Scale and Modernity: City, Object, Subject

Modernity, since the late 19th century, has been experienced, perceived, and imagined in terms of radical and transformative changes in the scale of the city, the architectural object, and the social subject. Scale, which is both objectively and subjectively constituted, has operated in highly ambiguous and contradictory ways in the programs and projects of modern architecture and urbanism. Mass urbanization, mass society, mass politics, mass media, mass marketing, mass production and mobilization, are some of the tropes of modernist discourse used to described the amplified scale of modern 20th century life. Architecture and urbanism responded to the social imperatives of scale with mass housing, mass transport, superblocks, megastructures, \’grands projets,\’ megalopolis, and so on. At the same time, however, the expanding dimensions of modernity were often experienced as contraction. At the beginning of the century, for instance, as new technologies of communication connected far flung places, time and space effectively contracted – a new \’condensed\’ geography and \’elastic\’ time were created, while nothing actually changed in either size or dimensions. Over the course of the century, the cognitive dissonance between the objective and subjective operations of scale continuously destabilized hierarchies and identities. Indeed, the shifting scale of economic and political life is conceived today (in the age of globalization) in the same terms as it was a hundred years ago, that is as a scenario in which the metropolis is expanding to absorb the nation, and/or the nation is contracting into a metropolis.The purpose of the course is to examine the operations of scale in modern architecture and urbanism, as an index of measure and proportion that registers change and difference as contingent – in relational rather than absolute terms. A working proposition of the course is that scale functions not only an index of social conditions, but can also operate as a radical instrument of change – as a means of transforming and reshaping (rather than merely representing) social, political, and cultural difference – abstractly and programmatically. The course will span the 20th century. It will begin with the modernization of Paris and Berlin, the ideology of monumentality, legibility, the cult of the street, and aesthetics of visibility that dominated urban architectural thinking at the beginning of the century. This will be followed by the conceptualization of the capitalist and socialist metropolis, \’Americanism\’, the superblock and \’highrise\’ cities in the 1920s and 30s; the metro-suburban landscape of the cold war from air raid shelter to megastructure, the strip and pop landscape, collage and \’psychogeography\’ in the 1950s and 60s; ending with \’Bigness\’, globalization, and post-Fordism at century\’s end. Requirements/assignments… The course will consist of lectures and discussions in which students will give short presentations of assigned topics relating to the lectures and readings. In addition to assigned weekly reading and class participation, there will be a mid-term exam, and a final research paper (10-12 pp.) required of each student. A one-page abstract of the paper (topic to be selected in consultation with me) will be due March 17. Final papers will be due May 19, 2003.