An uncommon city: Bodily diversity and the activation of possible urbanisms (book project)

Book project, in preparation: version July 2022

Estimated completion: December 2023


Introduction: An Uncommon city?

1. An uncommon city: The book’s main concept  

This is an anthropological exploration of bodily diversity and its impact in the material and knowledge politics of city-making. In particular, drawing on field and archival work of independent-living and disability rights movements, paying attention in particular to their urban accessibility struggles as well as their pedagogic interventions in the training of architects, city planners, and designers (with materials mostly from Barcelona, but also from Munich), in this book I trace a wealth of activist initiatives—both intra- and extra-institutional—caring for an epistemic, material and political activation of urban design. Following an understanding of ‘care’ in STS and feminist technoscience as an activation of the possible, the book wishes to unfold the wide variety of ways in which a concern with bodily diversity mobilises the uncommon prospects of the city, opening up other possible urbanisms.

These initiatives have or had at their core the production of singular situations—made out of policy documents and building codes, infrastructures and standards, collaborative design processes and prototypes, and manifold sensitising devices and documentation interfaces—through which designing technologies, urban landscapes or institutions and political spaces is to be attempted from the appreciation and articulation of bodily diversity: from the demographic identification of bodily patterns to the invention of inclusive and universal design, also connecting with the contested history of urban accessibility struggles, or the perpetual emergence of many access issues in contemporary forms of city-making where bodily diversity appears as the main concern to address by different actors.

However, rather than describing how design becomes activated as a practice having a clear focus and a procedural take to these problems through ready-made participatory methods—that is, as if their democratising aspiration was just to incorporate in the design process known groups who engage in identity politics and a struggle for their rights using particular public infrastructures or equipments granting social integration, understood as solutions—, I describe these situations as opening up careful, troubled and troubling, experimentations with urban design, inventing distinct notions, meanings, and materialisations of ‘access.’

By that I do not just mean a troubled and worrisome exploration into designing ‘more inclusive’ forms of relatedness, but mainly a perpetual mode of troubling the ways in which we can or could relate, tell and describe the invention and materialisation of modes of togetherness: from ‘inclusion’-driven democratic project of accessibility politics to initiatives prying open fragile and interstitial topologies of ‘mutual access’, whereby the relational and material affordances to understand and host not-so-known, if not emergent bodily diversities are devised and tested.

Such an exploration gravitates around a re-description of and a multi-modal (in a plurality of modes and media) engagement in a series of activist design and urbanism initiatives, searching to learn from their hyperbolic aspirations, fraught techniques and experimentations to open up bodily diversity as a problem-space for the remaking of our cities. Building on them, urban design or urbanism could then be recounted as a peculiar inquiry: a perpetual questioning on what/who counts and how to make that happen through concrete—and usually very troublesome—acts of making and material interventions.

Indeed, by remaining constantly open to the many unknowns populating these practices, a more accurate approach to the meanings of these design activations is here attempted. One showing the contours of a different city: what I wish to call an uncommon city (una ciudad poco común, in Spanish; or una ciutat poc comuna, in Catalan). ‘Uncommon’ here referring to the divided and fragmented effects of modernist urbanism, dismissing when not violently crushing bodily divergence as a form of ‘otherness’ – but also, and more importantly, the unexpected and inspiring possible cities lurking in its background. Although, to be more specific the uncommon city is not a place, but, rather, an ecology of practices (Stengers). That is, a peculiar concern for making the urban exist: the mode of urban existence that opens up when urbanites devoid of the statute of citizenship (literally, pertaining to the city), when rejected and inappropriate/d embodiments come back with a vengeance, not just in the mode of violent revolt; also as a spectre, a phantom, an alteration or, better, an interstitial activation of the modes of attempting to live together in the city, in diversity. 

In the book, I trace the appearance of this uncommon city activating design practice, in at least two ways: (i) elicited as part of a democratic transition from invisibility to recognition –– that is, in the inclusive aspiration to institutionalise bodily diversity at the very core of regulated and public modes of city-making, building access through standards of inclusion, opening up participatory avenues in municipal planning––; and (ii) as the insurgent non-normative city of the ‘functionally diverse,’ one that lies in the shadows of planning, always there, lurking in the background, in fragile webs of family, friendship and activist ties, which sometimes liberate as much as they can suffocate; an uncommon city emerging periodically to public scrutiny in times of crises, when the institutional project shows its cracks and incapabilities to host a liveable togetherness.

