The Analogous Urbe: Rethinking Cerdà’s Legacy Within and Against Urbanization

A nonlinear relationship between theory and practice.

The year 1867 marks the publication of two seminal works: Marx’s Das Kapital, and Ildefonso Cerdà’s Teoría General de la urbanización. Both books shared the same belief in the emancipatory potential of science – for their authors, scientific analysis was the key tool to rethink the living conditions of their time.[1]1. On the historical background of Cerdà’s work, see Marina López Guallar (ed.), Cerdà i Barcelona: La primera metròpoli, 1853-1897 (Barcelona: Museu d’ Història de Barcelona, 2009).
The purportedly scientific content of Das Kapital and the Teoría has rarely been accepted as theory per se, and is usually seen as directly applicable knowledge, often with despicable results. But Marx and Cerdà had not aimed at scripting future protocols. They rather tried to establish new disciplines which would offer better tools for the understanding of their contemporary reality: political economy, and urbanization. A rereading of their works should therefore take into account the fundamental scientific autonomy that their authors claimed for their theoretical work. Not autonomy from practice tout court: rather, autonomy from a direct, linear relationship with practice.
Ironically, Cerdà felt the need to define a new discipline in order to clarify his work as a planner.[2]2. On Cerdà’s project for Barcelona and its social implications see Joan Fuster Sobrepere (edited by), La Agenda Cerdà (Barcelona: Ayuntamiento de Barcelona y Lunwerg, 2010). The Teoría was a retroactive manifesto of sorts, which in the author’s eyes would have served to support his 1859 plan for Barcelona’s Ensanche. Cerdà’s work therefore offers an interesting example of nonlinear relationship between theory and practice; it is a paradigmatic case in which craft comes before ideas, but ideas are not merely an automatic commentary on craft.
The Ensanche and the Teoría are both projects for the city. They share the same conceptual tension, but can be considered autonomous texts with an intrinsic independent value. Obviously, there are convergences; the Ensanche is used as illustration of Cerdà’s theories in the book, and the statistic thinking of the Teoría had already served as basis for the rational construction of Barcelona’s plan.
And yet, there is no link of formal necessity between the two works. The Teoría does not prescribe the Ensanche model as the only possible one, but merely as an application of the science it wants to build. The book enforces a way of reading the city, not precise architectural forms or defined spatial devices. Cerdà does not want to defend his grid: he wants to defend his method. It is in this articulation of Cerda’s thought that the two projects find their autonomy within a common framework: they are methodological paradigms, meta-projects of sorts.

Urbanization as meta-project.

The common meta-project that links the Teoría and the Ensanche is the attempt to redistribute value through the urban fabric, blurring the existing class differences and establishing a new paradigm: the science, and craft, of urbanization. Urbanization would, ultimately, solve the chaos of the traditional city through rational thinking.
That the actual Barcelona project[3]3. The realization of the Ensanche betrayed Cerdà’s project, increasing the density of the built mass and filling his open-ended manzanas until they became sturdy city blocks. This phenomenon was largely due to economic reasons Cerdà himself had not calculated. It is revealing how the statistic approach of the engineer failed to forecast the needs of the real estate market. Cerdà’s attitude was covertly utopian: it disregarded matters of profit and political conflict, believing that better design would solve all problems. took the layout of a grid is not the most interesting aspect of this work. The grid has been the preferred device for the foundation of new cities since the first recorded human settlements; Spain itself had a time-honoured tradition of colonial city-making by grids in Latin America.
What is unique in Cerdà’s grid is the absence of figurative elements, the refusal to introduce hierarchies – apart from few exceptions such as the diagonal avenues and the Gran Vía. This choice clearly spells the desire to even out social inequalities, to provide the same amount of light and air to everybody.
The belief in progress through technology, and social improvement by design, is at the root of Cerdà’s meta-project. It is a belief that our era has learned to mistrust; its naïve optimism seems today to be at the service of biopolitical life-conditioning. But while we can label Cerdà’s theory as wishful thinking, we should reflect on how close it is to the rhetoric of ‘mere technological functionality’ that justifies most contemporary infrastructural projects.
The project of urbanization is the non-form of the modern city – or urbe, as Cerdà would say, finding the word city outdated and inadequate. The streets of the potentially endless urbe would provide unimpeded circulation; resources would be evenly distributed, and ultimately social conflicts would disappear in the smooth surface of urbanization. Twisting Le Corbusier’s conundrum, we could say that the late capitalist society is actually called to choose between “Urbanization or Revolution”.

Cerdà’s aesthetic politics

Even if the very idea of urbanization seems dangerously close to a nimble accommodation of the needs of capital, Cerdà’s legacy retains a crucial meaning in the current condition.
As a matter of fact, Cerdà’s projects presents pedagogic values that exceed the pretence to construct the urbe as machine à habiter on a territorial scale. Throughout his works, Cerdà aims at creating analogical relationships between the part and the whole; ideally, the manzana, even the house itself, becomes “una urbe elemental”[4]4. This Cerdà quote is discussed at length in Grupo 2C, La Barcelona de Cerdà (Barcelona: Flor del Viento Ediciones, 2009), page 76. through which the citizen can achieve a heightened consciousness of his or her own space.
Analogy equates things that are, in principle, different. It is knowledge through estrangement; it ennobles experience by giving it an intellectual dimension, beyond the merely sensual one. In Cerdà’s works, analogy opens a clearing in the logical impossibility of politics in the age of biopolitics.
Cerdà put forward a city that looks like a city and nothing else – a non-referential plan that relies only on the internal rules of city-making. The parts correspond analogically to the whole, entailing the exposure of a system that becomes accessible to any user, infinitely open as a perpetual offer to the citizens: an argument for aesthetics in the literal sense of the word, an argument for rebuilding the aesthetics of architecture within the domain of architecture itself.

In 1976 Aldo Rossi published his Analogous City[5],5. Aldo Rossi, “La Città Analoga: Tavola”, Lotus n. 13, December 1976, pp. 5-7. a collage of architectural facts that could be read as theoretical manifesto linked to his 1966 book The Architecture of the City. As for Cerdà, the relationship between book and project was not literal, but analogical – a nonlinear mutual feedback. Rossi’s architecture seems the opposite of Cerdà’s urbanization, but the two positions can be read as dialectical poles within the same search for an urban grammar. For Rossi the finite architectural objects would be the paradigmatic facts through which an idea of the city could be reconstructed. For Cerdà, it is the space of circulation that becomes an analogical image of the urbe.
From the internal circulation of an apartment, to the scale of the landscape, Cerdà sees a complex of relationships that are non-figurative, but no less powerful than Rossi’s. The potential of Cerdà’s project lies in the definition of a system of urban exteriors that are more than mere empty spaces. While Rossi’s analogy is based on the exemplarity of the part, Cerdà’s is based on the absolute genericness of the whole. His zero-degree narrative is an abstraction that also contains, for the user, a possibility of freedom, the chance to move outside of scripted paths.
The Analogous City and the Analogous Urbe ultimately stand for the reconstruction of an urban grammar that could overcome both the unreadability of degenerate urbanization, and the organic metaphors that attempt to reinject identity in an irredeemably generic condition. Maybe, it is this grammar that could finally help us rethink a city that looks unashamedly, unapologetically, like a city and nothing else.