Raoul Vaneigem

Comments against Urbanism


Text translated by the The MIT Press, taken from the International situationniste 6 (August 1961), pp. 33-37. The original French version can be found here.

In the opinion of an expert — Chombart de Lauwe — and after some precise experiments, the programs proposed by planners create in certain cases uneasiness and indignation, which might have been partly avoided had we had a deeper knowledge of real behavior, and especially of the motivations for such behavior.

Splendor and misery of urbanism. Once one has sniffed the urban planner with suspicious insistence, one turns away as one ought to before such a lack of respect, a similar breach of manners. Here it is not a question of impeaching the popular verdict. The people have long since pronounced themselves with the same incongruity: “espèce d’architecte!” has always been an explicit insult in Belgium. But when today such an expert sides with the opinion of the herd and also starts sniffing the planner, we are saved! Thus the urbanist is officially convicted of arousing uneasiness and indignation, arousing them “almost” like a primary instigator. One can only hope that the public authorities will react promptly; it is unthinkable that such centers of revolt should be openly maintained by the very people whose job it is to smother them. Here is a crime against social tranquility that only a council of war can put a stop to. We will see justice prevail among its own rank? Unless the expert is, after all, merely a cunning urbanist.

If the planner is less able to understand the behavorial motivations of those he wants to house to the best of their nervous equilibrium than to incorporate urbanism without delay into the criminal investigation unit (to hunt down instigators — see above — and allow each to remain quietly in the hierarchy) — if he can really do it, then the science of crime fighting loses its raison d’être and changes its social purpose: urbanism is all that will be needed to preserve the status quo without recourse to the indelicacy of machine guns. Man assimilated to reinforced concrete — what a dream or happy nightmare for technocrats, wherein to lose whatever Higher Nervous Activity they have left, while trusting in the power and durability of reinforced concrete.

If the Nazis had known contemporary urbanists, they would have transformed their concentration camps into low-income housing. But this solution seems too brutal to M. Chombart de Lauwe. Ideal urbanism should urge everyone, without uneasiness or indignation, toward the final solution of the problem of humanity.

Urbanism is the most concrete and perfect fulfillment of a nightmare. A nightmare, according to the Littré dictionary, is “a state that ends when one awakens with a start after extreme anxiety.” But a start against whom? Who has stuffed us to the point of somnolence? It would be as stupid to execute Eichmann as to hang the urbanists. It would be like getting mad at the targets when you’re on a rifle range!

Planning is a big word, some say a dirty word. Specialists speak of economic planning and planned urbanism, then they wink with a knowing air, and everyone applauds so as to play the game. The chief attraction of the spectacle is the planning of happiness. The pollster is already conducting his inquiry; precise surveys establish the number of television viewers; it is a question of developing real estate around them, of building for them, without distracting them from the concerns that are being fed to them through their eyes and ears. It is a question of assuring equilibrium and a peaceful life to all, with that shrewd foresight expressed by comic-strip pirates in their maxim: “Dead men tell no tales.” Urbanism and information are complementary in capitalist and “anticapitalist” societies — they organize the silence.

To inhabit is the “drink Coca-Cola” of urbanism. You replace the necessity of drinking with that of drinking Coca-Cola. To inhabit means to be at home everywhere, says Kiesler, but such a prophetic truth grabs nobody by the neck; it’s a scarf against the encroaching cold, even if it evokes a flowing knot. We are inhabited, this is the necessary starting point.

As public relations, the ideal urbanism is the projection in space of a social hierarchy without conflict. Roads, lawns, natural flowers, and artificial forests lubricate the machinery of subjection, and make it enjoyable. In a novel by Yves Touraine, the State even offers retired workers and electronic vibrator; happiness and the economy find it an advantage.

A certain urbanism of illusion is necessary, Chombart de Lauwe claims. The spectacle he offers us makes folklore out of Haussmann, who could arrange no illusion apart from a shooting gallery. This time, it is a matter of scenically organizing the spectacle across everyday life, letting each person live in the framework corresponding to the role that capitalist society imposes on him, and in the process further isolating him like a blind man trained to recognize himself illusorily in the materialization of his own alienation.

The capitalist training of space is nothing but training in a space where you lose your shadow, and end up losing yourself by dint of seeking yourself in what is not yourself. An excellent example of tenacity for all professors and other licensed organizers of ignorance.

The layout of a city, its streets, wall, and neighborhoods form so many signs of a strange conditioning. What sign should we recognize as our own? A few graffiti, words of rejection or forbidden gestures, hastily scrawled, in which cultured people only take an interest when they appear on the walls of some fossil city like Pompeii. But our cities are even more fossilized. We would like to live in lands of knowledge, amid living signs like familiar friends. The revolution will also be the perpetual creation of signs that belong to everyone.

There is an incredible dullness in everything having to do with urbanism. The world “build” sticks straight up out of the water where other possible words float on the surface. Wherever bureaucratic civilization has spread, the anarchy of individual construction has been officially sanctioned, and taken over by the authorized organisms of power, with the result that the building instinct has been extirpated like a vice and only barely survives in children and primitives (those not held accountable, in administrative parlance). And among all those who, unable to change their lives, spend them demolishing and rebuilding their shacks.

The art of reassurance — urbanism knows how to exercise it in its purest form: the ultimate civility of power on the verge of asserting total mind control.

