Tag Archives: utopia

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)


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)

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)


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.


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….


A Pattern Language (or building anarchist utopia)

A Pattern LanguageThis is an extraordinary book, not least because I’d seen it referenced as an architectural handbook and a good source for thinking about public space. It is all that.

But really, it is quite a mad reimagining of our world as it could and should be, but at the same time serves as a blueprint of how to build it. After that final scene in V for Vendetta when the world is reduced to rubble and everyone is like oh shit, what next? You want to think through what happens after the revolution if you’d prefer not to find all the bondage leather you can carry and go off into the desert to kill other people other for fuel and for fun and for vaseline and always drive really fast?

Get this book. But why did no one say?

Maybe because the authors use the introduction to emphasize the ways that this new society can be built piecemeal, can grow organically within the old (but really, can it?). Still, I struggled to hold that in mind as I continued to read given they seem wildly prescriptive at times, pulling out studies and equations and optimal numbers as guides. Ultimately, I grant them, their larger ethos consists of building for the ways that people actually use space with a view to making them (and the earth) happiest. They write:

We believe that the patterns presented in this section can be implemented best by piecemeal processes, where each project built or each planning decision made is sanctioned by the community according as it does or does not help to form certain large scale patterns. We do not believe that these large patterns, which give so much structure to a town or of a neighborhood, can be created by centralized authority, or by laws, or by master plans. We believe instead that they can emerge gradually and organically, almost of their own accord, if every act of building, large or small, takes on the responsibility for gradually shaping its small corner of the world to make these larger patterns appear there (3).

As I say, this doesn’t stop them from thinking really big:

Wherever possible work toward the evolution of independent regions in the world; each with a population between 2 and 10 million; each with its own natural and geographic boundaries; each with its own economy; each one autonomous and self-governing; each with a seat in a world government, without the intervening power of larger states or countries. (14)

I didn’t realise that this is actually a part 2 (and there is a part 3, The Oregon Experiment). The earlier book, A Timeless Way of Building goes more into this fascinating idea of patterns and language and how we write them across the city. So I’ll wait to delve into that, this is way too long as it is. But essentially this book breaks up the components of cities, towns, neighbourhoods and homes into numbered pieces for assembly, ranging from 1. Independent regions to 37. House cluster to 135. Tapestry of Light and Dark to 204. Secret place (YES! Every home needs a secret place) to 253. Things from your life. It’s an impressive number and thoughtfulness of patterns. So what follows are a few that struck me in particular, but there is so much richness here in thinking about different kinds of spaces, and it pulls on a variety of literature, you’ll always be finding different things.

I don’t usually like quotes from native people’s taken out of context, but this one is beautiful, and a way of thinking we have moved far too much away from:

I conceive that land belongs for us to a vast family of which many are dead, few are living, and countless members are still unborn.
–a Nigerian tribesman (37)

The one place they completely lost me in the book — the whole 1166 pages of it — was their ‘mosaic of subcultures’. The principle here:

The homogenous and undifferentiated character of modern cities kills all variety of life styles and arrests the growth of individual character. (43)

I might agree with that, but how strange to go from that to neighborhoods divided up into subcultures and separated one from the other by belts of industry or other land uses? They write that this is so no one more powerful or wealthier subculture might be tempted to interfere with their neighbors, but this seems a deathknell to diversity and fortuitous mixings and glorious circumstance.

Funny that this emerges with their understanding of how people view property values and how they value homogeneity — things that I think this separation plays into even though such ideologies have been constructed for all of the wrong reasons and have immense negative effects. I am back to wondering why people just can’t seem to even attempt to grapple with class and race in the city. Probably something to do with class and race. Still. They grapple with a lot in this book, primarily physical space and how we live in it, and so I will allow it some exemptions given its already massive nature as utopian blueprint. But i would prefer an equality of class, race, gender, sexuality and etc to be explicit in that.

Hell, if they’re going to call for an evolution of independent regions a la Kropotkin, they can throw a little intersectionality in there.

But I do like acknowledging that ‘People need an identifiable spatial unit to belong to’ (81). That neighborhoods need to be small in number, small in area, and guess what, large streets driven through their middle destroys them.

I like the section on ‘The Magic of the City’, the ways that they are ‘rich, various, fascinating.’ (59) I like that they don’t really try to define it, just let it stand as it is. Because obviously, they just have some magic.

So do railways, and I love that the Swiss have a massive network that ties in the smallest villages to the largest towns after the ‘democratic railway movement’ of the 19th Century demanded and won that they do so. This has avoided some of the centralisation seen in France and England, maintaining the viability of smaller areas. Go Switzerland.

There is a whole section on how terrible high-rises are, and how they negatively impact the mental and social well-being of the people living within them. Children start playing outside later and less-often unattended and free, people feel isolated, it’s a larger barrier to get out into the world. There can be few casual interactions, you are removed from everything and no longer can feel part of the street and the life on it. A lot of this makes sense, though it also reminded me of the Doomwatch episode where the female scientist tests the new council highrises and has a nervous breakdown. You get the feeling it’s more because she’s female.

But I loved this poem from Glasgow

The Jelly Piece Song
By Adam McNaughton

I’m a skyscraper wean, I live on the nineteenth flair,
on’ I’m no’ gaun oot tae play ony mair
For since we moved tae oor new hoose I’m wastin’ away,
‘Cos I’m gettin’ was less meal ev’ry day

Oh, ye canny fling pieces oot a twenty-story flat
Seven hundred hungry weans will testify tae that
If it’s butter, cheese or jeely, if the breid is plain or pan,
The odds against it reachin’ us is ninty-nine tae wan.


