Following the industrial revolution, modern society began to move at a raging speed. The new productive processes, construction, material, and technology set the basis for becoming one of the most significant challenges of modernity: urbanization.
The demographics in cities rose exponentially around the 20th century as people moved from the countryside searching for jobs in the factories. The living conditions were poor, the rhythm of life asphyxiating, cities were not big enough, forcing people to settle in the peripheries. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the eye sat on the city’s perspective and how to make it a more liveable, healthier place. The Haussmann Plan and the Garden City Movement are examples of theorizations and practices that would mark urban development.
The Athens Charter, as we know it, is the decantation of the CIAM cumbre in 1933 in the hands of Le Corbusier ten years after its debate. Function, technical specification, zonification, and, finally, segregation characterized the document that would influence the post-war urban development around the globe, establishing the central problematics of modernity and how to approach them.
The Athens Charter
The Athens Charter was the first document that recognized the city as a complex economic, social, and political element, ruled by incipient industrialization in the 19th century. The Charter classifies the central problematics of modern cities, treating them individually in a cause consequence scheme to propose the best approach to modernity.
This topic will be one of the most controversial problems in modern urbanity. The Athens charter faces this problem from the health perspective, evidencing the risks of having houses located in unsanitary areas with poor topographic and climatic conditions where exposition to busy streets and insufficient green spaces lower populations standards of living. Mobility also appears problematic in functional terms such as distances from schools and services and congestion of the urban tissue resulting from a rising population density. The consequence was the appearance of suburban rings, unlinked and unrelated to the administrative city and therefore fostering segregation.
The Athens charter states that residential areas should occupy the best place in the city in terms of topography, climate, sunlight, etc.; setting the first category that defines it: zonification. This residential area stands out for its verticality: towering apartment buildings with studied lighting and ventilation will create the functional city’s skyline. At the pedestrian level, to ensure access to recreation and healthy green spaces, the measured distances between buildings should be wide enough to grant dwellers with these vast, green esplanades.
The lack of open spaces in the new modern industrial era brought about the determination to do all that it takes for “Built volumes” to “be intimately blended with the green areas surrounding them,” their distances studied in time to make it functional. The urban image will transform according to the sanitary bar. Green spaces will take slums in repurposed, functionally tagged open spaces to provide the required services to social necessities
The Charter makes critical observations towards the random, unplanned distribution of industries and the inefficiency of suburban and residential areas. With the Industrial Revolution’s peak, the new sectors set themselves near main roads and waterways for easy supply, leading to long, uncomfortable distances between city residences and workplaces. As cities packed up, saturated, suburbias developed nearby industries in condensed apartments in eternal shifts and poor conditions. Both alternatives seem precarious: endless hours of travel, over poor living conditions.
The solutions proposed are, to be fair, the most deductible ones: factories should be closer to residential areas, just enough to reduce travel distances, but not enough for it to break health standards, separated by green areas. However, they should remain close to railroads for supply, differing from workshops, that as a part of social urbanity, they deserve a VIP spot in the city tissue. The business district will confirm its area, inconstant and efficient communication with the industrial, residential, commercial spaces.
With wider morphologies and a renewed need for speed, modern vehicles could not exist alongside these medieval streets. The winding, uneven paths and interstitially caused by the railroad system made circulation an odyssey. The verdict called for traffic analysis to restructure its order, classified according to their use, and designed specifically to fit thir requirements. A fundamental premise was that pedestrian paths and roads should not relate; each track has its classification. Following this modern logic, heavy traffic routes were surrounded by green belts.
Brasilia: the Built Charter
Many cities during the 20th century adopted the charter ideals for their development. Brasilia’s case is as extreme as it is fascinating: built from scratch in record time, Lucio Acosta took it in his hands to design the ideal modern utopia.
During an interview, Chief Adviser on Architecture and Urbanism for London 2012 Olympics Burdett observed, “The problem is that it’s not a city. It’s that simple. The issue is not whether it’s a good city or a bad city. It’s just not a city. It doesn’t have the ingredients of a city: chaotic streets, people living above shops, and offices nearby!.” Urban distribution and organization underwent several studies to set the best orientation for residential areas in terms of natural light and ventilation and ensure practical use of topography and terrain, resulting in a cross-like organization building the future city’s boundaries.
Organized over two axes in the shape of a cross, Brasilia applies zonification by separating residential area from economic and political regions of the city: the vertical line hosted the administrative buildings, crowning within a triangular plaza where the National Congress Building, the presidential Palácio da Alvorada, and the Supreme Federal Court sit imponent, looking out on one another, critical of their work and conviction. As if bending under the will of power, the horizontal line is known as the “residential axis” turns. It meets the end of the vertical line; a strong gesture then segregated the virgin lands from the possible future functional city. Where the lines overlap, the city center arises.
