The reinvention of the city. Outlines of the urban in the Swiss Alternative movement in the 1970s and 1980s (working title)

Nadine Zberg University of Zurich

The modernist city of the Western postwar era with its downtown business districts, «green» suburbia, and extensive highway networks increasingly came under scrutiny over the course of the 1960s. Hence, the 1970s, a decade often referred to as an “age of fracture” or “age of crisis”,[1] also brought along a fundamental renegotiation of the city which paved the way to what is now called the “renaissance” and “culturalization” of the urban from the 1990s to the present.[2] In my research project, I examine this controversy of the 1970s and the subsequent transformations in the major Swiss cities, and the various actors involved in it: city-planners and policy-makers, a new generation of architects, urban heritage protectors, citizens’ groups, and the Alternative Left. The latter, I claim, took on a crucial role in this process. Emerged in the wake of “1968”, the Alternative Left[3] was at first inspired by the romantic retreat to nature and to the self, but by the second half of the 1970s the focus shifted towards the city, which became the dominant object of the alternative protest and the place of a leftist utopian nostalgia. Alternative-Leftist activists offensively appropriated the city as a political object on a discursive as well as material level (culminating in the Swiss so-called Achtziger Bewegung, literally “eighties movement”), thus setting the groundwork for the following transformations of the urban space.[4]

I construe the Alternative Left as a group of actors which in their collective form were essentially constituted by their media practices. Facilitated by the arrival of the photocopier and new, cheaper and more readily accessible printing technologies, the 1970s saw a rapid expansion of do-it-yourself, so-called underground print media, written and assembled at the kitchen tables of alternative communes, sold at the local Leftist bookshops and read and debated in the alternative cooperative cafés, constituting a Gegenöffentlichkeit or counter-publicity.[5] It was in this marginal discursive, social and medial space, I argue, that the city was crucially rethought and the lines along which it would be transformed over the course of the following decades were laid out. To examine how these ideas and new perceptions of the city circulated or diffused from this marginal space into mainstream society, academic discourse and official city planning, the network as an analytical concept[6] might provide a fruitful perspective: with its implication of a de- or multicentered, web-like structure, it allows to take circulations, (the shifting of) power relations, and thus the effects between the historical margins and centers (of society, of political power, of interpretational sovereignty etc.) into account. I am looking forward very much to discussing some difficulties of working with this iridescent concept at the graduate symposium of the summer seminar.


[1] E.g. Rodgers, Daniel T.: Age of Fracture, Cambridge 2011; Hobsbawm, Eric: Das Zeitalter der Extreme. Weltgeschichte des 20. Jahrhunderts, München 102010, p. 503-537; Doering-Manteuffel, Anselm/Raphael, Lutz: Nach dem Boom. Perspektiven auf die Zeitgeschichte seit 1970, Göttingen 2008; Jarausch, Konrad H. (ed): Das Ende der Zuversicht? Die siebziger Jahre als Geschichte, Göttingen 2008.

[2] Föllmer, Moritz: Cities of Choice. Elective Affinities and the Transformation of Western European Urbanity from the mid-1950s to the early 1980s, in: Contemporary European History 24/4 (2015), p. 577-596; Reckwitz, Andreas: Die Selbstkulturalisierung der Stadt. Zur Transformation moderner Urbanität in der »creative city«, in: Mittelweg 36, 18/2 (2009); Baumeister, Martin/Bonomo, Bruno/Schott, Dieter: Introduction. Contested cities in an era of crisis, in: eid. (eds.): Cities contested. Urban politics, heritage and social movements in Italy and West Germany in the 1970s, Frankfurt [a.M.]/New York, 2017.

[3] For the conception of the Alternative Left as a collective entity cf. Reichardt, Sven: Authentizität und Gemeinschaft. Linksalternatives Leben in den siebziger und frühen achtziger Jahren, Berlin 2014.

[4] While working mainly with primary sources from Swiss actors and institutions I will locate and discuss my findings within a transnational framework.

[5] Cf. Reichardt 2014., p. 231-271.

[6] Or one of its relatives such as the Foucauldian dispositif, Deleuze/Guattaris notion of the rhizome or Bruno Latour’s actor-network.

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