Technocratic Design

November 2, 2009

Somewhat frightening that my first post was linked to from a serious urban design and planning blog, La Ciudad Viva, based in the Andalusia region of Spain.  I guess they didn’t realize I’m only a grad student who hasn’t even told his friends about his blog yet!

But whether I like it or not, Manu Fernandez linked to my post on Charter Cities from his commentary Ojalá el desarrollo urbano fuera tan sencillo.  Something like “If only urban development were that simple” … my thoughts exactly.  With the help of a little machine translation I can get a sense of his argument, and it’s obvious what he’s getting at where he quotes me on el diseño tecnocrático.

That got me thinking about technocratic design, and a man often associated with, or blamed for it.

While Le Corbusier is generally looked upon more favorably by architects than by urban designers or geographers, the conventional view of his oeuvre might be:  “great houses … cities a colossal failure and nefarious curse on 20th century urbanism.”  While there is some truth to that, in many interesting respects the various scales of design he pursued were all part of the same project.  Both houses and cities were based on a sort of modern cosmology of rather abstracted concepts drawn from the natural world, like greenery and sky, light and form, the human body and the horizon.  The degree of abstraction was part of the problem, but in any case what was brilliantly realized in a few individual houses was a fantasy at the scale of the city.

Le Corbusier, ville radieuse analytical section

As a technocrat, or would-be designer for technocrats, Corb was not very successful.  Attempts to obtain funding to realize his ambitious urban proposals fell flat.  The only exception, Chandigarh, was a job he got by a fluke. He was more opportunist than Heroic Creator of the Future, and that may have been because, not in spite of his high-minded cosmological abstractions.

Today we see those high aims of Modernism as at best misguided, at worst a Utopian fantasy or pretext for capitalism and totalitarianism alike.  By comparison the charter cities idea has no pretext whatsoever:  this is the city as economic instrument, the city produced by a certain economic system.  Presumably they’d bring in some urban planners of a quantitative orientation to lay out densities, zoning, and so on.  Later architects of the same bent to slap together class-A office space, standard manufacturing facilities, housing of one type for the managers and another for the plebes.  Toward the end some “design architects” to add a little styling, at least in parts of the city intended for the technocratic elite.

That’s technocratic design. Actually how “global cities” are produced already (at least parts of them), and charter cities just a proposal to do it in an more organized way from scratch.

While a hubristic desire to start from a clean slate was also characteristic of Modernist urbanism, this was not merely technocratic like the charter cities concept. The original motives may be similar (and admirable):  an acceptance of the fact of modernization with a desire to lessen its harmful effects and spread its benefits to a greater proportion of the population. But consider the other things being aimed at in Utopian planning, things like a harmonious society, a healthy, beautiful daily life, a deeper spiritual meaning.  The proposals may have been misguided, unrealistic, naive – but the point is, Corb et al. didn’t pull these high-flown ideas out of thin air. Cities have always had purposes other than economic … just like human beings.[1]

With the slightest attention to cities as social and cultural products, or even just cities as being very complex and difficult to completely grasp,[2] the charter cities proposal appears doubly misguided.  The narrow focus on the economic is a simplistic, reductionist view of cities and indeed of human existence.  The clean-slate planning that would (in theory) make this possible is a denial of the sine qua none of the built environment – that the slate is never clean.[3]

A cursory familiarity with the history of Modernist architecture and urbanism makes these criticisms obvious.  That they are apparently not obvious to many may be due in part to “modernism” being thought of as an applied style, drained of political content.


[1] I’m not arguing that we should revive discredited all-encompassing ways of understanding the world (“master narratives” as a postmodernist would say), but that we should avoid embracing another one, where money is the measure of all things

[2] As seen in concepts like “everyday urbanism” and “loose space” which help us see how people occupy cities in ways often at odds with the designers’ intentions.

[3] Not that a clean slate approach can’t ever be a useful design strategy, as a kind of brainstorming, but the charter city proposal is so literal, as if it could all happen next year if only Bill Gates signed on.

2 Responses to “Technocratic Design”

  1. Frightnening? That´s the funny thing of blogs, and secret blogs for friends are great. Mine was secret for a long time.


  2. alex Says:

    Gracias Manu. Not really frightening but very public. But that’s the point, because it forces me to write more carefully.

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