Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Architects, City Planning, Le Corbusier, Pulp Fiction, The Masses, The City of the Future, and Me

"After Some Encouraging Signs, Architecture Billings Index Drops Substantially "
Architect's Guide to Glass (Dec 16, 2009 )

"Following its highest mark since August 2008, the Architecture Billings Index (ABI) dropped more than three points in November....

"...'There continues to be a lot of uncertainty in the construction industry that likely...."

There's more, of interest to architects, venture capitalists, building contractors, and other people whose lives are directly affected by the building industry: but not many other folks.

The Art! The Vision! The Accounts-Receivable!

It's easy to forget, particularly reading some of the more breathless treatises on the art and vision of architecture, to remember that architects are people with bills to pay and food to buy, just like almost everybody else.

Don't get me wrong: I like those 'breathless treatises,' like books with photos of Paolo Soleri's archologies, and drawings of Le Corbusier's ideal city. I think there's room for imagination and art in the design of buildings and cities.
Paolo Soleri
While I'm thinking of it, a few decades ago I ran into an article about Paolo Soleri's archologies, that cleared up a point for me.

I'd seen photos of the models Soleri had made of projects like his 'hexahedron arcology,' and other very-large-scale structures shaped more-or-less like Platonic solids. And was amazed at how bright they were inside, just from sunlight. (The sample here is more 'realistically' lighted) Also, how people and materials could move in and out of the places. (Cities aren't closed systems - there's a lot of traffic in and out. We call the result of insufficiently-planned transportation systems "traffic jams.")

According to the article (which, alas! I haven't been able to re-locate), Paolo Soleri's genius at designing those radiant cities of the future was due largely to the work of his assistant, who was very skilled at unobtrusively lighting up the shadowy interiors. Oh, well. That, indirectly, answered my question about transportation systems in the archologies, too. (From the selection of graphics on the Arcosanti website, it looks like Soleri's followers have caught on, and adopted a rather more realistic style of presentation.)

I still think they look cool, though.
Le Corbusier
Le Corbusier was a professional architect, who was quite capable of designing structures that people could use. Like this chapel.

("Le Corbusier Chapel, Ronchamp, France," piensalo, used w/o permission)

Le Corbusier had high ideals and vision, too. And some definite ideas about what the City of the Future should be like.

"Le Corbusier"
Famous Architects:

"...The emerging spirit of industrialized culture in all its aspects became the theme of the journal I'Esprit Nouveau, founded in 1919 by Le Corbusier, Ozenfant, and the poet Paul Dermee, and published until 1925. Le Corbusier collected essays from the journal in the book Vers une architecture. In the essays Le Corbusier proposed an architecture that would satisfy both the demands of industry and the timeless concerns of architectural form as defined in antiquity. His proposals included his first city plan, the Contemporary City...."

A less reverent approach, written by someone who's lived in the future that visionaries like Le Corbusier helped create, wrote this:

Le Corbusier"
"Tomorrow's Skyline", Tales of Future Past

"If you wanted to define the theory of modern architecture at its purest you could do worse than "A Contemporary City of Three Million" from 1923 by Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (1887-1965) aka "Le Corbusier." And what exactly was this theory? Sorry, but if you have to ask, then you are far too bourgeois to understand...."

"...Look at this city. The buildings are all straight lines and boxes. They stand perched on columns for no good reason. Nothing gives any impression of being handmade that can't be stamped out by a machine. Craftsmanship is nowhere to be found, because only the bourgeoisie can afford craftsmen. Everything is concrete, glass, steel, and stucco. No colours are used when white, grey, black, or beige are available. Functionalism is everything, right down to the sheer facades. There are no eaves and the roof is inevitably flat. Never mind that flat roofs leak, are structurally weaker than peaked roofs, harder to construct, and tend to collapse under heavy loads of snow. Or that the lack of eaves mean that the rain is free to cascade down the sides of the buildings until the concrete becomes a mottled grey mess like fish fillets that have been left out on the doorstep overnight. At least it isn't bourgeois...."

Me? I think the Le Corbusier Contemporary City looks cool, in a sort of sensory-deprivation, Planet of the Faceless People sort of way. Not to worry, though: this vast expanse of storage units for humans was where the workers would live, in Le Corbusier's grand plan.

