Oslo is a lovely city, a wonderful city to wander — we didn’t realise how big it was until we took the ferry out to the Viking ship museum (zomg the viking ship museum, amazing), but it feels human size, liveable. I think partly it is because only a short walk from the center you reach areas where you find things like this:
I’ve not been to a city with quite this shape — a yard or second road and houses tucked in behind them. It creates variety, interest, surprise — all the things Cullen and Alexander described as key to an interesting human environment. The above picture isn’t the most picturesque, but the only shot that managed to capture some of the contrasts, and just how cool a space this is.
There are balconies that seem well used, cafes spilling out onto sidewalks, coloured lights and tables and chairs inviting you to enjoy any summer evenings you can manage. Lots of street furniture too, in pallet style though I am fairly certain that is not cheap pallet wood upcycled.
It is also almost all mixed use and plenty of small shops, like this fruit and veg vendor protecting his wares by a small sacrifice to the birds. There are parks and green spaces all over.
There is a museum dedicated to Labour — we walked up the Akerselva to the old working class neighbourhoods to get there (I confess, they don’t really feel working class any more).
Lots of cobbled streets still. I love them, though I love them more since I stopped wearing heels.
The museum itself is small, nice, not quite enough about Labour and a little too even handed in describing the workings of capital, but we’re biased. It was worth a visit, and had we not gone we would have missed these splendid waterfalls in their entirety. They appeared nowhere in my admittedly quick search for weird and wonderful things to see — that turned up the mini bottle museum (closed), but not this beauty?
This was the centre of Oslo’s industry, the museum had an exhibition on of paintings of the Aker. These waterfalls once powered sawmills, later textile factories. A vision of it as it once was below:
Heading out towards the Munch Museum we passed what felt more like the current environs of the working class. Nice, I love these balconies, with their built in window boxes.
There is street art everywhere, here off of Tøyengata we found a beauty, along with an impressive diversity and some old buildings and cracked walls and lots of tags and stores that sell everything with brand names you don’t recognise that made me feel right at home.
Perhaps what I loved best was how massive luxurious modernity was squished into its own small section — though modern building is spread through out the city. This ‘landmark area’ still felt more vibrant and interesting than say Salford Quays (though we didn’t venture in), but they’ve actually done very interesting things with long narrow buildings lines all up in a row. I like them confined this way.
With wonderful plazas, a parade for each day we were there, some of the best public art I’ve seen as well as awesome (often anti-fascist) graffiti and stickers, I enjoyed Oslo immensely, despite the rain. Just reminded us of home I suppose.
In Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, Janette Sadik-Khan describes what she was able to achieve after being hired as New York City transportation commissioner by mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2007. She would hold that position for six and half years, part of his new vision for a radical change.
This is a book packed full of good ideas for transforming cities into places where people can walk, bike, sit, enjoy public space. It is a story of how such spaces were created both in terms of design, and as importantly the political know-how and processes required. It is also a brilliant place to go for ammunition in the struggle to get similar, livable, safe streets in other cities where there is a desparate need for them.
As always, a serious engagement with issues of history, equality, and economy are pushed to the side. Who are these spaces for? How do they affect land value and the forces displacing communities? How did such devastation happen in the first place? These aren’t really questions asked, so this is to some extent a superficial urban revolution, a street fight amongst elites. Perhaps this was a political or practical choice — both in the winning of her battles, and in the telling of these stories. We all know that these days equity isn’t actually all that popular, but it begs the question of just when planners lost that battle and started making practical choices about the discourse they use.
Still, every time I go to Tucson and watch the terrifying sprawl into the desert and the constant widening of streets into a city that makes it ever more unpleasant if not impossible to walk, I feel deep in my bones the kind of uphill battle even this kind of project, with constant reinforcement of its economic benefit, represents.