As I unfold, an uncommon city always lies in abeyance as a problem and as a challenge: the city already built as an effect of segregation; but also the possible city to be imagined and materially speculated. A city that, as in Calvino’s Invisible Cities, is as much a hologrammatic projection and a spectral figure of imagination as it is the lived and practiced city of those who tend to remain invisible, uncounted and living on the hinges, at the gates of urbanity and polite society, whose main project might be to unsettle it, but also to cover from its totalizing gaze, crafting forms of opacity to protect from it in dimmed light.

In an uncommon city there lies a project of commonisation or making common that doesn’t depart from clear-cut ‘common grounds’ – urban, bodily or otherwise – but from the iridescent wealth of possibilities that the unknown – both what has been left out and the opaque, what cannot be known for sure, once and for all – has to bring us together. The unknown ‘us’ always in the making: fragile and volatile, and always on the verge of being volatilised by the strong violence of expert and identity-driven modes of attempting to articulate our adjacency. Grounded on such unsteady grounds, an uncommon city, hence, is a concern many actors, and not just the classic experts contribute to elicit, enact and make viable. An uncommon city, thus, appears always in newer forms whenever some become fascinated to materialise alternative modes of the urban departing from a consideration of what might separate and divide in ways that, rather than enacting powerlessness and defeat, activate their variegated knowledges and practices in the attempt to invent and experiment with fraught modes of togetherness to do so.

*A caveat: Why I use ‘bodily diversity’ as a marker of the uncommon and not ‘disability’? I know this might be a problematic decision, given the relevance of the category in fights for rights to inclusion and social justice (Garland-Thomson). However, with no attempt at diminishing this, and acknowledging that terminology will always be an object of contention, I have taken this choice because of two main reasons: (i) one is that I would like to nod to contemporary non-assimilationist struggles for bodily diversity (e.g. older / queer / crip peoples of colour, not to mention ‘deaf gain’ or ‘neurodiversity’); (ii) but also, and perhaps more importantly, because I would like to cherish the self-representational political vocabulary (diversidad funcional) that I learnt in Barcelona from the activists of the Spanish Independent-Living Forum, using the term in opposition to other more institutionalist usages of the CRPD.

2. An ethnographic ‘after-effect’: Tracing the emergence of the concept

In 2015 I moved to Munich to take on a challenging position: working as an anthropologist in a department of Architecture, as part of a research unit working on issues of participatory design of urban infrastructures. I sought to bring to the job the collaborative design and experimental activist practices I had learnt as part of a singular project in Barcelona called En torno a la silla (gathering more or less politicised designers with independent-living activists in material explorations for alternative modes of togetherness). But after many years surrounded by collaborative architects and activist designers, arriving in Munich I soon discovered I had been living in ‘an uncommon city;’ one that was very difficult to make relevant in the leading German ‘polytechnic’ university at the core of one of the golden cradles of global corporate capitalism.

My first challenge, I discovered, was trying to describe accurately the experiences I had gone through. My aim was to show these new colleagues and students the kinds of designers I had worked with, and the interesting political prospects for design practice that our endeavours had opened up. My descriptions of what that had done to designers and their practice had as a main aim to invite others to appreciate, and perhaps try out, these collaborative modes. Interestingly, an uncommon city not only impacts on the works of architects, planners, or policy-makers. As I would also like to show, such concerns also had a direct impact on the relevance, role and modes of engagement of my anthropological endeavours, also activating me to go beyond just providing ethnographic insights on uses and users for the expert remaking of our cities. 

To address this, in the book I also dwell on my intense material and relational involvement in several of these initiatives, mostly as part of my work in the En torno a la silla collective. I describe in detail the impact these undertakings had on my own work: both on the ways in which I had to experiment with designing collaborative fieldwork devices—namely a digital ecology of open documentation—, and how it granted me access to several moments of unlearning and relearning, opening up to the many forms of joint problem-making there present; but also, how I tried to inherit from these moments in my experimental pedagogical approach to the teaching of architects, designers and anthropologists after I moved to Germany: creating manifold situations foregrounding a conceptual and experiential concern for these issues.

But I found out early on that trying to seduce them to become fully-fledged ‘activist designers’ undertaking exploratory and fragile prototyping projects was perhaps too much to ask. Hence, I decided to continue pulling an ethnographic thread in Barcelona that I thought might be allowing me to perhaps widen the palette of activations beyond a nitty-gritty activist mode. Hence paying attention to other modes of feeling activated by these concerns, in a different mode than the activist one. It was then that I approached the Municipal Institute of People with Disabilities: a unit of the city hall of Barcelona in charge of articulating the participation of people with disabilities in the fabric of the city, as well as supervising many urban developments. The unit was praised as one of the most interesting experimental spaces in the country where a concern for accessibility was being translated into lasting forms of participatory infrastructuration. 

