Considering that the aim of this book is to trace the ideas that shaped twentieth
century attitudes to architecture and urbanism, and that of this essay is to discuss
the work of Ildefonso Cerdá (1815-76) within this context, it is tempting to adopt
a model of history that sets parameters against which we can measure Cerdá’s
contribution. This task would be served, for example, by those historical
constructs that adopt the idea of a break or paradigm shift during the period
immediately before or during Cerdá’s life.1 Works which come to mind are A.R.
Hall’s The Scientific Revolution 1500-1800: The Formation of the Modern Scientific
Attitude,2 which suggests that the task of the beginning of the nineteenth century
was the application of natural sciences principles and methods to industrial produc-
tion, or Foucault’s The Order of Things,3 in which he argues that 1800 marked a
fundamental epistemological shift from taxinomia to origins, causality and history.
Cerdá’s claim to be a prominent figure making significant contributions to such a
paradigm shift would allow us to present him as a thoroughly modern figure, a
pioneer of the principles and practices that guided twentieth-century urbanism. While it is true that paradigms change over time and that there is an
attraction in the simple elegance of depicting historical change in this way, the reality is that a close reading of Cerdá’s work reveals a much more complex and fragmented picture in which paradigms co-exist, overlap, compete and contradict each other4. As we shall see, a detailed examination of his work does not negate his role as pioneer of modern urbanism, but it does show that trying to fit his work into a paradigm which was still being formulated during his lifetime offers an incomplete and reductionist picture.