This segregation met Le Corbusier’s expectations in terms of functionality and green areas; it complies with hygienic conditions proposed by the Charter. The unbreakable word of modern transportation linked these two axes; long routes crossed the distances between the residential area, surrounded by green areas, to the majestic administrative buildings designed by Oscar Niemeyer, places along with the administrative axis in green spaces, and to the ‘Praça dos Três Poderes’ (‘Plaza of the Three Powers’).
Brazil’s integration into the world’s economy brought about an internal migratory trend, where people moved into the modern industrialization built idea to participate in this booming industrial economy. This unexpected behaviour caused population density to grow to saturate the planned city, and suburbs spontaneously began to accommodate beyond the residential axis, unrelated in these “satellite cities,” turning the “a monocentric city” into a “model of polycentric occupation” (C. Costa, S. Lee, 2018)
Unwalkable distances through undesigned open spaces fragmented the city in a highway landscape with breathtaking architecture. The intervention of Burle Marx as a landscape artist did improve the image of the city. However, zonification eliminated any possibility of interaction between the dwellers and the city and the dwellers between themselves. As part of a more extensive process called the Highway National Plan, individual transport reigns over the communal social kingdom, where individuality is the enemy of social interactions. The open spaces that frame the city, supposed to be the nucleus of social interaction, proposed no more than un-perspective, enormous uncomfortable areas of land, in-hospital and unattractive.” It just doesn’t have the complexity of a typical city. It’s a sort of office campus for the government. […] People run away on Thursday evenings and go to Sao Paulo and Rio to have fun.”
As we have seen, the Athens Charter was very critical of the existing problems of industrial modernity. However, some of its proposals turn out to be contradictory. The Functional City, founded in a structure-based program and zoning, left nothing to spontaneity and uncertainty; quite a wrong move if we reconsider that, according to the Charter, the variables conformed to a city were indeed fluctuating. Another contradiction in this scheme is that green areas start the health plan to foster a real connection to nature. However, they behave as insulation for harmful gases from transport and industry.
Still, the fundamental problem with this clockwork utopia relies on the failure to see that “space is a social construction” (C. Costa, S. Lee, 2018). So much we talked about mobility, efficient distances, and links that they forgot that urbanity is what occurs when every part of the city can connect, and that includes the dwellers.
From a chronological perspective, it is only logical to expect rationalism in the boom of modernity, and Le Corbusier’s treaty is the written will of an era. As Jane Jacobs once said: “His conception, as an architectural work, had a dazzling clarity, simplicity, and harmony. It was so orderly, so visible, so easy to understand. It said everything in a flash, like a good advertisement…But as to how the city works, it tells, like the Garden City, nothing but lies.” (Jacobs, 1961, p. 23)
The Charter was controversial from the very beginning, not only it exposed the idea of a time, but it also set the bar for progress and analysis of the future of the cities. In its research article “New Urbanism in the New Urban Agenda: Threads of an Unfinished ReformationSecond text,” Michael W. Mehaffy * and Tigran Haas exposes the impact of the Athens Charter in the evolution of modern urban perspective and its revision from a renewed perspective.
The 1960s and beyond
As a result of the evident weaknesses of the Athens Charter and Le Corbusier’s vision, many reformers began to voice their criticisms begin- ning around 1960. In that year, the CIAM breakaway group known as Team 10 embraced a more ‘structuralist’ understanding of architecture as a setting for human life and culture.
They compare the Athens Charter to the ideals established during the new Urbanism and, consequently, the New Urban Agenda, exposing it as the first proposition that prepared the field for the others to learn from its mistake and make a fairer play the next time. Particularly they emphasize what they identified as six essential points that stand out between ideologies: o
- Mix of uses
- Walkable multi-modal streets (in place of functional segregation of streets and travel);
- Buildings defining public space (in place of open patterns of buildings and vegetation);
- Mix of building ages and heritage patterns(in place of demolition of most historic buildings);
- Co-production of the city by the citizens (in place of city creation solely by technical experts);
- The city as a self-organizing evolutionary structure (in place of the city as a static end state of design
Modern Urbanism gained a more humane perspective and thought of the city due to the development of urban life, not the latter. According to human scale, functionality and planning step back to give birth to more democratic spaces that foster community and integration. Spontaneity leaves room for diversity, making cities more complex, therefore culturally richer and higher quality. “Arbitrary constraints gave rise to flagrant injustices. Then the age of mechanism arose”.(Le Corbusier, 1973, para. 6) Le Corbusier stated, justifying the Chartes orientation towards zoning. However, the city’s structure arises from living patterns that, after analysis, result in a hybrid between technical expertise and real-life experience. This way, polysemic streets follow the prose of the dwellers and the historical background.
