Review Essay: The European City by L. Benevolo & The Soviet City by J.H. Bater

(First written in 2013 during postgraduation in JNU, New Delhi)

Emergence of the urban spaces[1] has been spontaneous in some cases and in some cases was triggered off by already existing cultural and political forces in the vicinity. Both the cases find ample representation and evidence in the books- The European City and The Soviet City, respectively. Both the books aim at enriching a research area by being a part of series of books. Leonardo Benevolo’s The European City is one in the international series, The Making of Europe and aims to brief up the process of development of European cities from the fall of Rome to the modern age; while James H. Bater’s The Soviet City aims at contributing a case study to the series of Explorations in Urban Analysis.

Benevolo in the very outset of his book says “The European city came into being with Europe itself” (Introduction, xv) and throughout the book he did his best, through illustrations and eruditions, to justify this statement.  The European city (or rather cities) did not develop as a result of a single factor but a culmination of factors- economic, political, historical and above all cultural. The read gives a feeling that the city emerged as cultural expression and cultural symbol in Europe and the other factors interdependently sponsored its establishment. Initially in the third millennium BC, with the rise of civilizations in Mesopotamia and along the great river valleys like Nile, Indus and the Yellow River, the city began to emerge as the centre of command for the accumulation and exchange of the access agricultural production of the more fertile areas. Around the same time in the territory which is now known as Europe grew urban settlements relatively compressing spatial relations, and has given to human affairs the rapid pace that distinguishes history from prehistory. For the author, it seems, in early periods of history ‘civilization’ and ‘city’ become synonymous- they were ‘centres’ which had a permanence, unlike fast changing newly urbanized areas, and where common memories were too weighty to be carried by each individual. These centres could be demarcated from the country side by architecture: ‘Within the city, the house, palace and temple are each partial enclosures which gain importance according to their degree of segregation’ (Chapter 1, p. 2). The development of the European city was not homogeneous though. The conceptualization of the ‘city’ varied from one place to another within the territory. The Greek city was different from the Roman regarding their ‘openness’. The former was relatively open than the latter and legally included the rural population as well. The difference was in function and importance but urban and rural spaces were fairly similar in visual and metric scales. Rome on the other hand was a cluster of Mediterranean city states. Bounded by walls, it had definite perimeters to control and defend and this required contraction of large and discontinuous urban centres and the incorporation of natural obstacles as well.  Implicitly, the author indicates a point of departure here and perhaps implies that this is how the process of deliberate urbanization began in history.

Religion, especially Christianity, played an important role in urban planning during the medieval period. It was also a period of crisis with invasions and new technological developments in certain cities bringing about instability in the scenario. But there were cities like Venice which remained immune to such instabilities being a mercantile city. Such cities gave grounds to a new urban system and around the same time a political impetus took root- colonization of the new world. Eighteenth century saw a revolutionary phase with movements like Renaissance and Baroque which redefined the urban scenario by influencing every sphere- architecture, sculpture, art, music. Benevolo, through a chapter on the Industrial city tries to argue that with its emergence came about the homogenization of urbanization, which the whole world is now trying to imitate. It began with a particular phase which he calls- Haussmannization. It seemed that the urban centres around the mid nineteenth centuries helped in proliferating revolutions; Paris being the most prominent example. The solution to this was bringing about a process of urbanization which aimed at ‘erasing memories’ attached to the city; to give the world not only a functioning model of the ‘city’ but a compelling image of it based on a consumer/popular culture devoid of any historical significance.

The chronological chapterization of the book, with seven chapters dealing with seven different phases of history, makes the read very interesting and story-like. The book almost suggests that the European city emerged purely on European soil with much less external socio-economic conditions prompting its emergence. Although the legitimacy of the observation needs to be questioned, the author’s arguments seem fairly convincing as well. Many would even question the relative emphasis on monumental versus everyday urban spaces. The usage of the word ‘city’ also remains ambiguous but of course it is more the fault of an inadequate translation than the author’s knowledge and intention.

In Soviet Union (USSR) it was basically the influence of Marxist ideological emphasis on the removal of difference between the town and countryside and an already politically vibrant ambience in the neighbourhood that is in Europe, which led to the forced industrialization in the region and thereby urbanization. While Europe saw the emergence of city due to cultural forces and already existing urban conditions, Russia, which was predominantly a peasant society saw the emergence of city as an external reality forced by politico-economic dynamics. From the discussion in the books, it is intelligible that there had been a reversal of impetus in the growth of city in the case of Europe and Soviet Russia; while urbanization led to industrialization in the former, in the latter it was the other way round.

James H. Bater, through seven chapters in his book, The Soviet City explains how the ideal Soviet city differs a lot from the Soviet city that came into existence.  The ideal Soviet city thrived on a socialist ideology. From the very onset a principal objective of Soviet locational decision making was to widen the benefits of socialism through removing regional inequalities and nurturing the urban-industrialization of traditionally backward, largely non-Slavic regions. However, the real Soviet city was far from what was being visualised. The long delayed blow of the Industrial Revolution struck in the Soviet Union with unexpectedness, unlike Europe. Instead of a gradual evolution, there had been an abrupt jump from small handicraft units to huge factories and industries. The government sponsored automation of agriculture had, to all intents and purposes, transferred part of the labour of farming to the cities where agricultural machineries and tractors were made. As a result there had been uncontrollable migration and demographic bombardment and subsequently to urbane conditions which hardly seemed fit for human life. The approach to a rigid centralization of the decision making authority, in reality was the greatest obstacle in realization of the objectives. The irony of the situation was also that to realize socialist objectives, full use of totalitarian powers deemed necessary, like during Stalin’s era. Ironically again, great disparities appeared in the realm of items of collective consumption and housing in socialist States. Further, there had neither been substantial change in the material conditions of the city people, nor in their worldviews, according to James H. Bater. Thus, the emergence of the city in Soviet Union need not necessarily modernize life.

The book did not integrate any element of pre-Soviet Russian society and hence leaves the reader in relative uncertainty regarding the existence of urban areas prior to Soviet Russia but it puts very convincingly, substantiating arguments with ample amount of data, the idea that, unlike the European city, the Soviet city was never a historic-cultural entity but always a politico-economic entity. The types of cities are mostly industrial in nature like Moscow and Leningrad. Others are transportation centres since Russia is a land of great distances and long hauls. The remaining are trade and textile centres. Places rich in oil fields have also turned to significant cities.

In spite of a few short comings, both the books, as case studies of emergence of cities, are a pleasurable read and rich in information and perspectives.

[1] In absence of clear cut definition of terms like ‘urban’ the term retains its ambiguity, a fallacy committed in both the books and hence I would like to mention that by ‘urban spaces’ I am referring to those spaces which are in distinct and apparent demarcation from rural spaces in all their aspects.

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