Following them in two monthly stays, and being allowed to plunge in their archives I sought to understand how that institution and their ‘sensitised technicians’ had come into being. Taken from that particular angle of sensitisation, the work of these technicians allowed me to become aware that, perhaps, this institute was making appear another nuance of that uncommon city: one activating design in the form of public infrastructures, with its singular perils and merits. Although interesting and relevant as it was, this approach to the production of standards and legal codes appeared many times predated by technocratic modes of government, hence raising a case for alternative approaches to participation.

But the more I told these stories to designers and architects in Munich and elsewhere, the more I sensed there was something strange: a gap? I had been trying to ‘just tell’, in predicative mode, ethnographic stories, as well as discuss relevant references and readings architects could resonate with, but these stories were soon forgotten or not available as part of the many path-dependencies and habits when architects in training engaged in situated conditions of design in different courses. Paradoxically, all those stories and discourses seemed to be incorporated as a justificatory ‘lingo’, but they seemed to have no practical effect in the objects conceived and the ways of solution-driven modes of designing.

This made me go through a rather profound crisis dwelling on what an anthropologist might achieve in such a context. Searching a way through, together with some colleagues I started experimenting with alternative ways of making these concerns relevant: indeed, we started drawing from the long architectural tradition of design studio projects, inventing puzzling ‘briefs’ whereby the challenges and the explorations I had witnessed in projects like En torno a la silla, or the Municipal Institute of People with Disabilities of Barcelona’s city hall could emerge as a situated crisis thwarting solutionist modes of designing. What there emerged was another form of ethnographic storytelling through the design of situations, opening up inquiries into how to learn to be affected by bodily diversity, as well as other challenges of collaborative practice.

All this allows me to reflect on the activation, and the impact that researching in an activated research field had on my ethnographic inquiries and my teaching duties. Hence, I also explore what would happen if anthropology sought to venture carefully but decidedly in designing and redesigning urban relations, from prototyping to pedagogy: What would that mean for other anthropological works beyond this particular field? Could we relearn from these design activations how to undertake anthropology as a material and interventive mode of crafting more plural modes of togetherness, as an exploratory task of generating relations with many times known, but sometimes yet to know beings with which to share the world? Even more so, could anthropology develop into a form of urbanism, an urban design practice? And, if so, of what kind?

Weaving together these activations of design practice, this book tells the story of how in these different endeavours I not only found, but also tried to describe, and then tried to summon ‘an uncommon city.’ The notion of ‘an uncommon city’ is the conceptual device I use to unfold this urban inquiry into how bodily diversity came to matter in particular forms of city-making and its traces: an inquiry searching to decentre modernist city-making practices, not only paying attention to its most violent effects but also to the moments and situations in which a city otherwise–’an uncommon city’–emerges.

3. Activating city-making: The possible urbanisms of bodily diversity

As a project, an uncommon city is an STS-inspired urban anthropology (Farias & Blok) following different attempts at decentering modernist rationales of the city, understanding the Enlightenment and the Modern project in dimmed light. 

By this I mean at least two things:

(i) In both Anthropology and STS, the ‘contemporary’ has come to stand as a figure of thought to map out how ’emergent forms of life’ (Fischer, Rabinow) are being techno-scientifically articulated. 

(ii) Yet, this recounting of the Modern project still produces an asymmetry in the types of knowledges dimmed ‘relevant’ or ‘reasonable’ (usually elite and expert rationalities)

My particular fork of this project has led me to engage in a pluralistic anthropology of contemporary divergences (de la Cadena, Blaser, Escobar), also comprising the fragmentary struggles (Neyrat, Rafanell-i-Orra) of those attempting to survive in the midst of enlightened violence and inattention (Benjamin, Murphy).

Put in other terms: An uncommon city is a project undertaken from the experiences of those outliving the violence of both carelessness and the forms of care inscribed in Welfare and in other traditional forms of the social (Foucault, Rose, Donzelot; Stevenson, Ticktin, Giordano) – however much we might be wanting to repair and resuscitate these caring modes in times of even more violent neoliberal warfare undoing any form of mutual protection, be it social-democratic or otherwise (Muehlebach, Kehr). This project, hence, is attuned to the many times submerged and recurrently emergent – albeit disregarded – popular and subterranean urban practices and their plural knowledges (Glissant, A.M. Simone, T.L. King).

