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L'histoire de l'urbanisme comme domaine inter-disciplinaire : franchissements de frontières dans les années de formation (1890-1940) – Urban Design History as an Interdisciplinary Field: Working across Boundaries in the Formative Years 1890-1940


Wolfgang Sonne


How may urban design history deal appropriately with its interdisciplinary subject? As a first step we explore the interdisciplinary concepts and practices of urban planners and urban design historians in the formative years of modern urbanism, a period when architects, economists, sociologists, philosophers, politicians, historians, art historians and others all contributed to a new discourse on urban design. As a second step we discuss how our understanding of writing urban design history might be opened up by encountering the broad range of knowledge of this period, and how our tasks in urban design history today may be re-focused on finding appropriate ways for the interpretation of urban forms.

Texte intégral

1Emphasizing interdisciplinarity in architecture and urban design is not a new phenomenon—it is an inherent quality of classical architectural theory. Vitruvius’ lengthy list of the disciplines an architect must master has long made apparent the intrinsically interdisciplinary nature of architecture. Within the first chapter of his first book, Vitruvius states that the architect’s education requires practical and reasoning skills, as well as studies in geometry, optics, arithmetic, history, philosophy, physiology, music, medicine, law, and astronomy—hardly any of today’s interdisciplinary research projects would be able to offer such a variety of disciplines.1

2Urban design, which transgresses the physical boundaries of the single building to encompass the complexities of the city, is interdisciplinary to an even greater extent. Therefore the central question of our session is: How can urban design history deal appropriately with its interdisciplinary subject? Our method is not to review the possibly interdisciplinary approaches to urban design history today, thereby repeating long-established calls for interdisciplinary work. Instead, this session suggests that today’s practice of historic research can benefit from a strict historic analysis of the interdisciplinarity of past urban design. It explores both the interdisciplinary concepts and practices of urban planners and of urban design historians in the formative years of modern urbanism.

3Urban design as a specific discipline and urban design history as a sub-discipline emerged in these years from interdisciplinary concepts and practices. Architects, economists, sociologists, philosophers, politicians, historians, art historians, and others all contributed to a new discourse on urban planning and therefore it may be said that urbanism was born out of the spirit of interdisciplinarity. So was urban design history, which was integral to this discourse and whose first representatives not only drew on a broad range of disciplines, but also aimed to deal with a variety of determining factors such as the economy, politics, society, technology, or art while aiming at interpreting urban form.


4One of the basic factors no architectural or urban project can avoid to respect is the economy. More specifically, economists made major contributions to urban design in the early twentieth century. Christiane Crasemann Collins examined the case of Werner Hegemann who had studied economics before becoming an internationally recognized figure in urban design. In Munich he studied with Lujo Brentano, in Paris he absorbed Charles Gide’s économie sociale, in Philadelphia he was captivated Simon N. Patten’s progressive anti-laissez-faire convictions. Following the example of the famous German economist Rudolf Eberstadt and his Handbuch des Wohnungswesens und der Wohnungsfrage (1909), Hegemann considered housing as the central element of city and regional planning, stressing the relationship between economic, social, and aesthetic questions in urban design. Throughout his entire professional career, he struggled to syncretize and reconcile scientific and humanistic approaches to cover the complexity of the city.2


5Sociology had a major impact on urban design theory as vice versa urban design movements constituted urban sociology. Georg Simmel’s famous lecture on “Die Grossstädte und das Geistesleben” was delivered at the first German City Exhibition in Dresden in 1903. His characterization of metropolitan life then became highly influential for the concept of a uniform metropolitan design as conceived by Karl Scheffler, Peter Behrens, Hermann Jansen, Eliel Saarinen, and Otto Wagner.3 In the United States, the City Beautiful Movement triggered the specific discipline of urban sociology as represented by Charles Zueblin’s American Municipal Progress. Chapters in Municipal Sociology (1903) or Robert Ezra Park’s, Ernest Watson Burgess’s und Roderick Duncan McKenzie’s The City (1925).4


6Politics influenced urban design in various ways. There was the aim to represent national political values and systems in the design of capital cities, encompassing such politically different cases as Washington (1902), Canberra (1912), or New Delhi (1913).5 There also was the ambition of municipal governments to deliver a specific political program by initiating a specific building policy, one of the most characteristic being the housing program of Red Vienna.6 But also political theory influenced urban design as was the case with Frederick Clemson Howe’s The City. The Hope of Democracy (1905), which enriched the City Beautiful Movement.

