Metropolis (1882–1939)

Diellëza Tahiri
11 min readSep 27, 2022

The period of metropolis represents one of the most significant multidisciplinary transformations in human history. An ambitious cause with extraordinary effect that will constantly be shaping the future life and city of today. The first and second technological revolution in the beginning of the 19century in the United Kingdom and then the rest of Europe, opened doors to new ways of life, where things are never going to be the same again. Although the cause behind is solely decent and kind, the effect on the other hand was huge and disastrous that eventually brought Europe on a horrible situation.

The laissez-faire times: invention of steam machine and new transport systems, rapid replacement of agriculture into industry; will lead to a continuous and massive movement of people from countryside to cities. Hence European cities are going to grow immensely, especially mother cities generating jobs and hosting major industries, like Paris, London, Berlin. These cities are known with the term Metropolis.

Population in Europe in 1800 and 1890

Life in metropolis was miserable for most people, especially the working class who mainly worked in factories with very little salaries and lived in housing units of terrible conditions, whereas for the bourgeoisie or the rich whose life was extraordinarily luxurious, everything was surely in favor. Eventually this social segregation will lead to a brutal monopolist capitalism and to abandoning the traditional beliefs of spiritualism into a new construct, into a rational mindset.

Alexander Leydenfrost: “Science on the march” (1952)

Rationalism will reflect on every aspect, developing strategies and models like Fordist strategic production model and Taylor Principles: 1-research; 2-efficient design; 3-mass production; which will not only be applied in work ethics but also adapted in everyday life, stimulating segregation, in terms of gender, social status, function and general lifestyle.

Otto Wagner: Vienna as “unending growth metropolis” (1912)
Berlin Mietskasernen (Verlag Dr. Hans Epstein/Wien & Leipzig 1929)

The huge contrast of social classes, the rational way of thinking and the machinery-vision, will influence also the later city planning and architects who so far had carelessly been decorating plazas and buildings under different directives. Therefore, urban planning was born after most of metropolitan cities had already been built and working. However, rationalism awakened architects and urban planners to act on the big housing problem due to overpopulation, chaotic urban growth in European cities and the need to accommodate this huge amount of people. The use of only two tools made it quite easy for architects to solve these problems in Metropolis. Ordinances built for working class and entirely based on rational mindset, originally were the first important tool to improve the quality of life. However, architects seem to somewhat lack empathy while designing ordinances that actually were accommodating people in devastating conditions whereas hundreds of small rooms were found in one block and thousands of people living there. The other tool was regulation plan which will decide on built areas, road networks and most importantly, zoning. Regulation plans will establish zones for everything, especially industry and housing, and were highly influenced by rationalistic way of living, the Taylorist principles and social segregation. This means that the working class and industry cannot be mixed with the bourgeois. Usually, the urban model adapted in Europe and North America during this period, will follow the same approach where public facilities and commerce are in the center, but housing and industry are in peripheries. Due to pollution of industry and wind direction of west-to-east, surely the rich will peculiarly live in the west while the working class will miserably live in the east, where the industry is. European cities, known with their medieval centers, will have to be partially demolished, in order to build the tertiary commercial activities and the mass transport systems connecting center, peripheries and other small towns together, which is what makes a metropolis work.

Reinhard Baumeister: Heilbronn Regulation Plan (1879)

On these notes, many architects started working closely on the urban model for such cities, frankly speaking, with quite inconsistent and yet absurd ideas, reflecting the rational mindset to its bits, even from the intellectual class of well-educated people like architects for that matter.A brilliant proposal of Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse in 1935, ideally follows the human body elements (head, spine, arms and legs) and composing an abstract shape of linear city planning where functions were spread horizontally according to given hierarchies.

Le Corbusier: Ville Radieuse (1935)

This proposal anyhow, lacks efficiency in terms of commuting for long periods (travelling home-to-work and vice versa) and as known, efficiency is in essence of rationalism. As opposed to Le Corbusier’s idea, German architects thought of more efficient ways, like the proposal of Ludwig Hilberseimer’s Hochhausstadt, where there is no zoning, one typology, and a ruthless efficiency in the superposition of circulation, production, consumption and reproduction. These two approaches are rather too rational and ideal, theoretically speaking, but if we look closely, does it really feel like architecture? The debate between LC and Hilberseimer was somewhat pursuing what is the logic of the metropolis to its most extreme conclusion, which eventually might have ascended towards disappearance of architecture into a technical functional scheme.

