Tag Archives: utopia

Writing Cities: Oath of Fealty and right-wing utopian enclaves

oath-of-fealty-niven-pournelleOath of Fealty is one of the more vile and viciously right wing novels I’ve read, though to be fair I haven’t read many of them at all. But this is something like Ayn Rand – wig askew and on her 13th pink gin fizz – going off on a paranoid scree about the muggers and rapists who are all out to kill her. Because she’s so rich and talented and beautiful and they just can’t handle that so she’s bought 10 attack dogs and built a concrete bunker.

It’s all about taking the gated community to the next level, making it a maze of about a cubic square mile with about a quarter of a million people. It towers like a monstrous black cube in an area essentially burned down by its own residents – I would guess Watts or Compton. It’s powered by hydrogen, fed through pipes from ‘a complex of nuclear breeder plants in Mexico’.

Ah, the outsourcing of risk and contaminants.

It calls itself Todos Santos – All Saints – why do white people in the Southwest always call their high-end real estate developments nice things in Spanish? A patronising nod to the people they stole the land from? Easier to pronounce than indigenous phrases for ‘Pretty View’ and ‘Mountain Hills’? But the authors aren’t being entirely metaphorical in calling the residents saints. Apparently you can pick them out of a crowd of poor old Angelinos, they are the shiny beautiful people who move in a certain way, speak in a certain way. They are a new kind of person.

THINK OF IT AS EVOLUTION IN ACTION.

I thought at first this rather chilling slightly fascist slogan must be ironic or a nod to the dangers this kind of project could raise. But no. These really are a ‘better kind’ of people, helped by those who commit suicide or get themselves killed. They like this slogan, paint it on walls, put it on stickers and huge banners like a big F-you to L.A.

The utopia?

We’re running a civilization, something new in this world, and don’t bother to tell me how small it is. It’s a civilization. The first one in a long time where people can feel safe’ (18).

Constantly watched, constantly surveilled and monitored. But the many guards are their friends. They don’t arrest people for being too drunk the way the terrible LAPD does, they walk you home. What is better than being safe after all? We know that the real danger is from criminal poor people who are all on the outside, hopped up to their eyeballs on drugs and trying to shoot down helicopters.

Todos Santos is of course trying to be completely separate from Los Angeles – the crime, the pollution, the drugs, the poor people. There’s a lot of anger in this book about how the government forces all of us to become accountants to pay our taxes, and the pain of collecting receipts and things. A whole lot of anger. Familiar tea party sort of anger. Trump kind of anger. Taxes in Todos Santos don’t go to welfare and they are part of your mortgage payment to the company – kindly saving you from wasting any thought on them at all. It’s a bit feudal, yeah, but they had some good ideas back then. Oath of Fealty rendered, everything else taken care of. Awesome. Of course, I can’t quite understand how this fits with America, Land of the Free in their heads, or their hatred of big government…I mean, my opinion is that these fit together because the residents of Todos Santos don’t see poor people, particularly poor Black and Brown people, as real Americans or as any kind of people they can cooperate in a democracy or a community with, sad facts that have forced them to secede and build something new. Something they may one day conquer and colonise outer space with. But I don’t think they think that, or at least, openly admit that.

Instead the book tries to show it’s not racist by trying to admit that some discrimination exists but it’s less than you think, and making one of the high executives Black. Well. Teak colored in the book’s own words. He’s a bit estranged from other African-Americans and admits there are only maybe a hundred among a quarter million, but his homies break him out of the L.A. prison he gets sent to after he kills a couple of kids pretending to be terrorists and becomes a hero to the population. That’s a long story I won’t go into, who’d want to give away such a sparkling plot?

The kids are sent in by activists to test the defences, because that’s what environmental activists do, right? Use kids without remorse. Make unreasonable demands. The civil rights movement made some unreasonable demands too, which is how they lost the support of the white community

We did care once. A lot of us did. But something happened. Maybe it was the sheer size of the problem. Or watching while everybody who could afford it ran to the suburbs and left the cities to drift, and complained about taxes going to the cities, and—Or maybe it was having to listen to my police explain why they’ll only go into Watts in pairs with cocked shotguns and if the Mayor doesn’t like it he can damn well police that precinct himself.

People think they’ve done enough. (126)

Note the use of the words ‘us’ and ‘people’ to mean white by default. Thinking you’ve done enough when you’ve done worse than nothing is an interesting contradiction noted by many. But let’s get back to the activists. They call people pigs even when they’re not cops – which is silly, cops have really earned that name. Activists are also almost always rapists apparently. Unless they’re women, in which case they are just sadistic and probably Lesbians. ‘She’s probably a Lesbian’ is a direct quote actually, as the ‘heroine’ imagines shutting her in a room full of rats to mentally survive the indignities of being kidnapped. The men probably couldn’t help raping her of course, they’re brutes and she is a stunning model-turned-business-woman who is powerful and talented and successful and rich and they obviously can’t handle all of that.

Anyway, I haven’t even cracked the surface, just released some of my bile. This is a story where you are supposed to cheer on the beleaguered community of alcoholic rich people who can only drink coffee if it’s Irish, creating their Utopia safely insulated from the nuclear power plants and the poor people who pick their lettuces and sweatshop workers who make their clothes and carrying out their own vigilante justice – which is ok, because they don’t kill people unless it’s absolutely necessary, they just paint them and tattoo them. There’s nothing about how the place stays clean or who makes the food etc, and it’s not the kind of fantasy story where house elves are a possibility though it is one in which things science fiction writers dream up are considered really cool and often become true.

The happy ending is the Black dude gets sent to Zimbabwe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Architecture (Paweł Jagło)

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

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

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

Look at this model, amazing:

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

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

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

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

Nova Huta

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking around we found the theatre:

Nova Huta

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

Nova Huta

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

Nova Huta

Nova Huta

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

Nova Huta

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

Nova Huta

Nova Huta

Nova Huta

Nova Huta

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

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

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

Defence of the Cross – Paweł Jagło

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

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

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

Nova Huta

Nova Huta

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

Lenin’s Statue – Paweł Jagło

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

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

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

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

A pause here. Because we need one.

