, For Planetary Governance

Automotive Imaginaries and the E-Road Network: Constructing the Europe-Wide City

Author: Marianna Charitonidou

Developing an arterial system of trans-continental highways was a core component of “infrastructural Europeanism,” which revealed how cars dominate architectural imaginaries and shaped the process of suburbanization. The negotiation of national automobile imaginaries with post-war European integration makes it both a historic case study and a step towards planetary urbanization.

E-Road Network over 1990 borders. Map generated using coastline/boundary data from World Data Bank, and locations from world.gazetteer. Straight lines connect control cities, no attempt to follow the real road. Date: May 13, 2008. License: Public domain. Source: Wikiwand

The E-road network, which was formed on September 16, 1950, is a numbering system for roads in Europe developed by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. It is the European analog of the so-called Pan-American Highway, even if usurped by Route 66 in our collective memory. There are certain highways in Europe that have played a significant role in the evolution of suburbanization and broader construction of the European project. The conception of automobiles differed between local, urban, and national contexts, and how urban planning and architecture affected the connections between mobilities, cities, and landscapes, placing particular emphasis on the connections between suburbs and city centers. Tied up in this were multiple imaginaries produced by architects and urban planners, and their visions for highways that would connect to planned new towns. The Declaration on the Construction of Main International Traffic Arteries in 1950 sketched a system that would connect Europe from Scandinavia to Sicily.

To understand the strategies that characterized the role of the E-road network, one must take two layers into account. Firstly, there are highways within different national contexts, including a comparison of designs for the German Autobahn, the Italian autostrada, the French autoroutes à péage, etc. The second layer must discuss the designs and spatial imaginaries of the E-road network itself. Analyzing both layers will allow a better understanding of the tensions between independent national visions and trans-European urbanization, combining the local with the trans-European, and contributing to a new understanding of the history of Europeanization.

The system of lorries which transport containers from ships to enter cities and serve shopping centers is based on the existence of the E-road Network. The land-based, trans-European transport network, and the architectural typologies encountered on it, are part of the port cityscape and what Carola Hein describes as the “petroleumscape” that supports it (2020). There are three typologies which correspond to three kinds of nodes within the E-road network, expressed within various national contexts that correspond to different European spatial planning systems. The first category of nodes (N1) corresponds to those encountered on the E-roads, such as service stations, hotels, motels, gas oil stations, and café-restaurants. The second category of nodes (N2) corresponds to those encountered at the gates to cities, such as business centers and shopping malls. The third category (N3) concerns the new structures aiming to imitate the urban dimension through a renewed mode of articulation between pedestrian and automobile circulation, with examples such as the villes nouvelles in France and New Towns in the UK, the Netherlands, and Sweden.

Categories of Nodes-typologies within the E-road Network


Infrastructural Europeanism and the E-Road Network

A useful concept to help better grasp the E-road network as an actor shaping the co-construction of Europe is “infrastructural Europeanism,” developed by Frank Schipper and Johan Schot (2011). Schipper and Schot drew upon Paul Edwards’s “infrastructural globalism,” with its emphasis on the integrationist potential of infrastructures, to refer to the co-construction of Europe and its infrastructures. According to Edwards: “Infrastructural globalism is about creating sociotechnical systems that produce knowledge about the whole world [...] it is a project: a structured, goal-directed, long-term practice to build a world-spanning network.” (2010, 25)

Schipper and Schot note that “[h]istorians have for decades now appreciated the integrationist potential of infrastructures, studying the processes of nation-state formation and how infrastructures have shaped and are shaping globalization.” (2011, 248) Among the first countries connected by the E-road network were Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and Switzerland. The United Kingdom and the Nordic countries were hesitant. The UK, despite being among the most motorized countries of Europe in terms of car ownership, had the least E-roads per square kilometer, in contrast with Benelux, the Alpine countries, and Germany, which had a high density (22-35 m/km2) in line with their status as important transit countries.