We’re wrote away tae Oxfam tae try an’ get some aid,
We’ve a’ joined thegither an’ formed a “piece” brigade,
We’re gonny march tae London tae demand oor Civil Rights,
Like “Nae mair hooses ower piece flingin’ heights.” (117-118)

Moving on to 45.  ‘Necklace of community projects’, how cool is that? They write:

The local town hall will not be an honest part of the community which lives around it, unless it is itself surrounded by all kinds of small community activities and projects, generated by the people for themselves. (243)

These are political projects of opposition in part, but free and low-cost space for any number of things to begin, projects to come together, things to be created. Exactly the kind of spaces that real estate capital tends to destroy.

Pattern 47 is Health center — and they look at Peckham Health Center as a model. I’ve been meaning to look into that place for ages, and its early focus on staying healthy and thinking about it holistically rather than simply seeing health as the absence of disease.

Green streets? Yes please, many small residential roads do not need asphalt and would be perfectly lovely with paving stones or concrete treads for tires, allowing natural drainage, reducing heat trapped and use of non-renewable resources and making it feel good to be and play in. I’m in.

Lots of small public squares — wonderful. Here they make the point that the operative word is small, that it is small plazas that are most used unless there is a very large flow of people past a place. The authors have put so much time and thoughtfulness into this book, they suggest 60 feet in diameter (at least in width, long and skinny seems to work as well), bigger than that and places don’t feel used, vibrant.

The idea of outdoor rooms, both public and private — we should have them. It is true as they say that

There are very few spots along the streets of modern towns and neighborhoods where people can hang out comfortably, for hours at a time. (349)

I’d go further than that and say that such a thing would be frowned up and disapproved of in the US and UK these days, that kind of social fabric is something belonging to the past. There is to be no more enjoyment of time. Unless  maybe you’re on the Mediterranean, or Aegean.

We need to end speculation and profit on housing of course. Of course. ‘Rental areas are always the first to turn to slums.’ But as importantly,

People will only be able to feel comfortable in their houses, if they can change their houses to suit themselves, add on whatever they need, rearrange the garden as they like it… (394).

This is a book that describes thick living walls that can be carved out, shaped by incoming families. Niches made and filled. Gardens created. Rooms added on. Their rule of thumb for this pattern?

Do everything possible to make the traditional form of rental impossible, indeed, illegal. Give every household its own home, with space enough for a garden. Keep the emphasis in the definition of ownership on control, not on financial ownership (395).

They want to reinstitute the inn, a warm centre where strangers can stay, congregate, meet, entertain each other. Yes, I say.

Open space and gardens are used if they are sunny (with deserts being somewhat of an exception). So put them on the south side. How hard is that?

Connect your buildings, create some density, don’t create dead space between buildings! They write ‘Isolated buildings are symptoms of a disconnected sick society’ (532), and I think they may be right. make sure they’re insulated for sound of course, but that saves on energy and space and all kinds of things. I also like the idea of lines of long thin houses facing the world on the long sides, rather than the narrow ends as they do now. That makes sense to me in terms of sunlight and view, but apparently mathematically it creates the greatest feeling of spaciousness and allows the maximum flexibility in arrangement of space. Who knew?

They go all the way down into seemingly minor details of what makes us happy and comfortable, but still so important. A wall at our backs when outside, arcades that bridge the spaces inside and outside. Building edges should be crenellated to create interest and space for people passing by, and as much care should be given to the space surrounding the buildings as to the buildings themselves– they form a whole. They notice that people tend to hug the edges of squares — if those don’t work, the square will never work. That homes should have an entrance room to make it feel as though you have truly arrived somewhere. They write:

The most impressionistic and intuitive way to describe the need for the entrance room is to say that the time of arriving, or leaving, seems to swell with respect to the minutes which precede and follow it, and that in order to be congruent with the importance of the moment, the space too must follow suit and swell with respect to the immediate inside and the immediate outside of the building. (623)


They think of what children most need from space as they grow, ending with possible private entrances and private roofs. They junk the Victorian ideals of tiny bedrooms rooms in favour of children having bed niches surrounding shared space for living rather than sleeping, small dressing rooms for that which we want to keep most private. Distance and space alone for parents. Rooms that are never perfectly square or uniform. Building materials that are easily used by people without much experience, cheap, and ecologically greener. They even have some plans and rules of thumb for building.

I read through this — skimmed often, as this is more meant to be a working book, one you flip through as you plan your own space and its building — and was immensely impressed. So much of this lies outside commonly accepted wisdom on ‘good’ development, yet intuitively so much of this feels right. I want to sit and just imagine what society might transform into if more were built this way.

It makes me want to build.

(Alexander, Christopher, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein. (1977) A Pattern Language: Towns. Buildings. Construction. NY: Oxford University Press.)

More on building social spaces…

and even more…




Utopia London

DVD_coverDirector John Cordell (2010)

Utopia London opens with a statement:

‘Buildings leave the mark of past ideas on a city.’

You see a print of London in which St Paul’s Cathedral stands prominent, to show the power of God. Today, we see everywhere monuments to money. But this is an exploration of a period that fascinates me as much as it does Cordell, the early part of this century when for just a little while an alternative to both of those two visions unfolded as an ideal of constructing a society of equal citizens – this is the filmmaker’s journey through the city he grew up in ‘to map the life and death of London’s egalitarian dream’.