Anti-communist opposition – Paweł Jagło

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

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

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

I am not sure what I make of that.

Myths – Maria Lempert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nova Huta

Nova Huta

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Return from the Stars: The City of the Future

2bb02455f5bb878e1ca2ccb4faad2e2eReturn From the Stars — Hal Bregg has just returned to Earth after 127 years in space. Everything has changed. Bewildering public transportation systems moving impossibly fast, information points that take so much understanding for granted, they cease to be information points. Everyone is sedated through a process called betrization reducing all aggressive impulses — no one else will be going to the stars the way Bregg has. They use spray cans to put their clothing on. They love bright colours. They all seem a little bored. Their vocabulary has changed quite completely. It is utopia and also dystopia, a future of incredible technological advance, but something has been lost, has it not? So Bregg feels, so he is mistrusted by the bright, beautiful, youthful people around him.

The descriptions of this city of the future are pretty awesome, Bregg stares at the Terminal he has been fighting for hours to leave:

Was this still architecture, or mountain-building? They must have understood that in going beyond certain limits they had to abandon symmetry and regularity of form, and learn from what was largest–intelligent students of the planet!

I went around the lake. The colossus seemed to lead me with its motionless, luminous ascent. Yes, it took courage to design such a shape, to give it the cruelty of the precipice, the stubbornness and harshness of crags, peaks, but without falling into mechanical imitation, without losing anything, without falsifying. (45)

That’s the terminal from a park — these natural spaces are hardly used but found throughout, with ‘natural skies’ televised above them. This is the city:

Only now did I see–from the boulevard, down the center of which ran a double line of huge palms with leaves as pink as tongues–a panorama of the city. The buildings stood like islands, set apart, and here and there a spire soared to the heavens, a frozen jet of some liquid material, its height incredible. They were no doubt measured in whole kilometers. I knew — someone had told me back on Luna — that no one built them any more and that the rush to construct tall buildings had died a natural death soon after these had been put up. They were monuments to a particular architectural epoch, since, apart from their immensity, offset only by their slimness of form, there was nothing in them to appeal to the eye. They looked like pipes, brown and gold, black and white, transversely striped, or silver, serving to support or trap the clouds, and the landing pads that jutted out from them against the sky, hanging in the air on tubular supports, were reminiscent of bookshelves.

Much more attractive were the new buildings, without windows, so that all their walls could be decorated. The entire city took on the appearance of a gigantic art exhibit, a showcase for masters of color and form. I cannot say that I liked everything that adorned those twenty- and thirty-floor heights, but for a hundred-and-fifty-year-old character I was not, I dare say, overly stuffy. To my mind the most attractive were the buildings divided in half by gardens. Maybe they were not houses — the fact that the structures were cut in the middle and seemed to rest on cushions of air (the walls of those high-level gardens being of glass) gave an impression of lightness; at the same time pleasantly irregular belts of ruffled green cut across the edifices.

On the boulevards, along those lines of fleshlike palms, which I definitely did not like, flowed two rivers of black automobiles. I knew now that they were called gleeders. Above the buildings flew other machines, though not helicopters or planes; they looked like pencils sharpened at both ends. (54-55)

They still have cars, despite the flashing complexities of public transportation. The cars aren’t petrol based though. Nothing remains of what was, and Bregg is happy about that — no room for nostalgia here:

That nothing remained of the city that I had left behind me, not one stone upon another, was a good thing. As if I had been living, then, on a different Earth, among different men; that had begun and ended once and for all, and this was new. No relics, no ruins to cast doubt on my biological age… (88)

Funny, though, there is still immense wealth and it still lives in the suburbs:

We traveled a long time, in silence. The buildings of the city center gave way to bizarre forms of suburban architecture — under small artificial suns, immersed in vegetation, lay structures with flowing lines, or inflated into odd pillows, or winged, so that the division between the interior of a home and its surroundings was lost; these were products of a phantasmagoria, of tireless attempts to create without repeating old forms. The gleeder left the wide runway, shot through a darkened park, and came to rest by stairs folded like a cascade of glass; walking up them, I saw an orangery spread out beneath my feet.

The heavy gate opened soundlessly. A huge hall enclosed by a high gallery, pale pink shields of lamps neither supported nor suspended; in the sloping walls, windows that seemed to look out into a different space, (103)

Old racial constructs continue as well — this is a white world, and the only people of colour in it merit mention as in service to adventure fantasy — a kind of theme park where danger can be enjoyed through realistic holograms of an African river safari:

Although I had been prepared for a surprise, my jaw dropped. We were standing on the broad, sandy bank of a big river, under the burning rays of a tropical sun. The far bank of the river was overgrown with jungle. In the still backwaters were moored boats, or, rather, dugouts; against the background of the brownish-green river that flowed lazily behind them, immensely tall blacks stood frozen in hieratic poses, naked, gleaming with oil, covered with chalk-white tattoos; each leaned with his spatulate oar against the side of the boat.

One of the boats was just leaving, full; its black crew, with blows from the paddles and terrifying yells, was dispersing crocodiles that lay in the mud, half immersed, like logs; these turned over and weakly snapped their tooth-lined jaws as they slid into deeper water. The seven of us descended along the steep bank; the first four took places in the next boat. With visible effort the blacks set the oars against the shore and pushed the unsteady boat away, so that it turned around… (90)

Women, too, have forgotten how much they love raw emotion, desire, power plays, rape. Some, but not all of this confusion is evoked by this rather hilarious cover:

Return from the Stars

I confess, while Return From the Stars is one of the books that works best of Lem’s in terms of narrative and arc, it is one of the ones I have liked least apart from the imagined built environment of the future. The unnamed city is also in evidence in other versions of the cover, but I couldn’t find any other illustrations sadly…

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Return from the Stars

[Lem, Stanislaw. 1990 [1961]. Return From the Stars. London: Mandarin Paperbacks.] It doesn’t credit the translator! Bastards.

