forA Questionnaire
Urbanism and Polyphony

by Sanford Kwinter
8 Nov 2021

1.  What is the most thrilling urban situation that you have ever experienced?

Prior to my first visits to India, the urban experience that most startled and marked me was during a stay of several days in the Quartieri Spagnoli of Naples in the 1980s. I had simply never experienced an organized reality as powerfully fraught and saturated with perceptible intersectional relationships as in those streets, which included relentless car and moped honking (I was never once able to count to five between horn blasts since Neapolitan traffic navigates by sound and touch, not vision), ubiquitous vegetal growth sprouting from every building surface and cranny from footpath to cornice, the faint but pervasive menace of knives and unapologetic glances, flowers and animal slaughter, everything about human natural and psychic civilization expressed palpably and forcefully on the surface in a sustained cacophony of an all at once.

But even this tsunami of impressions and stimuli was exceeded during my first visit to India and the full-on biblical tumult that greeted me the moment I exited the (old) airport in Delhi—midnight multitudes of camping villagers come to either greet or send off community members on voyages long or short, a human organization presenting itself in a system of open and free organization at a scale I had never seen before. Even more impressively, it was completely indifferent to the clock and the appetites and rhythms we typically ascribe as behavioral “constraints.” In both these cases, but definitively in the second, I willingly and permanently relinquished my belief that we can ever know what the harmonies of human aggregation are compelled to mean. This insight also entailed the realization that ”urban” refers precisely to “situations” not merely built forms, that it comprises preeminently social, biological, and anthropological logics as determinant activators of physical ones (and not only the other way round).

2.  How would you define “the urban” at this moment in time? What is the most urgent and relevant issue regarding that notion of the urban, both today and in the future? How would you approach it in terms of existing—or not yet existing—methods of analysis, discussion, and action?

Having documented certain historical urban transformations in three books I, like many, have become all too comfortable with the facile assumption that the “urban” is a psychic posture and condition simply extended across the entire ecumene through economic and communicational meshworks.1 I do not believe in the so-called “planetary urban.” At least not that it is an explanatory principle or term.

We will not understand the “urban”—regardless of the brilliance and detail of the technical and economic histories that have described it—if we do not understand the “planetary” and this last term is the subject of notable neglect and ignorance—and hence irresponsibility and bad faith—on the part of many of our urban theorists. What is missing is a simple understanding of metabolism that removes the city/urban concept from a simple invocation of the cliches of scale.

“Planetary” rather, refers to a set of dynamisms and behaviors first and foremost. A far more trenchant concept than the platitude that the urban is a global system that penetrates all localities with an inexorable (capitalist) logic, is a posture that directs attention to the diversity and particularities of geographical distribution of practices and attributes. We are not all uniformly “urban” in any illuminating way—our most urgent and immediate sentience and habits of body, culture, and mind are strictly and radically diverse—and egregiously lost by many reductive forms of analysis and thought—by inattention to what Alexander von Humboldt already revealed, the fundamentally diverse nature of the energy and information as it is distributed around the planet’s surface and hence of how what we do—how we transform within our own communities, these infinitely varying compounds of resources in our specific surrounds—produces our form world.

My hunch is that the practice of “urbanism” would take on a very different coloration if its focus and methodology were geographical rather than uniquely economic and technological in orientation and supposition. And we would also be free of the questionable commonplaces that depict our “planet” as something to master, rather than abet and understand.

1.See Michel Feher and Sanford Kwinter, ZONE 1|2: The Contemporary City, (New York, NY: Zone Books, 1985); Rem Koolhaas, Stefano Boeri, Sanford Kwinter, Nadia Tazi and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Mutations (New York, NY: Actar, 2001); Sanford Kwinter, Requiem: For the City at the End of the Millennium (New York, NY: Actar, 2010).

4.  Choose the three notions of most significant interest to you from the forA on the urban open call keywords* and define them concerning the urban.

One notion that I do not (yet?) find in the provided list is E. O. Wilson’s principle of “Half-Earth.” Unlike most environmental “solutions,” the concept is simple (conceptually), sound (scientifically), and workable (practically and politically) and is, in its plainness, nothing more or less than an urbanist concept engendered by a life (and evolution) scientist. In other words, it is a (new) wedding of the social (economic and industrial) and the biological (ecological) into radical geography that invokes neither pain nor great surprise. For the latter reason, it might not grab immediate attention, but it ought to. Among its central features—and this needs to be continually reaffirmed since it is so common to miss—is the emphasis on scale of approach; from a bio-geographical standpoint, it represents a clear correction to what Wilson’s earlier work showed as the “island theory” conservation fallacy—that is, that confined ecosystems unfailingly lose biodiversity, they do not conserve it.

To think of the urban today we most assuredly must think the planetary, only not in the complacent way that this relationship is commonly pursued, as the capitalist straw man of post-industrialist, neo-liberal enterprise, and organization. We must stop seeing the “planetary” as created by us—the height of contemporary fashion, hubris, and narcissism.

In Japan, many cities possess remarkably neat edges and the vast intervals between them are astonishingly unmolested by development or inhabitation. Perhaps due to the Shinto identification of forests with divinity? Of wooded groves as the privileged home and place of encounter with the spirits? Regardless, the quasi-wildness within the forested island matrix seemed almost expressly legislated or somehow anthropologically self-organized, much like how early civilizations and most animal species partitioned space and resources and situated latrines beyond the sphere of their domestic occupation or commons.

With the notable historical extra-urban migration (in the rich countries at least, and in North America particularly) during the last months of pandemic adjustments, a great many urban dwellers experienced uniquely intensive engagements with rural and natural conditions and surrounds (even while maintaining far more than minimal “urban” experience through online modalities and heightened community affirmations). These experiences, at least anecdotally, seem to have triggered many transformations in attention, outlook, philosophy, and understanding and have substantially undercut the long-reigning view of the adequacy of an urban-social and cosmopolitan existence that excludes from concept, and not only experience, the immediacy and importance of the life system as the dynamo and keystone of human planetary inhabitation. There is no reason whatsoever that this intuition should not heretofore become integral to what is called “cosmopolitanism,” free of the bigotry that roots human understanding in resource consumption (town culture and enterprise) rather than the holistic transformational logic of the Second Law (the supra-human negentropic enterprise of universal ‘life’).2 Indeed the former may now become the sign of one-dimensional provincialism.

2.A special thanks to Bruce Mau with whom I discussed many of these issues last night.

Sanford Kwinter is a writer and architectural theorist. He currently serves as Professor of Theory and Criticism at the Pratt Institute in New York. He is a co-founder of Zone Books.