Infrastructural Europeanism in practice: studying a 1955 E-road traffic census map. (Left to right) W. Moser (Switzerland), A. Agafonov (USSR), and E. D. Brant (UK) of the Transport Division of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe studying a map on the 1955 Road Traffic Census. Despite Cold War divisions, East and West continued to collaborate on infrastructure-related issues at the European headquarters of the United Nations. Image courtesy of the UN

E-roads serve as a powerful symbol for international cooperation and European identity. The first important episode in the endeavor to coordinate mobility across Europe was the Declaration on the Construction of Main International Traffic Arteries, signed in Geneva on September 16, 1950, which stated that it had become “essential, in order to establish closer relations between European countries, to lay down a coordinated plan for the construction or reconstruction of roads suitable for international traffic.” The following year brought the Declaration on the Construction of Main International Traffic Arteries by Edouard Bonnefous, president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the French National Assembly and a strong advocate of greater European integration. This was followed by the foundation of the European Conference of Ministers of Transport (ECMT) in 1953. Already in 1950, Bonnefous maintained that “[t]he coordination of transport systems is probably one of the fields in which, in the opinion of all those who have studied the rationalization of the European economy, it is easiest to advance rapidly and obtain tangible results.”


National Beehives and Perpetual Mobility Flows

To better grasp the tensions between national visions and trans-European urbanization, one should try to compare the different national contexts, focusing on the following parameters. Firstly, the increase or abatement of social seclusion as an effect of highway infrastructure design. Secondly, the ways in which architects and urban planners can contribute to promoting ecology-oriented strategies of regional planning through their practice. Thirdly, the use of different categories of roads for different types of mobility, and finally, the extent to which highways cross central areas of the cities under study. According to David Hornsby and Mari C. Jones, “in the context of the isolation of the suburban working classes, […] autoroutes à péage, or toll roads […] exclude the poorest.” (2013, 107)

Greek architect and town planner Constantinos Doxiadis aimed to incorporate a conception of mobility in his architectural and urban planning strategies. He employed different concepts to different understandings of mobility as they applied to different historical eras. For the city of the twentieth century, he used the concept of “megapolis,” arguing that its main characteristic was the perpetual intensification of mobility flows, which would break the limits of the cities, altering not only their structure, but their meaning. Doxiadis was convinced that the age of automobility demanded new urban types, which would be organized like beehives around multiple centers.

Another concept from Doxiadis that is useful for analyzing the relationship between mobility and urban planning is the “Ecumenopolis” and its relation to his understanding of highway networks. The “Ecumenopolis” began with the hypothesis that urbanization, population growth, and the development of means of transport and human networks would lead to a fusion of urban areas, leading to megalopolises that formed a single, continuous planet-wide city.

The cover of the issue of Casabellà of August 1963 that was devoted to the competition for the Centro Direzionale di Torino.

Within the Italian context, the intensification of concern about the città territorio and nuova dimensione is closely connected to the shift in interest in the historical city to the concerns about territory. During the 1950s and 1960s, this reorientation was expressed through a variety of competitions for Centri Direzionali in several Italian cities, such as the competition for the Centro direzionale di Torino of 1962 to which the issue of Casabellà of August 1963 was dedicated, mediating mechanisms between city and territory. The work of architect and planner Luigi Piccinato played an important role in the emergence of the typology of the Centri Direzionali. Within the German context, special attention should be paid to the impact of shopping centers on suburbanization. Within the Dutch context, the Dutch Randstad had an important impact on the perception of the city from the car, and on the special character of post-war suburban living in Dutch New Towns (Hein, 2020).

Within the French context, particular emphasis should be placed on analyzing the relationship between the French villes nouvelles project and the new highway network. Despite the fact that the villes nouvelles were conceived in relation to the new regional express train network, the new highway network was being constructed during the same period, and was an important component of the project. The villes nouvelles drew upon the lessons of British and Scandinavian New Towns, and launched in 1965 in response to the French government’s efforts to decentralize Paris (Cupers, 2014). The emergence of an ensemble of new architectural typologies in the villes nouvelles proposals relates to the dissociation of pedestrian and automobile circulation. This bifurcation is clear in the proposals for Toulouse-le-Mirail by Candilis-Jossic-Woods, which started in 1961 and is one of the most iconic projects in experimentation with mass housing in France, developed around two core concepts—that of “stem” (trame) and that of “cluster” (grappe).