I still find it hard to write about film, particularly a documentary so packed full of actual information I want to master rather than just emotion or spectacle. This has some great shots of the city and the modernist spaces created there, alongside information from architects and historians that I am afraid is mostly paraphrased here as I took furious notes. I miss the clarity of the printed page, a misplaced nostalgia I know, when compared with the ability to experience space through this medium, hear and see these wonderful architects speaking about their buildings and the ideals behind them even as we experience the physical spaces they created in a way that books just can’t manage. Anyway, where I am sure of a quote I put marks around it, I just didn’t have time to transcribe more closely.

Drawn from the website, this is a part of Director Tom Cordell’s statement about the making of the film:

I grew up in the London of the 80s and 90s and it’s still my home.

I’ve always been drawn to the excitement of its post-war landscape; concrete and brick textures, unadorned clean lines, neon glow and dark shadows.

And most Londoners my age that I know feel the same – the modernist city is our landscape.

Yet all our lives we have been told that the same urban spaces are ugly – symbols of a failed, arrogant technocracy. While we’re comfortable celebrating 60s pop culture, many people still hate the buildings of that time.

Worryingly, while I had once thought that popular taste would catch up with the urban building of the 50s, 60s and 70s, it’s now under attack. Major symbols of that time are being destroyed – often with gruesome delight on the part of the wreckers. We urgently need to defend what is left before it is all gone.

I feel the same urgency, hopefully growing among an ever larger population and helped along after seeing much of the footage of the urban slums from the times when such housing was still a dream. I thus appreciated greatly the interspersing of quotations like the following, the filmmakers signposts to how to preserve these spaces:

‘Freedom for the pike is death to the minnows.’
–RH Tawney

The film looks at a series of modernist buildings in chronological order, I think perhaps I shall just share the notes of my main impressions for each, as much of this was still new to me and I am treating it as an introduction more than anything. I am so looking forward to revisiting and reading more about those who built them.

Finsbury Health Centre

Part of the birth of the NHS, and it could not have come too soon! The architect was from Russia, Berthold Lubetkin,  and deeply influence by the Russian Revolution he believed in the linkage between radical art and social progress. He believed that a new architecture could reshape society, whereas our previous architecture had only served to reinforce the split between rich and poor.

This building showed what architecture could do, calling upon a new idiom that was ultra-modern, almost SF, in which to build a new future. The film has a wonderful picture of this building at night that I could not find, but the picture below (and read the article it’s from) shows just how extraordinary this building was in comparison with what had come before:

finsbury health centre

During WWII and the search for national strength and will to resist the bombing, Churchill’s mythologisation of a distant and heroic past was counterposed by a utopian dream of a better future, and this health centre providing free health care was one of the symbols of that as the poster below shows.  The image is from a WWII era poster shown on the website of those who fought (and won) the saving of this wonderful building — and the dream that it represents. Of course, there is still more to do:


Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space
— Mies Van de Rohe

South Bank

I never think of South Bank as utopian dream, this has forced me to it. This is the section where a little background on the County of London plan comes — and the footage presenting it is amazing. Patrick Abercrombie is standing there explaining that you plan a city just as you would plan a garden, you have to give shelter from the wet and cold, there needs to be room to grow, protection, no overcrowding. In 1943 they created a map of London envisioned as a series of interconnected villages, and saw their goal to be the bringing up the poorest to the level of richest. Makes my planner’s heart beat faster this does:

Close-up for upload

South Bank was to be ‘new symbolic heart’, a ‘counterbalance to symbols of money and power facing it across the Thames’. I shall never be able to see it as anything else now, though I didn’t before. In the face of gloom and despair over continued rationing and hardship after the war, the South Bank Centre was built in 1951 with a ‘technicolor launch party for the welfare state’, festival and fun, open air cafes and an attempt to fuse Churchill’s heroic past and dreams of future. This was an effort to show how modern architecture could rebuild public spaces. I have only ever loved it at night when it is beautiful glowing in the lights (so many modernist buildings are their best lit up in the darkness), and of course when it appears in Dr Who, but now I shall remember the hope it brought to a post-war society starved of light and colour and all the food and drink you could want.

Lenin Court

One of the first modernist social housing schemes was also designed by Berthold Lubtekin, on the site where Lenin lived while in London hiding from czarist police. There was supposed to be a bust and monument to Lenin, but with the coming of the cold war, Lenin was buried under the central column of the wonderful central staircase.

My favourite story.

This was supposed to be  ‘An El Dorado for the working class’. Amazing. His apartments were are all given equal weight in design, none better than others, everyone equal. Lubetkin’s slogan? ‘Nothing too good for ordinary people.’ He believed residents should live in a work of art, and that is what he tried to build for them.

I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few or freedom for a few.
— William Morris

Alton East

‘We were trying to build heaven and earth, some of us’, said architect Oliver Cox, his utopian attitude in part based on his respect for Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement.He and his colleagues critiqued the then modern style as being a bit arid, they felt that something had been lost in the idea that people could be enriched by design. I love thinking about people are enriched by design.

The original plan was to build vast estates of council housing on edges of parks, and wealthy communities. Thus the tower block came into being, with layouts designed to preserve trees and give all of the tenants stunning views of a landscape once only enjoyed by the wealthy. They tried to pay as much attention as possible to detail, Cox is shown in the building’s stairwells which are beautifully tiled. They meant to show that quality and love had been put into an area that is normally unloved. A good quote from the film: ‘Architects building in the present for a future they can only imagine.’