The pinpoint in health, lighting, ventilation, orientation, topography, and geological study remains essential in urban practice. Seeking to grant the population with the best quality of living, the city parks and recreational areas of free use in proximity of the residential regions become the scenery of social life. Open space design determines its limits, rather than conforming with being the residual space of towering architecture. The architecture will be the frame of urban photography, a background for the interaction of pedestrians and roads, commerces, restaurants, history, and ecology.
The Near Future: The case of “Her”
Situated in the near future, 2014 Spike Jonze’s movie “Her” pictures an urban utopia, a world of towering, glass buildings in a polished city that paints the idea of the future’s L.A. However, regardless of the mesmerizing cinematography and curated scenery, the movie introduces one of the most influential stars of the 21st century: technology.
“Her” can be an analysis of modern society, where interaction between individuals has been handed to the services of devices. Opposite to the common eye of future Urbanism in the film industry, Joze sets the idea of a friendly city, with a wide pedestrian street that crosses the town, density without saturation, a complete skyline that does not asphyxiate you on every step. “We took things away that were distracting. We took away noisy signage, traffic, the things that surround us in our current world, and by taking those things away, we said, ‘Oh, now we’re beginning to be in the future.'” The idea of the future is the result of “Cleaning up the present.”
It seems as if we were going down the road of synthesis and into a less compact, more communal world, where density is not a problem but a characteristic sorted out in vertical residences. The approach towards modernity resembles Le Corbusier’s theory of verticality as the response to density. Open spaces as the scenery of social interaction, modern materials without historical reference paint the landscape. However, the reformulation of these concepts reflects the possibility of a more human, flexible modernity.
The weight of open green spaces poses as more than unbuilt voids, but the one in charge of diluting the thick tissue and fostering integration and diversity in the glass city at ground floor level or green rooftops that look over the mesmerizing sea of glass and steel. Every interior is luminous and breaks the physical boundaries between the inside and the outside; hygienic, clean, colorful, modern interiors that resemble the 30’s in a hint of nostalgia to post-depression U.S. time. Walkable distances link the city in wide pedestrian streets that cross the town in different levels, disrupting the homogeneous, rational structure of the functional city, prevailing the urban experience over the rough lines of organization and structure.
Production designer KK Barret pointed out how the pedestrian development of Shanghai, a city that lent the background for future’s L.A., “eliminated the need for showing traffic” (A. Steffen, 2016) for cars remit to the era of industrial growth and capitalism, the real dwellers of the functional industrial city. In “Her”‘s future, cars are not needed: train or subways efficiently cover the un-walkable distances in a short time in a sustainable, healthier, and ecological way, eliminating rush hour traffic, CO2 emissions and improving functionality without disrupting social life. The utopia of “Her” is an operation of “addition and subtraction.”(A. Satffton, 2016)
Functionality poses a redefined yet important topic in the film: our character, Theodore, finds himself constantly connected to his presence as if a functioning machine, dictating to its computer in this keyboardless future, chatting in sleepless nights, or playing videogames. He moves around the city fluidly, either as an aimless wanderer in a city of non-blinding light or an individual in a hygienic, uncluttered train.
The exciting thing about this movie is how technology poses as an extension of humanity: despite being constantly introverted in his conversation with Samantha, Theodore rarely looks at his phone. His mind may be addressing technology, but he is fully aware of its surroundings, of people, and the city.
Berret talks about a “future that is around the corner, rather than some distant time where the audience would marvel at all the changes. It often takes just a couple of altered conceits to shed a different light on society.”
And the truth is, theoretically was not wrong.
The city proposed by Barret in “Her” resembles what J.ACEbillo defines as ‘Cybord city,’ meaning “the notion that cities are seamlessly mediated by technological and cybernetic systems which completely mediate the city’s relation to society, culture, and nature.” (J.ACEbillo, 2020) In his work “Disruptive Urbanism: Glocal Urbanity,” he depicts the complexity of the cities of the future as an evolution of the ‘modern-industrial urban model’ by proposing 52 points to consider conceptions of new urban models and their relation and possible solutions.
Despite recognizing, as the Athens Charter did, the city as a socio-political, economical, technologically dependent paradigm, the author prises before changing any of these variables the urban model obsolete in need of a reformulation. The Charter set the basis for the emerging reality of the time, but times have changed, and the game has changed; therefore, it needs different cards.
The following chart shows how the future city reformulates industrial modernity’s past propositions in seeking new answers.
