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Will we arrive thereby within the essence of the nearness that, in thinging the thing, brings worlds near? Will we dwell at home in nearness, so that we will belong primally within the fourfold of sky and earth, mortals and divinities?
—MARTIN HEIDEGGER, "THE TURNING"
In the evolutionary history of humans, the period of modernist town planning and the technologies that support it are not even a blip on the chart. The genetic codes that direct our most basic impulses were written long, long ago by our Paleolithic and Neolithic ancestors, whose survival depended upon their sociability and the subtlety of their understanding of the world around them, first as hunter/gatherers and later as farmers but always in defense against their enemies. In a few short years, we cannot simply erase the physical and cognitive tracks along which we have traveled with brilliant biological success for scores of millennia. Our species succeeds because we are alert, observant, and sociable creatures; a major part of what we demand from our habitat is regular exercise of these fundamental parts of our humanity.
In many ways, our recent patterns of making buildings and towns tend to deny us this life-sustaining exercise, and we now routinely experience the condition that philosopher Martin Heidegger referred to as "loss of nearness." The central concept of Heidegger's writings—"being in the world"—establishes a fundamental relationship between our consciousness and the context of our lives. It is from this relationship that the idea of nearness emerged. He considered its loss to be a deep spiritual and cultural malaise that infiltrates experience at almost every moment of our lives.
The first task in addressing this malaise is to recognize its occurrence—to know when some aspect of the way we are living interferes with our preferred ways of interacting with other people and the world around us. When we achieve this recognition, the physical design of buildings, towns, and the ways we move about takes on a new significance. With this recognition, we become part of a collective struggle to reconfigure our daily world so that it is more like the places we seek out when we have the chance, and less like the places that we know deep in our genes do not satisfy everything we long for. This struggle is to construct a world of "nearness" in all its dimensions when, for many complex reasons, it is no longer easy to do so.
The four essays of Part 1 describe the experience of nearness in daily life and its several common antonyms: the indirect, the indistinct, the virtual, and the isolating. They provide a framework for what recent reforms in town planning and architecture hope to achieve and what they must overcome.
Measure the Night with Bells
Imagine a raging river that spills over its banks and tears through lowlands dotted with oaks. Large trees that become uprooted add to the water's rage and sweep smaller objects with them. The larger and more magnificent the uprooted tree, the more damage it does. Some large trees remain rooted, and they slow the torrent and make their own little dams from the detritus swept along by the flood. If you think of the cascade of events of the last half century as a flood, then one could say that the stoutest and most firmly rooted oak tree, the one that has stood the longest and resisted the swirling torrent where it is most furious, is Professor Wu Liangyong, former director of the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
Over the course of his long life, Professor Wu has witnessed the displacement of feudalism by Republican China, the Japanese occupation, the Communist Revolution, and later the terrible upheavals of the Cultural Revolution. He saw the rebirth of Chinese mercantilism—slow at first, but accelerating like a rocket—and he saw the disintegration of the bamboo curtain, and then the massive arrival of global capitalism and world tourism. He saw most of the graceful city of his childhood destroyed, stone by stone. He saw what was built in the name of socialism following Soviet models, and he has seen later generations of construction that look more like Las Vegas, in which the linkage to socialism is much harder to discern. He has seen the population of his city quadruple, and he has witnessed the transition from a populace that moved about almost exclusively by bicycle, silently, to one that drives millions of cars and trucks every day.
Through all of this, Professor Wu has been one of the very few who have systematically preserved the record of the dismantled city and the memory of its beauty. He is the most important architect to attempt to adapt that ancient grace to the torrents of change that have swirled around him all of his life. His Ju'er Hutong is the only major housing project of recent vintage in Beijing that attempts to address new conditions based on an understanding and love for Beijing's magnificent heritage of courtyard housing. The Ju'er Hutong has the light, air, and living accommodation of modern housing, the density demanded by modern development pressure, and all the civic virtues of traditional courtyard housing. Given the tumult he has lived through, Professor Wu could not fail to understand that radical upheavals are inevitable, but he has resolutely refused to accept the idea that change necessarily carries with it the eradication of history and the diminution of the pleasures of city life. Now, in his eighties, bright-eyed and intensely active, many others have begun to see what his lonely, stubborn, resourceful quest has been about, and that a contradiction does not necessarily exist between rootedness and the embrace of change.
The spirit that roots Professor Wu, that endows him with his quiet serenity and his recent influence, is the inverse of the spirit that has been celebrated, lionized, and rewarded in the hermetic, self-perpetuating culture of the architectural world for most of the last seventy-five years.
