Tag Archives: planning

Nova Huta: Krakow’s Stalinist ‘Workers’ Paradise’

Nowa-Huta1949Nova Huta was built in a Poland dominated by Stalin to be an exemplar of urban planning, a workers’ paradise.

Some say also to be one-in-the-eye for a literary, intellectual Krakow.

It’s also all about steel. Poland ‘refused’ aid from the U.S. through the Marshall Plan, turning instead to a 1948 economic agreement with the USSR to provide it 1.5-2 million tons of steel per year. In 1949 the site of Nova Huta was decided on, to be built on 11 thousand hectares of rich soil and three villages. I am writing in more passive voice throughout this post, because agency is complex though ultimately I suppose it was mostly about Stalin.  This land was taken, as the book (finally a book in English with more context, even if only a write-up of an exhibition held here in the lovely little museum that used to belong to the scouts, with chapters written by the curators Paweł Jagło and Maria Lempert) states:

sometimes without financial compensation. The investment was realized against the will of inhabitants of the villages near Krakow, who felt deeply harmed by this decision. (17)

This immense steelworks, named after Lenin, started operation on 22 July 1954 using Soviet technology. After 1956, more modern technology in the form of machines designed by Tedeusz Senzimir (American of Polish descent) was brought in. Senzimir — who workers wanted to name the factory after in 1989, and did briefly. Now of course, through the glories of global capital, it is Arcellor-Mittal Poland.

Architecture (Paweł Jagło)

It is curious to me, coming from a country where social housing was always a victory for our people, to read the inner conflict and diffidence in descriptions of this place imposed and in many ways representative of outside oppression despite its positive role in the lives of so many. Interesting how this then folds into architectural and social critiques of such density of worker housing, and the underlying ideals of this kind of utopian planning. Paweł Jagło writes:

‘The winning design, which was a creative comment on the Renaissance idea of the ideal city, was submitted by Tadeusz Ptasycki (1908-1980)… Housing estates designed for 4-5 thousand people were built around public utilities and services like kindergartens, schools, playgrounds and parks. Services (shops etc.) were located on ground floors of residential building by main streets.

Each housing estate became a well-defined self-contained ‘mini-city’ within the bigger urban establishment of Nowa Huta.’ (23)

Look at this model, amazing:

Miasto
General Plan of Nowa Huta, a model, 1957.

The dominant style of that time, force-fed to the people by the Communist regime, was that of Socialist Realism….a historicising mannerism based on the Renaissance and Baroque periods. (23)

nowa-huta-plac-centralny-1950s-01

A view from the central plaza now, though not from the optimum height:

Nova Huta

I am puzzled by some sentences, that again imply that the imposition of style and form was not as simple as it might look, but perhaps is just to ensure that the architects are not let completely off the hook.

Nowa huta’s socialist realist architecture was criticised for ideological reasons. Experts were of the justifiable opinion that architects gave in to the authorities too easily. (28)

Honestly though, it’s quite all right this place, even on a muggy afternoon in the rain. And it is not, after all, all of a sameness. The first estates, built between 1949 and 1951, ‘were designed in the fashion of pre-war working class estates in Warsaw to save time and money.’ Not too long after, the style ‘allowed’ for architecture was expanded:

Another feature of the new style were greater spaces between buildings…as a result, the estates were partly mini-cities and partly gardens.

This place is indeed full of trees, plants, green. Almost more pleasant than the sound of the modernist buildings (like the Swedish building, which we didn’t go see because of the rain) ‘in the Szklane Domy Estate, following the style of Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation of Marseilles.'(25)

I really hate Le Corbusier. He would have been confused about where the servants were supposed to live.

Walking around we found the theatre:

Nova Huta

The cinema (now a Tesco, yay capitalism. Though I won’t deny queues suck and shelves with food you can buy are good things):

Nova Huta

The stylish cafe for workers, where we had a nice meal:

Nova Huta

Nova Huta

We passed men playing chess on the tables provided in the park along the main boulevard, despite the rain:

Nova Huta

The housing — and people who obviously love and care for it as evidenced by their balconies:

Nova Huta

Nova Huta

Nova Huta

Nova Huta

Supposed to hold 100,000 people, the 100,000th person moved in to Nova Huta at the end of 1959.  Yet the steel plant continued to expand and so the housing for the workers expanded also (that at least is refreshing). Four more estates were built in 1968, three others along an old airstrip in the 1970s, and another in the 1980s.

Curiously enough there is mention of gentrification, put forward by a sociologist named Jacek Gądecki, which I am most curious about. But that is to return to later.

Also curious — or not — is the way that Nova Huta became a base for the toppling of Poland’s communist regime. Initially it crystallized around religion.

Defence of the Cross – Paweł Jagło

Jagło writes of the famous incident — called the Defence of the Cross — that began a long history of simmering revolt and rebellion in Nova Huta:

Defence of the Cross in Teatralne housing estate was the first major rebellion of the people of Nowa Huta against communist authorities. (30)

It took place in 1960, after agitation to get their own church (hardly surprising the original development was designed without one, though several were located nearby). Finally promised a church, the bureaucracy back-pedaled and delayed. A cross was placed on the location, but new plans were put forward to build a school instead. As construction crews came to remove the cross, women defended it and thus began days of mass confrontation. The new, amazingly modernist church called the Lord’s Ark was built as a result further down the road, but eventually a church was built here too, and a cross remains as a reminder.

Nova Huta

Nova Huta

Another focus of anger was Lenin’s Statue, put up in Plaz Centralny.

Lenin’s Statue – Paweł Jagło

Marian Konieczny created this quite amazing hulking beetle-browed statue of Lenin (reminding me immensely of Israel Singer’s description of him in The Brothers Ashkenazi), and it was erected on the 100th anniversary of his birth on 20th April, 1970.

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Lenin lived in Krakow for a few years of his exile, and we had spent some time in his footsteps during our time there. It is full of both irony and tragedy to me that his statue should become a symbol of a regime of very real oppression, a lightening rod for anger and resentment. Nova Huta’s residents both mocked and attempted to destroy it in many creative ways — trying to shoot the head off with a light canon, spraying it with Valerian drops to encourage cats to defecate on statue, placing old rubber boots and a bike in front with a sign reading ‘Here’s some old shoes and a bike, now out of Nowa Huta, take a hike!’ Someone tried to blow it up, succeeding only in damaging one of the legs while blowing out windows all around it and injuring a number of people. Bricks and stones and paint were thrown.

Authorities removed Lenin’s statue on 10th December 1989.

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Eventually it was bought by a Swedish millionaire named Big Bengt Erlandsson, who took it to the High Chaparral Theme park in southern Sweden.

A pause here. Because we need one.

Anti-communist opposition – Paweł Jagło

In 1979 a group started the ‘Christian Community of Working People’, who began publishing a samizdat magazine Nova Huta Cross. This was a beginning of the intertwined resistance movements, bringing together Catholicism and trade unionism. There is a look at Solidarity here, which I find fascinating, but necessarily very simplified and brief.

After the beginning strikes at Gdansk shipyard, a strike was called at Nowa Huta and a branch of Solidarity formed. In 1980 they formed the Steelworkers’ Working Committee. I’m sure it did more than bring crosses (all consecrated in the Lord’s Ark Church) and banners into all departments of the Steelworks, but this is what is highlighted here. On 13th December 1981 martial law was introduced, Nowa Huta declared a strike. Three days later the plant was ‘pacified’. (41) Continuing demonstrations through 1982 and 1983 were followed by raids and repressing. Another strike in April 1988 was suppressed, but all of this was part of the build up towards 1989 and regime change. Jagło writes:

‘And so, Nova Huta slowly began to rid herself of the ‘socialist city’ tag. The change of image continues to this day.’ (42)

I am not sure what I make of that.

Myths – Maria Lempert

This is the final section, very brief but quite illuminating I think, in showing the swirls of contention around such a project. :

Myth 1 –Nova Huta built in place of poverty-stricken villages to improve the lives of residents. (They were quite all right thank you)

Myth 2 – it was a ‘socialist godless city’. (They were quite religious and god-fearing thank you)

Myth 3 – the steelworks polluted Krakow and caused depreciation of historic monuments. (There are lots of other factories polluting Krakow, given weather patterns, Nova Huta’s steelworks are mostly polluting Nova Huta)

Myth 4 -the most common and enduring myth of all, wherever you may go:

and the most deeply rooted in the minds of Cracovians is the opinion that Nova Huta was and still is the most dangerous of all of Krakow’s districts, full of social pathology typical of areas populated by the working class. (50)

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There is much more to be explored, I hope I have the chance to do so one day. Particularly as this connects to worker housing elsewhere like the homes built for Katowice’s miners at Nikiszowiec and Giszowiec.

That Poland has gone for Ronald Reagan as a new hero after whom the central should be named perhaps embodies much of what is going wrong now…

Nova Huta

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Time’s Anvil: seeds, saints, fascism and labour

Time's Anvil -- Richard MorrisRichard Morris packed Time’s Anvil full of so much fascinating things, that I wanted a second post to collect them all up (first post is here). First, this hilarious quote from Nikolaus Pevsner on England:

This is a very modest country, satisfied with very little. All morning one can see one’s breath indoors… To look at it positively, I suppose people are closer to nature… (1)

This reminds me of evenings spent huddled next to relative’s radiators exuding a very faint warmth.

On seeds

I did love the aside on seed saving and diversity, a key battle now in view of corporations like Monsanto and a reminder how this has long formed part of our culture. One late Saxon charm for the improvement of land directs that

seed from elsewhere be taken from beggars in exchange for twice as much…

A good strategy of improved stock and distribution, and incorporates the most poor into key agricultural systems in a way that could be respectful, though it hardly mitigates the suffering of such a life.

There is another fascinating quotes from John Letts, ‘Living Under a Medieval Field’ on old planting systems:

every plant in a land race is slightly different from its neighbour, and medieval cereals were consequently very uneven in straw height, ripening time, grain yield and other agronomic traits. This diversity ensured that a portion of the crop almost always set seed irrespective of the many environmental stresses that can destroy a crop such as drought, waterlogging, frost or crop disease.

Such diversity is a key component of permaculture and organic farming systems, and another part of our past that farmers are trying to relearn and bring into practice.

On saints

The early role of the church in shaping the physical and mental maps of the land is also so interesting. There is some discussion of the changing nature of the church, the tendency of early Anglo-Saxon bishops to be treated as saints, and therefore this:

A map of their resting places is a diagram of power. (261)

There are proofs of how this became part of everyday life in places like Wells cathedral — one of my very favourite cathedrals, so I was surprised to learn that long ago the skulls of its Anglo-Saxon bishops sat on display there as relics. Some of them show patches of high polish caused by the touch of multiple hands, others have had perfect circles bored out from their backs, probably for amulets or shrines.