The separation of pedestrian and automobile circulation became possible due to the design of the so-called dalle: a continuous “linear street” connecting Bellefontaine, Reynerie, and Mirail, offering “a zone of highly concentrated activities and density of collective life.” The design of the dalle was based on the intention to free pedestrians “from the bondage of the automobile,” thereby “giving the ‘street’ a new prestige—the street regarded as the primordial function in urban life.” Cars arrived “only at the perimeter of housing blocks or […] [headed] directly to parking underneath the dalle, a resident simply never had to cross the road to engage the new city” (Riar, 2018, 82). In a collage by Candilis-Josic-Woods that represents the role of the “stem” in their proposal for Toulouse-le-Mirail, we can see repeated illustrations of cars.

Candilis-Josic-Woods, Stem collage, 1961. Image Courtesy of the Shadrach Woods papers, Avery Library, Columbia University

At the centre of this project was the division between the pedestrian and the automobile circulation. Le Mirail was designated the very first Zone à Urbaniser en Priorité (ZUP), an administrative formula established in 1960 intended to “set priorities for government financing and execution of urban infrastructure, as well as for the selection of sites” (Riar, Lyon, 2018, 77). Candilis-Josic-Woods understood the street “as a morphological structure and a social space of everyday life,” as well as “the structuring device for the urban plan of the […] new town for 100,000 inhabitants” (Cupers, 2010, 109).

The relationship between architecture and corporatism reveals the specificity of automobile culture within the Swedish context. The automobile, as a physical presence, has influenced the relationship between welfare landscapes and social housing in Sweden. During the 1950s and 1960s, when the Swedish social model achieved full employment, promoted consistent growth, and maintained price stability, an innovative urban planning model known as “the ABC” was developed with the aim of imitating the variety and animation of city life in newly created large-scale suburban towns. A referred to Arbete, or work; B to Bostad, or housing; and C to Centrum. Special attention should be paid to Vällingby, the first city designed according to this model, and to its transition from the ABC model based on a limited use of automobile transport, as well as a recent tendency towards a renewed role for motorways and their connection to housing design, exemplified in Järvalyftet—a large-scale project that intended to renew a section of northern Stockholm with a population of ca. 60,000. In Järvalyftet, we are confronted with a renewed role for the motorways and their connection to housing design, as becomes evident in the description of this project in the OECD Reviews on Local Job Creation, Employment and Skills Strategies in Sweden: “The new motorway around Stockholm will go nearby, which better connects the areas to other communities” (OECD, 2015).

A useful resource for analyzing the relationship between highway culture and urban planning is Simon Gunn and Susan C. Townsend’s Automobility and the City in Twentieth-Century Britain and Japan (2019). Within the British context, the London County Council (LCC) and its Architects’ Department was responsible for the construction of several projects that changed the image of British cities. Alison and Peter Smithson, who designed Robin Hood Gardens (built by the Greater London Council (GLC), which replaced the LCC in 1965) addressed the contrast between post-war tendencies and traditional society. They considered the car an important means for architecture to respond to the welfare values of post-war society, proving that the emergence of a new understanding of citizens’ sensibilities due to the generalized use of the car in the post-war society should be interpreted in relation to the welfare state.

All of the architectural typologies under study are closely connected to the highway network. Yet within some contexts, such as northern Italy, the existence of medieval and other urban patterns makes it necessary to conceive the network of automobile circulation in a way that extends or contradicts existing layers, conceived of as a new layer superimposed on existing networks. In Italy, suburbanization takes place over an existing pattern, extending or contradicting the latter. On the contrary, in countries such as Sweden, suburbanization takes place in a more tabula-rasa way. Shopping centers in France and Germany are more planned than in Italy.