If Wu Liangyong is the embodiment of a rooted tree, then consider the case of a very large uprooted tree, one that crashes through all sorts of things that the waters alone would not have swept away. Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas is what one might call an uprooted tree of just this sort. In the year 2000, the architectural profession marked the turning of the millennium by awarding Koolhaas its highest honor, the Pritzker Prize. The millennial new year was a moment for large- scale pyrotechnics around the world, the celebrating of new beginnings and the severing of old ways. There were good reasons for the 2000 Pritzker selection, for Rem Koolhaas is the champion of new beginnings and probably the world's most provocative apologist for new forms of the human condition.
People interested in town planning and architecture should be aware, however, that their own man of that special hour has some odd preferences, in addition to his obvious gifts. The Pritzker laureate at the dawn of the millennium is also the poet laureate of airline food, endless shopping malls, and the new Chinese cities where thousands of identical high-rises are built from the same brief, simple, and rapidly produced set of computer drawings. He embraces foul air, adores porn shops, and laments their disappearance from Times Square. What constitutes dystopia for most are kinky thrills for the 2000 Pritzker winner. He celebrates an image of schoolgirls strolling past a bloated corpse in Lagos as part of "a paradigmatic case study of a city at the forefront of globalizing modernity." He considers himself one of philosopher Peter Sloterdijl's "kinetic elite," those who live in airports, places "with the added attraction of being hermetic systems from which there is no escape—except to another airport." What is good in the world, he recently announced, "is not a category that interests me."
The Pritzker jury did their part to launch the next chapter of the human story from a new confluence of high culture, consumer capitalism, and nihilist chic. Perhaps this should only be troubling to people who choose to be troubled by it. Most of us don't like global warming, do like good food, consider fresh air to be salutary, and—philistine though it may be—take pleasure in the places we live. We can say that Koolhaas engages us by shocking us, in the way that blood-soaked punk bands or Benneton ads with AIDS patients engage us—as audacious, half-ironic manipulations of media culture. We can feel free to ignore it all and go unfretfully about our sane little lives, away from the cutting edge.
But Koolhaas is a student of another polemical architect from modernity's original incarnation, that other brilliant writer and media maven par excellence, Le Corbusier, whose influence was not exactly negligible. Koolhaas's way of being in the world, of shocking, of anticipating the new, of resisting convention, his very conception of the space of the city, are appropriated from Le Corbusier. This should be a little unnerving, because we might not now be tearing down whole districts of uninhabitable public housing towers or struggling to find the money to remove the elevated highways that tore our cities apart if Le Corbusier had not so completely seduced an earlier generation of architectural teachers and students, just as Koolhaas has done. Le Corbusier's polemical exhibitions of the 192os, The City for Three Million and Radiant City, and his book Towards a New Architecture became sacred images and texts for young architects. Le Corbusier's wit, the acerbic brilliance of his writing, and the beauty of the images he produced convinced an entire generation that the urban culture of the world had had it, that it was obsolete, irrelevant, and inappropriate for a new kind of human, who was the unique product of the twentieth century.
Some historians now downplay the influence of Le Corbusier and point to others in the 1920s and 193os who built more and had similar ideas. But it is impossible to claim that the polemic of his Radiant City did not change the world. Radiant City's widely spaced "Cartesian" high-rises, standing in a verdant park, bisected by giant motorways came to pass, not always just as Le Corbusier intended, but they came to pass massively and all over the world. At this point, it is hard to find anyone willing to argue that this has been a beneficent experience for all of us.
It is a crucial part of the story of the modernist city that Le Corbusier chose the term "Cartesian" to describe the skyscrapers of his imagination. What he meant by the evocation of Descartes was that these buildings would be the perfect embodiment of rational thought, standing free and unfettered in a matrix of undifferentiated space. They would ignore and ultimately eradicate the messy, irrational layering of centuries that burdened cities and distorted their architecture. It is striking how banal his utopian skyscraper of 1935 sounds today:
Surfaced with solemn marble, shining with clear mirrors mounted in stainless steel frames. Silence. Corridors and vast spaces; doors open automatically: they are the silent elevators unloading passengers. No windows anywhere,.... Silent walls. "Conditioned" air throughout, pure, clean, at a constant temperature. Am I on the fifth floor or the fortieth?
