The Ideal of Figueres

May 23, 2014

iglesia_san_pere_figueres_t1700670.jpg_1306973099

From The Gray Notebook by Josep Pla:

I personally enjoy city milieus that have the spirit Figueres embodies.  I feel at ease there.  I think this is a city, properly speaking, what one should call a city.  Denser, more extensive concentrations of humanity may exist…but without the same degree of urbanity.  Figueres is a small, yet fully rounded city.  And if it is enchanting because it is fully rounded, it is all the more so because it is small.  Large cities are tiring, stressful, uncomfortable, pretentious, and grandiose:  they tend to give a false idea of life.  Small cities seem more made-to-measure for ordinary mortals, more advantageous for work and leisure, and offer a life that is more direct.  One doesn’t waste so much time, though naturally one doesn’t earn so much money.

Amen to that. Figures was nice, and so was Narbonne!

Advertisements

Sustainability?

May 27, 2012

I have been reading a lot about sustainability lately, trying to pin down what it really means.  I am doing this because I have grown tired of hearing the term bandied about thoughtlessly, used as a marketing slogan in my profession, used as a rallying cry for unthinking do-gooders in the public sphere, and because it is connected with ideas I find fascinating, i.e., the notions that we have to connect us with nature, and the notions we have of nature itself.  Two pieces I looked at are this booklet by a professor in England who’s specialty it is, and this article on ‘carrying capacity‘ by a human geographer at Berkley.

Th images at the head of this post represent the two paths we are told we can follow:  The first is that of bacteria reproducing in a petri dish, the population growing rapidly, then crashing – that’s the path we are supposedly on now; the second is the ‘closed loop’ of eco, bio, sustainable, new age, no growth economics that the prophets seek to bring us to.  The theological/ethical dimensions of the latter view are obvious simply from the array of images presented when you google ‘sustainability’ for images.

Mr. Jackson’s booklet (Prosperity without Growth) goes into great detail about the inequalities, inefficiencies and spiritual dogmas of our present cultural ecology of free enterprise capitalism and consumerism.  He tells that countries with much lower GDPs than the USA or UK have the same, or better!, life expectancies, same or better infant mortality rates, and that new measures of ‘happiness’ show no strong link between materialistic or consumer abundance and satisfaction.  Is this news?  Is this what the Sustainability Program amounts to – a plea to examine the nature of The Good Life, and to act accordingly?  Very old wine in new bottles.

For the record, I largely agree with this philosophic critique of our current social arrangements, but where I part company with the prophets is my belief that our current path IS sustainable, though not preferable (to me).  What these folks are doing is packaging an ethical, philosophical, moral, religious, spiritual and political point of view inside a pseudo-scientific theory.  The logic goes, if we do not change towards a sustainable path, we, human civilization, will crash like those one-celled creatures in the graph at top.  (The intellectual incoherence of this view is dissected in Nathan Sayre’s essay that I have linked to this post.)  Without the Damoclean sword of global meltdown hanging over us, why would anyone do anything to change?  Because society would be more just, more fair, more satisfying, less damaging to the ecological communities we cohabit with on Earth?  There’s too much money to be made to bother with that stuff!

So, what do we end up getting in the absences of a reasoned and organized attack on the status quo?  We get the same old economic system and its injustice and inequality, but we get bike-lanes (I like ’em), ‘green products’, (I hate ’em), tony new-urbanist developments (works for me), hipster eco-esthetic (I like to shop there) carbon footprinting (useless and deceptive) and so on…


Narbonne: Power and the People

September 6, 2011

Narbonne is a provincial city in southwest France, right on the Mediterranean, and close to Spain.  It was a big power center in the time of the Roman Empire, and a pretty big deal during the Middle Ages, but fell on hard times along with the rest of the Languedoc during the early modern period.  Much of the region is still quite poor relative to the rest of France.

On the wall of the City Hall in the main square and elsewhere, there are these two plaques with the heading:  1907 – It’s our history.  The pictures show some sort of an insurrection.  The text tells about an intransigent mayor who refused to surrender to the police authorities, demonstrations and riots in his support, and Clemenceau’s decision to draft troops from other regions of France (as Deng did in China during the Tiananmen activities) to go and suppress the disturbances.  Some shots were fired at crowds, some people died, order was restored.

I had to dig a bit to find out just what the ruckus was all about.  It’s known as La Revolte de Vigne, the Revolt of the Vinyards, and it was triggered by a terrible slump in prices for wine, caused in part by overproduction, wine being, then  and now, the economic engine of the region.  The mayor was a socialist, and the protesters were calling for some sort of popular relief.  Not too different from farmers in the Populist Movement of the USA.  In Kansas, do they have placards about agricultural actions that say, “It’s Our History?” I wonder?

Across the square from the plaques is an excavation to the original Roman road, Via Domitia, that ran from Barcelona through Provence.  For the Roman Empire, roads were as important as military posts for establishing and maintaining control.  Major Roman roads continued to be used throughout the medieval period as trade routes, long after the Empire ceased to exist except as an idea that would not die.

As for the people, the female half of them has a special place in French culture – we all know that.  Of course, I’m not talking about love, romance, and adultery:  I’m talking about shopping.  On the same town square, there is a 19th century building that used to be a large department store, emblazoned with the words, Aux dames de France (to the ladies of France) across its frieze.  It’s not Paris, but it could have as easily said ‘Ladies Delight!‘ the title of Zola’s great novel about a large department store.  Not too far away, Les halles, again, not the great Parisian market structure of Zola’s The Belly of Paris, but a wonderful place to fill one’s gut nonetheless, and right on Rue Emile Zola too!

