Carlos García Vázquez: "The Modern Urbanism Has Rediscovered Traditional Cities"

Carlos García Vázquez: "The Modern Urbanism Has Rediscovered Traditional Cities"

Three years ago, in the wake of the release of his book Theories and History of the Modern City ("Teorías e Historia de la Ciudad Contemporánea", 2016, Editorial Gustavo Gili), we sat down with the author, Carlos García Vázquez, to discuss this complex and "uncertain creature' that is the modern city, focusing on the three categories that define cities today: Metropolis, Megalopolis, and Metapolis.

Based on an analysis of those "who have traditionally led the way in the planning of spaces" (sociologists, historians, and architects), the book illustrates the social, economic, and political forces that, in service to their own agendas, drive the planning, transformation, exploitation, and development of cities. In 120 years, urban centers have transformed from places where "people died from the city" to bastions of personal development and economic prosperity; however, the question remains —have cities really triumphed?

"Yes", says García Vásquez, "but we have paid dearly for it."

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Carlos García Vázquez. Image © María Carrascal

Nicolas Valencia: Why look at cities from the perspective of sociologists, historians, and architects? 

Carlos García Vásquez (CGV): The modern city is a complex animal and difficult to decipher when looking at it from a singular perspective. Here, people coexist with buildings, infrastructure, perceptions, and feelings. Because of this, it has been an object of study for multiple disciplines: everything from economy, to politics, to psychology, to semiotics, to, of course, architecture and urban studies. I began to study cities 20 years ago, during my doctoral thesis, and I always wanted a text that would bring together these sources of knowledge. 

Theories and History of the Modern City is an attempt to fulfill my own desire and the three types of professionals that have traditionally led the way in matters of urban space are sociologists, historians, and architects. 

Why did cities transform so drastically during the Industrial Revolution?

CGV: In reality, this story doesn't begin with the Industrial Revolution, but rather the Second Technological Revolution--defined by motors powered by gasoline and electricity--that started in the 1880s. In my opinion, this heralded the birth of the modern city, the Metropolis, an entity unlike any the world had ever seen.

Machinery Hall, World Fair in Philadelphia (1876), designed by Pettit and Wilson. Image © Library Company of Philadelphia [Wikipedia]

And why was it the middle class who drove this transformation and not other classes?

CGV: The middle class, as the most influential in society, were keen to organize and manage urban centers in order to avoid, among other things, that thousands of people "died from the city."

How did the middle class implement this change?

CGV: In reality, it was a joint effort between multinational corporations who wanted to dominate the global market and nowhere was this more evident than in Germany. AEG wanted to sell its turbines in France. ThyssenKrupp wanted its steel to reach the US market. And Siemens sought to expand their transformer business into the United Kingdom. 

However, the major roadblock to these plans for global expansion was the working class, who were newly aware of their power and influence thanks to the spread of Marxism. In response, the economic elite offered better salaries and social benefits like health insurance and retirement. Governments passed laws that humanized the labor market such as implementing an eight hour work day and outlawing child labor. Under these new conditions, the proletariat got to work and, along with the bourgeoisie and the government, paved the way for a new and treacherous economic nationalism that sent the globe reeling into two world wars. 

Global demonstration by industrial workers (IWW) in New York, 1914. Image © Bkwillwm [Wikipedia]. Public Domain.

Did cities really triumph?

CGV: They did. And they did so because of modern capitalism, which made them centers for production, distribution, decision-making, and, even more importantly, a new model of life. Unexpectedly, people came to find freedom, anonymity, and opportunities--everything they needed for their own personal happiness--in this new urban way of living. Of course, they paid a high price as well and for it got loneliness, instability, confusion, and a loss of identity. But, in the end, as we can see today, it was worth it. 

Night Life in Nueva York. Image © Joana França

As seen with the Chicago School during the late 19th century, migration was at the center of the sociological analysis of cities. What has its role been?

CGV: It depends. The term immigration is relative when talking about the move to cities. It's true when we talk about the move from the countryside to the city but we're not really dealing with transnational immigration here. The massive influx of foreign immigrants didn't really come about until the 19th century and it really only impacted a handful of cities like Chicago and New York. In the 1930s Hitler's Berlin was still very much a homogeneous German city. Even today there are many large cities, like Cairo, Egypt and La Paz, Bolivia, with a diminutive immigrant presence, mainly in part to their scarce economic opportunities and infrastructure. Seoul and Tokyo, in spite of their wealth, also host relatively few foreign residents. In their case, it helps more to look at culture rather than economics. In short, the connection between cities and immigration is a relative one.

Chicago underwent a massive influx of immigration at the end of the 19th century. Image © Jovan J [Flickr], under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license

What was the rationale behind the metropolis?

CGV: Once again, it was a push from the bourgeoisie, who clung to the notion of positivism and an unwavering faith in science and technology as the answers to modern problems. This gave birth to a top-down socio-political structure that went from politicians and business people to professionals and general laborers. This laid the foundation for modern society as we know it. 

The everyday life of young Berlin suburbanites in 1900 was very similar to that of young people today: getting up at 6 in the morning, taking a train into the city, and walking into a monolithic office building where hundreds of people work. This modern way of life has been around for 140 years; however, it wasn't until the 1920s when it started to shape the way cities planned and developed their spaces. This delay truly was a collective, historical failure for all in the field of architecture.    