Alton West

This was designed by four other architectures in something of a rebellion against Alton East, yet whose inspiration was Le Corbusier (I find that surprising, but no mind).  This western extension was more of a designed formal landscape dominated by massive slab blocks of concrete, a pattern of building ‘that would come to symbolise the welfare state’, but was never meant to. It was meant, again, to maximise views of Richmond Park and integrate the buildings into the landscape they were designed for.

By the time they were building Alton West, however, Labor had lost the 1951 election. The recent hardships ensured that the Tories continued with the welfare state, but they abandoned the idea of a ‘coordinated egalitarian society.’ The LCC was forced to drop plans for building in wealthy park areas like Hampstead, Greenwich and Blackheath and to hand over sites to private developers, building social housing instead on previous slum sites. Thus there was no ability to move beyond designs for Alton West that had been developed for park sites, and these plans were simply reproduced in poor areas. Stepney and Brixton’s Loughborough Estate are examples, and this kind of building began to symbolise the opposite of the original architects’ and planners’ intentions. Instead of the utopian dream of a classless society, they began to symbolise the class divide itself, with concrete a new signifier. Thus East and West Alton still remain separated, with a class barrier even here.

The Alton estate was also the site for much of the filming of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, its architecture used to symbolise the dystopian. But I’ll come back to that in a later post I think.

1964 – Lambeth Towers

I have always loved this building, and always think of it as that wonderful estate where my friend Rosanne lives — fighting a long battle against steadily rising rents.
LambethTowers-2-GF-1967-GI Designed by  architect George Finch, it contained doctor’s offices, a lunch club for pensioners, the registry office — this estate got the closest to what he wanted to do with his architecture, putting all things together into a block so it was interesting and lively and everything was close.

This was in some ways a renewal of the old left vision in struggle with the consumerism of 1950s and 1960s, an attempt to make labour relevant again. The 1960s also contained the promise of technology making possible the dream of less hours, more free time, putting human contentment within reach. This alongside Finch’s belief that everyone deserves this kind of wonderful space, that everyone’s work is important to a society. So he built this place, and man, the views are amazing.

He built eight more of these tower blocks to eliminate as much of the terrible slum housing as possible. In the paraphrased words of Elain Harwood, (architectural historian and author of forthcoming Space, Hope and Brutalism which I am definitely checking out) this showed Lambeth’s commitment to building housing in one of the worst slum housing areas. It represented Lambeth saying ‘look at us’, look at we can do. It makes you sick to see what they are doing now.

Finch built a set of tower blocks and tried to give them a sense of ‘dancing around’ rather than being staidly lined up. His humour and hope overflow, particularly in his sketches of space. He designed Brixton Rec as well, and put himself and his son in several of the wonderful pictures he drew to envision a lively, well-used and well-loved space:


The same Brixton Rec that is currently at the heart of a very different kind of development driven by a very different kind of council. One that has lost its conviction in the belief and social vision these buildings tried to make material: housing and public space as rights, not as assets.

Alexandra Road

I didn’t know this development at all and fell in love, totally and utterly. It was designed by Neave Brown for Camden as a large development that would address some of the problems of 1950s – 60s building.

It is a wonderful long terraced building, reminded me of pyramids with its splendid concrete and lots of greenery, or perhaps more of mountains. Everywhere has splendid views, and Neave says he was aiming to create a seamless building and ‘continuous public realm.’ I loved his notion of a ‘coherent seamless society’, one that doesn’t say that everyone is the same, but instead buildings  are not simply the markers of status but in the reach of everyone and thus simply markers of difference and personal preference. They are just  buildings you might or might not want to live in. What a wonderful world to aspire to.


The pictures don’t do it justice the way video does as it takes you through the space and the changing, unexpected views. There is great footage of a woman who grew up there, talking about how she saw it as a big playground, its stairs strange and magical, full of secret places you could find and be alone in. While interviewing Neave you see children running up one of the concrete slopes, and Neave is delighted saying he designed it like that just so they would do it. It is wonderful, even if, as Neave reflects, it is a little too big and he didn’t consult people as he should have.

Econmics are the method, the object is to change the soul
–Margaret Thatcher

Dawson’s Heights

Just before the big change in everything ushered in by Thatcher, we come to Kate Mackintosh, and her vision of humanised modernism. She found London very claustrophobic coming from Edinburgh, so to design Dawson’s Heights on a hill — she realised how special this sight was. Wanted to create a scheme that had unity, that grew out of the hill. She notes that there was almost certainly a ‘Castle image lurking’, and designed something that was imposing from the outside, but protective of what was inside and underpinned by cooperative ideals. She designed Leigham Court as well, which is another wonderful building Lambeth Council is trying to sell.

So we come to Thatcher, there is footage from her celebration of the 12,000th council house sold. Local governments were required to sell council housing to tenants and unable to build new homes to replace them, rent controls were abolished, more rights to evict were given to landlords.

The 1980s meant collapse.

There’s footage also of Professor Alice Coleman — a geographer who worked for Thatcher, and who argued that these modernist physical designs of council estates encouraged crime and anti-social behaviour. Her words were quite vile in comparing the ethic of council housing to suburban homes, attacking the buildings as much as the dreams behind them.

The documentary ends with the loss of Pimlico School, an incredible modernist building also representative of the new visions for eduction.  With funds long ago cut for its maintenance, the land was recently sold and the building destroyed to build a new academy. The architect John Bancroft was splendid in his rage at ideals betrayed.

This film is just one more effort not just to save buildings, but to save dreams of equality, a struggle for a better society, homes that are safe and secure. Things worth fighting for.


