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5 December 2003

The Sprawling City

André Corboz


Published in the exhibition catalogue Cities: from balloon to satellite, CCCB 1994


In less than two centuries, towns and cities in the Western world, and metropolises in the Third world have totally changed in character whilst their mental depiction has hardly varied. For almost all their inhabitants, effectively, the town is above all a centre or, in other words, a highly individualised unit with a great deal of architectural consistency which opposes rural areas yet exercises territorial functions. Thus, a true town is one that possesses a historical depth; it is defined by high density, contiguous buildings of uniform shape, with some public buildings being the only exceptions. This concept is supported by the aesthetics of harmony which comes from ancient times via the Renaissance period (which gave the large axes and triumphal symmetry of an ideal of order) or the Middle Ages via Romanticism (which, on the contrary, gave curves, irregularity and a diversity of surprising effects).

Even though such a depiction ―more often subconscious than not― is difficult to reconcile with large contemporary conglomerations, it still lasts as an example of nostalgia. Because everything or almost everything that has been done in the field of urban planning and development since the industrial revolution has been received with either defiance or hostility. Worse still, we overestimate the old town without even realising that we would probably be unable to stand the social and religious control that more often than not reigned there. Neither would we be able to put up with the severe lack of comfort levels which was the lot of the large majority of its inhabitants, nor the lack of food or medical care, to say nothing of the stench.

When towns were still units defined by a wall or fortified ramparts, the awareness of creating a particular urban being spoke for itself: the town stood out from the surrounding territory and exercised legal domination over the countryside everywhere. Besides, the aim of urban iconography was to assert the image of the power, richness, beauty and glory of the city it represented. The aim of collections of views from the Supplementum Chronicarum by Foresti (1486) to la Topographie by Merian (1642) via Liber Chronicarum by Schedel (1493), the Civitas Orbis Terrarum by Braun and Hogenberg (1572), and Cosmographie by Münster (1628), as well as the portrayals of towns and the first models, was none other than a rhetorical one: they only have to be compared to find that they are not faithful representations; they are simply flattering ones, thus their interpretation becomes somewhat delicate.

Urban iconography, which originates with general views, only begins to pay attention to main roads and major buildings at the beginning of the 18th century. Its images are still not "objective": either painting and printing carry on in the celebrated tradition or artists make use of the views to level criticism at the existing town. An Englishman who arrives in Rome very enthusiastic about the Piranese engravings feels as if he has been cheated because the ruins in the illustrations are much more majestic than the real ruins. And, in Canaletto's case, what was taken almost to be photography before the advent of the technique (because the precision of execution was mistaken for the exactness of development), turns out to be largely manipulated when analyzed; Canaletto modifies what he sees to show what he would like to see: generous, better articulated open spaces. He is not an exception among the "védutistes", since Zocchi in Florence or Vasi in Rome do not cease to intervene in the town they are painting in order to alter it ―if only on paper― to match the ideals that the dawn of Neoclassicism and hygienics, in other words the spirit of the Enlightenment, define in terms of urban quality.

Rome or Paris were never, then, recorded as they really were (although one must admit that this does indeed make some sense). They were put on show: the iconography sifted out the pertinent traits, united them or separated them to give them a meaning ―emphasising one element here and there and playing down or deleting another― and carefully chose the perspectives.

One is tempted to believe that this perpetual modification of reality with an adulatory or didactic aim ceases with the invention of the photograph, since an automatic imaging process of things visibly real was at long last available. Despite that, however, the opportunity to use the technique was shelved. For a long period of time, tradition proved to be stronger than the chemically captured image. Even though the first photograph taken from a balloon (by Nadar) dates back to 1858, almost all the aerial views of towns published in the 19th century are simply images that give the impression of having been sketched from an aerostat. Even if the titles of the prints or the albums specify that they have been taken from a balloon (or indeed a parachute!), they would actually have been fabricated from the ground. Once again they belong to a multi-secular tradition, that of the bird's-eye view. Their archetype? The famous "perspective map" by Jacopo de Barbari (1500) that portrays Venice from the south-west: this image is a collage of partial drawings from high points (bell-towers), assembled and coordinated with the aid of sort of cavalier perspective. As the Venetian exploit was not within the grasp of just anybody, the views inspired on it were little more than an empirical combination of a map of the town and street elevations in accordance with the old principle of superposed registers.

