Category Archives: City Unseen

Gorton Constitutional

These are such extraordinary times, these covid-19 times. For a week now working from home, Mark here. Going out once a day for a walk while we still can, hands in pockets, giving others wide berth. But the streets are eerily empty. As they should be. Worrying about toilet paper, because that is something I never have too much of, until M headed down to Asda before it opened to make sure of it. I’m reading The Decameron. A few friends with mild symptoms so far, but worried for others and especially family in the US. Signed up for volunteering but nothing to do so far — for the first time I wish I had a car. There is little to be done on foot. A neighbourhood terribly limited for walks, but I suppose that makes it easy to keep distance from others. Today felt more apocalyptic perhaps, freezing wind, mostly cloudy, landscapes of ruin that have nothing to do with the virus except in the ways they have been created by a rapacious kind of capitalism and lack of investment. And someone who likes to set rubbish on fire.

Work has been diabolical, but I hope this week will be calmer. Time to work on the blog even. It has been so long.

reading buildings like tea leaves

Magush reads the future in a vacant building opposite the charcoal yard where he lives. The six huge picture windows and the twelve little windows of the adjacent building are like cards for him. Magush never thought of associating windows and cards: that was my idea. His methods are mysterious and can be explained only in part. He tells me that during the day he has trouble drawing conclusions, because the light disturbs the images. The most propitious moment to carry out his task is at sunset, when certain slanting rays of light filter through the side windows of the building and are reflected onto the glass of the windows in front. That is why he always makes appointments with his clients for that hour of the day. I know, having learned from careful research, that the upper part of the building has to do with matters of the heart, the lower part with money and work, and the middle with problems of family and health.

— ‘Magush’ by Silvina Ocampo in Thus Were Their Faces, p 126

Housing the masses, BulgarIa

It is hard staring up at these huge tower blocks to imagine what lives they hold within them. So many lives. Landscapes unlike anything I could have imagined growing up, in a great circle around the city and forming its boundary. There is more variation than I was expecting as I have read so much about the ubiquitous type. I love how staring at them you see just how individual they actually are with paint, balconies become rooms, curtains, plants, doorways…So many lives.

Sofia’s Cityscapes

Not much time to write about Sofia — not much time for anything at all. But it is a city I quite loved. Incredibly layered, much of the past gone it’s true, but the incredible Roman ruins of Serdica lie beneath it all, swathes of it opened up to view here and there across the centre city in often unlikely places.

The Greek inscription on the first city walls of Serdica, carved over the North and West gates of the city, reads:

Good luck!

The greatest and divine emporers, Ceasars Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Agustus, Germanicus, Sarmaticus, Father of the Fatherland, Greatest Pontiff and Lucius Aurelius Commodus, Germanicus, Sarmaticus, Father of the Fatherland, Leader of the Youth, gave to the city of the Serds a fortress walls when the Governor of the porvince of Thrace was Aselius Aemilianus, Envoy of the Emporer, Propraetore, appointed as governor of that same province.

Above sits a great mix of eras between and around the great communist boulevards and massive state buildings. I was reading Owen Hatherly, and so much of what he wrote about Warsaw, Berlin and all cities not Sofia still held true here. I am not sure how much I am still fascinated by this architecture, like everything else any promise of the early soviets crushed by a ponderous Stalinism…but probably still fascinated. It carves through the older city, yet leaves so much on either side completely untouched.

This city is full of life, grit, graffiti, architecture of many periods and styles, colour, noise, good public transportation (but confusing), delicious food.

While I might not have entirely agreed with the decision to quarantine ‘socialist’ art in the city’s outskirts, I confess did quite love seeing everything in one place.

And its special ode to Lenin.

The other monument to this era is, of course, housing. It’s own post.

Pynchon on the collective history of garbage

Been reading so much about the struggle for environmental justice and the political economies of garbage (Julie Sze’s Noxious New York), funny to find these passages here helping bring some of the contradictions a little more alive:

Under the high-arching openwork of the Bayonne Bridge. Oil, storage tanks, tanker traffic forever unsleeping. Addiction to oil gradually converging with the other national bad habit, inability to deal with refuse. Maxine has been smelling garbage for a while, and now it intensifies as they approach a lofty mountain range of waste. Neglected little creeks, strangely luminous canyon walls of garbage, smells of methane, death and decay, chemicals unpronounceable as the names of God, the heaps of landfill bigger than Maxine imagines they’d be, reaching close to 200 feet overhead according to Sid, higher than a typical residential building on the Yupper West Side.