Why did it take so long to act?

CGV: It was blindness. We weren't able to see modern society springing up around us. We were holed up in the ivory towers of academia, clinging to the notion that the driving forces of architecture were art and history. This of course was not the case. The world had turned on its head and science and technology took their place at the top. Architects didn't know how to lead or even work with these new elements of modernity. The result was a chaotic hodgepodge of classical and new--Neoclassical train stations outfitted with the latest technology, avant-garde Neo-Byzantine hotels, Neo-Gothic shopping centers, countless shops designed in the Neo-Renaissance style. We polluted the metropolises with the corpses of these experiments, a testament to our failure.  

Midtown Manhattan in 1932, right after the zoning laws passed in New York (1916). Image © Samuel Gottscho. Public Domain.

How were cities developed before the concept of zoning?

CGV: Zoning is the foundation of modern Urbanism, which developed in Prussia during the second half of the 19th century. It indicated a change in paradigm, one in which the city would become a productive entity. The priority was making it functional and people realized that the best way to do this was dividing it into specialized areas that would be dedicated to certain activities, like residential areas, industrial areas, commercial areas...

Today, we now know that this doesn't work. Zoning has created "bedroom communities" where we see abandoned city centers during holidays and packed. congested office districts during working hours. Now, modern urbanism has, in many ways, rediscovered traditional cities. Its focus has shifted back to the pre-zoned, or rather, vertically zoned urban entities. In the Middle Ages, an wide array of activities took place in the same urban space, simply because the medieval house was a multi-purpose unit; the store and the garden in the bottom floor, the workshop on the main floor, the living space on the second, and storage on the third. The result was an efficient and vibrant city that stayed active at all hours of the day.

Yuzhong, Chongqing central district (China), a megapolis that symbolizes the rapid urbanization of the global South, and especially of China. Image © Tauno Tõhk / 陶诺 [Flickr], under CC BY-SA 2.0 license

Metropolitan hygiene is completely internalized, but didn't appear until the first half of the 20th century. What was the change in paradigm that brought it about? 

CGV: More than a change in paradigm, this was a first reaction to the city during the Industrial Revolution, a city that, as we said before, "thousands of people died from." In 1913 only 42% of youth in Berlin were considered fit for military service, whereas the number was something like 66% for the youth in rural areas. The confusion this statistic caused is understandable, after all, people in cities supposedly enjoyed a better quality of life than those in the country. This led many to believe that the problem with cities was sanitation related, and more a medical problem than an architectural one.  

Let's talk about land speculation. How did it evolve and at what phase are we now?

CGV: The modern city was developed like a big business. At the end of the 19th century, land owners were true predators. And the truly scandalous part of it is that the first urbanists gave them tools to organize their feast. The Athens Charter, the bible of modern urbanism, put a stop to this paradigm, insisting that collective interests should be put before private ambitions and that the state should make sure of it.

After the Second World War the social democratic European governments did just this, and legislated the rules of land ownership. Land would remain in private hands but the right to develop on it would be meted out by the state. This perhaps explains the current planning crisis. The book talks about the "weak urbanism" of today, one defined by vague principles that are constantly being revised. This urbanism is the fruit of a late-capitalist economic model that sees the city as a banquet hall for the wealthy.  

Hong Kong in the 90s, when it was still a British colony, but undergoing rapid economic development. Image © Wonderlane [Flickr], under CC BY 2.0 license

In Metrópolis we see cases of urban utopias such as the "Garden City." This idea seems to have disappeared and now everyone just wants to invest in architectural elements. Where are we in the discussion?

CGV: This affirmation had to be nuanced. On the one hand it's true that many forms of architecture are being experimented with, especially in office buildings and cultural centers. We don't see this is the housing sector, however, which tends to be more conservative. On the other hand, it's true that the late-capitalist model emphasizes efficiency and undermines "visionary." In spite of this, post-modern culture is one of curiosity and innovation, which has driven forward the experimentation with urban models.

Outline of 'Garden City' presented by Ebenezer Howard in "Garden Cities of Tomorrow”. Image © Ebenezer Howard. Public Domain.

In the last part of the book it mentions some of the figures that have put themselves in the center of the debate about the modern city. As Eduardo Galeano said: “Utopia is like the horizon. Take two steps toward and it takes ten steps back. So, what good is utopia? Well, it makes us walk forward."

Brasilia. Image © Joana França

Carlos García Vázquez (Sevilla, 1961) is an architect and professor of Architectural Composition in the Superior Technical School of Architecture in Sevilla. He is also an honorary professor of the School of Architecture at Milan Polytechnic (Piacenza campus). He is the author of Theories and History of the Modern City (2016), Antipolis: The Urban Decomposition of the Sun Belt (2011), and Puff Pastry City, Urban Visions of the 21st Century(2004). All are published by Editorial Gustavo Gili.

About this author
Cite: Valencia, Nicolás. "Carlos García Vázquez: "The Modern Urbanism Has Rediscovered Traditional Cities"" [Carlos García Vázquez: 'La ciudad contemporánea nació como un gran negocio'] 07 Aug 2020. ArchDaily. (Trans. Johnson, Maggie) Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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城市获胜了吗?Carlos García Vázquez 采访

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