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The European City – Myth and Reality

Is there a term or idea of the "European City"? A new book looks at the future of the globalized city.

The European City - Myth and Reality
LIT Publishers Münster - Hamburg - London
Münster 2002, 306 p., ISBN 3-8258-5228-8
By Dieter Hassenpflug

Reviewed by Chloé Lachauer, M.A.
Center for Applied Policy Research

03.12.2004 · Reviewed by Chloé Lachauer

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Is there a term or idea of the "European City"? Can one speak about "European" urban planning without risking to speak about "something that does not exist" (p. 251)? If one can agree to this, how does such a city look like and how will it look like in the future? These questions are discussed in several contributions to Hassenpflug's volume, which where documented in a series of lectures of the Bauhaus University of Weimar with the aim to "create the preconditions for a forward-looking participation in a global discourse about the future of the city" (p. 7).

Starting from the ancient polis and the medieval city with a marketplace as a center (Habermas described it as a "total institution"), the discourse leads to the modern metropolis. Its main problem seems to lie in the finding of a European municipal identity in between the conflict of modern age and tradition. But exactly in a Europe characterized by diversity, integration problems and "a deprivation of the world's mystique" (Max Weber), where the human being is going in search of the Aristotelian good life, in an age of the radical force of the global, the importance of home, of collective and individual, consciousness comes to the fore. The cultural sociologist Richard Sennett concerns himself for many years with the powerlessness of the individual in modern public architecture of Western large cities and the unlearning of human empathy – parts of his theory have found their way into the collected reflections of Hassenpflug. Exemplifying Berlin, the dimension becomes a postulate characterizing the European city: Cities, which stay habitable in the future for their inhabitants require the development of ideas that do not exclusively orient to economical but also to political-cultural needs" (p. 92). And: "The future of the city of European tradition depends on the recovery of political awareness. This was and is the bottom of urban and regional architecture" (p. 93).

The original thesis, the "European city" would merely be a theoretical construct, the city would bear the seed of its decline and inner erosion in itself and therefore, a European city could not exist for a present society, can no longer be maintained. It has rather to be pointed out that a "European city" definitely exists, which differs from the American city by a series of historical, political and cultural factors. Undoubtedly there are tendencies of approach towards the USA, but especially in the future urban development will take a specific European shape "as they are again and again formed by the "retarding moment of the existing structures" (p. 223). The approaches to this theme differ in the volume on hand, but concerning the future of the "European city" they agree on the necessity to develop a "European" city culture as a European consciousness is developing in a world, where borders are more and more often replaced by interfaces.

With the loss of ideologically forming influence on urban features, which used adjectives like modern, progressive and technological, hopeful points are switched to an "attempt to interpret the polarity between continuity and change anew" (p. 275). The European city has a good chance to comprehend its political character with all its contradictions on condition that it is aware of its history, that it starts a political dialogue in accordance with heritage and task and strives for a continual social integration and cultural assimilation. Pierre Bordieu pointed out the correlation between interior design and corporeality for the constitution of societies (see: Pierre Bordieu, Das Haus oder die verkehrte Welt, In: ders., Sozialer Sinn. Kritik der theoretischen Vernunft, Frankfurt am Main 1987, p. 468 – 489) and therefore, a conscious retraditionalization of European cities and a leaving of mere functional rooms should be in the fore but also integrate the modern age and tradition, technology and aesthetic sense, rationality and emotion, identification, integration and cultural interchange: "For the city beyond the modern age both sides must be integrated and be at hand: the creative, innovative and the careful, protective side. We must be both the guide and the gardener" (p. 288).

The volume of Hassenpflug is marked by numerous repetitions as regards content and by a clear recruitment for the postgraduate study "European Urban Studies", but on the whole it represents an extremely successful trial to build a bridge across different scientific disciplines between theory and practice. In accordance with Richard Sennett's socio-cultural reflection "Fleisch und Stein" (Flesh and Stone) Hassenpflug's volume allows a new look at urban history and furnishes the reader with exciting ideas. The reflection and discussion on numerous case studies helps to make the less monotonous and well readable and understandable also for the reader who is unconnected with this subject. Accurate and forward-looking is the title "Between Myth and Reality", as nearly all state and society utopias have involved architectural experiments: "World orders are thought in urban features" (p. 131). And the need for new and old places of identification grows with the globalization.