Past Seminars Reviews

Whatever Happened to the Twentieth Century: Modernity and Its Discontents

An overview on the first year series of seminars and discussions within “The City as a Project” PhD Program

The series of seminars and discussions, entitled ‘Whatever Happened to the Twentieth Century: Modernity and Its Discontents,’ were proposed in order to reconsider the character and the content of the modern urban project. The main goal was to go beyond the cliché of its interpretation as a totalitarian project, as well as to avoid any nostalgic recuperation of it as utopian imaginary. On the contrary, the seminars focused on defining modernity as the unresolved composition of power and resistance, capital and labour, urban life and its representation. Beyond the post-modern theoretical impasse, the seminars attempted to produce a long term meta-narrative: far from being archived, the unresoved conflicts of modernity still unsettle the present.

The first seminar, entitled “Modern Architecture and the Construction of the Welfare State”, consisted of a lecture given by Sven-Olov Wallenstein – ‘Modernity at Crossroads’ – and a dialogue on the political project of the welfare state in the European social democracies. The case of inter-war Sweden was placed at the center of this dialogue, were Wallenstein described as an essential compromise and pedagogical project, which primarily addressed and established a bio-political apparatus through aesthetics and industrial production. The propagandistic pamphlet Acceptera was considered as a paradigmatic example of how design became the an apparatus to govern freedom and control, production and consumption, desires and aesthetics – in short, to construct of subjectivity of the modern man.

The second seminar ‘Architecture and Revolution: Le Corbusier, Politics and Architecture 1930–1942,’ was delivered by Mary McLeod. The analysis of the projects for Algiers highlights the darkest side of the Swiss architect’s career, and his dangerous political affiliations with the Vichy regime. The case of Algiers embodies the contradictions of architecture and its political role: to see technique as a shortcut for human liberation – as Le Corbusier stated in a famous disjunction, ‘Architectrue or Revolution.’

The third event, ‘Manfredo Tafuri and the Avant-garde: Close-reading The Sphere and the Labyrinth,’ consisted of a profuse lecture given by Joan Ockman, structured as an intense rereading of Tafuri’s most difficult and poetic book The Sphere and the Labyrinth. Ockman closely examined the book as an autonomous object, in an effort to illuminate history as a literary and political practice in its own – a project. Dialectical historiography was considered as an essential strategy to produce an alternative historic and analytical method, an Avant-Garde historic project, where the intellectual pessimism of the author should be comprehended as a type of poesis or utopian statement.

In her ‘Integrities: Architecture and Diplomacy on the Nile,’ Lucia Allais described the emergence of monument’s preservation as discursive and burocratical multi-national apparatus, in the context of cold war confrontatons. The story of the preservation of the Nubian temples after the construction of the Aswan dam shows how the apparent neutrality and universality of the concept of humankind’s heritage, was in fact the battleground to achieve geo-political supremacy in the area.

The last seminar “On the Ruins of the Post-Fordist City”, delivered by Matteo Pasquinelli, exposed the true nature of gentrification, as the most recent and advanced mode of capitalistic production and accumulation, based on the parasitic extraction of value from existing social and urban structures. Additionally, Matteo related the latter with a wider political agenda, like the role of high or low culture in the project of the city and the instrumentalization of cultural industry and creativity in the gentrification process. Primarily, the seminar analyzed the important literature on the process of gentrification in the contemporary urban environments, which then was followed by a productive debate on the specificities of potentially alternative strategies of the multitude within the territory of the city, as well as the limits of parasitic exploitation of bios, urban life, art, culture and politics.