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Modernism, Cosmopolitanism and Catastrophism in Los Angeles and Mexico City

Modernisme, cosmopolitisme et catastrophisme à Los Angeles et Mexico
Jérôme Monnet


Cet article est un essai de réflexion sur les trajectoires historiques de deux prototypes métropolitains du Monde occidental moderne : Mexico, qui fut perçu aux 16ème et 17ème siècles comme un laboratoire de l’urbanisation américaine et comme un modèle réalisé de ville idéale ; Los Angeles, qui a été représenté depuis le début du 20ème siècle comme l’illustration de l’avenir de la civilisation urbaine aux États-Unis et ailleurs. Les deux ont également été l’objet de discours négatifs qui en faisaient des exemples de l’échec du projet progressiste moderne. La comparaison entre les deux métropoles est analysée par l’intermédiaire de la relation, instable dans le temps, entre le Modernisme, le cosmopolitisme et le catastrophisme.

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Notes de l’auteur

A first draft of this paper was presented at the panel Los Angeles/Mexico City : Transnational Experiences, California Studies Conference X, Los Angeles : 6 February 1998 (California Studies Association / University of Southern California / Self-Help Graphics). The research on Los Angeles was made thanks to an invitation by the Getty Research Institute (1996-1997). Many thanks to Phil Ethington (USC) for his precious comments on this paper and his help for the translation.

Texte intégral


1My starting postulate for this paper is the following : it is not possible for anybody to experience any place or environment without being previously informed, conditioned and prepared by representations of the place. Imagining and experiencing work together : they are dialectical terms in the relationship between the human being and its environment. Here, we will try to understand how the people living in one place or visiting another place are bringing meanings to the place they are experiencing and how they interpret this place. The postulate implies that any statement about a place, positive or negative, results simultaneously in the concrete experience and the imagined representation : the experience is interpreted through representation, the representation is influenced by experience (more on the symbolics of place in : Monnet, 1998).

2This is how I will examine here Los Angeles and Mexico City. I will criticize and analyze the past and current representations of these metropolises, delving particularly into the imagery of their origin, and then, I will try to explain how these representations both reflect and influence the experience of living in the cities. I found the comparison between these two particular metropolises especially compelling for many reasons. The first one is a (pan-) American one : the New World is by definition the laboratory of Modernity ; the second reason is that Mexico City was the starting laboratory of this New World, and that Los Angeles is seen as the actual one, while social models have traveled both ways between the two cities ; the third reason is that each city can see itself as the center of the world, and the other city as the rest of the world. In a certain way these metropolises are mirroring themselves, and not only because they have more than 15 millions inhabitants each and are both affected by seismic hazards, air pollution and water shortage. We will examine this cross-mirroring.

3Speaking with people ; walking the streets ; driving the freeways ; buying goods ; cueing for services ; reading newspapers, academic books and novels ; watching TV reports, movies, artworks ; listening to music or radio shows ; speaking again with people, friends, fellow workers or travelers, customers, tellers and retailers ; traveling, moving and crossing by foot, bike, bus or car ; as well, doing both participatory observation and observatory participation in urban life in Los Angeles and Mexico City. These are the ways how I selected three lines of interpretation of the "geocultural" structures through which these metropolises are interrelated today : modernism, cosmopolitanism and catastrophism.


4Modernity is the period in human history that corresponds to the last 5 centuries of Western civilization (and therefore includes the contemporary process of globalization of western system and values). Modernism is the ideology that sustained Modernity and the continuous process of renewal in the arts, the humanities, science, religion, policies, politics and economics, since the end of the 15th century. For some of many possible introductions to the debate on Modernity and Modernism, see geographer Augustin Berque (1990, 1996) ; anthropologist Nestor García Canclini (1989) ; intellectual historian Stephen Toulmin (1990).

5Mexico City and Los Angeles both have a special relationship with Modernism. They are major exemplars (along with Washington D.C. and Brasilia) of the modernist Utopia : the European-born dream of a space-time free from archaism, tradition and inertia, the dream of a brand "New World" that would always remain new. The European invention of America corresponds with the emergence of the typically modernist idea that new is better than old. Modernism is an ideology of erasure and tabula rasa, an ideology of conquistadores and pioneers. Some examples of the consequences are developed below.

