Urban Obduracy: Unbuilding Cities

Anique Hommels, Unbuilding Cities: Obduracy in Urban Socio-Technical Change. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2005.

While sharing a common intellectual genealogy, the contemporary disciplines of science and technology studies (STS) and urban studies have followed divergent paths of development, and flourished in largely separated academic compartments. Anique Hommels’ Unbuilding the City argues for the complementarity of the approaches of STS and urban studies in explaining the phenomenon of urban “obduracy” and strategies for “unbuilding” the city. Linking together the concepts drawn from actor-network theory and constructivist studies of socio-technical change, the book contains three case studies of postwar urban development in the Dutch cities of Utrecht, Maastricht and Amsterdam.

How can we understand urban structures as more than simple technical or physical artifacts? How can we explain the history of cities and their power relations as socio-technical ensembles? Does the urban built environment embed the tacit knowledge of its original planners and builders, such that their norms and values continue to shape the relations of city-dwellers in subsequent generations? In a well-known essay on the question “do artifacts have politics?”, Langdon Winner has cited the example of the low-lying bridges designed by planner Robert Moses in New York, whose passages were too low to permit movement by public buses between the freeways and beaches of Long Island. Moses’ bridges prevented access to these elite white spaces of recreation by inner-city black populations, thus inscribing a permanent spatial discrimination into the design of seemingly apolitical technical artifact.

Urban structures are quite literally path-dependent, in that once they are built, they become a deep structure both underlying and directing the activities of subsequent generations. The built environment of cities both constrains and enables the activities and lives of its inhabitants and users, channeling and directing people into abstract patterns of residence, exchange and transport on the one hand, while the social spaces of the neighbourhood, market and transit hubs provide resources for social organisation and reproduction on the other hand.

However, the urban fabric is itself subject to negotiation and contestation through business-entrepreneurial projects of profit-making and asset-stripping through spatial restructuring, social movements of citizens to protect and expand the rights to collective consumption and social reproduction, and state initiatives aimed at environmental protection and social engineering through the planning and design of public spaces and infrastructure. It is in this context that the urban built environment as socio-technical ensemble exercises its peculiar structuring effects on technological development, politics and everyday life in the city. Artifacts become instruments of power while power relations are materialised in artifacts (Winner; cf. Bijker, 4).

The phenomenon of “obduracy” therefore opens a fascinating set of reflections on how we can use the city both as a symbolic metaphor and material site for understanding the social relations of technology. Breaking down the functionalist sociology of urban planning practice, Hommels attempts to bring the theoretical toolbox of STS to bear on explaining the stubborn persistence of postwar urban structures after the fact of their emergence as stable, non-malleable structures in complex networks of social and technical actors in Dutch cities. The book is neatly divided into five chapters — introductory and concluding sections introduce and assess theoretical approaches from STS and urban studies, and three case studies in-between these chapters explain the phenomenon of urban obduracy in the postwar history of a shopping mall and transit hub in downtown Utrecht, an urban highway which divides the city of Maastricht, and a large housing estate in the suburbs of Amsterdam.

These three artifacts are stabilised through postwar modernist reconstruction of Dutch cities, obstructing subsequent efforts at their “unbuilding” or appropriation into efforts by business elites, state planners, and coalitions of users and citizens at their flexible redesign and redevelopment. Each of Hommels’ studies relates the crisis posed by the obduracy of these structures whose history of occupation and use belied the lofty intentions of their postwar planners.

The designs of the Hoog Catherine mall in Utrecht and the Bijlermeer estate in Amsterdam — based on the modernist ideal of separation of functions — harboured criminals, drug-users and homeless populations, and quickly decayed both physically and socially. The highway built through the centre of Maastricht posed innumerable problems of traffic, air and noise pollution, and circulation, prompting various efforts to divert it around the city, or push it into an underground tunnel.

In each of these three cases, efforts at “unbuilding” these sites remained the subject of drawn-out, piecemeal and often unsuccessful efforts by various actors to confront their obduracy decades after their insertion into the urban socio-technical ensemble. Hommels offers the ideas of “embeddedness”, “technological frames”, and “persistent traditions” from social constructivism to explain the obduracy of the shopping mall, highway, and housing estate respectively.

