We constantly see the urban as a matter of the present. We don’t interrogate it as a historical concept. That’s a symptom also of this sense that we know what “the urban” is. It’s simply a matter of kind of analyzing it, containing it, controlling it, reinventing it, or whatever. But for that reason, it’s something that invites a kind of projection of other ideas onto it.
I'm Ross Exo Adams. I am an architect and historian. I codirect the architecture program at Bard College. And I am the author of Circulation & Urbanization.
I think the questions that were driving my research when I first began this is kind of coming out of a moment when urban design was sort of in a kind of renaissance. This is a moment, let’s say the early 2000s, when suddenly architects were being commissioned to start designing cities. And they were growing these new wings of urban design within them. And suddenly every architect was doing urban design. And I was part of that. What I found was that there was really one way to approach questions of urbanization, which is to look in the sort of immediate present and to look at where it’s changing the most, what’s going on, how sort of strange and new things are in other parts of the world.
And I guess if we, you know, then take a kind of historical approach to questions of realization. So thinking of someone like David Harvey and many others, you see like a history of Paris as somehow emblematic of everything that’s happening around the world because there’s capitalism. And so of course everything is sort of extruded around a kind of Marxian framework. So we say there’s this weird new thing happening in the nineteenth century in Europe, the successor of which is now the thing in China and so forth. And it’s all this basic kind of Haussmann-ization of the world. And I found that somehow as a—not only far too general of an account, but also somehow lacking, let’s say, a realization of how important historically this emergence that’s always articulated in the nineteenth century Europe to be, and how radically different everyone seems to agree the space of Paris was post Haussmann—and all these other cities doing the same thing and in Europe—than cities beforehand, without somehow realizing the significance of that. So for me that was like a kind of clue into this whole story.
I kind of came across Cerdà at one point, Ildefons Cerdà. A Spanish engineer, but he’s the guy who designed the Barcelona Eixample, that sort of extension of the core. And what was interesting is he plays a very important role in the canon: everyone sort of knows him to be the guy who designed Barcelona. But what very few people had gone into are his texts. And he actually wrote a lot more about urbanization as an idea. And in fact he coined the term urbanization in the 1860s sometime. In fact, he died penniless because he basically was funding himself to write endless kinds of theories, accounts of this new space that he was apparently inventing. And I found that compelling, not because I believe suddenly Cerdà invented urbanization, or the urban if you want, but rather that he’s somehow a kind of witness, like a biographer, of this new process emerging all over the place. And he somehow takes that and without maybe meaning to, but kind of boils it down into these really clear, somewhat simplistic diagrams, all of which are around this idea of circulation—as he calls it, vialidad.
Like so many others—Haussmann and Napoleon III—Cerdà was really influenced by Saint-Simonian ideas. And they very much espoused this idea that we can now achieve and create this utopia based on, like, the circulation of people, creating banks all over the world, railways, and letting free somehow this sort of industrial culture that the state was otherwise oppressing. So circulation for me is a kind of, let’s call it a conceptual anchor. Ah, it’s not a good word, but maybe it’s a conceptual framework, let’s say, that helped me to turn this from a, let’s say, a text that deals with Cerdà specifically, and sort of taking him as a starting point of this new space-process of urbanization up until today and thinking about it actually as starting points to actually examine a much longer history of power, really. And the reason is because we’re sort of familiar I think with a lot of our histories of nineteenth century modernism within architecture to celebrate this notion of circulation. You know, new technologies of movement, the railway, new understandings that are borrowed from a new form of knowledge like biology or the circulation of capital. All these sorts of new emergent forms of knowledge and experiences of the world confirmed this idea that circulation is apparently a new idea. And of course new and benevolent as well—it comes from science and rationality and so forth.
What you actually find is the opposite when you start to engage the concept history, or archeology of circulation as an idea. And you find that actually with the so-called discovery in the early seventeenth century by William Harvey of the circulation of blood, that it immediately jumps out of the sort of anatomical/physiological world and is used then as an idea to generate a new state discourse, but also at the same time new discourses of trade. If you start chipping away a bit more, you see that before the notion of circulation is even uttered for the first time ideas of circularity and metaphors of circles and so forth are things that are taken to be truthful representations of the ways in which power is meant to be organized, and therefore the universe and so on. So whether you’re talking about cosmological or divine forms of power or natural forms of power or eventually political forms of power, there’s this strange presence of either circularity or the circle, or eventually circulation. For me, that became a really, let’s say, useful way of understanding a history of space actually. Because somehow this, if you want, device of the circle or circulation always somehow could bring together questions of how power orders itself in space.
This idea that harnessing technologies of movement, breaking down state boundaries and borders, and the sort of faith in international commerce at the time, sort of lent themselves to an imaginary of space that required a new type of space, effectively, to emerge. Which is what makes it historically specific to Europe. It’s not to say that Europe invented everything, but, really, looking at Cerdà in that context, at least we can start to claim a certain specificity of this kind of emergence.
The last thing to say about that—again in very sort of quick terms—is that it’s not simply a kind of unfolding of capitalism through development of land as a real estate and the new sort of application of state-funded infrastructures to mobilize capital. It is for sure that, but it also brings with it, whether somehow through what we might call like a boomerang effect, a lot of kind of colonial logics that were tested out centuries before. And to me it’s a sort of a reorganization, not only of a city but of state territory itself. So this idea of “urbanize the rural, ruralize the urban, fill the earth”—replete terram—as Cerdà actually said quite late in his life, is effectively the equivalent idea of colonizing the state. As he puts it, La colonización de nuestro país.
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Ross Exo Adams
Ross Exo Adams is Assistant Professor and Co-Director of Architecture at Bard College. He is the author of Circulation and Urbanization (Sage, 2019) and he has written widely on the intersections of architecture and urbanism with geographies and histories of power. His research has been supported by fellowships and grants from the Royal Institute of British Architects, The London Consortium, Iowa State University, and The MacDowell Colony.
Stitching together two of Galli’s works, this book provides a powerful conceptual and historical framework for grasping the dialectical relations that have persisted in European modernity between political thought and the spaces of modern power. Spanning from empire to modern state form to the birth of the subject to the distinction inherited distinction between land and sea, Galli shows how the history of the state is built on striations of universal freedoms and violent enclosures, the smoothness of limitless circulation and the brutal political geometries of endless war.
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