6In 1521, the conquistador Hernán Cortés assumed a perfectly modernist attitude when :

  •  he decided to destroy Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital (tabula rasa) ;

  •  he rebuilt Mexico City with the urbanistic principles of Renaissance (grid pattern, functionalistic specialization of land uses, etc.) ;

  •  he reported to Emperor Charles V, King of Spain, the foundation of the Capital of New Spain (cf. Cortés 1976). This attitude is akin to modernist conceptions of urban and regional planning and government : create the place of power and you will create the territory on which this power is supposed to rule. In 1521, New Spain didn’t exist yet but, by the simple act of proclaiming Mexico City as its capital, New Spain began to be represented as a reality and all the people, all the former sovereignties in Meso-America were erased.

7This is how Mexico City became the prototype of the American City, a pure creation in a "virgin" space, a first concrete experiment for all the modernist metropolises to come.

8Utopia was among the books that humanists, priests and friars brought to Mexico. The first bishop of New Spain, Juan de Zumárraga, arrived in Mexico (circa 1530) with the fourth Latin edition of Thomas More’s essay. The most famous admirer of More in New Spain, Vasco de Quiroga was appointed to the first Justice Court in Mexico City in 1531 and later became Bishop of Michoacán, where he tried to follow the rules of Utopia while creating pueblos that still exist today. It is well known that Utopia was a bestseller of its time, and the model for various generations of political essays (Bernand & Gruzinski 1991 : 373-ss ; Todorov 1982 : 200). It is also worth remembering also how it offered a successful rationalistic and modernist justification for the European colonialism :

"If the natives won’t do what they’re told, they’re expelled from the area marked out for annexation. If they try to resist, the Utopians declare war – for they consider war perfectly justifiable, when one country denies another its natural right to derive nourishment from any soil which the original owners are not using themselves, but are merely holding on to as a worthless piece of property", wrote More in 1516 (1965 : 79-80).

9Another bestseller of Renaissance was the volume Ten books on Architecture, by Leon Battista Alberti in 1452. The first Spanish Viceroy appointed to Mexico City, Antonio de Mendoza (1535-1549), had with him a copy of this great book, which exists today, entirely annotated from the viceroy’s hand. Antonio de Mendoza, following Hernán Cortés, reinforced the modernist aspect of Mexico City by widening the streets and accentuating the geometrical and rationalized urban pattern (Bernand & Gruzinski 1991 : 381). Thus we can see how Mexico City played in the 16th Century the role that would be attributed to Los Angeles at the beginning of the 20th Century : the role of an urban model for Modernism. There is also a concrete historical link between both cities that starts in the 16th Century, when the Portuguese João Rodrigues Cabrillo, under the direction of Antonio de Mendoza, explored the coasts of California during what became the first attempt to integrate Southern California to the new world order.

10The colonial legacy of Modernism has been continuously regenerated and interpreted throughout modern times, when European and American writers and travelers used to describe the New World cities by referring to particular models : Jerusalem, Byzantium, Rome, Venice. Mexico City was the first American city considered as the modern equivalent to these models (cf. Monnet 1993). It was followed in North America by Washington D.C. in the 18th Century. During the 19th Century, New York and Chicago became the hegemonic urban models of Modernity. But, at this time, the judgement on the advantages of "Modern" cities came to be far from merely positive, and the representations of the industrial metropolis started again to compare it to Babylon, the Great Prostitute. At the beginning of the 20th century in the U.S.A., as a result of the first anti-urban crisis, Los Angeles started to be represented as the true good modern city, as the concretion of the suburban/post-urban metropolitan dream : "by the early 1930s a full set of powerful anti-urban images had been developed by national observers to describe the sprawling suburban city that appeared to be Los Angeles" (Krim, 1992 : 124). "The most electrically up-to-date city imaginable" (Lilian Whiting in 1906, quoted in Mc Williams 1973 : 131) seemed to be able to materialize all the benefits of Modernism without the defects of the past century. Its extensive development and the local boosterism remind us the Conquistadores' way of considering the New World as a tabula rasa for the concretion of their objectives. In today's metropolitan L.A., it seems that modern colonialism is maintained in the "postsuburban" developments of Irvine and Orange County (Kling & Lamb, 1998).

11The contemporary conception of Los Angeles as a pioneer spatial form is similar as that for Mexico City in the 16th Century. As Fransisco Cervantes de Salazar put it in 1564, this city was the

"head of this New World" and "it is sure that it deserves it, thanks to the parts and qualities that it shows, which are gathered in few places of the world as well as in this one"
(Mexico City is "cabeza deste Nuevo Mundo [...] y es cierto lo merece ser por las partes y calidades que tiene, las cuales en pocos pueblos del mundo concurren como en éste", 1985 : 167).

12I think it is necessary to insist here on the fact that the modernist ideal experimented in Mexico City became the legacy on which the posterior development of Los Angeles was grounded, through regeneration and interpretation. If the indigenous processes of place-identification are denied, if space and environment are conceived as endless and meaningless resources, it is easy to understand why Los Angeles grew up the way it did. It expanded in an extensive and wasteful (in terms of time, energy, land and water consumption) manner, materializing a social order that depends on the general forgetting of the diverse pasts and interests of the inhabitants. Since the end of the 19th century, it seems that this forgetting has been a sort of social contract between the Anglo-Angelenos. For example, Rubén Martínez reminds us that "the false Spanish mythos was part of denying L.A.'s Mexican past [that] has waned in recent decades in favor of an equally Hollywoodized version of the Mexican past" (1992 : 49).

13By contrast, the recent evolution underlines how much the past tendencies were "modernist" in relation with the conception of space and time. In the last decades, while the Anglo hegemony is diminishing, many attempts, symbolically punctuated by the 1965 and 1992 uprisings, have been made to reclaim forgotten or discarded heritages as parts of the urban fabric. Dolores Hayden (1995) considers the regeneration of the variety of the urban landscapes as a way to made visible the "invisible Angelenos" and to build a really "public" history of Los Angeles. On his side, writing on "Los Angeles and the erasure of memory", Norman Klein (1997) fights the "History of Forgetting".

14As a conclusion, let's point out the modernist topics and beliefs common to Los Angeles and Mexico City :

  • a city or a community could be created from nothing (social models, cultural structures and historical processes are denied).

  • the spatial form could create the social content (this is the "niche" of planners, architects, marketers and advertisers) ;

  • the power lies in the hand of those who are able to control or allocate access to land (from the Spanish Conquistadors of New Spain and the Northern Territories and the "Go West" of pioneers and entrepreneurs, to the actual landlords and real estate businesses ; for Los Angeles see : Mc Williams 1973 ; Davis 1992 ; Hise 1997).


15The success of Modernity and Modernism in the Americas has been tremendous, not in moral terms, but in practical terms. The colonial ideology of Western civilization gave to conquistadors and pioneers an extremely efficient set of guidelines in order to impose concretely their way to manage the things and their view of the universe in the space-time of the New World (for an overview of the relationship between space, time and power in the New World, see Monnet 1996). Thousands of modernist urban foundations through the past five centuries are synchronized with Mexico City, Washington D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles and Brasilia.

16We saw how urban models were concrete tools for the conquest of lands and minds by European modernity. But also, by the very direct effect of bringing together people of diverse origins (from all over Europe, the Mediterranean and Africa, plus later from Asia, juxtaposed to the different native American people) in the single spatial forms of colonial cities, Modernism had to invent and implement a new version of Cosmopolitanism.

17Usually, cosmopolitanism means : diversity of people. Then, it speaks also about the way people deal with diversity. As Claude Lévi-Strauss (1987 [1952]) and Tzvetan Todorov (1989) put it, it has been a permanent problem for human societies to define themselves homogeneously in opposition with "The Other" (nature, the supernatural, other human beings) : primary common responses were (and still are) anthropocentrism and ethnocentrism. But we can consider that cosmopolitanism is a important secondary response to the problem of coexistence.

18Any complex society in human history could be described, through reductionism, as response to the challenge of diversity : how to organize, regulate, take advantage (and reproduce for someone’s benefit) the coexistence of differences ? In a sense, any political or economic institution could be interpreted as a way to manage the issue of difference. But cities (and this becomes more true as they increase in size) bring original challenges and solutions to this issue, because they emphasize the range of differences by concentrating larger numbers of people, and because they deal with the specific constraint of the spatial delimitation and densification of the urban location. Thus, different societies all over the world and through the centuries have elaborated a local version of what I would call a "Cosmopolis", a highly sophisticated socio-spatial machinery for the management of extreme differentiation. In the Mediterranean and Western tradition, examples are the mythical Babel, the antique Babylon, Rome, Byzantium and Bagdad, the industrial Paris, London or Vienna. Teotihuacan, Beijing or Tôkyo-Edô, among others, could be considered as other examples of early "World Cities", cities that are both worlds in themselves and symbolic replicas of the Universe.

19Then, to say that Mexico City and Los Angeles are cosmopolitan cities is just to say that they emphasize what is the common challenge of any city : how to manage the coexistence of a lot of people in a single place. Today, cities are said to be cosmopolitan when a specific culture or urbanity has been created locally in order to allow many different people to live together in the same place. Here we have to give attention to two factors : 1) the larger is the urban population, more cosmopolitan the city is supposed to be ; 2) the size and the nature of the urban area of influence (in terms of government, business, migration) condition the degree of cosmopolitanism of the city. Mexico City and Los Angeles present the common characteristic of having been created and developed as cosmopolitan cities, long before to reach the size when a big city is expected to become a "cosmopolis". The history of both cities is completely conditioned by the nature of modern cosmopolitanism.

20Mexico City was created as a result of the opening of the "New World" to European ambitions. The so-called "Spanish Conquistadors and Missionaries" were Portuguese, Italian, Dutch, French, German, etc. Among the people from the Iberian peninsula were Galicians, Catalans, Vascos, Jews and Moros (Arabs) who didn’t feel closer to a Castillan Hidalgo than to a Norman from Sicily. So Mexico City didn’t become a cosmopolitan city : it started as an original melting pot where Europeans from different parts of the Old World became little by little identified as Spanish American criollos. The original diversity of foreign immigrants has always been maintained until today (and always it has been politically predominant while demographically minor compared with the indigenous masses). After the Independence, German, Italian and French people, as well as Spanish, continued to settle in Mexico City. In the second half of the 19th century for instance, the French community became very important, economically and politically, under Porfirio Diaz’ regime (Marrou & Monnet, 1993). Known as the "Barcelonnette" (the name of the French town from where many of them emigrated), they were key players in the industrialization of the country and in the importation of new commercial forms such as the great department stores (along with the "dictatorship" of Parisian fashion) in the city. They connected Mexico City to the global trends of capitalism, politics and urban planning ; the "modernization" in the manner of Baron Haussmann’s Paris is highly responsible of today’s urban landscapes in the inner city.

21During the 20th century, starting with the revolutionary period of the twenties and thirties, Mexico City became a hot spot for intellectuals, labor activists and political refugees from Eastern Europe, Jewish communities, the Middle East. Many Republicans ended there after the Civil War in Spain, as well as leftist Argentineans and Chileans after the US-backed military coups of the seventies in their countries. Among others, celebrities attracted by the political and artistic comopolitanism of Mexico City include Russian activist Leon Trotsky (who was murdered there in 1940) and Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez (who has lived there since the seventies). There is also a Chinatown in Mexico City, and a Lebanese barrio, too.

22Generally, the literature underestimates Mexico City’s cosmopolitan character (Gruzinski 1996 is an exception) and, in contrast, overemphasizes Los Angeles’ cosmopolitanism. It had become a commonplace to qualify L.A. as the "world’s most ethnically diverse city" (Mike Davis), even if nobody cares to define what is "ethnic" and what is the basis for comparison (are there less than 140 nationalities present in New York, London or Paris ?). The actual L.A. myth of foundation emphasizes the cosmopolitan genesis of the city : the contemporary legend tells that the Spanish Pueblo was established by African-American and Native American pioneers (all were in fact mixed people, who are anyway the typical figures of cosmopolitanism) before being developed by the joined effort of people from all over the world : Oklahoma farmers, Vienna musicians and architects, mesoamerican Indians and Japanese investors. Today, numerous authors make a specialty of analyzing or interpreting the "ethnic" diversity of L.A. Famous examples in the nineties, among many, are David Rieff’s Los Angeles : Capital of the Third World (1991 ; with the chapters on "Alien Nation" and "Here Comes Everybody") ; R.Waldinger and M.Bozorgmehr’s Ethnic Los Angeles (1996 ; their introduction is about "the making of a multicultural metropolis") ; James Allen and Eugene Turner’s The Ethnic Quilt (1997). In addition, D. Hayden (1995 : 83) quotes Z. Pearlstone's Ethnic L.A. (1990).

