Unitary Urbanism at the End of the 1950s
In august 1956, a tract signed by the groups preparing the founding of the SI called for the boycott of a would-be “Festival of Avant-Garde Art” being held in Marseille at the time, an event that the tract called the most complete, official selection of “what in twenty years will represent the idiocy of the 1950s.” [see “Failure of the Marseille Demonstration”]
And, indeed, the modern art of this period turns out to have been dominated by, and almost exclusively composed of, camouflaged repetitions — a stagnation that bespeaks of both the definitive exhaustion of the entire old cultural theater of operations as well as the incapacity to discover a new one. At the same time, however, underground movements have come into existence. Such is the case with the origins of unitary urbanism (UU), intuited as early as 1953 and first named as such at the end of 1956 in a tract distributed on the occasion of a demonstration by our Italian comrades in Turin. (“Obscure statements,” wrote La Nouva Stampa on 11 December, on the subject of the following warning: “Your children’s future depends on it: demonstrate in favor of unitary urbanism!”). Unitary urbanism is one of the central concerns of the SI and, despite any delays and difficulties that might arise in its application, it is entirely correct (as the opening report of the Munich conference confirms) that unitary urbanism has already begun at the moment that it appears as a program of research and development.
The 1950s are about to come to a close. Without trying to predict whether the idiocy of this decade in the art and practice of life — itself a function of more general causes — will diminish or intensify in the short run, it is time to examine the current state of UU following the first stage of its development. A number of points need to be clarified.
First all of, UU is not a doctrine of urbanism but a critique of urbanism. By the same token, our participation in experimental art is a critique of art, and sociological research ought to be a critique of sociology. No isolated discipline whatsoever can be tolerated in itself; we are moving toward a global creation of existence.
UU is distinct from problems of housing and yet is bound to engulf them; it is all the more distinct from current commercial exchange. At present, UU envisages a terrain of experience for the social space of the cities of the future. It is not a reaction to functionalism, but rather a move past it; UU is a matter of reaching — beyond the immediately useful — an enthralling functional environment. Functionalism, which still has avant-garde pretensions because it continues to encounter outdated resistance, has already triumphed to a large extent. Its positive contributions — the adaptation to practical functions, technical innovation, comfort, the banishment of superimposed ornament — are today banalities. Yet, although its field of application is (when all is said an done) a narrow one, this has not led functionalism to adopt a relative theoretical modesty. In order to justify philosophically the extension of its principles of renovation to the entire organization of social life, functionalism has fused, seemingly without a thought, with the most static conservative doctrines (and, simultaneously, has itself congealed into an inert doctrine). One must construct uninhabitable ambiances; construct the streets of real life, the scenery of daydreams.
The issue of church construction provides a particularly illuminating instance. Functionalist architects tend to agree to construct churches, thinking — if they are not stupid deists — that the church, the edifice without function within a functional urbanism, can be treated as a free exercise in plastic form. Their error is that they fail to consider the psycho-functional reality of the church. The functionalists, who are the expression of the technological utilitarianism of the era, cannot successfully build a single church if one considers that the cathedral was once the unitary accomplishment of a society that one has to call primitive, given that it was much further embedded than we are in the miserable prehistory of humanity. In the very era of the technologies that give rise to functionalism, the Situationist architects, for their part, are searching to create new frames of behavior free of banality as well as of all the old taboos. The Situationist architects are thus absolutely opposed to the construction and even the conservation of religious buildings with which they find themselves in direct competition. UU merges objectively with the interests of a comprehensive subversion.
Just as UU cannot be reduced to questions of housing, it is also distinct from aesthetic problems. It opposes the passive spectacle, the principle of our culture (where the organization of the spectacle extends all the more scandalously the more the means of human intervention increase). In light of the fact that today cities themselves are presented as lamentable spectacles, a supplement to the museums for tourists driven around in glass-in buses, UU envisages the urban environment as the terrain of participatory games.
UU is not ideally separated from the current terrain of cities. UU is developed out of the experience of this terrain and based on existing constructions. As a result, it is just as important that we exploit the existing decors — through the affirmation of a playful urban space such as is revealed by the derive — as it is that we construct completely unknown ones. This interpenetration (employment of the present city and construction of the future city) entails the deployment of architectural détournement.
