The Life And Death Of England's Cities
Warning! Long and rambling post with enormous swatches of quotes from articles and books about the evils of modern architecture to follow! I won't be upset if this topic bores you and you want to move along. Otherwise, grab a beer or a Coke--you'll be here a while with this one. I'll wait while you hit the fridge--and I'll understand if you skip this one entirely.
OK, here we go!
In one of his "Screeeeed" blog's posts (currently offline as the Home of the Bleat is undergoing a massive urban renewal project of its own), James Lileks referred to this truly remarkable 1995 essay by Theodore Dalrymple, the nom de plume of an English psychiatrist who's also a brilliant social critic. Lileks quoted from Dalrymple's piece, but I don't believe he linked to it, so it took a few minutes of Googling to stumble across it.
[Update: Lileks' post is back online--Ed]
But needless to say, the whole thing is well worth reading. Dalrymple arrives, independently, at many of the same conclusions about England's public housing that Jane Jacobs did in the mid-1960s and America's then still burgeoning urban renewal projects, in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, one of the few books praised by both conservatives and the left. It's probably not all that surprising that most of her findings translate all too well across the Atlantic.
As Dalrymple wrote in his piece:
Until quite recently, I had assumed that the extreme ugliness of the city in which I live was attributable to the Luftwaffe. I imagined that the cheap and charmless high rise buildings which so disfigure the city-scape had been erected of necessity in great gaping holes left by Heinkel bombers. I had spent much of my childhood playing in deserted bomb shelters in public parks: and although I was born some years after the end of the war, that great conflagration still exerted a powerful hold on the imagination of British children of my generation.Dalrymple places much of the wreckage done in the name of modern architecture firmly at the feet of Le Corbusier, the Swiss born, but thoroughly French modern architect, who spent his entire life--first symbolically, and then eventually literally--dynamiting the street, something he saw as all too messy, with its smells of cooking, corner merchants, kids running and bicycling, parents conversing on stoops, etc.
Like most of Europe's modernist architects, Corbusier came to prominence in the 1920s, when he built a series of remarkable--and remarkably handsome--expensive, airy white flat-roofed homes for the wealthy patrons of Paris's art community (Michael Stein was one of Corbu's early patrons--the home he built for Stein in Garches, France would eventually become hugely influential in its form. The brother of Gertrude, both were American expatriates living abroad.)
In many respects, these folks were the predecessors to the social class that David Brooks wrote about so memorably about a few years ago. Rather than today's Bobos In Paradise, these were proto-bobos in Paris, and they had the money and inclination to fund not just modern art, but modern architecture, and found the perfect avant garde architect in "Corbu".
Corbu's architecture worked splendidly when he was building private homes for wealthy patrons who desired to live in their austere modernism, and maintain the enormous upkeep they required with their pure white walls and flat roofs.
But Corbu also saw himself as a social planner desiring to work on an enormous scale, which Dalrymple mentioned in another, more recent, essay on modern architecture:
Le Corbusier (the French-Swiss architect) once said, a house is a machine for living in. By the same token, a school is a machine for being taught in, and a hospital for being cured in. Unfortunately, if you spend you entire life living in machines, you are likely to end up by feeling like a machine part.In England, Corbu's vision was adopted to both reduce post World War II housing shortages, but also by England's liberal politicians to simultaneously eliminate the last refuges of Victorianism, which Dalrymple notes in the 1995 essay we were discussing at the start of this post:
After the war, bien pensants universally agreed that pre-war British society had been grossly unjust. The working class, it was said, had been shamelessly exploited, as was manifest principally in Britain's great inequalities of income and its overcrowded housing. A sharply progressive income tax (which at one point reached 95 percent) would redress the inequalities of income, while slum clearance and the construction of large- scale housing projects would alleviate the housing problem.What's remarkable is how universal the negative effects of what American bureaucrats in the 1950s dubbed "urban renewal" have been. This passage from Tom Wolfe's early 1980s From Bauhaus To Our House precisely forshadows Dalrymple's bleak mid-1990s picture of England's council flats:
In 1955, a vast worker-housing project called Pruitt-Igoe opened in St. Louis. The design, by Minoru Yamasaki, architect of the World Trade Center, won an award from the American Institute of Architects. Yamasaki designed it classically Corbu, fulfilling the master's vision of highrise hives of steel, glass, and concrete separated by open spaces of green lawn. The workers of St. Louis, of course, were in no danger of getting caught in Pruitt-Igoe. They had already decamped for suburbs such as Spanish Lake and Crestwood. Pruitt-Igoe filled up mainly with recent migrants from the rural South. They moved from areas of America where the population density was fifteen to twenty folks per square mile, where one rarely got more than ten feet off the ground except by climbing a tree, into Pruitt-Igoe's fourteen-story blocks.Curious, isn't it, the two divergent paths of modern architecture and its pioneers from 1920s Europe. Modern architecture for wealthy patrons can be exceedingly attractive and livable. Modern office buildings, when done on a large enough budget, can be handsome and functional spaces: Mies van der Rohe's Seagram building on Park Avenue is a remarkable design that has stood the test of time and has been designated a landmarked building. And modern apartment buildings, such as Mies's 860-880 Lake Shore Drive complex, designed for wealthy urban renters who can afford its upscale address, can also be attractive, exceedingly livable, spaces.
But modern architecture designed to benefit the poor has been a disaster of hugely epic proportions. Ironically, most of the modernist architects of '20s never envisioned that they'd be best suited to be either builders of spaces for enormous corporations, or of villas for the wealthy bourgeois patrons they (somewhat ironically) relied upon to launch their early careers. Amidst the rubble of post World War I Europe, they wanted to entirely rework the landscape to match the tabla rasa that Freud, Marx and Lenin all saw the modern man to be.
If that sounds like a horrific, 1984/THX-1138 sort of vision in retrospect, well, Europe's Bauhaus architects were far from alone in sharing it. It's no coincidence that the rulers of Nazi Germany looked at the charred moonscape of Dresden in February of 1945 and saw an upside to it, as Robert Ley, the head of the Nazis' Labor Front, wrote immediately afterwards:
"After the destruction of beautiful Dresden, we almost breathe a sigh of relief. It is over now. In focusing on our struggle and victory we are no longer distracted by concerns for the monuments of German culture. Onward!...Now we march toward the German victory without any superfluous ballast and without the heavy spiritual and material bourgeois baggage".(From Frederick Taylor's Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945.)
The goal of "Starting From Zero" (to borrow Tom Wolfe's phrase), and trimming away at all of the superfluous ballast of the heavy spiritual and material bourgeois baggage of the past was a near-universal European impulse in the first half of the 20th century, that spread far beyond Corbu and the Bauhaus boys. That such hubris would infect American and English bureaucrats of the 1950s, who believed that they could relocate the poor into cheaply built towering urban landscapes and better(!) their lives is staggering in retrospect. And a crime in its own right.
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