God and the the City: No abstract and nonexistent force would be rather able than urbanism to take over from God the post of doorkeeper left vacant by that death we’ve heard about. With it’s ubiquity, its immense goodness, perhaps someday its sovereign power, urbanism (or its project) would certainly have something to frighten the Church, were there the slightest doubt about the orthodoxy of power. But there is none, since the Church was “urbanism” long before power; what could it have to fear from a lay Saint Augustine?

There is something admirable in causing thousands of human beings whom one deprives of even the hope of a last judgement to coexist in the word “inhabit.” In this sense, the admirable crowns the inhuman.

Industrializing private life: “Make your life a business” — such will be the new slogan. To propose to each that he organize his vital milieu like a little factory to be manage like a miniature enterprise, with its substitute machinery, its illusory production, its fixed assets such as walls and furniture — isn’t this the best way to make the concerns of those gentlemen who own a factory, a big and real one that must also produce, perfectly comprehensible?

Level the horizon: Walls and unnatural patches of greenery set new limits to though and dreaming, for it means poeticizing the desert rather than knowing where it ends.

New cities will wipe out the traces of the battles between traditional cities and the people they sought to oppress. To root out of everyone’s memory the truth that each daily life has its history and, in the myth of participation, to context the irreducible character of experience — these are the terms in which urbanists would express the goals they pursue if they deigned to suspend for a moment the air of seriousness that obstructs their thinking. Once the air of seriousness disappears, the sky lightens, everything becomes clearer, or almost; thus, as humorists well know, to destroy one’s adversary with H-bombs is to condemn oneself to die in more protracted sufferings. How much longer will one have to go on mocking the urbanists before they grasp the fact that they’re preparing the way for their own suicide?

Cemeteries are the most natural areas for greenery that exist, the only ones to be harmoniously integrated within the framework of future cities, like the last lost paradises.

Costs much cease to be an obstacle to the wish to build — so says the leftist builder. May he sleep in peace, for this will soon be the case, once the wish to build will have disappeared.

Procedures have been developed in France that turn construction into an erector set (J.-E. Havel). While making the best of things, a cafeteria is never anything but a place where you serve, in the sense that a fork serves for eating.

As it combines Machiavellianism with reinforced concrete, urbanism’s conscience is clear. We are entering upon the reign of police refinement. Dignified enslavement.

To build in trust: even the reality of bay windows does not hide the fictive communication, even public settings show the despair and isolation of private consciences, even the frantic filling up of space is measured in intervals.

Project for a realistic urbanism: replace Piranesi’s staircases with elevators, transform tombs into office buildings, line the sewers with plane trees, put trash cans in living rooms, stack up the hovels, and build all cities in the form of museums; make a profit out of everything, even out of nothing.

Alienation within easy reach: urbanism makes alienation tangible. The starving proletariat experienced alienation in the suffering of beasts. We will experience it in the blind suffering of things. To feel only by groping.

Honest and farsighted urbanists have the courage of stylites. Must we make our lives a desert so as to legitimize their aspirations?

It has taken the guardians of philosophic faith some twenty years to discover the existence of a working class. At a time when sociologists have come together to decree that the working class no longer exists, the urbanists themselves have invented the inhabitant without waiting for either philosophers or sociologists. One must give them credit for being among the first to discern the new dimensions of the proletariat. By a definition all the more precise and much less abstract they have been able, using the most flexible training methods, to guide almost all of society toward a less brutal but radical proletarianization.

Advice to the builders of ruins: the urbanists will be succeeded by the last troglodytes of hovels and shantytowns. They will know how to build. The privileged residents of dormitory towns will only be able to destroy. We must wait a while for this encounter: it defines the revolution.

By being devalued, the sacred has become a mystery: urbanism is the final decadence of the Great Architect.

Behind the infatuation with technology a revealed truth lies hidden, and as such is unquestionable: we must “inhabit.” Concerning the nature of such a truth, the homeless know very well what to cling to. Probably better than anyone else, they are able to measure, amid the garbage cans where they are forced to live, how there is no difference between building their lives and building their dwellings on the only level of truth that exists — practice. But the exile to which our well-policed world consigns them makes their experience so laughable and difficult that licensed builder could find there an excuse for self-justification — assuming, ridiculous idea, that the powers-that-be were to cease to guarantee his existence.

It looks like the working class no longer exists. Considerable quantities of former proletarians can today have access to the comfort formerly reserved for a minority — so goes the song. But isn’t it rather that a growing quantity of comfort has access to their needs and gives them the itch to ask for it? It seems that a certain organization of comfort proletarianizes in epidemic fashion all those it contaminates by the force of things. Now, the force of things is exercised through the intervention of responsible authorities, priests of an abstract order whose sole prerogatives will sooner or later come together to reign over an administrative center surrounded by ghettoes. The last man will die of boredom as a spider dies of inanition in the middle of its web.

We must build in haste, there are so many people to be lodged, say the humanists of reinforced concrete. We must dig trenches without delay, say the generals, if we are to save the whole fatherland. Isn’t there some injustice in lauding the humanists and deriding the generals? In the ear of missiles and conditioning, it is still in good taste to make jokes about generals. But to raise trenches in the air with the same pretext!

Posted: March 2020
Category: Essays