It never occurred to me that people might describe the incorporation of older buildings into newer as a sign of laziness or lack of vision or skill, but apparently so it has been said. Morris here reclaims the idea that incorporating older churches into the design of expanded churches incorporated their holiness and power. Interesting that my own reactions to much of the book underline Morris’s argument that much of what we understand of the past is conditioned by our present. Seems that two hundred years of archeological history are quite an indictment of power structures in society, though there is very little unpacking of how age, gender, race, national origin, class and etc impact our readings of things.

I quite love thinking more about this, though:

In traditional religion, community embraced the living and the dead, each supporting the other in a fellowship that extended across history. When Reform snuffed out that coloured world of saints, lights, signs, gestures and seasons it shrank the boundaries of community, dimmed collective memory and diminished time. (267)

The ties between fascism and planning & conservation

I learned a little more about the Third Reich here as well — apparently Heinrich Himmler

held sway over functions that included the SS, the police, the consolidation of German national identity, and settlement of the East.

The settlement of the East alongside consolidation of identity? That combination at first seemed so odd to me, and then I thought about it and it made a perfect chilling sense. There has always been a terrible dark side to our connection to land and how we live upon it. Himmler and his friend (he had friends…) Hanns Johst toured upper Silesia in 1940, Morris writes:

The two men reflected on how the German settlers would soon change the appearance of the land. Trees and hedges would be planted. Shrubs would grow…All of this was a great work of culture undertaken in awe of nature. They speculated on how these changes would ‘create protection from the wind, increase dew, and stimulate formation of clouds, force rain and thus push a more economically viable climate further toward the East. (329)

It heads to megalomania there, which is unsurprising, but also it appears they imagined a fairly comprehensive plan for living well upon the earth. Crikes.

I discovered Henry Williamson, author of Tarka the Otter, also had claims to fame as a Nazi sympathizer. So on the one hand you have the left Atlee government establishing parks and protecting buildings and wildlife for the working classes due, but also alongside concerns about ‘spoiling’ of the countryside and development. Morris quotes Engels’ descriptions of Manchester (which I too have quoted extensively) and poverty, writes:

It was partly in reaction to such squalor and moral degradation that conservation in Britain originated. That is not only why conservatism had its heart in the countryside — where despite a century of urbanism the heart of England’s identity still lay — but why historically it was anti-urban. the National Trust was founded to protect land ‘against development and industrialization.’ (331)

Their efforts allied in this with people of the far right, who saw nature as separate from human beings, and in need of protection from the masses.

Too often quite fascist protection. There are still clear affinities in some of the rhetoric today, and more than ever this is something we have to understand and root out.

I wish there was a little symbol I could use so that when I make a pun I could laugh to myself self-deprecatingly.

On the beauty of labour

Part of the lure of the past and the wilderness can also be seen in the writings of William Morris and Ruskin —

buildings and monuments of earlier ages evoke melancholy, an emotion then held to be purer and deeper than joy and to be a stimulant to imaginative consciousness.

A gothic emotion — I liked the evocation of the gothic and the uncanny. I found it interesting he doesn’t go into, or even mention, William Morris’ deeper beliefs and Socialist foundations, I think this love of medieval building is more about craftmanship and the beauty of certain kinds of labour, but there you are. There is, however, a quoted fragment from D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Things Men Have Made’:

Things we have made with wakened hands, and put soft life into
are awake through years with transferred touch, and go on glowing for long years.
And for this reason, some old things are lovely
warm still, with the glowing life of forgotten men who made them. (47)

It seems to encapsulate the worth and beauty of things granted them by the labour involved in making them. Morris derides the idea of industrial production as revolution or as something that just broke out, which is an interesting idea to follow:

…another result of the lumpish way in which we cut up time — a tendency which previous chapters have shown can encourage fixation with difference at the expense of affinity, put change before flow and predispose us to simple determinism. (345)

if the industrial revolution had a defining moment it was the point at which large sections of the workforce switched from selling things they made in to selling their labour. (348)

There was another section on Birmingham, and just how much was manufactured there through industrialistion based upon this selling of labour. Johanna Schopenhauer writes in 1803:

that there is not a village in civilized Europe, perhaps not a house, where there cannot be found some industrial product made in that city, if only a button, a needle, or a pencil. (344)

By 1875, workers made over ten thousand billion nails a year.

I can’t quite get my head around the scale of that, but like how again it speaks to widespread connections through materials and labour, though I have read plenty of the desperate poverty and horrible working conditions underlying it.

A few last things, happier things, like the Lunar Society! The Lunatics met in each other’s homes the  Monday evening closest to the full moon: Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestly, Matthew Boulton and James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood. I also wanted to remember to find George Peele’s ‘The Voice From the Well’ and read it, and set a reminder to self to walk the Icknield way… The name so old that not even the Anglo-Saxons remembered where it came from.

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Ebenezer Howard — the Garden Cities

7295314Ebenezer Howard’s vision  of garden cities has had an enormous impact upon urban planning and the development of cities around the world. Arguably, a rather disastrous one being used as a validation of endless expansion into suburbs of cul-de-sacs and meanders and the resulting sprawl. Rarely is Howard’s actual vision for garden cities remembered:

The whole of the experiment which this book describes…represents pioneer work, which will be carried out by those who have not a merely pious opinion, but an effective belief in the economic, sanitary, and social advantages of common ownership of land, and who, therefore, are not satisfied merely to advocate that those advantages should be secured on the largest scale at the national expense, but are impelled to give their views shape and form as soon as they can see their way to join with a sufficient number of kindred spirits. (58)

This is a reaction to the terrible conditions of the city, and the crisis there provoked by people streaming in from the countryside:

There is, however, a question in regard to which one can scarcely find any difference of opinion. It is wellnigh universally agreed by men of all parties, not only in England, but all over Europe and America and our colonies, that it is deeply to be deplored that the people should continue to stream into the already over-crowded cities, and should thus further deplete the country districts.

The results of this are in fact widely agreed — Howard quotes Lord Roseberry as chairman of the London County Council (ah, the old LCC):

‘There is no thought of pride associated in my mind with the idea of London. I am always haunted by the awfulness of London: by the great appalling fact of these millions cast down, as it would appear by hazard, on the banks of this noble stream, working each in their own groove and their own cell, without regard or knowledge of each other, without heeding each other, without having the slightest idea how the other lives–the heedless casualty of unnumbered thousands of men.’

Dean Farrar says:

‘We are becoming a land of great cities. Villages are stationary or receding; cities are enormously increasing. And if it be true that great cities tend more and more to become the graves of the physique of our race, can we wonder at it when we see the houses so foul, so squalid, so ill-drained, so vitiated by neglect and dirt?’

He quotes labour leaders Ben Tillet and Tom Mann as well, which is nice to see.

Howard argues that to keep people from moving to the city, country towns have to provide three things — wages that allow people a certain standard of comfort, equal possibilities of social intercourse, and opportunities for advancement…and I love this diagram and it’s central question ‘THE PEOPLE: where will they go?’:

Ebenezer Howard - Garden City

If we no longer wish for THE PEOPLE to come to London, what is to be done? The building of garden cities, capturing the best of all possible worlds:

a third alternative…the magnet which will produce the effect for which we are all striving–the spontaneous movement of the people from our crowded cities to the bosom of our kindly mother earth, at once the source of life, of happiness, of wealth, and of power.

But neither the Town magnet nor the Country magnet represents the full plan and purpose of nature. Human society and the beauty of nature are meant to be enjoyed together. The two magnets must be made one. As man and woman by their varied gifts and faculties supplement each other, so should town and country. The town is symbol of society–of mutual help and friendly ‘co-operation, of fatherhood, motherhood, brotherhood, sisterhood, of wide relations between man and man–of broad, expanding sympathies–of science, art, culture, religion. And the country! The country is the symbol of God’s love and care for man.

Thus the Garden City must be brought to birth. He has worked out just what it should look like:

Howard - Garden Cities of Tomorrow
“A ground plan of the whole municipal area, showing the town in the centre…”

Howard - Garden Cities of Tomorrow

My favourite part of this plan, I think, is this:

Running all round the Central Park (except where it is intersected by the boulevards) is a wide glass arcade called the ‘Crystal Palace’, opening on to the park. This building is in wet weather one of the favourite resorts of the people, whilst the knowledge that its bright shelter is ever close at hand tempts people into Central Park, even in the most doubtful of weathers. (4)

It does sound rather nice, I love arcades though I don’t much care for shopping. What a beautiful structure that could be though. I also love the elements of sustainability built in, as this was written in a time of nowhere near so much plenty as today — a time to which we are soon returning:

the smoke fiend is kept well within bounds in Garden City; for all machinery is driven by electric energy, with the result that the cost of electricity for lighting and other purposes is greatly reduced.

The refuse of the town is utilized on the agricultural portions of the estate, which are held by various individuals in large farms, small holdings, allotments, cow pastures, etc…. (6)

So the question arises, how are the garden cities to be built, how financed? He embarks on rents, working hard to show that building this city is a viable investment — from a Marxist perspective it is interesting that he notes:

Perhaps no difference between town and country is more noticeable than the difference in the rent charged for the use of the soil. (9)

He mentions that this is often called the ‘unearned increment’ (which it is), as that is the rent increase due to the existence of more people and more amenity in its surroundings rather than anything to do with the actual land itself or what is built upon it.  Howard prefers to call it the ‘collectively earned increment’ which I quite love and think might be a useful concept to bring back again. It reflects the fact that higher city rents are due to all of us. This collectively generated income on land is what is captured and used to the benefit of all who move to garden cities as a way to finance them.

So who shall live there? He quotes Professor Marshall’s study on the “Housing of the London Poor’ from Contemporary Review, 1884:

Whatever reforms be introduced into the dwellings of the London poor, it will still remain true that the whole are of London is insufficient to supply its population with fresh air and the free space that is wanted for whole some recreation. A remedy for the overcrowding of London will still be wanted….There are large classes of the population of London whose removal into the country would be in the long run economically advantageous; it would benefit alike those who moved and those who remained behind…Of the 150,000 or more hired workers in the clothes-making trades, by far the greater part are very poorly paid, and do work which it is against all economic reason to have done where ground-rent is high.’ (17)

Howard follows up this insight — if these workers ought not to be in London at all given the low value of their labour on very high-rent land, then of course these factories should move and the workers paying exorbitant rents for slum houses should move with them, along with all those who exist to support their existence such a s shopkeepers, schools and etc. But key to this move to the new garden cities is that:

it is essential, as we have said, that there should be unity of design and purpose–that the town should be planned as a whole, and not left to grow up in a chaotic manner as has been the case with all English towns, and more or less so with the towns of all countries. A town, like a flower, or a tree, or an animal, should, at each stage of its growth, possess unity, symmetry, completeness, and the effect of growth should never be to destroy that unity, but to give it greater purpose, nor to mar that symmetry , but to make it more symmetrical; while the completeness of the early structure should be merged in the yet greater completeness of the later development (27)

Howard was not alone in believing all of this possible. Another quote heading chapter six is of Albert Shaw, from Municipal Government in Great Britain, 1895:

The present evils of city life are temporary and remediable. The abolition of the slums, and the destruction of their virus, are as feasible as the drainage of a swamp, and the total dissipation of its miasmas. The conditions and circumstances that surround the lives of the masses of the people in modern cities can be so adjusted to their needs as to result in the highest development of the race, in body, in mind and in moral character. The so-called problems of the modern city are but the various phases of the one main question: How can the environment be most perfectly adapted to the welfare of urban populations? And science can meet and answer every one of these problems. The science of the modern city–of the ordering and the common concerns in dense population groups–draws upon many branches of theoretical and practical knowledge… (42)

So this is the vision — I almost have nostalgia for such ability to believe in such grand sweeping solutions.

