ABE 015

Advanced Urban Theory Research Seminars

Course Description

Metaphysics for Millennials Research Seminars 2: Cities and the Anthropocene

The Architecture Theory Chair is offering a seminar course on Cities and the Anthropocene to PhD candidates and research staff beginning in March 2019. The course will look at the question of cities and the Anthropocene however not in terms of detailed enquiries into adaptation or amelioration but as a broader question of the relation between the two. Something has changed that is reflected in this relation, a change we would not be talking about if climate change had not forced this on us. So that, although most of what the course is about is cities and how they work, the question cannot avoid also being about how the emergence of the Anthropocene as a new fact changes everything. 

Where to after the problems of the modern?

Presentation: Many have commented that present crises of climate change, illiberal politics, and inequality may herald the end of an era. Is this, as John Gray might argue, the end of the ‘age of liberal reason’? Have we, as John Ralston Saul argues, overvalued abstract reason and pushed it to places where it no longer works. We can connect the ‘over-abstract’ and the ‘internal-logic-projected-as-universal’ to a current crisis of the economy for example which acknowledges no other reason but the reason internal to neo-classical economics. Different versions of the same sort of critical analysis have been applied to varied topics like globalisation and anthropology and could perhaps be applied to cities. Cities may however be even more interesting. If we must leave reason behind as adequate foundation for knowledge and action where now do we find the ground from where we know and act? An answer may come from cities themselves and the urban situations we inhabit. The knowledge and actions we need going forward may owe less to universals in a modernist universe than to different forms and ‘communities’ of particulars in a perspectivist pluriverse. 

Discussion of presentation and readings.

Readings from John Ralston Saul, Massimiliano Simons, Michel Serres, Timothy Mitchell (provisional).

Introducing the city as an historical artefact

Presentation: We think of modernity as being 500 years old. But the Greeks laid the groundwork for Western modernity in the bronze age, and critique of its basic precepts has existed since then. The city was central to the protomodernity of the Greeks and forms of Greek life were established in and in relation to cities and city systems. We will use the Greek polis to briefly introduce problems of politics, society, economy, inequality and climate change from a protomodern perspective. Ideas of urban and public space are introduced as questions which play out through subsequent sessions.

Discussion of presentation and readings.

Readings from Patricia Owens, David Marshall, Henri Lefebvre, Jason Moore (provisional).

Urban life and death? What about thermodynamics?

Presentation: Isabelle Stengers asks what life is. Seventy years ago Erwin Schrödinger asked the same question. Their questions have led us to a ‘new physics’ and ‘complexity science’, new speculative paradigms that emphasise history, materiality, accident and ‘hybridity’. The physics of living beings is linked to two sets of processes, one involving the active self-motivated patterns that characterise life, the other the metabolic processes that sustain it. What both thinkers emphasise also therefore is energy and entropy processes on which life depends, and which, when the accounting doesn’t add up, amounts to death. We go back to the original asking of these questions and ask what a ‘new urban physics’ or a ‘complexity science of the urban’ might (or should in the case of the second) look like. What we are dealing with today is the thermodynamics of a globalised open system whose energy needs exceed the direct energy needs of the human components by a factor of 60. This opens up a whole new set of questions. What is this ‘globalised open system’ that seems to generate its own energy demand? Are we dependent on a thermodynamic heat-pump to make time for culture and politics? … to feed 10 billion people? What does the current, distinctly urban, phase of ‘economic development’ mean in thermodynamic terms? Is it possible to make global entropy processes circular? Could energy equality be the metric of future equity?

Discussion of presentation and readings.

Readings from Isabelle Stengers, Erwin Schrödinger, Robert Rosen, Marina Fischer Kowalski.

Constructing the Technosphere

Presentation: If the essence of technology is, as Heidegger says, nothing technological, could it be that it is urban? Peter Haff, in introducing his concept of the Technosphere, points out that one of the chief characteristics of technologies is their interconnectedness with other technologies. This begs the question of the form of this global apparatus and some new very urban questions arise. How does this technical organisation happen? If cities ‘self-organise’ how does this happen? Could there be other large-scale actors? What is the role of the state? What is a ‘global actor’ today? How do Facebook/ Google/ Amazon fit in? Where and what are the modern human and nature in a Technosphere which frames and mediates the realities of both but perhaps not both in the same way? What has happened to nature in a global technical apparatus? What is the everyday human experience of living in such a thing? What does this say about equity and power? And how do we make sense of the slippages and hybridisations of our modern thinking categories as we work out the answers in a radically different framing of reality?

Discussion of presentation and readings.

Readings from Peter Haff, Andrew Pickering, David Berry, Christian Parenti.

Urban space, scale-power, global economies, colonisation, local economies, commerce

Presentation: Where does power come from and what does it do? Weberian power vs. Foucauldian power. Power and knowledge (Saul). The power to overview, to describe, to differentiate subject and object (Uexküll, Serres). Power as scale? This opens up the question of urban space as the distributer of power. What does this mean for public space? Urban space also mediates and distributes the most visible public social process we encounter, that of commerce. We will look at the rise of commerce in 13th century Europe and China in the Song dynasty, and the tactics involved in the use of urban space to create forms of social and economic life of urban people. We will look at the counter-strategy of the ‘enclosure of the commons’ of elites and then at the rise of globalism via colonialism (the ‘Atlantic triangle’) before investigating how cities (using examples of Amsterdam and Paris) became a product of global flows of wealth from a global periphery to a global core. We will look at the more recent ‘fragmentation’ of this (still global) core-periphery space and the possible role of contemporary economic development (the current urban real-estate boom?) in this. All this raises interesting questions of the effects on cities if they substantially reduced their energy demands and energy Ginis? What is a sustainable city actually?

Discussion of presentation and readings.