While these explanations summarise the case studies, the concepts of “obduracy” and “unbuilding” theoretically unify the work, and are both drawn from the STS tradition — though the former plays a much larger role in the argument than the latter (see below) for Hommels.

“Obduracy” is how Wiebe Bijker characterises the closure which results in the stabilization of artifacts in a social context, when dominant groups’ particular frame of meaning and operation of a technology achieves closure and “hardness”, subsequently resisting interpretive flexibility and social-political change (Bijker 283). “The obduracy of technology offers one way to gain understanding of the role of power in the mutual shaping of technology and science” and the shift from an understanding of artifacts to ensembles signifies for Bijker the shift from an understanding of “society” and “technology” as separate objects of inquiry towards the “seamless web” of socio-technical ensembles as the proper object of STS research (ibid., 4-12).

To answer Winner’s questions, artifacts as ensembles do indeed have a politics, and their obduracy “constitutes the semiotics of power, and it is within this semiotic structure that the micropolitics of power are staged” (ibid., 286). Hommels’ study of urban structures largely concerned with this micro-politics of urban technological development in the postwar Netherlands.

Strangely for a book which so clearly advertises its intention to draw on both STS and urban studies, the author fails to consider (or rejects) alternative explanations for “obduracy” in the influential literature on urban restructuring. David Harvey’s historical geography explains the obduracy of urban structures as the legacy of “sunken capital” in the built environment. In this approach, urban infrastructure and housing production are a “sink” for speculative capital accumulation during lean times, and once “sunken” they set the stage for further accumulation in periods of expansion, constraining future physical developments and capitalist strategies along well-worn paths.

Manuel Castells pioneered an approach to social movements for the rights to housing, education, and environment, the mechanisms of social reproduction. Hommels’ studies of a shopping complex, city highway and public housing estate are classic sites of collective consumption by urban social groups. In Castells’ understanding of social movements and the city, the obduracy of urban structures is explained not with reference to the strategies of elites to unbuild these sites, but as seeing them as spaces for the everyday struggles of people to reproduce their social spaces. Castells’ later work on network society would situate the obduracy of urban structures and the character of socio-technical change as the antagonism between the space of flows and the space of places.

The neglect of these approaches from neo- and post-Marxist urbanism in explaining the obduracy of urban structures is a major lacuna in the book both analytically, as well as in terms of the plea for an alliance between STS and urban studies. While Hommels acknowledges these familiar tools of the urbanist in her theoretical discussions of obduracy and unbuilding (Hommels 18, 179), they do not feature in the analysis. The unfortunate result of her over-reliance on actor-network theory and social-constructivism in is a reification of the city as subject, where “the city” is meant to stand in as the subject of various efforts by social groups at rebuilding obdurate structures. While acknowledging the plurality of contending interests and political alliances both inside and outside the state, Hommels’ rush to formalise these claims into a discourse on obduracy reduces the richness and complexity of the questions around politics, business, environment and the state, which these structures persistently incite.

The categorical rejection of structural theories which relate urban change to structural theories of capitalism as “monocausal” (Hommels, 18) at the outset hobbles any attempt to locate “obduracy” and “unbuilding” beyond the local or regional contexts in the Netherlands, limiting the comparative value of these studies in the postwar transformation of urban political economies globally.

While the work eschews the urban studies tools of historical geography, sociology and political economy, a similar criticism may be levelled at the work in its treatment of urban history. While the origins of the shopping complex, highway and public housing estates in the case studies are briefly recounted, one wonders whether what requires explaining is not just the contemporary phenomenon of obduracy, but the malleability and interpretive flexibility of these structures.

This history is only partially accounted for in the book, which explicitly focusses on strategies of “unbuilding” these artifacts once they have stabilised as elements in an urban socio-technical ensembles. In each of the sites, the structures were designed and constructed along modernist principles of functional separation and egalitarian design, through large-scale state-sponsored postwar engineering projects. Hommels’ use of “persistent traditions” to explain the obduracy of the Beljmermeer housing estate and various efforts to redevelop it after the perceived failure of its original plan, locates its obduracy in the design principles of modernist planning, which structured the various responses to Beljmermeer’s social problems. In contrast, unbuilding strategies attempted to modify these structures accorded to postmodern principles of mixing of functions and differentiation of forms, with limited success. A greater effort to situate the case studies in the history of planning and the state in the Netherlands would have widened the scope of the argument and enhanced the idea of obduracy as one of the primary dilemmas of postmodern urbanism.