In 19th century lithographs that show towns as seen from above, initially it is the realistic character of the images that is startling even though they still portray them as being exceptional. In fact, they no longer take recourse to the presentation techniques that had been followed up till then. Despite the altitude from which the site is contemplated (between 100 and 200 metres, it seems), these prints often present unanticipated details in their fore and backgrounds: they bear witness to the fact that the place is not stagnant in a time period: it is painted in its most recent and resplendent state. The arteries of the open spaces are buzzing with pedestrians, vehicles and activity, all going to prove how dynamic it is.

These views are also as ideological as the previous ones, but they obey a new rule of sensitivity. However, the image, rather than exalt the unique character of each particular town, now lauds a town's modernity. Something which is incessantly repeated in the albums and prints by Guesdon, Arnout, Fichot, Müller, Borchel or Veith, like in the numerous views of American towns drawn from the sky and put together by John. W. Reps, is the superiority of contemporary urban culture. The view from above is formidably optimistic.

This modernity is above all a technique. The new "view-capturers" ―Alfred Guesdon being the most renowned of them all― choose a point of view that allows them to emphasise any industrial or at least contemporary machinery in the foreground: thus the station in Barcelona, or the port with its steamships, or the military port in Cherbourg (a glimpse of the town itself can only just be caught), or the merchant port in Nantes or Boulogne-sur-Mer, and also the arsenal in Rennes (where the town acts as a background) or even the panoptic prison like in Alessandria. It is even more surprising that the catalogued towns can be distinguished today, to our eyes, by their historic character: depicting Helvetic towns by stressing their stations (like in Basle, Berne, Geneva or Zurich) incites provocation. That works well for an American town like, for example, Boston, where such a view (Bachmann, 1877) portrays four stations and eight metal bridges in the foreground. But Guesdon treats ancient towns known to us in much the same way: Rome, where a clearly visible steam boat is sailing along the Tiber, or Sienna, where the railway installations are invested with as much importance as the city hall and the cathedral put together. More examples could easily be given. And if there is nothing very contemporary worth accentuating, then the balloon itself takes pride of place.

But modernity is distinguished more by the transformations it imposes on the urban fabric. If fortifications still exist, yet something new ―even if it is just a promenade― has developed outside the walls, then it is this new item that appears at the bottom of the image. The ideal case is offered when the enclosing wall is brought to the ground, thus making room for new areas: the view of Vienna in 1877 is obviously influenced by the Ring; those too of Geneva, which stress the buildings of Cornavin and the Place Neuve (the interest for this mutation was such that new prints appeared as building progressed).

The insistence on the foreground more often than not relegates the historical centre to the background of the image so that it only has to be portrayed in a global fashion. In that, there is undeniably an indirect criticism of the existing town, prolonging the criticism that the 18th century had levelled towards it: despite the partial interventions by the absolute monarchs, the town's inheritance from the Middle Ages is insalubrious, impractical, ugly and therefore messy. Modern quarters, on the other hand, are conceived in accordance with the rules of a brand new discipline, that of hygienics; their exemplary character must therefore be emphasised.

Just one city, or at least one of the very few, escapes the erasure of its centre. And that city is Paris, because the French capital has benefitted from courageous vision and provided the means necessary for a total restructuring programme. On several occasions, before 1860 and in 1889, at the time of the universal exposition, Paris is the object of spectacular images showing the Louvre-Etoile axis from both directions, the city furthermore being portrayed with as many boulevards as possible.

Political modernity is added to this technological modernity, and the liberal doctrines made restructuring possible. Initially, during the first half of the 19th century approximately, the "laisser faire, laisser passer" idea is propagated and imposed, an idea which is thought to assure general prosperity. Due to the force of various factors, principally the rural exodus, the reduction of infant mortality and the development of transport, towns begin to swell, overflow and spread out over the surrounding territory. They do so in an almost totally anarchical manner, not simply because of the investment and real estate speculation that provides the drive behind their expansion and the non-existent urban planning regulations, but also because wild liberalism forbids the councillors, also very attached to their deep-rooted principles, the use of expropriation orders. According to the prevailing ideas, towns should even get rid of land that belongs to them, a piece of advice that they followed hastily. Such premises led to chaos, but chaos has been considered a sign of health for a very long time. A few years later, the Darwin essays (Origin of the Species published in 1859) seemed to bring scientific reason to the law of the jungle that governed the town and, in general, to colonial endeavour, a demonstration of the superiority of Whites in whose favour natural selection would have played its role.