23As can be seen, Los Angeles and Mexico City have comparable assets as cosmopolitan cities, if considering the diversity of their inhabitants. In both cities, a distinctive cosmopolitan élite is constituted thanks to a continuous flow of "intellectual workers", for centuries in Mexico City, for only the past 70 years in Los Angeles. This cosmopolitan migratory element is by far outnumbered in both cities by immigrant masses resulting of rural exodus (essentially internal in Mexico ; substantially international in the case of Los Angeles). It appears finally that in both metropolises, a huge component of the urban population had never been considered as a part of their particular cosmopolitanism : the "Indians" in Mexico City, the "Mexicans" in Los Angeles (who are often, in fact, the same people). As a result, it appears that Cosmopolitanism, in these two metropolises, is based upon negation and segregation, as we will see below.

24The early colonial project in Mexico City was that of apartheid (on that follows, see Gruzinski 1996 : 223-ss.). At the center of the new city, the Spanish settlement, the "República de Españoles", was supposed to be separated from the Amerindian district, the "República de Indios". There was a mutual prohibition of settlement : for European people in the República de Indios, for Native people in the República de Españoles. The city was planned in order to enforce this segregation and demonstrate who was holding the dominant position : the República de Españoles, carefully designed under the grid pattern (the Traza) and built in stone, with large and straight streets, stayed at the center. Outside the Traza, the República de Indios was no more than the collection of surrounding suburbs (the Arrabales), where the streets were narrow and irregular and the buildings predominantly poor and precarious. That may sound like modern shantytowns, but they were dominated then by the high walls of the convents and the magnificent architecture of their temples. The actual Historic District of Mexico City is what remains of the 16th century-República de Españoles : what the Chilangos (inhabitants of Mexico City) call the "Primer Cuadro" (the First Square) is today’s monumental heritage of the Traza. By contrast, nothing seemed left of the colonial República de Indios.

25Notwithstanding, the apartheid policy had never been successful in New Spain, because very quickly intermarriages between Native Americans and Europeans (and some Africans) produced a mestizo class, which ended to include the majority of the Mexican population. Historical evidence show that Indios, Españoles, Mestizos, Moros (Africans) and Chinos (Asians) were living all together, with vertical relationships of dependency (clientelismo) contrary to the spatial requirement of horizontal segregation (Gruzinski 1996 : 255-ss.). But apartheid remained until now in the very concept of cosmopolitanism in Mexico City. Only European, intellectual Latin American or other exotic influences are considered to give to the local cosmopolitanism its distinctiveness . All that could be an heritage or a creation inspired by rural or Amerindian Mexico has not been considered as anything more than vernacular culture. The only notable exception happened during the Revolution, when modernist and cosmopolitan artists, the most famous being Diego Rivera, incorporated the indigenous heritage into avant-garde artworks as an instrument for the education of the masses and as a claim for the recognition of their universal value. In his chapter on "Revolutionary Art, Cautious Politics", J. Kandell (1990 : 443-ss.) evokes the ancient Aztecs as an inspiration for the 20th century muralists, not the contemporary Indians who where so important in the popular rural and urban imagery of these times (see the photographs by Alvarez Bravo and Figueroa, the movies by Eisenstein, Fernández and Buñuel, etc.).

26We have here elements for roughing out a parallel between the exclusion of the rural/indian in Mexico City’s cosmopolitanism and the exclusion of Mexican/Mexican American traditions and creations from the very idea of cosmopolitanism in Los Angeles. The evocation of L.A. cosmopolitanism includes Modernist and Postmodernist architecture, but not Baroque and Kitsch ; Lloyd Wright and Schindler, but not the Mission Style ; in music, West Coast Jazz or Rap, but not Mariachis ; in paintings, David Hockney (who’s Hollywood Garden adorns Reyner Banham’s book on L.A. architecture and urbanism since 1971), but not the advertisement murals in the Eastside (see the walls of the many La Guadalupana pharmacies) ; Noir detective novels or movies, but not the Spanish Cookbook rediscovered by Victor Valle (cf. his talk at the California Studies Conference X, Los Angeles : 07 February 1998).