Biology and Geography

7While nature traditionally played a major role in classical architectural theory, modern natural sciences developed new relationships to urban design. Scottish urbanist Patrick Geddes, trained as a biologist, used biological paradigms to explain the complex system of the city and its supposed evolution, most prominently explained in Cities in Evolution (1915).7 He furthermore used geographic representation methods as the transect, once developed by Alexander von Humboldt and recently revived by Andres Duany and the New Urbanism. Following Geddes (and heavily influenced by the ideas of the philosopher Henri Bergson), Marcel Poëte, French historian turned urbanist, explicitly referred to biological theories of development to describe the evolution of the city.

Religion and Ideology

8Against the postmodernist conviction that modern architecture and urban design was purely functionalist or constructivist, Iain Boyd Whyte presented the spiritual ideas behind urban plans in the early twentieth century. The identification of architecture as a site of spiritual reassurance and consolation accompanied the progress of modernist architecture. For the architects, however, the goal was less concerned with Christian redemption than with manmade paradise. Architecture became a vehicle for progress defined on the Judeo-Christian model as a single, unified, beneficent, and future-directed force. Architecture would promote and enable a new culture that would be both collective and religious, most evident in Bruno Taut’s Stadtkrone (1919).8

Visual Culture

9Analyzing the case of Dutch architect and planner Hendrik Petrus Berlage, Nancy Stieber demonstrated the impact of local visual culture on urban design. Usually Berlage’s theoretical writings on cities and his practical urban design have been interpreted within the intellectual history of urban design as moving from the medievalist influence of the Austrian theorist Camillo Sitte to the Baroque influence of the German art historian Albert Erich Brinckmann. This narrowly construed, art historical approach failed to reflect either the interdisciplinary approach of Berlage or his embeddedness in the visual culture of cities. Stieber proposed a radical re-reading of Berlage’s influential conceptualization of the urban to demonstrate how his view of the city implied a visualization of its history.9

History and Literature

10Marcel Poëte’s activity as librarian of the Bibliothèque historique de la ville de Paris was examined by Diana Periton. For him to catalog meant not only to list, usually alphabetically, but also to produce an analytical summary of the contents of each work, which could be recorded atomistically. This meant the possibility for endless inter-disciplinary cross-referencing: data from a variety of different sources could be easily retrieved and combined, so that, for instance, geological facts might be connected to legal or economic facts. Poëte’s concern was to give the study of the history of the city the status of a science, a discipline with its own methods that would allow its facts to be verified and classified, and generalizations to be drawn from them. The Bibliothèque historique, and its associated Service historique, would make historical data available to the municipality of Paris, as well as identifying patterns or laws of transformation of the “urban organism.”10 In this way, the library would be fully implicated in the science of the study of cities and their development, i.e., the nascent science of urbanism, as exemplified by Poëte’s contribution to the extension plan for Paris in 1913.11

Urban Design History

11Urban design history (historiography) did not emerge as a strictly disciplinary project of art history. Wolfgang Sonne showed that even if the first general urban design history was published in 1920 by art historian Albert Erich Brinckmann, a disciple of Heinrich Wölfflin, it took much inspiration from design practice as theorized in Camillo Sitte’s Städtebau (1889). Furthermore, the first general urban design histories had not been published as separate history books, but appeared as substantial chapters in planning literature as in Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago (1909) or Rudolf Eberstadt’s Handbuch des Wohnungswesens und der Wohnungsfrage (1909). The analysis of further urban design histories by Cornelius Gurlitt, Werner Hegemann, Marcel Poëte, Pierre Lavedan, Paul Zucker, or Lewis Mumford not only revealed that the authors came from such different disciplines as architecture, history, art history, economy, or politics, but also dealt with a variety of disciplines and factors for interpreting the development of cities. Urban design history thus started within the practitioner’s discourse, it was written by scientists of different disciplines and it always considered a wider range of aspects. But while dealing with different aspects it never lost sight of its central task: to interpret and to understand the perceivable result of planning—the urban form.12

