Monday, 13 July 2009

Book - The Functional City

UrbanMachine is a new series on UrbanTick that explores the idea of the city as a machine. It is of course inspired by the topic of cycles and it might be in a sense a literal translation of a clockwork. But even so, there are elements that work in such a way like the public transport, others like water and electricity are just “available” anytime one plugs the plug or opens the tap. What about the waste management or cleaning, maybe public service in general? The aim is to investigate what makes the city tick on the level of very basic, everyday tasks done by regular women and men. It is a bout infrastructure but also the service that keeps this structure in shape, physically and socially.

To start this topic, what better way than to look at the modern city. The modern city has many different faces, but here we are looking at the “real” modern city in the modern sense of the movement of the early 20th century. Maybe modern city could be replaced with “The Functional City”. This term comes even closer to the idea of the urbanMachine, probably this is where the term is inspired from.
The machine was central to a lot of the modern ideas and admired as the ultimate thing and applicable to any task. Le Corbusier admired the ocean liners as complete entities and of course as functional triumph. Some if the liners formal features even play a role in his building designs.
This machinist fetish has lead to dramatic constructions in the modern movement. From buildings to urban theories the function was top of the list. Even today, the city would be compared to a machine by a lot of people, when asked.
In terms of urban design, the functional approach has a very long tradition. The formalization and rationalization of urban spaces has always been part of planning approaches. From early Chinese cities, to Roman layouts, to garden cities, to new towns, the city was compromised into a single perspective. This approach is tightly interwoven with subjects of power, representation and truth. These aspects are also inherent in the modern movement, although they where able to introduce a shift from a personal focus to a more institutionalized reign of the plan as the central holder of truth. Together with this the architect/planner as the creator of the plan slipped into a unique position.
Within this context the term functional city could have a slightly different meaning. It is a more scientific meaning that imposes a great deal of rationality and logic.

Image taken from NAi Publishers

The book “The Functional City - The CIAM and Cornelius van Esteren, 1928 - 1960” edited by Kees Somer brings together the history of the CIAM from 1928 to 1960 with a specific focus on Cornelius van Eesteren as a member of the movement. It is published by NAi Publishers in early 2007.
Before talking about the content, some words on the physical book. It is a large and thick book, one of the category A4+. The design and layout is brilliant, from the font pallet to the implementation and instrumentalization of images. It is one of these books that you just buy after seeing the cover and having read the title you are on the way to the till, where you get a chance to flip your thumb through the pages while you pay.
Coming back to the content, I cant really read the introduction as in my copy it is, together with the books table of content in Dutch. Only from the first chapter on it is written in English, don’t know why.
Anyway, the story starts with the first CIAM congress in La Sarraz, June 1928. From there the forming of the CIAM in relation to other movements of the time is described. It all begins with a chaotic struggle to hold the opposition and find a position. In fact the book show and highlights through out the story that in fact the struggle was part of the CIAM. Things where always rushed and different opinions made it difficult for the group to unfold their impact. But one of the first actual manifestations of the CIAM ideas is probably the “Siedlung am Weissenhof” der Werkbundausstellung Studgart in 1927. The CIAM went through phases, starting from the public housing (Weissenhof) and working through different steps to the urban structure and implied a methodological link between the smallest and the largest spatial unit: the house unit and the city. This led to the catchy triad ‘home-neighborhood-city’(Somer)
In this sense the focus city has grown. This makes sense as the members where all architects and the discipline of urban planner and urban designer was only just invented.
The book is structured into five steps ordered as topics of content and objectives of the group. This is as mentioned before from public housing to urban planning, but on the other hand from CIAM the working group to the limits of collectivity.
In a sense the struggle with cooperation and compromises is the line that runs through the book. Along this the different developments on theorization of urban planning, especially in chapter four “Comparative Urban Planning”, is developed. That the actual representation, mapping, cartography and visual statistics where actual topics of the CIAM was new to me. This is beautifully illustrated with plans and drawings from CIAM members.
The term functional city is part of this “newly develop” approach and consists of four topic. The simple division between the group of housing, recreation, work and traffic. “The structure reflected the situation of scientific urban planning at that moment. ... This modern vision of urban planning was based on the insight hat the most important aspects of social life could be summed up in a nutshell as housing, work and recreation, all linked by traffic” (Van der Would (1983), p 131)
throughs out the book photographs are used as documentation and evidence of activities and persons. This has a beautiful side effect, it illustrates through the course of the book how the members grow old. Not in a voyeuristic sense, but in a more natural sense. This give the course of the CIAM as a movement even more weight in terms of its development and achievement. The young founding members feature on page 18, including Le Corbusier and have visually aged on page 227, Le Corbusier and Cornelius van Eesteren.
This beautiful human portrait makes it a great read beside all the historic facts it redraws the course of drama with real characters.

Somer, K., Van, E.&.V.L.S. & Amsterdam, (., 2007. The Functional City: The CIAM and Cornelis Van Eesteren, 1928-1960, Rotterdam: NAi Publishers.