While Hommels’ work fails the test a critical-historical urbanism, what is perhaps more surprising is its similarly slipshod treatment of concepts from the STS tradition, to which the author is more directly affiliated. Indeed the self-consciousness with which Hommels “applies” concepts to her empirical case studies in the effort to explain the changing urban environment undermines her effort at mining her sites to demonstrate the validity of her concepts.

The limitations of this kind of applied theory approach are frankly acknowledged by Hommels in the concluding chapter, which labours to link together the three case studies, assess the explanatory value of their concepts, and tie them together in a wider theory of urban obduracy and unbuilding strategies. Hommels describes urban sites and structures subject to “unbuilding” as “locations or elements of cities that are disputed or contested, or […] included in redesign plans. The ‘obduracy’ of urban structures is ‘tested’ in efforts to ‘unbuild’ them”. (Hommels 11, cf. 186-187)

Hommels says that the concept of “unbuilding” is inspired by MacKenzie and Spinardi’s notion of the “uninvention” of nuclear weapons (MacKenzie and Spinardi, 199). Arguing that the conventional idea that such technologies cannot be “uninvented” is based on a cumulative and linear notion of technological development, MacKenzie and Spinardi claimed that if design ceases, through a loss of the tacit knowledge implicit in continuing production, nuclear weapons will have been uninvented. An important consequence of this argument is that technologies are constantly being reinvented. However it is unclear how Hommels seeks to adopt this argument as regards urban structures and the built environment, which are also constantly subject to uninvention and reinvention by planners, developers and citizens. Sadly for the concept which gives the book its title Unbuilding Cities, this idea is picked out of the STS toolbox without much reflection on how it elucidates the main argument about obduracy or urban socio-technical change.

The book begins and concludes with the plea for a complementary of approaches in STS and urban studies, situating the study of cities and “urban socio-technology” in both research traditions, and arguing for their shared understanding of the city as a socio-technical ensemble. Hommels’ debt to her teacher Wiebe Bijker in providing both the analytical model as well as key explanatory concepts in her study is obvious. However, the neologisms with which the book is studded are nearly incomprehensible without reference to Bijker’s work on bicycles, bakelight, and fluorescent lighting. Indeed Unbuilding Cities closely follows the structure that work, down to its sequence of five chapters (two “theoretical” and three “empirical”), as well as faithfully reproducing its concepts and conclusions — though on the basis of very different material histories of technology and semiotics of the artifact. What is new and original about the work is the promise of an interdisciplinary approach to cities from which both STS and urban studies may gain, and which is shown in the work of Harvey, Castells, Lewis Mumford, William Cronon, and others whose concerns and insights inform the work of contemporary scholars in both STS and urban studies.


  • Wiebe Bijker, Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1995.

  • Manuel Castells, The City and the Grassroots: A Cross-cultural Theory of Urban Social Movements. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

  • — and Ida Susser, ed., The Castells Reader on Cities and Social Theory. London: Blackwell, 2002.

  • David Harvey. The Urbanization of Capital: Studies in the History and Theory of Capitalist Urbanization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.

  • Anique Hommels, “STS and the City”, book review in Social Studies of Science Vol. 33, No. 6, pp. 945-950.

  • , Unbuilding Cities: Obduracy in Urban Socio-Technical Change. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2005.

  • —, “Studying Obduracy in the City: Toward a Productive Fusion between Technology Studies and Urban Studies”, Science, Technology & Human Values, Vol. 30, No. 3 (2005), pp.323-351

  • Donald MacKenzie and Graham Spinardi, “Tacit Knowledge, Weapons Design, and the ‘Uninvention’ of Nuclear Weapons”, American Journal of Sociology 101 (1995), pp.44-99.

  • Langdon Winner, “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” in Daedalus, vol. 109, no.1 (Winter 1980), pp.121-136 (reprinted in Donald McKenzie and Judy Wajcman, eds., The Social Shaping of Technology, Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1999)

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