Modernism and the Archaic City:

The Pre-Industrial Past in the Imagination of 20th Century Urban Design


Anthony Raynsford – [ dissertation topic ]


Histories of urban design have generally emphasized modernism’s rejection of the historical past, and consequently
its opposition both to 19th century historicism and to so-called postmodern urbanism. This characterization, in fact, follows
modernism’s own founding myths and often repeated slogans, in particular its claims to have effected a symbolic and
aesthetic break with all earlier urban forms. However, such histories tend to ignore or downplay the equally powerful ways
in which modernist urban design built upon metaphors and images of the archaic, not as a means of declaring a break with
the past but as a means of criticizing the present. To examine this countervailing theme of modernism is perhaps to
generate a more complex and ironic portrait of modernist urban design than has hitherto been produced.


Preindustrial urban models have never been static objects of reference; rather they both mediate and become
mediated by the theories and practices of urban design through which they circulate. Modernism and the Archaic City,
therefore, is not a project merely of highlighting the romanticism, primitivism and nostalgia that have repeatedly erupted
within modernist practices. Rather, it is also a project that explores the agency of preindustrial urban forms within a series
of ‘feedback loops’ between twentieth century observers and preindustrial forms, as these observers lived through the
profound social, aesthetic and technological shifts that continued to alter urban spaces and spatial frames of reference.


This project examines three overlapping periods: 1909-1967; 1944-1979; and 1966-1985. The aim is to reinterpret
these periods or stages of modernism through the lens of preindustrial cities, thereby supplementing, but also critiquing,
dominant historical accounts of modernism in architecture and urban design. In particular, this revised account places into
question the idea that some kind of ‘post-modern urbanism,’ characterized by a new use of pre-industrial forms suddenly
appeared around 1960. The three periods, therefore, consist in stages within modernism itself, revealing a dialectic
between modernism and modernity, as well as between modernism and the archaic.

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