On the side of good — part of what made Sadik-Khan’s campaigns possible was grassroots advocacy. She writes:
This new vision came into focus as a growing advocacy movement hit critical mass, spurred by Transportation Alternatives, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, the Straphangers Campaign, and political outsiders who often understood the goals of government more keenly than many people in office. With the release of PlaNYC, the advocates suddenly found an administration proposing traffic solutions beyond traffic signs and signals and dedicated to safety, efficiency, and transportation investment based on data. (xiv)
This is part of what allwed her to start with certain assumptions — proved in studies over and over and over again, yet ignored by planners around the country:
Streets for the last century have been designed to keep traffic moving but not to support the life alongside it. Many streets offer city dwellers poor options for getting around, discouraging walking and stifling vibrancy and the spontaneous social gathering and spending that energize the world’s greatest cities, dragging down economies that would otherwise thrive. (1)
Building new highways, widening streets, and endlessly sprawling the city’s limits have merely multiplied the damage to city cores and smothered the very assets that make cities places where people want to live — their accessibility, convenience, diversity, culture and immediacy. (2)
The idea of the many things streets have been, could become again:
Streets are the social, political and commercial arteries of cities…identify social status. … mark political and cultural boundaries…play critical roles in democracies and in the transformative moments of history. … City dwellers around the world are beginning to see the potential of their city streets and want to reclaim them. They are recognizing an unmet hunger for livable, inviting public space. (3)
Which brings us to just what the streetfight is all about — to make such transformations against the push-back of the status quo.
She starts with Jane Jacobs, everyone among this new flood of books about public space, density, and livable streets does — the idea that streets aren’t just for traffic, that observation will help uncover a street’s multiple real uses and help solve its problems.
Rocket science it appears. Because, of course, Jacobs has been both celebrated and all the while practically ignored for decades of disinvestment in urban cores and white flight and building the suburban dream — even when it comes to rebuilding it in city centres.
Sadik-Khan’s analysis of what her team was facing at the beginning of her term:
Downtown Manhattan street life … amounted to sidewalk hot dog vendors and lunches eaten standing up. What public space there was could be found in front of courthouses and official buildings, grim and uninviting spaces likely to be occupied by homeless people and the city’s less savoury elements…
The city’s previous minimalist agenda for these spaces? ‘Basic maintenance, repair and safety from crime.’ (14)
This is the world of the traffic engineer, like those under Bob Moses who worked to transform NY: The City of the Future. She shares this image, where pedestrians were only ever an afterthought:
Yet Sadik-Khan distances herself in some ways from Jacobs’ fight against Moses in that it came to mean constant battle to preserve what exists against change. Sadik-Khan argues that cities have to change after many decades of disinvestment and decay, she writes:
retrofitting our cities for the new urban age and achieving Jane Jacob’s vision today will require Moses-like vision and action for building the next generation of city roads, ones that will accommodate pedestrians, bikes, and buses safely and not just single-occupancy vehicles… (19)
This book is something of her Moses-like vision (!), the struggle to bring it to life, and how it worked…
Density is Destiny
I often tell people that if they want to save the planet, they should move to New York City. But it could be any big city…Cities’ geographic compactness, population density, and orientation toward walking and public transportation make them the most efficient places to live in the world. Large cities like New York or Mexico City offer the best odds for sustainable growth… New Yorkers have a carbon footprint 71 percent lower than that of the average American, a function of driving less, living vertically, and the economies of scale that come with centrally located goods and services (23).
I think this is a good point. Cities linger in our conscious and subconscious as unsustainable. There are the other biases against cities that are bound up in racial and class fears and a particularly American ideology:
Making cities a choice preferable to the suburbs cuts against a long-standing anti-urban bias in the United States based on a view that cities are dangerous, crowded, and havens for crime. (24)
Which helps explain why
After years of rhapsodizing about the virtues of pristine forests, modern environmentalists have changed their tune on the city. Instead of fighting to preserve the spotted owl in the forest, they are taking the fight to cities, advocating smart of compact urban growth as part of an antisprawl strategy. (25)
Instead of? I don’t think so. There are as many campaigns as there are kind of environmentalists as there are issues that need to be resolved for our very survival on the planet. Loss of biodiversity is hardly less important than sprawl, why simplify global warming into oblivion? But anyway.
Setting the Agenda
The collective impact of these plans, processes, and policies was a wholesale government rebranding. We were changing the language and the expectation of what the department was capable of and responsible for, and how it should use the resources under its control. (40)
How do I hate ‘rebranding’? Let me count the ways, principally in that rebranding as a word actually doesn’t mean changing actual responsibilities or use of resources, and so in practice is thrown around as indicative of great changes when only superficial change is made.