For more science fiction…

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Earth’s a Roadside Picnic. Still, we live here

Roadside Picnic - The StrugatskysThe central idea of the Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic grows on me the more I sit with it, and it will forever undercut the more familiar heroic tales of encounter and discovery.

Aliens came, they stayed a while without saying hello and left without saying goodbye, having both transformed and trashed the places they inhabited around the world. Humans are left to shift through their incomprehensible and often deadly garbage. Ursula le Guin writes in the preface to this wonderful new translation:

Here, the visitors from space, if they noticed our existence at all, were evidently uninterested in communication; perhaps to them we were savages, or perhaps pack rats. There was no communication; there can be no understanding. (Le Guin – vii)

And there never is understanding, just a mix up of hope and fear. There is one scientist, Kirill, who sees in it the potential of knowledge and utopia and inspires Red, who works with him, just a little:

‘Mr Aloysius Macnaught!’ I say. ‘You are absolutely right. Our little town is a hole. Always was and always will be. Except right now,’ I say, ‘it’s a hole into the future. And the stuff we fish out of this hole will change the whole stinking world. Life will be different, the way it should be, and no one will want for anything. That’s our hole for you. There’s knowledge pouring through this hole. And when you figure it out, we’ll make everyone rich, and we’ll fly to the stars, and we’ll go wherever we want. That’s the kind of hole we have here…’

At this point I trail off, because I notice that Ernie is looking at me in astonishment, and I feel embarrassed. (42)

Because while this is Red drunkenly speaking, these are Kirill’s words, Kirill’s utopia. It’s possibly what the zone could have meant, or could always partially mean and what remains part of its lure. It is always the promise held out by science, the bright and shining dream of it. It’s not completely disproven here, but questioned.

I love that these new translations have afterwords from Boris. He describes the process, and shares the Strugatskys’ notes for the story written in February of 1970. This after wandering ‘the deserted, snow-covered streets’ of Komarovo on the Gulf of Finland, with all its resonance as a retreat for poets and scientists and writers of what was then Leningrad…I so want to go.

The growth of superstition, a department attempting to assume power through owning the junk, an organization seeking to destroy it (Knowledge fallen from the sky is useless and pernicious; any discovery could only lead to evil applications). Prospectors revered as wizards. A decline in the stature of science. (195-196)

Prospectors! It was only later they came up with stalkers, used the English word thus bringing it into the Russian language (very cool).

I do like the term prospectors though, this drunken dangerous lifestyle seeking fortune and escape is so reminiscent of prospecting. Even without understanding anything, some of the new technology can be put to work, money can be made. So corruption and dealing abound. Seemingly harmless things like batteries on the one hand, but so much of the detritus deals in death and disfigurement, and there has always been big money in those.

And there is poverty in this town. So you have the stalkers, men like Red who cross government lines to enter, to pick up what they can and sell it on the black market. The danger and skill and knowledge of the work has its on pull, but you can never forget the factors prodding men into it, particularly those who do not wish to spend their whole lives in jobs they hate to get nowhere:

Now I get really depressed. I’ll have to count every cent again: this I can afford, this I can’t. I’ll have to pinch pennies…No more bars, only cheap movies…And everything’s gray, all gray. Gray every day, and every evening, and every night. (47)

This is my own fear, that I will tumble into this. It fills book after worthy book, which is why I quite love sf that brings colour to the gray without denying its existence, that tells of wonder and danger and the exploration of the meanings of our lives in new ways. This is so much about how we are transformed by things beyond our understanding, whether it is technology or other human beings:

All these conversations had left a certain sediment in his soul, and he didn’t know what it was. it wasn’t dissolving with time, but instead kept accumulating and accumulating. And though he couldn’t identify it, it got in the way, as if he’d caught something from the Vulture… (162)

I love how this resonates with some discussions of cities, of formations of inequality in ghettos as sedimentation. But the alien artifacts have much deeper transformative effects — the children of the stalkers are not fully human and love for them and their loss is also central to this.

With the spread of the artifacts through channels legal and illegal, the rest of the world is slowly changing to. This shit can’t be contained.

I love how Roadside Picnic makes humanity the sideline, incidental to the big picture. I hate to drop that conceit even for a short time. But in many ways, of course, this could be read with ourselves as the aliens, forever transforming areas of the planet and sowing it with destruction for the species that live there. I see rivers flowing polluted with oil in my mind, like the recent spills into the Amazon. Chernobyl. Abandoned landscapes, extinctions. Scenes you stumble over everywhere humans have been, here in Bristol as eerily as almost anywhere.

Perhaps because humans are the sideline, they are allowed to just be with everything good and bad about them. But then, this is one of the things I particularly love about the Strugatskys. So does le Guin:

Humanity is not flattered, but it’s not cheapened. The authors’ touch is tender, aware of vulnerability. (vii)

And the ending, oh, I did love the ending. The awareness of just how little choice there ever was, just how little understanding. But the idea that that does not define your life, and it is something to be human.

Look into my soul, I know–everything you need is in there. It has to be. Because I’ve never sold my soul to anyone! It’s mine, it’s human! Figure out yourself what I want–because I know it can’t be bad!

And who doesn’t want this in the end? What better thing to wish for on a great golden ball that supposedly grants wishes, though someone must die springing the trap first, and so it is surrounded by splodges of soot.

