coromandal


in the countryside and down the hole
December 19, 2010, 8:01 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , , , ,

In architecture school in the mid 90s, a hip faculty faction spoke of virtual space, by which they meant the burgeoning world we were just falling into, through the computer screen looking glass, out into new places of media, commerce, friends, fantasy.  Most of us clung to old world sticks and bricks, finding how paper models and renderings and drawings could support our earnest visions of social and urban enhancement and change.

About 10 years ago, a colleague who hailed from Ireland related going back to the old country for a visit.  He said the difference between the 80s and 90s was stark because of cable, not internet:  evenings once spent on rotations between friends houses for drinks and banter were finished as people kept their doors shut to watch their favorite shows.

In this essay, Lewis Lapham, in proper critical form, shows us how the virtual world has been sold us as a viable substitute for real civic space.  For him, the virtual world is a logical end game in the American pursuit of space and distance from one another.  He describes how American power and cultural elites have always occupied exurban environments, and even distrusted the ‘foreign’ elements that come to the country through urban ports of call.  And how our developing virtual world is the logical next step.

The big screen Steve Jobs Apple roll out show is the unchallenged sign of the times, brilliantly seared into the collective consciousness.  Is it the only thing we do and think about any more – our shiny phones, our social networks, thumbs up, thumbs down, streaming and faster downloads?  No doubt, incredibly seductive.  And clearly we think about other things.  But we don’t like thinking about the things we did back in architecture school:  making our cities better, improving infrastructure, education, medicine etc.  So we naturally turn back to the bright shiny objects and the virtual world.  Into the rabbit hole.  Curiouser and curiouser!

Lapham:

What suburban opinion deplores as abomination (traffic, crime, noise, confiscatory taxes, extortionate rents), the urban disposition regards as the price of escape from the tyranny of the small-town majority, as the cost of the blank canvas (i.e., the gifts of loneliness and privacy) on which to discover the portrait of oneself.

/…/

During the 1980s the synonym for America’s wealth and power moved south to Washington, DC, which, like Los Angeles, possesses both the character and sensibility of an expensive suburb. As was true of their Puritan forbears in the New England wilderness, the nation’s ruling and explaining classes regard the urban temperament as the port of entry for all things foreign and obnoxious. Over the last thirty years the government bureaucracies have come to employ more people than lived in seventeenth-century England, planting the bulk of their intelligence operations in the Virginia countryside with the fruit trees and the birds; our larger corporations retreat to pastoral compounds bearing a postmodern resemblance to the manors in medieval France; artists and writers of note drift away to villages in Connecticut. The projectors of the urban future meanwhile define the Internet as the civilizing agent that replaces the need for the New York Stock Exchange and the Broadway theater, and the great, good American place, under the protection of the Department of Homeland Security and safe behind a gated perimeter, comes to be imagined, as was John Winthrop’s City on a Hill, as a refuge from the storm and wonder of the world rather than as the progenitor of its energy and the locus of its desire.

-Lewis Lapham, City Light, Lapham’s Quarterly

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urban imagination image
March 13, 2010, 2:11 pm
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , , ,

The tools are there but not the vision for building great cities, says Richard Sennett in his article The Open City.  Where have we heard this before, the tools but not the vision?  Everywhere it seems, in this structure phobic world we tenuously occupy.  We’re post structure, what’s the use of vision if we can have endless iterations of technique?

Sennett also says that not only will all-the-technology-in-the-world not fill the vision void that keeps us from building good cities, but this detail and technology driven model is making cities that tend to control urban life, when a truly good city is one that is evolving and open and – in that good vibrant way – uncontrollable.

Here is an excerpt from Sennett’s The Open City:

The cities everyone wants to live in should be clean and safe, possess efficient public services, be supported by a dynamic economy, provide cultural stimulation, and also do their best to heal society’s divisions of race, class and ethnicity.  These are not the cities we live in.  They fail on all these counts due to government policy, irreparable social ills and economic forces beyond local control.  The city is not its own master.  Still, something has gone wrong – radically wrong – in our perception of what a city should be.  We need to imagine just what a clean, safe, efficient, dynamic, stimulating, just city would look like concretely; we need those images to confront critically our masters with what they should be doing – and precisely this critical imagination of the city is weak.  This weakness is a particularly modern problem:  the art of designing cities declined drastically in the middle of the twentieth century.  In saying this, I am propounding a paradox, for today’s planner has an arsenal of technological tools – from lighting to bridging to tunnelling to materials for buildings – that urbanists even 100 years ago could not begin to imagine.  We have more resources to use than ever before, but we simply do not use them creatively.

This paradox can be traced to one big fault.  That fault is over-determination, both of the city’s visual forms and its social functions.  The technologies that make experiment possible have been subordinated to a regime of power that wants order and control.

/…/

In particular, what is missing in modern urbanism is a sense of time – not time looking back nostalgically but forward-looking time:  the city understood as process, its imagery changing through use, an urban imagination image formed by anticipation, welcoming surprise.

The Open City, Richard Sennett

resources:

author:  Richard Sennett

essay:  The Open City



fear itself
January 21, 2010, 12:29 am
Filed under: brave new world, the sweet life | Tags: , , , , , ,

Last week I had an argument with a friend about the skating rinks in Manhattan.  She argued that the ‘market should decide’ what we pay for the rinks, and I argued – a bit forcefully, I guess – that the rinks should be made accessible to a broad public which could involve the market but also other decision making bodies.  It ended badly and COFRB “The Chairman” Greenspan’s name was taken in vain.

It is patently absurd that something that doesn’t care be made an oracle that we consult and beseech and yea verily believe in.  Market truth is an ideology that is particularly unyielding and unhelpful when it comes to how we build and live in cities.  The city, like a lover, needs more than mere assertions of truth:  without nuance and care the deal goes south in a hurry.

In the excerpt below, from the essay Confronting Fear by Sophie Body-Gendrot, is a discussion of how fear is a cancer to the proper public use of the city.  In imagery reminiscent of a witch trial – only on the other side – Body-Gendrot tells us we need to drag fear and rumour into the public square and reveal their intransigence and wrongheadedness.  Fear has lead to flight and sprawl, and sprawl destroys the city, and the people who partake should be taxed.  Now that’s a daring statement, and one of the few that is worth listening to in the clang and din rising from the prophets and hawkers of the new sustainability.

Here is the excerpt:

It is our task as urban scholars to deconstruct such elusive terms as unsafety, urban violence, disorder, community and ‘sensitization to violence.’  It cannot be denied that crime and terrorism are urban threats in our time.  There is a before and after 9/11, with global repercussions.  Yet the answer to fear is not to escape from the city, buy a gun and shelter ina gated community.  It is an illusion to think that families, their children, and their grandchildren can live safely for ever after in a bunker, dismissing the outside world.  Because the city is a historical construct, what they miss is the overlapping and intersecting urbanisms, each representing different historical moments and existing simultaneously.  Parks, riversides, shopping centres, museums and shared collective moments of celebration illustrate the vitality of cities.  Fears and rumours about crime that undermine the use of public space should be selected, confronted and addressed in public debate.  The debate about sprawl is open:  according to Anne Power and Richard Rogers, the harm it produces to the city should be officially acknowledged and higher taxes should be implemented for those whose lifestyle destroys the urban core.

-Confronting Fear, Sophie Body-GendrotThe Endless City, Phaidon