Back to that excerpt:

"...Yes, Le Corbusier expected the masses to live in these giant concrete hives in flats stripped bare of any ornaments or colour and when they finally manage to escape from their warrens they have nothing to look forward to except empty spaces between the buildings and the the most dangerous aerodrome in history slapped smack in the middle of the mall just to confuse people and keep the neighbours awake.

"Fortunately, nobody would touch Le Corbusier's project with a bargepole, so civilisation was spared a very expensive demolition bill decades later."

Actually, not quite. Remember Chicago's Cabrini Green? The Chicago History Museum concedes that the 20th century's great works didn't do much, other than provide employment for construction workers and conservation of the area's high crime rate. CBS News did a fairly good 'sic transit gloria mundi' piece a few years ago. "Tearing Down Cabrini-Green," CBS News (July 23, 2003)) As I recall, it wasn't until the last few decades that the majority of large-scale buildings were designed so that you could easily find the entrance. Le Corbusier was a quite competent architect - I suppose he shouldn't be blamed for so many others taking his ideas at face value.

As the introduction to "Tomorrow's Skyline" in Tales of Future Past put it:

"When you're talking about the skyline of tomorrow, you're up against two schools of thought. The first is that of the 'serious' architects-- the sort Modernist dreamers that did away with all that bourgeois ornamentation and obsolete classical nonsense in favour of good, clean lines suitable for the enlightenment of the proletariat who didn't know what was good for them...."

"...It's all horrible, so why do it? Because it was all so anti-bourgeois and it was the sort of place where, in the words of Alexi Sayle, 'They expected working class people to wander around discussing Chekhov.'..."

After living among human beings for about a half-century, I've come to conclusion that not everyone is alike. I also think that, apart from a certain utility for labeling, class distinctions aren't what the used to be. Assuming that they ever were a particularly accurate way of sorting out humanity.

Take me, for example. As far as income goes, I'm somewhere at or below the bottom of the lower middle class in American society. There are people who would taste the bitter dregs of despair if they'd had a life like mine. In terms of income, these days I'm definitely of The Masses. ("Lemming Tracks: Lower Middle Class and Loving It" (December 14, 2009) - but I haven't been L.M.C. for a few years now)

I don't make - or spend - all that much money, but I might "wander around discussing Chekhov." (Anton Chekhov, or Pavel Chekov, depending on whether we were talking about method acting and short stories, or Star Trek)
City of the Future: Modernist Building Blocks, or - - -
A quick recap. That "Tomorrow's Skyline" intro said:

"When you're talking about the skyline of tomorrow, you're up against two schools of thought. The first is that of the 'serious' architects-- the sort Modernist dreamers...."

Then, there's the other sort of City of the Future:

"...The other school came from the wild and free imaginations of the pulp magazine artists. These underpaid, underappreciated toilers in the fields of lurid fiction weren't concerned about making a great social statement in steel and glass, but in meeting their deadlines and collecting their meagre fees. Their school wasn't an allegiance to Bauhaus or Dada, but to spectacle, unbridled enthusiasm-- and rocket ships on the roof...."

As you see, some of those pulp artists nailed the look of a City of the Future pretty well. Remember: we're living in The Future of the 1930s and 1940s.

Minus French doors on the 100th floor and rockets on the roof.

We use helicopters, instead; and the elevated roadways aren't quite so common - yet.
Pulp Magazine Artists, Brasilia, and Architecture for the Real World
Maybe you've seen photos of Brazil's artificial (oops - that's 'planned') city and capital, Brasilia. Like Le Corbusier's Contemporary City, I think it looks cool. A bit inhuman, sort of like a King Kong-sized geometry classroom model, but cool.

I'm interested in city planning, and think it's important to have someone decide where streets will go, how the sewage system should be laid out, and other practical details. I also think that it's important to let the poor shmoos who are going to live in the place have a say - but that's another topic.

That said, I've got some rather boring ideas about what does and doesn't make sense.

For example, those nifty winding streets that have been popular in American suburban development since the sixties? Where streets with names like "Morning Drive" and "Flicker Avenue" meet to become "Riviera Boulevard"? Good luck, finding an address in mazes like that.

