Martin Hoffmann, Fenster QP 71, 1978, sepia watercolor

03 Socialist Cybernetic Urbanism


House front after house front raises from the ground. Street lights in concrete periodically light the pavement. The exactness of precast concrete architectures and the aesthetic of rationality were regarded as manifestations of cybernetic planning among architects, theorists, and politicians in the global East. Science was declared the central premise for designing new towns and housing complexes by government leaders such as Nikita Khrushchev, Walter Ulbricht, and Kwame Nkrumah. But the futuristic visions and imaginations that surrounded cybernetics were never purely scientific projections but concomitantly “poetic achievements”. A reading I take from Heinz von Foerster’s report of the 8th Macy Conference held in New York in 1951 (Pias, 2004). 

The pursuit of cybernetics deals, like all myths, with paradox or contradiction (Krauss, 1985). The early science of computation and control, was as much a political icon and enigmatic myth as it was a tool to enhance productivity and export modernist ontologies. Above that several post-colonial African governments actively endorsed planning practices with a “cybernetic eye” (Kurkovsky West 2019) at work. For a generation of political leaders that had fought for freedom and the anti-colonial cause it was connected to expectations of prosperity and seen as a prerequisite for achieving a socialist society.

The project attempts to collect and recover a multitude of perspectives on cybernetic urbanism within socialist geographies. Through oral history, ethnographic, and archival research it explores the mode of thinking and the mode of feeling that cybernetic urbanism generated in the global East (1955-75). Building on contemporary scholarship that has excavated the cybernetic thinking of planners and politicians from the 1950s onwards (Wakeman 2016, Kurkovsky West 2019, Stanek 2020) the research expands and disrupts the historiography of these large-scale urban architectures by open it to the commentary, discourse, and practice of residents and artists. Focusing on the new towns Halle-Neustadt and Zanzibar City that were constructed during the 1960s the research embarks on studying the discursive practices that surrounded cybernetic urbanism in socialist geographies. Oral testimony, as well as mural designs, novels, tv and radio features offer stories and therewith gateways to reexamine the theoretical discourse on cybernetic architectures as well as their spatial and affective qualities.

Research Terms