Howard didn’t just think of new plan for garden cities, however, he worked very hard to show exactly how they could be paid for. ‘To make this chapter interesting to the general reader would be difficult, perhaps impossible,’ he writes, and he is not wrong. It is a worthy effort though. And there is so much I like in the idea.

Most of all that the garden cities should be as cooperative as possible — the more the citizens wish to participate the less the municipality will do and vice versa. I also quite love that he sees this on a continuum that is flexible depending on people’s wants and needs.

It is distressing, though, that this is such an early model for how the language of business can shape social ideals. This is a very early model for the privatisation of the municipality, the strange mishmash of public and private we are coming to know so well to our cost:

The constitution is modeled upon that of a large and well-appointed business, which is divided into various departments, each department being expected to justify its own continued existence–its officers being selected, not so much for their knowledge of the business generally as for their special fitness for the work of their department. (45)

and then, there is this structure that he calls ‘semi-municipal’:

But Garden City is in a greatly superior position, for by stepping as a quasi public body into the rights of a private landlord, it becomes at once clothed with far larger powers for carrying out the will of the people than are possessed by other local bodies, and thus solves to a large extent the problem of local self-government. (46)

His three main departments of such a constitution? Public Control (assessment, law, inspection), Engineering (roads and etc), and Social Purposes (education, baths and wash-houses, music, libraries, recreation).

Other benefits will come:

Here in Garden City, however, there will be a splendid opportunity for the public conscience to express itself in this regard, and no shopkeeper will, I hope, venture to sell ‘sweated goods’. (55)

It is a revealing comment on what Howard believes is at the base of sweating, his belief that consumer demands will be enough to end it. He writes:

If labour leaders spent half the energy in co-operative organization that they now waste in co-operative disorganization, the end of our present unjust system would be at hand. In Garden City such leaders will have a fair field for the exercise of pro-municipal functions… (60-61)

He quotes Tolstoy and a number of others about the need to honestly proclaim and live your own beliefs, to be the change you want to see — a well-known adage. He is building on thinkers I have not yet heard of (except Herbert Spencer, but I know him not):

Shortly stated, my scheme is a combination of three distinct projects which have, I think, never been united before. There are: (1) The proposals for an organized migratory movement of population of Edward Gibbon Wakefield and of Professor Alfred Marshall; (2) the system of land tenure first proposed by Thos. Spence and afterwards (though with an important modification) by Mr. Herbert Spencer; and (3) the model city of James Silk Buckingham.  (72)

Wakefield wrote the Art of Colonization, so I expect I’d have a lot to say about that and a lot of fury to expend. But it also shows the currents into which the garden city idea was tied into – a small group of intellectuals and professionals able to design utopia, able to orchestrate for the masses — whether the working and criminal classes or the natives — a system and a space that will civilize and tame. In the very beginning there is the oddest reference to Opium as he discusses issues of the day over which there is wide disagreement — liquor and prohibition is one and the other?

Discuss the opium traffic and, on the one hand, you will hear that opium is rapidly destroying the morale of the people of China, and, on the other,  that this is quite a delusion, and that the Chinese are capable, thanks to opium, of doing work which to a European is quite impossible, and that on food at which the least squeamish of English people would turn up their noses in disgust.

The acceptance that this should even be argument offers a glimpse into a mind that still ranks and categorises people by race, class and gender. My insides revolt at such a casual description of the horror of the opium trade and the criminal nature of Britain’s opium wars fought to open Chinese markets to the drug as they tried to seal it off. A man of his times in this way, it just shows how structured the times were by racism and imperialism.

And at the same time, there is this:

Surely a project, which thus brings what Mr Herbert Spencer still terms ‘the dictum of absolute ethics’–that all men are equally entitled to the use of the earth–into the field of practical life, and makes it a thing immediately realizable by those who believe in it, must be one of greatest public importance. (77)

Can’t argue with that, though per the above, I have my suspicions about what he means by ‘all men’ and there’s a lot of women about as well.

Interesting that he recognizes on our current lands ‘men have laid an immoral foundation for us in the past’ but on ‘territory not yet individually portioned out’ a new equality can be brought into being. This is the dream of colonization, no? A dream that never seems to recognise it has laid a new immoral foundation that will in turn destroy what comes after. But it is also the dream of garden cities here in Britain, where new towns can be founded on empty lands.

Howard argues for one example, well founded, well built and functioning, to show what is possible. Only after this achievement is well established and growing will it be time to think of a national movement. It is social change accomplished through the force of example.

And notice how such a successful experiment as Garden City may easily become will drive into the very bed-rock of vested interests a great wedge, which will split them asunder with irresistible force, and permit the current of legislation to set strongly in a new direction. (100)

The patronising side of me thinks this is very sweet.

After the success of one, clusters of garden cities would grow up. As the first founded reached its optimal size, another would be founded. Each would contain housing, gardens, factories and shopping. Each would sit within a green belt so all its citizens might have access to countryside, linked to each other by a fast railway system allowing freedom of movement.

Howard - Garden Cities of Tomorrow

Howard writes:

These crowded cities have done their work; they were the best which a society largely based on selfishness and rapacity could construct, but they are in the nature of things entirely unadapted for a society in which the social side of our nature is demanding a larger share of recognition — a society where even the very love of self leads us to insist upon a greater regard for the well-being of our fellows. (98)

Out of this he hopes for a change, a new kind of society giving birth to a new city (or is it the city giving birth to a new society? Or both coming together?). Stripped of its critique and utopian elements of collective ownership of land, single elements of Howard’s dream were reworked to become part of what lies in the rush to the suburbs, and a widespread use of sentences such as this:

in proving this it will open wide the doors of migration from the old crowded cities with their inflated and artificial rents, back to the land which can now be secured so cheaply. (100)

Only elements of garden cities were ever built, only elements of it incorporated into suburbs in a way to eradicate their radical content. Yet even taken as an utopian vision which in part I agree with, I am so wary of so much of this, hate top-down planning though I know I have all the benefit of hind-sight. I can see how Le Corbusier emerges as naturally from this line of thought as Bertrand Goldberg or even perhaps a planner working along permaculture principles. But I will end on the sentence I most loved:

…homes are being erected for those who have long lived in slums; work is found for the workless, land for the landless, and opportunities for the expenditure of long pent-up energy are presenting themselves at every turn. A new sense of freedom and joy is pervading the hearts of the people as their individual faculties are awakened, and they discover, in a social life which permits alike of the completest concerted action and of the fullest individual liberty, the long-sought-for means of reconciliation between order and freedom–between the wellbeing of the individual and of society. (104)

For more on planning and utopia…

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Nottingham’s Caves and Reconstruction of Communities

Nottingham was our last stop on those glorious summer days in the Peak District, and a fascinating one. I didn’t know it was a city of caves, built over sandstone that human beings have been tunneling out for centuries.

We attempted a derive of underground Nottingham. It involved much suffering, especially by my partner Mark who can’t abide tours led by ‘characters’. I hate them too, but for me being underground offset that — though for the record, I thought we’d be able to do them without a tour leader in costume and was proved dreadfully wrong.

The 450+ caves underneath the city do not appear to be things that city bureaucrats and planners cared about at all until recently unless it was to seal them up and stamp them out — sometimes I wonder how it’s possible that people with such power view awesomeness as a liability. Until I read Le Corbusier. This church survived, but with the indignity of corporate identity and its reinvented nature as a Pitcher&Piano chain pub plastered all over it.

Nottingham Trip

Planners tore down all the old narrow streets with their twisting and interconnecting cellars, and built scenic car parking, with ‘local colour’ added through its naming in a most disheartening way (poor Maid Marian):

Nottingham Trip

They also plunked down Broadmarsh Shopping Centre on top of them. The best tour (that we had time to find and embark on) of the caves has to be accessed through the shopping centre itself, with more care gone into warning you of stick figures in peril than the wonders beneath that might distract you from Top Shop:

Nottingham Trip

I thought, actually, the characters in costume were pretty good for what they were asked to do — I finally understand how tanning works! I personally prefer straight exposition, but I didn’t mind the acting. The tannery carved out of the rocks several hundred years ago once looked out onto running water — human beings have transformed this section of the landscape with immense thoroughness, and with a rather jaw-dropping destructiveness once you realize what has been lost. The caves were still eerie and wonderful, despite our being part of a large group of people tramping through in hard-hats

Nottingham Trip

The very poor lived in them — at much risk to health and life expectancy:

Nottingham Trip

They were used as cellars and storage rooms and hiding places and escape routes and gambling and drinking dens:

Nottingham TripDuring WWII people escaped the bombs in them. I wanted more, so I decided we would brave the prison on our save-money-by-visiting-both-attractions tickets — a terrible mistake. They did try to make horrific injustices and horrible punishments a little less horrible, but the gibbet is there hanging. They just weren’t sure whether this needed to be an indictment of past (and present) barbarities and solidarity with its victims (my strong feeling), or a house of horrors, or a curiosity box of punishments with some celebration of law thrown in.

Nottingham Trip

There’s a statue of a woman being burned to death complete with fake fire, a celebration of changing prison guard uniforms alongside a most heartbreaking procession of punishments for crimes of hunger and poverty, and reminders of just how many were transported to other countries both to cement the power of Empire and to rid England of the troublesome poor the wealthy had no use for, especially the ones that did not just die quietly of cold and starvation.

Nottingham Trip

If I were not heartbroken enough, here the caves were things of horror, holding felons (remembering that god these were some unjust laws in a system of complete injustice) and people imprisoned for debt. These were the only caves I would love to see blown into tiny pieces, along with this prison.

Perhaps as an attempt to lighten the horror of all we were seeing, was they had recreated Drury Hill. A city nerd’s dream come true. Having destroyed this neighbourhood of history and character and community developed over a whole lot of hard years (from whence also came most of the desperate poor came who were sent of to America, Australia), they rebuilt a cardboard and mirror version for our enjoyment. We wandered through it:

Nottingham Trip

Nottingham Trip

We walked past ghosts

Nottingham Trip

This was such a strange version of the modern urge to recreate the material past that people in power have destroyed and that now fascinates us, but in a sanitised and safe way. A belated recognition of what gives a city its character and why people love it. A nod to tourists, but I imagine this is one of the museums every child growing up in Nottingham is brought to see and in some ways is forming ideas of what Nottingham was and is now.