I've got the old-fashioned notion that streets and sidewalks exist mostly to get people from one place to another, without getting lost, even when the entire network isn't in perfect working order. For that, it's hard to beat the boring old street grid, where one set of streets and sidewalks runs at right angles to the other - landforms permitting.

Sure, recommending something like that won't get your name in 'Visionary Monthly,' or whatever: but it works.

The grid system works even when repairs or maintenance have to be done. Let's say that a water main springs a leak. With a grid system, part of one block would be dug up - a distinct inconvenience to whoever was facing the leak, but the rest of the folks wouldn't have to do more than jog one block over, drive around the obstruction, and job back.

One of those curlicue street plans? Street work in the wrong place could block access to a whole neighborhood.

The same goes for heavy traffic. If you're driving, you've got the option of staying on the street you're on. But (with a little effort and patience, on multi-lane streets) you also have the option of turning, and taking a parallel street, a block or so over.

But those squiggly streets look so cool.
Lofty Visions, Utopian Dreams, and Bowling Alleys
One of the few 'what ifs' in my life has been wondering what would have happened if I'd become an architect. I've been interested in the hows and whys of structures that people use since childhood. But then, I've been interested in a whole lot else, too.

Architecture - and city planning, which I see as a closely-related field - is something I've got rather definite ideas about. Well, I didn't become an architect. I became a writer (also a husband, father, and guy who cleans out the drains).

Back to architecture: My hat's off to anyone who has what it takes to design a building that people can use, that stands up to wind, rain, snow, and - sometimes - earthquakes and violent storms. Same goes for city planners who remember that people are actually going to have to use their brainchild.

I think one reason that some of the pulp magazine artists' 'cities of the future' look so much like today's downtown Manhattan - or the Marin County government center - or some other feature in this 'future' that we're living in - is that the pulp artists had a dedication to "spectacle, unbridled enthusiasm-- and rocket ships on the roof."

I think that put them more in touch with the real world than most 'visionaries.'

Spectacle? When someone - commissar, capitalist, or whatever - takes the trouble to pull resources together for a large building, that person will probably want the result to look good. Really good. "Spectacular," if possible.

Enthusiasm? When we're not following some cookie-cutter philosophy of mass-produced housing or commercial development, people are likely to have some level of enthusiasm for what they do. My opinion. Anyway, it'd take a fair amount of enthusiasm for an artist to think up the sort of variety that real cities exhibit.

Rocket ships on the roof? Not so much. Rocket ships make even more noise than airliners when they take off; and turned out to be more useful for traveling to space, than between cities or continents. On the other hand, we do use helicopters quite a bit for point-to-point transportation. And rooftop heliports are fairly common. ("New helipad ready at St. Elizabeth East" WLFI, Lafayette, Indiana, (December 14, 2009))

I think where the great visionaries went wrong was forgetting that people are, well, people: not The Masses. The following examples are from American culture - which is the only one I know well, from the inside.

Some of us like bowling and beer; Others express an aesthetic preference for fine wine and polo.

Some give the impression that they'd rather be dead than caught reading a Stephen King novel, or a Harlequin romance. Others put their money where their interests are; making Stephen King a popular writer, and Harlequin romance stories a durable part of the American cultural landscape.

I don't read Harlequin romances, but I don't dream of a day when they'll be banned.

Or of a polo-free utopia.

Or of a wonderful City of the Future where everyone will walk around, discussing Chekov. Or Chekhov. Or, closer to my heart, be within about fifty paces of an entrance of a massive library.

Come to think of it, the Internet is sort of like a massive library: and I'm there right now.

We're All Alike: Each One of Us is Unique

There's a dusty gag that goes something like this: 'Everybody's the same; we're all alike.' Or maybe it's the other way around.

Architects are people, pretty much like everybody else: except that they've got the native abilities and specialized training it takes to design buildings. The good ones, in my opinion, are those who make beautiful urban sculptures exemplifying some lofty goal - that also makes a practical office building, parking garage, or whatever else the client needs.

City planners? Same comment.

More-or-less-related posts: More:

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