I like Narbonne a lot:  it’s not exciting, but it’s open, informal, and has that pleasing architectural jumble that was wiped out in Paris by the facelift it got from Napoleon III and Hausmann in the 1850s and ’60s.   I also like indulging in cafe culture in the main square, something that just doesn’t exist at home.  Old people, housewives, young people, professionals at work, all sorts, sitting in the square, reading, eating, or just chatting for as long as they like, even if they buy nothing more than a coffee or a single beer.  And watching the people walking by or sharing their cafe space – the sunny weather makes it perfect!


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.


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?


Architecture: that human scale…

August 10, 2008

There is a story about a press conference with Minoru Yamasaki before construction on the World Trade Center began:

“Why did you scale down your design from 150 stories to 100, Mr. Yamasaki?”
“We wanted to keep the human scale.”

Uh, yeah, right!

What’s up with this building of the Chinese State TV headquarters now going up in Beijing?  It’s designed by Rem Koolhaas, shown here in a presentation drawing.  Is it a Moebius strip?  I can’t decide whether it’s some kind of wonderful or a vision from the hell of 1984.  I don’t like to pass judgments about buildings I’ve never seen, but this one does give me the creeps.  I can imagine the minions of the state propaganda apparatus having a fine old time inside trying to control the minds of the nation.  And they say it is the largest office building in the world next to the US Pentagon.  Talk about human scale…which is something that Koolhaas does talk about.

Architects are a funny bunch.  Creative, ego-centric, perhaps a bit megalomaniac when they turn their hands to urban planning and “urbanism” writ large.  After all, don’t they want to see their drawing board visions brought to life?  Not that they want to impose them…except for our own good…

Here’s a gallery of images of buildings that seem to lack that loving, human touch…starting with a photo of the CCTV in progress:

We’ve got the Chinese TV headquarters under construction, then two shots of the late, great twin towers.  I know it’s heresy to say this, but I think that they destroyed the skyline of Manhattan.  Quite honestly, I hated them and found them to be soulless, overpowering buildings set in a windy plaza above a depressing subterranean shopping mall.  Now I look down from my window and watch their successors take form.

Next up, Le Corbusier’s vision for Paris – knock down the buildings and set up rows of cruciform skyscrapers.  The street must die!  It’s so noisy, chaotic, and…lacking in ORDER!  (Jane Jacobs knew where he was coming from.)  Corbu’s vision was realized in part in NYC in Cooper Village and Stuyvesant town, two mega developments that provided a lot of low-cost living space to WWII veterans coming home.  The towers are dull, even ugly, and set in a rather boring and uninspired “park” setting which is, however, lovingly, even lushly tended.  A saving grace…Now the subsidies are gone and the apartment rents and prices are through the roof.

Some visionary stuff a la Francaise. Claude Ledoux’s spherical house, pure geometry, but not overly large.  Still, what’s the point of living in that other than to prove an artist’s point?  And the Great Arch of La Defense, located on the edge of Paris.  Another exercise in pure form – lovely isn’t it?  Nearby, the National Library, in the shape of an open book.  Nevermind that functionally it is a failure, i.e., it doesn’t store books very well.

Next up, two images of the Empire State Plaza in Albany, New York, the capital of New York state.  “Empire State” is the nickname of  New York (thus the Empire State Building…) but it seems a bit ironic here.  A plaza in the capital of a state ruled by democracy, named “empire,” and in a style that would seem at home in an evil empire anywhere, cinematic, soviet, futuristic fascist, and the like.  It was built by Nelson Rockefeller, a man not known for his humility.  The huge reflecting pool on the left has a pavilion at the end that seems like an imperial Persian review stand on steroids.  And that weird floating thing on the right in the middle picture?  That’s a theater, not a cast-off from The Jetsons.  The last picture on the row, a shot of Brasilia, carries on the theme with a little more elegance.

Closing out, we have some fantastic visions – never built, of course, but today..? – by Etienne Boullee.  A pryamid a la modern, an enormous, cavernous, seemlingly infinite design for a national library, and a monument to Issac Newton.  The latter at least makes a nice match of over the top design with the size Newton’s ego, his subject, and his accomplishments as well.

 


Our Past, Their Present…

January 21, 2006

There have been many articles in the NYTimes recently about the simmering rural unrest in China, and the trepidation it causes the nation’s leaders. With many Chinese cities seeing unprecedented economic boom times, the land in and around them has become very valuable as developers scramble to make millions with new real estate. Last week, the Times had a piece about a rural city, formerly more of a village before the intense economic growth in the region, and the protests brought on by the locals’ sense that they had been cheated out of their land. They protested, and were put down violently.The police, the state, the economic establishment, all seem to be arrayed against simple and uneducated farmers who, for some strange reason, are reluctant to give up the land that they own or have had rights to for many years. This in the land where urban intellectuals, in a past epoch, were ‘sent down’ to work in the mud of the rural farms to learn true Chinese communist values. Now that those rural denizens have notions of their own about rights and values, they have become inconvenient.

It all seems very reminiscent of the European enclosure movement, about which I have written before. [Who Is this Man?] People with resources and power screw the workers of the land to get the real estate to turn it into fungible wealth – flocks of wool bearing sheep, or apartment houses and factory buildings. A hundred years from now, the descendents of these shysters and ruthless operators will look back on them and talk of how they reached their pinnacles of success through hard work and superior virtue. Well, hard work, yes, but of a particular kind, and with a lot of theft mixed in. Same story, different century. It’s like seeing history in replay mode, if you’re paying attention.