‘HAPPINESS, FREE, FOR EVERYONE, AND LET NO ONE BE FORGOTTEN’ (193)

‘The Critical Mass of Urbanism’ – Bertrand Goldberg

There was no visit to Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City for me this Christmas… Chicago was amazing in terms of spending time with family and getting acquainted with my baby nephew Eli for the first time. He is pretty awesome. Plans to get on a train and into the city went nowhere though, between holidays and stomach flu — so I read and read some more.

Rare time with family more than made up for missing the splendid corn cobs. Still, I have a bit more to say about Bertrand Goldberg, looking at his own words and reflections on what his architecture meant and hoped to achieve. There were two provocative essays of his in Dans la Ville, and I rather thought I would do a post on each.

In ‘The Critical Mass of Urbanism’, a speech first given before the Union Internationale des Architects in April of 1983, Goldberg reflects on Marina City, which he began building in 1959 for Chicago’s Janitorial union as an affordable housing complex:

Twenty-five years ago I designed Marina City in Chicago. At 588 feet (65 stories),these apartment towers were the highest concrete buildings in the world and also the highest apartment buildings. At $10 per square foot, they were the most economical in the United States. They were the first American mixed-use urban complex to include housing and possibly the first in the western world since the 14th century. They were a technological advance that was designed for a world which believed its urban problems could be solved with technology and facts.

Bertrand Goldberg - Marina City
A view of the office building supported above its base structure. The base floor of the office building contains a recreational bowling its base structure. The base floor of the office building contains a recreational bowling alley and commercial retail space. The roof of the base is a recreational terrace for the office employees. The ten floors of office space are supported on a transfer system created by the columns.

It is interesting that he zeroes in here on the fundamental shift in power at different scales and the amount of power accruing to city governments in the U.S., so discussed in urban planning and geography. By the 1980s this was a hot topic, though I don’t think it was quite the same when Marina City was built:

The struggle between fact and faith in architecture has been most important in the world cities of the 20th century. Major cities have become city states, much as they were in the 14th century before the development of nation-states. Cities throughout the world again have assumed every power of government except the right to coin money and declare war, and the control of urban power has been under the political groups: bureaucracies and the rich who form the decision-making groups.

I quite love this analysis of all that has gone wrong with this — the distance between cities as they are lived, and professional knowledge and the demands of capitalism.

While government programs for urban development are quantitative and “factual, ” they are not facts as our cities know them through daily living. The conflict between the political rhetoric of government and the capitalistic realism of the private sector has been illustrated in the failures of architectural planning during the past 100 years of effort to “save the city.” (192)

This has meant the city has not been saved. It has meant the hollowing out of the urban core. Goldberg sets out most liberally to try and reverse this trend, to understand how cities are lived, how they improve lives, what practically can be done. This is the best that could have been done, perhaps, without a deeper challenge to capitalism and racism as they are made concrete in the city’s form.

We now must ask a question of our architects: can our almost deliberate urban deterioration be turned? Is there a realistic way toward urban rejuvenation which can shape us, our governments, and our human condition? Amidst the failure of our planners, does the architect know how to make a plan for the possible city, to give us a community we can pay for? A plan which can house both our density and humanism at the same time? I believe yes.

We also must ask a question of our governments about the spiritual destiny of cities: can we, through government action, stop the decay of humanistic values in our cities? Can we self-consciously restore the city as a center of community and the mystery of human warmth and spirit? I believe yes, but not yet. There will be a long delay. These values can be restored only when governments believe in humanism and believe that the city can be its shelter. Perhaps the architects first must believe, as Vitruvius warned, that they must know more about government than the king. Perhaps then the architects can teach the king. (193)

This puts Goldberg squarely into that group of architects and writers who see immense value in the city, who see it as ‘a center of community’ and a holder and catalyst for ‘human spirit and warmth’. So it fascinates me that he is building along the lines of the monumental and the towering and the concrete and Le Corbusier but leaning towards the equally monumental socialist vision of Krutikov, rather than the more patchworked, crooked, intimate and small-scale interventions described by say Alexander or  Gordon Cullen.

What Were Our Cities For?
Our cities, especially our failed cities, were planned in the early 19th century, and urban housing was shaped by the Industrial Revolution. These physical plans, now more than 100 years old, were conceived for a society different from the social change we are promising for the year 2000. Early American cities and their housing were not intended for attractive living, but rather for storing people on their upward trip to riches. In Europe, cities served to trap and store a service population for the elite. Today, within our inheritance of this deteriorated housing, we continue to hope to deliver our social promise for the 21st century. But deliverance is more likely to come from a totally new environment structured for a new society, and it is the shape of a new urban environment that we must now examine. (193)

So what is this new environment, what should it look like? With Marina City, Goldberg sought to create ‘A new form for Urban regeneration’, to imagine and build way of stopping white flight to the suburbs and preserving the necessary density in the city for a feeling of community. In this period when all the literature was promoting the suburban ideal and dispersal of families and homes and zoning to separate residential from commercial, Goldberg was instead promoting their concentration in the name of humanism. He lists the issues created by suburbanisation and lack of density — separating housing from work from culture from activities and entertainment, problems of sprawl and high transport costs.

It is clear that our concept of necessary population density must change to match our needs. But what do we need ? What must our city provide? Briefly, three urgently needed changes must be provided: (1) restore the city ‘s middle income population; (2) reduce the cost of housing in urban centers; (3) provide housing and living environment for new family types. These combined points must be enhanced with the magic element of concern for life that we call humanism.

On the relationship between architecture and density and community, he writes:

More recently we have come to understand density in the same way as the physicist understands the quantities of elements which create fission or fusion in molecular structure. Density is that number of people which creates the human fission or fusion we call communication, which in turn establishes community.

When the sociologist talks about community, does he also include the concept of humanism. Perhaps even faith? Faith in human spirit seldom comes without being reflected from another person. Community gives us that reflection of ourselves which we seem to need for survival. The poetry of our life is in community, and the city in its best form has sheltered and celebrated community.