The Urban Revolution

41SAVB1FBWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Lefebvre…a great deal of difficult high-philosophy meandering that you plough through and I confess I put this book down three times before finally finishing it. But finish it I did, and thing with Lefebvre is, the gems of insight you find here and there are worth it. I think. But I can’t always follow how he gets there, and I’ve decided that it isn’t so important.

Neil Smith’s intro does a great job of situating Lefebvre in the intellectual ferment of France post WWI and WWII — along with his history as a resistance fighter. He notes the critiques of one of Lefebvre’s primary arguments — that urbanization has replaced industrialization as the ‘motor of capital accumulation’ (xviii) The connection between these, however, is clearly a key one, and not fully thought out here by Lefebvre — or indeed anywhere. Smith seems to have agreed with me as well regarding the meandering, judging from his final caveats about style and content.

So, to focus on the insights: Society has been completely urbanized, where urban society is that which ‘results from industrialization, which is a process of domination that absorbs agricultural production’ (2). Perhaps this is not entirely global, but close.

He has a lovely thing about streets — that sort of exemplifies him thinking out loud:

Revolutionary events generally take place in the street. Doesn’t this show that disorder of the street engenders anotehr kind of order? The urban space of the street is a place for talk, given over as much to the exchange of words and signs as it is to the exchange of things. A place where speech becomes writing. A place where speech can become ‘savage’ and, by escaping rules and institutions, inscribe itself on walls.
Against the street. A meeting place? Maybe, but such meetings are superficial. In the street, we merely brush shoulders with others, we don’t interact with them. It’s the ‘we’ that’s important. The street prevents the constitution of a group, as subject; it is populated by a congeries of people in search of…of what exactly? (19)

This chapter is a series of ‘for’ and ‘against’. There is another nice phrase on monuments:

Monuments project onto the land a conception of the world, whereas the city projected (and continues to project) social life (globality)…monuments embody a sense of transcendance, a sense of being elsewhere. They have always been u-topic. Throughout their height and depth, along a dimension that was alien to urban trajectories, they proclaimed duty, power, knowledge, joy, hope. (22)

Another insight on the conflicts of the industrial city created by its spatiality:

Several logics meet head-on and sometimes clash: the logic of commodities (stretched so far as to attempt to organize production on the basis of consumption), the logic of the state and the law, the organization of space (town and country planning and urbanism), the logic of the object, of daily life, language, information, communication. Because each logic wants to be restrictive and complete, eliminating anything that is felt to be unsuitable, claiming to govern the remainder of the world, it becomes an empty tautology. In this way, communication only transmits the communicable. But all these logics and all these tautologies confront one another at some point. They share a common space: the logic of surplus value. The city, or what remains of it or what it will become, is better suited than it has ever been before for the accumulation of capital; that is, the accumulation, realization, and distribution of surplus value (35).

Here a definition of the urban that I love — yet that fails completely to describe many an urban area, like L.A. for example

The urban is defined as the place where people walk around, find themselves standing before and inside piles of objects, experience the intertwining of the threads of their activities until they become unrecognizable, entangle situations in such a way that they engender unexpected situations (39).

This is the irrepressible nature of it:

In spite of any efforts at homgenization through technology, in spite of the constitution of arbitrary isotopies, that is, separation and segregation, no urban place is identical to another …. the urban is a highly complex field of tensions, a virtuality, a possible-impossible that attracts the accomplished, an ever-renewed and always demanding presence-absence. Blindness consists in the fact that we cannot see the shape of the urban, the vectors and tensions inherent in this field, its logic and dialectic movement, its immanent demands. We see only things, operations, objects…(40)

In oppostion to a beautiful complexity:

Separation and segregation break this relationship [in which difference thrives]. They constitute a totalitarian order, whose strategic goal is to break down concrete totality, to break the urban. Segregation complicates and destroys complexity (133)

Thus L.A. may be a city, even one striving for complexity, yet it is struggling against great odds to be urban, to contain difference. I think maybe that this explains a few things on the level of feeling really, I am still trying to get my head around it.

There’s this lovely sentence:

Urban reform, which would clear the soil of the servitude that results from private property (and consequently from speculation), already has a revolutionary component…The period of urban revolutions has begun (43).

Perhaps my favourite thing in the whole book is unexpectedly and unaccountably drawn from the philosophy of Heidegger (which I find so compromised) and the poetry of Holderlin (which I find fairly sickly mawkish).

The human being cannot build and dwell, that is to say, possess a dwelling in which he lives, without also possessing something more (or less) than himself: his relation to the possible and the imaginary…The relation resides in the dwelling and in habiting…A home and language are two complementary aspects of the human being’…the ‘human being’ cannot do anything but inhabit as poet. If we do not provide him with (as an offering and a gift) the possibility of inhabiting poetically or of inventing a poetry, he will create it as best he can. (82)

I find this an amazing way to think about the meaning of home, how we try to shape and craft it to suit ourselves no matter our circumstances. I struggle to put all of these things together of course, but relish them individually. And then put them together as I want, which perhaps is no bad thing.

From power over home to power over cities:

The working class never had any space other than that of its expropriation, its deportation: segregation.

…there is a remarkable isotopy in the spaces created by state rationalism: long straight lines, broad avenues, voids, empty perspectives, an occupation of the soil that makes a clean break with its antecedents, without regard for wither the rights and interests of the lower classes or cost (128).

