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Op Ed: The Urban Project of Plurality

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Author: Neeraj Bhatia

Date: 2011


“The recent political demonstrations transpiring in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Libya have been inspiring in their ability to gather a collective political force through the grouping of individuals. I find it inspiring because of the dialectical nature between the individual and collective, which are the essential components in the political concept of pluralism. Simultaneously, I was reminded that such a discussion of the politics of pluralism has not occurred in design since late modernism. Not only does this particular political project remain unresolved today, I believe it is also one of the most critical investigations in contemporary urbanism.

First, let us be reminded of what is at stake here and why the concept of pluralism was so important to the modern urban project. One of the main questions for CIAM, Team X, and their megastructuralist successors, was how to design the city for both the individual and collective as they were confronted with an increasingly diverse metropolis. While most people think of pluralism as simply meaning diverse, different, divergent, etc., it is in fact much more complex and political in nature. Political theorist Hannah Arendt has one of the most refined definitions of pluralism, calling it the dialectic of our “distinct-equality,” and positions it at the core of the public sphere.

Arendt’s characterization of this complex and seemingly contradictory public sphere is perhaps best summarized through her analogy of a group of people sitting around a table. For Arendt, the table is the common world—it simultaneously connects and bonds those sitting around it while preventing them from falling over each other and assimilating belief systems. The disappearance of the table would leave strangers in a space that lacked a common bond—this would be the fall of the public realm and its associated reality and stability. Both Arendt and Van Eyck, in essence, were attempting to reconcile the individual (distinction) and collective (equality) by providing a political form to a city that was now a sprawling metropolis and a public that was now a grouping of various constituencies. The issue of pluralism is even more pronounced today, with more than half the population of some cities consisting of visible “minorities.” This growing situation prompts a design interrogation of how one can provide unity in diversity, reconcile the individual and collective or allow for distinction and equality. In its avoidance of such questions, contemporary urbanism has been reduced to a grouping of constituencies that succumbs to the mere whims of market urbanism.”

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