Transnational Architecture and Urbanism: Rethinking How Contemporary Cities Plan

Transnational Architecture and Urbanism: Rethinking How Contemporary Cities Plan


Reviewed by Federico Camerin

First Published:

02 Aug 2022, 10:56 am


Transnational Architecture and Urbanism: Rethinking How Contemporary Cities Plan

Davide Ponzini, Transnational Architecture and Urbanism: Rethinking How Contemporary Cities Plan, Transform and Learn, London and New York: Routledge, 2020; 320 pp.: ISBN: 97804 15787925, £120.00 (hbk)


Ten years ago, I started to become very familiar with Davide Ponzini’s research. The inquiries of the Italian scholar matched my personal interests on the issue of redeveloping former military sites and on the implication of star architecture in the urban environment, especially in Italy (Ponzini and Nastasi, 2011; Ponzini and Vani, 2012). The early stage of my national-based research successively evolved towards a more international perspective: my fields of interest converged to look at how post-industrial cities like Barcelona and Bilbao have gone through periods of decline and suffer from urban decay but have found striking solutions to rise again (Camerin, 2019; Camerin and Álvarez Mora, 2019). My main goal was pinpointing the socio-economic and territorial repercussions of the efforts made by these Spanish cities to compete for investment and to integrate into the globalised networks of the knowledge economy. The inquiries on Barcelona and Bilbao led me to discover that urban regeneration processes have resulted in similar architectural and urban forms not just in Spain, but in Western European cities. I have consequently asked myself a number of questions: which were the foundations of these transformations and how have the involved actors managed them since the late 1980s? What are the impacts of resembling architectural and urban items at the international level? Why does Barcelona’s Jean Nouvel-designed Agbar Tower present the same architectural form as London’s Norman Foster-designed 30 St. Mary Axe, and why were these buildings built in the same period (early 2000s)?

The answers to my questions are provided by Davide Ponzini in the book Transnational Architecture and Urbanism: Rethinking How Contemporary Cities Plan, Transform and Learn. Resembling transformations in cities across the world do not simply derive from general trends of neoliberalism, globalisation and urban entrepreneurialism. The view offered by this book is that these great urban transformations should be interpreted within four axes via examination of the design projects and built forms, the urban context, the actors and networks involved and the ways such processes unfold over time. This kind of analysis, therefore, may be applied to any city that a scholar may want to explore.

The book is divided into three main parts. The first section, ‘Transnational Architecture and Urbanism’, provides the theoretical framework and conceptual and policy issues emerging in contemporary literature and public debates about 21st-century cities. Chapter 1, ‘The Transnational Transformations of Contemporary Cities’, outlines the main urban issues engaged with by the book and the research questions that help us better understand the forms and processes of urban transformation and homogenisation across the world. Chapter 2, ‘Looking for (Urban) Troubles Across Disciplines’, details the positions and debates – across selected disciplinary fields and approaches – that provide striking interpretations of the issues of urban transformation and architectural design. Chapter 3, ‘A Conceptual Framework for Usable Knowledge in Contemporary Cities’, exposes two main explanations. First are the reasons behind the need to apply a transdisciplinary approach for the correct comprehension of the book’s themes, and why multidimensional insight may catalyse more knowledge and enhance urban and architectural projects. Second are the four dimensions of analysis: projects and built forms; multi-scalar contexts; actors and networks; and processes. Chapter 4, ‘Critical Approach and Pragmatic Attitude’, furnishes a brief methodological discussion on the analysis conducted by Ponzini. The study of transnational architecture and urbanism requires an adaptation and improvement of research methods and approaches from different kinds of discipline, particularly architecture, geography, planning, policy and urban studies.