If we attend the case of “Her,” we can already perceive the amalgamation of that near future to requirements. A complex tissue of towering buildings in a technologic, practical, urban future where public spaces organize social life responding to mobility and density requirements. Brazilia, on the other hand, is the will of the old modern-industrial urban model. Bearing in mind that “Her” is a cinematography utopia result of an extensive landscape study and curation, it would not be fair to compare its products in urban matters with Brazilia, an existing city with veridic history and urban complexity. Still, attending to the chart, we can observe how the theory of the left column pose, when looking at actual life practice, an unachievable utopia.
This work depicts a thorough analysis of urban demographics and factors of change. Unfortunately, we won’t be able to focus on them all. We will focus on the most direct influences of globalization, the star of modern society: an ecological perspective, multiculturalism, identity, mobility, and technology.
Like the phenomenon of preexisting streets in the Charter, the existing city cannot foster the overflowing mobility our everyday lives demand. According to the statistics, “people’s mobility in 2050 will be 3 to 4 times greater than in 2000; and goods mobility will be 2.5 to 3.5 times greater.” (J.ACEbillo, 2020), forcing us to rethink our means of transporting and organizing our cities. Maybe Barret’s L. A could grant the solution to this conflict.
Apart from being uncomfortable and inconvenient, the proliferation of cars is a crucial contributor to the ecological crisis. The author states that ecology must be conceived as a philosophy and not as a marketing brand, emphasizing each city’s individuality and the need for each of them to find a system they find more suitable for each. He understood, differently from Le Corbusier, that every city is different and emerges from cultural, social development, and therefore, there are no universal responses.
Globalization also enhanced the diversity phenomenon. Diversity was seen as a conflict back in the 1930s, for diversity meant complexity, which difficulties the task of organization, bringing about chaos. The present case is quite the opposite: yes, diversity means complexity, but complexity brings about interaction, enhancing the quality of a city. Diversity opposes the slavery and segregation system in which modern cities were built, fostering cultural growth with the background of a safe, friendly, walkable city.
Technology will be our last topic, being the most disruptive element of the 21st century. As the author mentions, “the urban must also be considered a socio-technical process,” as social life divides into the physical and virtual cities. Technological advances menace with revolutionizing society as we know it the same way industrial development did: nanotechnology, robotic, biological technologies, artificial intelligence will be a turning point in cultural, social dynamics, bringing about restructuration in the human, economic, political issues. The Network society widens the effect of ICT dynamics, consequently adding to the cultural impact, conforming to the “fourth power.” By Network society, we refer to a new socio-economic paradigm that links economy, community, and culture in a new relationship between production and consumption, making the new global culture in the new space-time relationship.
Suppose we pay attention to social dynamics in “Her.” In that case, it is noticeable the predominance of technological stimuli in every aspect of human life, from the dissolving of bureaucracy in more efficient workplaces to propaganda, holographic entertainment, artificial intelligence, even love.
The truth is that it is impossible to predict precisely the evolution of a city, for urbanity is a complex mechanism composed of millions of individuals that add their grain of sand to the world every day. Therefore every theory is utopic. The key is in understanding the unpredictability of the variables and designing for the people and the people.
The Athens Charter influenced the past with what they needed: a bit of certainty in a world of uncertainty, of the sea of endless possibilities; they designed what they considered would be more suitable for societies with no direction. In the present, we still deal with the relics of the Charter and the consequences they brought about in their over functionality. However, its revision gives us something to hold on to, taking concepts such as orientation, ventilation, open spaces, security, and order to reinterpret and apply in this new technological, multicultural, complex reality that we call a city.
- Acebillo, J. (2020) Disruptive Urbanism: Glocal Urbanity. ActarD edition.
- Costa C., Lee S., (2019) The Evolution of Urban Spatial Structure in Brasília: Focusing on the Role of Urban Development Policies. MDPI Sustainability pg. 1-21
- Mehaffy, M.W, Haas T, (2020) NewUrbanism in the New Urban Agenda: Threads of an Unfinished Reformation. Urban Planning (ISSN: 2183–7635) Volume 5, Issue 4, Pages 441–452.
- Banjerji R., (2012) Niemeyer’s Brasilia: Does it work as a city? [online] BBC World Service [Accessed Thursday 6 May2021] URL: https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20632277
- Steffen A. (2015) Designing the future of “Her” [online] The Nearly Now [Accessed Wednesday 5 May 2021] URL:https://thenearlynow.com/designing-the-future-of-her-b865347a8895
- Hawthorne C. (2014) Spike Jonze’s ‘Her’ a refreshingly original take on a future L.A. [online] Los Angeles Times [Accessed Wednesday 5May 2021] URL: https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-xpm-2014-jan-18-la-et-cm-her-architecture-notebook-story.html