Thursday, 12 November 2009

Book - The Functional City - Update


Nai Publishers have kindly supplied me with a brand new print of the ‘Functional City’. Some of you might remember the earlier review of the book. The copy I had was printed with a Dutch introduction, whilst the book was in English. The new copy has just arrived and I would like to update this review with a look at the introduction.
The introduction sets out the context of the book and especially focuses on the role van Esteren plays, both within the modernist CIAM group as well as in the book. This is important as the book does both at the same time. It redraws activities of CIAM but also focuses on van Esteren as, at times, the CIAM’s chairman. The introduction makes cleaver use of an event, the exhibition ‘The Functional City’ that took place in 1935 at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Along this, presented as the climax of the CIAM activities the events are rolled up from the back to give broad overview of the details to following in the book.
One large, some 5m long ‘historical table’ graphically visualised the history of the city. Surprisingly it showed the development of the city as a result of economical, technical and social forces. This is surprising in so far, that in general the term ‘social’ and ‘functional’ does not necessarily go well together. But maybe this also points out that the modernist understanding of ‘functional’ was in fact not as machine like a we construct it.
The material and the way it was prepared showed clearly the guiding principle of the CIAM, ‘first the analysis and only afterwards the synthetic work, the design’
Van Esteren stated that ‘the expression ‘functional city’ best conveys what we expect from a well designed city’. He took the human body as a metaphor to explain how the health of the whole is important for individual elements to function properly.
Van Esteren pointed out that the architects contribution to urban design was necessary for the designing of good extension plans. His main concern where residential districts and its facilities. He justified the architects involvement in urban planning with ‘he (the architect) is the one who determines the physiognomy of the plan.’ He goes on explaining ‘the goal is to archive an equilibrium of all of the factors that are of importance for the people to enjoy living their lives. These insights, based on the results of the previous congresses, inexorably drove us to urban planning.’ Interesting here is that it appears as if the group is trying to justify it move towards urban planning. They saw them selves as architects in the first place, but now took on a different field. This might have two aspects to it. One is that the exclusivity of the architect as the maestro and genius designing a house for a most probably rich customer is not exactly mass compatible. Most people will never be in the position to afford this sort exclusivity. And secondly the impact (and if you want satisfaction) is not nearly as a large of an individual building as if you take on the whole city. In conjunction with this goes the installment of truth with the plan and the resulting power.
I think this should not be seen as a negative aspect to modernist movement, but rather the discovery of the responsibility of planning. The exhibition probably showed above all the struggle with a newly discovered possibility, both factual and emotional.
In this sense the ‘Functional City’ can be seen, as the introduction to the book points out, as Berlage’s conception architecture as a social art.

The idea of the ‘Functional City’ is as I think in relation to today’s conception of the city crucial. Also regarding the topic of cycles the idea of the urbanMachine is based on this construction. I have now just finished a paper on this subject for my upgrade early next month. I will post bits and pieces of it here in the coming weeks.

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Image by Cornelis van Esteren, taken from cultuurwijzer.nl - Title ‘Het Algemeen Uitbreidingsplan van Amsterdam’ (the extension plan for Amsterdam.

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