Surburban expletive deleted

July 25, 2010

When Nixon’s secret tapes of his White House conversations were released under duress as part of the machinations of Watergate, the phrase, “expletive deleted” from the typwritten transcripts entered the language.  Nixon’s chat was not always of an elevated nature.

There is a blog on the NYTimes Opinionator page about a contest to redesign (yet again) the suburbs, this time of Long Island.  What struck me most about this post was the comments:  they are vehement, often violent, and I have never seen so many editorial deletions of inappropriate comments.  Apparently, feelings about urban design run pretty high.  And I am a frequent reader of climate-change blogs, where emotions are not exactly, shall we say, cool.

One line of thought was that the entire idea was a crock.  The suburbs are hell.  They should be razed completely.  Tax auto use to the skies and force those jerks to take mass transit.

Another was that NYC life has become impossible for middle-class people with families, so why do you hate us so much?

Plans of all sorts abound, from utopian to totalitarian.  Everyone has the solution. Everyone should be happy to live in the suburbs that I design.

Confusion over the very nature of terms is fundamental.  Manhattan is an American anomaly.  Many local suburbs are as dense as cities elsewhere in the USA.  Most people who live in American cities live in regions that would at least look suburban to New Yorkers.

Sprawl is evil.  Suburbs are evil.  Cities are virtuous.  People in the suburbs live soulless, isolated lives.  As if you can’t be terribly lonely and bored in the midst of a crowd in Bryant Park.

For another post on the topic of urbanist-ideological ranting, visit here:  Facing the Reality of Sprawl.


When did Paris become romantic?

December 22, 2009

When did Paris get to be the city of romance and of young lovers?  No doubt, the photographs of Robert Doisneau had something to do with it.  Is it a post WWII phenomenon?  I think of Paris for the period before that as being the city of loose women, artists, intellectuals, free-wheeling nightlife, but not exactly romance.  As the WWI song went,

How ya’ going to keep them down on the farm,
after they’ve seen Gay Pa-ree?

This referred to all those rural American doughboy soldiers who’d gotten a taste of Sodom’s delights while on leave in the big city.  And before that, during the Second Empire and the fin de siècle, Paris was the city of sin, lust, greed, wild financial wheeler-dealing, whores and nightclubs, drugs and absinthe, “ballet” dancers for purchase by rich sybarites, and plunging décolletage.  Not exactly the stuff of…romance.

And then there’s the Paris of brutality and political insurrection.  The bloody suppression of the Commune, the revolutions in the streets of 1830 and 1848, with barricades and hand-to-hand fighting.  Looming over it all, the Big One, The French Revolution of 1789, and the ensuing Terror.  Again, not too much romance there.

People talk about how beautiful Paris is, as if the urban plan and the regular facades of the streets exude loveliness and, of course, romance.  More and more, when I think of Paris, I think of its reconstruction under Napoleon III and Hausmann, the ruthless demolition of neighborhoods, the eviction of thousands, the fraud, the corruption, and the waste incurred during the pell mell rebuilding of the city in Napoleon’s image until his ignominious exit in 1871.  The long avenues and the open circles seem to me the marks of authoritarian planning, a dictatorial City Beautiful [in America, urban renewal was called by some negro removal; in Paris, it would have been worker removal] all of which has been imitated by dictators of various intellectual calibers since, from Romania to the Ivory Coast.

I guess I’ve been reading too much Zola.  I was surprised to find how many of his novels deal with precisely this topic, the rebuilding of the city.  The Belly of Paris and The Kill are two that come to mind immediately.  And as for décolletage, he documents it in several texts, most tellingly here where he is describing not a prostitute or courtesan, but a society lady:

When Renée entered the room, a murmur of admiration greeted her.  She was truly divine…her head and bodice were done up adorably.   Her breasts exposed, almost to the nipples…the young woman seemed to emerge stark naked from her sheath of tulle and salin… [more here]

Does the objectification of woman get any more explicit?  Romance?..  A few images from now and then…

   

    

I miss Venice

December 21, 2009

I last spent time in La Serenissima about thirty years ago.  How time … [insert cliche here.]  I was on my way to India via the land route, and stopped for a week or so, drunk with architecture.  It was September, and I thought that the high tourist season would be over by then, but I was wrong.  I spent my first night on the Lido beach, I recall.  The sight of boats laden with tourists gliding through the dark, surrounded by crowded walkways, reminded me of Disneyland, but I knew why I was there.

With daylight, I found my way to the Giudecca, the Jews’ island, where the International Youth Hostel was.  I ate for free during the several days of the Festival of Unity staged by the Communist Party – delicious.  The irony was tasty too – I am neither an observant Jew nor a communist.  Moreover, the Jewish ghetto of Venice was never located on that island, which is home to one of the great Renaissance monuments, the church of Il Redentore  by Palladio.

Venice seems to have a special place in the imagination of Europeans, even Italians, as well as tourist hordes worldwide, and it is featured in films often. Two films I like very much that feature Venice are Italian for Beginners and Bread and Tulips, one Danish, one Italian, both romantic comedies.  Then there are the films I don’t like, and films I thought were great but that I’m too scared to watch again.