There are multiple ways to transform streets through extending curbs, adding bike and bus lanes, and this chapter has a lot of good places to look for the studies that will bolster the struggle to stop street widening and promote similar kinds of projects in other cities.
She hits it on the nose:
Cities today are designed for private vehicles not because it is the most efficient mode, but because other transportation options were rendered impossible following planning decisions made decades ago. (64)
Of course, power and money were behind those decisions so this is quite complicated, there is rather uncritical praise of the redevelopment of Broadway in LA, which I know to be a deeply troubling contribution to the racial cleansing of downtown. In particular you can go back to Kevin Lynch’s descriptions of Broadway half a century ago, and it is all too clear that Broadway didn’t actually need much help to be a vital cityscape, it needed changes for whites to feel comfortable there. The development of Hollywood density is quite similar.
These are troubled histories. Like this one:
Before there was a New York City, there was a Broadway. Originally brede weg in pre-Colonial Dutch Nieuw Amsterdam, Broadway was one of the island’s first roads at a time when there was an actual wall built at Wall Street to keep out native incursions and Five Points was a pond within a swamp. (73)
Pre-fucking-Colonial? The wall built to keep Native Americans off their own traditional lands, a people who didn’t believe in walls to begin with, or private ownership?
It troubles me how sentences like that sit alongside great ideas for city transformation, acknowledgment of what she calls desire-lines and the importance of city sidewalks:
the natural, spontaneous way that people use public spaces, often contradicting the way the space was designed. … Desire-lines are a road map of opportunity… (74)
Sidewalks aren’t raised concrete streets for pedestrians. They are the front yards for city dwellers, as important as any suburban lawn. … these in-between places are a stage for New Yorkers, the urban filament where people sense and connect to the city’s energy. (75)
She’s the one who brought Jan Gehl on board to look at how NY’s public spaces could be improved. His own book detailing some of this is an interesting and very worthwhile complement. She quotes Speck as well, but that was more likely to set me off more given his focus on planning to increase property values.
But back to what can be learned. I particularly liked the way they used paint — like the blue-line project that once partially transformed my Bow neighbourhood in East London.
By following the footsteps and tracing an outline of the way people use the street today, we could uncover the design of the city we will want to live in tomorrow. These streets of tomorrow can be outlined in paint. (79)
She gives this example
It’s great. But again, she notes the joy with which the local BID agreed to take care of it — and practically that makes sense — but there has been a constant struggle against BIDs for the use of private security guards to control who has the right to access space. Anyway. This conflicted process of improving neighborhoods, yet generally for a wealthier kind of person, continues. On the High Line, she writes:
…it was becoming clear that the area would soon resemble the nearby upscale Greenwich Village, abandoning its bleak past as an after-hours drug-scoring, cruising strip. (83)
She notes the role of independent media in supporting their work, for better for for worse, particularly Streetsblog, which chronicled the
urban revolution unfolding on new York City’s streets’ that newspapers and ‘blogs obsessed with conflict’ could not tell (84)
Honestly, I think some of the deeper conflicts around equity and justice did need a lot more telling, but newspapers rarely get to that level either, there was clearly a lot of much less worthwhile NIMByist arguments going on.
Another note, both very positive if the change is positive, and yet more than a little frightening:
Once you changed a space, its new configuration became obvious and unassailable, and people immediately abandoned whatever attachments they had to the way it used to be. (84)
The Battle for a New Times Square
Times Square is iconic to all factions around the development of city spaces.
Times Square by that point had already outgrown most of its legendary seediness and shed the peepshow theatres… (91)
In their planning they worked with the business district, the Times Square Alliance, and sure enough, a measure of progress was a massive increase in property value:
The Real Estate Board of New York found that per-square-foot rental rates for ground-floor properties fronting Times Square doubled in a single year, a figure that would eventually triple. (102)
Poor Luke Cage, banished from downtown New York just when it needed superheroes the most. It seems to limits the conception of ‘people’ to write this:
These changes weren’t just quality-of-life improvements. They opened a city to its people and through that expanded its economic prospects. (103)
Stealing Good Ideas
Shock horror, the point of this chapter is that you should learn from other cities. It looks at (the admittedly wonderful) example of Medellin and Bogota. Which I shall, I must, examine separately on its own terms, as both are extraordinary.
I do like the encouragement of people to make space their own.
