The Spanish City: 2012 KFLC Book Round Table

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Just back from Lexington where I took part in the following session featuring 5+ scholars with recent books out on the Spanish City (both Madrid and Barcelona were represented). I have to say that what I enjoyed most was the discussion format–I had never taken part in nor seen a session like this before (sad to say now, looking back), each presenter shared a concise 5-8 minute talk about the contents and approach of their book, and then a lively discussion followed, relating to larger issues in the field (well, better said, relating to the fields of both Hispanic Studies and Cultural/Urban Geography). Not sure if I can (or want to) go back to the traditional paper format. I had always been skeptical of the discussion format as advertised in other conference venues, but done right, it is much more interesting and productive than traditional papers by far. Kudos to Susan Larson and Malcolm Compitello for a great session. Although some of the books below are pending publication (those by Mercer and Santiáñez should be out soon), links are available below as appropriate:

HISPANIC STUDIES SPECIAL SESSION 5: THEORIES AND CULTURAL POLITICS OF REPRESENTING SPANISH CITIES (New Student Center, 211)

Organized by: Susan Larson, U of Kentucky; Chaired by: Malcolm Compitello, U of Arizona

Speakers: Benjamin Fraser, C of Charleston; Nil Santiáñez, St. Louis U; Carlos Ramos, Wellesley C; Leigh Mercer, U of Washington; Nathan Richardson, Bowling Green State U 

This roundtable brings together scholars who have recently published monographs on the cultural politics of Madrid [and Barcelona]. Each book will be briefly presented, whereupon there will be an open discussion of the different theoretical and methodological possibilities as well as the challenges of researching the representation of urban space.

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What I took away from the session was the energy of a geographical paradigm shift in the humanities. Discussions centered around the relevance of the humanities to urban planning, the possibility of resistance to capital, pedagogical approaches, the future of digital humanities research (particularly the hypercities project mentioned previously on this blog) and the potential for collaborative work (by undergrads, grad students and faculty) across disciplines. Of course the obstacles that limit these sorts of changes were also discussed, but energy and time can make all the difference.
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City Planning 101: Ildefons Cerdà

Ildefons Cerdà (1815-1876) was a (socialist) nineteenth-century planner of note. In his two volume Teoría general de la urbanización / General Theory of Urbanization (from 1867; the link is to tome I on googlebooks) Cerdà invoked the organic metaphor of the city prevalent at the time–writing things like:

“Introducing the scalpel into the most intimate and recondite areas of the social and urban organism, one discovers the original cause alive and in action, the fecund seed of the grave illness that corrodes the entrails of humanity” (1867: 16–17, my translation).

Urban Scholar Richard Sennett touches upon this metaphor in his bookThe Craftsman (2008) where he writes of the connection between the city and knowledge of the human body:

“The scalpel had permitted anatomists to study the circulation of the blood: that knowledge, applied to the circulation of movement in streets, suggested that streets worked like arteries and veins” (2008: 204).

In his design Cerdà privileged (created?) the “xamfrà” (chamfer in English) or truncated corner. As scholar Joan Ramon Resina writes “The xamfrà is the palpable sign of Cerdà’s subordination of living space to movement” (Barcelona’s Vocation of Modernity 22).

The pictures below show: Cerdà, an image of Cerdà’s Eixample pushing beyond the gangly streets of Barcelona’s medieval walls, a building set on one of Barcelona’s characteristic xamfrà corners, and strangely, a brand of cava named after the planner’s truncated corner (gotta market that culture…).

For a great visual meditation on Barcelona’s urban environment, change and modernity, see the film En construcción by José Luis Guerín–and a fantastic article by Abigail Loxham on the subject.

Barcelona on/off Film

Barcelona–the city with (as scholar Joan Ramon Resina titles his 2008 book) the “vocation of modernity”–has been the star of a number of films. Perhaps none are as visually stunning and recent as Biutiful (2010, starring Javier Bardem but featuring an incredible, numerous cast, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu).

Substantially changed by planner Ildefons Cerdà’s nineteenth-century geometrical vision for the city (above, the plan dates from 1859), Barcelona experienced subsequent changes in 1888, in 1929, and in preparation for the Olympic Games in 1992.

The more recent changes are also analyzed in depth as part of Donald McNeill’s 1999 book Urban Change and the European Left, and the areas at the center of these new late XXth-century changes have a predominant role (even if they appear only infrequently) in the film Biutiful–where the triumphant, international vision of Barcelona as a model for contemporary urban planning is splendidly juxtaposed to the underworld of sweatshop labor and exploitation upon which many of Barcelona’s successes rely.

Definitely a must-see film for students of urban cultural studies.