Can the architect who designs for the facts or urbanism also design for the making of community? I do not believe these questions can be answered by architecture alone. Not until the people and governments training our architects believe in the need for community – believe that urban community is as important as urban economics – can architects once again design cities as the centers of our civilization. When the design of a community is as important as the design of a column, the architect will be able to form these new communities.

‘The poetry of our life is in community, and the city in its best form has sheltered and celebrated community.’ How beautiful that is.

I don’t think it is community exactly that is designed, but rather spaces that foster community. Marina City was Bertrand Goldberg’s attempt to build community through design, and built to cluster housing, employment, culture and entertainment all together:

MarinaCitymodel - Bertrand Goldberg
In addition to the two famous towers, the Marina City ­complex includes ­apartments, offices, restaurants, banks, a hotel, ­a theater, a boat marina, and even a ­bowling alley.

Marina City was the first modern complex in which the combined tenants provided 24-hour use of the facilities, seven days a week, on an urban site. It was the first to reduce the cost of modern living by providing broader use of its services throughout both commercial and domestic living patterns. Marina City also exercised an internal taxation system, and for the first time in America it privately absorbed the cost of supplying some of the social amenities normally provided by the municipal government. Recreation, health care, low cost housing, and access to jobs were supplied within the rent for apartments. (194)

It is also clearly a response to the lure of the suburbs with their lower taxes, their homeowner associations and increasingly privatised nature allowing middle-class people more amenities and better control over them. Goldberg is right that there is much more to this than any architect can control, and could any one person do better to build a utopian project in partnership with a union? What is more depressing, is how this perhaps fed into the increasingly privatised nature of development, the rise of gated communities, the increasing levels of segregation by class and race. As interesting is the question of how the residents interact with and feel part of the city around them if everything they need can be found without ever going outside, catching a train, interacting with many people who are not their neighbours.

But despite the quote from Churchill, I agree with this analysis of city and architect, making it all the more important to juxtapose the ideal with the reality created in terms of community.

The nature of the city is to be densely populated – it is the work of the architect to make it beautiful by making it possible to create community. Churchill said it best : ” We shape our buildings and our buildings shape us.” (197)

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Krutikov’s Flying City

25102847There is not really much in the way of a regular biography here, but a look at Krutikov’s early architectural imaginings. It is also an introduction, more a hint of the amazing story of the Vkhutemas (acronym for the Higher Artistic and Technical Studios — architectural studios), two competing schools of the 1920s avant-garde. Aleksandr Vesnin led the Constructivist school, and Nikolai Lavovskii led the Rationalist. Krutikov was one of Lavovskii’s students, and his diploma project that of designing ‘The New Cities’.

The magic of challenging students to imagine the new cities coming to life under socialism…we saw some of Krutikov’s extraordinary images at the Cosmonaut’s exhibition at the Science Museum on the Soviet space program, shown as part of the inspiration for humanity’s leaving the earth for the stars. How could I not investigate further?

in the course if its evolution, humanity has increased the speed at which it is able to move, and that these different forms of transportation have influenced architecture, particularly housing. Krutikov argued that the most recent forms of transport should be regarded as mobile architecture and, as such, they suggested a different way of approaching the problem of the relationship between architecture and the environment. They raised the question: would it ever become possible to detach housing and other buildings from the land? Would it be possible to  free the large amount of land on which buildings now stood? For Krutikov, land was vital to human beings, above all, because it enabled them to create favourable conditions for people on Earth. Was it absolutely necessary, therefore, to cover it with buildings? The dispersal of human settlements throughout the world limited man’s potential to use the land effectively in the interests of society as a whole. (12)

Born in Voronezh to a family of teachers, his main interests from a very early age were painting and space travel. The intensity of intellectual endeavour seems particularly Russian to me, I don’t know anywhere else the following sentence could be possible:

Judging from his drawings for The World, in 1912, the twelve-year-old was not familiar with ‘avant-guard’ painting. (17)

By 15, however, he was attracted by it. Also fascinated by aeronautics and airships. And fascinated by certain types of housing — he published ‘Circular or Semi-Circular Housing’ as a student at the architectural faculty in 1927, and designed this student housing:

IMG_3935

One of the buildings he looks at is the first circular house in Germany by Bruno Taut — designer of the glass house dreamed of by Paul Scheerbart, and it seems to me both must have been influences. Another is the Villa Tournasol (Sunflower House), a rotating house that turns to catch the sun, designed by Lecuyer and Jubault.

I love these years in European architecture, when everything seems possible.

For Krutikov’s final project, his flying city, he submitted a series of 16 boards as the analytical component. They are awesome and reproduced in full in the book. The titles alone are incredibly evocative:

No. 1 – The Visual Distortion of Moving Forms
No. 2 – The Composition of Moving Structures
No. 3 – The Formation of the Dynamic Element
No. 4 – The Evolution of the Forms of Cars and Railway Trains
No. 5 – The Evolution of the Forms of Ships, Airships, and Aeroplanes
No. 6 – Modes of Transportation for Sea, Earth and AirNo. 7 – Rudimentary Mobile Residences (Mobile Country Homes of the West)
No. 8 – Living Conditions in Contemporary Mobile Structures
No. 9 – Portability of Mobile Structures (The Lightness of Material and Construction)
No. 10 – The Evolution of Energetics
No. 11 – Physical Culture and the Future Man (This includes men playing tennis on the wings of an aeroplane)
No. 12 – The Evolution of Buildings (from Wooden Huts to Skyscrapers)
No. 13 – Man’s aspirations to Extend his Horizons
No. 14 – The Conquest of New Spaces and New Horizons
No. 15 – The Conquest of New Spaces and New Horizons (2)

IMG_3931
No. 16 – Dreams — Fantasies — First Experiments — Caricatures — Achievements

IMG_3932

What a time that was! The Russian avant-garde in architecture is heart-stopping in its awesomeness, there is so much more to investigate. Like a casual reference to Anton Lavinskii’s City on Springs.