Hence my main research object: studying the emergence of many-times submerged but also unknown embodied urban phenomena, and the way in which they rework design practice: ‘uncommoning’ it. Or, rather, following an understanding of care as the activation of the possible (Stengers, Puig de la Bellacasa), in this book I trace the modes in which bodily diversity activates design practice and city-making. Thus paying attention to some of the uncertainties derived from emergent embodiments whose composition in the urban mix is complex when not not-wanted or neglected, and hence submerged, ‘uncommoning’ the city.

4. Documentary interfaces: An inquiry tracing the urban activations of bodily diverse knowledges

How to study these activations? My ethnographic inquiry foregrounds what I call documentary interfaces: a term I use to refer to situations that frame, elicit, and discuss diverse bodily experiences and the environmental and material affordances to host them; but also the particular media employed to produce a trace of experiential knowledges in various forms of record.

This is an STS approach to the materials and mediations of knowledge – most notably inscriptions and documents (Latour, Mattern, Riles, Hull) – beyond epistemological and elite renderings, tracing the impact and the many-times violent form of world-making of the modernist city-making.

Documentary interfaces are the main modes whereby I have learnt to appreciate the emergences of bodily diversity whenever they leave a trace and keep afloat, or what I have engaged in supporting so they could do so, trying to avoid them from submerging into oblivion (from the peculiar lens of my long-term ethnographic and brief historiographic experiences in Barcelona and beyond)

Thus, in an uncommon city I focus ethnographically on different situations of the multimodal production of documentary interfaces, both in forms of collaboration for their production as well as in the reading of historiographic materials (in a tensed relationship between historiographic–found, with a complicated access to primary sources–and the ethnographic–found and made, together with them–sources), but also finding inspiration elsewhere.

These documentation interfaces allow me to unfold an urban anthropological tale –with each chapter starting from and expounding on them, as well as including long excerpts – so as to trace how bodily diversity comes to matter in city-making in specific ways (drawing from the superb work of Imrie, Hamraie, Williamson, and Kullman). Or, said otherwise, different ways in which bodily diversity activates urban design, whereby possible forms of an uncommon city present themselves

5. Three possible modes of activating an uncommon city: Overview of the book’s sections

In recounting my experiences, the book unfolds ethnographically three possible modes – each one having its own section – in which a concern with bodily diversity mobilises the uncommon prospects of the city, namely: (i) activating prototypes – the story of an open design collective emerging in Barcelona at the time of the indignados pro-tests experimenting with technical aids to foster alliances between people with disabilities and others –; (ii) activating infrastructures – an account of the struggles and the political inventiveness deployed by the disabled representatives and the ‘sensitized’ professionals of the Municipal Institute of People with Disabilities of the City Hall of Barcelona to make city-making more hospitable to bodily diversity, whilst operating within a technocratic milieu –, and (iii) activating pedagogies – a reflection on the impact that the previous work had when having to teach architects as an anthropologist in Munich, mobilizing these ethnographic resources creating pedagogic approaches whereby to un-learn and re-learn how to design being affected by a concern for bodily diversity. The book closes with a recapitulation and a manifesto inviting others to experiment with activations of possible urbanisms with unknown diverse bodies, be they neglected or yet to come!

A group picture of En torno a la silla. Centre: different people on chairs and wheelchairs, sitting in a circle outdoors (one of them standing, most wearing hats, one under a parasol). Background: a mountain range in the Pyrenees. Credits: CC BY NC ND 2014 En torno a la silla



1. Introduction: An Uncommon City?

Activating prototypes

An account of 4 years operating as ethnographer-cum-documenter in the En torno a la silla collective, here narrated as a radical approach to care: undertaking DIY endeavours, searching to prototype and experiment with mutual access as a main mode of of togetherness

2. Joint problem-making

  1. Diverse non-normative alliances: Fragile atmospheres of collective self-experimentation beyond the ontological occupation of ableism
  2. The indignados functional diversity commissions: Materialising alternative arrangements in the crisis of Welfare
  3. Going beyond ‘the catalogue’? Inappropriate/d people prototyping, rethinking and troubling market-driven solutions
  4. Radicalising care: Tinkering (cacharrear) with relations, materials, and environments for ‘mutual access’

3. Technologies of friendship

  1. Functional diversity: A politics of design?
  2. Technologies of friendship: The ‘how to’ of mutual access
  3. Fragile ecologies of DIY: Attempting to become ‘self-managed guinea pigs’, and documenting the experience
  4. Wild research: Re-learning urban anthropology with others
    • Fieldwork devices: Engendering ecologies of open documentation
    • The pharmakon of collaboration: Thresholds and limits of experimentation