In Great Britain, the misery of the industrial towns was the topic of many frightening reports from 1830 onwards, the most famous of which was the one written by Engels about the situation of the English working class (1845), which particularly describes the inhumane, animal-like conditions of proletarian housing (to put it nicely, because at least livestock was valued, unlike the human being in overpopulated conditions who lacked education). The left-wing stemmed from the analysis of the working conditions in towns, whether reformist socialists or communists, whose ideologies overlapped somewhat. The left-wing proclaimed the need to take control over urban spread by expropriating land and making it public. Whilst the right-wing understood the impasse of the laissez-faire philosophy, it would borrow the very same principles from it as a means of authoritarian planning. Its first generalised intervention programme went straight to the point: Napoleon III, aided by Eugène Haussmann, superimposed a public highways plan on the French capital which was largely independent of the existing network; partly adapting itself to previous projects, he reconstructed the most run down parts of Paris; after his fall, the Third Republic carried on with his work and the Parisian exemplum was copied all over Europe where so many municipalities still revered Haussmanisation right up to the Thirties of the 20th century.

Parisian iconography is witness to this enthusiasm for the sprawling city that influenced both artists and technocrats at that time. The very organisation of the images goes to prove it. Although claiming to be "designed around nature", they are pure constructions, pure assemblies and, at best, pure reconstructions. The expression "around nature" had already been used extensively (Besançon Library possesses an album by Hubert Robert entitled Raccolta di vedute designate dal vero, even though it is a collection of caprices); therefore it is necessary to understand that the materials are "taken from nature" and nothing more. They serve as a tectonic reading of urban space. The town, as seen from a height chosen in relation to its surface, yet always at a minimal angle, obeyed a rule of perspective representation or of something evoking perspective (this comes from the reduction of size depending on distance).

Thus, from high places, but especially with the aid of maps and numerous detailed sketches (as demonstrated by Albert Garcia Espuche in his view of Barcelona), Alfred Guesdon forges an image of the whole which he then coordinates from a point that does correspond to traditional iconography ones: in Venice, for example, he situates himself above the St. Simeon Piccolo and looks towards the Adriatic; similarly in Pisa, he situates himself in the north for the first time to portray ―facing the sun!― the Campo dei Miracoli, whilst the city itself acts as the background.

These views are generally readable as far as the eye can see. This is another inheritance from the Enlightenment. Their elements are scaled down in the distance and, if possible, without any continuity between the foreground and the backgrounds. The town is therefore linked to the land (like the view of Berne from the west, where the road section is followed by lanes flanked by trees in a countryside which has not yet been urbanised). Leonardo Benevolo has recently devoted a piece of work to the Baroque period's attempts to organise the landscape through rectilinear axes stretched out over kilometres and dispersed poles placed in reciprocal relation. In the views "from a balloon", it is not just a matter of axes, but extension ―like an oil-slick― whenever what is real allows for that.

Even if they fall in line with the bird's-eye views, towns shown from the sky also appear to belong to a contemporary genre whose prodigious success begins at the end of the 18th century and lasts until after the 1900s: the panorama. Something that is very permissible in the panorama, like in the aerial views, is the same craving for space that Mona Ozouf proves revolutionary urban development has too. Despite the failure of the revolution, the craving remained. Besides the rotunda or diorama, it is expressed in such diverse ways as the circular look-out points, exploratory journeys or the will to control society, because panorama and panopticon both participate in the same global desire to dominate.

The panoramas, deriving from the light-box views, are hardly organised hierarchically, whilst views from a balloon are more orderly but less descriptive. What they indicate is ordered into two categories of primary elements: main routes and certain monumental protrusions. If the artists proceeded otherwise, if they conceded the relative dimensions to each element, their images would be as little differentiated as the first aerial photographs of urban units. Short-cuts, spatial collisions and omissions even support this fear of intelligibility. When the point of view does not allow the urban structure to be clearly expressed, like Genoa with the port in the foreground, the artist reduces the town to a sort of roof crust, out of which the Assunta di Carignano cathedral rises, cleverly shaded in; but he offsets that by making it equally visible from the north-east, where he uses shade once again to introduce clarity. This dual direction procedure is taken to its maximum contrast by Guesdon for Milan: the first view wishfully exaggerates the esplanade surrounding the Castello Sforzesco, which itself has been miniaturised, allowing the city to be portrayed like a diadem above it; the second view uses the Cà Granda of the foreground as a rhythmic module for the whole of urban section, which is arbitrary yet visually effective, and the castle is relegated to the background.
Arbitrary yet not gratuitous; the driving force is always towards regularity, responding to the Neoclassical tastes of town portrait artists. For Brescia or Turin, it is a type of per angolo perspective that is used ―popular with many American artists at the same time― facing an orthogonal section. This preference sometimes drives them to make some unexpected choices. Thus, in Carcassone, where it not the city that Guesdon represents, made famous by the Viollet-le-Duc reconstructions, but the bastide because of its draughtboard-like layout. If the town even slightly errs from geometrical uniformity, Guesdon rectifies it: in Nancy, placed above la Pepinière, he touches up the imprecisions of the Saint-Epvre quarter; in Bordeaux and Toulon, he accentuates the parallelism of the roads by using contrasts of light; if the structure is not decidedly reducible to a single network, he cuts the town into alternating strips of light and shade; in Padova, for example, and stresses, side-on, the Palazzo della Ragione, the Santo and Santa Giustina.