UU is opposed to the temporal fixation of cities. It leads instead to the advocacy of a permanent transformation, an accelerated movement of the abandonment and reconstruction of the city in temporal and at times spatial terms. We are thus able to envisage making use of the climatic conditions in which two major architectural civilizations arose — in Cambodia and in southwest Mexico — in order to construct moving cities in the jungle. The new neighborhoods of such a city could be constructed increasingly toward the west (which would be gradually reclaimed as one goes along), while to the same extent the east would be abandoned to the overgrowth of topical vegetation, thereby creating, on its own, zones of gradual transition between the modern city and wild nature. This city, pursued by the forest, would offer not only unsurpassable zones of derive that would take shape behind it; it would also be a marriage with nature more audacious than anything attempted by Frank Lloyd Wright. Furthermore, it would advantageously provide a mise-en-scène of time passing over a social space condemned to creative renovation.
UU is opposed to the fixation of people at certain points of a city. It is the foundation for a civilization of leisure and play. One should note that in the shackles of the current economic system, technology has been used to further multiply the pseudo-games of passivity and social disintegration (television), while the new forms of playful participation that are made possible by this same technology are regulated and policed. Amateur radio operators, for example, are reduced to technological boy scouts.
Since the situationist experience of the derive is simultaneously a means of study of and a game in the urban milieu, it is already on the track of UU. If UU refuses to separate theory from practice, this is not only in order to promote construction (or research on construction by means of models) along with theoretical ideas. The point of a such a refusal is above all not to separate the direct, collectively experienced, playful use of the city from the aspect of urbanism that involves construction. The real games and emotions in today’s cities are inseparable from the projects of UU just as, when they have been realized, the projects of UU will not be isolated from games and emotions that will arise within these accomplishments. The derives that the Situationist International is committed to undertake in the spring of 1960 in Amsterdam — using quite powerful means of transportation and telecommunication — are envisaged as both an objective study of the city and as a game of communication. In fact, beyond its essential lessons, the derive furnishes only knowledge that is very precisely dated. In a few years, the construction or demolition of houses, the relocation of micro-societies, and the changes in fashion will suffice to change a city’s network of superficial attractions — which is a very encouraging phenomenon for the moment when we will able to establish an active link between the derive and situationist urban construction. Until then, the urban milieu will certainly change on its own, anarchically, ultimately rendering obsolete the derives whose conclusions could not be translated into conscious transformations of their milieus. But the first lesson of the derive is its own status as a game.
We are only at the beginning of urban civilization; it is up to us to bring it about ourselves, using the pre-existing conditions as our point of departure. All the stories that we live — the drive(s) of our life — are characterized by the search for, or the lack of, an over-arching construction. The transformation of the environment calls forth new emotional states that are first experienced passively and then, with heightened consciousness, lead to constructive reactions. London was the first urban result of the industrial revolution, and the English literature of the nineteenth century bears witness to an increasing awareness of the problems of the atmosphere and of the qualitatively different possibilities of a large urban area.
The love between Thomas de Quincey and poor Ann, separated by chance and searching for one another, yet never finding themselves, “through the mighty labyrinths of London; perhaps even within a few feet of each other,” marks a turning point in the slow historical evolution of the passions. In fact, Thomas de Quincey’s real life from 1804 to 1812 makes him a precursor of the dérive: “Seeking ambitiously for a northwest passage, instead of circumnavigating all the capes and headlands I had doubled in my outward voyage, I came suddenly upon such knotty problems of alleys . . . I could almost have believed, at times, that I must be the first discoverer of some of these terrae incognitae, and doubted whether they had yet been laid down in the modern charts of London.” Toward the end of the century, this sensation is so frequently expressed in novelistic writing that [Robert Louis] Stevenson presents a character who, in London at night, is astonished “to walk for such a long time in such a complex decor without encountering even the slightest shadow of adventure” (New Arabian Nights). The urbanists of the twentieth century will have to construct adventures.
The simplest situationist act would consist in abolishing all the memories of the employment of time in our epoch. It is an epoch that, up until now, has lived far below its means.