In most ways I prefer this version to Disneyland’s fake high streets, because there is no way you can pretend that this ever was or is real. This is perhaps as good as such things get, its absolute fakeness was still extensive enough that an old couple had some trouble finding their way out, and it is both interesting and disturbing — which this kind of exhibit should be, with a splash of Roger Rabbit’s toon town thrown in. Here is a taste of what was here before:

Nottingham

Nottingham

These pictures are from a forum in which people remember what was and shake their fists at the planners who destroyed it all, as they do in cities around the world where what people most love and remember has been torn down in the name of progress. I have no love of the dirt, disease and misery that once filled some of these streets, but surely we were capable of transforming them into decent housing for the people who lived there. I love that curve of businesses and homes up the hill, and mourn its loss alongside those who lost their homes and livelihoods — I know well that you are never the same again after those things are torn from you, torn down.

City planners never really cared about that, which was always part of the problem. Empathy could have gone a long way to save what was best in our cities. Instead poverty was dispersed, and the earth flattened (a bit) and all the cold barrenness of malls and parking garages put in their place. The hospital where my mum was once a student nurse now turned into luxury flats. A few memories remain in the midst of profit’s rush to reshape a city for its needs.

Nottingham Trip

Nottingham Trip

Nottingham Trip

The castle is also preserved, along with the castle caves and Mortimer’s hole. More costumed characters leading tours and telling gruesome stories and too many people on the tour with you. But these caves are really cool.

Nottingham Trip

Really, the way to enjoy old and underground Nottingham is through its pubs. Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem is of course the most famous, and the place my mum most remembered from her time there. It was immensely awesome and also very busy. We also made it to the Hand and Heart.

Nottingham Trip

Nottingham Trip

It’s a fascinating city, really. One fighting to create employment for its survival and believing development will do that also, and I know the shopping centre is as much a part of that as these rather forlorn attempts to turn empty store fronts into something positive:

20150829_155618-2

Byron lived here, Charles I planted a standard several hundred years ago to ‘start’ the civil war (I think the roundheads did that really) — the plaques marking this occasion are many and cover a fairly large area that you realise was once a hilltop. I bought a book on the caves I have yet to read, and which charmingly has pictures of most of the caves with a woman I assume is the author’s wife in each of them — wearing a stunning array of clothes and hairstyles. The pubs were many and old — they seem to have survived much better here than other places. There is more potential in some ways for a city like this to reinvent itself from the bottom up, unlike London where money floods in from top down forcing anything interesting and creative out or coopting and destroying it. The moral is, more power in reimagining and recreating the city to more people. So I will end on my favourite sign and a slide show:

Nottingham Trip

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Tools for Creating Space — A Working list

I was talking to an old friend and a new one today about creating space/ place (or is hosting it a better word, shaping it, allowing it to grow…). I have been thinking about this on and off for a very long time now and so returning to this list I began some time ago. Looking at it, I’ve only just realised after that conversation that I have really fallen in a shocking way once again into instinctively distinguishing between public and private space in a very binary way.

Ideally I think there is a continuum, a way to move easily between — to even be drawn from one to the next and back again — that is not just by crossing the boundaries we create around estate, institution, park, garden, home, rooms and etc. If I remember rightly I had this flash of insight when reading the awesome Christopher Alexander. I suppose my forgetting is the power of habit (and binary thinking, it’s so easy and helps make sense of the bewildering amount of information out there).

This continuum connects with but doesn’t map exactly onto adjectives like sacred, quiet, lively, creative, peaceful, inspirational, wild, communal, safe and all those many other kinds of feelings and spaces I think help us enjoy the fullness of life. It also fits increasingly well with my latest reflections — I’ve been thinking that so much we study or read focuses on things themselves, when in fact what’s most interesting lies in how things connect and relate to each other and of course in human relationships, this connecting all happens in the physical spaces between us. All my research on race and the construction of material spaces and the political economy of cities and community is really about that, I like thinking about how Gramsci or Stuart Hall or David Harvey might intersect with the new things I am reading about how traffic patterns and public squares and community halls and understandings of community, or in turn how those connect to the ways permaculturists might think about and design a landscape and how human beings live on a piece of land.

This started as a list about public space, it has embarrassingly few women or people of colour or people from non-Western countries. People the canon pushes to one side and have to be sought out — I am seeking them out. My thesis, of course, was full of this kind of work uncovered over the course of several years, part of future research is mapping and writing how the political economy of geographies of race and gender (and the other things that shift our relationships to space and each other) map onto these more intimate ways of creating/building/shaping/hosting spaces.

Here’s a beginning bibliography of what I’ve read and marked to read, to be updated as an ongoing concern and suggestions are welcome. I will be updating it over time, so it should be getting better.

Alexander, Christopher – A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction (Center for Environmental Structure Series) – an encyclopedic look from tiny details to whole communities about how we occupy and design space.

Alexander, Christopher – The Timeless Way of Building

Anderson, Elijah – The Cosmopolitan Canopy — an ethnographic look at Philadelphia spaces that are comfortable for all and with potential for relationships to develop, and also the ways that the colour line and segregation work to undo them…

Appleyard, Donald – Livable Streets – Some of the best concrete studies I’ve seen (and best illustrations) on patterns of sociality and built environment, particularly traffic.

Bachelard, Gaston – The Poetics of Space – A little French philosophy using phenomenology (or focus on the experience) of space, with a focus on the poetic image and the intimate spaces of the home.

Beaumont, Matthew and Gregory Dart (eds) – Restless Cities A wide ranging collection of authors writing about the different ways we live, experience, traverse the city

Bell, Graham – The Permaculture Way: Practical Steps to Create a Self-Sustaining World: 1

Bird, Chris (2010) Local Sustainable Homes: How to Make Them Happen in Your Community – a really brilliant book that starts to think about the roles home, housing and community play in transition to zero-carbon, and gives practical tools to do what we can now.

Capra, Fritjof (2004) The Hidden Connections: Integrating the Biological, Cognitive, and Social Dimensions of Life into a Science of Sustainability — Not about space exactly, but about emergence and interconnection and all the things design should seek to facilitate.

Chtchetglov, Ivan – ‘A Formulary for a New Urbanism’ one of my favourite situationist writings on the city and its transformation …

♀Civic Systems Lab – Designed to Scale A wonderful study of a year long project in West Norwood, London using the creation of multiple small collectively managed projects to create an ecology of place that supports a healthy community

♀ Cooper-Marcus, Clare – Therapeutic Landscapes: An Evidence-based Approach to Designing Healing Gardens and Restorative Outdoor Spaces

Cooper-Marcus, Clare – House as Mirror of Self: Exploring the Deeper Meaning of Home – A lovely psychoanalytic look at human relationships to the home — how they shape the space and how in turn it helps to shape them. 

♀ Cooper-Marcus, Clare and Wendy Sarkissian – Housing as If People Mattered: Site Design Guidelines for Medium-density Family Housing – Some of the few women writing about design and its impact on human beings — particularly women and children. Their dedication and insight are amazing.

Cullen, Gordon – The Concise Townscape — A wonderful look at how we move through space, and how planners or architects can design spaces to create different effects.

Day, Christopher (1993) Places of the Soul: Architecture and Environmental Deisgn as a Healing Art

Dovey, Kimberly (1985) ‘Home and Homelessness: Introduction’, in Altman, Irwin and Carol M. Werner eds. Home Environments. Human Behavior and Environment: Advances in Theory and Research. Vol 8. New York: Plenum Press, 1985. — One of the best things I’ve read on how we connect to the space of home, and how that reframes the meaning of homelessness.

Dovey, Kimberley (1999) Framing Places: Mediating Power in Built Form

Dovey, Kimberley (2010) Becoming Places: Urbanism/ Architecture / Identity/ Power.

♀ Ferguson, Francesca – Make_Shift City: Renegotiating the Urban Commons: Die Neuverhandlung des Urbanen

Fiebrig, Dr Immo – Edible Cities – Urban Permaculture for Gardens, Balconies, Rooftops and Beyond

Fukuoka, Masanobu – The One-Straw Revolution — His goal of working hard to achieve a life of simplicity and as little work as possible through observing and working with nature is inspirational.

Gehl, Jan – Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space

Gehl, Jan & Birgitte Svarre – How to Study Public Life: Methods in Urban Design – lovely studies of how people move through and use public spaces geared to improving how we design them.

Hamdi, Nabeel – The Placemaker’s Guide to Building Community (Earthscan Tools for Community Planning)

Hamdi, Nabeel – Small Change: About the Art of Practice and the Limits of Planning in Cities – A look at creating place that begins with a goal of creating an ‘architecture of possibilities’….

♀ Hayden, Dolores (1981) The Grand Domestic Revolution – Incredible encyclopedic exploration of gender and architectural struggle — all that has kept women ‘in their place’ and the creative visions of an architecture that might transform it

♀ Hayden, Dolores (1995) The Power of Place: urban Landscapes as Public History

Holmgren, David – Permaculture Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability – a primer on the philosophies behind permaculture, thoughts on buildings connections and diversity

Howard, Ebenezer – Garden Cities of To-Morrow — a classic of planning, one whose utopian ideals have mostly been stripped as it has been used as a basis for suburb design.

Jackson, J.B. (1994) A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time

Jacobs, Allan B. – Great Streets

♀ Jacobs, Jane – The Death and Life of Great American Cities – Classic book on everything that makes beighbourhoods safe, vibrant, creative and wonderful to live in.

Kaplan, Allan – The Development Practitioners’ Handbook – a fascinating and above all respectful look at working with communities to improve conditions and spaces.

Lefebvre, Henri – The Urban Revolution – One of the great philosophers on space, its development and commodification.

Le Corbusier – Planning the City of Tomorrow – Here because this explains so much of modern planning and city centres as we know them — and is pure evil.

Levine, Donald N. – Georg Simmel on Individuality and Social Forms

Lifschutz, Alex (ed) (2017) Loose-Fit Architecture : Designing Buildings for Change

Lofland, Lyn – The Public Realm: Exploring the City’s Quintessential Social Territory – a transformative book looking and the connections between physical space and lived space, what Lofland describes as ‘realms’.

Lynch, Kevin – The Image of the City – a fascinating look at the imageability and legibility of the city, how it is experienced by residents, how both enhance experience, and how they are improved through deisgn and planning.

Manzini, Ezio – Design, When Everybody Designs: An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation (Design Thinking, Design Theory)

Matrix (1984) Making Space: Women and the Man Made Environment – A most wonderful book from the UK feminist collective Matrix that looks at housing, design and public space from many angles.

mcdonaugh, tom – The Situationists and the City – a wonderful new set of translations of situationist writings on thinking about how people are shaped by the city and how they can transform it.

Minton, Anna – Ground Control: Fear and happiness in the twenty-first-century city – A look at the UK policy and regulatory context of development and housing, and the impacts of increasing privatisation, criminalisation and gating of communities.

