The insect and the caveman: science fiction, individualism, urbanism

by Yule Heibel on May 17, 2007

No, I haven’t dropped off the face of the planet again — although this long hiatus admittedly suggests something drastic. It is true, however, that I’m waiting for a proverbial other shoe to drop, which it should do by the end of this month, and that this state-of-waiting has compromised my agility. But soon I’ll know more, which will at least lend some real gravity (and provide rather acute pressure points) to what is currently a situation in limbo.

I’ve also been participating in essentially two other web-based communities, which in turn are tied to my real life in various ways. If I were more egotistical (she says, using a conditional to open this loaded sentence, whose second word is the personal subject pronoun…), I would be diligent about posting to my blog on a regular basis. After all, grooming is so important (ha). But I’m not, and have instead expended copious amounts of energy elsewhere, in conversations revolving around the place I live.

Living (its hows and whys) is so important, too, isn’t it?

Speaking of which…

Speaking of living, here’s my “linky” contribution for today: I came across a description of Norman Foster + Partners’ proposal for The Walled City of Masdar (Masdar Development, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates) in Looking at the pictures — and the fantastic (in the full range of that word) descriptions for this “walled city” — I was reminded of a few other recent articles, notably A New Curator Casts a Fresh Eye on Architecture’s Past at MoMA by Robin Pogrebin (New York Times, May 14, 2007). In particular, this:

Marginalized or ignored were 1920s and ’30s Expressionism and Organicism, whose swirling or biomorphic forms have influenced modern architecture up to the present day, Mr. Bergdoll [the “new curator” of the article’s title] contends. “There are things outside their field of vision in 1932 that are fundamental now — and fundamental to the collection,” he said. “I’m kind of critiquing the limits of their vision.”

In response, his show’s first thematic section, titled “Other Modernisms,” includes colorful drawings of Mies’s Eliat House (1925, unbuilt), whose long horizontal ribbon windows and flat roofs would become trademarks of Modernism, and Hugo Häring’s Garkau Farm (1922-6), which rejected geometric forms in favor of asymmetrical spaces that would suit the grouping and feeding of livestock.

“There are things that Hitchcock and Johnson essentially declared dead that went on,” Mr. Bergdoll said. “I picked buildings that would never have been buildings allowed into their show.”

“Urbanism,” another theme, highlights mid-20th-century solutions for traffic and overcrowding in modern cities. “Hitchcock and Johnson in 1932 were not interested in an urban philosophy,” Mr. Bergdoll said. “Their opening show emphasized the individual building.”

In the “75 Years” installation, Mr. Bergdoll also acknowledges another area that he says was largely skirted by the department’s early curators: “Visionary Architecture.” Utopian designs in general have made a strong comeback among architecture students, he noted, inspired by projects from the ’60s and ’70s.

“There’s a kind of nostalgia for the optimism that’s embodied in these,” he said, citing things like Ron Herron’s 1966 “Walking City on the Ocean,” a collage of a metropolis featuring tanklike vehicles with skylights. “Hitchcock and Johnson were wary of underscoring anything to do with utopian thinking,” Mr. Bergdoll said. “They worried that the American public would think Modernism was wild or crazy and would be dismissed as fairy-tale thinking or leftist.” (More…)

Leave aside the references to thirties-era Expressionism and Organicism, which isn’t in evidence at Masdar, and focus instead on the “other modernism,” the one that thematises “urbanism” and turns away from the “privileged” form favoured by Hitchcock and Johnson, which was the individual “heroic” building. Looked at in those terms, “urbanism” (many things to many people) could be understood not just as “vibrancy,” but as an ism that works to make you fit in, too… Urban form / con-form. Conform. Submit. The tall building, the skyscraper, the “heroic” structure: it stands out, calls attention to itself, and, in community with other “competitive” structures of its kind, embodies the vibrancy of competitive individualism or capitalism.

Is that too simplistic? But if there isn’t something to it, then why do so many people hate cities and tall buildings, which they “read” as pushy, competitive, not pastoral? Why do they perceive cities as akin to some primitive sort of hunter-gatherer jungle where everyone is presumably “on their own”? Why do other people (including me), however, get a visceral thrill from seeing a towering skyline? Are we primitives who thrill to vicariously carving out the nicest cave in the cliff-face, the one that lets us survey “our” domain? (Penthouse, anyone?) But in that case, what of con-forming to urban formalisms — utopias that propose to make us content, to place your feet sweetly on the ground, to focus your vision on the near horizon, humbly, to guide you to paths familiar?

Back to Foster + Partners’ Masdar Development: I’m especially interested in the image of the “city” seen from above. I understand (vaguely, with plenty of mental resistances) why it has to be so flat, but to my eye it’s quite repellent. It reminds me of science fiction dystopias, where people are organised like insects, burrowing into the ground or clinging, drone-like, to its surface. (The aerial concept rendering is on the World Architecture News webpage on Masdar, and also below.)

1064_4_1000 Foster Mascar 4.jpg

The other images also strike me as far too suggestive of social engineering: they imply a re-jiggering of human nature, to make it con-form to the architect’s vision. Is this any more benign than the much-criticised Edifice Complex of the rich and powerful, whose allegedly “phallic” skyscrapers penetrate city skies with overly ambitious (and individualistic — or corporatist) hubris?

You tell me, after looking at the renderings for Masdar’s “University,” or its streetscape. Note the walkways, especially in the latter image: “artistically” arranged, they don’t allow for short-cuts or individual choice, but instead direct the pedestrian along rigidly prescribed routes, which often converge in precarious pinch-points just begging to be the site of an unintended spill. Short-cuts are impossible because these walkways are at grade with attractive waterways. There are no railings, however, which to my eye is the biggest clue to the social engineering that’s proposed.

Are we to believe that there will never be any children running or people jostling or crowds milling to the point where someone is going to fall off the walkways and into the water? Where will these Wundermenschen come from, who won’t mind taking a plunge into the ditch? Who can waft through cities without a care, forever gliding through the ever-so artfully arranged public spaces? What kind of weird city is this supposed to be?

Abdul, saddle up the camel. I’m outta here. Gotta find me a tall cliff with a nice cave…


Postscript: Just as many people, disliking what they perceive as a competitive, individualistic drive in cities, hate its hugger-mugger density (especially its multi-family or condo-style housing), so do many urbanists hate suburban sprawl for its ostensibly selfish, if faux, individualism. Lately, both built forms have of course also come under attack for their allegedly “unsustainable” aspects. This is an old, and long, story, it seems.


melanie May 19, 2007 at 3:55 am

Another stream of architectural thinking (things that never got built) belongs to the early Soviet Union:

It doesn’t seem to rate a mention in the MoMA curator’s critique of his predecessors.

And speaking of ‘edifice complex’, more here: (with lots of ads unfortunately)

melanie May 19, 2007 at 3:57 am

Ok, can’t post pics in comments. But I tried to post the last one on the page I linked to.

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