“Modern movement” in architecture gave rise to “an intellectual time bomb with a very long fuse,” says planner Ken Greenberg

A previous post highlights planner Ken Greenberg’s survey of the history of urban planning:

Ken Greenberg (2011) talks about early urban planning in Chicago

Click here for previous posts about Ken Greenberg >

In a study, which I have read with interest, entitled Walking Home (2011), Greenberg describes the line of reasoning – a series of conceptual processes, constructed from metaphors, related to machines of modernity, metaphors which have a history dating back to the European Enlightenment – that led to construction of the infamous Cabrini-Green housing project on Chicago’s North Side.

The city as machine was the original, theoretical concept. The machine that turned up in practice, however, in the actual reality of lived experience, was not the machine that had been envisioned. It was more of a machine vividly emerging out of a bad dream, out of a living, breathing nightmare.

A blurb from a book entitled High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing (2018) summarizes the Cabrini-Green story:

Joining the ranks of Evicted, The Warmth of Other Suns, and classic works of literary non-fiction by Alex Kotlowitz and J. Anthony Lukas, High-Risers braids personal narratives, city politics, and national history to tell the timely and epic story of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green, America’s most iconic public housing project.

Built in the 1940s atop an infamous Italian slum, Cabrini-Green grew to twenty-three towers and a population of 20,000 – all of it packed onto just seventy acres a few blocks from Chicago’s ritzy Gold Coast. Cabrini-Green became synonymous with crime, squalor, and the failure of government. For the many who lived there, it was also a much-needed resource – it was home. By 2011, every high-rise had been razed, the island of black poverty engulfed by the white affluence around it, the families dispersed.

In this novelistic and eye-opening narrative, Ben Austen tells the story of America’s public housing experiment and the changing fortunes of American cities. It is an account told movingly through the lives of residents who struggled to make a home for their families as powerful forces converged to accelerate the housing complex’s demise. Beautifully written, rich in detail, and full of moving portraits, High-Risers is a sweeping exploration of race, class, popular culture, and politics in modern America that brilliantly considers what went wrong in our nation’s effort to provide affordable housing to the poor – and what we can learn from those mistakes.

[End]

Greenberg notes that in the aftermath of the European Industrial Revolution, which gave rise to deplorable living conditions in industrial cities, a “modern movement” in architecture emerged.

He characterizes the movement (p. 22) as “an intellectual time bomb with a very long fuse” fueled by good intentions – by “a sincere humanist urge” to address the substandard housing, overcrowding, pollution, noise, soot, disease, and other features of industrial cities that emerged after the Industrial Revolution.

Whether “sincere humanist urge” captures the essence of the underlying motivation may be a matter of debate, based on what I’ve read to date of work by James C. Scott (please see below). It’s a matter of nuance; I would need to read Greenberg (2011) more closely, to get a better sense of how he has characterized humanism.

The movement, at any rate, in Greenberg’s overview, was based on the premise that the methodical logic that had successfully applied inventive engineering to industry could also be applied to how people lived their lives. This is, in fact, a fundamental point that James C. Scott among others document extensively.

It may be added that, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as Mark Mazower notes, people also discussed and imagined new ways in which to govern the world.

With reference to the concept of a modern movement, and related concepts of modernity and modernism, a previous post is entitled:

Modernism, postmodernism, and postmodernity are ways of shaping historical time into epochs

Functional City metaphor

Early modernism gave rise, according to Greenberg, to efforts of “serious and well-intentioned people (primarily architects)” to apply science, engineering, and rational thinking to the design of cities.

In effect, the city would be would be treated like an enormous machine. The early modernists believed the primary roles of a city could be identified, in the same way as the mechanical operations of industrial processes can be identified.

After the roles were identified, they could be simplified, separated, and made to work more efficiently. I would add, as an aside, that the pursuit of efficiency in postindustrial society has a long history.

The Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Modern (known as CIAM; and known in English as the International Congress of Modern Architecture), active from 1928 to 1956, worked to formulate principles related to the city as machine.