Norberg-Schulz, Christian (1985) Concept of Dwelling (Architectural documents)

Norberg-Schulz, Christian (2000) Architecture: Presence, Language, Place

Oswalt, Oswalt, Klaus Overmeyer, Philipp Misselwitz – Urban Catalyst: Mit Zwischennutzungen Stadt entwickeln

Papanek, Victor (1995) The Green Imperative: Ecology and Ethics in Design and Architecture – A grand thinking through of ecological principles and ethics as applied to design and architecture, and some lovely stuff on vernacular architecture as process not product.

Perec, George (1975) An Attempt at Exhausting A Place in Paris – A short observation of many things in a single Parisian square

Perec, George (2008) Species of Space – wonderful, playful insights into the nature of space and our experience of it

♀ Phillips, April – Designing Urban Agriculture: A Complete Guide to the Planning, Design, Construction, Maintenance and Management of Edible Landscapes

Project for Public Spaces – How to Turn a Place Around

Rosa, Marcos L & Ute Weiland – Handmade Urbanism: Mumbai – Sao Paulo -Istanbul – Mexico City – Cape Town: From Community Initiatives to Participatory Models

Rossi, Aldo – The Architecture of the City

Rudofsky, Bernard – Streets for People: A Primer for Americans

Ruskin, John – The Seven Lamps of Architecture – a little mad, more than a little ranty, but also some fascinating meditations on all that is ancient, good and true in architecture

Sadik-Khan, Janette – Streetfight — The political and design story of transforming New York with paint, bike lanes and increased pedestrian and public space.

Simmel, Georg – ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ (1903) — the impact of the city, its crowds, its buildings and cultural life on human beings, an interesting reversal of urban planning questions.

Sitte, Camillo – The Art of Building Cities: City Building According to Its Artistic Fundamentals — the 1889 classic on what works in ancient spaces and cities, and looking to eradicate the rectangular plot from modern planning…

Speck, Jeff – Walkable Cities — some good strategies for creating walkable cities, though more from a point of view of planning for increases in property values and those who can afford them

Sternberg, Esther (2009) Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being

Tuan, Yu-Fu – Topophilia – a fascinating study of topophilia, or the ‘affective bond between people and place.

Turner, John F. – Housing By People: Towards Autonomy in Building Environments – An awesome look at what can happen when people build for themselves

Ward, Colin (1990) Talking Houses: 10 Lectures – a collection of essays critiquing the UK’s council housing programme from the anarchist perspective prioritising dweller control. Lovely.

Wark, MacKenzie – The Beach Beneath the Streets If anyone can rescue the Situationist International from a descent into artistic inconsequentiality, it is McKenzie Wark.

Whyte, William H. – The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces – A classic study of how to study public space and what you learn from the practice in thinking about design and community building.

Zednicek, Walter (2009) Architektur des Roten Wien – Red Vienna and a vision of social housing and the city itself that was big and beautiful and transformational.

Ziehl, Michael, Sarah Osswald, Oliver Hasemann – Second Hand Spaces: Recycling Sites Undergoing Urban Transformation

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The 10+ Pathologies of Le Corbusier

A TOWN is a tool.

Towns no longer fulfil this function. They are ineffectual; they use up our bodies, they thwart our souls.

The lack of order to be found everywhere in them offends us; their degradation wounds our self-esteem and humiliates our sense of dignity.

They are not worthy of the age; they are no longer worthy of us. (Prologue – xxi)

Le CorbusierI should have read Le Corbusier (1887-1965) long ago. I thought I knew more or less what he was about, but not at all. Not until I read his words did I understand just how fiercely he declared war against most of what I love about cities, just how pathological a paradigm he created. I see him, now, in all of the great horrible, alien city centres I have known built upon destruction. David Harvey and Neil Smith argue rightly I think, that capitalism needs to constantly tear down and rebuild to keep expanding, so Le Corbusier can’t get all of the credit or blame. But I think his writings shaped urban renewal and regeneration in very fundamental ways, coming when they did, perfectly and emphatically justifying the destruction of all that had come before to build anew. Idealism perfectly suited to profit.

In this I think he is much like Friedman and Hayek (this trio together almost makes me like Hayek), creators of theory and ideology perfectly suited to justify the needs of capital expansion and the dubious moral and technical ground of business men. Thus cast aloft as victorious.

This is true of Le Corbusier, despite the fact he was the product of a slightly earlier age:

I think back twenty years, when I was a student; the road belonged to us then; we sang in it and argued in it, while the horse-‘bus swept calmly along…

— or perhaps that explains everything, perhaps because he was imagining something not yet seen and the pathologies are much more obvious to modern eyes. Except that planners still seem to mobilise many of them. I have tried here to summarise what I think they are, here are the 10 pathologies unrolled in Planning the City of Tomorrow (with two other revealing points):

1. Men are the pitiless masters of the pitiless universe.

Not the rapture of the shining coachwork under the gleaming lights, but the rapture of power. The simple and ingenuous pleasure of being in the centre of so much power, so much speed. We are a part of it. We are part of that race whose dawn is just awakening. We have confidence in this new society, which will in the end arrive at a magnificent expression of its power. We believe in it.

Its power is like a torrent swollen by storms; a destructive fury. The city is crumbling, it cannot last much longer; its time is past. It is too old. The torrent can no longer keep to its bed. It is a kind of cataclysm. It is something abnormal, and the disequilibrium grows day by day. (xxiii)

Natural forces, torrents and storms, power and more power, rahr.

My scheme is brutal, because town existence and life itself are brutal: life is pitiless, it must defend itself, hemmed in as it is on all sides by death. to overcome death, constant activity is necessary. (298)

Our cities themselves are in a struggle to the death:

And these great cities challenge one another, for the mad urge for supremacy is the very law of evolution itself to which we are subjected. (87-88)

2. Where the past is not quite dead, we must kill it. Gloriously.

Decorative art is dead. Modern town planning comes to birth with a new architecture. By this immense step in evolution, so brutal and so overwhelming, we burn our bridges and break with the past. (xxv)

In these cases the only right of individual sensibility is to embody the collective will…a mathematical medium which must be deeply important to us, since it provides for the multitude a single outlook and a unanimous sensibility. With a cold and clear accountancy the + and — of an epoch are established. A way of thinking, of general application, arises. (52)

Our world, like a charnel-house, is strewn with the detritus of dead epochs. The great task incumbent on us is that of making a proper environment for our existence, and clearing away from our cities the dead bones that putrefy in them. We must construct cities for to-day. (244)

3. All the things must be straight:

Man walks in a straight line because he has a goal and knows where he is going; he has made up his mind to reach some particular place and he goes straight to it.

He has this whole things about ‘The pack-donkey’s way and man’s way’, the wandering, idiotic path taken by the pack-donkey which defines our towns. He has a go at Camille Sitte — what he calls ‘a most wilful piece of work’ in its celebration of the picturesque and the curved line.

The circulation of traffic demands the straight line; it is the proper thing for the heart of the city. The curve is ruinous, difficult, dangerous; it is a paralyzing thing.

The straight line enters into all human history, into all human aim, into every human act.

We must have the courage to view the rectilinear cities of America with admiration. (10)

He continues, drawing interesting political parallels between the political and the material:

The winding road is the result of happy-go-lucky heedlessness, of looseness, lack of concentration and animality.

The straight road is a reaction, an action, a positive deed, the result of self-mastery. It is sane and noble.

What becomes of a heedless people and their winding roads?

It is in this way that cities sink to nothing and that ruling classes are overthrown. (12)

It’s true that those on the other side of this battle tend to champion curves, variety, mystery, and all too often urban revolution. May we heedless people win in the end.

Check out this definition of culture as well, I think this is still operating in many a mindset actually, it is helpful to see it written down, to see it tied to a physical manifestation such as a straight line, a straight road:

Cities can be seen emerging from the jumble of their streets, striving towards straight lines, and taking them as far as possible. When man begins to draw straight lines he bears witness that he has gained control of himself and that he has reached a condition of order. Culture is an orthogonal state of mind. Straight lines are not deliberately created. They are arrived at when man is strong enough, determined enough, sufficiently equipped and sufficiently enlightened to desire and to be able to trace straight lines.  (37)

4. We Must Have Order and Exactness — all the Rest is Terror.

Whereas in walking through a city our minds can estimate the value or the uselessness of the suggested general development in the future, and can appreciate a co-ordinated and noble plan, our eyes, on the contrary…can only see cell after cell; and the sight of these provides a jagged, loose, diversified, multiplied and nerve-wracking spectacle; the sky is seen against a ragged outline and each house suggests, even by its very shape, some different order of thing. …

This is the critical point to which our analysis of the city brings us; the spectacle of individualism run riot, fatal and inevitable. A weariness arising out of chaos! There is, and there will be, no common standard until such time as a new age of discipline, wisdom and unanimity in the sphere of art, is born. (71)

It is almost impossible for me to find an ounce of empathy with this viewpoint. I feel it borders on actual pathology, obsessive-compulsive and horrifying. I cannot imagine viewing the world through this lens that fears everything I love:

The house, the street, the town, are points to which human energy is directed: they should be ordered, otherwise they counteract the fundamental principles round which we revolve; if they are not ordered, they oppose themselves to us, they thwart us, as the nature all around us thwarts us, though we have striven with it, and with it begin each day a new struggle. (15)

When man is free, his tendency is towards pure geometry. It is then that he achieves what we call order.

Order is indispensable to him, otherwise his actions would be without coherences and could lead nowhere. (22)

But the details of this development [of the city] involve the growth of individual cells (houses), each of which is an individual thing; this tends to a lack of coherence, and is a grave menace. (70)

This is life and death stuff to him, and only order can save us:

We struggle against chance, against disorder, against a policy of drift and against the idleness which brings death; we strive for order, which can be achieved only by appealing to what is the fundamental basis on which our minds can work: geometry. (93)

Especially regarding Paris, I don’t think he cares much for individual human beings:

Paris is a dangerous magma of human beings gathered from every quarter by conquest, growth and immigration; she is the eternal gipsy encampment from all the world’s great roads; Paris is the seat of a power and the home of a spirit which could enlighten the world; she digs and hacks through her undergrowth, and out of these evils she is tending towards an ordered system of straight lines and right angles; this reorganization is necessary to her vitality, health and permanence; this clearing process is indispensable to the expression of her spirit, which is fundamentally limpid and beautiful. (25)

and New York, he really hates New York:

New York is exciting and upsetting. So are the Alps; so is a tempest; so is a battle. New York is not beautiful, and if it stimulates our practical activities, it also wounds our sense of happiness. (60)

5. Geometry contains the only soul we have

…we shall come to consider as more important than the mechanism of the city, what we may call the soul of the city. The soul of the city is that part of which is of no value from the practical side of existence: it is, quite simply, its poetry, a feeling which in itself is absolute, though it is so definitely a part of ourselves. (58)

The power of Le Corbusier is here perhaps, the truth that there is indeed a poetry to geometry and clean lines.

