Paolo Solari died. He was an architect known more for an idea than a particular building, and like many ideas, it was a bad one. The Arcology. Immense, self-contained structures where people would live in harmony with one man’s harebrained conception of existence. Naturally, it was beloved by futurists; it was so . . . total.
Like Wright, Soleri proposed changes in transportation, agriculture, and commerce. Soleri explored reductions in resource consumption and duplication, land reclamation, and proposed to eliminate most private transportation. He favored greater use of shared social resources like public libraries.
The elimination of private transportation is important; you cannot build utopia without significant constriction of individual freedom. But there will be compensations, like more libraries.
You could build arcologies in SimCity; they had nothing to do with the rest of the life of the town, and nothing ever seemed to come in or out of them.
These things are interesting concepts, if only to understand why we don’t live in them. If people wanted to live in arcologies, there would be arcologies. There are not any arcologies becase people like to live in houses, or places where they are not stacked up in human-storage units.. But that’s a problem, because they want the wrong kind of houses in the wrong places - houses that are larger than they should be, farther away than they should be from the place were people should live. Yes, I’m rocking that hobbyhorse again, but that’s because there were a few pieces that sounded the same alarms about the miseries of the suburbs, and a piece in i09 that got me thinking about the end result of so much nonsensical urbanist theorizing.
i09 ran some photos of Hong Kong apartments by Michael Wolf. You should go see all of them. My. God:
If density is good, than surely this is heaven. I see steady employment for psychiatrists and elevator repairman, myself. Do you see these structures as something that fosters community?
Then there’s the opposite, glimpsed from the plane window last week:
A rural area with farmhouses - or just houses - spaced far apart. Too much isolation for me; splendid isolation for others. There’s community there, but not defined the way people who adore big cities define it. If you have no experience with rural life then you can’t possibly imagine how community could arise from such a place, but that doesn’t stop some people from deciding everyone's lonely..
Then there’s the plain old suburb. Whether it has a grid (bad, because it’s not dense enough) or a cul-de-sac (bad, because the very concept encourages isolation and inorganic street-flow) then it promotes inequality. And by “promote” I guess I mean “underscores the fact of its existence,” which is apparently a sin in itself. But there’s more! This article says:
...these patterns also reveal another truth about suburban places: their tendency to sustain and reinforce inequality. Bradbury and Azusa have maintained their spots in the top and bottom tiers of the Los Angeles suburbs for decades. The sociologist John Logan described this “stratifying” feature long ago, noting that localities held on to social advantages and disadvantages over time. Patterns are established, and successive waves of pressure — fiscal, political, social — tend to keep things moving in the same direction.
Well, if a sociologist noted it, the discussion’s closed. The article is called "Surburban Disequilibrium," which is absolute catnip for those who want to radiate some righteous scorn on the ticky-tacky li'l pink houses dolts. They wouldn't even known what disequilibrium is, but they're soaking in it. Hah!
Basic point: suburbs exert a straaange power that keeps rich people rich and poor people poor. Unlike, say, the wealthy parts of big cities, which regularly turn over and admit the teeming lower orders into their marble lobbies, just out of fairness: why, just last year alone nearly every apartment building around Central Park went Section 8. But only for a year! I mean, these people deserve a break, but let's not lose our heads.
The author advises a change in the tax code to discourage people getting too much house. Because changes in the tax code have a direct influence on people’s behavior. Except, of course, when they don’t.
The author’s bio:
Columbia Grad; Recent fellowships: Haynes Major Research Grant, Haynes Foundation, 2009-10 (1 year) ; Mayer fellowship, Huntington Library, 2009-10 (3 months); Mellon Fellowship, Huntington Library, 2007-08 (5 months).
I would assert that once someone has occupied a particular piece of academic terrain, privilege has been granted, and this privilege sustains a position that perpetuates the ability to get more grants. Since one person's success necessarily detracts from someone else's, this perpetuates inequity. I don’t have the data - I’m not a sociologist - but I would bet she got more grants than someone who taught at a community college in a depressed suburb.
If we assigned a different tax rate to grants for people who got degrees from prestigious places like Columbia, and waived taxes on grants given to people who got degrees from less “important” places, this would encourage people like the author from applying for grants, and encourage the disadvantaged.
It's worth trying, isn't it?
Ho ho, "Modest Proposal" territory; he's feeling his oats. Clever boy! Actually, that's just prelude. Strap in.
(tl;dr: it's okay not to worry about people going to live where they want to. Really. But no one got tenure saying something like that.)