These DIY acts reveal the power of signs, signals, paint–seemingly minor cues from the streets that shape our lives. It takes only a little bit of imagination to transform a sidewalk into a place-making feature of the street. In an increasing number of cases, city planners are being inspired and, in turn, inspiring these kinds of unorthodox strategies, blurring the lines between the sanctioned and unsanctioned and also erasing the barriers between the people and those who represent them. (136)
I hope we see more of this, and I hope we see more bike lines, but woah! The crazy battles over bikelines! Because I do love bikelines and lanes, particularly of this kind, separated from cars by a painted shoulder or by concrete as in Holland (sadly not like most of London or Bristol).
Bike share? Very cool. Safety in numbers of pedestrians and streets that require constant attention and vigilance from those driving them? All good.
And then, the chapter title:
Sorry to Interrupt, but We Have to Talk About Buses
I get it. A lot of people don’t like to ride buses. So why would you want to read about them here? (233)
I am glad when she returns to Bogota and a quote from Penalosa which I have heard before,
An advanced city is not one where poor people drive cars, but where rich people take public transportation. (235)
So true. At the same time, those poor people actually form the majority in cities, they take the bus, the issues with equity and justice are clear despite the framing of this, suddenly bringing into even higher relief the audience for whom this book is written. She gets, of course, that it’s a question of equity, I like her for it, but equity is rarely visible in this book. Possibly, as I said earlier, because of that audience. Buses are a hard sell where equity is not a primary consideration.
This lack of equity as a worthwhile object in itself leads to the next section, and quote:
Next to safety and mobility, which should be the first considerations, the economic power of sustainable streets is probably the strongest argument for implementing dramatic change. (252)
I don’t quite understand how we have arrived in a place where commonsense fails to find problematic a lack of fairness or justice in these first considerations, or to leave unquestioned the public good in this scenario:
In Minneapolis, a 5.5-mile former rail right-of-way converted into a bike and recreational path spurred $200 million in investment over the last decade, resulting in 1,200 new residential units. (261)
When displacement, and the shuffling of the poverty deck, is always a huge related issue.
Nuts and Bolts
I love that she loves infrastructure — I confess I don’t think about this enough myself. It is an issue few think about, I know, and undoubtedly why this should be the last chapter. Sadik-Khan writes:
But no one want to hear about infrastructure. It’s even less sexy than buses. (265)
Poor buses. Compare the US to London where the buses are iconic and much loved — and they work.
But I share her love of bridges, and am so jealous of her chance to climb one. I rather love her love of asphalt, the details of this chapter of rock and its sources, its processing, its new life as a surface.
Her last lines.
There is a new vocabulary for street designs that serve the needs of the people who live in cities. There are new expectations for streets. And there is New York.
If you can remake it here, you can remake it anywhere.
I am glad we have developed a new vocabulary, a new portfolio for design, new expectations.
Now, for social equity to become something we care about again.
For more on building social spaces and better cities…
This is not the next great book on American cities. That book is not needed… We’ve known for three decades how to make livable cities — after forgetting for four — yet we’ve somehow not been able to pull it off. (3)
Walkability is both an end and a means, as well as a measure. (4)
But really, there are three main points here: (1) walkability is good, primarily in the ways that it supports the real goal of planners — (2) to increase property values, while also (3) improving quality of life for those who are moving back to the city or currently live in the suburbs and are driving too much, i.e. white middle-class people.
There are two broad currents in planning, the first is planning for justice and equity, the second is planning for property values and quality of life for those who can afford it. This is in the second strand, which I rather hate with every fiber of my being
This is the kind of book that in its erasure of issues of equality and lack of any acknowledgment of the results of past patterns of unjust development, disinvestment, exploitation and discrimination becomes a manual for extending the privileges of one (white, middle-to-upper-class) group while erasing everyone else (the poor and people of colour) from the city neighbourhoods they currently inhabit.
I walk cities, walkability is the most important city characteristic to me. Yet to make anything in this book useful to those who care about making neighbourhoods better for those who currently live there, to ensure that planning interventions do not increase displacement and segregation, an awful lot of the framing needs to be discarded. Every time Speck talks about the ways in which interventions to make a city more walkable improve property values, it is clear that issues of gentrification and displacement must be grappled with for those who do care about equity.