Sid kills the running lights and the motor, and they settle in behind Island of Meadows, at the intersection of Fresh and Arthur Kills, toxicity central, the dark focus of Big Apple waste disposal, everything the city has rejected so it can keep on pretending to be itself, and here unexpectedly at the heart of it is this 100 acres of untouched marshland, directly underneath the North Atlantic flyway, sequestered by law from development and dumping, marsh birds sleeping in safety. Which, given the real-estate imperatives running this town, is really, if you want to know, fucking depressing, because how long can it last? How long can any of these innocent critters depend on finding safety around here? It’s exactly the sort of patch that makes a developer’s heart sing—typically, “This Land Is My Land, This Land Also Is My Land.”

Every Fairway bag full of potato peels, coffee grounds, uneaten Chinese food, used tissues and tampons and paper napkins and disposable diapers, fruit gone bad, yogurt past its sell-by date that Maxine has ever thrown away is up in there someplace, multiplied by everybody in the city she knows, multiplied by everybody she doesn’t know, since 1948, before she was even born, and what she thought was lost and out of her life has only entered a collective history, which is like being Jewish and finding out that death is not the end of everything–suddenly denied the comfort of absolute zero. (166-67)

Here this ‘looming and prophetic landfill, that perfect negative of the city in its seething foul incoherence)’ becomes a possible place to follow the links through into refuge.

Now it is a park. NY, however, still needs places to send its garbage.

Pynchon, Thomas (2013) Bleeding Edge. New York: Penguin Press.

Colin ward is Talking Houses

This is a great, quite a short introduction to some of Colin Ward’s thinking about housing. Written from an anarchist viewpoint, it shows just how fruitful this critique can be of a lumbering, one-size-fits-all and paternalistic state building programme (not that I wouldn’t trade that for anything we’ve had since). It also opens up new ways of thinking, planning, building housing better the next time around I think, and of how we might transform what we have left. These are just a handful of insights.

Above all I appreciate his central point, reiterated over and over again (and these are, mind you, a series of talks given in different places over different points of time, so a very accessible way into his thinking, but a little repetitive as well) that the key to it all is dweller control not ownership. You don’t need to own a place to make it home, but we (almost) all have that desire for a safe and secure place that we can make our own. Ward writes:

The application of anarchist ideas to the basic need of human shelter is dweller control and it is evident to me that people draw their inspiration from what other people actually succeed in doing. Not the affluent, who take dweller control for granted because they have freedom of choice, but ordinary fellow citizens facing every kind of difficulty because the system doesn’t cater for their aspirations. (7)

He did so much, like John Turner, to help show just what it was other people were doing.

He describes 3 revolutions in housing expectations bringing us into the present:

  1. Revolution in tenure: Before the first world war the norm, for both rich and poor alike, was renting in the private market. (7)
  2. Revolution in services and housing densities: Domestic service or some level of help common quite far down the social scale, replaced by mechanisation. Density extremely high in city centres. ‘Both demographic changes and decentralisation have had a liberating effect‘ (8)
  3. Revolution in the nature of households: A century of housing for nuclear households, now a minority

He also notes, ‘the landlord-tenant relationship has never, through all of history, been a happy one.‘ (9)

That made me laugh out loud.

The Do It Yourself New Town (1975)

The philosopher Martin Buber begins his essay Society and the State with an observation from the sociologist Robert MacIver that “to identify the social with the political is to be guilty of the grossest of all confusion, which completely bars any understanding of either society or the state”. The political principle, for Buber, is characterised by power, authority, hierarchy, dominion. He sees the social principle wherever men link themselves in an association based on a common or a common interest. (18)

I like that distinction. It’s maybe too long since I read Buber. Ward goes on to describe the long running connection between anarchism and planning, particularly Ebenezer Howard and Patrick Geddes. Geddes, it turns out, knew Kropotkin, Paul and Élisée Reclus. And of course they lived in times of ferment, Ward arguing that part of Howard’s success with the idea of the Garden City was that it came out at the same time as Kropotkin’s Fields, Factories and Workshops, Blatchford’s Merrie England, and H.G. Wells’ Anticipation. (31)

