Next week I will be giving a keynote speech at the DO.CO.MO.MO. Conference (Iberian section) in San Sebastián. My talk is entitled ‘Modernism and the Right to the City’, which will strike many as contradictory, since Lefebvre’s notion synthesized his decade-long criticism of Modernist-oriented urban development in postwar France—grands ensembles, ZUPs, etc. In my lecture, however, I intend to explore a number of alternative design experiences that partially prefigured some of the features that Lefebvre would later use in his formulation of the right to the city, such as the right to centrality and self-management, the nurturing of urban life and difference, the understanding of the city as an ouvre, and so forth. This is an opportunity to further explore two problematic tensions within both Modernist design and Lefebvre’s work that others such as Lukasz Stanek have extensively dealt with before. On the one hand, there is the contradiction between Modernist aspirations to promote equality and freedom through spatial investments and the perverse outcomes of massive social housing developments, urban renewal and so on. On the other hand, the fact that, for all his criticism of such interventions, Lefebvre remained faithful to an understanding of society, politics and cityness in the emancipatory tradition of Modernity.
Interestingly, I find that architects and practices that a priori would be relevant in this regard, such as openly politically committed designers and organizations in the 1920s-1930s, are not always helpful when it comes to tracing right-to-the-city elements; in fact, more often than not they work as negative illustrations. In that sense, my work on Martin Wagner last Spring was painfully revealing about the limitations of the first generation of Modernist architects and planners, and their trajectories after the 1930s. But there are other postwar experiences in architecture and urban design that present a more promising contour to identify anticipatory forays in a realm that Lefebvre would later explore much more powerfully and coherently. My talk will focus on these less-known cases, which Lefebvre didn’t know or didn’t consider relevant enough to take to task, but which provide an opportunity for an alternative genealogy of the Modern Movement in design.