The Good Metropolis: From Urban Formlessness to Metropolitan Architecture

Alexander Eisenschmidt | Visionary Cities Project

The subject of this book is the productive tension between the city and architectural form. It seeks to reevaluate the relationship between these two realms in which architecture’s inherent predisposition toward form is often matched only by the city’s ability to avoid it. While design is defined by intention and deliberation, the urban environment frequently appears aimless and conflicted, even accidental, fostering a tendency to view urbanization as undermining and negating architecture’s effectiveness. This book, however, traces an alternative discourse of architecture’s relationship to the city. As the title “The Good Metropolis” suggests, I explore here the fascinations with the modern city expressed by the architectural avant-garde and beyond, revealing how the forces of urbanization often served as a stimulant for architecture’s spatial imagination. It considers so far overlooked courses of action within architectural modernism and twentieth-century urban theory that are not predicated on tectonic functionalism, technological inventions or such like but instead on architecture’s intimate relationship with the metropolis. I will argue that the city has been a predominant force (even if often unconsciously) within architectural discourse and that recognizing it as such will not only allow us to reconsider historical narratives but will also give us a better understanding of our current fascinations and anxieties in regards to urbanization.

While industrial cities of the nineteenth and twentieth century in Europe and the US were predominantly criticized as discontinuous, chaotic, irregular, and overwhelming—in other words, formless—this book examines positions that aimed to discover architectural intelligences in the city without form. The following chapters, therefore, attempt to open up a territory of connections that challenge the predominant historiography of architecture’s position to the city. After all, the urban discourse of the avant-garde has often been viewed in a historical lineage that travels from modernist urbanism to postmodern non-planning—the former critiqued the terrain of the industrial metropolis that was in need of restructuring through architecture and planning, while the latter’s acceptance of the existing or admiration of the historical city held modernist planning and architecture responsible for its failures. This historiography, however, cannot account for the continued fascination with urban formlessness throughout modernity, it cannot provide a coherent explanation of the emergence of a metropolitan architecture, and it gives us very few directives for understanding today’s possible engagements with the world of extreme urbanization. The intention of this book is, therefore, to outline an alternative trajectory—one that complicates the apparent opposition between planning and non-planning, between critique and embrace of the city, between form and the informal, or better, between architectural form and urban formlessness.