History and Theory in Urban Design Practice

12How urban design history and theory may cross the boundary towards practice was the topic of two presentations. Ulrich Maximilian Schumann explained the concept of “Practical Aesthetics” as developed by Friedrich Weinbrenner and Gottfried Semper, which had laid a foundation for modern urbanism, and which still offers valid ideas for useful interdisciplinarity today. In particular, it may help repositioning the role of the image within urban design.13 Gabriela Barman-Krämer presented the methods and first results of an ongoing research project at the ETH Zurich, supervised by Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani, which aims at using historic examples in a critical way to urbanize suburban areas. It is based on the thesis that urban design deficiencies in contemporary suburbia are analogous to deficiencies that triggered successful urban design projects in the history of urban design. To this point, an inductive method has been developed that presents successfully implemented spatial-aesthetic strategies from reference examples from the history of urban design, which can be interpreted for urban design challenges in today’s (sub-)urban areas.14


13All these contributions showed, how urban design in the early twentieth century combined various disciplines, and how urban design history included approaches from different disciplines. Maybe this interdisciplinarity constitutes the essential strength of this period which produced many urban schemes which are still highly regarded today. It was more interdisciplinary than the previous period of urban design during the industrialization, which was mostly based on engineering (e.g., Ildefonso Cerdà in Barcelona or James Hobrecht in Berlin); and it was more interdisciplinary than the following period, at least than the functionalist planning approach of the Charter of Athens. This loss of interdisciplinarity was already felt by Werner Hegemann and Elbert Peets, when they articulated their concerns in 1922: “Indeed, the authors feel that the young profession of city planning is drifting too strongly in the directions of engineering and applied sociology.”15 Here, the economist had to emphasize the role of aesthetics in urban design!

14Perhaps we also gain a new criterion for reconsidering twentieth century urban design: not by asking any longer how innovative or avant-gardist the design approach was (in opposition to traditional), but how interdisciplinary it was (in opposition to reductive). However, to reduce the complexity of the city to a few factors was the major criticism which the British architect A. Trystan Edwards made in his acute review of Le Corbusier’s The City of Tomorrow in 1929: “It is much too easy to design ideal or Utopian cities if the artist concentrates upon two or three of the factors to be considered and rejects all others.”16 And he ended: “The real effect of M. Le Corbusier’s proposals is an over-simplification of the city. . . . M. Le Corbusier’s solution is to do away with the complexity. This complexity, however, is part of the subject of civic design. The modern great city is like a large orchestra which often plays an inferior piece of music, and in which the instruments themselves may occasionally even be out of tune. It is the business of a reformer to improve the music and the instruments, but not to cut down the range of the orchestra, nor the number of musical effects that are aimed at by it. M. Le Corbusier has not the patience to attempt this, but substitutes for this orchestra a single tin whistle with about five notes, with which he plays a perfectly rhythmical tune. But it is not enough.”17

15To cover this complex field as an urban design historian, it is certainly not enough to deal only with aesthetic aspects; but it is certainly not enough as well to exclude aesthetic aspects and to concentrate only on social, political, economic, or whatever factors. Maybe this constitutes the greatest challenge issue for urban design history today: not to echo the ubiquitous claims for interdisciplinarity, but to refocus our writing on urban design. Not to look for salvation in other disciplines and to deny the relevance of forms, but to search for an appropriate use of other discipline’s methods and knowledge to accomplish our discipline’s tasks at best: interpreting and understanding urban forms. Thus urban design history would act in accordance with Paul Wolf’s comprehensive but focused definition in his Städtebau (1919): “Urban design is a product, resulting from different factors: economy, technology, hygiene, administration, and art. Art is the visible expression of the whole.”18

