Η αστικότητα και πως να την αποκτήσετε

Part of : Πόλη και περιφέρεια : έκδοση μελετών του χώρου ; No.12, 1986, pages 57-74

Parallel Title:
«Urbanity» and how to get it
«Urbanity» is a key-word just as it is a pass-word, used by urban designers and urban planners in many recent discourses, declarations, manifestos etc. Its content, and purpose, consists in restraining the inexorable utilitarism which transforms modern cities into identical and alienating administrative-centres, dormitories or machines (cf. «Biennale de Paris», 1980). The main idea behind it is, roughly, to return to the words «cities» and «civilization», «humans» and «humanism», in real life, the same intimate coherence they have in the etymological level. Thus, in order to invert urbanism without annuling it, Haussmann's and Niemeyer's descendants search for solutions which will correct their ancestors' errors, within the frame of the common family tradition. «Urbanity» seems to be this solution, doubly defined through both a number of negative and positive approaches./. Negative Approaches. Para-literature and movies teach us that English gentlemen wear evening dress in order to dine even in the depths of the jungle; or that real ladies always pay attention to their make-up, even in the most exotic nudist-clubs. True or not, these formal or legendary behaviours mean that «urbanity» can be preserved in the most natural environment. On the other hand, psychologists of juvenile deliquency and special police forces in super-markets and high standing residences demonstrate that even in the most developed urban areas primitive aggressiveness is still found. This darker side of urban life is what different theoriticians, designers and planners, mainly criticise (cf. J. Nouvel 1980, M. Strom 1979, G. Dupuy 1981...). Extreme rationality, capitalist profits, interests of large industries, State-authoritarianism, are some of the named reason which lead to the actual situation of cities without any personality, and an excessive emphasis on «functionality» which is not functional any more (!) The regular separation of work from habitation, the systematic «zoning», the confinement of mass recreations, the concentration of administration and the presidency of circulation, are among the main • characteristics of modern métropoles which must be subjected to restraining control in order to improve the conditions of human life within them. In other words, all the main principles and the goal of traditional urbanism, since the beginning of this century, are condemned as exaggerated; so much «order» does not serve urban life any more, it sweeps it away. The «universe» of a city contrary to the universe itself does not need perfect mathematical order to avoid «entropy».//. Positive Approaches. With all the above to blame, «urbanity» becomes, in a way, an antianti-utopia: a negation of what writers such as Huxley, Orwell, Gr. Summer and others have described in their «anti-utopias». But, defining «urbanity» in this way its supporters do not return to the ideals and the futuristic optimism of classical Utopias —such as Plato's, More's, or Bellamy's, Owen's etc. After so many failed visionary dreams, they prefer not to compromise themselves by detailed descriptions of what must be done or built. The predominant refrain following all the positive references to «urbanity» is: «To know how to create, to know how to live the city». («Savoir faire la ville, savoir vivre la ville» is the french signal for «l'urbanité»). However, when urbanity's positive approaches come to more concrete suggestions, the different proposals usually combine some specificity for the desired goals, with very broad references to the means by which they are to be achieved. E.g. «urbanity» is defined as the ideal mixture of a village's close contacts, a medieval town's homogeneity, and an advanced metropolis' top speed circulation; or, as the incorporation in the modern urban environment of sculptural and architectural forms of the past, which will garantee some of the civilizing radiation to which they are originally connected (cf. Belmont 1980, Barré, Sarfati 1980). In other words, the exquisite mingling of forms, functions, cultures and historical references, annuciated for the cities marked by «urbanity», is considered as the exact counterpart of the «essential Heterogeneity of being». All of which means that «urbanity», in order to become an effective key-word for urban design and urban planning, has, first, to become a pass-word among the cohabitants of the city, a part of their consciousness or impulsive preferences. But, to some extent, this second presumption is predetermined by the first; hence a rather vicious circle leads «urbanity» to a rhetorical as well as to a methodological impass.///. Creative Resignation. Quite often the supporters of «urbanity» advance the thought that towns used to be developed in a more harmonic and to function in a more succesfull way, when there were no town planners and town planning methods. This, of course, does not lead to the suggestin to abolish urbanism, just as the observation that trees are bent by the wind does not lead to suggestion: fell the trees to stop the wind. The proposal is rather to exercise a kind of urbanism which will not show that it is urbanism: A kind of industrious negligence, loaded with nostalgia. But as is well known, and very nicely phrased, nostalgia never is what it used to be. As far as one can go back in time one will always find texts and observations recalling an illustrious and better past. E.g. in some of B. Shaw's or V. Sardou's works, different characters compare the achievement of 19th century technology and urban transformations to the idyllic atmosphere of 18th century's cities, the same way, today, the comparison with 20th century evolution makes 19th century's cities seem equally idyllic. In S. Freud's «Civilization and It's Discontents» there are a few pages refering to development of the cities, attempting an explanation, in a metaphorical way, of the particularities of mental life: «Let us suppose», Freud writes, «that Rome is not a human habitation but a physical entity with a similarly long and copious past —an entity, that is to say, in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the latest one. This would mean that in Rome the palaces of Caesars and the Septizonium of Septimus Severus would still be rising to their old height on the Palatine (...) In the place occupied by the Palazzo Caffarelli would once more stand —without the Palazzo having to be removed— the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus (...) Where the Coliseum now stands we could at the same time admire Nero's vanished Golden House...... For human habitations, Freud concludes, this is a mere «flight of imagination». But in mental and psychological life this in not so: «Everything is somehow preserved and in suitable circumstances (...) it can once more be brought to light...». We can reverse, I believe, Freud's metaphor, and, to a degree, explain human attachements to specific environmental forms through the particularities of mental life. Precisely because nothing is «necessarily destroyed» in mental life, the recalling of youth's vigor and happiness may be confused with the particular environment which sheltered them and become nostalgia for the transformed environment itself. If this is true, even to some extent, the question, then, is not to seek «urbanity» in particular space-conditions —i.e. in the immitation of Rue Rivoli or Regent Street, in the refutation of high densities and the •sparsenees of traffic— but in particular behavioural inclinations. To get «urbanity» is, then, not to deny national city-planning and to prescribe intelligent doses of ancient forms within post-industrial built environments; to get «urbanity» rather depends on a continuous willingness for the new and its elegant use, as if it had always been there. More than carefull architecture of the neighbourhood, wise eclecticism, respect for the traditional forms, measures against pollution and bridging over the contradiction «city/region» in the spirit of a bucolic adoration for the picturesque, «urbanity» is a question of refusal of senility without a false assumption of youth; an unfaked pretention that we are only a few, in a suffocating and overcrowded world. Skyscrapers and traffic-jams, underground transportation and bombardment by shining commercials in the streets, might be equally as poetical as horse-drawn coaches, triomphal arches, and huge boulevards full of trees. In the wonderful island of Utopia there were, Th. More says, fiftyfour cities, all so extremely identical that «whoever knew one would have known them all» («Urbium qui unam norit, omnes noverit»). If this general likeness is the main problem of all modern métropoles, perhaps we have already achieved Utopia. However, a crucial presupposition for the acquisition of «urbanity» would be to replace in More's statement «norit» with «amat»: Whoever loves a city, loves them all —unconditionally, disciplinary or prodigal, well preserved under repeated urban renewals or with the obvious wrinkles of their age.
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References (1):
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