Here, the flying city (these pictures with the spirals and someone else’s hands, they’re from this site about the book):

krutikov

More the floating city than the flying city, rings of residential and entertainment complexes hovering immobile above an industrial base. Communication between the two is through ‘the universal travel capsule’, imagined as able to move through air and water, with a flexible outer structure able to shift with its occupant, to accommodate their standing or lying down:

kkrutikov

Each of the rings a residential and entertainment complex, designed for ultimate flexibility and movement between privacy and communal living:

krutikovkrutikov

 

For visitors, another type of static residence in the form of a hotel:

krutikov

From his theses:

The fight for the architecture of the future is the fight of today.

I. THE SOCIAL ASPECTS

The international nature of the mobile capsule. Expanding horizons. The disappearance of the state. Community society.

A higher level of spatial organisation, corresponding to a higher level of social organisation.

Instead of linear chaos on the chaotic surface of the Earth there is a graceful organisation in the freedom of three-dimensional space. Linear chaos and the perfection of the circle as spatial contrasts, corresponding respectively to: firstly — the anarchistic and individualistic world of capitalism and secondly to socialism. (85)

***

The principle of flexible planning (planning that can adjust to changes in the way that the living social organism inhabits the city).

The expansion of the architect’s outlook beyond the limits of a narrow class context. The broad connection between architectural questions and all problems stimulating scientific thought. (87)

***

II. THE ARCHITECTURAL ASPECTS

The introduction of the dynamic element into architecture, the fourth coordinate of space (time). The particular perception of moving form. The architecture of mobile structures. The architectural expression of moving form. (87)

There follows more of his work — his ideas on the importance of flexible planning, our inability to predict people’s needs and to continually adjust. His designs for temporary exhibits, monuments and focus on theaters and how architecture can respond to and facilitate new kinds of theatre. His designs for a new Town-Commune of Avtostroi to house factory workers, which outwardly share  much in common with Le Corbusier (there are no servants quarters, though, let’s not forget Le Corbusier couldn’t even fucking imagine a future without the tiresome shenanigans of servants) — large buildings, great open spaces between them.

IMG_3930sm

This is so much more exciting in the air than on the ground.  I like that the main components, however, focus on space for ‘individual relaxation and group (team) interaction…extensive collective social contact…a springboard for mass events’ (100). Also interesting is how he separates sleeping residences from communal residences — reminds me a bit of Alexander’s A Pattern Language with spaces for privacy and sleep but much more focus on collective living and shared spaces for most of our daily activities. He also pays a lot of attention in the designs to the raising of children, how much is done collectively, how integrated it is into the full life of everyone (but not completely). It shows a rare attention, I think, to issues of the family. But this could be more due to the still revolutionary socialist context, where women fought hard, and somewhat successfully, in these early years to raise such issues to greater attention.

And then it is done. There is the onset of the Stalinist Empire style, an initially slightly playful (and probably disdainful) incorporation and reworking of classical architecture as demanded by the party, but that soon ends and the grim period begins…

Fucking Stalin, ruining everything.

For more on architecture and utopia…

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Paul Scheerbart and his Glass Utopia

Paul ScheerbartImpossible to summarise Paul Scheerbart, I cannot help but wonder what he was like in person. If he went on and on about glass architecture, perpetual motion. If he only spoke in phrases of satiric certainty. As a tone, it works brilliantly in Glass Architecture, where outrageous claims become more than possible.

The key idea is this one, nice of him to put it out in front. But as I read this amazing Christmas present sitting on my brother’s couch in Chicago in lieu of braving the weather and my stomach flu to see any real glass architecture, I forgot it just a few theses in and only now am I giving it the proper consideration it deserves:

1
Environment and its influence on the development of culture

We live for the most part in closed rooms. These form the environment from which our culture grows. Our culture is to a certain extent the product of our architecture. If we want our culture to rise to a higher level, we are obliged, for better or for worse, to change our architecture. And this only becomes possible if we take away the closed character from the rooms in which we live. We can only do that by introducing glass architecture, which lets in the lights of the sun, the moon, and the stars, nor merely through a few windows, but through every possible wall, which will be made entirely of glass–of coloured glass. The new environment, which we thus create, must bring us a new culture.  (26)

scheerbartMany have argued similar things — that we are products of our architecture, or at least our environment. It is a fairly mad brilliant step to seek to open up our closed rooms, to open everything up to the light (even if not quite to full visibility — I love the use of nacre to shield our most private moments, how beautiful that is).

18
The beauty of the Earth, when glass architecture is everywhere

The face of the earth would be much altered if brick architecture were ousted everywhere by glass architecture. It would be as if the earth were adorned with sparkling jewels and enamels. Such glory is unimaginable. All over the world it would be as splendid as in the gardens of the Arabian Nights. We should then have a paradise on earth, and no need to watch in longing expectation for the paradise in heaven. (38)

Almost I am convinced. I forget when we stopped desiring to establish a paradise on this earth.

Glass architecture is unthinkable without Gothic.  (38)

I love the gothic, the dream of soaring spaces full of light. Perhaps Scheerbart is right, and if they could have constructed in glass rather than being technologically limited to stone, perhaps they would have done so.

I am finding in myself as much nostalgia for this time of infinite architectural possibility as for the revolutionaries of the 1960s who believed the world was theirs to change…I am sad I will never be able to believe in a revolution around the corner, a technology so new, a progress assured and manageable. Not that Scheerbart believes it entirely. But I think he wants to believe, is perhaps challenging himself to believe  — and a part of him does believe in a way impossible now, however tongue and cheek his work is.

