation of its indigenous assets. In the new post-Fordist (neo-liberal) economies of the western hemisphere the intensive concentrations of the means of production within the metropolis represent an increasingly redundant phase of pre-global capital accumulation. Once markets are networked, once labour is available over the wire, the fixedness of place has no place within the mechanisms of capital accumulation.

The following problem emerges: –
Does capital confront the problem of managing its own structure at the urban level or has this task passed beyond the city to a level of organization less specific, more ubiquitous and global? Has the nature of this organizational task passed beyond the condition of the metropolitan city per se, of its geographical and topographical place-ness, to the miasma, the web of global information exchange ?

The apocryphal history of the contemporary city, still popular with most urban theorists save for Virillio himself, has determined free competition -its mythical character notwithstanding- to be the structural ground upon which the idea of the city continues to be erected. Notions of the city which conceive its origins to be dependent upon sustainable surplus production and the consequent creation of a leisured class freed from the necessity of subsistence survival instrumentalises commerce as a primary agency. Aiming to concoct the optimal ground for liberal exchange and unfettered trade, such a notion conjoins necessity in the face of nature to technological culture, by means of the ubiquitous context of the market; the global market.

The problem for the erstwhile urbanist is no longer one of constructing the conditions for efficient urban life, in the sense of humane inhabitation at high density, nor of manifesting the picturesque city beautiful. Both approaches fall short of the demands of contemporary economic necessity. Today urbanists must determine the structural laws, which fashion the city from the current vicissitudes of commodity exchange and capital accumulation; not merely the exchange of goods and the logistics of population flows, but also the logistics of continued subsistence supplies, utility provision and unimpeded flows of information. From the perspective of the post-Fordist revision of capital production these are no longer merely physical but also virtual, no longer manufactured but serviced. To be an urbanist under these conditions demands an altogether different approach. To design the contemporary city is now to design relevant conditions of global management for the organization of capital under the current conditions of capitalism. In the global marketplace the city passes onto another level of control, another level of management. Beyond the fixedness of geography which required the city to manage the various factors of production in terms of spatial contiguity, global markets are forcing upon the city a new, virtual geography and temporality. If the city remains manageable at all, then it is no longer the conditions of contiguity, which are subject to its control but rather the conditions of time.

About this entry