Monday, 25 October 2010


At this point I should state that I've not read Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities. A few months ago there was a sudden outburst of Jacobs-related chat from the local architectural cognoscenti, and there are two excellent, excellent essays relating to her work from Kosmograd and from Spillway, in case you wanted to go over some of the ideas that contemporary critics have about her, rather than her nu-urbanist zealot followers. Kosmograd discusses how her notion of the city cannot possibly make any sense when confronted with the shocking urbanism of the Foxconn factory city in China, and also discusses how the application of ideas from 'death and life' has lead to 'bo-ho theme parks' (and Jesus, if ever you needed a description of where I live, it's that). From there we are only a converted loft away from Richard Florida, and all the seething shit that goes along with that kind of attitude to the city.
Spillway's piece discusses the new-urbanists' aversion to urbanism, their reactionary love of the qualities of the village, and includes the following:

"All cities need sublimity, a touch of holy terror, a defiance of human scale that asserts connection to the greater urban whole."

This cuts to the heart of the matter, although with Will's permission I might read it slightly differently. As far as I can see, at least a significant part of the desire that certain among us express for an urban landscape of sublimity is not just that it represents an egalitarian and more just future of collective living, but also that it represents a desire for everyday life to be artistic, furthermore, for everyday life to be avant-garde. 'To see one's self in a romance' as Keiller recounts, but perhaps the desire for the sublime modernist urban landscape is the desire to live, as it were, dodecaphonically...

...which brings me to this. The Cooper Union school in New York have put on an exhibition of the Robert Moses scheme that got Jacobs so riled up in the first place, the Lower Manhattan Expressway, as visualised at the time by Paul Rudolph, American brutalist extraordinaire. First, a few caveats: it is of course a Good. Thing. that this redevelopment never took place. And of course what would have been built would in no way have resembled the vision as conjured up by Rudolph. But my god! Just look at it! Surely this is one of the great candidates for urban sublimity...

I often imagine what it would be like if the political and economic situation of the world had panned out differently, if there had been no oil crisis, perhaps, or if the will had been there to continue pushing the megastructural experiments to greater heights and complexities. What if the Archigram project had taken off, and a full section of a plug-in city had been built? What if, to maybe drift close to 'and what will be left of them', the 1970s had not ended up in the 1980s, but had stretched out for another 30 years? What if instead of a right-wing reaction there had been a continuous development of certain modernist tendencies? Would there be any difference to life patterns if you lived in a pod house that hadn't been moved in a generation, and the cranes that were designed to drag it around had seized up long ago, the promised nomadism gradually encrusting into sedentary failure? Would there be a qualitative difference to your melancholy if you happened to live in the very future that is so conspicuously absent from our present?


lewism said...

I really liked this post and found myself agreeing with it strongly until the last paragrapgh. At which point I wasn't sure exactly what you mean't.
It seems to me that the evidence is that the Archigram project wasn't abandoned but is actually being realised. At least anyway its being built, but the political, social and economic situation its being built under are almost diametrically opposite from that forseen by Archigram.
You might say that Archigram forsaw the Architecture of the future correctly but totally failed to see the future world in which their buildings were made.
So we get foxconn as plugin city.
You might even say that Archigram got the small details right but totally missed the bigger picture.
But then looking again at what you said doesn't contradict my reaction. The building form or method isn't the vehicle for city life but the living itself, and that can't be ascribed to a particular built form.
Every future city when built becomes the past and when reimagined by necessity is reimagined as failure.

Murphy said...

Interesting point.
I think perhaps Archigram are not the right example. Although I appreciate their work, I do find that their naivite and general lack of interest in politics fundamentally crippled their project (I readily admit that I am mostly cursing Peter Cook here).

I don't completely agree that they forsaw the future that well; they rode a wave of consumerist culture, no doubt, but the rudimentary architecture of containers and big sheds is not quite what they were suggesting. If you want the Archigram future, look at Glastonbury, not Foxconn...

Perhaps to clarify, my point in the last paragraph was to imagine that the megastructural tendency within Brutalism and 'Zoom' had continued; for example, what if the Oil Crisis had never happened, and there was no right-wing reaction in the late 70s, what if North Sea oil revenue had been ploughed into housing and infrastructure, what if ALL of -say- Camden had been rebuilt? etc.etc.