Activating infrastructures

A genealogically-enriched study of Barcelona’s Municipal Institute of People with Disabilities: a unit of the City Hall that came to articulate the participation of people with disabilities since the 1980s in the development of versions of urban accessibility laws, regulations and infrastructures; also showing observation materials accompanying its workers in their attempts at sensitising citizens and professionals alike

4. Infra-statecraft

  1. Decentering Barcelona’s urban modernism: A ‘Barcelona model’ of accessibility after Franco?
    1. From the City of Wonders to a plurality of extraordinary embodiments
    2. Participatory governance in the Municipal Institute of People with Disabilities
  2. Urban elements: The contested urban infrastructuration of disability rights
  3. Normalising inclusion: The transformation of accessibility regulations into a market-driven extrastatecraft

5. Sensitised technicians

  1. Sensitising citizens and professionals: How small actors try to affect a big and distributed city hall and beyond
  2. The problems of technical solutions: Bodily diverse revolts and the limits of a sensitised bureaucracy
  3. The perils of ‘social technocracy:’ From an issue of political representation to one of knowledge politics

Activating pedagogies

A series of ethnographic reflections on the modes of undertaking anthropological work beyond the ‘predicative mode’: mobilising ethnographic material in variegated ways when having to teach architects in training in Germany, experimenting with the space of the design studio project; creating exploratory ‘briefs’ and realistic simulations, becoming fascinated by the power of participatory and speculative toolkits or the design of situations and pedagogic atmospheres whereby to un-learn and re-learn how to design, being affected by a concern for bodily diversity

6. Architectural intraventions

  1. Architecture in crisis
    • A DIY anthropologist in a department of Architecture: Teaching in a ‘predicative’ mode
    • The Partizipatorium: A cycle to debate on the need to sensitise technicians
    • Experimenting with ‘technical democracy’ in design studio projects
  2. Fascinating toolkits: Making speculative devices to experiment with architectural practice otherwise
    • Learning not to see: Prototyping a ManualCad
    • Approaching neurodiverse spatial practices: In search for an alternative to the Bauentwurfslehre
  3. Pedagogic atmospheres: Un-learning to design, re-learning to be affected by bodily diversity
    • Taking a walk with an ethnographer and an architect in dialogue
    • An ode to guidelines: The infimum design of converging singularities?

Concluding remarks

7. Uncommoning urbanism: Recapitulation 

The book shows ethnographic examples on three ways in which an uncommon city emerges in approaches whereby bodily diversity is mobilised–prototypes, public infrastructures, and design studio projects–activating a possible approach to urbanism: Each of these activations entails a mode of city-making (urbanising) articulating distinct social forms with their political and moral capacities (urbanities) as well as actors (urbanites). In closing, the three modes will be compared, paying attention to:

– their (i) temporal and (ii) spatial scales; 

– the peculiar articulations of (iii) knowledges, (iv) social forms or modes of ordering, and (v) specific meanings / materialisations of ‘access’;

– distinct (vi) definitions and positioning of the designers’ roles;

– their different (vii) conditions of possibility, (viii) success, and (ix) failure;

– the specific (x) modalities of anthropological work between representation and intervention that they make possible.

But why three and not four or twenty-seven modes in which an uncommon city happens? This is indeed a simplification, and three is not a random figure: rather, it is part of the book’s rhetorical device, and as such it resonates with an attempt at making the argument easy to remember, as well as summarising the most important aspects in a conventional Euro-American logic. In that sense, three is where I have decided to stop, but it’s not the end of things. Three is just a beginning…

8. Activate city-making with unknown diverse bodies, neglected or yet to come! – A manifesto

Perhaps, following that call for a new beginning, I close with an attempt at affecting or interfering with design proper using yet another technique of representation dear of this set of modernist practices: a manifesto.

As I see it,  in these particularly fraught times of ours—with new totalitarian divides and unprecedented more-than-human challenges for urban life—perhaps it is more important than ever to continue attempting to materialise uncommon cities everywhere: generating ecologies of support, offering the possibility not only to thrive in cities whose rampant violence cannot be denied any more – precisely at a time when Welfare ideals mostly appear in the guise of a ‘social technocracy’ –, but also to envision urban forms where we could attempt to relate with one another, even at the hinges of unrelatability.


Picture credits

Broken cracks, floor tiles (2018) by BURO 341 (description: a detail picture of a grey smashed floor tile)