Modern technology invades the city

I would like to begin with two key images that capture the essence of what I have to say, in that they represent two moments in the development of the urban phenomenon of the 19th century. Both images illustrate the impact of modern technology on the urban environment. In the first, a painting by Adolf Menzel of 1848 entitled Berlin Landscape, we find the city in the distance and the rural landscape in fore-and middleground virtually unchanged in their idyllic nature. Only the track of iron rails carrying a steaming locomotive gives evidence of the fact that modern times have arrived. But the train, a dark, horizontal object, appears quite well integrated into the picturesque landscape surrounding the city of Berlin. Menzel has depicted no unsettling overtones to disturb the peaceful ambience. The city, visible in the background of the painting, seems to live its life as ever, and the train crossing in the foreground looks no more threatening than any other carriage we might expect to find in a setting such as this one. In this case, however, it is not a horse-powered carriage, but instead one propelled by a black metallic creature, the machine.

In a painting by Hans Baluschek entitled Railroad in the Cityscape, painted almost fifty years after Menzel's, the scenery has undergone dramatic change: the black metallic object has left the urban periphery behind and has finally arrived downtown, now having gained a strange and shocking presence as the locomotive appears right in the middle of the city street. In Baluschek's painting from the last decade of the 19th century, the industrial era has already reached an advanced stage of development, bringing changes that drastically affect the urban environment. And, the way this painting makes its visual argument, modern reality stands in opposition to Menzel's view, and is figured in a moment of unexpected violation that seems to leave open no alternative or escape. The dynamic forces behind the process of modernization are no longer in harmony with the landscape of the city, and, in a foreboding way, their dramatic appearance at once suggests their inevitability and irreversibility. There is no doubt about what has happened. The train and the machine age have advanced towards the heart of the city, cutting through the urban space and, arriving at the front door of the city dweller, ambushing him the moment he steps out.

By the end of the 19th century, modern technology had deeply penetrated the city-scape, leaving in its wake the footprints of the modernist invasion. Wide-span girders and other modern construction work, no longer camouflaged or hidden behind architectural screens in historical style, irrupted into the traditional city, clashing with the space of monuments. Ironwork designed by engineers confronted the architecture of stone and the dignified language of classical forms spoken by architects. Like blades, the engineers' iron structures chopped up the body of the city, fragmenting the urban tissue and assaulting its 'beauty' by dissecting the homogeneous composition of blocks and squares. Bridges, elevated railway structures, gasometers and other modern objects of unfamiliar shape became significant new elements in the traditional cityscape, taking on a disturbingly powerful and threatening presence. Modernity was on the verge of erecting its own 'unpleasant' monuments and points de vue, which would disrupt the urban identity and ravage the urban scenery.

Artists, sensing these moments of provocative action and violation, visualized the radical changes taking place in the landscape or the city as the beginning of something new. Baluschek painted a compelling image of what his contemporaries decried as the 'brutish appearance' of iron within the city. Captured in a low-angle view of the locomotive roaring down the middle of the street is the shocking presence of modernity. The painting insistently portrays a dramatic juxtaposition that would give an appropriate compositional form to the collision between the functional and the symbolic. A new reality had sprung up, irreversible, frightening, powerful, but nevertheless imbued with its own immanent beauty, a kind of beauty whose inherent laws were only waiting to be discovered. The rupture between modern reality and historical context - which would eventually occur on all levels of society - was irreconcilable. Modern reality would take over the urban space as its own theatrical platform, instigating changes of far-reaching social and aesthetic dimensions. As Baluschek's painting

Adolf Menzel, Berlin Landscape (1848)
Hans Baluschek, Railroad within Cityscape (1890)

The Berlin Elevated Railway entering a building (c. 1900)

The Berlin Elevated Railway entering a building (c. 1900)

Gustave Caillebotte, Pont l'Europe (1878)
Andre Kertesz, Meudon (1928)

predicted, within the city, both the familiar urban space that once belonged to the world of the flâneur and the space of monuments that had belonged to classical art would have to surrender to the modernist invasion.

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