On occasions, geographical data is relied on for the organisation of the image. In Perugia, the southern point of view is used to reveal the topography much more than the distribution of the quarters; the awe-inspiring view of Paris from above Mont-Valérien gives protagonism to the Seine; the one of Lyon from above the Croix Rousse gives protagonism to the Rhône and the Saône confluent, next to which the pattern of the roads is an epiphenomenal figure. A bit here and a bit there, the desire for harmony is satisfied without necessarily intervening: in Lucca and particularly in Verona, the chequered urban shape of Roman origin, is presented like a sort of patchwork à la Carl André before his time, though dotted with shaded bell-towers, like candles on a cake...

In all these shaping operations ―including the images of the centre of Paris― the desire to impose a hierarchical order implies dealing with housing blocks en masse. Initially it is not a problem of scale, since the traditional bird's-eye views managed to individualise the facades. It is more like a sign that announces the arrival of mass society. The inhabitant of a modern town is now an anonymous person, The Man in the Crowd described by Edgar Allan Poe or even The Man without Qualities by Robert Musil.

These references to literature are not fortuitous. One could even ask oneself if it was not indeed a text by Victor Hugo that played a decisive role in Alfred Guesdon's vocation. The second chapter of the third book of Notre-Dame de Paris, published in 1831 (Guesdon was 23 years old), is entitled Bird's-eye view of Paris. It contains a visionary description of the capital as seen from the spires of the cathedral in the 15th century. The Paris of that time, which "was already a giant city", is based on the antagonism of the "unintelligible design" of Medieval quarters (because "the centre of the City was occupied by a pile of humble houses") and "two handfuls of large roads", "mother roads", "generative roads"; churches, palaces, towers and bell-towers surge out above the urban mass. And the description continues with today's Paris, "which has no general physiognomy" because it is no more than "a collection of samples from different centuries"; Hugo ridicules anything of importance that was built after the 17th century and finishes off on an ironical note saying do not despair because "Paris as seen from a balloon does not present in just a single day the richness of lines, the opulence of details, the diversity of aspects and that je ne sais quoi of grandeur in the simple and unexpected in the beautiful so-well characterised by a draughtboard".

Despite all the controversy, the programme would be created by the illustrators even before Napoleon III's time. Between the method Hugo employs to "stress the structural traits like figures" (like readings of Hugo characterised by Hildegard Matt in 1934) and the technique that Alfred Guesdon develops to make towns intelligible through protrusions and directions, everything leads us to believe that there is more than just a fortuitus relationship.

On the contrary, Guesdon, his peers and imitators do not reject the contemporary town. They want to respond to this unknown urban model which appears below their eyes with an imagery that suits it. Their optimism is similar to that of the wise men: with a little more effort we will have pierced through all the secrets of Nature!

William Thomson, alias Lord Kelvin, also declared at the very end of the 19th century that "today's physical science forms, in essence, a perfectly harmonious whole, a practically complete whole": there are however, he added "two little black clouds". These would soon grow so out of proportion (under the names of relativity and quantic mechanics) that the consequences of their study swept away the beautiful monument of classical physics. An equivalent phenomenon was to occur in the field of urban iconography: the advent of aerial photography.

The first consequence of its use was to annihilate one of the fundamental dogma, even though implicit, of Western urban development: the notion of harmony. The very words of Lord Kelvin reveal that this notion should have possessed the value of something evident: for him too, to sum up, harmony guarantees quality, indeed the reality of the scientific edifice. That was, however, no more than a postulate of archaic societies supplanted by Christianism and the neo-Platonic philosophy, but he was no more aware than Guesdon & Co.

The most curious thing is that the effects of aerial photography on urban conception differed for a long time. In fact, they still are by most of our contemporaries. If what the images taken from high up reveals does not respond to our ideals of the town, a whole series of mechanisms is put into motion to censure what is seen, or at least to minimise it, to reduce it to the state of exception, ready to accept it finally as an extremely lamentable error.