The forms we are discussing are the eternal forms of pure geometry and these will enshrine in a rhythm which will in the end be our own, going far beyond the confines of formulae and charged with poetry, the implacable mechanism which will pulsate within it. (65)

6. Speed, we need more speed.

A city made for speed is made for success. (epigraph chapter XII)

Roads are not meant to connect people, as Cullen argues, but to separate them, to provide space for infrastructure and to facilitate the movement of cars:

The modern street in the true sense of the word is a new type of organism, a sort of stretched out workshop, a home for many complicated and delicate organs, such as gas, water and electric mains. (167)

And while he likes high speed trains connecting one city to another, Le Corbusier really hates the idea of public transportation on other scales:

The tramway has no right to exist in the heart of the modern city. (169)

7. We must rebuild the centre — but first, we must destroy

The centres of our towns are in a state of mortal sickness, their boundaries are gnawed at as though by vermin.

His words stand alone really, and my heart mourns the empty and soulless centres of too many cities, razed to the ground and recreated along these lines.

How to create a zone free for development is the second problem of town planning.

Therefore my settled opinion, which is quite a dispassionate one, is that the centres of our great cities must be pulled down and rebuilt, and that the wretched existing belts of suburbs must be abolished and carried further out… (96)

BUSINESS INEVITABLY GRAVITATES TOWARDS THE CENTRES OF GREAT CITIES (114 – yes, those are his capital letters yelling at you in the greatest factual error of the century)

Therefore the existing centres must come down. To save itself, every great city must rebuild its centre.

WE MUST BUILD ON A CLEAR SITE. The city of to-day is dying because it is not constructed geometrically. To build on a clear site is to replace the “accidental” lay-out of the ground, the only one that exists to-day, by the formal lay-out. Otherwise nothing can save us. And the consequence of geometrical plans is Repetition and Mass-production. (220)

8. Scientists can know everything, plan everything, see everything, and solve everything.

Statistics are the Pegasus of the town planner. They are tedious things, meticulous, passionless and impassive. All the same they are a jumping-off ground for poetry…(107)

I understand, now Cullen’s rant about statistics.

Science has given us the machine. The machine gives us unlimited power. And we in our turn can perform miracles by its means. (150)

… no one is going to make a politician out of me.

Economic and social progress can only be the result of technical problems which have found a proper solution.  (301)

9. We don’t need skilled craftsmen, we have mass production.

The mason dates…from time immemorial! He bangs away with feet and hammer. He smashes up everything round him, and the plant entrusted to him falls to pieces in a few months. The spirit of the mason must be disciplined by making him part of the severe and exact machinery of the industrialized builder’s yard. (176)

Down with skilled craftsmen and pleasure in workmanship and individuality in anything.

10. The best planners are regal, imperious and infinitely powerful, while democracy is just crazy and dangerous

And finally, that magnificent legacy left by a monarch to his people: the work of Haussmann under Napoleon III.

In order that our enthusiasm may not be tainted with cowardice and that possible support may be emboldened, it is essential, if we are to make a strong assault on compromise and democratic stagnation, to describe clearly the equipment which our forerunners have bequeathed us. (141)

The final plate of the book is a painting: ‘Louis XIV Commanding the Building of the Invalides’, its caption: Homage to a great town planner.

This despot conceived immense projects and realized them. Over all the country his noble works still fill us with admiration. He was capable of saying, “We wish it,” or “Such is our pleasure.”

Servants are Always Sulking

Nothing says more than Le Corbusiers addressing his reader as one of a class that has servants as a matter of course — this helps explain his views on democracy.

And once we get on to the subject of servants, we begin to see ho really free we are! One day a week we have to do for ourselves. If you like company of an evening, your servants sulk and there is domestic crisis. …

As for food, you maid goes to the local store and wastes a lot of time, and everything is very expensive. (214)

He goes on to talk about sulky servants coming on night shift, sulky servants asked to do a little extra polishing…sulky servants everywhere, except I am not quite sure where they are supposed to live.

What an opportunity for Capital!

He admits he is no good at sums, and no economist volunteered for the job of costing this out, but

The moral is that we must not say, “but . . . what immense sums would have to be sunk in all this expropriation and reconstruction,” but rather, “What an opportunity for capital for almost incredible amounts would be created by such an attempt at revaluation!” (295)

That about sums up one of the principal reasons this kind of thinking and this version of planning has become so ubiquitous. It also deeply disturbs me just how well this discourse sits alongside and uses so many of the same clusters of ideas as those of white supremacy, colonial mastery, misogyny and many another evil. They all seem to spring from the same well.

You put all of this together, and what do you get as the ideal town?

Le CorbusierLe Corbusier Le Corbusier Le Corbusier

His attempt to find soul and poetry through an architecture of mastery here create the landscape of my greatest fears, and one with elements that are eerily too familiar.

We shall leave the last word with Ivan Chtcheglov then, one of the situationists who took up this gauntlet and fought this concept of space to the death:

We leave to monsieur Le Corbusier his style that suits factories as well as it does hospitals. And the prisons of the future: is he not already building churches? I do not know what this individual–ugly of countenance and hideous in his conceptions of the world–is repressing to make him want thus to crush humanity under ignoble heaps of reinforced concrete, a noble material that ought to permit an aerial articulation of space superior to Flamboyant Gothic. His power of cretinization is vast. A model by Corbusier is the only image that brings to my mind the idea of immediate suicide. With him moreover and remaining joy will fade. And love–passion–liberty. (35)
‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’ Gilles Ivain (aka Ivan Chtcheglov) Internationale situationniste no 1 (June 1958)

Gordon Cullen’s Concise Townscape

Gordon Cullen's TownscapeThis is a wonderful description of the components that make cities and towns work, from a point of view that celebrates urban life rather than fears it.

It makes you realise just how much written about the city is a literature of fear. But Cullen seems to get the point, I think:

A city is more than the sum of its inhabitants. It has the power to generate a surplus of amenity, which is one reason why people like to live in communities rather than in isolation.

Now turn to the visual impact which a city has on those who live in it or visit it. I wish to show that an argument parallel to the one put forward above holds good for buildings: bring people together and they create a collective surplus of enjoyment; bring buildings together and collectively they can give visual pleasure which none can give separately. (7)

This is the city as collective enterprise, a collective that becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Like Capra’s theories of connection, a city is not just a collection of discrete things like streets and buildings, but rather embodies the art of relationship: how things fit together, the spaces created between them, how people use and live in buildings, but also move between them.

Gordon Cullen describes three primary ways in which our environment produces an emotional reaction key to the planner or architect:

I. Optics — how we see the environment: I love his description of serial vision — how the town reveals itself in ‘a series of jerks or revelations’, always negotiating the existing view and the emerging view. I love how he cinematically pieces the city together as we move through it, he writes:

Suppose, however, that we take over this linking as a branch of the art of relationship; then we are finding a tool with which human imagination can begin to mould the city into a coherent drama. (9)

II. Place – how we find and feel ourselves within the environment:

it is an instinctive and continuous habit of the body to relate itself to the environment, this sense of position cannot be ignored; it becomes a factor in the design of the environment…

it is easy to see how the whole city becomes a plastic experience, a journey through pressures and vacuums, a sequence of exposures and enclosures, of constraint and relief. (10)

And there is always a ‘here’, where you are, and a ‘there’, it is fascinating to think how we might shape these feelings, make people want to move and explore, fill them with wonder, excitement, peacefulness.

III. Content – ‘the fabric of towns: colour, texture, scale, style, character, personality and uniqueness.’ (11)

So much of this, of course, a direct response to Le Corbusier — who I am reading now, and only now realising just how he declared war on all of these ideas. Here is Gordon Cullen’s riposte, and plea for a new kind of design of spaces for life and living:

Statistics are abstracts: when they are plucked out of the completeness of life and converted into plans and the plans into buildings they will be lifeless. The result will be a three-dimensional diagram in which people are asked to live. In trying to colonize such a wasteland, to translate it from an environment for walking stomachs into a home for human beings, the difficulty lay in finding the point of application, in finding the gateway into the castle. We discovered three gateways, that of motion, that of position and that of content. By the exercise of vision it became apparent that motion was not one simple, measurable progression useful in planning, it was in fact two things, the Existing and the Revealed view. We discovered that the human being is constantly aware of his position in the environment, that he feels the need for a sense of place and that this sense of identity is coupled with an awareness of elsewhere. Conformity killed, whereas the agreement to differ gave life. In this way teh void of statistics, of the diagram city, has been split into two parts, whether they be those of Serial Vision, Here and There or This and That. All that remains is to join them together into a new pattern created by the warmth and power and vitality of human imagination so that we build the home of man. (12, New Delhi 1959)

What follows are wonderful sections collecting images and ideas around each of the three aspects.

Gordon Cullen's TownscapeOptics is brilliantly cinematic, trying to capture movement. Wonderful photographic montages show how a pedestrian moves through space, the changing views of the city, the changing feel of space, the momentary mysteries, the vistas, the partial and full closures, the gateways or walls that can frame infinity.

But the other two evoke a kind of poetry, a word invoking an idea, with pictures and text. My favourite words from the section on Place:

Possession: (and here he is talking about possession from a positive standpoint, a Lefebvrian standpoint where people creatively occupy space and make it their own through their daily lives) … Occupied territory, advantage, enclosure, focal point, indoor landscape, and so on, are all form of possession… (21)

here and there: The first category of relationships (pinpointing, change of level, vistas, narrows, closure, etc.) is concerned with the interplay between a known here and a known there. The second category will be concerned with a known here and an unknown there… (35)

Again this connects to narrative, to safety or excitement, to movement and adventure on the one hand, or a place that holds you, allows you to reflect or be at peace…

silhouette… By now we are all pretty conversant with the slab block building with its uncompromising roof line…whereas the tracery, the filigree, the openwork ridge capping all serve to net the sky, so that as the building soars up into the blue vault it also captures it and brings it down to the building. this capacity to net the sky is particularly rewarding in the fog and mists of England. (40)

I have been wandering the streets since then, staring up at buildings against the sky…

grandiose vista: …it links you, in the foreground at Versailles, to the remote landscape, thus producing a sense of power or omnipresence. (41)

In a sentence, what I hate about Versailles (and what have gone on and one about in ‘A Hatred of Gardens‘ and that little walk to Chatsworth. He continues with categories

handsome gesture, projection and recession, incident

fluctuation: … The typical town is not a pattern of streets but a sequence of spaces created by buildings.

undulation: Undulation is not just an aimless wiggly line; it is the compulsive departure from an unseen axis or norm, and its motive is delight in such proofs and essences of life as light and shade (the opposite of monochrome), or nearness and distance (the opposite of parallelism). (46)

Delight is exactly the word for this sentence and undulation itself

anticipation: We now turn to those aspects of here and there in which the here is known but the beyond is unknown, is infinite, mysterious, or is hidden inside a black maw. (49)

infinity: I love how he shows visually the difference between the sky and infinity, and how this sense is created through framing. I love how he values mystery.

the maw: Black, motionless and silent, like a great animal with infinite patience, the maw observes nonchalant people passing to and fro in the sunlight. This is the unknown which utter blackness creates. (52)

Amazing.