Readings from Bruno Latour, Iris Marion Young, Madina Tlostanova and Walter Mignolo, Richard Sennett (provisional)

Modernity and Enlightenment universals seen through the urban

Presentation: What does modernity and liberalism look like through the lens of the urban today? How does our perspective on the future change with a shift from a reason (and reality) internal to modernity to one that comes out of an ‘urban ontology’ of urban subjects and objects? Where are the points of shear between urban categories-domains and what is the significance of these points? What happens to concepts of equity, power, nature and mankind when seen in a situational, perspectivist, urban pluriverse? How does power manifest in this space (these spaces)? How do we address the problems of today (of global-local, of circularity, of the emptying of democratic politics) through a different perspective on them? How and where do we find again a platform for a vital agonistic political practice. How do we restore a democratic globalism? What problems are not solvable from this new perspective?Discussion of presentation and readings.Readings from Jakob von Uexküll, Matthew Segall, Levi Bryant, Tim Morton (provisional).

Contemporary city futures

Students will be asked to present contemporary visions (one each) of urban futures. These may come from science, politics, film or literature and include urban utopias (the Neoliberal city, the Smart City, Francis Heylighen’s ‘Global Superorganism’), urban distopias (Cormac McCarthy, Amitav Ghosh), accelerationist (Stiegler, Srnicek), decelerationist (degrowth, bioregionalism), decolonialist (Viveiros de Castro, Escobar, Mignolo), hopeless (Sloterdijk, …) and any other categories you can find.Discussion of presentations.

Our urban future

We will work together in the last session to draft a short document on our urban future.

Learning Objectives

At the conclusion of each seminar / course the participants will have:

  • gained knowledge and understanding on the specific thematic and context of each seminar (content-based)
  • associated the contents of the seminar to his or her own research topic, expressing this relationship in concrete, relevant ways (argument-based)
  • developed skills relevant to carrying out advanced research: from following intensive readings and discussing them in a peer work-group, to preparing an academic research paper for publication (method-based)

Teaching Method

This course will follow a seminar structure and advanced research methods. Depending on the individual seminar leaders, the seminar will follow a series of formats, but generally will be based on fortnightly research output presentations, followed by a discussion on sources, references and bibliographies, which will involve the creation of an information nexus for the seminar discussions. The ultimate goal of each seminar is to assist the participants to develop reasoned and convincing argument, as well as to develop scholarly research papers for publication.

Schedule spring 2019

Spring 2019 session is cancelled.

About the Lecturer(s)/Coach(es)

Stephen Read is Associate Professor of Urbanism and senior academic staff member of the Architecture Theory chair at the Faculty of Architecture, TU Delft. He did his B. Arch in Cape Town and was a practicing architect in South Africa and London before doing an MSc and PhD in urban modelling at the TU Delft and a post-doc at the Bartlett in London. He has been a teacher at Delft since 2001. His interests start with cities as the material condition of urban economies, societies and cultures. They extend to technology and infrastructures as mediators of the relations that construct modern urban societies and settings. He has used phenomenological and ‘post-phenomenological’ ideas to come to grips with these materialities and relations and applies these ideas today in developing ‘appropriate’ and ‘post-development’ strategies for development in Africa, China and Europe. His research has included the investigation of the ways different historical modernities have produced characteristic ‘power-geometries’ in cities and regions and he is interested in how we can enrol these today to make urban settings that support everyday socialities and livelihoods.

Heidi Sohn is Associate Professor of Architecture Theory at the Architecture Department of the Faculty of Architecture, TU-Delft. She received her doctoral title in Architecture Theory from the Faculty of Architecture, TU-Delft in 2006. In 2002 she received her MSc in Architecture and Urban Planning from the Faculty of Architecture, TU-Delft. Since 2007 she has been academic coordinator and interim coordinator of the Architecture Theory Section. Since 2002 she has been teaching theory seminars and design studios at the Faculty of Architecture. From 2007-2012 she was program director of the Urban Asymmetries research and design project. She is member of the Graduate School PhD mentor committee for the Architecture Department. She is co-founder of the peer-reviewed journal Footprint. She has been guest lecturer at DIA, Anhalt, in Dessau, Germany, and visiting lecturer of architecture theory at Umeå School of Architecture in Sweden. Her main areas of investigation include genealogical enquiries of the postmodern theoretical landscape from the 1970s to the present, as well as diverse geopolitical and politico-economic expressions typical of late capitalist urbanisation. She is a licensed architect and lives in Amsterdam.

How to enroll

Please send an email with your name, mail address, start date, research group and title of your research to abe@tudelft.nl

Course Info

Name of Course
Advanced Urban Theory Research Seminars

Course type
Advanced doctoral research seminar on big questions and new conceptual developments in architecture and urbanism today. Crises of climate change and inequality have exposed contradictions in our assumptions of our relations with the world, the future, and others. An introduction to emerging modes of thought and practice for the Anthropocene.  

Number of participants
10 - 12 participants. Open to doctoral candidates (all stages) 

Course Load: 
28 hours seminar meetings (contact hours) & 28 hours self-study (preparation: reading/discussion papers) 

Credits (Graduate School credits)

Course Dates, Place and Times
Offered once per academic year (Spring or Fall)
3-hour meetings every other week (9) plus regular public lecture-seminar events with known scholars in the field

Spring 2019 session is cancelled.

Name of lecturer(s)/coach(es)
dr. ir. Stephen Read (Arch. Theory & Urbanism) (lecturer)
dr. ir. Heidi Sohn (Arch. Theory) (coordinator)

E-mail Lecturer(s)/Coach(es):
Stephen Read
Heidi Sohn

Please send an email to ABE@tudelft.nl stating your name, start date, name promotor and title of your PhD project.