In the autumn of 2016, close to 40,000 people, including official delegates from almost every nation, converged upon Quito, Ecuador, for Habitat III, the Third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development. The second-highest capital city in the world, Quito rises 9,350 feet above sea level and boasts a historic urban center crowned by mountain vistas and azure skies. The city’s Centro Histórico, Latin America’s best-preserved and least-altered city center, with steep and bold-hued streetscapes reflecting Spanish, Italian, Moorish, Flemish, and indigenous architectural influences, earned Quito a place among the first-designated UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1978. For these reasons, few wondered that it was chosen to host the 2016 gathering, an agenda-setting conference on global urbanization held once every twenty years. The city’s nickname, Carita de Dios, or Little Face of God, contributes to Quito’s iconic feel. Adding further to that feeling is the city’s landscape, which partly by virtue of its elevation seems to mirror a divine splendor hidden in the heavens.
But Quito reflects more than otherworldly splendor—the city is also an icon of distinct stages of human history. While its architecture, town planning, and landscape design satisfied one criterion for designation as a World Heritage Site, the honor was also conferred because the city itself is an “outstanding example of [an] architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history.”1 Indeed, Quito is at once a faded image of late-medieval and early-modern imperialism, the modern nation-state system, and the post–World War II consensus that governed the late twentieth century. It was founded by Spanish conquistadors on the ruins of a pre-Columbian settlement near the northern extent of Inca rule, and thus it experienced the ambitions and abuses of the world’s most powerful early-modern empire. Having been liberated in 1822 by Simón Bolívar, who noted only eight years later that “independence is the only benefit we have acquired, to the detriment of all the rest,”2 the city knows the virtues and vices of the nation-state.
If you look hard enough, Quito makes decipherable the various configurations of institutions, from the empire to the nation-state to international organizations, that have shaped modern social life at the macro scale. Sociologist Saskia Sassen describes these configurations as “assemblages,” peculiar arrangements and institutional expressions of territory, authority, and rights.3 These formations emerge, ascend, and disintegrate over time, giving rise to newly dominant, if not exclusive, assemblages. Assemblages can be elusive abstractions. “Particular historically constructed encasements,” “historical configurations,” and “institutional domains”4 can be distant, illegible, and seemingly beyond manipulation. But cities and urbanization, like icons, can make these things legible, giving concrete shape to otherwise “invisible and formless things.”5