Cities in their present form are not yet fifty years old. They can vanish as quickly as they came. Even the permanent way of the steam railway is not immortal. (43)

I liked this:

I am convinced that every constructive idea will appear in many heads at the same time and quite irrationally; one should therefore not speak carelessly about the seemingly confused and crazy; it generally contains the germ of reason. (48)

And this also:

The vacuum-cleaner will naturally be needed as an insect-exterminator. It is absolutely horrifying that today it is still not used for this purpose. That the vacuum-cleaner has already been employed for getting rid of street dust, I take to be a known fact. (50)

This betrays the downside of a city of glass — no dirt. No nature. No insects. Not even dust on city streets. A curious, fastidious kind of utopia and I shudder at the cleaning of it. But I adore this passage on vacuum-cleaners.

I also love his fascination, any fascination, with aeronautics.

37
Direction-finding for aeronautics

Aeronautics will undoubtedly be determined to conquer the night. All towers must therefore become towers of light. (52)

and later

It is generally known that the aeronauts would like to take over the night. that they have not so far done so is easily explained: on the earth the night is not yet light enough. But when, thanks to glass architecture, it has become light down below, it will also be light up in the air…The crucial factor in this is undoubtedly reinforced concrete. (65)

This is not short on technical details as you can see, even though I am leaving them out of this blog. Today some of this insistence on height and light seems almost old-fashioned given the towering skyscrapers that fill London, Chicago, Dubai — but he is prescient really in discussions of building vertically, using iron and metal frames upon which glass is hung, he inserts long discussions of concrete, stone and mosaics, enamels.

Number 58 needs no words, it is pure happiness:

58
Floating architecture

We can talk in all seriousness of floating architecture…The buildings can obviously be juxtaposed or moved apart in ever changing patterns, so that every floating town could look different each day. The floating town could swim around in regions of large lakes–perhaps in the sea too. It sounds most fantastic and utopian, but it is far from being so, if reinforced concrete, shaped to the form of an indestructible vessel, carries the architecture. (64)

And to conclude we come back to how glass architecture will change us, improve us, help us move into our better future.

…our hope is that glass architecture will also improve mankind in ethical respects. It seems to me that this is a principle merit of lustrous, colourful, mystical and noble glass walls. this quality appears to me not just an illusion, but something very real; the man who sees the splendours of glass every day cannot have ignoble hands. (71)

And not just any light, but

We must not strive to increase the intensity of light–today it is already too strong and no longer endurable. But a gentler light is worth striving for. Not more light!–‘more coloured light!’ must be the watchword. (88)

Some of his ideas were put into actual form — by architect Bruno Taut with his Glass House created for the Cologne Werkbund Exhibition in 1914. Here Scheerbart stands inside of it (far left):

Paul Scheerbart in the Glass Pavilion 1914

Around the house can be read Scheerbart’s words (from a collection of adorably bad aphorisms on glass and life written for this purpose):

Coloured glass destroys all hatred at last.

From Bruno Taut:

The Glass House has no purpose other than to be beautiful. It is intended purely as a structure for exhibition and should be a beautiful source of ideas for “lasting” architecture but is not itself intended as such. According to the poet Paul Scheerbart, to whom it is dedicated, the Glass House should inspire the dissolution of current architecture’s far-too-restricted understanding of space and should introduce the effects and possibilities of glass into the world of architecture. May it, in its own way, help to foster a transformation of building toward the light and grace that it currently sorely lacks. (101)

Bruno Taut glass housebruno taut glass housebruno taut glass house

Bruno Taut also designed a set of glass building blocks, useful for imagining the future.

bruno taut dandanehDandanah — The Fairy Palace. They are beautiful, and probably the same colour palette he used for the Glass House.

I want them.

Scheerbart wrote fiction as well, some of which I have to hunt down in Mark’s boxes, but in this volume he writes a glass adventure or two for the Baron Munchausen to relate, though even the Baron himself lacks words to describe the wonder of the Chinese exhibition of glass he visits over a period of days.

Next I saw the Tiffany glass hall.
I looked back out.
Moonlight again!
And the stars are mirrored in the mirrors.
One almost begins to understand infinity. (202)

Paul ScheerbartI think my favourite piece in this book was Perpetual Motion: The Story of Invention (1910). A journal of invention, continual exaggerated hopes for the world’s transformation and a just as continual failure in making this contraption of wheels obtain perpetual motion through gravity.

The exaggerations come in imagining to what uses such energy generated could be put to…

13 January 1908
Building canals in the Sahara could make the whole desert futile.
And in general, if one could instruct all the rivers on Earth to adopt advantageous new courses, a tremendous increase in terrestrial fecundity could be achieved.
In other words: Desert culture on a grand scale.
Compared to this, the Panama Canal is a bagatelle.
***
There’s something dilettantish about always needing to see everything brought to fruition in reality.

and then

14 January 1908
Once–in former days–people used to move house.
Now–people can move mountains.

Paul ScheerbartThere is no limits to what the Perpets can do. The Martians clearly have them, as evidenced by the canals visible on their planet. Perpets can light up the earth for aeronauts (a foreshadowing of the dreams of glass houses). They can build the architecture park necessary for imagining the future using the Harz mountain range in its entirety. People will be able to go traveling carrying their gardens and livestock with them, and thus:

In the early phases, accordingly, we’ll have to reckon with the dissolution of our various fatherlands.

Things will also take a curious turn where languages are concerned. But I certainly hope that the culturally most significant languages can be preserved.

The German language must be saved in any case, otherwise my books will become utterly incomprehensible. And that would drive me stark raving mad. (215)

Then Scheerbart goes on to wonder if given a life of complete ease and plenty, people will become imbeciles…he hopes instead they will turn to astronomy, and plans observatories the size of cathedrals. There are pages of worry over the inevitable negative impacts on literature and theatre when suffering is erased.

After all, the Age of Satire has not yet come to an end. (217)

He is obsessed with motion:

11 February 1908
A garden with rearrangeable parts.
Transportable hedges.
Transportable terraces.

The economy will crash as labour becomes unnecessary and money becomes worthless.