Ludwig Hilberseimer: Hochhausstadt (1927)

Even after the Chart of Athens in the early 30s when architects agreed upon modern urban planning approaches in European cities and added recreation in the list of four main functions of city planning, architecture in the beginning of 20 century was nothing more than a reflection of rationalism and “machine-era”.

A lot of great architects of this period were coping with difficulties of Metropolis and more particularly, late modernization of architecture. Le Corbusier’s many attempts to solve the issue of rapid urban growth with Ville Contemporaine and Ville Radieuse, Hillberseimer’s controversy with the Hochhausstadt, and the many efforts on housing problems from other architects like Gropius, Breuer, Martin Wagner, Alexander Klein, Bruno Taut, were all depicting towards a soulless, empty, and desperate architecture. On a positive perspective, this rationalism of metropolis era, is undoubtedly a very important aspect of history in numerous disciplines, then of course in architecture and urban planning.

1-Research ; 2-Efficient Design ; 3-Mass Production

No matter how deluded and absurd the architects might look with their proposals of that time, their approaches serve a great importance to what is today contemporary development. Considering how swift the revolutions metamorphose our realities, even unnoticedly, we get caught in problematic situations where we are responsible to co-design the future and respect the past, because our footprints are the latest to be set and the longest to last.

METROPOLITAN LANDSCAPES

When talking about landscapes in the metropolis era, the image we visualize is rather not pleasant. The reign of industry and machinery mindset over European cities, led not only to the demoralization of architecture but also to desolation of landscapes and countryside, with the immense pollution the lack of sustainable thinking in architecture and urban planning. Hence the debate on sustainability will be a starting point towards change. One idea was for cities to follow and imitate nature and another one opposed to that, was to keep following industry and rationalism. Undoubtedly, industry and extreme rational mindset dominated over the small number of nature followers, who were not architects, but biologists, ecologists, botanists, geographers, sociologists, and so on.

Going against rationalism of metropolitan era, does not mean being irrational and turn your back to symbolic way of thinking. Quite the contrary in fact, the ideology of ecologists or say “naturalists”, strongly relies on two aspects that are primarily scientific, properly rational, and what is open-mindedly new, mildly spiritual. It was rather odd to reckon such a philosophical, yet scientific ideology by the metropolis. The naturalists however, along with rational scientific approaches, also believed in nature’s power and its balance, where ecosystems are a co-living environment for diverse species spread equally, and humans should not disturb the nature’s balance. This is the so-called cycle of life and it works in perfect harmony with biotic and abiotic elements of the earth.

Such philosophy will be later adapted to the city planning and architecture where a city should work like an ecosystem, therefore we hear the term ecocity. Certainly, as always, architects were sleeping at least from 1880 to 1920! Instead, the debate on sustainability was entirely initiated by people of different fields who decided on following ecology, like geography and sociology.

Walter Christaller: Central Place Theory (1933)

Walter Christaller, a German geographer dedicated most of his works on patterns of settlements from geographical basis (human ecology). His well-known “central place theory” in 1933, seeks to explain the number, size and location of human settlements in a residential system and the spatial distribution of cities across the landscape.

On the other hand, Ernest Burgess, a Canadian sociologist working in Chicago, who by imitating nature: how ecosystems work in group species, developed urban diagrams of such ecological approaches to sociology emphasizing the interaction between human behavior, social structures, and the built environment. In this view, competition over scarce resources, particularly land, led to the spatial differentiation of urban areas into zones of similar use and similar social groups. Hence, he proposes a model for the spatial organization of cities called concentric zone theory on the city of Chicago as a prototype.

Ernest Burgess: Chicago School Diagram (1925)

It was the work of botanists, ecologists and historians that tried to bring ecology in city planning with a lot of interesting proposals concerning new ways of growing. The unending growth metropolis had become a great problem in Europe, with an absent solution. Many thought of radially growing by adding new circles to the metropolis functional scheme, which however was a temporary comfort and not a real solution.

Howard’s Garden City concept in

“To-morrow: a peaceful path to real reform” written in 1898, aspires to go back to how life was before metropolis, with no pollution, no poverty, no chaos. His proposal can be described as a simple project of marrying town and country”

of unifying together rural space and the urban nexus, or the urban nexus into rural space.

