It was in the middle of the nineteenth century that the city streets became a tool for transforming big cities, a tool for interventions with political targets, hidden or not behind the rhetoric of decongestion and unobstructed circulation of goods and people. The word ‘circulation’ evokes a metaphor which was going to have serious consequences for the legitimization of such interventions as well as for the manipulated collective imaginary which supported them. In the same way that blood circulation is considered as the most important condition for the sustaining of life, circulation in cities appears to be the grounding precondition for the sustaining of urban life. And exactly as the circulation of blood is characterized by a hierarchy of vessels which distribute blood throughout the human body, so it is with the city streets, which should be categorized into main and secondary arteries which develop in a capillary-like fashion in order to sustain and ‘feed’ the city.
This organic metaphor, which considers street movement as a precondition for city life, matched absolutely with the growing feeling that industrial cities had been sick and in urgent need of ‘therapeutic’ interventions. It was this approach that became predominant in both the discourses and the ideas which have been developed in interventions decisively connected with the birth of modern urban design. However, urban therapeutic logic did not borrow from an imaginary attached to the empirical understanding of illness which is an important part of everyday medicine. Everyday medical practices contain important instances of regulated improvisation as doctors often get involved in tentative searches for symptoms, in trial-and-error experiments when treatments fail, and in idiosyncratic approaches to each patient’s individuality. Although these practices are often considered to be outside the prevailing canon of medical protocols, they are always there because medical knowledge is far from being absolutely certain, fixed and context-free. On the contrary, the medical imaginary that was evoked in and transposed to urban therapeutic interventions was that of a confident doctor with unlimited faith in medical knowledge who already knows what to do: planning interventions based on this imaginary rarely questioned diagnoses and assigned treatments, even though urban bodies were at least as complex and as unpredictable in their reactions to treatments as human bodies are.
Planning in both its meanings (design and programming), considered as a project of curing city life through rationalized control of urban ‘functions’, did not profit from the inventive wisdom of everyday medical practice which always puts into doubt the possibility of an absolutely certain and conclusive knowledge of any disease.
And this language was indeed discovered (or, rather, rediscovered in a different historical context) in the supposedly universal language of geometry.
Baron Haussmann, in his famous urban interventions in Paris, actually concretized both the predominant urban therapeutic imaginary and the employment of geometrical rationalization of city layout as a form of urban cure. A revealing detail of his overall project was that ‘[t]o make the actual streets of the plan, Haussmann constructed tall wooden towers up which his assistants – whom he called “urban geometers”– ascended, measuring out straight streets with compass and ruler to the old walls of the city’. Geometry was present both in the discursive practices and in the working methods of the urban interventions.
According to Benjamin, Haussmann was nicknamed by his contemporaries an ‘artist-demolitionist’ and his projects were dubbed ‘strategic embellishment’. Both terms capture a legitimized contrast between means and ends in Haussmann’s project: a decisive and accurate hand of a strong and determined man who nevertheless works for a universally recognized goal, namely beauty and a well-calculated blow against proletarian neighbourhoods in the city centre in the name of a longed-for urban unity, possibly nuanced with Saint-Simonian utopianism overtones. Haussmannian city-order utopia was formed as a project of redesigning public space and had a role in the reproduction of bourgeois hegemony.
Everybody was supposed to be able to walk on the wide boulevard pavements. And anybody could supposedly use the pavement cafés. However, social inequalities were directing people’s expressive acts on this new public stage. The poor were the dazzled spectators in performances of wealth and elegance given by the rich. As in Baudelaire’s poem ‘The Eyes of the Poor’, this mutual act of seeing and being seen is charged with the asymmetries of social status. What Marshall Berman describes as a modern ‘primal scene’ already contains a major contradiction: ‘The setting that makes all urban humanity a great extended “family of eyes” also brings forth the discarded stepchildren of that family’.
In a democracy of anonymity the poor were offered an alternative to fantasized social ascent: the chance to hide their true social and economic condition, the chance to deceive through the manipulation of their appearance. If the boulevards created a new kind of public space this was the ceremonial space par excellence: displays of wealth and power were socially effective because they were projected onto a spatial arrangement that was meant to be the culmination of a bourgeois recuperation of the city centre. More than the aristocrats who could reproduce their dominance by organizing only occasionally their presence in public, the bourgeoisie needed to expose in public its economic power and thus to legitimize its rule. But this legitimization was dependent on the staging of a certain democracy of equal chances.
The boulevards were undoubtedly expressing a new public culture. And they could emphatically present this culture as democratic and inclusive. They could even present this culture as natural, obvious and indisputable. The boulevards naturalized a presentation of society as an agglomeration of individuals who, as in the experience of the crowd, could be different and anonymous. This process ‘depoliticizes’ the street experience. Instead of becoming the public space in which social antagonism is expressed and demands are collectively made, the boulevard is meant to become a phantasmagoria of a brand-new world of promises and peaceful progress. Sharing space in boulevards would mean participating in a fantasy of well-being oriented towards an always-better future.