As a novelist I like this idea of

…u-topia, the non-place, the place for that which doesn’t occur, for that which has no place of its own, that is always elsewhere? On a map of Paris (the so-called Turgot map of approximately 1735), u-topia can be neither read nor seen, and yet it is there in all its glory. It is where the gaze that overlooks the large city is situated, a vaguely determined place, but one that is carefully conceived and imagined (imaged), a place of consciousness; that is, a consciousness of totality. In general, this place, imagined and real, is found near the borders of verticality, the dimension of desire, power, and thought. Sometimes it is found deep within the subterranean city imagined by the novelist or poet, the underside of the city given over to conspiracy and crime. U-topia combines near and distant orders (129-30).

I mean, what is he really trying to say there, academically speaking? Hell if I know, but it is awesome and makes me think great things.

You get to chapter 8 and there’s loads of stuff, though when he says he’s provided the conceptual tools for it all you may, like me, wonder when exactly that happened. But 8 is cool. Keep reading until you get there.

There are several urbanisms: the urbanism of humanists, of developers, of the state and its technocrats. the first group proposes abstract utopias; the second sells urbanism–that is, happiness, a lifestyle, a certain social standing. The activity of the last group dissociates, like the activity of the state, into will and representation, institutions and ideologies (151)

The deployment of the world of commodities now affects not only objects but their containers, it is no longer limited to content, to objects in space. More recently, space itself has begun to be bought and sold. Not the earth, the soil, but social space, produced as such, with this purpose, this finality (so to speak). Space is no longer only an indifferent medium, the sum of places where surplus value is created, realized, and distributed. It becomes the product of social labor, the very general object of production, and consequently of the formation of surplus value. This is how production becomes social within the very framework of neocapitalism.

Here’s where he argues that the nature of production has changed:

Capitalism, to ensure its survival, took the initiative in this. The strategy goes far beyond simply selling space, bit by bit. not only does it incorporate space in the production of surplus value, it attempts to completely reorganize production as something subordinate to the centers of imformation and decision making (155)

He argues that urbanism is not objective, but incorporates a class strategy. Today’s urbanism ‘lives off the compromise between neoliberalism (which participates in planning and in activities that are refferred to as ‘voluntary’ or ‘consensual’) and neo-dirigisme (which leaves a field open for ‘free enterprise’)’ (158). He discusses to some extent real estate’s function as a second circuit of capital parallel to that of industrial production, a buffer where capital can go in case of depression. And then, of course, he argues that capital shifts entirely, ‘It can even happen that real-estate speculation becomes the principle source for the formation of capital, that is, the realization of surplus value’ (160). But he doesn’t look in any depth at how this surplus value is actually created in a Marxist understanding — you have to look to Harvey for that. But he sees today’s urbanism as a shutting down of possibilities, a reduction to a society of controlled consumption, a repressive space (164).

News From Nowhere

1024px-Kelmscott_Manor_News_from_Nowhere(1890) William Morris

A utopian novel, set in the 2000s — It feels so strange to have lived through the futures named by so many utopian and dystopian writers, even if only by year and not imagining. A socialist returns home to Hammersmith frustrated with another meeting of argument and lost tempers (nothing has changed there) and wakes up in a world transformed by revolution. This is actually one of the nicer utopias I’ve read, here is the new Hammersmith and his dream of the Thames river banks, with his ideal residential architecture:

Both shores had a line of very pretty houses, low and not large, standing back a little way from the river; they were mostly built of red brick and roofed with tiles, and looked, above all, comfortable, and as if they were, so to say, alive, and sympathetic with the life of the dwellers in them. There was a continuous garden in front of them, going down to the water’s edge, in which the flowers were now blooming luxuriantly, and sending delicious waves of summer scent over the eddying stream. Behind the houses, I could see great trees rising, mostly planes, and looking down the water there were the reaches towards Putney almost as if they were a lake with a forest shore, so thick were the big trees… (loc 108)

More on the new face of Hammersmith, the modern return to ancient ways and the fate of the city to return to village and countryside:

We turned away from the river at once, and were soon in the main road that runs through Hammersmith. But I should have had no guess as to where I was, if I had not started from the waterside; for King Street was gone, and the highway ran through wide sunny meadows and garden-like tillage. The Creek, which we crossed at once, had been rescued from its culvert, and as we went over its pretty bridge we saw its waters, yet swollen by the tide, covered with gay boats of different sizes. There were houses about, some on the road, some amongst the fields with pleasant lanes leading down to them, and each surrounded by a teeming garden. They were all pretty in design, and as solid as might be, but countryfied in appearance, like yeomen’s dwellings; some of them of red brick like those by the river, but more of timber and plaster, which were by the necessity of their construction so like mediaeval houses of the same materials that I fairly felt as if I were alive in the fourteenth century; a sensation helped out by the costume of the people that we met or passed, in whose dress there was nothing “modern.” Almost everybody was gaily dressed, but especially the women, who were so well-looking, or even so handsome, that I could scarcely refrain my tongue from calling my companion’s attention to the fact. Some faces I saw that were thoughtful, and in these I noticed great nobility of expression, but none that had a glimmer of unhappiness, and the greater part (we came upon a good many people) were frankly and openly joyous (loc 328).

This is a future in which no one knows want, work is shared out equally in small portions — though I was a bit disappointed that women still reveled in domestic duties. Still, they also worked with stone and in building great buildings and other more unconventional places. I laughed out loud when we came to the ‘golden dustman of Hammersmith’! Because everyone can wear what clothes they like, woven for pleasure and beauty. Who will collect the garbage? Mostly this guy, but everyone, and they will do it happily. Their great fear is running out of work because everything is already so beautiful after they have built and rebuilt and rebuilt again. Needless to say the slums are no more:

“Tell me, then,” said I, “how is it towards the east?”

