Other Cities, Other Worlds: Urban Imaginaries in a Globalizing Age

Other Cities, Other Worlds: Urban Imaginaries in a Globalizing Age

by Andreas Huyssen (Editor)

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ISBN-13: 9780822342717
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 11/11/2008
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Andreas Huyssen is the Villard Professor of German and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. His books include Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory and Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia. He is a founding member and co-editor of New German Critique: An Interdisciplinary Journal of German Studies, also published by Duke University Press.

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ISBN: 978-0-8223-4271-7

Chapter One

Beatriz Sarlo



The occupation of the plains along the coastline of the Río de la Plata took three centuries. But after the civil wars, after the genocide that deprived the last of the pre-Hispanic inhabitants of their lands or slaughtered them in the 1880s, and after the defeat of traditional social fractions in the provinces followed by the violent unification of national territory in the last third of the nineteenth century, Buenos Aires entered into an original process of growth and consolidation. In the first year of the twentieth century a popular magazine, Caras y Caretas, stated that the city had dramatically changed over the course of five years. The remark was accurate: a wide, mile-long avenue had been layed out leading from the government house to the House of Congress. In a city that had been but a village in the nineteenth century this amounted to a decisive urban intervention. In less than a century Buenos Aires had not only emerged as a built city but had also decided what form it would take: a grid of identical blocks, regular quadrangles of a hundred meters on each side. It was a city plan that homogenized all urban space.

Buenos Aires was an international city from the very beginning of this modernization process, which had begun during the last three decades of the nineteenth century. The projects for the modern Buenos Aires combined models from different European sources. Paris was never the only ideal of the elites, though they did design their hôtels de ville in the Beaux Arts style. For the most part, public buildings did not present the imprint of a dominant French style; their façades showed the aesthetic consequences of neoclassicism, Italian style, art deco, and even expressionism and modernism. Erected in the 1930s, the Obelisk, a symbol of the city, is a discreet modernist object, white, squared, innocent of the imperial grandeur of the French obelisks. Against the commonplace many times repeated, Paris was not the only European model. It was, certainly, an urban myth: a system of images and a dream that in twentieth-century popular culture resonates with the modern myth that is New York. An American imaginary developed in Buenos Aires under the European imaginary and the boastful claims of the Argentine elites.

When Le Corbusier visited Buenos Aires in 1929, he was struck by the originality of the small homes built by immigrant Italian maestros, modest houses that combined simple geometric forms. He admired their classical and at the same time modern image, which resulted from the local application of pure forms simplified by poverty and a lack of craftsmanship. He also pointed out that, unlike many European cities with an emblematic river (Rome, London, Florence, Paris, Budapest, Prague), Buenos Aires had turned its back to the river so that it could neither be seen nor reached by its inhabitants. Both traits, for Le Corbusier, pointed toward the local inflection of the imported projects.

What Le Corbusier pointed out is true. Without reflecting the image of any European city in particular, Buenos Aires is composed of fragments taken from many of them and distorted or recomposed in the Río de la Plata. The wide avenues remind one of Madrid, Barcelona's ensanche, and Parisian boulevards; the Teatro Colón was built alla italiana, as was the national government palace; the first skyscraper reminds one of Chicago, and the second and third bear the traits of modernism; the railway stations were built in an "English" cottage style, and the central station of Retiro resonates with the main forms of steel-and-glass industrial architecture. The city zoo combines a mixture of styles that mirror the city's eclectic quotations: Norman pavilions, pagodas, hothouses that copy those of the Universal Exhibitions, Japanese bird cages, and Roman temples.

Argentine culture is deeply embedded in translation, but the idioms it translates derive from almost every point of Western Europe. Its cultural mixture has diverse origins. The comparison between Buenos Aires and Paris (a comparison that does not come to the mind of a Parisian) reflects the desire that moved the cultural will of the elites. Were these men asked about it, they would have said that Paris was the city they most admired. But this rather inevitable choice-Paris was the city most admired around the world-met natural limits and economic conditions that modified the initiatives and prevented the modernization project from copying a single ideal model. The elites wanted a city that could provide a metropolitan pole and a modern townscape, and they pursued this to the greatest extent possible given the limits of their ideology, the principles of contemporary urbanism, and the money they had available for public investment.

The originality of the city imagined and, partly, built by the elites is rooted in a combination of different technological, urban, and aesthetic models. As with Argentine culture as a whole, the originality of Buenos Aires lies in the individual elements that form the mixture, captured, transformed, and deformed by a huge system of translation. Buenos Aires is a translation from many languages and urban texts in conflict, a translation that bears the distortions of American space and social reality. It results from imitation as much as it does from bricolage and recycling.