Publicness and the art of being in public were shaped in the boulevards through the hegemonic project of presenting an explosively divided society as a united whole in pursuit of the modernist dream of eternal progress. It is in this ideological context that a model of urban order was effectively shaped in the form of an effectively regulated mobility in the city. The dream of the pacified city is from these times onwards connected to the rational and never-broken control of traffic. Social chaos is still being depicted nowadays as a city circulation system out of order.
The fantasy of urban order expressed in the form of a geometrical street layout that would ‘allow the most efficient circulation of goods, people, money, and troops’ was the fantasy of Haussmann but also the dream of modernist urban planning. After all, ‘Le Corbusier admired Haussmann as a surgeon who had tried to decongest the arteries of Paris’ . What seems to be very persistent in this fantasy or ideal (meant to change urban reality) is the idea of complete separation of movement flows. The pedestrians were to be completely separated from the vehicles.
During the years between the First and Second World Wars, Le Corbusier contributed decisively to the clarification of modernist architecture’s vision of the future of cities. In a formulation that would have important consequences in reconceptualizing the role of the streets, he maintained that the modern street is ‘a sort of stretched-out workshop’. In direct correspondence with his view that architecture and urban planning should learn from the way engineers formulate and solve problems of machine functioning, Le Corbusier insisted that the street is essentially a machine for the effective, fast and precise regulation of circulation.
In Le Corbusier’s vision, vehicle circulation arteries are very wide and are arranged in an orthogonal grid. The most important of them are to be suspended above ground level and thus become absolutely separated from pedestrian movement. Emphatically favoured is the straight-line design of streets as opposed to the site-specific irregular street pattern that is characteristic of historical cities. His dream was to build the future cities from scratch, in flat places devoid of geographical and historical particularities.
It is interesting to note that an important debate between prominent German-speaking architects and planners on the character of city streets which unfolded in the 1890s already prefigured modernist hymns to the rationality and efficiency of straight streets. Defenders of ‘crooked streets’ were arguing in favour of a ‘harmonious cityscape’ that created feelings of ‘cosiness’ and ‘intimacy’. Their counterparts were accused of defending ‘boring’ streets in which ‘anonymity’, ‘indifference’ and ‘uniformity’ were bound to prevail. Straight streets would correspond to a ‘geometric man’ belonging to an ‘abstract mass’. In this debate the connection of street form to distinct modes of social interaction is more than apparent. What was at stake then and continued to be at stake in twentieth-century modernism is the forms of appropriation of the street by individuals, masses or communities in the process of contesting their character as public, communal (connected to the closed neighbourhood communities which Haussmannian projects attacked) or common spaces.
The modernist programmatic separation of the world of pedestrians from the world of vehicles appeared to be promising a city that was to be offered to pedestrians. Functional solutions of this separation were supported not simply by a rationalizing approach that would optimize the work of the city-machine but also by an ideology of freedom expressed as a freedom of unobstructed movement both for cars and for walkers. It is important to note that the modernist street layout offered images of a completely tamed streetscape, devoid of conflict and clashing uses. It was these converging and different, even clashing, flows, however, which made the streets lively public spaces. Intersections, apart from being areas of possible traffic congestion and of circulation flow discontinuity, were places of great social value by becoming nodes of commerce and social interaction. Informal and formally organized practices converge in places in which movements intersect and various forms of encounter are bound to flourish.
Pavements and pedestrian areas in direct connection with flows of vehicles and goods, are spaces in which various activities that might introduce conflicting interpretations and uses of the city unfold. Thus, ‘as shared spaces that people transverse by necessity, sidewalks have provided arenas for negotiating exclusion and inequality’.
Le Corbusier’s city-park with its high-rise buildings which were supposedly providing more open-air ground space for a community of pedestrian users created what we could describe as ‘cities without qualities’ (compare Musil’s ‘man without qualities’). There would be no contested areas in such cities, no unpredictable intersections and no unregulated encounters. Circulation defined as one of the four basic functions of the city according to the modernist epitome of urban ordering, the Charter of Athens, is considered as a discrete, localizable and repairable part of the city-machine .
An example of what kind of extreme outcomes may result from this logic of attributing to streets the role of regulators of urban order is the urban interventions of Mussolini’s fascist regime during the pre-war years in Italy. The construction of huge monumental avenues in major cities was meant not only to ensure unobstructed and separated movement of vehicles and pedestrians but also to create the setting for the parades, ceremonies and public spectacles organized by the regime. The effort to regulate pedestrian movement reached almost absurd levels of suppression as ‘jaywalking was outlawed and the police enforced a one-way system upon the narrow pavements of central Rome’.
Haussmann’s ideal of the city as a ‘cleaned’ and ordered urban environment, Le Corbusier’s fantasies of a flawless city-machine, and Mussolini’s paroxysmic urban autarchy share the same genealogy. In all of them, city streets represent a world of social disorder that needs to be controlled through planning policies and authoritarian interventions in a direct clash with practices that appropriate the street as a possible common space.
This is an extract from Common Space by Stavros Stavrides.