Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Our Ruthless Utopias

On that train all graphite and glitter
Undersea by rail
Ninety minutes from New York to Paris
(More leisure time for artists ev
A just machine to ma
ke big decisions
Programmed by fellows with
compassion and vision
We'll be clean when th
eir work is done
We'll be eternally free yes
and eternally young

What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious t
ime to be free

I guess I never thought of Donald Fagen (half of Steely Dan) and Le Corbusier in the same context before, but Fagen's 1982 song "I.G.Y." is the ironic commentary to the Plan Voisin. Wipe out the past, build the perfect new society and its forms, and we'll all have chocolate and kittens forever.

There have been no end of utopias, in literature and in architecture. And if you really stand back and think about what life would be like there, you discover just how ruthless their creators are. Everyone gets along... because everyone has the same political or religious beliefs. Everything is aligned... because there's no one in the photograph to mess it up. All signs of discord have been squashed (pleasantly, of course), all pain and suffering is banished (because we all have come from eugenically strong stock), and all decisions are wise (because we all agree on the nature of wisdom). As the Talking Heads told us twenty-five years ago, "Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens."

Stewart Brand, in his book How Buildings Learn, makes the claim that "total design" results in buildings that are almost entirely unable to accommodate fluid uses. A place perfectly designed for X is perfectly useless for all not-X. Back in my undergrad days at Berkeley, Paul Groth used to talk about the 19th Century landscape as the "isonomic order," in which things were made to be interchangeable. The land was gridded so that one parcel was the same size as the next; building structural systems were created in uniform rectangular bays so that a piano factory might become a newspaper printing plant might become yuppie condos. Groth claims, by contrast, that the 20th Century landscape constitutes the "monomic order," or a series of objects good only for their one specific use. The Interstate Highway System, airports, Kmarts, parking lots, drive-through restaurants... all of these resist creative re-use. There aren't many kinds of clients that need 70,000 square feet of space with four truck docks and 800 parking slots; that Kroger supermarket isn't going to become a bookstore or a grade school any time soon. The "perfect fit" seals us in amber, unable to change. We learn to behave in ways that accommodate the things that we have designed.

We can't design for mannequins, all the same size/age/gender/culture/politics. People are funny and flawed and wonderful, and I don't want to live in a utopia that flattens all of that delight.

1 comment:

MaloyMark said...

After reading your post, it made me reflect on the process of change that is going on in certain areas of Mississippi. After Katrina, we have had this big momentum by various organizations on how to redevelop and improve the various communities which were hardest hit. From the new urbanism to green movement a lot of good ideas were brought forward, and implementation has begun on some of them. I cannot imagine trying to get people to conform and live in these homogenous environments as we try to recreate Mayberry. Much less trying to get them to live by certain “guidelines” when we cannot even get people to agree on the need for building codes, much less dictating to them what they can and cannot do with their property within reason. Like most I think we all go through these mental exercises were we try to create the perfect utopian environment to live. But once we stand back and look at it, we quickly realize that it was a nice exercise; realizing that the irregularity of our built environment is what makes it exciting. The people who live in it the color and character which gives it life. It would be difficult to imagine living in and environment which had vast areas of the sam thing repeted over and over, the madness it would create.