27It is not a matter of ignoring all these realities, because they are recognized as such by a large number of people. But in any presentation of the city’s evolution toward its actual cosmopolitan status, we find the image that, if gardeners and construction workers always came from the South, style, fashion and influence always came from the East. It seems that, in L.A. Cosmopolitanism, the only way to include something Mexican was to alienate it from its Mexican origin and to turn it into a more acceptable "Spanish" : Spanish Revival in architecture, Spanish food in restaurants and grocery stores. Carey Mc Williams pointed out during the 1940s "the singular dichotomy in the cultural traditions of the region between what is termed 'Spanish', and therefore valuable and praiseworthy, and what is termed 'Mexican' and is therefore undesirable" (1973 : 23). Half a century later, Rubén Martínez says that this dichotomy continuously influenced his cultural and political consciousness, reminding us that, whatever the side considered, he always felt himself being on "the other side" (1992).

28In each metropolis, we saw that their specific cosmopolitanism was based upon the quintessential denial of a basic component of their history, culture and society. It seems to me that, in each case, the occultation of a symbolic "half" of the urban population (the Indians on one side, the Mexicans on the other) is a stigma of colonialism, as conception of a dual and violent society. Among the similarities between today’s Mexico City and Los Angeles, we find, on one hand, the elitist cosmopolitanism described above, and, on the other, their so-called "thirdworldization". Retaking McWilliams' words, cosmopolitanism is the "valuable" destiny of both cities, thirdworldization is their "undesirable" evolution. There are many examples of this dichotomy in Mexico City's representations (see Monnet 1993, 1995). For example, J. Kandell (1990) opposes the times of the "Golden decades" (p.485-ss.) with the times of the Megalopolis, "an urban planner's nightmare" (p.528). The same dichotomy is present in Los Angeles, called the "Capital of the Third World" (Rieff 1991). This representation alludes to the thirdworldization of the population (because the people are coming now from poorer countries than before) and of the economy (because it rests on cheap labor and it is controlled by offshore capitalism). Mike Davis says : "Like Downtown, Hollywood is becoming a colony of the world economy" (1992 : 144).

29Representations of the contemporary metropolises are dominated by the fear of invasion : of the alienated/alienating Capital on the left side, of illegal aliens (in L.A.) or immoral values (in Mexico City) on the right side, as we will see. I interpret this fear, and the subsequent denial of what I called the symbolic half of the city, as a key element for explaining the current catastrophism in both places.


30The observation and/or the prediction of urban disaster, catastrophism is the expression of a feeling of failure. On the one hand, failure of modernism, of the Western dream of an absolute power of the subject over the realm of objects. On the other, failure of cosmopolitanism, of the urban dream of regulating and exploiting difference. Catastrophism is the expression of a crisis, a deep crisis in the relationship with the metropolis.

31Since the classic Antiquity, in the western tradition the city has always been considered as the civilizing place par excellence, and has been the ideal support for the modernist project of producing modern dwellers by planning rationalistic cities. But at the end of the 18th century, we start to see catastrophistic accounts of urban life in Europe (cf. Le Roy-Ladurie 1981) as well as in Mexico (Monnet 1993, 1995), that point out the failure of the modern city : mestizaje (mixed people), street vendors, traffic jams, pollution of air and water began to be denounced well before the Industrial Revolution. This one added a new layer of despair for the moralists of the 19th century. Conservative religious leaders blamed the new system of production for the loss of spiritual values, while progressive utopists started to blame Capital.

32It is well documented how the modern urban crisis has gone through different stages since the end of the 18th Century, when it appeared. Cities started to be described through organic metaphors (in the city seen as a body, central districts were the heart or the head, streets were arteries, parks were green lungs, etc.) explaining "dysfunctioning" in terms of "pathology". Many of the current urban representations are inspired by these metaphors : one result is the vision of the city as a living monster –varying from the sprawling octopus to the giant bacteria- devouring lands and people (i.e. spatial and demographic expansion).

33The second order of metaphors is mechanistic : when the city is seen as a giant machinery, people and places are conceived as parts in a mechanical system (with the clear assumption that the aim of the system is productivity). Problems are then interpreted as a result of the "inappropiateness" of certain parts (people or districts) in the general purpose of the machine. As a political tool, functionalist urban planning was no more than the institutionalization of this metaphor : identification of the bad parts and replacement of them by appropriate ones or separate them in order to protect the urban machinery from their problem. "Planning was a rational procedure, which was above the conflicts of the American city ; it paid more attention to the meshing of components, the adaptation of parts, and the procuring of efficiency ; it directed attention to the simplistic relations and elements that could be regulated, such as the flow of traffic and disorderly and conflicting arrangements of land use" (Boyer 1983 : 69 ; quoted in Latouche 1998). Social housing, for example, was promoted by the progressive side of this ideology, while the conservative option ensured the development of peripheral shantytowns or inner city ghettos, among other consequences (idem).