In CIAM’s proposed scenario, people would be housed in “towers in the park” – high, widely spaced apartment blocks, with lots of green space surrounding individual buildings. Work would be performed in modern factories and offices. Recreation would take place in sports complexes. Cars would move people between zones. Greenbelts would separate the zones.

The CIAM’s Athens Charter published in 1934 called for refashioning of cities into independent zones, each separately dedicated to dwelling, work, recreation, and transportation. In the interest of minimizing “friction” and maximizing “efficiency” in CIAM’s formula for what it called the Functional City, there was to be no mixing of zones or of functions.

The application of these principles gave rise to large numbers of postwar “urban renewal” projects based on slum clearance and redevelopment.

Confounded by the public street

The CIAM theorists were confounded, according to Greenberg (p. 25), by the “public street, an ancient urban construct and one of the most remarkable multidimensional human inventions.” The public street did many things but none perfectly.

“It was exasperating,” notes Greenberg, “to those analytic thinkers that the street weaved together so many roles – a means of access and mobility for pedestrians and people using many types of vehicles, a tool for surveying and defining the boundaries of individual properties, a way to deliver basic services and utilities, a place for commercial activities and the provision of public space for social and political life.

“Why not divide these functions up and accommodate each separately and more efficiently? thought the modernists. Viewing the various roles of the traditional street as an unwholesome and confusing muddle, CIAM promoted specialized ‘roadways,’ intended primarily for vehicles, and separate circulation paths and gathering spaces for pedestrians. The modernist vision untangled the complex web of overlapping activities that would be identified, later in the century, as the very essence of city life.”

CIAM gave rise to urban planning as a profession, as I understand from a visit to the Toronto Public Library website. As a blurb regarding Defining urban design: CIAM architects and the formation of a discipline, 1937-69, explains:

“The members of the International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM), such as Josep Lluis Sert, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and their American associates, developed the discipline now called ‘urban design,’ which has had a significant influence on both university departments and building projects around the world.”

Le Corbusier, Broadacre City, and Garden City

Greenberg notes that Le Corbusier, a driving force behind the movement, in a plan published in 1925 proposed to demolish most of the city heart of Paris to be replaced by a field of apartment towers. Streets were to be replaced by a hierarchy of arteries. In 1935 Le Corbusier published a more universal version entitled The Radiant City. Such visions influenced public authorities and private developers in postwar Europe and eventually elsewhere.

In America, architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1932 proposed Broadacre City. In what Greenberg (p. 26) terms an “extreme, idealized expression of the newly emerging suburbia,” Wright pictured a four-square-mile community spread thinly across the land. Each family “would have a one-acre plot within a sprawling pattern, linked by an extensive network of sinuous sci-fi highways and landing pads for personal helicopters.”

A British planning vision, the Garden City movement, emerged in 1898 in response to the unhealthy conditions of British industrial cities. Less bombastic [characterized by pompous or extravagant language], according to Greenberg, in its ambitions than CIAM’s or Wright’s, the British version proposed self-contained communities in previously undeveloped areas surrounded by greenbelts.

Eugenics in the Garden (2018)

Of related interest is a study entitled: Eugenics in the Garden: Transatlantic Architecture and the Crafting of Modernity (2018).

A blurb reads:

As Latin American elites strove to modernize their cities at the turn of the twentieth century, they eagerly adopted the eugenic theory that improvements to the physical environment would lead to improvements in the human race. Based on Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s theory of the “inheritance of acquired characteristics,” this strain of eugenics empowered a utopian project that made race, gender, class, and the built environment the critical instruments of modernity and progress.