Buenos Aires was built according to European models that, paradoxically, solved non-European problems, because modern Buenos Aires, unlike cities in the Old World, began almost from scratch. The immense Río de la Plata washes the low coast of the immense plains, which are monotonous and not very attractive as a natural landscape. Along the river there once stood a bunch of old colonial buildings, with little aesthetic value and no character, which were demolished during the first decade of modernization; some old criollo mansions that, with their patios and open galleries, were more charming than refined; and two or three colonial churches that were among the humblest of those built by the Spaniards in Latin American capital cities. In the Río de la Plata region the Spanish colony was poor and did not flourish in the style of baroque artifice of the great viceroyal capitals of the New World such as Lima, Bogotá, or México. The colonial buildings that survive in Buenos Aires are modest examples of neoclassicism or very simple baroque churches. There was no court architecture or mestizo art because there were no flourishing native cultures in the territories south of the Alto Perú.

On this ground, deprived of the rich documents of colonial history, Buenos Aires invented itself from scratch. To this historical vacuum (a sort of original sin of the city), the wide plain added a symbolic and material emptiness that could be sublime even though it was never seen as picturesque and only rarely as beautiful. As late as 1930, when Buenos Aires was the most important city in Latin America, an Italian visitor wrote, "Buenos Aires is a slice of pampa translated into a city." He was right, because the plain had been overlaid by the geometric principle of the regular urban grid.

The regularity of this grid was often remarked on by European travelers and Argentine intellectuals, all of whom shared the opinion that Buenos Aires was monotonous to a degree. Returning from Europe in the second decade of the twentieth century, the novelist Manuel Gálvez fell into despair at finding a city that avoided all picturesque beauty and lacked the local color of the Spanish villages he had visited. Buenos Aires's modernity had been achieved through the regularity of a project deprived of cultural spontaneity and popular character. By comparing Buenos Aires with European cities, Gálvez was unable to recognize that, from a technical point of view, the monotony of the city grid embodied a trait of modernity absent from many of the Spanish and Italian towns he had visited.

At that time, Buenos Aires was a state-of-the-art city. It had the first line of subway trains in Latin America (built in 1913), up-to-date port facilities, paved streets, public parks designed by landscape architects, huge public buildings, sewers, telephones, and electricity. Unique to the city was the fact that these services were evenly distributed according to a socially balanced pattern that reached the poor as well as the wealthy neighborhoods. The street grid was a rational solution for disciplining urban growth, not only as an instrument of control but also as a symbolically unifying ideal. It also served as a pattern for the extension of services and technologies. But it seemed to have no picturesque potential or the ability to produce majestic perspectives.

Jorge Luis Borges was perhaps the only Argentine writer who grasped the quality of the modern in this city, with its geometrical expansion of streets extending toward the horizon. In 1921 he returned from Europe, where he had spent seven years, and before 1930 he had published his first three books of poems and his first three books of essays. In many of these early pieces he saw in the long straight streets the platonic form of the modern city. In 1923 he wrote,

The poor neighborhood is a reflection of our weariness. My steps weakened Trying to reach the horizon; And I remained among the houses, The square blocks, Different and all alike As if they were repeated remembrances Of a single city-block.

A tedious linear sameness of streets intersecting at right angles defines the physiognomy of Buenos Aires. A "single block," writes Borges, offers the essential image of the city. Vis-à-vis the surrounding plain, the grid is an adequate response to the simple coordinates of the pampas. Buenos Aires is the geometric border of the plain.

And the chance of the pampas in the horizon and the wasteland that flows in grass and hedges; and the pulpería, so clear as yesterday's moon, looks familiar as a remembrance of the street corner.

Borges, cleverly, understood that even if Buenos Aires was not surrounded By a picturesque landscape, the city should not aim to overcompensate for this imperfection with an architectural search for a character that would contradict its milieu and destiny. In that same decade of the 1920s Borges produced one of the basic ideologemes of his literature; he coined an image-"las orillas" (the border, the edge)-that represents Buenos Aires's geographical situation and also the Argentine writer's place in reference to European culture. Buenos Aires is a border to the plains, the limit and margin where the pampas touch the city and the city establishes its relation with its hinterland. This marginal condition (in Spanish the adjective could be orillero, which also conveys boldness, even criminality) can be thought of as characteristic of a city built in the nineteenth century at the most remote point of America, finis terrae. Buenos Aires, the border, the last limit in front of the vacuum of the ocean that severs it from Europe while allowing it to communicate with Europe.

At the end of the 1940s, another writer, Héctor Murena, published a book, America's Original Sin, in which he developed the idea of a city as finis terrae. The main thesis is as simple as the plot of a tragedy. In Europe men live on a territory over which history has deposited its layers. Working his field, the plowman cuts furrows into the layers of soil, which carry the memories of centuries. The earth has been humanized because it has been occupied by generation upon generation. As immigrants arrived in Argentina, they used to repeat, "In my homeland, I was raised in a house where there stood the bed and the table used by my forefathers." Murena felt that the American difference consisted of being deprived of the density of the past. The Europeans that came to America abandoned places where it was possible to find meaning and established themselves in a wasteland empty of civilization and devoid of temporality. They could not and did not desire to construct communities where the experiences could count as history and memory. They built cities and societies overnight, cities that were completely turned toward the future, societies that had no link to tradition. The American condition was, thus, to be expelled from a world of meaning that had accumulated through the centuries. Certainly, Murena had read some Heidegger.