34The third metaphor is the ecologist one, that is clearly built upon a mix of the organicist and mechanistic metaphors. Philip Ethington, analyzing the intellectual construction of the concept of "social distance", reminds us that the Chicago School's urban ecology, "arguably the most influential paradigm in twentieth-century urban studies, […] held that the competition and equilibrium observed between plants provided a sufficient model for the interaction of social groups in the city", model that happened to be "a disastrous case of 'naturalizing' social conflict" (Ethington 1997 : 7 ; see also Latouche 1998). Exemplified in the famous Park, Burgess and McKenzie's 1925 study, this vision of the city as an ecosystem is partially responsible for the political passivity of local and national governments facing the development of mega-cities, now described as urban "jungles". This is a highly paradoxical metaphor, because on one hand the real jungle is interpreted as the last Eden on Earth (the balanced biotope where some humans are supposed to live in harmony with nature), when on the other hand the city-as-jungle is interpreted as Hell on Earth (for example, see the cover of The Economist, 1993, Nov.6-12 : "Hell is an American City"). Jungle is always "fight for life" ; but what is considered as rudeness, violence, chaos and egoism in the city is regarded as balance, interdependence, natural order and good management of resources in the Amazon.

35These three metaphors, organicist, mechanistic and ecologist, that co-inspire today almost all the representations of the big cities, are a good abstract of the evolution of the relationship of Western societies with the cities through Modernity. At the beginning, the city, synonym of civilization, was seen as the tool for building a modern world, and we saw how Mexico City and Los Angeles represent different moments of this project and process. In early Modernism, the city was clearly conceived by intellectuals and colonialists as means for the humanization of the world, a way to put the universe in order and to create a cosmos. Today, the city is often turned by the media and the arts into a symbol of barbarism and is described as an obstacle to progress, an instrument of disorder in the universe and as a chaos itself : see, among others novels, Cristobal Nonato (Carlos Fuentes) ; since Metropolis, many movies had draw upon the same catastrophist topics, with more or less humorous distance (e.g. Blade Runner, Brazil, Volcano, The Fifth Element). Thus, in general, the crisis of the city and the crisis of Modernism/Modernity are linked : the failure of one is interpreted in social representations as a failure of the other.

36Of course, this evolution is not proper to Mexico City and Los Angeles. They simply share now (along with Cairo, Calcutta, Sao Paulo etc.) the destiny of 1950s’ Tokyo, 1920s’ Chicago and New York, 19th Century London and Paris. But our two megapolises are under special attention, because they have been recently interpreted as laboratories and models for the urban evolution of the world. During the eighties, Mexico City was believed to be the biggest city in the world and started to be observed as an example of what would be urban life in the future (for a critical account, see Monnet 1993, 1995). The same thing happened to Los Angeles in a less dramatic way, because it started long before (remember that C. McWilliams says in 1946 : "Here America will build […] the most fantastic city of the world" – 1973 : 377) and it lasts until now. A look on the front and back covers of essays on L.A. in the nineties confirms how much this exemplarism is claimed, if not by the authors, at least by advertisers :

  • "emblem" (Rieff 1991) ;

  • "excavating the future in L.A." (Davis 1992) ; "Los Angeles, capitale du futur" in the French edition ;

  • "the capital of America and the capital of the Third World" (Reid 1994) ;

  • "the American City the world watches for signs and portents" (Waldinger & Bozorgmehr 1996)

  • "prototype of our collective urban future" (Dear, Shockman & Hise 1996) ;

  • "the future of multicultural America" (Allen & Turner 1997).

