Lineages of the Global City

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Lineages of the Global City

Lecture by Shiben Banerji for Fall 2018 Colloquium The City and its People.

Fall 2018 GUH Colloquium student Jolene Lee wrote the following reflection on the October 2nd lecture given by Shiben Banerji, Assistant Professor of Art History, Theory and Criticism from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The idea of the 'global city' suggests a certain interchangeability through converging similarities in economic activity, spatial organization and to some extent, social structure. The 'global city' is hence necessarily one which is bound by a certain aspirational order, where the concluding act of becoming indicates a 'belonging' to a larger, global economic network. The status of a 'global city' in contemporary terms is one which is coveted as it represents an arrival of sorts amongst a network of urban spaces that are at the forefront of economic globalization. Banerji posits that this status of a 'global city' is one which is predicated on function based on the distribution of capital and the control of labor, yet at the same time behind these necessary functional networks are other less studied historical transnational links.

Drawing upon examples of interwar globality, Banerji introduces the work of the Theosophical Society, a worldwide heterodox religious movement. The ideological underpinnings of theosophy brings forth the conceptualization of a universal brotherhood, where the attainment of spirituality is predicated on social improvement. He draws the link between theosophy and the meanings of a Global City, where the transnational reach of religious and spiritual teachings shapes how the globalization of capital could catalyze new ways of thinking about urban form. Using the example of designs by Swiss-French modernist architect Le Corbusier and the Belgian writer/lawyer and pacifist Paul Otlet for a Cité Mondiale in late 1920s Switzerland, he draws parallels with Le Corbusier's work a few decades later in the 1950s India (eg. Plans for Gandhi's Memorial). It mattered not that these plans were never realized, as their associated artifacts, such as drawings, could also do the work of creating a global imaginary. Banerji suggests that urban form is a mode of transformation of the imagination and not merely concerned with the 'thingliness' of the city. The circulation of these visual materials lends itself to the noble idea that urban form as suggested in these plans were sufficiently a prompt for hope, and imbued within them was a script that transcended geographic contexts.

This lecture is a facet of Banerji's continuing work on the global formation of landscape, urban and architectural design. Extending from his first forthcoming book Lineages of the Global City which focuses on the work of the Chicago architects Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin, Banerji draws together a transnational cast of characters including pacifists and anti-colonial thinkers who tapped upon the collective imagination of city design and planning in shaping a new democratic subject - one which is necessarily spiritual and yet situated within the framework of modernity. The geographical distribution of capital and labor lends itself to imagining links with international cities and this theosophical fraternité was envisioned as a means to global peace during those interwar decades. In this lecture, he argues that this desire for a spiritual and conceptual brotherhood and the pursuit of financial capital are concomitant with the manifestation of the global city and its associated imaginaries. This interwar, transnational discourse of the global city, as articulated in the examples presented, posits a new conceptual dimension to the boundaries of what 'globality' could represent in contemporary discourse of the 'Global City'.

Image caption: Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, Cité Mondiale, axonometric,1928.