Was the city, from its very beginnings, not the first utopia, the first vision of the world, that of the monarchs, the sultans, the maharajahs, the merchants but also that of the tyrants, the despots, the satraps and the oppressors, when these are not confused with each other?
From Mari, the ancient Sumerian city on the banks of the Euphrates, to Welthauptsadt (‘World Capital’), the “New Berlin” that Hitler never finished or, more recently, from the Casa poporului, “the People’s House” built by Ceausescu and worthy of Kakfa’s “Castle”, to Pienza in Tuscany, the ornamental decoration of a Pope, we understand that the city is a way of ordering its inhabitants into the two faces of exchange and of the demonstration of symbolic forms of power. The city thus bears witness to this utopia, the inscription in space of an ideal of societal life, the very basis of the idea of “happiness”, of the good life essential to man, reluctantly drawn out, as it were, and for the greatest glory of its inventor.
Ultimately, every architect possesses this wild, old dream, even in this day and age, when he is less and less involved with tyrants but nevertheless finds in leaders the resources required for shared ambitions. Imagining and deciding what is good for others in the most tangible modulation of space, by somehow curbing their daily life.
In Mari, the necessity of the city arose, as did, therefore, its “idea” and its “image” in the Western universe, three thousand years before our time, reaching this fundamental balance between livestock farming on the plateaux and recessional agriculture associated with controlled river traffic, which gave it access, among other things, to the raw materials processed by the city’s craftsmen and then exported throughout the Fertile Crescent. The vital importance of the great river’s water, diverted via a canal that ran through Mari, supplying the city and providing its connection to the Euphrates, is evident in the worship of “the goddess with the overflowing vase” who holds in her arms a jug from which the source of life flows. Within the walls of Mari, a city rich thanks to its produce and trade, which could guarantee its inhabitants both food and safety, an immense and magnificent palace saw the day, like a symbol of its deep-seated identity, perhaps one of the first of its kind and where the sovereign enjoyed iced drinks during the hottest hours of the day…
And Pienza where Pope Pious II, in the clay of his small native village, shaped a pontifical palace, a cathedral, and a square inspired by the Renaissance model according to the principles of Léon Battista Alberti.
Then the Babylonian projects elaborated by the architect Speer at the request of Adolf Hitler, projects that measured up to the despotic will of the Nazi regime, which imagined an immense dome for the Reichstag, ten times larger than that of the Basilica in Rome.
These examples picked from thousands of other possible ones reveal the growing role of the city as the ultimate seat of power, in the image of the praying figure struck by the omnipotence of his god in the “monumentality” of the temple, or even in that of the subject overwhelmed by the cosmic succession of vestibules leading to the throne room.
Today, and without going into the recent examples throughout the world that we all have in mind, it could be argued that the city brings together beings who are increasingly trying to escape the constraints of the organisation of space, despite the contemporary forms of its “canonisation” or its classification as heritage. Simply because the inhabitants of the city can escape the city via the most diverse digital communication networks, via their almost exponential development and evolution, but also because this uninterrupted development of exchange, combined with the multiplication and the mutation of possibilities of expression, produce another city on the other side of the city, on the other side of the colonial utopia of granted or forced “happiness” leading toward another utopia, that of “recognition”, of mutual transformation.
The “goddess with the overflowing vase” or even the podium on the Nuremberg esplanade catching everyone’s gaze, turned in one direction, like the culmination of the meaning of the city, of a verticalness guaranteeing the order of the society, have now faded away to the benefit of gigantic expansion, of a “horizontalness” of beings in search of their “happiness” through permanent dialogue and shared experiences.
The frightened faces, looking up to the god in the immense temple or to the sovereign in his palace filled with riches, turn then to the agora, the plaza which is alive with the immensity of differences, colours and desires, amplified to infinity.