Through a transnational and interdisciplinary lens, Eugenics in the Garden reveals how eugenics, fueled by a fear of social degeneration in France, spread from the realms of medical science to architecture and urban planning, becoming a critical instrument in the crafting of modernity in the new Latin world. Journeying back and forth between France, Brazil, and Argentina, Fabiola López-Durán uncovers the complicity of physicians and architects on both sides of the Atlantic, who participated in a global strategy of social engineering, legitimized by the authority of science. In doing so, she reveals the ideological trajectory of one of the most celebrated architects of the twentieth century, Le Corbusier, who deployed architecture in what he saw as the perfecting and whitening of man. The first in-depth interrogation of eugenics’ influence on the construction of the modern built environment, Eugenics in the Garden convincingly demonstrates that race was the main tool in the geopolitics of space, and that racism was, and remains, an ideology of progress.

[End]

Update: The garden metaphor is explored as well in a study entitled: Reinventing Eden: The Fate of Nature in Western Culture (2013). A blurb reads:

This revised edition of Carolyn Merchant’s classic Reinventing Eden has been updated with a new foreword and afterword.

Visionary quests to return to the Garden of Eden have shaped Western Culture. This book traces the idea of rebuilding the primeval garden from its origins to its latest incarnations and offers a bold new way to think about the earth.

[End of update]

Regent Park, Feb. 1, 2013. Jaan Pill photo

Machine in Garden metaphor

In a series of previous posts, I’ve addressed the metaphor of the postwar Machine in the Garden aesthetic of factory design, a concept that Steven High among others has explored.

Regent Park Aquatic Centre, Feb. 1, 2013. Jaan Pill photo

Click here for previous posts about the “Machine in the Garden” >

Regent Park

Themes related to the modern movement in architecture are also addressed in previous posts, about the postwar origins and subsequent redevelopment (once severe consequences, stemming from the original development, became evident) of the Regent Park neighbourhood in Toronto.

One of the posts focuses on National Film Board documentaries that have attempted, at times, in a process reminiscent of the Film Board’s role (a vital one, in the circumstances of wartime) in creation of propaganda during the Second World War, to justify the line of reasoning that led to construction of the original 1950s version of Regent Park; the post I refer to is entitled:

Framing Regent Park: The National Film Board and the construction of “outcast spaces” in the inner city – 1953 & 1994

With reference to more recent, and more promising, trends, at a CBC Metro Morning radio broadcast, I recently learned about The Regent Park Project, a made-for-YouTube docu-series that follows the lives of students and youth living in the Regent Park neighbourhood:

Click here to listen to an April 17, 2019 Metro Morning clip about The Regent Park Project >

A Jan. 19, 2019 CBC article, which I found informative and evocative, is entitled: “Regent Park kids being squeezed out of their own pool, Toronto councillor says: 70% of pool users coming from other, more affluent neighbourhoods.”

An excerpt reads:

At Regent Park Friday, some parents told CBC Toronto of waiting in lineups outside the pool for hours in the middle of the night to register their children for the coveted recreation programs — and even then, they weren’t always successful.

Wong-Tam said local people face technological barriers when it comes to securing a spot in the city’s popular recreational programs. Because many of the residents come from low-income backgrounds without high-speed internet, they have trouble competing with applicants from more affluent backgrounds.

Spaces in the city’s popular, low-cost programs are offered online and by phone, which means parents with the fastest connectivity have an advantage, some Regent Park parents say.

[End]

Click here for previous posts about Regent Park >

Many overviews of the history of Regent Park are available including a recent one entitled: Regent Park Redux: Reinventing Public Housing in Canada (2017); a blurb for the book reads:

Regent Park Redux evaluates one of the biggest experiments in public housing redevelopment from the tenant perspective. Built in the 1940s, Toronto’s Regent Park has experienced common large-scale public housing problems. Instead of simply tearing down old buildings and scattering inhabitants, the city’s housing authority came up with a plan for radical transformation.

In partnership with a private developer, the Toronto Community Housing Corporation organized a twenty-year, billion-dollar makeover. The reconstituted neighbourhood, one of the most diverse in the world, will offer a new mix of amenities and social services intended to “reknit the urban fabric.”

Regent Park Redux, based on a ten-year study of 52 households as they moved through stages of displacement and resettlement, examines the dreams and hopes residents have for their community and their future. Urban planners and designers across the world, in cities facing some of the same challenges as Toronto, will want to pay attention to this story.