His view of the Tudor-Walters Report in 1918 in how it moved away from dweller control toward paternal state ownership — rather a different that received wisdom which focuses on its virtues of architecture and attention to the health of the inhabitants such as that of Burnett in his History of Housing. Ward argues instead that it:

froze out all other forms of social housing in favour of direct municipal provision. Today, with public housing in collapse, we are suddenly discovering the virtues of cooperative housing — a notion dear to the heart of Howard and Unwin which has been neglected for sixty years, even though if you go to a country like Denmark where a third of housing is in the hands of tenemant co-operatives they say to the English visitor, “We owe it all to your Rochdale Pioneers.” (22)

Dismantling Whitehall

Always a welcome title, it might be enough on its own. But no. Even at this period, Ward is calling attention to this key dynamic which has only accelerated over time:

Every change in the allocation of funds from the central treasury to local authorities, in the bewildering changes of nomenclature since the 1950s has reduced their ability to decide for themselves. General Grants, Block Grants or Rate Support Grants have each been heralded by sales talk about more local discretion, but in fact each, while apparently giving greater freedom to local authorities, has been used to reduce their freedom of manoeuvre and their ability to select their priorities (49).

It has also, of course, reduced funding time and time again.

Until We Build Again

Again, for Ward the real point is that we needed space for many different kinds of housing — for various forms of cooperatives, self-builds and sweat equity. That we could have had a much different kind of city, with an entirely different relationship between residents and their built environment.

There was a phrase used about Gandhi by Vinoba Bhave. He said, ‘Gandhiji used up all the moral oxygen in India and the British Raj suffocated”. In the same way we might say that the direct provision of housing for rent by local councils used up all the inventive capacity of councils, and the alternatives never got a chance, they were suffocated. Now is the time to nurture the alternatives… (59)

Again the point that people step into responsibility for space if it is offered and they have the resource (though of course, the continual inventiveness around securing resource are legend). These trajectories of investment and decline are made visible street by street:

Most of us are familiar with the paradox that the life or death of buildings was decided by a line drawn on a map on the centreline of a road. One one side houses were demolished as unfit for human habitation, and were eventually replaced by flats that declined from the moment they were occupied. On the other, identical houses were sold off on the private market and improved by their purchases, making use of improvement grants and DIY. There was no magic about their success. It depended on access to resources and upon the opportunity to use one’s own resourcefulness , which is the concomitant of the dweller being in control. (60-61)

He gives a few examples of where alternatives were supported to flourish: some of the policies in Glasgow, supporting co-ops and urban homesteading in Easterhouse, The Lewisham Self Build Association, co-operative development agencies in Liverpool…

Direct Action for Working-Class Housing

I still haven’t read Gorz, he has been on my list for years. Precisely because of quote like this:

Classical socialist doctrine finds it difficult to come to terms with political and social pluralism, understood not simply as a plurality of parties and trade unions but as the co-existence of various ways of working, producing and living, various and distinct cultural areas and levels of social existence…Yet this kind of pluralism precisely conforms to the lived experience and aspirations of the post-industrial proletariat, as well as the major part of the traditional working class. (68)

This dynamic is as visible in housing as anywhere else, where of course the impulses were utopian but they were also imposed top down. For Ward, in evaluating the work of local authorities post-war who believed only large-scale solutions, the results were tragic:

When they ran out of bomb sites they made themselves a second blitz. Colin Jones has shown how the self-confident rush to destroy the past in Glasgow and Liverpool has resulted in a new housing loss and Graham Lomas demonstrated in 1975 how in London more fit houses had been destroyed than had been built since the war. (73)

Anarchy or Order? The Planner’s Dilemma (1985)

Ward writes

… our present misgivings and dilemmas about the role of planning in society are not the product of the energy crisis, nor of the collapse of the job market, nor of the present government’s ideology. They go back to fundamental differences in the world view of those whose version of the origins and functions of planning is that it is a popular movement associated with non-professionals like Ebenezer Howard, Patrick Geddes and F. J. Osborn and the whole garden cities movement that evolved with the TCPA, and those who see it as an extension of the sanitary reforms of the last century and governmental intervention in the housing market, with a hierarchy of professional expertise in local and central government administering the very comprehensive legislation for controlling land use that has accumulated since 1947.