Curious what else she’d written - not because the prose sings and glistens, but because it resembled some remarkable amalgram of lead and tin - I found this: “When Hell Moved from the City to the Suburbs.” The writing is better, even though the piece commences with the chatty tone of someone trying to make the subject Fun for a balky class:
Over the course of the twentieth century, a funny thing happened in the thinking of scholars observing life in American cities.
Funny? Okay. By the way, if ever there was a statement that peeled off people into two camps, one being “oh, go peddle your papers” and the other being “do tell. Please, do tell me more” it’s “the thinking of scholars observing.” After decades of thinking and observing the thinking of observing scholars, it doesn't produce the same intellectual trill of delight it once did.
The third camp, I suppose, would be mied: I can't wait to hear how their observations were erroneous, predicated on popular assumptions of the intellectual class of their day, and eventually defended because its core assertion bolsters a contemporary orthodoxy." But I'm mean that way.
Here's the funny thing the scholars concluded:
The environment that seemed most harmful to authentic community - most likely to kill off any chance for meaningful human interaction - that environment moved from the city to the suburbs.
When someone uses the term “authentic community” without explication you know you’re reading an issue of Bubble! The Magazine for Groupthinkers. An "authentic community" is an organization whose precepts the scholars approve; an "inauthentic community" - and there must be such a thing, right? - is one whose binding ideas the scholars find problematic, which is itself a mask over their inability to understand it.
Before I read any more, a quibble. I never thought that scholars thought the city was inauthentic, or likely to destroy the chance for meaningful human interaction - unless, and I'm spitballing here, you’re talking about the post-Kitty Genovese urban dystopia period, or the ghastly barren nightmares of public housing. In the former example, you had a persistent condition of urban life whose severity varied, and was not a result of the concept of the city. There is nothing about a city per se that says everyone has to be brutal or indifferent or scared. It’s how it’s run, who lives there, what external economic conditions affect its state, etc. This is obvious.
In the latter example of public housing, these boxy Mordors were brought to us by theorists who believed they could build a new type of authentic community, based on architectural forms that combined density with monstrous size and Corbu-inspired idiocy about isolated superstructures intentionally made remote from the urban fabric. They also hoped a new man would arise from these structures. They were awfully big on New Men.
You also suspect that “meaningful human interaction” is going to be defined in a way that finds new virtue in the messy random street of the City, which was previously seen as something that discouraged meaningful interaction, because it was messy and random. And the suburb is now Hell because it was tidy and ordered. Which is bad, unless it's in the city.
Well, I’d better read the thing before making assumptions.
And then we’re on to old Louis M. This bears reading, and if you've got this far, do pay attention, people; this will be on the test:
This is typical 20s thinking. This is "Metropolis". Fie the cursed machine; hail the mediating heart. She notes that Mumford said the city embodied “both heaven and hell,” which is as insightful as noting that the beach embodies both sand and sea.
By the way, "imperial Rome" was as organic as it got, except for the official areas. It wasn't regulated, uniform, quantified, or even subject to astronomical regularity, whatever the hell that is. It just grew up and out. Organic and creative - and, because individuals were involved in its creation without the imposition of the mechanistic state, it was anything but spacious, and hellaciously crowded.
So the intellectuals said that the city was Hell, and the people agreed - but not, I suspect, for the same reasons. Chester Riley didn’t sit around the kitchen table in his Queens apartment and say “I’ve had it up to here with the mechanistic overlay of the city stiflin’ its innate organic expression, Peg. Whaddya say we move to Levittown?” People thought it was hell because it was cramped, hot, barren, dangerous, and the kids had to sleep four to a room. They left for something better.
But they had the gall to leave for the wrong reasons, and once out in the burbs they did not have the necessary Truth of Life shoved in their mugs on a daily basis:
That's one of the better arguments for city living, isn't it? Live in your small apartment because your exposure to "the poor, the workers" will encourage a humane response.
Except that the humane response of the workers themselves was to move to the suburbs if they could. They saw a picture in Life magazine of a guy having a BBQ out back and y'know, that looked pretty good. That looked okay. Having your own place: think about it. Beat calling up the super because the heat wasn't on and it's October already.
Then she gets to Jane Jacobs, whose work I enjoyed, and who made spot-on observations about the role of density and diverse purpose in urban landscapes. But she didn’t like suburbs because they were inauthentic, and did not have the type of streetlife she preferred. As if kids in the suburbs never got on their bikes and rode off in a pack, or played in the backyards. As if everyone lived in a sealed box, let out one a day like “Wrinkle in Time” children to bounce a ball in the exact same rhythm.