[End]

Map showing the planned phases of redevelopment of Regent Park, image courtesy of Toronto Community Housing. This image has been downloaded from a Sept. 12, 2012 Urban Toronto article, entitled: “TCHC and Daniels Unveil Plans for Phase Three of the Regent Park Revitalization.”

Vietnam

The above-noted discussions bring to mind the Vietnam War, which had its beginnings in the idealism of the administration of the American President, John F. Kennedy, who called upon young Americans to “serve their country.” In the end, good intentions and bright, well-meaning individuals in high positions orchestrated what turned out to be a disaster.

Such themes are highlighted at a post entitled:

What is characterized as decent, honourable, and loyal depends upon the context in which the terms are used

Comments from Jane Jacobs

I have discussed observations from James S. Scott at a previous post entitled:

History and Social Theory (2005) by Peter Burke and Two Cheers for Anarchism (2012) by James C. Scott warrant a close read

Le Corbusier branded himself, and was branded by others, as an expert in modernist land-use decision making.

Jane Jacobs, among other observers, eventually underlined that the metaphors that Le Corbusier and his planning contemporaries chose, starting in the 1920s, in order to guide and justify their modernist urban planning initiatives, were misleading and inept.

Based on my reading of studies related to the history of Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Soviet Russia in the 1930s and 1940s, I have the sense that Le Corbusier’s aesthetic vision had affinities with totalitarian art. This is a point that James C. Scott also brings attention to. A related topic, which I find of much interest, concerns how best to define totalitarianism.

James C. Scott (1998) discusses Le Corbusier’s urban planning metaphors

The following passage is from Chapter 4 – “The High Modernist City: An Experiment and a Critique,” in Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998) (pp. 106-107).

The passage concerns (in the words of Scott, p. 103) “the work and thought of the Swiss-born French essayist, painter, architect and planner Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, who is better known by his professional name, Le Corbusier,” whom Scott characterizes as “the embodiment of high-modernist urban design.”

In his introductory remarks, Scott adds, with regard to Le Corbusier: “Active roughly between 1920 and 1960, he was less an architect than a visionary plan­ner of planetary ambitions. The· great majority of his gargantuan schemes were never built; they typically required a political resolve and financial wherewithal that few political authorities could muster.”

In his introductory remarks, Scott adds that Le Corbusier’s “legacy is most apparent in the logic of his unbuilt megaprojects.” He adds:

His early politics was a bizarre combination of Sorel’s revolutionary syndicalism and Saint-Simon’s utopian modernism, and he designed both in Soviet Russia (1928-36) [3] and in Vichy for Mar­shal Philippe Petain. The key manifesto of modern urban planning, the Athens charter of the Congres lnternationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), faithfully reflected his doctrines.

[End]

The author further adds (p. 104):

Le Corbusier embraced the huge, machine-age, hierarchical, cen­tralized city with a vengeance. If one were looking for a caricature­ a Colonel Blimp, as it were, of modernist urbanism – one could hardly do better than to invent Le Corbusier. His views were extreme but in­fluential, and they were representative in the sense that they cele­brated the logic implicit in high modernism. In his daring, his bril­liance, and his consistency, Le Corbusier casts the high-modernist faith in sharp relief. [4]

[End]

Quote from pp. 106-107 in Seeing Like a State (1998):

The passage, that I have chosen to focus upon, reads:

Le Corbusier had no patience for the physical environment that centuries of urban living had created. He heaped scorn on the tangle, darkness, and disorder, the crowded and pestilential conditions, of Paris and other European cities at the turn of the century. Part of his scorn was, as we shall see, on functional and scientific grounds; a city that was to become efficient and healthful would indeed have had to demolish much of what it had inherited. But another source of his scorn was aesthetic. He was visually offended by disarray and confu­sion. And the disorder he wished to correct was not so much a disorder at ground level but a disorder that was a function of distance, a bird’s­ eye view. [7] His mixed motives are nicely captured in his judgment on small rural properties as seen from the air (figure 17). “From air­planes, a look down on infinitely subdivided, incongruously shaped plots of land. The more modern machinery develops, the more land is chopped up into tiny holdings that render the miraculous promise of machinery useless. The result is waste: inefficient, individual scrab­bling.” [8] The purely formal order was at least as important as the accom­modation with the machine age. “Architecture,” he insisted, “is the art above all others which achieves a state of platonic grandeur, mathe­matical order, speculation, the perception of harmony that lies in emotional relationships.” [9]

Formal, geometric simplicity and functional efficiency were not two distinct goals to be balanced; on the contrary, formal order was a pre­condition of efficiency. Le Corbusier set himself the task of inventing the ideal industrial city, in which the “general truths” behind the ma­chine age would be expressed with graphic simplicity. The rigor and unity of this ideal city required that it make as few concessions as pos­sible to the history of existing cities. “We must refuse to afford even the slightest concession to what is: to the mess we are in now,” he wrote. “There is no solution to be found there.” Instead, his new city would preferably rise on a cleared site as a single, integrated urban composition. Le Corbusier’s new urban order was to be a lyrical marriage be­tween Cartesian pure forms and the implacable requirements of the ma­chine. In characteristically bombastic terms, he declared, “We claim, in the name of the steamship, the airplane, and the automobile, the right to health, logic, daring, harmony, perfection.” [10] Unlike the exist­ing city of Paris, which to him resembled a “porcupine” and “vision of Dante’s Inferno,” his city would be an “organized, serene, forceful, airy, ordered entity.”[11]

[End]

A blurb for Seeing Like a State (1998) reads:

Compulsory ujamaa villages in Tanzania, collectivization in Russia, Le Corbusier’s urban planning theory realized in Brasilia, the Great Leap Forward in China, agricultural modernization in the Tropics – the 20th century has been racked by grand utopian schemes that have inadvertently brought death and disruption to millions. Why do well-intentioned plans for improving the human condition go tragically awry?

[End]

I came across James C. Scott’s work some years ago. Some people who espouse a libertarian ideology appear to be fond of his work. I am fond of his work but I am not a libertarian.

Ken Greenberg’s metaphor of “an intellectual time bomb with a long fuse” has prompted me to write the current post.

One tentative conclusion, based on what I’ve learned writing this post, is that metaphors can take on a life of their own, and can readily exert a strong hold on what we see, and what we do.

Metaphors can, in some cases, take on a life of their own, specifically under conditions where the metaphors are aligned with evidence.

Metaphors can, as well, take on a life of their own, specifically even under conditions where they are untethered from evidence.

I see that phenomenon at play in the “intellectual time bomb” metaphor, that Ken Greenberg refers to.

I also see that phenomenon at play in the mental processes that are evident, to historians who have studied archival and other evidence, with regard to the Vietnam War.

Another tentative conclusion, based on what I’ve learned writing this post, is that good intentions can, at times, lead to bad results.

A corollary is that one must proceed with wisdom before proceeding with some big project, aimed at offering aid and assistance, to address a given situation.

There is much that we can do, by way of being helpful toward our fellow human beings, but we must show wisdom, with regard to how can most productively proceed, in the fulfillment of such a task.

As well, not all help is actually helpful.

For example, if we don’t ask a person whether or not they see themselves as requiring help, then what we offer is not help, but may in fact be an imposition. As well, if a person being helped has no input in decision making, related to the help, then something other than help is at play.

Thus a key point is: If we seek to provide help, it’s a great idea to be clear what help means, from the perspective of the person receiving the help, and from the person who offers it. Without such clarity, nobody gains, and everybody loses.

I like to focus on what works. Among things that are helpful, in my view, is a level of income equality, of a kind that is found in a country such as Norway. Better to have people living with a decent income, than for planners to work endlessly at devising ways to address extremes in income inequality. Urban planning keeps planners employed but does not, as a rule, do much to address underlying issues related to poverty.

