Seminar #4: Anique Hommels

Anique Hommels (Maastricht) - How Cities Cope with Obduracy and Vulnerability

Tuesday, 22 November 2011, 17:00 - 19:00

Location: CRASSH, 17 Mill Lane, Cambridge

City planning initiatives and redesign of urban structures often become mired in debate and delay. Despite the fact that cities are considered to be dynamic, innovative and flexible spaces, never finished but always under construction, it is very difficult to change existing urban structures. Cities become fixed, obdurate, securely anchored in their own histories as well as in the histories of their surroundings. Yet, if cities fall victim to a disaster, change of urban structures is sudden, unexpected and often seen as undesirable. At the same time, it is argued that urban disasters can bring about urban innovation and that cities can even benefit from them. The talk will discuss how cities cope with obduracy and vulnerability. Why is it so difficult to bring about urban innovation once urban structures are in place? How do cities respond to urban disasters? How can we explain the ‘rhetoric of innovation’ in cases of urban disaster? These issues will be discussed in relation to theories of obduracy and vulnerability in cities and illustrated with empirical cases.

Anique Hommels is associate professor at the Department of Technology & Society Studies, Maastricht University, the Netherlands. In her PhD thesis she concentrated on the resistance to change (‘obduracy') in urban sociotechnical transformation processes. A book (Unbuilding Cities - Obduracy in Urban Sociotechnical Change (2005). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press), based on her thesis, has been published by MIT Press in 2005 (paperback edition Fall 2008). In 2003, she was awarded the Brooke Hindle Fellowship from the American Society for the History of Technology (SHOT). After her PhD, her research focus shifted to the problem of vulnerability of sociotechnical systems. She was one of the principle investigators in the ESF/Eurocores project "Europe goes Critical: The emergence and governance of critical transnational European infrastructures" (2007-2009). At the moment, she studies urban disasters and how such critical events generate urban innovation.


SEMINAR #3: Owen Hatherley. Tuesday 8 November

Owen Hatherley is a firebrand leftist critic of architecture and urban space. He is the author of Militant Modernism, an exhumation of urban utopias, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, on obsolete Blairite blob architecture, and Uncommon, on Pulp (the band). Owen writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, Building Design and Socialist Worker, amongst others. He runs or contributes to numerous blogs, including: Sit down man, you're a bloody tragedy and Kino Fist.


Among the many things that are anathema in contemporary urban planning, one of the most demonised is the large, ceremonial public square. The vast, proverbially windswept plazas built under 'really existing socialism' from the 1920s to 1980s are widely considered to be huge and useless spaces, designed to intimidate or at least impress, lacking the intimacy and bustle of the Italian-derived Piazza.

They are often considered a Soviet innovation, though their roots are in no way socialistic, but derive from Prussian and Tsarist absolutist planning, quasi-parade grounds usually connected to wide, multi-lane boulevards – the connection of the Palace Square to Nevsky Prospekt in St Petersburg is the prototype. Yet, if these places are only of use to those in power, why is it they have been used so often – and so often successfully – in protest? From Petrograd in 1917 to the Alexanderplatz protests of 1989, through the use of the Independence Square in Kiev in the 'Orange Revolution' to the Revolution centred on Cairo's partly Soviet-planned Tahrir Square, these spaces have become focuses for mass protest – have been useful against power, in other words.

In this paper we will explore this seemingly authoritarian form of urbanism. Though focusing on the architectural spaces of these squares, it will be argued that paradoxically, these centres of power are more conducive to revolt than the new, ostensibly democratic spaces.