I think this is a key tension in planning (though still struggle a bit with Howard as a proponent of bottom-up popular housing, I don’t know enough about Geddes or Osborn to feel much either way about them). But I do think this has all too often been true — a quote from Bruce Alsop:

It is astonishing with what savagery planners and architects are trying to obliterate working-class cultural and social patterns. Is it because many of them are first generation middle-class technosnobs? (85 – from (Towards a Humane Architecture, 1974)

Part of me responds to these great utopian visions of past planners and some of the brutalist building here in the UK, but I am more at ease with this suspicion in the long run:

If we have to polarise our attitudes between order and disorder, I fear order most, because I know that the order that will be imposed is the order of the secure and privileged. Socialist planners like Sharp thought that they were restraining the disorder of get-rich-quick capitalist entrepreneurs, when in fact they were trampling on the invisible order of those who just want a chance, as J. B. Priestley put it, to “get on with their own lives”. (92)

An Anarchist Approach to Urban Planning

Another great quote — one of the things I have loved about reading these is finding other people to look up and read. Like Giancarlo De Carlo:

The first main attitude is based on two principle arguments. Firstly that authority cannot be a liberating agent — perfectly true; secondly, that man [and of course today he would say man and woman] can do nothing until he is free — a mistaken view. Man cannot be liberated, he must liberate himself, and any progress towards that liberation can only be the conscious expression of his own will. The investigation of the full extent of the region, city and home, is such an activity. To find out the nature of problems and to prepare their solutions is a concrete example of direct action, taking away the powers of authority and giving them back to men [and women].

The attitude of hostility that really means “waiting for the revolution to do it”, does not take into account the fact that the social revolution will be accomplished by clear heads, not by sick and stunted people unable to think of the future because of the problems of the present. It forgets that the revolution begins in the elimination of these evils so as to create the necessary conditions of a free society. (124)

I also love, and had never before heard of, the ‘rungs’ of Arnstein’s ‘Ladder of Participation’. Climbing up from the bottom, these are:

Citizen Control
Delegated Power

The top 5 are all too familiar, the top one what we always struggled to achieve. Ward writes:

I have always found Arnstein’s Ladder a very useful measuring-rod which enables us to get behind the barrage of propaganda and decide whether any particular exercise in “public participation” is merely manipulation or therapy, or often deception (which found no place on Arnstein’s ladder — but should have done). (126)

He is also clear about his critique of council housing from this perspective, and aware of where else the critique was coming from:

Because there is a political no-person’s-land which Mrs Thatcher and her advisers are colonising from the Right, and which you and I are colonising from the Left. Don’t be disconcerted about this. The wilderness is a good place to be, just because it’s a location for initiative, experiment, wild hopes and lost causes. (137)

Looking back now I would argue we can say this hope that such a wilderness could be inhabited without being colonised entirely by neoliberalism facilitating real estate as a key economic driver was a lost cause. Looking back now, and in comparing the UK to the States, you could argue that for all its faults, the vast numbers of council houses meant a depressed property market, created conditions in its margins for wild hopes, initiative and experiment no longer possible in many cities across the globe under accelerating financialisation. Not good enough, but better than where we are now. Because I am all for those hopes and experiments, and I do wish resources had been forthcoming to support them in broad, mutually sustaining ways. Even just a bunch of plain old co-ops. I am still a bit mournful reading this:

I don’t think that anyone here will now claim that the role of local authorities is that of a direct provider. We have been through that syndrome for several lifetimes, and it has taken the present government to break the connection, using thoroughly dishonest slogans about “setting the people free” (138)

Depressing, but this importance of dweller control to the dwellers themselves seems to resonate so strongly — what if we had had that impulse from the beginning, where would Right to Buy have been? Would the steady government centralisation of funding and control if not of responsibility have been the same on such a foundation? Could a central government austerity have stripped council after council, community after community of almost everything and given it away to its cronies? Ward could write even then:

Britain is the most unitary, which is to say, centralised, state in Europe, with a few exceptions like Romania or Albania. All political factions are to blame for this. The Left, intoxicated by the idea of conquering state power, rejoiced in being able to override reactionary local authorities. The Right, in spite of a tradition dating back to Edmund Burke, which exalted the local over the central, is equally intoxicated by its current success in finding one way after another of ensuring that local government can be brought to heel by innumerable small administrative measures intended to destroy those Labour Party which it has expanded into an Enemy to be eliminated.

I find this very sinister indeed… (139)

And here we are.

Ward, Colin (1990) Talking Houses. London: Freedom Press.