When it keeps to analysis of the actual physical streetscapes and built environment, much of this is useful:
Outdated zoning and building codes, often imported from the suburbs, have matched the uninviting streetscapes with equally antisocial private buildings, completing a public realm that is unsafe, uncomfortable, and just plain boring. (4)
Or looking at the four main conditions of walkability:
Each of these qualities is essential and none alone is sufficient. Useful means that most aspects of daily life are located close at hand and organized in a way that walking serves them well. Safe means that the street has been designed to give pedestrians a fighting chance against being hit by automobiles; they must not only be safe but feel safe… Comfortable means that buildings and landscape shape urban street into “outdoor living rooms,” in contrast to wide-open spaces… Interesting means that sidewalks are lined by unique buildings with friendly faces and that signs of humanity abound. (11)
It is in parsing out what these mean that the trouble lies — especially around ideas of safety and comfort as they are shaped by historic patterns of racism, sexism and discrimination. You won’t find any of those complexities here.
But guess what you will find? For Speck, walkability is marketable. He quotes Joe Cortwright’s ‘Walking the Walk: How Walkability Raises Home Values in U.S. Cities’, which I suppose would be useful to look at. Likewise William Frey, whom he quotes:
A new image of urban America is in the making. What used to be white flight to the suburbs is turning into ‘bright flight’ to cities that have become magnets for aspiring young adults who see access to knowledge-based jobs, public transportation and a new city ambiance as an attraction. (35)
Bright fucking Flight. This is the planning whose entire goal is to attract people back to the cities from the suburbs without a thought to issues of community participation, equity, social justice, eradicating poverty, improving people’s lives through improving the city they live in or even a thought to all the talent languishing in the city deprived of quality education and jobs and hope — all the things that brought me to planning in the first place. This is the planning that fills me with nausea. I am ignoring it to focus on what is useful.
As an outline, the steps to a walkable city are useful and it is definitely a good list — the white devil is in the details.
The 10 Steps to a Walkable City:
THE USEFUL WALK
1. Put cars in their place.
This was full of useful evidence to prove that cities have been built for cars, and that wide lanes, multi-lanes, enormous left-hand turn lanes and cutting down all the street trees actually make people drive faster and more dangerously. Speck also lays out the evidence for ‘induced demand’, if you build it, the cars will come and traffic will not improve. Common sense, or research pioneered over 30 years by Donald Appleyard among others, has yet to hit the Department of Transportation. If Speck’s book can help that process of realisation in such departments and city governments, I might be glad he wrote it.
I do love this quote of Bernard-Henry Lévy on our autocentric lifestyle:
a global, total obesity that spares no realm of life, public or private. An entire society that, from the top down, from one end to the other, seems prey to this obscure derangement that slowly causes an organism to swell, overflow, explode. (102, from American Vertigo)
2. Mix the uses.
I like mixed uses. But then Speck makes comments about how
city properties often come burdened with a whole range of utility issues, easements and access challenges, not to mention pesky neighbors. Local banks, until recently all too willing to finance condo clusters on the periphery, shy away from investing in new apartments downtown.
‘pesky neighbors’ has been code for poor people, immigrants and people of colour since the 1930s and 40s with the federal governments’ Home Owners Loan Corporation and Real Estate industry guidelines that gave rise to redlining back when deeding your house to be for Caucasians only was widespread and encouraged. Speck continues:
This contemporary version of redlining is a significant reason that downtown housing often cannot be built without municipal support. (107)
…most American cities do not need more affordable housing in their downtowns. Most American cities have too much affordable housing downtown. Or, more accurately, too much of their downtown housing is affordable, since everyone but the poor was able to join the suburban exodus. (109)
He doesn’t mention that despite this ‘fact’, many cities are in an affordable housing crisis where affordable housing is needed by a majority of city residents including teachers and firefighters, that he conflates the poor with people of colour long discriminated against in any attempt to join the suburban exodus, that such redlining might have contributed greatly to generations of poverty, or that affordable housing is now being erased from all downtowns and nothing built to replace it. Millions of people currently homeless and with not even a fraction of the shelter in existence necessary to house them even for a night also go unmentioned.
