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Issue 130

The Situationists and the City

Ed. Tom McDonough (Verso, London, 2009)

BY Owen Hatherley in Critic's Guides | 01 APR 10

Peter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel, c. 1563.

This anthology is a critique of another world: a welfare state where the poor are rehoused in brightly coloured blocks of flats, where clean, functional New Towns free of conflict spring up in place of the old cities, and where a socialized capitalism converges between East and West. The Situationists’ enemies – those who created this dead world: the town planners, architects and technocrats of the 1950s and ’60s – are powerless, and they have been for decades. When the Situationist International (SI) wrote ‘the rout of the planners will coincide with a decisive transformation of life’, they can’t have known that the real result would be the intensification of the museum culture that they presciently saw expanding. As it is, the cult of the SI – the prolific industry of biographies, glosses and nostalgic apologias for the failed insurrection of May 1968 – proceeds as if 30 years of neo-liberalism never happened, as if a rapacious, asocial, anti-Modernist and unplanned capitalism doesn’t provide a very different adversary.

Situationist urbanism was absorbed by neo-liberalism in several ways, with the pro-SI Tony Wilson’s quasi-Situationist alibis for gentrified post-industrial city centres such as Manchester one striking example; but even the original texts, here assembled in new translations, have unnerving new resonances. Ivan Chtcheglov’s ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’ (1953) is still a haunting, rousing text – but when he talks about cities constructed for whimsy and leisure, of impossible quarters and extraordinary grottoes, it’s difficult not to think of Dubai’s slave-built artificial islands and feats of anti-functionalist architecture. Meanwhile ‘the construction of situations’ too often evokes Nicolas Bourriaud’s theories of relational aesthetics, and his successful attempt to take the sting out of the Situationist unity between art and life. ‘Psychogeography’, a term the SI coined, devolved into a farrago of ley-lines and mysticism – a more recherché version of today’s heritage urbanism.

Of course, the Situationists were aware of the dangers of recuperation, and one of the virtues of this book is that it makes clear how much their argument was within Modernism. It’s no accident that one of their early incarnations was as the Bauhaus Imaginiste – they regarded Modernist ideas about utility, technology and comfort as self-evident, only discarding the mechanistic, grid-planned shell. Postmodernist architecture did that more conclusively, often discarding utility and technology along with it. Situationist urbanism is least recuperable when at its most Modernist – Constant’s Constructivist-esque designs for a ‘New Babylon’, dismissed here as a mere ‘architectural interlude’, remain more unrealizable than a picturesque dérive around the old city. Unlike the Hacienda, this society is never going to build it.

What endures in these writings is not the minutiae of the urban critique, which is often extremely dated, but the totality of the Situationist project, its insistence on the unity of art, technology, urbanism and political practice. This unity provides the most relevant essays here. Their ‘Decline and Fall of the Spectacle–Commodity Economy’, on the Watts Riots of 1965, or their ‘Theses on the Paris Commune’ are vivid evocations of cities truly transfigured, which can explain, say, the eruption of the French banlieue better than a disdain for right-angles and town planning.

Owen Hatherley is the author of several books, most recently The Ministry of Nostalgia (Verso, 2016), The Chaplin Machine (Pluto, 2016) and Landscapes of Communism (Penguin, 2015).