arrested at utopia
July 17, 2010, 2:17 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , , ,

Our cities and towns – their politics and form – are a direct consequence of the policies of our leaders and the ideas we hold dear.  Jefferson was suspicious of the city because he saw it as the seat of the totalizing power of money and capital.  Generations later we still don’t really know how to build a proper city, it seems.

The following passage talks about an ambiguity in the American mind: that our cities are developed democratically but that the cities we have made are wrong, somehow.  It implies that democracy is foundational to development, that the market should be allowed to fulfill its project and that to impose a utopian vision on the development of our built environment is, well, utopian.

I am beginning to suspect that the terms of this debate haven’t been defined properly.  I agree about the defined roles of democracy and markets and utopia.  However, I am not convinced that what we are getting is being produced by markets.  Was Houston made by a free market?  No, by a combination of private capital and a whole ton of public money in sprawling utilities and streets.  Who funds the development of American cities?  There’s a lot more public money in the mix than anyone’s willing to admit, including Lerup who sees the southern sprawl city as market driven.  They’re not; in a sense American land and city development is like a big welfare program.  If you don’t like them, stem the flow of public capital into wasteful development.  Isn’t ending public subsidies about as American as you can get?

Here is an excerpt from Lerup’s book After the City:

In Jefferson, Tafuri saw a powerful organizer of culture (a true architect), one who constructs the new democratic culture of the United States with the (empty) signs of European culture.  But Jefferson’s was a conception based on agrarian and antiurban politics that stood in stark contrast to Alexander Hamilton’s pragmatic pursuit of “accelerated development of American financial and industrial capital.”  Jefferson’s fear of the potential authoritarian power of capital convinced him of the dangers of the city, and he remained “faithful to a democracy arrested at the level of a utopia.”  Tafuri brilliantly recognized the Jeffersonian inheritance that still haunts many American intellectuals and politicians — acknowledgement of their system’s democratic foundations but opposition to its concrete manifestations, producing the all too prevalent “ambiguous conscience” that I found in myself: a dilemma in which an urban configuration (say in all its market-driven formlessness) is acknowledged as basically democratic but somehow the form it takes is not right, even though the right form is not possible because too utopian.  The consequence is ambiguity, uneasiness, and a sense of failure, and the architect feels that he or she is somehow at fault.  Of course, in my own case, this was before Houston.

–Lars Lerup, After the City


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