Cultivated Imaginaries: Superblock and the Idea of the City

SUPERBLOCK is a term with which almost all architects are familiar. Used to describe a typology found in large-scale urban developments from Raymond Unwin’s Town Planning in Practice (1909) to the housing blocks in the New Frankfurt and Red Vienna, to the mid-20th Century Soviet Microrayon, and to the multiplicity of mega-developments that sprung up all over China since the 1980s, SUPERBLOCK is a term that is familiar, useful and wonderfully imprecise. Indeed, despite its widespread use among architects, planners and policymakers, there is no clear, established definition of the term. Why, then, should we be interested in the SUPERBLOCK? In his 1971 essay, The Superblock, historian Alan Colquhoun suggests that the SUPERBLOCK not only describes an urban typology, but it also gives us license—indeed it provokes us—to aspire to the kind of representational authority that architecture once had to represent the city, an authority that architecture lost with mass industrialization and the onset of ever more sophisticated, and more abstract and cybernetic forms of capitalist development. In this seminar, we will probe a global history of the SUPERBLOCK with the intention of asking whether the SUPERBLOCK names and simultaneously forecloses the possibility of representing the city as a totality, an ambition and obligation that once belonged to architects. If that turns out to be true, then what new forms of representation might allow us to reimagine the city, and what would that mean for our contemporary architectural and urban practices?

Over the fall semester, we will interrogate these questions and examine the concept of the superblock in relation to the idea of the city historically and theoretically. Class materials will draw on a diverse set of socio-cultural contexts and perspectives. The seminar aspires to achieve three objectives: first, to interrogate the concept of the superblock by investigating its history, space, and socio-political construct; second, to establish a critical understanding between the idea of the superblock and that of the city by examining its architectures, narratives, and imaginaries across geographies and cultures; and third, to re-engage the idea of the superblock as a cultural and political project of the city by imagining alternative forms, representations, and epistemologies.

The class will invest equally in history (reading and discussion), research (case study and analysis), and reinterpretation (drawing and representation). As such, class sessions will be divided into lectures, discussions, workshops, and presentations accordingly. In particular, a series of renowned scholars in the field will be invited for class lectures and conversations. In addition to weekly reading discussions, each student will take on two assignments as their class research projects. In the first assignment, students will deconstruct the space and politics of the selected superblock projects and formulate them into a series of visual analyses and narratives. In the second assignment, students will re-engage the idea of the superblock and reimagine the spatial and social production of an “Ideal Superblock” through an open research project with both written and visual components. These assignments are devised to form a collective project and culminate in a final exhibition of the class research works.

This seminar is open to all GSD students and by permission to students in other parts of the university. The class meets weekly in person. Students will be expected to engage actively in cultivating a collective, open, and explorative environment. Evaluation will be based 30% on class participation, 30% on the first assignment, and 40% on the final assignment. Basic drawing and representational skills are expected for the class.

This course will meet for the first time on Wednesday, September 7th.