Borges's idea of Buenos Aires is not as pessimistic as Murena's. He is less tragic and more conflictive. He understands the contradiction between different cultures, a contradiction that has not been resolved, but that does not amount solely to a fault, an imperfection, or a loss. For Borges, Buenos Aires is geographically and symbolically an edge, that is to say, a space that does not resolve itself on one side or the other, a line that folds and unfolds differences, but that also puts those differences into contact and communicates with them. In other words, it is a frontier in the margin.

It was a peripheral modernity, brutal, reckless toward its inheritance, as all modernity was at some point. Above all, it was peripheral, claiming a recognition to which it was not fully entitled. But in the 1930s the development of the city was an impulse that promised not to be stopped. The construction of the city had something beautiful in its disorder. As Robert Arlt observed in 1929, "As on a stage, when lights are out and the props are left to themselves, there are houses cut in two, halls and rooms where the city-works have been left untouched, as by a miracle, a rectangle of wall-paper or a tableau from 'La vie Parisienne.' Steel and concrete structures seem more beautiful than a woman. Sewers. City-lights titillating in basements of yellow mud; the crunching and mumbling of an electric machine." Arlt was describing a city in the making.

That Arlt compared Buenos Aires with a stage was quite meaningful. The city was being built at a frenetic pace that paradoxically responded also to an urban project, as if it should be ready for the next day's rehearsal. Buenos Aires was changing almost overnight: its streets were widened, and whole blocks of ancient buildings were torn down, becoming modern ruins; the new diagonal avenues introduced an almost expressionist perspective. The stage of a modern metropolis stems from an act of urban will and cultural improvisation. Buenos Aires was an explosion of history.

Writers like Roberto Arlt and Oliverio Girondo presented this new city through the techniques of collage. As for the European avant-garde, the city was not a continuum of time and space, but a montage of fragmentary images. In the 1920s and 1930s modernity's technical and communicational effects provoked a broken temporal experience and produced the impression that the city had no usable past: everything could be torn down and novelty was the only worthwhile quality to be sought. Buenos Aires had changed so fast that there had been no time to erase the scars of what it had been. As in a theater, the city-works went on night and day, finding only weak obstacles in the city grid.

Buenos Aires's simple geometricity impressed many visiting foreigners. In 1888 a Frenchman, Émile Daireaux, wrote, "Completely straight, the streets extend limitless.... I was taken by a sort of melancholy feeling walking along rows of houses that produce the effect of having been already seen." Daireaux came from a country that had reformed its capital, Paris, according to the modern urban principles espoused by Baron Haussmann. But Haussmann's intervention took place on a built city, carrying the marks of a very long history. Parisian boulevards gave some regularity to a city that by and large did not lose its historical landmarks. Buenos Aires, on the contrary, lacked historical style: its style was to be found not in the past, but in the future.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction: World Cultures, World Cities / Andreas Huyssen 1

Latin America

Cultural Landscapes: Buenos Aires from Integration to Fracture / Beatriz Sarlo 27

From Modernism to Neoliberalism in São Paulo: Reconfiguring the City and Its Citizens / Teresa P. R. Caldeira 51

Mexico City, 2010: Improvising Globalization / Néstor García Canclini 79


The Last Shall Be First: African Urbanites and the Larger Urban World / AbdouMaliq Simone 99

Unsettling Johannesburg: The Country in the City / Hilton Judin 121

Mega-exhibitions: The Antinomies of a Transnational Global Form / Okwui Enwezor 147


Mumbai: The Modern City in Ruins / Gyan Prakash 181

Negotiating the Static and Kinetic Cities: The Emergent Urbanism of Mumbai / Rahul Mehrotra 205

Remapping Beijing: Polylocality, Globalization, Cinema / Yingjin Zhang 219

Faking Globalization / Ackbar Abbas 243

Middle East

Two Dreams in a Global City: Class and Space in Urban Egypt / Farha Ghannam 267

Hüzün—Melancholy—Tristesse of Istanbul / Orhan Pamuk 289

Bibliography 307

Contributors 321

Index 325

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Other Cities, Other Worlds: Urban Imaginaries in a Globalizing Age 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
bruchu on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Canclini and Prakesh are Good but Skip the RestA very promising collection of essays that unfortunately disappoints. There are only 2 or 3 essays worth reading, the 3 on Latin America and especially the one on Mexico from Canclini, also the essay by Gyan Prakash on Mumbai is worth reading as well. The introduction written by Huyssen is also decent.The essays were part of a symposium in 2001-2002 on globalization and its effect on urbanization of the peripheries. Part of the problem is that the essays are somewhat dated in this post-911 era, but also some of the essays lack the academic rigor one would expect from such a volume.Overall, I would download the select essays, especially the ones by Canclini and Prakesh and skip this book. Good concept, just not that well written in most cases.