“Every room is a new battle. […] Avoid cities if you can. If you can’t, avoid enemy areas. If you can’t do that, avoid entering buildings.”
Avoid cities if you can. I can’t find the original source for this quote, but it has made its way into both Disarming Iraq and The Resilient City, where I first read it. It certainly is an evocative sound-bite, so I really hope someone actually said it. As P.D. Smith explains in his ‘guidebook for the urban age,’ cities were always designed as war machines. The original meaning of polis was ‘citadel,’ and the very form of early cities was carved out by “the defensive wall,” their “most prominent and visible feature.” He continues,
While modern urban warfare has moved on from the simple symmetries of fighting off the enemy at the gates, today’s city is no less a war machine. Indeed, war has now seeped inwards, splintering the citadel a thousand ways.
In Cities Under Siege, Stephen Graham describes how a “new military urbanism” has turned “the everyday spaces, sites and infrastructures of cities [into] the main targets and threats within a limitless ‘battlespace’.” In his usual style, Graham unearths and amasses a plenum of techniques and tactics that have migrated from foreign battlefields, back to the Western Homeland to be used to pacify the enemy within.
But the city is at war in more subtle ways, too. When we consider that “a line is not an abstract thing,” the militancy of the more banal, everyday urbanism of the city planner becomes clear. History has taught us the horrors of the Haussmannian grid, itself a manifestation of the desire to pacify the populace (for more on the continuities of ‘old’ and ‘new military urbanism,’ see this post from dystopolitik), but what about the violence of the less visible CIAM grid?
Most commentators focus on how this analytical tool reflected Le Corbusier’s understanding of the four functions of the city—living, working, recreation and circulation—and, in turn, his “often-expressed hatred of streets and love of roads,” since ‘circulation’ is not ‘mobility.’ Others highlight how the introduction of this grid in the seventh CIAM congress opened up an avenue for younger members to challenge Le Corbusier’s ideas and authority.
What interests me, however, are two simple facts. First, this tool was never intended to be used for designing actual places. It was meant to be a ‘thinking machine,’ like the ones Patrick Geddes developed, or a tool for managing and presenting a project. Yet disciples of Le Corbusier did in fact use it to shape their designs. Secondly, while the link between the four functional categories and the CIAM method of dividing cities into single-use zones is clear—indeed, the grid was specifically designed to reflect that idea, first adopted in their Athens charter—and while it is easy to argue that the grid “analyzed everything as a separate entity but not in relation to the whole social system,” what is most jarring about the grid are the last two columns. Placed after ‘miscellaneous,’ columns 20 and 21 read: “Rational Reaction [of] Client, Public & Authorities” and “Emotional Reaction [of] Client, Public and Authorities.” Afterthought? Yes, but also founded on a most dubious distinction.
I’m sure others would also make something out of column 14 (“ethics and aesthetics”), but the main point I’m putting across here is that this banal grid in itself embodied the slinking violence of modernist urban planning. The process was turned into a series of potentially-disastrous disavowals: project management tools turned into urban planning platforms, assumptions turned into facts, etc. These thing-to-thought translations remind me of those used by the sedimentologists studied by Bruno Latour in the Amazon, except that, in this case – as numbers are turned into soil and concrete – you weren’t supposed to follow their paper trail.
And yesterday’s grid is today’s algorithm.
But let’s not end our stroll through the citadel on this note. The top-down politics of urban planning are almost too easy to criticize, and are becoming something of a dead horse. Furthermore, the ‘internal critique’ has gained momentum over the years such that the new planning doxa mandates public participation in some form or other—effectively, begrudgingly, or otherwise. Yet, let’s not get lost in the semiosphere and forget that the only thing less abstract than a line is a brick or a highway. The city itself is always already a weapon.
I am now in Beirut. On my way to Edinburgh airport, I thought I saw a sword on the side of the road; it turned out to be a railing someone had snapped off quite cleanly from the perimeter of a park. I had forgotten that every one of those fences was designed to look like a row of spears.
It doesn’t take much effort to see that there’s a whole armory out there.
Images via: Jad Baaklini, Mohandes Memari
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