Confrontations / CITY_MODERNITY

The individual texts of the series consist of a juxtaposition of words - City, Myth, Modernity, Pool. The mutual confrontation of pairs of words is not about confirming unambiguous relations, a harmonious whole, but about searching for possible disagreements. The confrontation narrows the wide range of their individual meanings.

The fundamental document that officially anchors the modernist (functionalist) approach to cities is the Athens Charter, a document produced by the fourth CIAM (Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne) taking place on the steamship Patris during the voyage between Marseille and Athens.

CIAM IV belongs to the second phase of the CIAM conferences (Kenneth Frampton), dating between 1933-1947 and dominated by Le Corbusier. The emphasis of the congresses in these years was mainly on urbanism. The fourth CIAM was preceded by a comparative analysis of 34 European cities and resulted in the Athens Charter, a document published only a decade later. The theme was “The Functionalist City”. Reyner Banham referred to the Charter as “the most Olympian, rhetorical and destructive” document ever produced by the CIAM.[1]

The document consists of 111 articles, some of which are observations about the state of cities and some of which are linked to demands for the correction of these situations. All the articles are divided into five basic chapters, corresponding to the idea of what a “functionalist city” is: housing, leisure, work, infrastructure/circulation and the historical heritage of cities.

The Athens Charter is accused of being dogmatic, of a generality of applicability that masks a truncated conception of both architecture and urbanism. It speaks of a rigid zoning of the city (5 chapters) with green belts between functionally distinct areas and presents a single type of social housing – high blocks where there is a need for high population density. The suspension of further exploration of other housing types is also attributed as a consequence of this typological impoverishment.[2]

Although the original radical demands of the Charter were gradually abandoned, functionalism retained its validity. The idealism of the Fourth CIAM led to later generational contradictions among members of the Congress. The younger generation disagreed with the older one’s approach and understanding of the complexity of the post-war situation of the cities. They questioned the 4 functionalist categories of the Athens Charter (housing, leisure, work and circulation). In the last third phase, the desire to overcome the “abstract sterility” of the functionalist/ functional city by the idea of creating an environment satisfying the emotional and material needs of the inhabitants prevailed. The theme of CIAM VIII was “The Heart of the City”, responding to the 1943 manifesto of Giedion, Sert, and Léger-“People want buildings to represent their personal and public lives more than mere functional satisfaction. They want satisfaction of the needs of monumentality, joy, pride and enthusiasm.”[3]

Instead of another abstract alternative, they sought the structural principles of cities. They tried to offer an alternative answering the need for identification (a basic emotional need). They emphasized the value of neighbourhood, because one can better identify with one’s immediate surroundings (home, street,…) than with the city as a whole. They tried to look for a relationship between physical form and socio-psychological needs.

New City

The introductory text of the Athens Charter speaks of cities that are too crowded, polluted, chaotic, noisy. The solution is to separate functions into different zones (housing, recreation, work, transport, with the different modes of transport also being separate). Diversification does not only take place horizontally, but also vertically. Housing is located on the upper floors and therefore the ground floor can be freed up for recreation and transport, collective spaces.

Cities were meant to be linear, open, clean, more egalitarian, built from the ground up, from scratch. In part this reflected the natural situation after the war, in part they were really about tearing everything down and starting again. The modernist (functionalist) city is a blueprint for how to build a new city.

“The alchemical promise of modernism – to transform quantity into quality through abstraction and repetition – has proved to be a complete failure and a blunder: a spell that has failed. The ideas, aesthetics and strategies of modernism have been exhausted. All attempts at a new beginning have, in their totality, only discredited the idea of a new beginning.”[4]

This functionalist new city is a precursor to what we now call urbanization. Urbanization, as defined by Cerdá in his 1867 book General Theory of Urbanization, is “a grouping of residential cells linked together by the phenomenon of mobility.”[5] It is a generic environment of absolute individualism based on the domination of mobility. It is related to the primacy of infrastructure development as the foundation of the city. This is the result of an economic development where social aspects are subordinated to the cycle of production and consumption.

The immediate reaction of Team X (which was formed from the younger generation of CIAM) was already a rejection of the functionalist city (the new city, urbanisation). They called for a return to urbanity, found reality and local context in an attempt to multiply the sense of place. They did not see reality as the “idealized utopia of geometric compositions”[6] proposed by the first generation of modernists. In their view, the existing patterns of the urban fabric were to be transformed, not to be removed and replaced by something new. They substituted functionalist zones for elements of a sense of place, based on a hierarchy of human association – house, street, neighborhood, city.

“By the end of the 20th century, what was known as the city had dissolved into a generic sea of urbanization.”[7]

Urbanisation and the city

Aureli contrasts the concept of urbs with the concept of civitas. He also links the dialectical couple urbs/ civitas – urbanisation/city with the concept of the political. If urbs is a reflection of the depoliticization of the city and the predominance of economics, civitas is about the development of civil (urban) society. Aureli argues that in the past the city was the scene of political debate and class conflict, whereas now it responds to an apolitical democracy influenced by the market.

