Martin Wagner in America: Planning and the political economy of capitalist urbanization

Álvaro Sevilla-Buitrago, “Martin Wagner in America: Planning and the political economy of capitalist urbanization,” Planning Perspectives 32, 2017, 481–502, doi: 10.1080/02665433.2017.1299636

What happens when design meets political economy? This article explores this problem through an analysis of the theoretical work of planner Martin Wagner. Better known as a champion of Modernist social housing and urban design, and collaborator of trade unions and center-left administrations in Weimar Republic Berlin, Wagner also produced substantial theoretical contributions, especially during his exile as a professor at Harvard in the 1940s and 1950s. Blending urban theory, planning speculation and economic geography, these interventions were meant to provide a more robust intellectual background for postwar recovery and metropolitan restructuring in Europe and the US. Contrary to contemporary urban visions such as those of Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright or Ludwig Hilberseimer, Wagner explored the potential reach and limitations of design in a capitalist society embracing the imperative of thinking with capital, i.e. incorporating the logics of markets, property, financial capital and uneven spatial development in his intellectual toolkit. At Harvard he came to see capital flows as the true architect of the city and explored the possibility of contouring its shape through a form of planning that would focus on harnessing such flows. Thus rent gaps, corporate property, purchasing power, or architectural and infrastructural obsolescence and depreciation were reframed as design tools that, if governed correctly, could yield important benefits for municipalities and the working class.

But Wagner’s is also a cautionary tale about design’s political tasks in the imagination of alternative urban futures. In the US his speculations developed beyond this Fordist-Keynesian ethos. Writing at a time when urban decay, the loss of population and economic activity, and competition for investment were already a reality in many city cores and regions, he not only advanced some of the most radical urban renewal and new town schemes of his time, but also envisioned aspects of the urban order that would ravage social space from the 1970s on. Eventually his political-economic realism produced a surreal combination of cynicism about the possibilities of socialist design and a sort of hallucinated intellectual escapism that announced some of the darkest elements of neoliberal urbanization. Throughout this period Wagner influenced the work of his collaborators including not only eminent colleagues such as Walter Gropius but, more importantly, students who would soon become the architects of a new urban America in key projects such as Baltimore’s Charles Center and Inner Harbor renewal, the plans for New York’s Lower Manhattan and downtown Dallas, Maryland’s Plan for the Valleys and many more.  

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