Said he: “Time was when if you mounted a good horse and rode straight away from my door here at a round trot for an hour and a half; you would still be in the thick of London, and the greater part of that would be ‘slums,’ as they were called; that is to say, places of torture for innocent men and women; or worse, stews for rearing and breeding men and women in such degradation that that torture should seem to them mere ordinary and natural life.”

“I know, I know,” I said, rather impatiently. “That was what was; tell me something of what is. Is any of that left?”

“Not an inch,” said he; “but some memory of it abides with us, and I am glad of it. Once a year, on May-day, we hold a solemn feast in those easterly communes of London to commemorate The Clearing of Misery, as it is called. On that day we have music and dancing, and merry games and happy feasting on the site of some of the worst of the old slums, the traditional memory of which we have kept. On that occasion the custom is for the prettiest girls to sing some of the old revolutionary songs, and those which were the groans of the discontent, once so hopeless, on the very spots where those terrible crimes of class-murder were committed day by day for so many years. To a man like me, who have studied the past so diligently, it is a curious and touching sight to see some beautiful girl, daintily clad, and crowned with flowers from the neighbouring meadows, standing amongst the happy people, on some mound where of old time stood the wretched apology for a house, a den in which men and women lived packed amongst the filth like pilchards in a cask; lived in such a way that they could only have endured it, as I said just now, by being degraded out of humanity–to hear the terrible words of threatening and lamentation coming from her sweet and beautiful lips, and she unconscious of their real meaning: to hear her, for instance, singing Hood’s Song of the Shirt, and to think that all the time she does not understand what it is all about–a tragedy grown inconceivable to her and her listeners. Think of that, if you can, and of how glorious life is grown!” (loc 900)

It is fascinating, this new topography of London which makes it no longer London, no longer a city. This is a vision of socialism in which cities are inimical, so different from those visions based on technology and scientific improvement. I did love titling banks as ‘swindling kens’, and that they were occupied in the transition to a new way of structuring society socially and materially:

“Tell me in detail,” said I, “what lies east of Bloomsbury now?”

Said he: “There are but few houses between this and the outer part of the old city; but in the city we have a thickly-dwelling population. Our forefathers, in the first clearing of the slums, were not in a hurry to pull down the houses in what was called at the end of the nineteenth century the business quarter of the town, and what later got to be known as the Swindling Kens. You see, these houses, though they stood hideously thick on the ground, were roomy and fairly solid in building, and clean, because they were not used for living in, but as mere gambling booths; so the poor people from the cleared slums took them for lodgings and dwelt there, till the folk of those days had time to think of something better for them; so the buildings were pulled down so gradually that people got used to living thicker on the ground there than in most places; therefore it remains the most populous part of London, or perhaps of all these islands. But it is very pleasant there, partly because of the splendour of the architecture, which goes further than what you will see elsewhere. However, this crowding, if it may be called so, does not go further than a street called Aldgate, a name which perhaps you may have heard of. Beyond that the houses are scattered wide about the meadows there, which are very beautiful, especially when you get on to the lovely river Lea (where old Isaak Walton used to fish, you know) about the places called Stratford and Old Ford, names which of course you will not have heard of, though the Romans were busy there once upon a time.” (loc 992)

Morris is quite specific in this remapping and remaking of London. Here is the new topography south of the Thames:

About these Docks are a good few houses, which, however, are not inhabited by many people permanently; I mean, those who use them come and go a good deal, the place being too low and marshy for pleasant dwelling. Past the Docks eastward and landward it is all flat pasture, once marsh, except for a few gardens, and there are very few permanent dwellings there: scarcely anything but a few sheds, and cots for the men who come to look after the great herds of cattle pasturing there. But however, what with the beasts and the men, and the scattered red-tiled roofs and the big hayricks, it does not make a bad holiday to get a quiet pony and ride about there on a sunny afternoon of autumn, and look over the river and the craft passing up and down, and on to Shooters’ Hill and the Kentish uplands, and then turn round to the wide green sea of the Essex marsh-land, with the great domed line of the sky, and the sun shining down in one flood of peaceful light over the long distance. There is a place called Canning’s Town, and further out, Silvertown, where the pleasant meadows are at their pleasantest: doubtless they were once slums, and wretched enough.” (loc 1007)

As the protagonist travels through this new civilisation, asking questions that younger people don’t understand, the answers he receives from older ‘scholars’ make this a bit like a book of FAQs. Morris has clearly been asked about what happens to the population, how a dense city can be transformed into a series of villages and country houses.  I couldn’t buy it, but spreading out across England and the world is the answer:

“I am rather surprised,” said I, “by all this, for it seems to me that after all the country must be tolerably populous.”