In fact, the concepts of urbs and civitas should coexist, as balanced factors of the city, as opposing modes of human habitation. The oppositions civitas/ urb, city/ urbanization (singular act/ grid) represent the dichotomy citizen/ individual (the individual). The citizen consciously participates in the collective way of life. The individual inhabits urbanization in pursuit of his or her own goals, self-satisfaction and mobility, regardless of the collective aspect of inhabiting the city, requiring responsibility and confrontation [8].

“Ubiquitous urbanization has changed the conditions of urban life beyond recognition. The coherent city has ceased to exist. The concept of the city has been distorted and expanded unprecedentedly; any insistence on its original conditions – in terms of appearance, rules, shaping – thus leads inevitably through nostalgia to meaninglessness.”[9] The concept of the city has been distorted and expanded unprecedentedly.

Archizoom Associati: No-stop City, 1969, source:

Political city

The triumph of economic factors over political factors in the development of the city, the emphasis on infrastructure, represent the society of globalisation and the networks. Possible confrontations in the city are disrupted for the sake of smooth operation, confrontation is relegated to consensus. The political, as such, is, according to Chantal Mouffe and her theory of agonism, a decision between conflicting alternatives. The city should provide heterogeneity, the possibility of plurality of opinions and a public space for their confrontation, not their erasure.

An allusion to the loss of the city is the 1969 project by the Italian group Archizoom Associates, No-stop city. They stripped the city of any articulation, any formal, compositional problems, any quality. A city in which the “aggressive structures of architecture are absent”[10] and indeed the city is absent. The multiplicity of individual ideas that the city was has become one big continuous and universal idea. The city has been replaced by an infinite homogeneous structure consisting of residential parking lots, squats, sanitation facilities, and bananas.

If architectural form is the boundary of the confrontation of different opinions, the No-stop city erases the politicality of the city by erasing architecture. The city dissolves into one definitive opinion. There has been a permanent hegemony of one idea. Gone is the city as “the sum of individual figurative episodes” [11], i.e. a diversity of opinions that have their own formal manifestations.

Aureli, therefore, against the totalizing space of urbanization, to counterbalance it, posits the need to re-investigate the forms of the city. I understand this as an inversion to functionalist ideas of newly built cities, urban districts. Now we have a certain situation, a disjointed, fragmented, deformed and at the same time extremely complex city – urbanisation, to which we need to respond. But the response does not consist in an absolute overturning, rebellion and rebuilding. Nor, on the other hand, does it consist in an overly eclectic postmodern contextuality to the existing situation.

Scope and legibility

“Urbanism as a profession insists on its ideas, ideology, pretense, illusions of involvement and control, and is therefore incapable of new modesty, partial interventions, strategic realignment or compromise solutions that can affect existing situations, redirect, succeed on a limited scale, reorder or even start an entirely new beginning that will never lead to a restoration of control.” [12]

I understand the new search for the form of the city in the existing situation as a reading and critical evaluation of the situations that have arisen. Not as an application of an abstract, universal order to (any) city. But a search for an inherent, local formula or order at least somehow implied in the existing situation. A search for and making visible an urban order that is created by the legibility of the form of the city.

What I see as a positive formulation of functionalist cities, or utopias, is that they are ideas of a very clearly structured society through architecture. They formalize, albeit absolutist/ totally, a clearly legible intention. The attraction of these utopias lies in the illusion of meaningfulness, of “the city as a meaningful environment”, offering the possibility of orientation in the environment, of understanding the projected situation.

“If a new urbanism is to emerge, it will not be based on interconnected illusions of order and omnipotence; it will become a kind of directed uncertainty; it will no longer be concerned with the creation of more or less permanent objects, but with the irrigation of territories that have potential; it will no longer be directed towards stable arrangements, but towards the creation of fields of possibility that incorporate processes that refuse to crystallise into a definitive form; it will no longer seek precise definitions, setting limits, but expanding concepts, denying boundaries; it will no longer separate and name entities, but discover unnameable hybrid situations; it will no longer be obsessed with the city, but with modifying infrastructures to allow for endless intensification and diversification, shortcuts and rearrangements. “[13]

“The new urbanism will not just be a profession, but above all a way of thinking, an ideology that teaches us to accept what is. We used to build castles out of sand. Now we are swimming in a sea that has swept them away.”[14]


1 FRAMPTON, K. Historia crítica de la arquitectura moderna. Barcelona: Editorial Gustavo Gili, 2009.
2 Frampton, K., 2009.
3 Frampton, K., 2009, p. 278.
4 KOOLHAAS, R. Texty. Praha: Zlatý řez, 2014, p. 37.
5 AURELI, P. V. Brussels – A Manifesto Towards The Capital Of Europe. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2007, p. 33.
6 Frampton, K., 2009, p. 275.
7 Aureli, P. V., 2007, p. 33.
8 Aureli, P. V., 2007, pp. 34 – 35.
9 Koolhaas, R., 2014, p. 38.
10 BRANZI, A. Weak and Diffuse Modernity: The World of Projects at the beginning of the 21st Century. Miláno: Skira editore, 2006, p. 24.
11 MOUFFE, CH. Agonistics. Thinking the world politically. Londýn: Verso, 2013.
12 Koolhaas, R., 2014, p. 39.
13 Koolhaas, R., 2014, p. 41.
14 Koolhaas, R., 2014, p. 41.
28 / 5 / 2019
by Gabriela Smetanová
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