Updates

A May 8, 2019 CityLab article, which helps to put topics at this post into a context, in terms of people’s lived experiences, is entitled: “How Does Toxic Stress Affect Low-Income and Black Children?: Traumatic childhood experiences can harm children’s ability to learn reading, writing, and math, according to a new report.”

An excerpt reads:

He was channeling a bit of conventional wisdom, that extreme stress has lasting effects on health and well-being. A new report affirms that connection, finding that threatening childhood experiences can change the way children grasp math and learn the alphabet, and can even affect their ability to read a simple story. Those experiences can also permanently alter children’s physiology, creating “toxic stress.”

[End]

A more recent study by Ken Greenberg is entitled: Toronto Reborn: Design Successes and Challenges (2009). A blurb reads:

An incisive view of Toronto’s development over the last fifty years. In Toronto Reborn, Ken Greenberg describes how the contours of a new Toronto can be seen. Focusing on the period from 1970 to the present, the book looks at how the work and decisions of citizens, NGOs, businesses, and governments have all combined to refashion Toronto. Individually and collectively, their actions – renovating buildings and neighbourhoods, building startling new structures and urban spaces, revitalizing old cultural institutions and creating new ones, and sponsoring new festivals and events – have transformed the old postwar city, changing it into an exciting modern one. Toronto, grafting itself onto old foundations, is experiencing a kind of rebirth – arising vertically above its old self.

[End]

A May 3, 2019 JAMA Network article is entitled: “Health Concerns in Urban Slums: A Glimpse of Things to Come?”

The Conclusions read:

Are slum dwellers entitled to the same basic human rights that most people take for granted? The needs of urban poor populations are growing exponentially, and governments must act to meet those needs. Despite the limited evidence, providing suitable housing, water, sanitation, and basic health care appear paramount. But the reality is that most low- and middle-income countries are not prepared or do not have the resources to provide this basic human right for the poorest segments of their societies. What, then, is the minimum that should be provided to ensure infant survival, proper growth and development of children, and quality of life for families? Should the focus be on the first year of life, children younger than 5 years, or all age categories? Is annual vaccination possible? Is universal health care achievable? What are low- and middle-income countries prepared to invest to make this a reality? More questions remain unanswered than answered. Virtually every UN Sustainable Development Goal has not been met in urban slums around the globe. Clearly, urban slum health must become a global health priority in the 21st century to avoid a humanitarian crisis.

[End]

Gentrification and urban beauty

A May 15, 2019 CityLab article is entitled: “The Beauty Premium: How Urban Beauty Affects Cities’ Economic Growth: A study finds that the more beautiful a city is, the more successful it is at attracting jobs and new residents, including highly educated and affluent ones.”

Language related to climate crisis

Gentrification when viewed as a global phenomenon can be characterized as development at the expense of the planet.

A May 17, 2019 Guardian article is entitled: Why the Guardian is changing the language it uses about the environment: From now, house style guide recommends terms such as ‘climate crisis’ and ‘global heating’”.

An excerpt reads:

The scale of the climate and wildlife crises has been laid bare by two landmark reports from the world’s scientists. In October, they said carbon emissions must halve by 2030 to avoid even greater risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. In May, global scientists said human society was in jeopardy from the accelerating annihilation of wildlife and destruction of the ecosystems that support all life on Earth.

Other terms that have been updated, including the use of “wildlife” rather than “biodiversity”, “fish populations” instead of “fish stocks” and “climate science denier” rather than “climate sceptic”. In September, the BBC accepted it gets coverage of climate change “wrong too often” and told staff: “You do not need a ‘denier’ to balance the debate.”

[End]

A May 22, 2019 Frisc article is entitled: “Housing Arguments Over SB 50 Distort My Upzoning Study. Here’s How to Get Zoning Changes Right: Whether more buildings and greater density make units more affordable is a good question, but results from Chicago are being misinterpreted. Turns out that the nuances and details matter.”

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