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In recent years, American architecture has generally deemphasized it specific and intended relationships with the contexts and situations of new buildings in the city. The term context, when used, has invariably been limited to a sense of describing the physical and formal attributes of a site independent of its cultural and political resonance. At the same time, some of the more provocative theoretical research on the socio-economic, political, and cultural dimensions of American cities has been neither translated, nor translatable into actual projective schema for urban intervention. Caught in architecture’s formal and social dichotomy, the late Manfredo Tafuri declared the difficulty if not the impossibility of a socio-political architecture until such time that the actual political circumstances governing the production of architecture had changed. His work critically calls into question the illusive ambitions of those architects who might have otherwise hoped for a revision of the modernist agenda: an architecture rooted in social and political ideals. Tafuri’s hypothesis, which appeared first in the periodical Contropiano in 1969, was later modified and expanded in his book Architecture and Utopia of 1975. “What is of interest here,” he writes, “is the precise identification of those tasks which capitalist development has taken away from architecture.

That is to say, what is taken away from architectural prefiguration. With this, one is led almost automatically to the discovery of what may be called the ‘drama’ of architecture today: that is, to see architecture obliged to return to “pure architecture: to form without utopia; in the best cases to sublime uselessness.” The origins of this ‘purity’ can not only be traced to the Enlightenment but also to the writings of the theologian turned theorist Abbe Laugier and his pronouncements during the mid-eighteenth century regarding the formal and aesthetic similarities between garden design and urban design. According to Laugier: “Whoever knows how to design a park will have no difficulty in tracing the plan for the buildings of a city . . .there must be squares, crossroads, and streets. There must be regularity and fantasy, relationships and oppositions, and casual unexpected elements that vary the scene; great order in the details, confusion, uproar and tumult in the whole.”

Laugier’s application of naturalism and the anti-organic theories of the picturesque to the city radically modified the traditional and historic divisions between the city and the country by introducing the idea of the city as discovered or methodized nature. Laugier’s formulation further contributed to the erasure of distinct differences and disparities between the city and nature and, according to Tafuri, between “the value accredited to nature and the value accredited to the city as a productive mechanism of new forms of economic accumulation. ” Needless to say, these reciprocities between city and landscape were also at the heart of Le Corbusier’s ideas about the modern city, proposed as a variation of urban naturalism, and subtly transformed in contemporary practice into a form of “natural urbanism.”

Thus, among the formative frameworks of our symposium, “Denaturalized Urbanity,” has been the implicit task of uncovering the role of urban naturalism in the schema of contemporary American cities, as well as the exploration of more specific social and critical spaces resulting from the diatactical connections/disconnections at the interface of city and landscape. The French architect and writer, Paul Virilio, in dealing with the continuous transformations of the city and of urban boundary asks: Does a metropolis still have a facade? At what moment can the city be said to face us? For Virilio, “The popular expression ‘to go into the city,’ which has replaced last century’s ‘to go to the city,’ embodies an uncertainty regarding relations of opposites (vis a vis and face to face), as though we were no longer in front of the city but always inside it. If the metropolis still occupies a piece of ground,” Virilio continues, “a geographical position, it no longer corresponds to the old division between city and country, nor to the opposites between center and periphery. The localization of the axiality of the urban layout faded long ago. Suburbia was not single-handedly responsible for this dissolution. The very opposition intramural/extramural was itself weakened by the revolution in transportation and the development of communication and telecommunication.”

Yet, despite this weakening of opposites, much of the recent debate on contemporary urbanization in the US has been devoted to suburbia as part of the city/suburb dichotomy or to the rise of the purportedly new “edge cities.” In this nominally “progressive” march towards new frontiers of suburbanization/urbanization, the “traditional” core city is left behind, often as a relic of its former glory. The urban debate, barring the problematic “renaissance” of US cities in the 1980′s, has been primarily focused on the city’s ills, the legitimacy of disurbanization, and the flight to the more “pure” landscapes of the suburban frontier. This picture, consistently supported and constructed by political and economic policy has transformed both the city and citizens’ collective consciousness of its crisis. While we should not underestimate the explicitly construed and the implicitly enforced state policies on family life, gender domination, and labor distribution, there are other alternatives. The time of crisis is also a time of potential transformation. According to Manuel Castells,” . . . partial forms will also be earmarked by the resistance from exploited classes, from oppressed subjects, and from dominated women. And the work of such a contradictory historical process on the space will be accomplished on an already inherited spatial form, the product of former history and the support of new interests, projects, protests, and dreams.”

What are the implications of the urban crisis for us architects, landscape architect, planners and urban designers? What is our role in the process of resisting certain spatialities, while “projecting” others? To address some of these issues, the symposium will focus on the American city as a “landscape” within a “regional” matrix. The consideration of the city as part of a regional terrain and policy is both deliberate and necessary for the construction of a more collaborative and less divisive project of urbanity (i.e., city vs. suburb). The term landscape is used in its cultural, as well as physical sense. The intent is not to separate these two conditions and meanings of landscape, but rather to examine through both the physical and cultural landscapes of the city the ramifications and inferences of one on the other, their common grounds in uncommon places. Among the implications of dealing with the tensions between physical and cultural urban landscapes is the recognition of their ultimate inseparability.

Geographical landscapes are as much cultural constructs as cultural landscapes are physical and spatial. One of the main interests of the symposium will be to debate the interface between the projects of deciphering urban landscapes as domains of “covert culture,” (Leo Marx) and their recoding through future architectural, landscape, and urban design projects: the topographical sites of our future everyday imaginings. The overall theme of the conference will be the tensions between the spaces of representation and the representations of space (the locations of culture), specifically developed through the spatialities of race, gender and ethnicity.

As a project the symposium will construct a fragment of an urban landscape – the city, as the hope of democracy. Though it is a hope that cannot be fully realized, nevertheless we can move towards an understanding of the dilemmatic spaces of the city as the new sites of collaboration and contestation. The realization of the incompletion of such a project of urbanity is a necessary condition of its construction and one would hope a rebuttal worthy of Manfredo Tafuri and the cul de sacs of the formal and the social.

Back to December 1995 Newsletter