Urban sociologist Vincent Kaufmann, in Re-thinking Mobility: Contemporary Sociology, argues that “the speed potentials procured by technological systems of transport and telecommunications [can] be considered vectors of social change” (2016, 99). He employs the term “motility” to refer to the operation of transforming speed potentials into mobility potentials, arguing that “[t] he notion of motility allows [. . .] to distinguish social fluidity, from spatial mobility” (Kaufmann 2016, 99). The social fluidity approach, currently present in debates in the social sciences, takes into account the role of “transport and communication systems as actants or manipulators of time and space” (2016, 4), placing particular emphasis on the fact that “the automobile [. . .] associates speed and freedom in space and time” (Kaufmann 2016, 101). Particular emphasis should also be placed on the role of mobility in the formation of social positions. In parallel, the shift from the model related to contiguity to that related to connexity is pivotal for understanding the role of the E-Road network within this process of enhancing “the interaction of actors by cancelling [. . .] spatial distance” (Kaufmann 2016, 22).


Petroleum and Planetary Urbanization

The automobile is a key actor in the transformation of urban forms, significantly altering the political, environmental, and economic spheres. For this reason, it is important to study in a holistic way the interconnections between urban planning, architecture, and spatial imaginaries. To refine the concept, we can understand the trans-European network as based on a polycentric idea of urban and suburban realities, challenging the dichotomy between center and periphery. In parallel, we can try to shape methods that take into account the fact that the E-Road network concerns both individuals and commodities, and that the land-based transportation functions as an actor of planetary urbanization (Brenner & Schmid, 2012), focusing on the organization of the land-based trans-European transport network (TEN-T).

TEN-T core network corridors. Atlantic, Baltic–Adriatic, Mediterranean, North Sea–Baltic, North Sea–Mediterranean, Orient–East Mediterranean, Rhine–Alpine, Rhine–Danube, Scandinavian–Mediterranean. Source: European Commission

The concept of “planetary urbanization” suggests an epistemological shift in the field of urban studies, promoting an understanding of urban constellations beyond the polarities characterizing the field of urban studies in the early twentieth century: it is useful for treating the connections between different national contexts and the relationship between centers and peripheries, urban and rural landscapes (Brenner, Schmid, 2010). From this standpoint, the E-road Network can be understood as an agent of planetary urbanization, as the spine of land-based transportation for both citizens and commodities.

The automobile also plays an important role in promoting agendas that emphasize the financial benefits of using highways for the circulation of commodities within a trans-European network. The role of oil companies in constructing spatial imaginaries related to automobility and (sub)urban living needs to be taken into account. Carola Hein’s idea of a “global palimpsestic petroleumscape” helps us to examine how “petroleumscape […] shapes spatial practices and mindsets” (Hein, 2020, 101) and ties “commodity and energy flows to diverse spaces” (Hein, Sedighi, 2016, 352). This is useful for comprehending the symbolic dimension in the modernization of roads—the idea of fast mobility, on the one hand, and the relationship between architecture, urban planning, and logistics along the E-road network on the other. The logistics of land-based transport of commodities relates to the endeavor to use architecture and urban planning as agents for constructing imaginaries related to car travel. Apart from analyzing the changing function of automobile transport in the processes of suburbanization, one could also try to relate historical perspectives with contemporary conditions.

Cover photo courtesy of Archivio Storico Autostrade per l’Italia.


Brenner, Neil, Christian Schmid, “Planetary urbanization”, in Matthew Gandy, ed., Urban Constellations (Berlin: Jovis, 2012), 10-13.

Charitonidou, Marianna, "E-road Network and Urbanization: A Reinterpretation of the Trans-European Petroleumscape", Urban, Planning and Transport Research, 9(1) (2021): : 408-425.

Cupers, Kenny, “Designing Social Life: The Urbanism of the Grands Ensembles”, Positions, 1 (2010): 94-121.