The scientific world has had a hard time accepting what it discovered. What the aerial photograph revealed was not particularly admissible as a general rule, in other words, the spectacle of human settlements seen from above was (for those who were able to perceive in terms other than harmony) devastating. However, it was not possible to doubt what these images revealed, from the time they were accepted as objective or, in other words, produced without the person taking them intervening in their constitution. Neither touch ups nor tricks and, of course, no visual simulation. Maybe, at a push, it was not even a matter of representation, a notion which implies choice, but pure recording; even better, from the time the main user of aerial photography was the army (from 1909), it would not be a question of assuming any type of artistic intention. This non-selective photography was, furthermore, difficult to read: it involved codes different to those of the diverse iconographic traditions. Maybe that is why it was left to the armed forces for a long time: it had no public. Besides, mass air travel was necessary, well after the Second World War, for editors to risk publishing books of aerial photographs.

These initial photographs from high up are oblique views. Since operators abandoned the picturesque countryside and particularly since their mission forced them to take nadiral views, the photograph has gone from being a photo-painting to a photo-cadaster. Suddenly, the town changes in character ―nothing less. Because the photograph reveals everything that the so-called views from a balloon embellished, hid or simply deleted: the perpetual unfinished state of the town, the provisory, the exceptions, the old traces, the ruptures and collisions of sections, the gaps in texture, to sum up, the inconsistent character which, everywhere, contradicts the postulate of harmony.

The old iconography (now replaced by today's photograph albums and videos devoted to one town or another) always had an absolute reference: the centre, historic by definition, as if the rest were not. The consolidation of the faubourgs, and then the suburbs and planned extensions, had to be complete before they were worthy of being shown. The photograph ―without any preconceived notions― revealed the opposite, the impending reality, the whatever of the wild periphery, the mixture of factories and shanty towns, of villas, viaducts and reservoirs or, on the contrary, the carpets of back-to-back houses, the housing expanses ―in other words , the "chaos" or the "monotony" and, in any event, according to popular opinion, the mediocrity.

Modern art, from Cézanne and especially the cubists onwards, like literature with Joyce, Dada and the surrealists, had however elaborated another sensitivity that had nothing more to do with the concept of harmony. Only much later did certain critics ―Edmund Wilson being the first in 1931, or Paolo Sica in 1970― understand that the direction taken by the artists did not demonstrate provocation, but what Marshall McLuhan qualifies as an "early warning system": art and literature, without knowing it, had provided equivalences of the real town. What appeared to be chaotic stemmed simply from a different perception. Disorder was an "order as yet undiscovered" of an unexpected nature.

In the photography phase, one could probably have argued and claimed, for example, that even the edges held a certain amount of interest and that the focal points or the military objectives were, by definition, of a particular nature, one which only had distant relationships with urban development. Such a point of view, already difficult to argue when looking at views of London, Stalingrad and Berlin bombarded, simply becomes absurd when looking at images transmitted by satellite. Their scale thwarts such an argument. It is possible to see megalopolises at a glance, to take in whole regions and even states with just a quick look. This time, the panoptic ideal is realised. The craving for space could even turn to indigestion. With the satellite, the photo-cadaster is further perfected: it is automatically kept up to date.

What should strike the observer is how the photograph devalues the notion of the town. Does the term still have a meaning even? The satellite allows us to see that the whole territory is urbanised. The conglomerations have grown to such an extent that they have joined up, that they have even wended their way into mountainous valleys, that they have crossed national borders, and that farming today is carried out inside a weave of nebulous urban spread in the process of formation throughout Europe and North America. The synthesis image of the satellite arrives, thus, at the right moment: precisely at the moment when towns are spreading, from Scotland to Latium, from Catalonia to Denmark, from Boston to Washington and from San Diego to San Francisco.

Faced with this phenomenon through which what used to be called the "periphery" (to use a vague, pejorative term) becomes the very substance of human settlements ―with all the nuances that that involves―, it would be somewhat extreme to say that the mentality of the people is at long last ready. The territorial reality of the "town" can no longer be minimised, and yet those who recognise it carry on condemning it to a large extent, and condemning it in the name of old-fashioned aesthetics. However, if we consider that ninety percent of urbanised populations live in the nebulous area, we should stop concentrating all our attention on the town centre microcosms which, in any event, have lost their managerial functions and have been remarkably stripped of their character by the very operations that aimed to conserve them.

The relationship between the terms Western and "town" bears witness, at the end of the 20th century, to a worrying cultural void. But the mental images which have become archaic should finally be surrendered, since the true town is now elsewhere...

That is what this exhibition is working on.



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