Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Understanding the Ideas Behind the "Cités"

In my last post, I discussed the culpability of Le Corbusier for the grim architecture of French housing projects, or cites. If it was not entirely his fault, then who? Although I don’t completely exonerate Le Corbusier, I feel that he was in reality one among many of his time who believed that dense housing blocks were preferable to the traditional European urban pattern. It is clear that the Swiss architect believed the medieval maze of streets, the relatively small proportion of greenery within the city limits, and the intractability of old cities in accommodating the automobile called for their annihilation.

Such thinking went hand in hand with his Nietzchean philosophy and the need for total destruction to create a new and better world, a not unusual worldview among the intellectual elite after the First World War. The Italian Futurists, a short lived art and architecture movement, stated unrepentantly that the current world needed to be destroyed to bring about a new age which would worship the machine and speed. The German Bauhaus movement called for the creation of a new world that would restore the harmony of the medieval world between art, architecture and the prevailing social spirit. Founded right after the Great War in Weimar, the first manifesto alluded to the disconnect between old European cultural traditions and the world of machines, with all their efficiency and purity of function. The machine in the early twentieth century already part of daily life for more than a half a century in Western Europe and the U.S., but it still held a spiritual aura for artists and aesthetic theoreticians. This obsession with the machine logically translated into principles for controlling society with machine-like predictability, the argument being that if production can be controlled with such precision and minimal human effort, there’s no reason that people could not be part of similar functioning organization. This kind of thinking wedded itself seamlessly with Marxist doctrine in is use of the word ‘scientific’ to proclaim the theory’s absolute certainty.

What is important to remember here is how emerging architects at the time applied the aesthetic principles of the machine without literally producing buildings that looked like machines. Obviously, designers like Le Corbusier and his contemporary Mies Van der Rohe actively incorporated machine-like motifs and new materials uniquely available by machine. But what they were really after was an architecture that united form and function, traits inherent to the machine but utterly absent in much of architecture up to that point in the 1920’s. At the time, architects were expected to provide simply a facade treatment of an essentially masonry box.

The main question for the Modernists like Le Corbusier, the Futurists, the German Bauhaus, the Dutch Destijl, and the Russian Constructivists was: How can architecture and design exemplify the new spirit of the times in a world where industry and the machine run our lives? It was the consensus within these circles that Beaux Arts classicism and newer styles like Art Nouveau and Art Deco simply prolonged the fractured reality in the world of design, in which designers were continuing to borrow forms and motifs from the past with little relevance to the pervasive influence of modern industry.

The reason that I provided this background to the Modernist movement is to more clearly present the premise on which the new styles are based. The Modernists were not renegades who subverted the Beaux Arts establishment overnight, successfully overturning thousands of years of architectural precedent. They were continuing an idea that germinated during the Renaissance, which declared that history was linear and that cultural progress was part of this forward movement. What is known in the world at the present is more than what the ancients knew, therefore no solutions from the past can address problems of the present. This concept might seem simplistic, but it was a major influence in much of the cultural output of the last five hundred years. It describes the continuous process of breaking down tradition, inventing new genres, throwing old rules of composition and style in the fields of literature, music, art and architecture.

Today most people do not like Modernist buildings, mostly because of their disagreement that a new solution is any better than tried and true older ones. Since the late sixties there has been a return to historicism, where style as a matter of façade application, and once-banished ornament make a triumphant return. This Postmodern movement continues to influence building today, and the public has voted with their wallets that historicism is far preferred over the modernists. In addition, other complementary movements came along during this period, such as historic preservation and New Urbanism (the restoration of traditional town-planning before Modernism). Although government has much say over what gets preserved and how a neighborhood should be zoned, these post-modern movements are essentially democratic, a reflection of what the majority would prefer in their built environment.

In contrast, Modernism is for the most part inherently authoritarian. Whether it pertains to the design of one’s house, a company’s headquarters or an entire city, the choices are made a by one or a few like-minded people with little attention given to the opinions of others that will be affected. When people lack the right to vote with their wallets, the decision on what to build is transferred from individuals to a centralized authority. Such is the case with the underclass, whose economic poverty deprives them of having a say about what they want to live in. The attractiveness of Modernist style public housing was its efficiency, its intrinsic equality (‘fairness’) in the apportionment of residential units, its speed of construction, and most importantly the way in which the style granted considerable power to planners in the bureaucracy.

This might be the reason why Modernist planning and urban design theory are so frequently employed in socialist welfare states across Europe. Modernism conveys to governing elites an image of social and cultural progress. It solves housing needs quickly in places where land is scarce and ensures the minimum material needs of its residence. Dense public housing blocks continue to be a major source of work for European architects, and though styles have changed since the Second World War, the social pathologies associated with these developments persist. It is clear that high-density social housing will continue in Europe, and the level of criminality will remain high regardless of the ingenuity of the architectural envelope. Although the cité developments may strike some as inhumane in scale, it is the environment of hundreds of millions of people around the world. More than three-quarters of Singapore’s population live in dense public housing blocs of the modernist type, and they are among the cleanest and safest places to live.

If there's ever anyone that should be blamed for the small scale and inhumane efficiency of public housing high-rises, I would cast a vote for the Bauhaus school during the mid to late 1920s. The school had changed from being a place that focused on the handicrafts and new materials to one that concerned itself with public housing. They developed the principle of Existenz Minimum, in which they ascertained what the minimum requirements would be for a dignified dwellling unit. I use "dignified" because it was a common view at the time that older dwellings of the traditional kind were old and substandard, causing poor health and depriving the occupant of much-needed day-light. It was of no coincidence that the directer of the school at the time, Hannes Meyer, was an avowed communist.

Aside from Frank Lloyd Wright's proposal that all should have the chance for a single-family home and some acreage, European architects assumed that scarcity and rapid population demanded innovations in dense housing. Since the thirties massive dense housing experiments have yielded a variety of forms and ingenious (and dumb) ways of fitting as many units as possible within a limited space. Le Corbusier's housing type was unique and rarely used. It was too generous and often times not thought through in detail like his German rivals. The Swiss master was a big-picture guy, a dilletante engineer and detailer, who often forgot that his city of 3 million needed basic things like parking (on his passport he identified his profession not as that of an architect but as man of letters). His only fault may have been that the renderings that illustrate his books may have made cities composed of dense housing towers in greenery seduced an entire generation into trying to realize it.

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