I have been away from the blog for a little while—this time, in addition to the usual excuses of work overload, due to the paperwork and related administrative hustle and bustle for an upcoming visit to Harvard Graduate School of Design. I have been awarded a Fulbright grant to be back in Cambridge next Spring in order to conduct a four-month research about the contribution of Martin Wagner to the GSD and, more broadly, to the emerging debates about urban renewal in the US and internationally in the late 1930s and the 1940s.
The research is part of my project of re-reading the history of urban planning and design from the perspective of the commons and the destruction thereof. Recent developments in urban studies and planning theory have remarked the key importance of urban commons in relation to the capacities of innovation, creativity and cohesiveness that generate urban resilience. However, as I have suggested in several previous contributions (e.g. see here, here and here), the history of planning shows that urban design and policy have not only been incapable of tackling this dimension of spatial formations with the necessary subtlety, but, precisely, that they have been responsible for the destruction of diverse forms of urban commons in the past, throughout a period that extends from the onset of capitalism to more recent experiences in neoliberal dispossession. Moreover, the very formation of planning as a relatively coherent set of practices and discourses is usually based on technical and conceptual innovations devised to control, reduce or eliminate communal spatialities, in an attempt to adjust everyday patterns of social reproduction to the requirements of capitalist development.
My alternative genealogy of planning focuses on this long seminal stage. Within that general framework, the project for the stay at Harvard takes a particular episode in the biography of one of the key figures of modern planning as a concluding chapter that not only allows to synthesize my reading of the interwar experience, but also constitutes a bridge to post-WWII developments. I will study the process of conceptualization, design and visualization of new forms of ‘urban community’ in the experience of German architect and planner Martin Wagner during his appointment as professor of urban planning at the Graduate School of Design, between the late 1930s and mid-1940s.
Although the experience of Wagner—former chief of the Berlin planning office during the Weimar Republic and one of the most problematic and multifaceted voices of modern architecture—in Berlin is widely known, his later career in the US remains an obscure stage of modern urban design. His presence in Boston prompted the confluence of two major traditions in urban community design: the legacy of the Siedlungen (settlements) in 1920s Germany, with its use of modern urban and architectural design approaches in new peripheral and suburban social housing developments that would dramatically alter the extant city structure; and the American tradition of integrating neighborhood units in broader, comprehensive city-planning schemes that ensured the formation of spaces of primary socialization and access to basic facilities and services in the context of massive urbanization. These were two fundamental strands in the emergence of regulated, artificial urban communities in the interwar period that, nevertheless, would prove incapable of reproducing the vitality of spontaneous, already existing forms of working-class and popular communities.
During his stay at the GSD Wagner worked with his students in a number of proposals for Boston’s city center—some of which also involved Walter Gropius, former Director of Bauhaus—that were presented to the City Hall as prototypes for future downtown redevelopment. These proposals and Wagner’s theorization about them anticipated later urban renewal campaigns in Boston, which in turn became a pioneering paradigm for subsequent waves of urban renewal across the US. In that sense, the maximalist designs of Wagner and his students, envisioning a thorough substitution of new nuclear settlements for the existing urban fabric, could be taken as the prelude to the raze of Boston’s West End and current Government Center areas. The shift in Wagner’s understanding of urban phenomena upon arrival to Boston and the ambition of his vision for the restructuring of urban downtowns suggests a hidden connection between pre- and post-WWII planning approaches—and between European and American agendas—in relation to urban commons still existing at that time that deserves detailed examination. Significantly, even if Wagner’s proposals were envisioned as a new urban pattern ‘for the people and by the people’ (his phrase), subsequent downtown operations triggered the eviction and displacement of c. 7,500 inhabitants.
Beyond my own research, the stay will be a great opportunity to join Neil Brenner’s Urban Theory Lab once more with the occasion of a new edition of their ‘Extreme Territories of Urbanization’ seminar, which is nearing completion after a four-year inquiry. Martín Arboleda, from Manchester University, will also be joining Brenner and his collaborators this time; Arboleda has recently published powerful contributions within the theoretical framework of ‘planetary urbanization’ so it looks like this will be a terrific colophon for the seminar.
Special thanks are due to my department Head and colleagues, who provided the opportunity to concentrate my teaching and leave Madrid for a few months, as well as to the Spanish Ministry of Education and Fulbright Commission for the grant.