(In)flexible Cities Seminar #1: Cities of Power

For the opening talk of the (In)flexible Cities series Professor Göran Therborn gave an overview of his ‘Cities of Power’ project, which focuses on cities as representations of power and as sites of power. We had a fantastic turnout, so thanks to everyone who came. Technology defeated us so we don’t have a podcast for the first talk, but here are some of the key ideas Professor Therborn covered.

The talk made a broad portrait of cities of power, questioning whether cities really do wield power and analyzing how power is represented in the city. Therborn's project has a strong emphasis on iconography and representation, including urban layout, architecture, monuments and toponymy. Therborn opened his talk by warning against economistic reductionism and misperceptions of state power. Therborn then distinguished between cities of power and the power of cities, because of what he terms the problematic ‘agency of places’ (do cities really wield power?). The city as ‘command point’ (Sassen) is a site, but not an agent of power: the persons who actually wield power can be better understood as agents of corporations (public, private) and not of cities. The city does not hold the power, even though power is located in the city. Corporate networks and armed forces are forms of power manifested in cities: cities as sites of power.

Therborn suggested that cities wield power as nodes in networks of other cities. They also wield power as resource-holders, service providers and governors of sociability. More importantly, though, they exert influence as representations of power: commanding respect, asserting legitimacy and expressing direction or worldview. Cities represent through spatial layout, the patterning of private and public buildings, through architecture itself, and in their monuments and museums (Therborn calls this the ‘monumentality’ of cities). In illustrating the theme, Therborn highlighted the multivalence of form in sites such as the Christ the Saviour cathedral in Moscow, a symbolic project which is open to numerous interpretations, due to its detonation, the proposed use of the site for the Palace of the Soviets , and its existence as the Moskva swimming pool until its reconstruction in 1995.

So how does the idea of ‘cities of power’ relate to (In)flexible Cities? Sites of power, said Therborn, also become sites of resistance to power. The multivalency of urban representations offers one possible site of internal resistance. Another is created by contextual constraints, which can defeat even strong political will (one example would be the various attempts to block improvements on London's Kingsway at the turn of the 20th century). A surprising aspect of resistance to cities of power, Therborn suggested, is that the contestation of power often comes from elsewhere, from another city. Therborn gave examples including the importance of Leipzig to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, of Benghazi to the fall of Tripoli, and the uprisings in Homs to the resistance movement against the Damascus regime.

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