Re-writing the history of urban fabric: Autocratic architectural-urban statements in twentieth-century Europe

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Almost all European towns have passed through several integral and quasi-integral reconstructions over time as a result of different historical processes affecting the whole of Europe or only parts of it. There are two different, but equally important, reasons for this: one coming from inside the city system and the second from outside it.
The internal one is the mechanism of regulating the density with the extension of the ‘normally’ grown city, which can be considered almost un-regulated in so far as any regulations respond to the needs of the community, rather than being arbitrarily imposed for the sake of an outside interest. This process can be compared, mutatis mutandis, to ‘natural selection’ in that the process of replacement is generally very slow and gradual, and only in specific historical circumstances becomes swift and accelerated.
European cities have been through three substantial reconstructions: one in the Middle Ages, when masonry buildings were substituted in the place of predominantly wooden ones; the second during the Renaissance, when the primitive accumulation of capital emerged as an urban condition; and the third as a result of the industrial revolution and accelerated urbanisation. In all cases these reconstructions involved changes of the urban texture, which means not only replacement of buildings, but also changes in the spatial organisation. On one hand, the external reason for reconstruction is constituted by the ‘need’ for architectural-urban statements of autocratic governments of all epochs. On the other hand, the tabula rasa approach of modern urbanism represents a similar ethos, where the architects and urbanists, bolstering a ‘scientific functionalism’ doctrine, assume the role of drastically reshaping the urban environment.
The Romans generally preferred to show respect for the settlements and buildings of the peoples they colonised, in an attempt to make them their allies, rather than reluctant, subjugated communities. But this is the exception, the opposite being the norm: the erasing of a community’s built form in order to replace it with symbols or legitimising expressions of power is an inherent manifestation of dominance. From the making of the Athenian agora, to Imperial Rome’s radical re-modelling of the city, to the Medieval and Baroque periods, examples abound. But it was really nineteenth century Paris that opened the way for autocratic invasive operations on a much grander scale: “in Haussmann, Napoleon III found the man and he himself supplied the necessary impetus and tyrannical power to carry the work through.” The three most notable monumental schemes within the historic urban fabric of capital cities of the twentieth century are the plans for Rome in 1920s-30s, Berlin in 1930s and finally Bucharest in 1980s. All three schemes have at their centre grand axes between monumental buildings, aptly called Via dell’ Impero in Rome, Avenue of Victory in Berlin and Victory of Socialism in Bucharest.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2018
EventEuropean Social Science History Conference - Queens University, Belfast, United Kingdom
Duration: 4 Apr 20188 Apr 2018


ConferenceEuropean Social Science History Conference
CountryUnited Kingdom

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