“Certainly,” said he; “the population is pretty much the same as it was at the end of the nineteenth century; we have spread it, that is all. Of course, also, we have helped to populate other countries–where we were wanted and were called for.” (loc 1096)

But I liked that he grappled with imperialism, re-envisioned work to end exploitation both of the English working classes and the oppressed workers of other nations. Here is more on labour, machines, exploitation and imperialism:

“What’s that you are saying? the labour-saving machines? Yes, they were made to ‘save labour’ (or, to speak more plainly, the lives of men) on one piece of work in order that it might be expended–I will say wasted–on another, probably useless, piece of work. Friend, all their devices for cheapening labour simply resulted in increasing the burden of labour. The appetite of the World-Market grew with what it fed on: the countries within the ring of ‘civilisation’ (that is, organised misery) were glutted with the abortions of the market, and force and fraud were used unsparingly to ‘open up’ countries outside that pale. This process of ‘opening up’ is a strange one to those who have read the professions of the men of that period and do not understand their practice; and perhaps shows us at its worst the great vice of the nineteenth century, the use of hypocrisy and cant to evade the responsibility of vicarious ferocity. When the civilised World-Market coveted a country not yet in its clutches, some transparent pretext was found–the suppression of a slavery different from and not so cruel as that of commerce; the pushing of a religion no longer believed in by its promoters; the ‘rescue’ of some desperado or homicidal madman whose misdeeds had got him into trouble amongst the natives of the ‘barbarous’ country–any stick, in short, which would beat the dog at all. Then some bold, unprincipled, ignorant adventurer was found (no difficult task in the days of competition), and he was bribed to ‘create a market’ by breaking up whatever traditional society there might be in the doomed country, and by destroying whatever leisure or pleasure he found there. He forced wares on the natives which they did not want, and took their natural products in ‘exchange,’ as this form of robbery was called, and thereby he ‘created new wants,’ to supply which (that is, to be allowed to live by their new masters) the hapless, helpless people had to sell themselves into the slavery of hopeless toil so that they might have something wherewith to purchase the nullities of ‘civilisation.’ (loc 1411)

Such a simple breakdown of how imperialism worked and still works. I also like that he gives details of how utopia was all actually achieved — through mass movement. The reason the revolution could not be repressed and destroyed:

“The members of the Committee went off quietly to prison; but they had left their soul and their organisation behind them. For they depended not on a carefully arranged centre with all kinds of checks and counter-checks about it, but on a huge mass of people in thorough sympathy with the movement, bound together by a great number of links of small centres with very simple instructions. These instructions were now carried out (loc 1803).

And of course, you then have the GENERAL STRIKE. Never in America did I hear people go on at such length about the general strike the way they do in the UK, a venerable tradition I can see. Just as the newspapers continue on:

The ordinary newspapers gave up the struggle that morning, and only one very violent reactionary paper (called the Daily Telegraph) attempted an appearance, and rated ‘the rebels’ in good set terms for their folly and ingratitude in tearing out the bowels of their ‘common mother,’ the English Nation, for the benefit of a few greedy paid agitators, and the fools whom they were deluding.

That made me laugh. The revolution had no manifesto though people kept waiting for it, clearly a bone of contention for the socialists of the day, just as it was recently for the occupy movement. What will happen to all of our stuff — another FAQ. Morris is, of course, focused on work and art and the ideal relationship between them, the end of capitalist production means the creation of objects for use not profit, and frees time to make them well and beautifully:

The loss of the competitive spur to exertion had not, indeed, done anything to interfere with the necessary production of the community, but how if it should make men dull by giving them too much time for thought or idle musing? But, after all, this dull thunder-cloud only threatened us, and then passed over. Probably, from what I have told you before, you will have a guess at the remedy for such a disaster; remembering always that many of the things which used to be produced–slave-wares for the poor and mere wealth-wasting wares for the rich–ceased to be made. That remedy was, in short, the production of what used to be called art, but which has no name amongst us now, because it has become a necessary part of the labour of every man who produces (loc 1996).”

Thus the good life can be lived without a trace of the guilt that we always carry with us in a capitalist society, because anything created by the work of others is created through their oppression.

The evening passed all too quickly for me; since that day, for the first time in my life, I was having my fill of the pleasure of the eyes without any of that sense of incongruity, that dread of approaching ruin, which had always beset me hitherto when I had been amongst the beautiful works of art of the past, mingled with the lovely nature of the present; both of them, in fact, the result of the long centuries of tradition, which had compelled men to produce the art, and compelled nature to run into the mould of the ages. Here I could enjoy everything without an afterthought of the injustice and miserable toil which made my leisure; the ignorance and dulness of life which went to make my keen appreciation of history; the tyranny and the struggle full of fear and mishap which went to make my romance. The only weight I had upon my heart was a vague fear as it drew toward bed-time concerning the place wherein I should wake on the morrow: but I choked that down, and went to bed happy, and in a very few moments was in a dreamless sleep (loc 2104).

There is a great deal in here about the openness of relations both between the sexes and between friends, who can choose to live with each other in different configurations of large home or village. There are no prohibitions, rules against divorce, class distinctions, roles for men and women, requirements for nuclear families and children come and go. While sadly queer happiness is not cared for here, for its time (and in many ways ours as well), this is quite advanced in ways I like. The ideas around education — that it just sort of happens by itself — I found the strangest, but from what I have heard of Victorian rote and miserable schooling, also served as an advancement. All in all I quite enjoyed this, in all its sincerity and simplicity.

Just one last thing, because I’ve run into older uses of the word ‘cockney’ in a couple of other places and found it quite interesting, is this description of ‘cockney villas’, also a description of the further suburbs of London in Morris’s own time:

As we went higher up the river, there was less difference between the Thames of that day and Thames as I remembered it; for setting aside the hideous vulgarity of the cockney villas of the well-to-do, stockbrokers and other such, which in older time marred the beauty of the bough-hung banks, even this beginning of the country Thames was always beautiful… (loc 2154).

For more on Morris himself, I’ve looked at the massive biography by E.P. Thompson, you can read Part 1 and Part 2, and also some words on the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy, 1860-1960.