What Is the Urban?

Registers of a World Interior

Kenny Cupers

Kenny Cupers is Associate Professor in History and Theory of Architecture and Urbanism at the University of Basel. His work focused on the intersections of modernism, social life, and the politics of knowledge.

Previously, he taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University at Buffalo, where he was the 2010–2011 Reyner Banham Fellow. His books include the monograph The Social Project: Housing Postwar France (2014); the edited anthology, Use Matters: An Alternative History of Architecture (2013); and Spaces of Uncertainty, with co-author Markus Miessen (2002). He received his PhD from Harvard University in 2010. 

Planetary Ruralization

What is the urban? One way to answer this question is to revisit an age-old distinction, that between city and countryside. The conventional understanding is that in the last two centuries, the rural has been eaten up by the urban, a process that has turned the world into one great interior. “Planetary urbanization,” however, is less an undeniable historical process of urban agglomeration than it is a way of seeing the world. In this paper I argue that it is in fact a problematic way of seeing the world, as a flat terrain in which places become inevitably connected with others and in which being urban essentially means being connected.

Such a world view—arguably a neoliberal one—obscures the similarly pervasive and consequential processes of ruralization that have reshaped the world in the last two centuries. Ruralization should be understood not only as a social and material process, but also as an epistemological project. Reinvented in late-nineteenth-century aesthetic discourse, the trope of the rural was instrumental to a new, territorial form of state power intent on mastering the interior. From sub-saharan Africa to the heartlands of imperial Europe, ruralization entailed not only the rationalization of agriculture and the organized migration of farmers, but also techniques of settler colonization, nation-building, and social reform. 

The process of planetary transformation that scholars routinely identify as one of agglomeration—the process of creating larger agglomerations and networks of cities—is in fact a highly uneven process of both urbanization and ruralization, in which large swaths of land were turned into the hinterlands of a consolidating state-capitalist system. The rural is thus more than an “ideological projection derived from a long dissolved, preindustrial geo-historical formation.” It is integral to our modern territorial condition. 

Iowa State University

Department of Architecture

April 4-5, 2016