And then there is Content – he talks about a great levelling, changes in the city after WWII

This explosion resembles nothing so much as a disturbed ant-hill with brightly enamelled ants moving rapidly in all directions, toot-toot, pip-pip, hooray. (57)

More categories and text:

juxtaposition, immediacy

thisness: Here and throughout the next fourteen pages we try to establish the idea of typicality, of a thing being itself…That character may be rich and very variously expressed — secrecy, entanglement, exposure, illusion, even absence…(62)

intricacy: This quality is perhaps least understood (or the least demonstrated) in present day building, which seems to stop dead at the obvious, the slab block, the gridiron of curtain walling, the banality of pastel-shaded surfaces giggling down from the sky. But the quality of intricacy absorbs the eye. It is an extra dimension… (65)

I had to stop reading there and have a bit of a moment. Giggling down from the sky. My heart fluttered.

propriety, bluntness and vigour, entanglement, geometry, relationship

And then we are back in the more solid world of prose, but I learned something about the changes in post-war Britain and how much I take for granted now that perhaps I shouldn’t:

Town squares, once the preserve of privilege, have since the wartime salvage of railings become public spaces. (97)

One of the war’s advantages was that the removal of many kinds of not strictly essential fencing had something of the effect of the removal of restrictions; they opened out prospects of a more freely flowing world. (123)

I also love that he pays attention to the most basic thing of all — what he calls ‘the floor’. This is the space that belongs to all of us as residents of the city, in my own words it is all truly public space. So it needs paying attention to, especially the ways that cars and increasing traffic have transformed it and

severely restricted the right of free assembly. To congregate, to be able to stop and chat, to feel free out of doors may not seem very important compared to the pressing needs of transport, but it is one of the reasons people live in town and not by themselves — to enjoy the pleasure of being sociable. Whereas the distinction between in and out doors should be one of degree and kind, it has now become the difference between sanctuary and exposure.

From the visual standpoint the greatest single loss suffered is neutralization of the floor, the space between buildings, which has changed from a connecting surface to a dividing surface. (128)

This is, I think, another of those things we take for granted now, that we should not. This includes a devastating, rather hilarious critique of what he calls prairie towns. More planning issues I haven’t thought about enough, like street lighting — so much that I did not know!

Recent (post-war) installations in Great Britain are based on the principle of silhouette vision or surface brightness of the road. To imitate daylight — whereby the road surface and objects on it are seen three-dimensionally and in colour — being economically impossible the alternative is to use a lower intensity of light, to reflect light off the road surface evenly so that any object on it is seen as a silhouette which the eye can interpret as man, dog, car, hazard, etc. (144)

That made me ponder a bit about the cinematographic use of light, about noir, the use of light and shadow, I thought about the Third Man in particular, thought about our lights today which I think now do better at showing things three dimensionally.

There were some awesomely creative ideas for living more outdoors despite the English climate, domes, personal and otherwise. Doors that slide. Clear roofs and ways to enjoy being outside even in winter, I loved it. And two potential field trips to what he considers town planning that worked — Well Hall Estate in Eltham built in 1915 and Redgrave Road, Basildon built in 1953. I rather want to visit both.

And his final message:

Even if you lived in the prettiest of towns the message is still just as necessary: there is an art of environment. This is the central fact of TOWNSCAPE but it has got lost on the way…On the one hand it has devolved into cobbles and conservation, and on the other it has hived off into outrage and visual pollution. (193)

From what base do we set out? The only possibly base is to set down the ways in which the human being warms to his surroundings. To set down his affirmations. Not the grandiose views on Art or God or the Computer, but the normal affirmations about our own lives. It may help to observe human response to living itself. (194)

This joins the cannon I’ve been reading on what makes us love the places we live in, from Gehl to Appleyard to Whyte on planning public spaces to Yi-Fu Tuan’s Topophilia.

[Gordon Cullen (1961) The Concise Townscape. NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company.]

More on building social spaces…

and even more…

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Wark on the subject of Constant

I like how that sounds like particle physics. But no. It’s planning and cities and architecture again. Just capturing a few thoughts of McKenzie Wark’s on Constant Nieuwenhuys, along with New Babylon — the spectacular and SF nature of New Babylon. To return to later through Constant’s own words and work. Because look at this:

2011 afb5

New Babylon’s beginnings (always I am bothered by these echoes of class and race, of doing for others):

It was Gallizio who set Constant on the path to his famous New Babylon project of unitary urbanism when the two of them were together in Alba. Gallizio, who was on the local town council, solved the problem of the town’s antipathy to visiting Romani, or Gypsies, by making some land he owned available for their camp. As Alice Becker-Ho writes, quoting from a 1569 text: “Their sojourns in particular villages are always sanctioned by the local squires or dignitaries.”27 Gallizio commissioned Constant to design a new kind of mobile architecture that might house them. Constant’s model was never built, but it set Constant on a new path. (162)

thehyper-architectureofdesire6

There follows an interesting juxtaposition — and makes Constant looks pretty good (though that often wasn’t too hard next to Trocchi to be honest, despite his occasional flash of brilliance). Still, this is hardly a viable infrastructure, though infrastructure it is.

For someone like Constant, the failure of Trocchi’s project sigma had less to do with Trocchi’s personal limitations than with objective necessity. The spectacle required a structural transformation which no mere passing of informations between disaffected hipsters could ever achieve. New Babylon placed its bets on changing the forms within which everyday life is experienced. Constant: “The culture of New Babylon does not result from isolated activities, from exceptional situations, but from the global activity of the whole world population, every human being engaged in a dynamic relation with his surroundings.”26 In an era that would become absorbed with the permutations of cultural superstructures, Constant’s obsession with infrastructure was a rare corrective. (310)

Constant Nieuwenhuys, New Babylon, Concert Hall for Electronic Music, 1958-1961
Constant Nieuwenhuys, New Babylon, Concert Hall for Electronic Music, 1958-1961

I like too the mention of van Eyck in this context, thinking about how houses connect and reflect the city and vice versa, I like thinking about thresholds. More to find.

The key architectural form for van Eyck is the threshold, which he imagines not as dividing one space from another, say public from private, but as connecting one possibility to another. Rather than an efficient division of space by function, he imagines a landscape of place, occasion, threshold, an architecture in which to tarry. As he writes in the Situationist Times, “a house is a tiny city, a city is a huge house.” The key is to think built form more in terms of time than space, a time that can’t be measured. For people who can linger there, the city enables times of full participation and rich experience. The city is when “associative awareness changes and extends perception, rendering it transparent and profound through memory and anticipation.” The urban malingerer becomes aware of duration. Here time acquires depth and subtlety, and “awareness of duration is as gratifying as awareness of the passing instant is oppressive. The former opens time, renders it transparent, whilst the latter closes time, rendering it impenetrable.”6 (315-316)

vaneyck_orphanage_ball
Aldo van Eyck Jacob Thijsseplein Asterdam 1954

But back to New Babylon, and Marx, and this mad idea for a utopia:

“Automated factories would be underground, the surface level is for transport, while up above stretches a new landscape for play, a massive superstructure of linked sectors, within which everything is malleable, changeable at whim. Considered vertically, as an elevation, New Babylon makes literal Marx’s diagram of base and superstructure. Its airy sectors are literally superstructures, made possible by an infrastructure below ground where mechanical reproduction has abolished scarcity and freed all of time from necessity. It is an image of what Constant imagines the development of productive forces has made possible, but which the fetter of existing relations of production prevents from coming into being.” (319)

constant_nieuwenhuys_web

My favourite insight is this one, seeing connections rather than borders — just a different way of seeing a line, and one that we need to encourage as much as possible I think:

“Rather than lines that make borders, Constant’s experimental geography proposes lines that make connections. His vast aerial sectors, the size of little cities, link up and spread out over the landscape like reinforced-concrete crabgrass. (324)

tumblr_n08d0sncaE1r6glo5o1_1280It is interesting to continue my thoughts of yesterday on how our ancestors chose to shape the landscape to influence the lives of those who lived in it. I compare these drawings to the great stone circles of the neolithic and wonder how much we have changed, and just how much has remained the same.

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Excerpt From: McKenzie Wark. “The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International.” iBooks.

 

More on architecture, utopia and the situationists….

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Aragon: Paris Peasant

93111Few books I have read so far evoke the experience of wandering Paris quite as much as this one — but is a Paris now gone, rebuilt beyond recognition. Part of the reason he wrote it — to document and fix in place the experience of a geography soon to be destroyed. But first, spring in Paris:

I had just reached this point in my thoughts when, without any warning, spring suddenly entered into the world.

It happened in a flash, one Saturday evening around five: everything is bathed in a different light and yet there is still a chill in the air, impossible to say what has just taken place. (7)

I felt just this way about summer this year, except I missed the moment of its coming, was away for the weekend and returning to London found it installed.

This description of watching women, however, is an unfamiliar experience, and I confess evokes scorn:

Instead of concerning yourself with the conduct of men, start watching women walk by. They are great patches of radiance, flashes of light not yet stripped of their furs, of brilliant, restless mysteries. No, I don’t want to die without having first gone up to each one, touched her at least with my hand, felt her weaken, willed that this pressure shall be enough to conquer her resistance, and then hey presto! (8)

But the obsession with planning and planners something else we share, and a path to be retrodden by the Sitautionists with little reference to this great early psychogeographer as far as I can find (they do write of him ‘We cannot be accepted with the spinelessness of a false eclectic interest, as if we were Sartres, Althussers, Aragons or Godards’*). This, in its first section, is a documentation of the destruction of the arcades:

The great American passion for city planning, imported into Paris by a prefect of police during the Second Empire and now being applied to the task of redrawing the map of our capital in straight lines, will soon spell the doom of these human aquariums. Although the life that originally quickened them has drained away, they deserve, nevertheless, to be regarded as the secret repositories of several modern myths: it is only today, when the pickaxe menaces them, that they have at last become the true sanctuaries of a cult of the ephemeral, the ghostly landscape of damnable pleasures and profession. Places that were incomprehensible yesterday, and that tomorrow will never know.

“Today the Boulevard Haussman has reached the Rue Lafitte,” remarked L’Intransigeant the other day. A few more paces forward by this giant rodent and, after it has devoured the block of houses separating it from the Rue Le Peletier, it will inexorably gash open the thicket whose twin arcades run through the Passage de l’Opéra before finally emerging diagonally on to the Boulevard des Italiens. …It seems possible, though, that a good part of the human river which carries incredible floods of dreamers and dawdlers from the Bastille to the Madeleine may divert itself through this new channel, and thus modify the ways of thought of a whole district, perhaps of a whole world. We are doubtless about to witness a complete upheaval of the established fashions in casual strolling and prostitution… (14)

What could give you a better sense of being in this this passage than

…the noise, whose low throbbing echoed back from the arched roof. I recognized the sound: it was the same voice of the seashells that has never ceased to amaze poets and film-stars. The whole ocean in the Passage de l’Opéra. (22)

Or the flows and experiences of it than:

At the level of the printer who prints cards while you wait, just beyond that little flight of steps leading down into the Rue Chaptal, at that point in the far north of the mystery where the grotto gapes deep back in a bay troubled by the comings and goings of removal men and errand boys, in the farthest reaches of the two kinds of daylight which pit the reality of the outside world against the subjectivism of the passage, let us pause a moment, like a man holding back from the edge of the places depths, attracted equally by the current of objects and the whirlpools of his own being, let us pause in this strange zone where all is distraction, distraction of attention as well as of inattention, so as to experience this vertigo. The double illusion which holds us here is confronted with our desire for absolute knowledge. (47)

He describes a visit to a tawdry brothel of two rooms, sad and almost sweet — it can’t quite reach sweet as this is a man who sees all women in each individual woman and therefore can see no woman truly. It brought to mind a visit to Tombstone’s Birdcage with its own tiny two rooms side by side and its own sad reality of dingy walls and uncomfortable beds as compared to literary and cinematic representations of such houses of ‘pleasure’ in the wild West — raising the similarities between this representation and that of Paris and of the Moulin Rouge. A false romanticism that this thankfully pushes to one side.