When I was studying the history of architecture, a grad student told me that “everyone loves Venice.”  That is, all architects and planners, regardless of their stylistic bent or ideology (and the latter can be pretty fierce among architects – intensity seems inversely proportioned to the number of completed projects…) all point to the city of Venice as the exemplar of whatever they hold most dear.  It is often cited as a supreme example of “organic” urban growth, and indeed, from the air, it looks sort of like a schematic fish!  I have always thought the Grand Canal, snaking through it, looks like the main intestinal tract in higher animals, and once again, that is, sort of, what it is for the city as a whole.

Now, the city is a fossil, without an economy independent of tourism, although we shouldn’t despise it for that since in our “spectacular age,” tourism is an industry like any other.  The sinking has stopped with the cessation of pumping in Mestre and other places, but high water, as always, is a problem.  The flood gates are under design to preserve the physical fabric of the place from inundation, but the lower stories  of many structures, already sunken to the point that portions are permanently submerged while they were designed for occasional flooding, are crumbling and need shoring up.

I don’t really care – the city is a physical creation unlike any other in the world and should be appreciated for that beyond all else.  It is a monument to the amazing creativity of the urban collective, and it provides an ideal point against which to measure any urban fantasy, because it was as real as real can be for centuries.  Pity it, laugh at its not-too-clean canals, dismiss it as a decaying urban theme park:  what city can claim to have been so powerful, so rich, so influential, and so fantastically beautiful in a way unmatched by anyplace on earth for so long?

Oh, and then there’s that Fourth Crusade, with its never-ending lessons for the rest of us…


Let’s recognize reality…

June 3, 2009

big_sprawl

Kevin Lynch’s book, The Image of the City, is an investigation of how inhabitants of urban areas form an image in their minds of the city, and the implications of this for ‘urban design.’  The book is a classic, endlessly cited.  I have been thinking a lot lately about cities and urban sprawl, and I am wondering if our image of the city isn’t a big part of the problem when we start diagnosing and ranting about urban ills of today.

Many of us come to the city with a notion of what a city should be that is woefully out of date, and has nothing to do with the cities in which we live.  A true believer in the Lynch point of view, at least as I understood it as a student long ago, would say that people today have no clear idea of the cities in which they live because the urban form has spread, “metastisized,” sprawled, bled all over, etc. etc. the surronding area and that cities have no form, are formless, today.  Of course, everything has a form.  Maybe not the one you like…  The conclusion is that something is terribly wrong in everywhere-ville today.

To see the Ur-source of western city images, you could hardly do better than this book,which I heartily recommend:

cities_taschen

click link

Cities of the World – the complete color plates from 1572 – 1617 by Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg.  This was, perhaps, the golden age of city form, or at least of idealized versions of it committed to paper.  Looking through this book is a dizzying experience for anyone who is interested in urban history and European architectural tourism!  The plates are positively awe inspiring in their beauty.  They convey a powerful, nostalgic, and completely inappropriate way of looking at cities of today.  But who cares!

Here are some good cities!

urbino page_xl_braun_hogenberg_10_0809181220_id_138632

cambrayfull braun_hogenberg_III_2_b

17582-01

They all are so clearly demarcated from the surrounding country.  They give such a clear sense of their structure and ordering principles.  Their enclosure by walls or moats makes them look like biological cells, prompting all sorts of fertile notions about urban growth, organic growth, sustainability, city-nature, etc.  Of course, this was a picture book.  Did the cities ever look quite like this?  To a great extent, yes, but any unsightly details such as squatters or gypsies, industrial outbuildings crowded up against the edge, and the like, were removed.

new-jerusalem-tapestryThis IS the image of the city we carry with us, at least those of us who have been properly educated, as I was.  The image has many sources, not the least of which are religious, as shown here in this scene from 14th century tapestry in which John views the Celestial Jerusalem.  Of course, there’s also Homer, in which the walls of Troy are for viewing the fighting going on in the plain below.

In his wonderful book, Sprawl:  A Compact History, (clever, that compact bit) Robert Bruegmann challenges a lot of these notions.  Sprawl, suburbs and suburbanization, development, edge-cities, exurbanity, and all that are the antithesis of the city.  Or so we think.  He argues, convincingly, and on the contrary, that there has always been sprawl, but that it was always the preserve of the economic and power elite.  Today, sprawl, or low-density urban living, has been democratized.  In his book, he doesn’t really evaluate sprawl as good or bad, except to say that it clearly has many good consequences and many that are not good.  This neutral approach infuriates some people who seem to feel that not declaring war on sprawl at the outset puts him in league with the devil, or at least with the Republicans.  Bruegmann feels that sprawl, and the cities with which it forms urban systems is too complex to yield to simple analyses:  first we must understand the history and nature of what we are ranting about.  Over and over again he marshals facts and logic to challenge, and sometimes demolish the pretensions of the anti-sprawl contingent, and a few of my preconceptions fell by the wayside in the process.

As I read through his book, it seemed to me that sprawl and global warming have much in common as causes – indeed many would join them in some way – in that they have a religious significance for many people.  To investigate scientifically is to violate sacred taboos.

Perhaps my favorite moment in reading was when he remarked on the monumental lack of curiosity regarding the reality of modern city life present in the writing of Lewis Mumford, a veritable god to me in my younger days.  Well, I still like Mummy’s prose – readers of this blog will be familiar with my weakness for apocalyptic cultural and political  critiques – but the fact is, he’s right.  I wonder, did Mumford ever speak to someone who liked living in the suburbs?


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