37With these examples, I wanted to show the power of representation on conditioning our relationship with our environment. The idea or image we have of the place where we are living or that we are visiting has a certain autonomy in its relation with the concrete conditions of life. Where is the "reality" ? The correlation between our imaginary life and our material life in the city is far to be evident. For instance, today’s concrete quality of life both in Los Angeles and Mexico City is much better for anybody than at any other moment in the past, but the representations of life in the city are today much more catastrophist than ever. When people say that the city is harder than before, more violent, with less justice, more poverty, less civism, etc., they are not comparing, strictly speaking ; they are expressing their current state of mind about their current situation. They are representing their unhappiness, despair or revolt as becoming unsupportable. I deny to catastrophism the ability to describe the concrete evolution of the city and to help us understand the processes at work. But it is clear also that we find the actual expression of a "suffering" relationship with the city in the current critical representations of Mexico City and Los Angeles, although the same places used to be the "Miracle Cities" of the Modernist Dream, image that is maintained until today by corporate propaganda (cf. "Los Angeles. Realm of Possibility", Anderson et alii, 1991).

38The suffering that carries the catastrophist attitude is a cultural by-product of a double failure :

  •  Failure of modernism, which pretended to erase the sense of place (even more : the possibility for place to make sense) and to build on a new space. Well, the place resisted and still makes sense, but it carries over all the scars and stumps produced by the modernist erasure.

  •  Failure of cosmopolitanism, which pretended to teach to people how to live together in a shared space while it denied the cultural existence and influence of the symbolic half of the local population (Indians in Mexico City, Mexicans in Los Angeles).

39Some attempts to fight against this situation in Los Angeles are perceptible. Erased, the history of African slavery and legal apartheid in L.A. was like an invisible but painful wound in the urban social and spatial landscape. Such a scarification as is the monument to Biddy Mason in downtown Los Angeles is salutary for the city’s cosmopolitanism, because it contributes to end the modern history of erasure by adding (and not substituting, as it was done under modern tradition) a new layer of signification to the urban physical environment (Hayden 1995).


40Modernism is an ideology ; cosmopolitanism is a way of life ; catastrophism is an attitude. They are social products of the history of cultural values and references, power relations, material challenges. If we go back to the initial assumption of this paper, i.e. the relationship between imagining and experiencing, what did we learn about our two/too beloved/hated metropolises ?

41It seems now possible to consider how the catastrophist representation of the failure of the modern Cosmopolis had and still have practical urban consequences. The main one is the loss or dilution of responsibility : there is no longer any power, authority, institution, group or individual claiming responsibility for the city. In the governance of the contemporary polis, responsibility seems like the ball in a rugby game : a lot of players want to put their hands on it, but nobody can stay with it. I keep it if I can benefit from it, but if I’m in trouble with it, I throw it to my next partner or I shoot it forward. Funny common games : the police blame crime ; crime blames poverty ; poverty blames capitalism ; capitalism blames the state ; the state blames egoism ; egoism blames the circumstances ; etc. Today’s global responsible forces are only the monsters created by modernism and catastrophism : Octopus, the physical city as an animal that escaped from human control ; Capital (formerly known as the Deadly Sin of Avarice), which perverted exchanges and relations between human beings ; Mother Nature, who, despite its personification, has no responsibility and is considered as being betrayed by the ungrateful children who destroyed Her resources.

42There is no doubt that cities, and especially Mexico City and Los Angeles, are consuming space and absorbing people. Of course, the spirit of lucre, along with its twin the spirit of enterprise, are permanent components of human relationships. It is true also that we stupidly and often irremediably wasted a huge amount of natural resources. But it is very dangerous to take catastrophism as a guide for understanding the complexity of our big cities, because it often confuses the picture and doesn’t help us to see clearly where our individual and collective responsibilities are, i.e. what is within our reach and what is not. Catastrophism is an obscurantism, the support of the failure of the modernist and cosmopolitan projects.

43Mexico City and Los Angeles are archetypal modern cities ; they developed a remarkable cosmopolitanism ; they are the focus of a vivid catastrophism. Between them, there is a long chain of historical links and a large path of human stories. There is no reason to think that these particular metropolises will invent more than others new citizenships, new urbanities, new policies. But there are a lot of reasons to think that they share a common destiny, together with the destiny of Modernity.

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Jérôme Monnet, « Modernism, Cosmopolitanism and Catastrophism in Los Angeles and Mexico City », Cybergeo : European Journal of Geography [En ligne], Politique, Culture, Représentations, document 136, mis en ligne le 28 juin 2000, consulté le 16 décembre 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cybergeo.4437

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Jérôme Monnet

Université de Toulouse-Le Mirail. Institut universitaire de France.

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