Multiplicity of Urban Histories

 

By Piotr Kisiel

The IX biannual conference of the Italian Association of Urban History (AISU) took place in Bologna 11-14.09.2019. It was entitled THE GLOBAL CITY The urban condition as a pervasive phenomenon.Peter Stabel, the chair of the European Association of Urban History, noted during the opening the difference in approach to urban studies in the Netherlands and United Kingdom when compared in Italy. In the latter focused is much stronger placed on the space, whereas the former pays more attention to the human experience. And indeed the papers presented during the conferences tended to examine the urban sphere through its materiality, rather than subjectivity of individual participation of the urban phenomenon.

My paper on postcards from industrial cities (on the example of Chemnitz and Łódź) was part of the panel which looked at urban representations, and was supported by the Urban Representations interest group of the European Architectural History Network (EAHN)Rosa Sessa(Università di Napoli Federico II) presented a paper on a Swiss industrial colony located in Salerno, Italy and argued that the postcards produced in that community were part of a larger effort to protect the Swissness of the inhabitants and separate themselves from the surrounding Italian population (and landscape). Conor Lucey(University College Dublin) gave a presentation on the James Malton’s views Dublin (1799) arguing that theses depictions expresses an image of, and vision for, Dublin rather than being merely pictures of the city on the eve of the Union. Ludovica Galeazzo(The Harvard University) presented her digital project documenting changes in the Venice lagoon since the abolition of the Venetian Republic and argued for the preservation of the memory of those places. The discussion that followed focused heavily on the postcard and their use as a historical source. As it has been pointed out during the discussion it is wrong to reduce them to a “tourist gaze” as they have been often used as a less formal alternative to a latter by inhabitants of a given city. Furthermore, the question of how their producers (“graphic entrepreneurs” in the words of Jeff Cohen) chose the images anticipating what the wider public (but also collectors) will want to buy as well as the ways which such images had been distributed. 

Among many other fascinating papers, I was especially attracted to two presentations on post-war Milan by Serena Pesenti(Politecnico di Milano) and Simona Talenti(Università degli Studi di Salerno). The issue here was how war not only heavily affected the city (around 25% of city was destroyed), but also how it affected the city planning and was seen by the architects to “sanitize” the urban space (which is not that much different from the situation in other European cities, for instance in Germany and Poland). The plans drawn before and after the war were not meticulously followed in the chaotic reconstructed period and furthermore the construction of skyscrapers (referred to as “towers” in homage to the medieval period) was seen as a method of making the city truly modern.

Peter StabelAnat Falbel(Federal University of Rio de Janeiro), Françoise Ged(Cité de l’architecture & du patrimoine, Paris), Ksenia Malich(The State Hermitage Museum), Gaby Sonnabend(Lëtzebuerg City Museum) discussed the cities museification and historical urban landscape at the round table. Their discussion focused on the criteria used to select “urban heritage”, role of free market in that process as well as unclear status of the modern architecture (1960s in particular) in our concept of the urban landscape that deserves protection. 

The congress in Bologna was not only a great source of feedback and inspiration for further research but also unique opportunity to get to know other scholars working on such niche topic as postcards. Last but not least, it was an opportunity to return to the “red city” which I have visited so many times while doing my PhD in Florence.

 

Memoriale della Shoah

 

View from the Basilica di San Petronio

View from the Basilica di San Petronio

 

Piazza Maggiore at night

Piazza Maggiore at night