Le Corbusier's pungent prose, his fascination with new experiences that are astonishing but otherwise uninteresting, sounds just like the latest and hippest polemic from Rem Koolhaas. It is tempting to think that Koolhaas is a bright, charming, harmless fellow, harmless because he is a cult figure principally just to architecture students and their young teachers. But good God, look what the architecture students and young teachers of Le Corbusier's day did to the world the minute they got the chance. They actually constructed the tabula rasa of Cartesian space that Le Corbusier imagined. In America, they wrought the generation of slum clearance and urban renewal, isolated "rational" buildings in a matrix of undifferentiated space that left inner cities decimated; they built elevated highways that wrecked urban neighborhoods and waterfronts. They planned and built the calamitous public housing towers of Chicago, the South Bronx, and Pruitt-Igo in St. Louis (so disastrous that it was blown up on national television in 1972). In England, a generation of Corbu acolytes produced the New Brutalist movement of the 195os and 1960s, and the now-aging concrete relics of that period form large, long-lasting scars on the lovely face of London. The grim, utterly depressing outskirts of St. Petersburg, which look so much like Le Corbusier schemes from the 1920s, are what happened when the dogmas of modernist town planning displaced classical training for architects in the Soviet Union after Stalin's death in 1953. Today in Beijing, one can drive down a motorway lined with freestanding high-rises, and it is exactly as if one is inside a Le Corbusier sketch. Maybe it all would have happened anyway, but not with the vigor, the conviction, the sense of rectitude that Le Corbusier gave to the drift of history. Recently in Brussels, Glasgow, St. Louis, Chicago, and San Francisco, people have gleefully blown the remnants of Radiant City to smithereens, but in the arriviste economies of China and Southeast Asia they are building it by the mile as if the year were 1952 and Radiant City could still wear its mantle of untested innocence.
Le Corbusier's genius was that he saw the relationship among three things: a stick, a brightly colored piece of cloth, and a runaway train. He called the brightly colored piece of cloth a flag, he called the stick a flagpole, and he leapt onto the runaway train with the pole and flag and called the train a revolution. He declared that the terrified people trapped in the train were heroes of the revolution. When they heard this, the experience of not being able to control the direction or speed of the train was transformed from terror to that of a thrill ride. Koolhaas is a similar champion of the remorseless charge of modernity, the runaway train he sees as an uncontrollable force.
But madness begets madness. The madness of hypermodernism begets the countermadness of Jihad: Theodore Kaczynski and Timothy McVeigh at home, Slobodan Milosevic, Islamic fundamentalism, and the extremes of the Israeli right abroad. The endless wave of "globalizing modernity" that Koolhaas so cleverly and joyfully rides like a surfer is precisely what drives some others into bomb production.
Globalizing modernity has many dimensions, political, economic, and cultural, but part of what propels the phenomenon and gives it the character of inevitability is the irresistible attractiveness of certain technologies. One has to go to remote places to find anyone whose life is not fundamentally shaped by the combined effects of mankind's four most transformative technical innovations: the automobile, the air conditioner, television, and the computer.
Air conditioning is the enabling mechanism for the universal Marriotts and the shopping malls that are identical in sweltering Panama City and in freezing Stockholm. It is responsible for the atrophy of an ancient body of knowledge through which builders crafted habitation from the equator to the Arctic Circle. Air conditioning, while it makes us comfortable anywhere, obliterates the time of day, the weather, the seasons, and the distinctiveness of the places of the world.
Television was the first great threat to face-to-face contact as the principal way people understand one another. Before television it was hard to imagine a challenge to the cafe, the church, the street, the piazza, the concert hall, and the stadium as the loci of our shared experience.
The automobile built the city of the last half of the twentieth century. The political and economic force represented in the immortal words "What's good for General Motors is good for the country" decanted the wealth of cities, ravaged them physically and socially, and built the new world of the regional mall, the big box, the planned development, and the business park.
Because the overwhelming impact of the computer on our lives is so recent, its effects are harder to dissect and summarize than those of the other huge technologies. It is partly an emblem for new transformations, partly the technical instrument of those transformations, and like the automobile, a self-perpetuating economic force of incredible power. What is beginning to come into focus is how much the new world of hypercommunications has in common with the three other technologies—how, like the others, it has the capacity to transform what was a direct and simple act into an indirect and complex one. Ten times a day we encounter the vexations of voice mail, but that is only where our new excursions into indirection begin. E-mail consumes our days in a medium that lacks both the craft of the written word and the nuances and intimacy of the spoken word. Only the most dedicated technophiles will claim that the decade and a half that we have all spent staring at our computer screens has enriched us spiritually, has brought us closer to others, or has been a sensual pleasure in its own right.
Excerpted from Global City Blues by Daniel Solomon. Copyright © 2003 Daniel Solomon. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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