Note de fin

1 Vitruvius, Ten Books on Architeture, Ingrid D. Rowland, trans., Cambridge, 1999, pp. 21–24.
2 Christiane Crasemann Collins, Werner Hegemann and the Search for Universal Urbanism, New York, London, 2005.
3 Wolfgang Sonne, Representing the State: Capital City Planning in the Early Twentieth Century, Munich, London, New York, 2003, pp. 123–129.
4 William Henry Wilson, The City Beautiful Movement, Baltimore, London, 1989; Jon A. Peterson, The Birth of City Planning in the United States 1840–1917, Baltimore, London, 2003.
5 Wolfgang Sonne, Representing the State: Capital City Planning in the Early Twentieth Century, Munich, London, New York, 2003.
6 Eve Blau, The Architecture of Red Vienna 1919–1934, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1999.
7 Volker M. Welter, Biopolis: Patrick Geddes and the City of Life, Cambridge, London, 2002.
8 Iain Boyd Whyte, ed., Modernism and the Spirit of the City, London, 2003.
9 Nancy Stieber, Housing Design and Society in Amsterdam: Reconfiguring Urban Order and Identity 1900–1920, Chicago, 1998. Related topics will be discussed in the forthcoming book by Nancy Stieber, The Metaphorical City: Visual Representations of Fin-de-Siecle Amsterdam.
10 Marcel Pöete, Une vie de cité, vol. 1, Paris, 1924, p. IV; Marcel Pöete, Paris, son évolution créatrice, Paris, 1938, p. 1 ff.
11 Donatella Calabi, Parigi anni venti. Marcel Poëte e le origini della storia urbana, Venice, 1997.
12 Wolfgang Sonne, “‘The entire city shall be planned as a Work of Art.’ Städtebau als Kunst im frühen modernen Urbanismus 1890–1920,” in Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, vol. 66, no. 2, 2003, pp. 207–236.
13 Ulrich Maximilian Schumann, “Friedrich Weinbrenner. Italienerfahrung und praktische Ästhetik,” in Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, vol. 68, 2005, pp. 234–262.
14 The project will be presented in the forthcoming book by Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani, Gabriela Barman-Krämer, Anne Pfeifer, Patric Unruh, Städtebauliche Entwurfsstrategien für Suburbane Räume. Urban Design Strategies for Urban Sprawl.
15 Werner Hegemann, Elbert Peets, The American Vitruvius: An Architects’ Handbook of Civic Art, New York, 1922, p. 4. Wolfgang Sonne, “Bilder, Geschichte und Architektur. Drei wesentliche Bestandteile der Städtebautheorie in Werner Hegemanns und Elbert Peets’ American Vitruvius,” in Scholion. Bulletin der Stiftung Bibliothek Werner Oechslin, vol. 2, 2002, pp. 122–133.
16 A. Trystan Edwards, “The Dead City,” in The Architectural Review, vol. 66, 1929, pp.135–138, quotation p. 137.
17 Ibid., p. 138.
18 “Stadtbau aber ist ein Produkt, bestehend aus den Einzelfaktoren: Volkswirtschaft, Technik, Hygiene, Verwaltung und Kunst. Die Kunst ist der sichtbare Ausdruck des Ganzen.” Paul Wolf, Städtebau. Das Formproblem der Stadt in Vergangenheit und Zukunft, Leipzig, 1919, p. 4.

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Wolfgang Sonne, « Introduction », in Repenser les limites : l'architecture à travers l'espace, le temps et les disciplines, Paris, INHA (« Actes de colloques »), 2005.

Référence électronique

Wolfgang Sonne, « Introduction », in Repenser les limites : l'architecture à travers l'espace, le temps et les disciplines, Paris, INHA (« Actes de colloques »), 2005, [En ligne], mis en ligne le 02 novembre 2008, consulté le 23 mars 2017. URL :

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