OUR CITIES, OUR RIGHTS

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"Our Cities, Our Rights", XIII BA 12 Bienial Internacional
de Arquitectura  de Buenos Aires, October 9, 2011

In 1848, Karl Marx predicted the collapse of capitalism-and that is what we are experiencing today



A massive depression, double-dip recession, hyper-inflation, the collapse of the housing market, massive global unemployment, the now-exposed corruption of the banks, and corporations, together with the governments that support them, the greed of corporations, wealth in the hands of 1% of the population, while the other 99% unjustly suffer, most below the poverty level.   Over 46 million Americans live in poverty.   Soon a global shortage of food and clean water, together with the next second wave of global recession, will push capitalism over the edge entirely.

Marx said that the lower classes and the under-privileged would rise up and carry out organized revolutionary action to topple capitalism and bring about socio-economic change
That socio-economic change has started to happen in the last 4 weeks in New York City with the current protests and call to “Occupy Wall Street”—the real villains of the current global economic crisis.
 
This is the same revolutionary Arab Spring tactic to achieve revolutionary ends while encouraging the use of nonviolence to maximize the safety of all participants.
 
Wall Street Siege is spreading and will spread across the globe.   Look at Greece, Spain, Ireland, Italy, Portugal….and the USA.
 
Here is a recent poster I designed for the Greek Communist Party.
 
The Architecture that was produced by modernist architects over the last 80 years since World War II primarily illustrates the final decline of Capitalism.
 
What was produced in the last 8 decades was the greatest dismal disaster in human history.   An environmental disaster without precedent.   That disaster was global.
 
It started with Le Corbusier’s Cite Radieuse.   A hysterical call to tear down Paris and build a dreamed utopia—or nightmare—of a linear city devoid of human life.   Fortunately this plan was not implements, Cite Radieuse was the source of Modernism’s tremendous ambition, but also predetermined its colossal failures.
 
Le Corbusier did manage to construct the Unité d’habitation in Marseilles—one of the most bleak places on the planet, which embodies his concept of communal living. This is a monolithic block raised off the ground on stilts and elevated above the decay and disorder of the city. The block houses an indoor market, a school and communal recreation areas all in one building. Again, this seems ultra-efficient, but it is overly rational. It is dangerous for an architect to think he can anticipate the needs of all users. Even the name habitation unit is de-humanizing.
 
Utopian schemes were an attempt to improve on the conventional city. Modernists disliked like real cities – they thought they were chaotic, cluttered, unmanageable, unpredictable, untidy, and uncoordinated.
 
Tidy—in the same sense, as when former U.S. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, argued for a “tidy” Iraq War.   Wars and cities are not tidy.
 
Le Corbusier’s next project, the design of Chandigarh, the capital of two states, Haryana and Punjab, in India which is called:   “the cleanest city in India.”   Clean, because it is inhabitable—not a place where people live or want to live.
 
It’s a dead city because modernist spaces designed for only one purpose, in this case government, becomes immediately doomed to failure.
 
Chandigarh is a sterile, hostile environment; de-humanizing because it denies individuality. People can’t relate to the environment, and that leads to alienation.
 
On this Continent, Brazilia—the capital of Brazil—suffers from the same anonymity.   The “city” is a utopian horror designed by Oscar Neimeyer
 
Like Paris, Brasilia was designed to prevent revolution. It has been described as a city without crowds because the planners abolished all public spaces where people could gather.
 
The streets were replaced by high-speed expressways to connect unconnectable pieces of the city, so there is no real public space in the entire city.
 
This is the government centre, a sleek Modernist edifice with oversized abstract sculpture—and oversized ambitions.
 
Here is the real Brazilia—the alternative city— a people’s mess.   With its messy non-planned environments of shacks and shanties, with its social and ethnic diversity, but characterized by vigorous life.
 
This is the real, organic city, not an artificial Modernist one.
 
Mies van der Rohe
 
Where LeCorbusier and Neimeyer failed, it was Mies van der Rohe who had the greatest impact on the spread of modernist architecture.
 
His architectural formulae, best suited for Corporate America, was cheap, easily duplicated, stripped down of everything except the bare essential, minimalist, feature-less, door-less, clueless, abstract, and Anonymous.
 
His skyscraper of 1909 in Berlin, later realized in Chicago in the 1960s, was the opening gun that would change the world.
 
Mies is an aberration of architecture.
 
His work…totally alienating; toxic. elitist and socially retrograde
 
In its aesthetic purity that is rigid, highly geometric, authoritarian, and worse.
 
Mies was something of an architectural anti-Christ and he was not just “blowing smoke,” he was producing the most powerful hypnotic new architecture that changed the world.
 
Where architectural form is totally disenfranshed by culture—reducing everything to an expression of minimalist force, a kind of a-politicalism, verging on fatalism.     This is what led him into accepting Nazism in the 1930s.
 
No wonder when the Nazis came to power Mies worked for them up until 1937.” until he, himself, fled The Third Reich to the United States.
 
Mies gave architects the license to create a Brave New World.
 
The IBM Building in Chicago is the envisioned UTOPIA of the Capitalist City—abstract, chaotic. Void of human life.
 
The Renaissance City
 
The Historical or Traditional City….even better, the Renaissance City, developed through years of the Enlightenment, conceived by the genius of such humanist philosophers: Spinoza, Locke, Rousseau, Voltaire and created by the likes of Palladio, da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Berinini.
 