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[1] Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind E. Krauss, Formless: A User’s Guide (New York; Cambridge, MA: Zone Books; MIT Press, 1997), 40. Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois have examined works of modern art through the lens of Georges Bataille’s concept of the informe. Here, the structure of the history of modernism is challenged by displacing the concepts of form and content through “the operational, performative ‘force’ of the ‘formless.’” (9).
[2] Lewis Mumford, The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects (1961; San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1989), 544.
[3] Sigfried Giedion, Space, Time and Architecture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1941), 100.
[4] The metropolis served not only as a social and cultural center, but also as a center from which the country’s colonial endeavors were directed—activities that ultimately contributed to its power. As Stuart Hall articulates: “Colonization was never simply external to the societies of the imperial metropolis … (but) always inscribed deeply within them.” See Stuart Hall, “Post-Colonial,” in The Imperialist Imagination: German Colonialism and Its Legacy, eds. Sara Friedrichsmeyer, Sara Lennox, and Susanne Zantop (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998), 246.
[5] By the nineteenth century, these forces would include colonization, industrialization, global trade, credit networks, institutional systems, transportation networks, and emerging communication technologies.
[6] Ildefons Cerdà, Teoría General de Urbanización (1867; Madrid: Electa, 1996); partially translated in The Five Bases of the General Theory of Urbanization, ed. Arturo Soria y Puig, trans. Bernard Miller and Mary Fons I Fleming (Madrid: Electa, 1999). Already Cerdá’s expansion plan for Barcelona (1859) included a short description, entitled A Theory of City Building.
[7] The influence of Piranesi on later developments is evident in discussions on concepts of the formless, the fragment, the negative, and the strange: Koolhaas’s essay on urbanism, for example, starts with an illustration of the Campi Martii antiquae urbis, and for the Situationists, Piranesi was a psychogeographer. See Rem Koolhaas, Small, Medium, Large, Extra-Large (New York: Monacelli Press, 1995), 959; and G.-E. Debord, “Exercice de la psychogéographie,” Potlatch, no. 2 (June 1954): “Piranesi … is psychogeography in the staircase.” Here quoted from Simon Sadler, The Situationist City (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), 75.
[8] Immanuel Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft (1790; Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1974), 165: “formlos … und Unbegrenztheit.”
[9] Ibid., 174–175.
[10] Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development (1973; Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1976), 16.
[11] Heinrich Wölfflin, Renaissance and Baroque (1888; Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1966), 15.
[12] Ibid., 33.
[13] Ibid., 38, 34.
[14] Marc-Antoine Laugier, An Essay on Architecture, trans. Wolfgang and Anni Herrmann (1753; Los Angeles: Hennessey and Ingalls, 1977), 129.
[15] Friedrich Engels, Die Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England (Leipzig: Otto Wigand, 1845), 48.
[16] First in England (1851), and shortly after in France and Germany, official definitions were drawn up that demarcated the urban grounds of the city from the rural, agricultural, and natural landscapes around it. In addition to the separation between landscape and city, one also saw an increasing difference in the appearance of larger versus smaller cities.
[17] At the international conference for statistics in 1887, the term “Großstadt” was linked to cities with a population above 100,000. While the common translation of “Großstadt” is “metropolis,” we should also keep in mind that the German term refers to the size of the town whereas “metropolis” reflects a leading political, economic, and cultural role by which the larger society is influenced. Therefore, cities such as Berlin were not only classified as Großstädte but also increasingly described as Metropolen or Weltstädte (world cities).
[18] The two departments that Haussmann established and through which his endeavors were coordinated are the Department of Promenades and Parks and the Department for General Planning. As he stated, he wanted to employ “men with clear vision”—so the former department was led by engineers and the latter by surveyors.
[19] In the first edition of the Städtebau journal, for example, Theodor Goecke and Camillo Sitte (the editors) outlined: “Städtebau is the collaboration of all technical and artistic arts in order to form a coherent whole … Städtebau is a science and an art with specific goals for research and with practical objectives.” In Städtebau, no. 1 (1904), preface.
[20] Baumeister uses Engels’s theory of city growth to talk about the possible increase in inhabitants in Berlin: from 1820 to 1850 Berlin’s population rose from 200,000 to 400,000 (30 years), while from 1850 to 1872 the population rose from 400,000 to 800,000 (in only 22 years); therefore, the projection for the year 1886 was a population of 1.6 million inhabitants. In reality the population in 1886 was 1.3 million. For further reading on Baumeister, see George Collins, Camillo Sitte and the Birth of Modern City Planning (New York: Random House, 1965), 26. There, Baumeister is identified as the theorist who “laid the basis for city planning as a scientific field of endeavor.”
[21] Reinhard Baumeister, Stadt-Erweiterungen in technischer, baupolizeilicher und wirtschaftlicher Beziehung (Berlin: Ernst & Korn, 1876), 12: “Es ist wichtig für anwachsende Städte, den Nachteilen ihres Anwachsens möglichst zuvorzukommen, und das Hauptmittel besteht wohl in einer gut geordneten Stadterweiterung.“ And, 91: “Die Stadterweiterung besteht [im] wesentlichen in der Feststellung der Grundzüge aller Verkehrsmittel ... [und in der] Gruppierung verschiedenartiger Stadtteile.”
[22] Otto Wagner, Die Großstadt: Eine Studie über diese von Otto Wagner (Vienna: Anton Schroll, 1911), trans. “The Development of a Great City,” Architectural Record (May 1912): 500.
[23] Andrew Lees, Cities Perceived: Urban Society in European and American Thought, 1820–1940 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 3. In addition, see Brian Ladd, Urban Planning and Civic Order in Germany, 1860–1914 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), 7–35; and Philipp Oswalt, Berlin – Stadt ohne Form: Strategien einer anderen Architektur (Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2000).
[24] Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, transcript of interview with John Peter, 1955, 15. Here quoted from Detlef Mertins, “Living in a Jungle,” in Mies in America, ed. Phyllis Lambert (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Centre Canadien d’Architecture, Whitney Museum of American Art, and Museum of Modern Art New York, 2001), 623.
[25] Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), 36.