He shares the notices put up to organise protest — text and notices are sprinkled throughout, an early collage:

IMG_2478

He describes what this place has meant to a group of people, to a movement

…believe it or not it’s the Restaurant Saulnier. Its two floors, ground and mezzanine, fill the space between the Baths and the transversal corridor that emerges right opposite the entrance of the lodging house. A gift of the gods, this restaurant: I have absolutely nothing to say about it, having eaten there a hundred times. The great quarrels of the Dada movement (you may have heard of the Dada movement?) used to adjourn to this place under something resembling a flag of truce, so that the combatants, who had just spent two hours at the Certa defending their reputations, could discover in a plate of cold meat evidence of the height of morality, the height of fashion… (70)

A quick digression into American cinema and stories of sartorial fashion and race:

Don Juan acquired the taste for this caramel-and-whipped-cream footwear after seeing his first Hollywood film. He scoured Paris to find something similar, and it was at a shop in the Quartier Saint-Georges specializing in tailors’ misfits and undelivered orders that he finally ran to earth this pair of shoes that a Negro, in a moment of glorious extravagance, had had specially made for him, but which a combination of bailiff, cocaine and sheer nonchalance had obliged him to dispense with. (71)

And a return to the Certa:

IMG_2479It was while I was sitting here one afternoon, towards the end of 1919, that Andre Breton and I decided that this should henceforward become the meeting place for ourselves and our friends, a choice motivated partly by our loathing for Montparnasse and Montmartre, but partly also by the pleasure we derived from the equivocal atmosphere of the passages. (74)

All gone.

This is not without an immensity ego of course — this great rambling documentation and discourse published in installments, he had time to receive complaints about the contents as he finished the next installment and writes a description of their contents:

You do them an injustice: what will happen to their rights in the great struggle against the Boulevard Haussman Building Society? What on earth would the lawyers think if by some misfortune they should read your mishmash of inventions and real facts? ‘There’s a bunch of people we can forget about,’ is what they would think. And each of your epithets could bring down the total of the compensation figures a further notch. (85)

We bump thus against the common misconception amongst intellectuals that writing and description are in themselves somehow struggle. You could at least demand that they do no harm, but Aragon is careless of that, his words in print come before the needs of the current residents of the passages. I think of the two women he describes in their two tawdry rooms, receiving his attention for money and finding some sort of connection if he is to be believed — were they just cast into the streets? We’ll never know, his compassion does not extend that far, if it were ever genuine to begin with.

And then that section is done and dusted, we hear no more of it as we move on to philosophies and a drunken night-time adventure in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. Which contains much of interest I shall return to in a future post.I can’t really bear to do it here.
In many ways it makes a mockery of this earnest description of all that is about to be destroyed in the name of progress under some vague impression of solidarity. Perhaps that impression is my own and gives him too much credit — or destroys what little he has. Perhaps the term human aquariums in itself sets him to be always observer, though to be sure he does get himself wet. It is not a position I admire very much, but one which is all too familiar.
*’Our goals and methods in the Strasbourg Scandal’ Internationale Situationniste #11 (Paris, October 1967). This translation by Ken Knabb is from the Situationist International Anthology (Revised and Expanded Edition, 2006). No copyright.

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emergence

Emergence - Steven JohnsonNabeel Hamdi in his book on development constantly refers to the idea of emergence, which he draws from this book by Steven Johnson. Another bit of pop science applied to the world and I wasn’t too sure I wanted to read it. Somehow I was convinced by its shortness, and the blurb from J.G. Ballard – ‘Exhilarating’.

This is a bit Ballardian. Though it has no car crashes, sharp angles or sex symbol references.

In August 2000, Toshiyuki Nakagaki announced he had trained slime mould to travel the fastest route through a maze. Pretty amazing.

More amazing was that it turns out slime mould does not have a few cells that order all the rest around as had previously been assumed, but that given the right conditions, its components–often happily trawling about on their own doing what they do–each put out a call to join together and take advantage of opportunity and thus collectively do what they could not on their own. If you can use such human words to describe a very different process.

Which you probably shouldn’t. Just as you probably shouldn’t use that process as more than a broad metaphor to think about how things other than slime mould work, especially things as complicated as human beings.

So when this books was very broad I found it thought-provoking, and the narrower it got the higher my frustration.

I did  like the breadth of what it drew on, going from slime mould to ants to Engels writing about Manchester – and I liked that it provoked me to think something slightly new about this classic with a quote I hadn’t noted in my own reading:

I have never elsewhere seen a concealment of such fine sensibility of everything that might offend the eyes and nerves of the middle classes. And yet it is precisely Manchester that has been built less according to a plan and less within the limitations of official regulations–and indeed more through accident–than any other town. Still…I cannot help feeling that the liberal industrialists, the Manchester “bigwigs,” are not altogether innocent of this bashful style of building. (37)

But Engels went on with Marx to look at some of the things structuring this apparent accident, principally capitalism and the exploitative hierarchies it creates. How some of this emergent behaviour interlocks with these structures is what is actually what I find most interesting, and discussing ’emergence’ as though this emerging takes place on a blank canvas rather than into a world of structural inequality and oppression which act to shape it is deeply problematic. I would like a dialectical understanding of such things, how horizontal emergence articulates with structure. Maybe changes it for the better.

This book doesn’t do that.

The fact that it doesn’t do that makes it possible for Johnson to note hopefully that Al Gore is a fan of complexity theory! And in the same paragraph to describe corporate mantras of bottom-up intelligence and also the organising of the radical antiglobalization movement protest movement. Isn’t it all fascinating.

The science stuff is fun though, like the fact that ant colonies follow a lifecycle over 15 years (well, Arizona carpenter ants do — and I know those large bastards well with their amazing foraging lines that change every night, stripping a new plant of everything and leaving others alone). This, despite the fact no ant lives more than a year, thus the puzzle of:

The persistence of the whole over time–the global behaviour that outlasts any of its component parts–is one of the defining characteristics of complex systems. Generations of ants come and go, and yet the colony itself matures, grows more stable, more organized. (82)

This reminded me of the corruption and violence of the Yorkshire police in the Red Riding trilogy. But we are not ants. I like the fact that the Sim city game failed when the people were made too smart, instead they had to be dumbed down, fixated on one thing. Like ants.

Sim city may play with a form of emergence, but it is still limited by programming and the extent of its programmers imaginations of what cities are.

For most people, the sight of their first digital town sprouting upscale neighborhoods and chronically depressed slums is downright eerie, as though the hard math of the digital computer had somehow generated a life-form (88).

That was slightly infuriating, but I was raging as he continued in that vein:

Neighborhoods are themselves polycentric structures, born of thousands of local intersections, shapes forming within the city’s larger shape. Like Gordon’s ant colonies, or the cells of a developing embryo, neighborhoods are patterns in time. No one wills them into existence single-handedly; they emerge by a kind of tacit consensus : the artists go here, the investment bankers here, Mexican-Americans here, gays and lesbians here. The great preponderance of city dwellers live by these laws, without any legal authority mandating that compliance (91).

I did my PhD on this shit, and the multitude of books that tear this thinking into pieces are easily found in the case of the U.S. How dare he ignore years of racial covenants, and discrimination of all kinds, the immense amount of hate and violence that has gone into disciplining people of colour and people of different sexualities into their own neighbourhoods where at least they can feel safe.

Laws mandated compliance with racial segregation until 1953 in the US, the planning profession’s obsession with homogeneity and separation of land-use has been policy for a hundred years, and unofficial policies and blatant discrimination still exist. We cannot forget the legacy of violence and issues with race and definitions of ‘American’ as white and etc. resulting from the conquest of the US and slavery that are even now being fought out in Ferguson and Baltimore and cities all over the country.

There is a lot more wrong with this idea, but in a nutshell: patterns do naturally emerge, but American cities at least do not reflect any such ‘natural’ patterns arrived at through tacit consensus. The idea would be laughable if it did not write off and deeply insult centuries of struggle by people of colour, poor people, lbgtqi communities to live where they choose with some level of dignity. That still hasn’t been won.

This is why I hate using an idea emerging from slime mould, and other such biological marvels, to say ‘this is how cities work.’ To explain what is created by human beings. It simplifies and ignores what doesn’t fit. Sadly our cities, our slums, our uprisings are all things we have actively created and fought over.

When do I like playing with an idea such as emergence? When it does not seek to explain, but rather shifts our frame, maybe makes us see things in a different way. Notice what we hadn’t before. When metaphor opens up insight.

There are manifest purposes to a city…But cities have a latent purpose as well: to function as information storage and retrieval devices. Cities were creating user-friendly interfaces thousands of years before anyone even dreamed of digital computers. Cities bring minds together and put them into coherent slots. Cobblers gather near other cobblers…Ideas and goods flow readily within these clusters, leading to productive cross-pollination…The power unleashed by this data storage is evident in the earliest large-scale human settlements (108)

Again, still a bit problematic in its simplifications, but the idea of the city as a giant centre of information storage and retrieval is quite cool, fun to play with and think about.

I also liked the recognition that in studying communications and discourse these days, ‘We need a third term beyond medium and message’ (161). We need something that gets at how we are filtering things, accessing them. The web really has opened things wide up, but how are people being channeled, how do they figure out where to look and what is worth looking at?

Near the end Johnson gets to the question of what this can do for politics. Same issues as raised by what this can do for cities — things aren’t just emerging onto a level playing field so how emergence deals with existing structures of domination is the real question. That what makes its embrace by the right-wing who are anti-big-government in everything but the monopoly of force, and by the radical left so different.

In fact, the needs of most progressive movements are uniquely suited to adaptive, self-organizing systems: both have a keen ear for collective wisdom; both are naturally hostile to excessive concentrations of power; and both are friendly to change. For any movement that aims to be truly global in scope, making it almost impossible to rely on centralized power, adaptive self-organization may well be the only road available. (224)

Possibly true, but the capacity of capitalism to co-opt so much demands of us much more of a stretch in our thinking about how this actually can create a positive change in the world that goes to scale.