Aberrations And Utopias

From the middle decades of the nineteenth century onwards, the urban experience became increasingly synonymous with the experience of modernity itself. In Britain, for example, the urban population increased from just under a quarter in 1800 to over 75 percent in 1900 so that urban life had changed from a minority experience to the majority experience. London, for instance, had a population of around 1 million in 1800 rising to 4.5 million by 1881. Similarly, Berlin saw its population of 200,000 in 1800 rise to 1.5 million by 1890 and Paris experienced a five-fold increase in population over the course of the nineteenth century to reach over 2.5 million by 1900. Other cities growing dramatically during the nineteenth century include Chicago, Glasgow, Manchester, New York, Naples, Rome, St Petersburg, Vienna and Moscow. These industrial cities necessitated a new synthesis between nature and culture extending from the construction of urban technological networks to the establishment of new modes of municipal governance. The modern metropolis that emerged out of the chaos of the nineteenth-century city was driven by a combination of factors: advances in the science of epidemiology and later microbiology which gradually dispelled miasmic conceptions of disease; the emergence of new forms of technical and managerial expertise in urban governance; the innovative use of financial instruments such as municipal bonds to enable the completion of ambitious engineering projects; the establishment of new policy instruments such as the power of eminent domain and other planning mechanisms which enabled the imposition of a strategic urban vision in the face of multifarious private interests; and the political marginalization of agrarian and landed elites so that an industrial bourgeoisie, public health advocates and other voices could exert greater influence on urban affairs (Gandy 2004).

From the nineteenth century onwards, we find that the urban experience begins to take an increasingly dominant place in modern culture. It is paradoxical that although modern cities were frequently evoked in organicist terms as bodies or organisms in their own right, cities were at the same time widely perceived to reside outside nature or the "natural order" as parasites or monsters. Thomas Hardy, for example, described London as "a monster whose body had four million heads and eight million eyes" and a spate of nineteenth-century novels such as James Greenwood's The Wilds of London (1874) dwelled on the poverty, darkness and danger associated with the industrial metropolis. Yet, developing in parallel with these eschatological responses to urbanization, we can also detect a different set of discourses focused on the implications of urbanization for modern consciousness. By the early twentieth century we find a proliferation of interpretations of the jarring and disorientating quality of urban life: Georg Simmel, for example, explores the "blasé outlook" of the city dweller in Berlin as a means to handle the "rapidly shifting stimulations of the nerves"; Virginia Woolf describes the atomism of urban life in the seemingly vast and alienating expanse of metropolitan London; and James Joyce conceives of early-twentieth-century Dublin as a series of fragmentary encounters between different characters struggling to make sense of their lives. In these literary and sociological evocations of the modern city the urban experience enables the development of new forms of social, political and sexual awareness. As the city played a role in the enlargement of identity, we find that modern consciousness finds expression through intensified pleasures of nature within the industrial metropolis. With the gradual distancing of the body from the fatigue, illness and malnourishment of the past, new cultures of metropolitan nature developed including excursions into semi-wild fragments of nature at the urban fringe and the development of new aesthetic sensibilities towards landscape. As the social and political possibilities engendered by the modern metropolis unfolded, however, the progressive potential of the city began to increasingly conflict with traditional conceptions of urban order. The idea of "nature" was to play a defining role in this emerging tension between modernity and tradition as an ambiguous motif capable of underpinning both radical approaches to urban design and at the same time questioning the very foundations for urbanism itself.

The increasing association of the industrial city with the destruction of rural life sharpened the perceived antinomy between "city" and "country". The modern city was widely characterized as an aberrant spatial form that threatened to undermine existing ties of social and communal solidarity (see Williams 1973). The perceived superiority of rural life forms part of a powerful anti-urban sentiment connecting between the Jeffersonian ideals of small-town America and a succession of later writers on cities from Ferdinand Tönnies in the 1870s to Louis Wirth in the 1930s and Jane Jacobs in the 1960s. In a contemporary context, anti-urban views have resurfaced as part of an ecological critique of modernity which has a wide ranging influence on architecture and urban design. The so-called "New Urbanism", for example, owes much to the perceived superiority of small-town life within which ideological motifs of stability and sustainability draw heavily on nature-based conceptions of urban design. A determinist conception of spatial form as a dominating influence over human behaviour is combined with a form of ecological nostalgia for an imagined past.

In contrast with reactionary visions of the modern city as an aberration we can find an alternative lineage of urban thought originating within the Renaissance ideals of the citystate which drew inspiration from the designs of Hippodamus, Vitruvius and other early advocates of symmetrical urban form. Renaissance scholars such as Leon Battista Alberti asserted that beauty in architecture was derived from the mimesis of nature but he went beyond neo-Platonic conceptions of creativity to emphasize the critical role of human skill in the full realization of aesthetic perfection (see Bacon 1967; Forty 2000). Urban design becomes an extension of beauty in nature whether reflected in the geometric arrangement of space or the embellishment of urban life through gardens, fountains and other meticulous appropriations of nature within the fabric of the city. The cultural utilization of nature is thus both an aesthetic quest to change the urban landscape but also an attempt to foster greater degrees of social and spatial order. The emergence of the nineteenth-century urban beautification movements, for example, sought to reintroduce nature into cities in order to prevent urban space from becoming an uninterrupted vista of development. A myriad of new organic spaces began to appear as a means to re-establish contact between nature and urban society. With the introduction of features such as public parks, botanical gardens and tree-lined boulevards we find the explicit inclusion of a designed nature within the heart of the modern city.

The city beautiful movement evolved into the garden city movement of the early twentieth century and the search for a more ambitious synthesis between nature and urban form. The garden city brought together what was at best an inchoate mix of different ideas ranging from the Utopian planning ideals of Ebenezer Howard to the naturalistic landscape designs of Frederick Law Olmsted who drew a stark contrast between the cultural vibrancy of industrial America and the "rustic vice" of plantation agriculture. The various approaches to the garden city as it diffused through Europe and North America combined an eclectic mix of influences including romantic and Beaux Arts traditions but transcended the earlier ad hoc interventions through the articulation of a comprehensive approach to urban planning and design. Yet this apparent reconciliation between "city" and "nature" masked the actual transformation of nature under the impetus of capitalist urbanization. The principal legacy of the city beautiful and garden city movements was not the creation of Utopian fragments in the urban landscape, important though these were, but the linking of landscape design and city planning ideals with burgeoning middle-class aspirations. In subsequent decades this earlier attempt to find a synthesis between nature and culture would in fact lead towards ever greater degrees of spatial polarization through the growth of suburbs, peripheral housing estates and other twentieth-century efforts to dismantle the inner core of modern cities.

0 0

Post a comment