In their “ideal” city, culture, institutions, government, religion were the centers around which buildings were built—or as the French poet, Paul Valery said:   The city is the highest component of culture.”
 
Venice.   And these cities were built with substance and the perfection of humanist ideas and where beauty inspired.
 
Today’s city—Like Caracas here--is the antithesis of the traditional city:   strange, alien, incoherent, startling brutal.
 
New housing for the residents of this Bold New World were called “social housing,” which gave “social” a bad word.   It was “anti-social” in its weird anonymous spaces.
 
And this new city was fastly being replicated around the world in with unprecedented speed and what was called “growth.”
 
New York…replicated in an historically unprecedented way.   New York’s Williamsburg Houses for the NYC Housing Authority.
 
The Soviet Union used this “unsocial” architecture to create a new Social Order often times destroying any remaining trace of the traditional city.
 
With it new highway arteries started to connect these dead space as rural populations started to flood into the city to be “urban.”
 
Mexico City.   Levitt Town USA. The proliferation of modern architecture consumed an unprecedented amount of world resources: energy and materials, and created an unprecedented amount of waste, from initial construction to everyday living.   Cheap energy and cheap materials made this all possible.
 
Even previously uninhabited areas like the deserts of Nevada were fastly consumed by new cities and new housing creating an environmental catastrophe.
 
This is Southern Florida.   Populations shifted leaving their old housing and old cities in the north to deteriorate in favor of new locations and preferred weather.
 
Even the urban geometry started to resemble the severe, anonymous abstraction of the modern architecture that permitted it.
 
Mies again.
 
The planning, or lack of real planning, caused massive congestion with massive environmental consequences.
 
Housing in Ohio.
 
The modern Capitalist city divided its functions: residential in one area, business in another, commerce in still another, broke cities into unrelated pieces where vehicular arteries tried hard to connect.
 
This was absolute chaos.   New cities sprung up haphazardly around the world.
 
Planned by a new bred:   Not an architect, but a ill-equipped bureaucrat with no training, no vision, and where money and profit were the only driving force.
 
This is Phoenix, Arizona and how the modern capitalist city grew and consumed its surroundings in a matter of 100 years.
 
Here is Istanbul.   The rapid growth model of the modern city was replicated world wide creating unprecedented numbers of populations:   Istanbul 13.26 million or 18% of Turkey’s population—the third largest population of Europe.
 
The wild rapid uncontrolled growth of the Capitalist city consumed its local environment, destroying the natural landscape, trees, plants, water sources, creating its each own environmental catastrophe.
 
Here is a new city in its early growth causing environmental deforestation.
 
And nature striking back.
 
The new Capitalist City also concentrated uneven energy sources in unnatural levels….with advanced Capitalist countries consuming most of the world’s energy and material resources.
 
Meanwhile these new cities used this energy to create waste in unprecendent volumes, polluting the air, land, seas and oceans.
 
We have even managed to pollute the universe.
 
A new word has been invented: “Space junk.”
 
  “Junk” was not only regulated to outer space. Unlike the traditional city, the New Capitalist City’s focus was strictly on rapid, uncontrolled consumption and spending.   An endless consumption that has now come to a screaming halt.
 
The New City became a meaningless mindless center of commercial activity:   The Commercial City: which reflects the new untraditional and fractured values of its citizens.
 
This is Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, Missouri.   Perhaps the most critical problem with the new Modern city is that it’s anonymous architecture created the worst societal problems: disenfranchised populations living in highly dangerous environments filled with crime, theft, and murder.
 
Pruitt–Igoe was a large urban housing project first occupied in 1954 and completed in 1956. Shortly after its completion, living conditions in Pruitt–Igoe began a qualitative decline; by the late 1960s, the extreme poverty, crime, and segregation was totally out of control.
 
The only remedy was to blow up Pruitt-Igoe entirely.   Erase the problem from the map.
 
16 years after construction was finished—the first of the complex’s 33 buildings was demolished.
 
The remaining 32 buildings were destroyed over the next fours years.
 
Pruitt-Igoe was engineered and designed by Minoru Yamasaki.   Yamasaki’s design became an emblematic icon for the failure of Modern design and the Capitalist City—and the first of many later destructions.   The end Pruitt-Igoe signaled the massive failure of modernism’s fail socio-political system.
 
Thirty years later, another of Yamasaki’s Brave New World designs—the World Trade Center—was destroyed because of the same failed political system.
 
Marx believed that socialism would, in its turn, eventually be replaced by a stateless, classless society called pure communism.
 
Along with believing in the inevitability of socialism and communism, Marx actively fought for the former's implementation, arguing that both social theorists and underprivileged people should carry out organized revolutionary action to topple capitalism and bring about socio-economic change.
 
In this time of unprecedented global transformation, which has generated so many urgent challenges but also whole new forms of creativity, architecture's unique ability should be to address both the most direct practical problems facing global society and the highest ambitions for that society becomes all the more important.
 
As the field devoted to representing the greatest aspirations of society, architecture (including urban design, urban planning, historic preservation, and real estate development) should be a key lens through which to see, understand, and participate in our evolving world.
 
Architecture must be a form of optimism. More than simply supporting the basic rhythms of everyday life, the art of building should envision a better life, turning practical dilemmas into the most expressive opportunities, whether at the scale of a vast city, a building, a single interior, or a small piece of furniture.

Copyright ©2011 Metropolitan Arts Press Ltd.