The city project gets human

By | Art & Design
One Urban Humanities project maps out spaces of control in LA's Pershing Square.Photos courtesy the UCLA Urban Humanities Initiative

From “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies” by Reyner Banham to Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities”, from Charles Dickens’ novels to impressionist painting and cyberpunk literature, the city as the core of modern living has become an endless source of inspiration for writers and artists since the 19th Century. Nevertheless only recently these narrative pictures of the city have entered the more pragmatic agendas of urban studies.

Nowadays more than half of the world’s population lives in urban Settings. The increasing demand to manage urban growth in Asia and South America, environmental issues all over the globe and redevelopment and transformation in North American and European cities have raised a high level of attention towards urbanism from different directions.

The need to establish a dialogue between these different subjects and disciplines and to analyse the urban phenomena in an integrated perspective has highlighted the necessity of combining the existing tools of urban design with other essential cultural aspects of the city.

For instance, if urban studies are usually integrated with economics as well as political and social studies they have been rarely linked to aspects of the urban environment that belong more to the Humanities. For such reason the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation began the “Architecture, urbanism, and the Humanities” program choosing a dozen of institutions to take part to the initiative and investing between $12 and $15 million dollars to begin with.

The program has the aim of outlining better research networks and methodologies suitable to study the complexity of the urban condition throughout the aid of expertise in the field of the Humanities. On the other hand this will allow the latter to be directed towards a more applied and open approach to research that goes beyond their traditional academic purposes. Finally the program aims to train people in a newly established field generated by the “intellectual and institutional intersection of architecture, urbanism and the humanities”.

In other words, for the first time the expertise of art historians and philosophers will stand side by side to the ones of architects and city planners and their contribution will take active part to the understanding and designing of the city.

Amongst the Universities involved in the project founded by the Mellon Foundation, are the London School of Economics and Political Science, University of California at Berkeley and at Los Angeles and Cornell University. Each institution, considering the ambitious goals of the project, is developing its own strategy and taking the challenge according to its own research perspective and human resources.

For instance, the experience undertaken by the department of architecture of the University of California Los Angeles – which received a grant of $2 million by Mellon in December 2012 – is one of the best examples of the establishment of this new discipline. Developed by Prof. Dana Cuff and her team, a small department has just been founded welcoming students from different areas and backgrounds such as history, architecture, urban planning, geography, art history and more.

Students at the Urban Humanities Initiative present a map as part of fieldwork on the hidden, underground structures of UCLA, Photos courtesy the UCLA Urban Humanities Initiative

Students at the Urban Humanities Initiative present a map as part of fieldwork on the hidden, underground structures of UCLA
Photos courtesy the UCLA Urban Humanities Initiative

The department is launching a minor undergraduate and a graduate certificate in “Urban Humanities” (this is how they named this new discipline). The program will include new seminars, modification of existing courses, multi-disciplinary studios, field trips to focus cities and visiting lecturers and scholars from the interested urban areas. In particular, in the next three years of research founded by Mellon, the department will focus on the study of megacities starting from the local territory of the city of Los Angeles to branch out to three other megacities (one for each year of research founded by Mellon): Tokyo (2013-14), Shangai (2014-15) and Mexico City (2015-16).

Interdisciplinary student teams present to Urban Humanities Initiative
faculty during a project review.Photos courtesy the UCLA Urban Humanities Initiative

The London School of Economics and Political Science is another one of the institutions involved in the Mellon’s project. After receiving a grant of $900,000 to develop the integrated programme of architecture, urbanism and humanities the school launched various initiatives within LSE cities. For instance, it offers the “Mellon Fellowship program in Cities and the Humanities” for four years. Through this opportunity the Mellon fellow will spend nine months working with LSE cities carrying out his research working alongside other postgraduate students, taking part to the urban design studio and collaborating with other institutions. The LSE will also launch a project called “urban research network” a network of global scholars extended to centres in the US, South America and Asia.

This exciting project has just started however it promises interesting outcomes for both the institutions and the disciplines involved. It is a great occasion to question some of the discipline’s objectives and to cast light on some of the most recent issues of the city looking at them from a “human” rather than urban perspective.


Which unexpected creative outcomes can the initiative encourage? And to which phenomena related to art and design can it be linked in the changing context of megacities?


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