Cupers, Kenny, The Social Project: Housing Postwar France (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).

Doxiadis, Constantinos A., “Ecumenopolis: Toward a Universal City”, Ekistics, 13(75) (1962): 3-18.

Edwards, Paul, A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2010).

Hein, Carola, “The global petroleumscape in the Dutch Randstad Oil spaces and mindsets”, in Wil Zonneveld, Vincent Nadin, eds., The Randstad: A Polycentric Metropolis (London; New York: Routledge, 2020), 100-124.

Carola Hein, Mohamad Sedighi, “Iran’s Global Petroleumscape: The Role of Oil in Shaping Khuzestan and Tehran”, Architectural Theory Review, 21(3) (2016): 349-374.

Gunn, Simon, Susan C. Townsend’s Automobility and the City in Twentieth-Century Britain and Japan (London; New York: Bloomsbury, 2019).

Hornsby, David, Mari C. Jones, “Exception française? Levelling, Exclusion, and Urban Social Structure in France”, in idem., eds., Language and Social Structure in Urban France (London; New York: Routledge, 2013).

Kaufmann, Vincent, Re-thinking Mobility: Contemporary Sociology (London; New York, Routledge, 2016).

OECD, Employment and Skills Strategies in Sweden, OECD Reviews on Local Job Creation. Paris: OECD Publishing, 2015.

Riar, Inderbir Singh (with photographs by Mark Lyon), “Ideal Plans and Planning for Ideas: Toulouse-Le Mirail”, AA Files, 63 (2018): 74-86.

Schipper, Frank, Johan Schot, “Infrastructural Europeanism, or the project of building Europe on infrastructures: an introduction”, History and Technology, 27(3) (2011): 245-264.

Archival sources

Declaration on the construction of main international traffic arteries, 16 September 1950, preamble, copy in registry fonds GIX, file, UNOG.

Archives of the Council of Europe, Strasbourg, Consultative Assembly, Second Ordinary Session, Motion recommending the creation of a European Transport Organisation, Doc. 63, 16 August 1950

Marianna Charitonidou

Dr. ir. Marianna Charitonidou is an architect, curator, educator, theorist, and historian of architecture and urban planning. She is a lecturer and a postdoctoral researcher at ETH Zürich, the National Technical University of Athens, and Athens School of Fine Arts. She is the curator of the exhibition entitled "The View from the Car: Autopia as a New Perceptual Regime” at ETH Zurich. In September 2018, she was awarded a doctoral degree all'unanimità for her Ph.D. dissertation “The Relationship between Interpretation and Elaboration of Architectural Form: Investigating the Mutations of Architecture's Scope.” She also holds a MPhil in History and Theory of Architecture from the School of Architecture of the National Technical University of Athens (2013), a Master of Science in Sustainable Environmental Design from the Architectural Association (2011), and a Master’s in Architectural Engineering at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (2010). She was a Visiting Research Scholar at Columbia University’s GSAPP (invited by Prof. Tschumi), the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University (invited by Prof. Cohen), the École française de Rome, the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), and the Getty Research Institute (GRI). She has published more than 75 peer reviewed articles and has presented her research at numerous international conferences. Among her recent publications are "Mies van der Rohe’s Zeitwille: Baukunst between Universality and Individuality", in Architecture and Culture (2021), "E-Road Network and Urbanization: A Reinterpretation of the Trans-European Petroleumscape", in Urban, Planning and Transport Research, 9 (1) (2021), "Autopia as new perceptual regime: mobilized gaze and architectural design", in City, Territory and Architecture, 8(5) (2021), “Housing Programs for the Poor in Addis Ababa: Urban Commons as a Bridge between Spatial and Social”, in Journal of Urban History (2021), and "Simultaneously Space and Event: Bernard Tschumi’s Conception of Architecture", in ARENA Journal of Architectural Research, 5(1) (2020).

Email: m.charitonidou@icloud.com

Website: charitonidou.com

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