Financial institutions are institutions with which, strictly speaking, I am utterly unfamiliar. If, however, my wheel works, I shall make their acquaintance. But–this acquaintance will not not be a pleasant one. (235)

Pride in work will have to disappear with work itself, and so will the Social Democrats. Belief in God will also disappear, to be replaced with religious awe. The earth itself might seek to follow its heart’s desire, escape its orbit and go off into the universe (the subject of one of the short stories).

Brilliant.

But wait, I think perhaps what I actually loved most of all was the ‘Gallery of the Beyond.’

As is generally known, it is only in the twentieth century, according to our accounting of time, that microscopic study of the photographic plates provided by the great astronomical observatories has begun to yield some results…This much is already certain: the plates taken in the region of the heavens near Neptune, an area characterized by a remarkable brightness, present new views of our world that are nothing less than exhilarating–that these are cosmic images can no longer be doubted. (283)

These views show amazing component creatures, with their cometlike limbs. I think this particular creature was my favourite, I am jealous of someone able to hang it on their wall.

Paul ScheerbartHere is another:

Paul Scheerbart

No, I cannot choose a favourite. I can’t at all.

I quite love Scheerbart. I didn’t get as much from the many essays of scholars and artists sprinkled liberally throughout this volume, but Scheerbart is enough, is he not?

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Ebenezer Howard — the Garden Cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dean Farrar says:

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

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

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

Ebenezer Howard - Garden City

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

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

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

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

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

Howard - Garden Cities of Tomorrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other benefits will come:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And at the same time, there is this:

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

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

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

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

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

The patronising side of me thinks this is very sweet.

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

Howard - Garden Cities of Tomorrow

Howard writes:

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

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

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

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

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

For more on planning and utopia…

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Cosmonauts at the Science Museum

Cosmonauts was an exhibit of utter wonder and delight — who has not dreamed of space? You go from room to room, mouth dropping open and eyes sparkling like a kid on Christmas day. I kid you not.

I am still sparkling just a little. I mean, space. Human beings in space. Amazing.

It opens with some of the early work, the early imaginings tied to the early tinkerings with rockets that led to the full space programme. I wish this section had been longer to be honest. There is work from architecture student Georgii Krutikov, his designs for a flying city from his thesis in 1928 (to read more see the awesome charnel house blog):

5c036834b65571057400a1d4e333e38c imagesEven better than Constant, how have I never seen them before? These were only a taste of the brilliant drawings, more of which can be found in his portfolio:

georgii-krutikov-vkhutemas-flying-city-diploma-project3Tsiolkovsky and Federov’s works and words, and the role of the cosmists (cosmopolitans, cosmopolity) appear too. From the Cosmonauts exhibition website:

Cosmopolity’s formation had been foreshadowed in the opening decades of the 20th century by the emergence of cosmism, a philosophy developed by Russian thinkers including Tsiolkovsky and Nikolai Fedorov that contributed to a notion that the Soviets were masters of the cosmos.

The members of Cosmopolity were sympathetic to cosmism’s goals of populating the universe and achieving eternal life, and shared its dream of distant planets populated by new societies. Eager to communicate their vision of the future to the wider world, they requisitioned a shop in Moscow and staged the first ever space travel exhibition.
Window diorama of the cosmists' 1927 'World's First Exhibition of Models of Interplanetary Apparatus, Mechanisms, Instruments, and Historical Materials' -- the words read 'Cosmopolitans invent the roads to new worlds'
Window diorama of the cosmists’ 1927 ‘World’s First Exhibition of Models of Interplanetary Apparatus, Mechanisms, Instruments, and Historical Materials’ — the words read ‘Cosmopolitans invent the roads to new worlds’

Konstantin Tsiolokovsky’s ‘Album of cosmic journeys’, mathematical equations and rocket models, these dreams and writings and experimentations would push forward space travel — so on to the model of Sputnik, launched in 1957, the craft of Yuri Gargarin, launched into space on 12 April, 1961 and the first man to orbit the earth in Vostok 1.

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Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman ‘to storm outer space’ in Vostok 6 in 1963.

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Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space, traveling in Voskhod 2 in 1965. The machinery of space travel, impossibly solid, and anything but futuristic or rocket shaped or even vaguely aerodynamic with its bits and pieces of receiving equipment sticking out, is breathtaking. The models are brilliant, but it strikes you with awe to see the awkward pods barely big enough to carry a human being, scorched and stained with travel distances more vast than I can really imagine.

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Up, pup and away

And then there are the dogs. This is the Science Museum’s puntastic heading, and finding it on their website made my day today. That, despite the fact that a number of dogs were killed as the next sentence informs you. But before Yuri Gargarin went into orbit, 48 dogs had already been there before him, 28 of whom survived. They had this:

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Film footage of a dog being released from this contraption and frolicking happily, pictures of dogs, stories of selections of dogs… Aw.

Space dog, Kozgawka, in training in a tailor-for-dogs helmet.
Space dog, Kozgawka, in training in a tailor-for-dogs helmet.

This is the first time I have really felt any desire to go back and see an exhibition again…but the book is fabulous and will be read with enthusiasm.You are drawn irresistibly to the great objects that carried dogs and humans into space and back again, first the ones that shine, and then the ones dulled by the intensity of re-entry into our atmosphere. But there was so much more to see here, to think about, to be inspired by. And the occasional complexities added by pictures of Stalin, Khrushchev, a background of the politics of the cold war. The fascinating life histories of these pioneers. The work put into not just surviving in space but living in space, and making the Mir space station possible.

We saw it on Friday during the museum’s late night opening, a truly brilliant idea as too often in London, great exhibits are ruined by equally great crowds. As Cosmonauts was a truly brilliant exhibition.

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Wark on the subject of Constant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Aldo van Eyck Jacob Thijsseplein Asterdam 1954

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

More on architecture, utopia and the situationists….

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