Introduction: The Porous City

Rione Sanità Napoli, image courtesy wikimedia
Sabine Haenni introduces the new Roundtable with some reflections on the meanings of the porous and the historical origins of the idea of the porous city.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Porousness and Cities.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]


Porous, adj.

• Full of pores; containing minute interstices through which water, air, etc., may pass.

•  figurative. Not retentive or secure, esp. admitting the passage of people, information, etc.

• Taking place through or by means of pores; (Botany) designating dehiscence in which the seeds are discharged through holes in the fruit.

– Oxford English Dictionary


Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis, the Latvian avant-garde actress and director of Marxist children’s theater who met Benjamin in Capri in 1924, appear to have been among the first to use the term “porous” in relationship to cities. In an essay about the Southern Italian city of Naples written in 1924 and published in the Frankfurter Zeitung in 1925, Benjamin and Lacis (the concept seems to have mostly been Lacis’s) argued that, in a city characterized by porosity, the house was not the building block of the city’s architecture. Instead they called attention to its caves, cellars, courtyards, arcades, staircases, windows, gateways, and balconies, all of which nurtured the ephemeral and the theatrical. The city’s porosity thus allowed for “new, unforeseen constellations,” but it also defeated permanence and order; it even explained modes of informal family formations beyond blood relationships. They understood the porous city as typical of the South, and compared it with an African kraal. While it is impossible to do justice to their Denkbild [picture for thought] of Naples in such a short space, their essay includes several aspects worth remembering: porosity connects the built environment with the social as well as with nature; its impermanence suggests a tension with order and planning; it plays an important role in questions of social inequality, for the poor mobilize the porous so that “opportunity be at any price preserved.”1Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis, “Naples,” Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott, ed. Peter Demetz (New York: Schocken, 1978), 166-167. Erben points out that the term had already been in use elsewhere, and that it largely seems to have been Lacis’s for it rarely shows up elsewhere in Benjamin. See Dietrich Erben, “Porous—Notes on the Architectural History of the Term,” in Porous City: From Metaphor to Urban Agenda, ed. Sophie Wolfrum et al (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2018), n.p. e-book. Ernst Bloch knew Benjamin and Lacis’s essay, and followed up with his own “Italy and Porosity” (1925), in Literary Essays, trans. Andrew Joron et al., ed. Werner Hamacher and David E. Wellbery (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 450-57.

Via Sanità, Napoli

Because porosity speaks to such current issues as inequality, informality, agency of the disenfranchised, sustainability, and more, it is not surprising that the term has been taken up more recently, now valued for its messy flexibility, by architects and urban planners wanting to transform urban practice. For example, in 2009, a proposal to rethink Paris in more socially inclusive, accessible, and environmentally sustainable ways was called “The Porous Metropolis after the Kyoto Protocol.”2Studio 09 (Bernard Secchi and Paolo Vigano), “La metropole poreuse d’après-Kyoto,” in Le Grand Pari(s): Consultation internationale sur l’avenir de la metropole parisienne, special issue of amc le moniteur architecture in conjunction with the exposition “Le Grand Pari(s)” (Paris: Cité de l’architecture & du patrimoine, 2009), 167-188. In Bangkok in 2017, taking the absorbing capacity of pores quite literally, Kotchakorn Voraakom founded the Porous City Network in order to “increase climate resilience…through a built network of permeable public space projects.” In Delft (Netherlands) in 2012, architects at MVRD and Why Factory launched the Porous City Lego Towers, which seek to create a “verticality which translates European urban values upwards, a vertical town with parks, public space and a mixed urban program.” It is worth noting that claiming a porous tower as a “European” value is problematic, not only because Benjamin and Lacis’s porosity was created through a presumed intermingling with African concepts, but because it appears to declare porosity as a new form of Western authority (once again erasing non-Western histories and knowledge). My larger point here is that porosity is frequently understood as providing solutions to the more oppressive aspects of contemporary urbanity as well as to social inequality more generally, and even to climate change.

However, what makes porosity so intriguing as a concept is its very ambivalence, the ways it can simultaneously account for the more utopian as well as dystopian aspects of urban life. In the recent collection Porous City: From Metaphor to Urban Agenda (2018)—a book that frequently sees the porous city as a solution to urban issues—Sophie Wolfrum notes that porosity inevitably reminds us of the two very different aspects of modernity: on the one hand it stands for “efficiency and instrumentalization of reason” and on the other for “open structures, connectivity, and transition.”3Sophie Wolfrum, “Porosity—Porous City” Modernity as efficiency or as connectivity: the concept of the porous city more easily belongs to the latter, and resists the former. Indeed, it could potentially destroy the former, for, as Giorgia Aquilar writes, porosity may mean “the erosion of the city fabric to create social space.” In this logic the “broken-down” becomes the symptom of a porous process requiring human transformation in an effort to repair social space. The porous city is thus associated not only with misuse but with survival.4Giorgia Aquilar, “The Ideal of the Broken-down: Porous States of Disrepair” In a re-reading of a late nineteenth-century advertisement promoting (non-porous) linoleum floors in hospitals and elsewhere, Dietrich Erben likewise reminds us of the less utopian aspects of porosity, of the ways in which the porous was associated with danger and disease.5Dietrich Erben, “Porous—Notes on the Architectural History of the Term” And in his cultural history of Rio de Janeiro, Bruno Carvalho settled on the term “porous city” because it alone seemed capable of explaining how “a culture and self-image defined by mixture coexist[s] with stark socio-economic disparity.”6 Bruno Carvalho, Porous City: A Cultural History of Rio de Janeiro (from the 1810s Onward) (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013), 10. In this context, a porous urban space allows for multiculturalism and social intermingling, but also accounts for a urban segregation, division, and violence, even for a history of slavery, as the utopian and dystopian versions of porosity seem to presuppose each other. At stake may be a balance: porosity may lessen segregation, but too much porosity may lead to renewed segregation.

The janus-faced aspects of porosity are especially visible in that very particular urban pore, the port. As a nodal point in a potentially global traffic infrastructure, the port is a symptom of modern efficiency, and yet, it also “absorbs” people and things. None other than Walter Benjamin, writing a memorable piece about the port city of Marseille, called attention to what he called the “tartar” and the “bacillus culture” in the city’s harbor.7Walter Benjamin, “Marseilles,” Reflections, 131. As porous spaces, ports have long fueled the imagination of writers and filmmakers, who have evoked ports’ intermingling of people and goods, their transgressive sexual cultures, their illegal trafficking. Thus the port of Marseille provides the setting for both Claude McKay’s novels about diasporic African life, Banjo (1929) and Romance in Marseille (written between 1929-1933, to be published for the first time in 2020), and the crime thrillers The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971) and The French Connection II (John Frankenheimer, 1974). The port illustrates the potentially utopian intermingling possible in a porous space, as well as the dystopian anxieties about its potential dangers.

In the end, not all urban pores are alike, and we need to pay attention to the specificities of particular porous urban spaces. If pores are media, which absorb material, through which material passes, and which have a function in a larger organism, it is worth asking ourselves what specific organisms and what materials we are talking about. The contributions in this roundtable consider a range of porous urban spaces, wondering about questions of access, permeability, security, plasticity, geographical and historical connectivities in representations of London’s Docklands and of Beijing’s Tian‘anmen Square, as well as in uses of old and new media, from chalk writing and postering to urban screens. Together, they allow us to think about the limitations and promises of porous urban spaces, and the ways in which interventions in and through porosities are possible.


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