Urbanism and Autonomy studied the role of design within society through the term “autonomy” in postmodern urban thinking through the writings and projects of Peter Eisenman and Aldo Rossi. Architectural autonomy triggered the unjustified detachment of the discipline of architecture from cultural concerns. In contrast, my research documented the cultural engagement of autonomy as adopted from philosophy, art, and political theory. Architectural thinkers and practitioners overlook that the paradoxical critical character of the philosophical term “autonomy” is culturally and historically constructed rather than an ex-nihilo creation. My dissertation introduced urbanism into the discourse on autonomy. My formulation of urban autonomy is equally sensitive to the culturally heterogeneous responses to address urbanization and the analytical capacity of cinema to depict and address urban challenges, such as climate change as well as gender, racial, and social tensions.
Il Deserto Rosso (Red Desert)
Michelangelo Antonioni
1964

The violent transformation of the countryside around the city has had a strong effect on me. Before, there were immense groves of pine trees, very beautiful, which today are completely dead. Soon even the few that have survived will die and give way to factories, artificial waterways, and docks. This is a reflection of what is happening in the rest of the world. It seemed to be the ideal background for the story I had in mind—naturally, a story in color. The world that the characters in the film come into conflict with isn’t the world of factories. Behind the industrial transformation lies another one—a transformation of the spirit, of human psychology…
—Michelangelo Antonioni, L’Humanité Dimanche, September 23th, 1964


This dissertation introduces urbanism to the discourse on autonomy within design. Autonomy is a critical method in design, engaging the social, economic, political, racial, gender, or environmental tensions derived from the processes of urbanization. The introduction of autonomy into architecture in the 1930s created a design system sensitive to cultural phenomena. However, architectural autonomy gradually departed from social, cultural, human, and urban conditions as the century matured. The social and cultural unrest in the second half of the twentieth century precipitated the use, and abuse, of the term, acting as a catalyst to redefine the disciplinary parameters of architecture. When autonomous discourse within architecture reappeared, it overemphasized architectural form to counter the commodification of culture, the professionalism of architecture, reliance on quantitative methods, and the degradation of the modern city. But the impulsive conception of autonomous architecture remained prevalent, condemning the term’s cultural and historical formation to oblivion, leading to the alienation of disciplinary knowledge over time.
This dissertation offers a critical reconsideration of the evolution of the term within the design fields, from its initial formulation in the eighteenth century by Immanuel Kant (autonomy of the will), to its introduction to architecture by the art historian Emil Kaufmann (autonomen Architektur) in 1933, to the successive interpretations of architectural autonomy in Europe and the United States. In contrast to etymological wisdom, Kant’s “autonomy of the will” implies engagement rather than detachment. The Kantian autonomy influenced the construction of the modern consciousness of the Western individual as both cause and consequence of eighteenth-century social and political changes, such as the French Revolution.
Autonomy’s influence on aesthetics, political theory, and architecture during the subsequent centuries attests to its importance as a reflection on our cultural successes and failures. Nevertheless, the design fields often omit that autonomy implies a productive tension between individual and collective aspirations. Galileo Galilei’s use of the telescope promoted the autonomy of the modern individual. Scientific discoveries expanded our knowledge of the external world (Galileo’s telescope) and motivated the philosophical exploration of our inner selves (Kant’s epistemology). With these examples in mind, the more we look outside ourselves, the more we need to look inside ourselves. We have developed a critique within architecture (architectural criticism) but not a self-critique. Instead, it is a critique of design by design through our engagement with the urban condition. This self-awareness redefines the terms of our engagement as individuals, designers, or members of society with the world. Thus, the more design explores the urban reality, the more it needs to reevaluate the premises of its disciplinary engagement with the urban condition.
Individuality is not individualism. The general maxim of autonomy is that (disciplinary) self-governance is sensitive to social, cultural, human, and urban conditions despite, paradoxically, its rebuttal of cultural and historical determinism. The alliance between Urbanism and Autonomy adopts the artist's critical eye and rejects the supposed moral superiority of the religious and non-religious priest. In contrast, this dissertation aspires to operate in a social space that escapes the jurisdiction of traditional disciplines or the aesthetic blindness of dogmatic critiques. This effort advocates an epistemological search, through cinematic language, for new knowledge, experiences, methods, contents, contexts, and aesthetics.

Back to Top