Research Project
Between Macro and Micro: Architecture, Urban Design, and the Ideals of Political Democracy

Research Project
Tom Avermaete, Hans Teerds

This research project starts from a reading of the German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt’s (1906–1975) writings, mainly her 1958 book The Human Condition. In this book, Arendt draws an intriguing connection between public space (her term: “the space of appearance”) and the production of the world. The point of departure for Arendt is the space of appearance as the stage of political action. This can be understood as the micro level of the democratic principle, which nevertheless has the power to transform the macro level of democratic society. A second statement Arendt makes emphasizes the importance of the man-made world for this space of appearance and political action. It is the man-made world that offers a longue durée to a community: the man-made world is a world in common in time and space. “To live in the world,” she writes, “means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time” (Arendt, The Human Condition, 1994 [1958], 52). Arendt thus stresses the material world as an important in-between, which offers stability to the vulnerability of political and everyday life. Arendt’s perspective, however, also relates the realm of politics immediately to the production of man-made world. Thus the actual production of the world conditions the lives of the inhabitants as well as caters to society.

On the basis of Arendt’s reflections, this research project investigates (the production of) cities against the ideal of Western democracy on three levels. First it investigates cities with a focus as places of democracy. This is understood in two ways, in particularly by looking the central spaces of democracy. First is the locus of parliament buildings, townhalls, court buildings, cultural centers, and main public squares. But besides these marco-spaces of democracy, the city is also the locus of the micro spaces: the streets, squares, and parks in which everyday life unfolds. These ranges of spaces are regularly seen as the fundamental building blocks of democratic societies, understood as places to meet and where democratic principles of plurality, exchange, and tolerance are explicitly at stake. Second, the research investigates the materiality of the city, its buildings, and its infrastructure, considered by Arendt to be a prerequisite of political life. Arendt’s statement seems to be confirmed today by research outcomes from the fields of environmental psychology and neurosciences: the everyday environment plays an important role upon the inhabitants as it conditions individual lives and caters for the self-consciousness of the human being. This part thus focusses on the built environment as a factor in shaping the relationship between the individual and society. Finally, the project focusses on the production of the city, in which many actors play a role: from politicians to developers, from local businesses to designers, from the local inhabitants to the foreign visitors. Cities, in other words, are by definitiona collective effort. The question nevertheless remains how inhabitants and users can be involved in the actual development of the city. This part of the research will investigate the production of cities and urban expansions from the early 1900s onwards.