As an environmental concept, the Garden City, is centrally composed by preoccupations about the spatial combination of different dimensions of social life such as housing, industry, agriculture, business, municipal institutions, and transport infrastructure. Hence the idea depicts of small territories with limited population where the main center squares do not comprise churches or historical monuments, but parks instead. This interpretation obliterates what is the true origin of the Howard’s scheme, specifically the ideologies of new liberalism and new industrialism.

Ebenezer Howard: To-morrow: a peaceful path to real reform (1898)

Patrick Geddes, a Scottish biologist, came with a new term for the metropolis, “ecological crisis” and as opposed to that, the term “urban ecology”. He firmly believed that there is

“a larger view of nature and life, a rebuilding of analyses into synthesis of knowledge and action that embeds economic, social and cultural considerations, and perceiving “life as a whole”, which is to understand life as a dynamic ecological, social, and cognitive process in what humanity participates, raises awareness of the fundamental interconnection of nature and culture”.

In his famous Valley Section Geddes tries to show how human activity comes from the landscape features and territory, therefore is bound and adapted to it. The valley section, comprising a number of valleys, is a longitudinal bird-eye section which begins high up in the mountains and then follows the course of a river down the mountains and through a plain towards the coast. Along the bottom of the diagram, Geddes notes the so-called natural, best adapted, occupations represented by tools of different trades and crafts. If these occupations, exist in harmony with their environment, human societies would materialize in the form of such human settlements as can be seen along the valley section.

Patrick Geddes: The Valley Section (1909)

When translated in city planning, we understand the very basis of why cities are formed in such territories and work upon specific social and cultural activities. This leads to a new term: “conurbation”, a regional compromise of metropolises or developed cities, which in later decades will emerge properly in forms metapolises, such as Randstad, Ruhr, Midlandton, etc.

On another note, Lewis Mumford, an American historian tried to put both ideas together, for conurbation and garden city to work together. Since technology makes it possible to travel easily from one place to another, why should people only live-in mother cities while they can satisfy all their needs in smaller ones and be connected to one another via transport systems? — is something Mumford wondered.

Frank Lloyd Wright, who was a good friend of Mumford, following his theory proposed the famous suburban concept of Broadacre City in 1935. With this proposal, he envisioned the hope of liberating the individual, and connecting citizens to nature where all elemental units of modern society were modestly included, like farms, factories, offices, schools, parks and recreational spaces, places of worship, a seat of government, and individual houses. He also envisioned that the low-density community represented in the Broadacre model would be replicated across the United States, creating a network of small communities that would be connected by highways and telecommunication systems, such as radio and telephone.

Frank Lloyd Wright: Broadacre City Model (1935)

However, his plan does not cater for the type of freedom found in being able to walk, cycle, or use public transport. Furthermore, whilst Wright had a utopian vision that promised subsistence from the land, and having space to grow, he disregarded the benefits of the traditional city itself, was not sustainable at all, and somewhat influenced a new kind of urban development particularly in American cities, known later as urban sprawl.

This was a huge failure of the debate on sustainability that will have an immense effect on the future. Literally copying nature to solve the metropolis problems is nothing near the ideal sustainability they were trying to practice. Moreover, it led to a misinterpretation and misuse of the word sustainable after all, raising numerous vain confusions.

Based on Geddes ideas on large scale territories, the planning was brought to a regional scale, regional planning, especially with the establishment of Regional Planning Association of America (RPAA) in 1923, an urban reform association of planners, sociologists, architects, historians. This association dealt with new innovative ideas of growing territories, mainly in the United States which was coping with the great immigration problem of that time. Some of their proposals are applied even nowadays, such as Superblock providing all needs within one big block where people share similar aspirations. Neighborhood Unit or 15-minute cities where everything is easily accessible within a period of 15minute walking, Green Belt as a concept of protected green areas within a city, Parkway as a highway lined with forests, and many other enlightening ideas.

These concepts from a hundred years ago, are now adapted to contemporary and sustainable city planning. For instance, The Emerald Necklaces project in Boston which somewhat is an interpretation of the Green Belt concept, Barcelona’s new projects to merge existing blocks of the grids into Superblocks, the initiative of Paris to be a 15minute city.

Carlos Moreno: Paris as a “15-minute city”(Image: Ubique)

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