The author notes - hurrah for her - that “neither Jacobs nor Mumford, it seems, actually observed the suburbs first hand.” Which makes you wonder why the hell we care about what they thought, but again, this is about the funny shift. Next up is William Whyte, who shoehorns his urban theories into the “Organization Man” idea. Whyte’s critique of “organization” thinking was influential, and I’d suggest he laid the groundwork for the Boomer rejection of it - something which allowed a part of the generation to float off into hedonistic lives of mediocre bohemianism, and allowed the other part to occupy the portions of the Organization that were deemed Good and Moral - i.e., education and, eventually, government.
Anyway: While Whyte said that suburbs had their merits:
Yeah, because it’s the same damned thing. As for the backyards, they would become fenced, eventually - because people like private space. The forward-looking parts of the house flowed seamlessly into public space. The backyard was yours. But even though you thought you were an individual, Whyte said that the stultifying had of the Social Ethic, the “tyrannical” nature of groupthink, meant that people were “imprisoned in brotherhood.”
In short: all three of these thinkers got a large part of it wrong. But:
The author says one explanation might be - hold on your mortarboard - “that meaningful community could - and did - exist in the suburbs.” That’s gutsy talk, but “there’s certainly sporadic evidence to show this from a second wave of sociological studies in the 1960s.”
Her second explanation is that people “destructively redefined” the concept of community by swapping the old definition of “inclusive, bridging communities” - i.e., places where you coexist with people in the public square but have your own private associations - with a definition that pretended its version of community vitality was not predicated on “racial or economic inequality.” In other words, people moved to the suburbs because they could; they got along with neighbors; they called it all a "community" despite the fact that there were no minorities or poor people. Self-selection lead to a homogenous composition, which made them inauthentic.
The implication: if modern-day suburbs are primarily Black or Hispanic or Asian, and that's the result of freely-made choices, they are authentic. If a suburb 50 years ago was primarily White because of de facto or de jure segregaton, they were inauthentic communites.
This is nonsense. Aside from ignoring the fissures and differences in any community that looks ethnically homogenous - i.e., White - it supposes that exclusion is a dominant identifier for people's conception of their own community. It matters, but it's below the surface. It's a given . People's conception of "community" isn't an illusion because they think it's based on church, school, block, social clubs, and bowling, when it's really about race and economic status. That's like saying your marriage isn't about love and lust and general cultural traditions, but really about heteronormal privilege first and foremost. Accept that, and maybe your wedding will be authentic. The reception, less so, unless the bridesmaid makes out with one of the Workers who's catering the event.
Even so, that could underline power imbalances. So be careful.
That said, it is about race and economic status, inasmuch as those differences arise in an ethnically "homogenous" community. But doesn't the fact that some WASPs look down on the Italians, and some Presbys look down on the Cat-licks, and the Bohunk can't stand the snoots who think they came over on the Mayflower - doesn't that suggest that those differences not only exist, but reinforce a community's authenticity by pointing out the diversity within the community's parameters?
Then again, she says “that “possibly another dynamic is at work." You. Don't. Say. “If we assume people crave and need community, yet they continue moving to these suburban social wastelands, then maybe they’re getting their community elsewhere.”
We’ll have to wait for the sociology studies to figure out that puzzler.
Wrong though they have have been, those funny opinion-shifting scholars were quite influential in shaping the public conception of the suburbs. Their ideas were taken up by the creators of “novels, short stories, and films.” She concludes:
To paraphrase: actors and screenwriters in Los Angeles are pretty sure you don’t know how bad your life is out there in the cul-de-sac, but they’re pretty sure it’s not as good as living in Malibu which is incredibly diverse and authentic and, like, you bump into workers ALL the time. If you want to be one of the clever people, work on that sneer when you say “suburb.” Because movies and TV see them as hell, and it stands to reason they've nailed that one cold. Movies and TV: your best source of valid cultural archetypes.
Unless they're not, in which case they're the enemy, but that's an essay in another journal that has nothing to do with cities at all. Because it's part of an academic "discipline" that lives in another neighborhood. One of those "studies" that's connected to the rest of the University only by a few main roads, has nothing to do with anyone who's not in that department, shares a few bland common values, but generally talks to people who have the same ideas.
Like a cul-de-sac in a suburb, except nothing like that at all.
“The Truman Show” was filmed in a real town, by the way. The place where this critique of the suburban life was created actually exists. Wouldn’t it be odd if everyone there didn’t think they needed redemption? Wouldn’t it be sad if they were happy, and didn’t think they were really in hell?