The second part, ‘Critical Issues’, highlights the six core questions of the book, which correspond to Chapters 5 to 10. Chapter 5, ‘Spectacularization of Contem-porary Architecture and the Urban Environment’, analyses assorted examples where spectacular projects, such as iconic museums, culture-led initiatives and supertall skyscrapers, have been the tools used to drive urban development and narrate their desired urban effects. In Chapter 6, ‘Urban Personification and the Mobilities of Global Experts’, Ponzini argues that expecting exceptional expertise to solve the planning and development problems of one city is delusionary – especially when applied for a limited duration, because of the high mobility of designers and planners. Chapter 7, ‘Decontextualization of Architectural and Urban Design’, deals with large-scale projects and innovative solutions intended as opportunities for the generation of wealth through real-estate appreciation – and its redistribution among citizens – in terms of public employment, infrastructures and facilities. On the basis of a number of the works carried out by the multinational firm Broadway Malyan ( in London, Abu Dhabi and Baku, here the argument is that the decontextualisation of design operates and circulates similar building types and forms. Chapter 8, ‘Plan Circulation and Complex Transfers’, examines the transnational mobility and circulation of the High Line Elevated Park in New York City, as multiple cities have been reproducing its aesthetics and rationale as well as governance and management components. This analysis, which can be added to the work edited by Lindner and Brian (2017), shows how transnational architects and developers attempt to transfer resembling urban narratives and design solutions, eventually making use of the specificities of given urban places in rhetorical or instrumental ways. Chapter 9, ‘Plan Circulation and Complex Transfers’, compares a megastructure designed by Moshe Safdie in Singapore and then in Chongqing and a tower designed by Jean Nouvel in Barcelona and then in Doha. Ponzini demonstrates that the quality of urban space and even the recognition of one building or landmark depend on contextual features and eventually on the complex and transnational process of designing and adapting solutions to places. Chapter 10, ‘Homogenization of Central Places and Urban Landscapes’, demonstrates that the positions suggesting that globalisation homogenises places central to contemporary and globally connected cities are not only unhelpful but provide an oversimplified interpretation. These approa-ches also impair understanding of the interplays between the homogenisation and differentiation of places and the critical discovering of their potential improvement on the part of local and transnational actors.

The third section thoroughly discusses the effects of the transnational issues examined in the previous parts and the implications for a collective understanding, planning and learning. Chapter 11, ‘Planning, Learning, and Dealing with Transnational Architecture and Urbanism’, assesses the conditions and relevance of local planning in reference to the evidence presented in Chapters 5 to 10. It reflects on how planning comes to interact with transnational architecture and urbanism in terms of regulation, overall process governance, visioning, strategy making, urban project design and implementation. The final chapter, ‘How Can Urban Planners, Designers, and Policy Makers Cope with These Issues?’, suggests how the actors involved can be useful for cities to plan and manage transnational projects and urban transformations. The suggestion made by Ponzini is to culturally and politically concentrate on projects, processes and places rather than on generalising background conditions, grand transnational narratives or project makers alone, by nurturing collective learning via reflection during planning processes happening in place.

To conclude, I strongly recommend Davide Ponzini’s Transnational Architecture and Urbanism for all architects, urban planners, designers and policy makers interested in the current evolution of the shape of the city, for two main reasons. First, it offers an innovative and compelling methodology to frame urban regeneration processes and their results across cities worldwide. Second, and most importantly, it shows the result of the academic explorations carried out by Ponzini over the last 15 years and demonstrates their maturity. Ponzini has evolved his European-scaled research on star architecture and urban governance with a more critical attitude to address a phenomenon that exists across the world.



Federico Camerin has conducted this research within the research project La Regeneracin Urbana como una nueva versin de los Programas de Renovacin Urbana. Logros y fracasos. This project is co-funded by the Spanish Ministry of Universities in the framework of the Recovery, Transformation and Resilience Plan, by the European Union – NextGenerationEU and by the Universidad de Valladolid.



Camerin, F (2019) From “Ribera Plan” to “Diagonal Mar”, passing through 1992 “Vila Olímpica”. How urban renewal took place as urban regeneration in Poblenou district (Barcelona). Land Use Policy 89: 104226.
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Camerin, F, Álvarez Mora, A (2019) Regenerating Bilbao: From ‘productive industries’ to ‘productive services’. Territorio 89: 145–154.
Google Scholar | Crossref

Lindner, R, Brian, R (eds) (2017) Deconstructing the High Line Postindustrial Urbanism and the Rise of the Elevated Park. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Google Scholar | Crossref

Ponzini, D, Nastasi, M (2011) Starchitecture: Scenes, Actors and Spectacles in Contemporary Cities. Turin: Allemandi.
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Ponzini, D, Vani, M (eds) (2012) Immobili militari e trasformazioni urbane. Territorio 62: 13–18.
Google Scholar | Crossref


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