Some of his biases can be seen in an uncritical passage on resistance to granny flats:
They are typically opposed by neighbors who are worried about property values. An old college friend of mine from Los Angeles put it succinctly: “We are afraid that nine illegals will move in.” (111)
Nothing could make more clear where Speck is coming from. In response Speck notes they will rather
introduce affordability in a dispersed rather than a concentrated way, avoiding the pathologies that sometimes arise from the latter. (111)
As if the pathologies lie in poor people rather than the forces which maintain their concentrated poverty. I suppose he simply joins a long tradition of blaming poor people for poverty here.
3. Get the parking right.
Ah, Donald Shoup from UCLA, stop subsidising things, raise the cost of everything. It makes some sense, until you start thinking about how this will impact people differently. Then questions of equity come to the fore and it is harder for me to support without a lot more thought on how equity will be addressed in a city so car-dependent as LA. I’ve sat through Shoup’s classes, so I know that he failed to impress me on that. Still, better transit, less parking.
4. Let transit work.
I agree. If only he had stopped there, but instead he waxes poetic on improving public transit:
In some of these locations, the bus is destined remain the “loser cruiser,” the mode of choice for those who have no choice: the elderly, the poor, and infirm. As such, it will always be underfunded and struggling for survival, like any social service.
If it is to become widely used, transit has to be ruthlessly reconceptualized as a convenience, not just a rescue vehicle. Or, more accurately, while certain rescue routes must remain — from the old-age home to the health center, for example — the system needs to focus on those rare opportunities where it can offer a superior experience to driving. Those few line should be earmarked for a higher level of service… (155)
In Europe public transit is seen as a right, as an essential part of a city for ALL of its residents. I think it might be better to start there. There is also, of course, a long tradition of work around environmental justice in the US around improving cities that begins there as well.
We return to planning for property value rather than public good. On Bus Rapid Transit versus trains:
… the biggest criticism of bus systems, that they lack rail’s permanence: how can you drive real estate investment around transit if transit might leave? (157)
I don’t even have words for that sentence, and the pathologies of development it describes.
THE SAFE WALK
5. Protect the pedestrian.
6. Welcome bikes.
I’m all for protecting pedestrians and welcoming bikes, but yet again, we see planning for profit:
In contrast to widened roads and other highway “improvements,” new bikeways actually increase the value of nearby real estate. (194)
THE COMFORTABLE WALK
7. Shape the spaces.
I did like this:
Traditional, walkable urbanism is grounded in figural space. It believes that the shape of the spaces between buildings is what matters, because this is the public realm — the place where civic life plays out. (216)
8. Plant trees.
THE INTERESTING WALK
9. Make friendly and unique faces.
Not faces of diversity and enjoyment of space, faces of buildings and parking structures. Again, back to profits, though I have no objection at all to less parking, and what parking exists to be hidden:
Enlightened developers…know that hidden parking boosts retail sales and property values. (238)
10. Pick your winners.
I like this list. My critique is really a critique of an entire point of view that makes improving property values the goal of planning. In that sense, this book did manage to give an outline of how to create a walkable city, but also highlighted very different ideas of who the city is for, and where the interventions will do most to push out and displace current residents without a larger vision and planning process around justice and equity.
For more on building social spaces and better cities…
Nova 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:
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)
A view from the central plaza now, though not from the optimum height:
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:
The cinema (now a Tesco, yay capitalism. Though I won’t deny queues suck and shelves with food you can buy are good things):
The stylish cafe for workers, where we had a nice meal:
We passed men playing chess on the tables provided in the park along the main boulevard, despite the rain:
The housing — and people who obviously love and care for it as evidenced by their balconies:
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.
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.
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.
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)
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…
Richard 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.
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.
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.
Ebenezer 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?’:
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:
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.
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)
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.
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):
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:
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
The very poor lived in them — at much risk to health and life expectancy:
They were used as cellars and storage rooms and hiding places and escape routes and gambling and drinking dens:
During 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.
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.
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:
We walked past ghosts
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
I was talking to an old friend and a new one today about creating space (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 – 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.
♀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.
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.
♀ 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
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)
♀ 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.
Oswalt, Oswalt, Klaus Overmeyer, Philipp Misselwitz – Urban Catalyst: Mit Zwischennutzungen Stadt entwickeln
♀ 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
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)
I 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)
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?
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 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)
This 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.
Optics 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)
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:
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)