Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Radiant City is Alive and Well

Not so long ago we decided there was something terribly wrong with the way we built our cities. They were overcrowded, had too much traffic congestion, too much noise, and this was contributing to crime, disease and a host of other social problems. Planners and architects set out to change all that, conceiving what they imagined to be the city of the future.

In that vein, two of the most famous architects of the last century took divergent paths to create their own concepts of that city of the future. Although neither vision was fully implemented, the impact of the vision of these two architects, combined with the explosion of technological development in the last one hundred years plus, drastically altered our cities and the way we live.

Frank Lloyd Wright hated cities. He called his idea for the utopian city of the future Broadacre City, not a city as we know it at all, but a strictly planned community where every family is alloted exactly on acre to call its own. The personal transportation device, automobiles at first, then ideally personal aircraft in the future, would be the primary means of transportation. If this sounds familiar (except the part about the personal aircraft), well it has all the trappings of suburbia as we know it today. Frank Lloyd Wright did not invent the concept of suburbs; he saw the movement away from big cities as inevitable as in fact much of it was going on during his life. Where his plan and reality diverge is in the design and administration of these communities. He distrusted big money and politicians, instead, his communities would be administered by designers and architects. Not surprisingly, in the real world the moneyed interests and the politicians won out, and it's unlikely that Mr. Wright would approve of the lifeless, ugly, banal version of his dream, known today simply as suburban sprawl.

Some of Wright's inspiration came directly as a reaction against ideas for the city of the future that came out of Europe, specifically from Swiss born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, the architect famously known as Le Corbusier. Le Courbusier was deeply troubled by the living conditions of the big city poor. His solution simplistically put, was to knock down much of old city housing and replace it with soaring mixed-income, multi-unit apartment buildings. These buildings would be separated by green, open space where everyone, poor and rich alike would have access. All vehicular traffic would be segregated into either above or below ground highways. He would label his utopia, Radiant City. As with Wright, some of what Le Corbusier envisioned became reality. Large sections of cities were cleared to make way for these massive buildings including the entire neighborhood of the West End of Boston which I wrote about in an earlier post. There, a thriving historic working class neighborhood was deemed slum land by the city. It was leveled, and replaced by Corbusian housing, and there it stands today, a successful if rather uninspired, upper middle class housing project.

The fate of the Boston West End project is vastly different from that of very similar housing projects in cities all across the United States, intended to house not urban professionals, but the urban poor. When the big housing projects were first built in the fifties and sixties, they were seen as a welcome relief to the old tenement slum buildings they replaced. They had strict standards for admission and waiting lines to get in. Soon enough however, the rules and regulations became lax and many of the buildings were taken over by gangs of thugs who terrorized the residents who felt imprisoned in their own homes. The projects were so vast and dangerous that even police and other emergency personnel were hesitant to enter them. In much of America, the dream of a Radiant City had become a nightmare.

The first Radiant City to go was Pruitt-Igoe, a vast project built in the mid-fifties in the north end of St. Louis. It was blown up in the early seventies having been around less than twenty years. It took a couple more decades here in Chicago, but eventually all of the major Corbusian housing projects for the poor: the Robert Taylor Homes, and Stateway Gardens on the south side, the Horner Homes, and an agglomeration of projects known collectively as ABLA on the west side, and most famously, the Cabrini Green Homes on the near north side, have been relegated to quote a former president, to "the dustbin of history."

Just as it is unfair to blame Frank Lloyd Wright for suburban sprawl, it is unfair to blame Le Corbusier directly for the failure of large public housing projects. Unlike his vision to create mixed income housing, the American version of public housing was intended, not with entirely good intentions, to exclusively house the poor. By doing this, their ultimate effect was to segregate the poor, cutting people off from the rest of the city and society, and perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

There are in fact, mixed and upper income projects in Chicago that have proven successful including Prairie Shores on the near south side, and Sandburg Village on the near north.

Successful or not, building massive blocks of flats in row upon row of identical buildings in the style of Le Corbusier has been stigmatized and is no longer in fashion, in this country anyway.

But the Radiant City is alive and well in China where new cities have sprung up in some of the strangest, most inhospitable of places, built in a style very reminiscent of the plans of the late Swiss architect. The cities are purely speculative, built with the hope that one day they will be filled with citizens in a booming economy. The fact that these sites sit mostly empty as ghost cities is a fascinating story in its own right and has been dealt with in many places. Just google "Chinese ghost cities" to see what I mean. The bottom line it appears is that the endeavor is either a boondoggle for wealthy Chinese businessmen and corrupt government officials to build a place to hide their money, or a very shrewd, far sighted plan by the Chinese government to prepare itself for the staggering population shift from rural-agrarian to urban that will likely take place imminently in that enormous country. We'll surely find the answer to that question in the near future but today these "cities" sit virtually empty on sites where no one in their wildest dreams would have built a city in the past.

Which is par for the course with most cities built from scratch. Washington D.C. was built on the flood plain of the Potomac River between the already settled cities of Georgetown, MD  and Alexandria, VA. The reasons for building there were political rather than practical, as anyone who has been to our nation's capital in the summer can attest. An even more extreme example is St. Petersburg, the scratch built one time capital city of Russia, built to satisfy Peter the Great's desire to build a great navy for his enormous but for all intents and purposes land-locked country. St. Petersburg was so remote and desperately cold that the hardships suffered by the builders of that great city prepared them and their ancestors for the brutal hardships they would endure during the subsequent three centuries.

Most cities don't begin on the drawing board, they evolve over time, starting out as small settlements, then growing as the local economy will allow. Sensible people don't settle in places with harsh economic and natural climates, it takes a government to make such big and outrageous plans. Enter China, still a totalitarian government with apparently most of the money in the world. Without having to worry about market forces (yet) or the fickle nature of public opinion, the commissars in charge have free reign to build whatever they want, wherever, and in whichever style they want.

It's interesting to see what style of architecture the Chinese officials have chosen to fill their cities. Why is the building style rejected by most of the Western World appealing to the powers that be in China? Maybe it's because multiple high rise units are the most practical means to house the largest number of people. Maybe it is the easiest way to control masses of people, remember that Paris during the 19th Century was reworked first and foremost to eliminate the hiding places of insurrectionists. Or maybe it's because this style of architecture with columns of identical buildings standing like soldiers at attention, evokes grandeur and power, at least in architectural renderings or in photographs of the buildings without people present, which these days are not hard to come by.

Could it be possible that the Radiant City is ideally suited to totalitarianism?

In any case, these real life Sim-Cities beg the question, who on earth would want to move into a ready made city with absolutely no history?

In two words: not me.

No comments: