Cabrini Green, an infamous public housing project (made notorious and immortalized in the horror film The Candyman), is nearly entirely demolished. As Great Society projects continually fall down around us I can’t help but wonder why so much built in this era of idealism proved to be so ephemeral when contrasted to great undertakings of previous generations. Even in this government preservation document concerning buildings from the Great Society era, there is little reverence expressed for the architecture and even an open call to rehabilitate as much as possible. The overall sentiment and tone, as contrasted to other eras, seems to me one that does not so strongly fear the wrecking ball.
One quote from that document I find particularly rich is “This era can be characterized as an architecture of difficult beauty…We must separate the bad from the good–and there are plenty of bad buildings–but we must make these distinctions with subtlety and scholarship” from Robert Stern, Dean of Yale School of Architecture. I find these words richly ironic, not because they are attributed to Mr. Stern, but because they come from a Dean of the Yale School of Architecture. Any Nutmegger whose walked the streets of the old Elm City, or knows their local history, is acutely and painfully aware of the difficulty of the beauty inflicted on the city at this time–most of it originating from Yale architects. New Haven today is a fine place to revisit the pleasures of the “Brutalist” style thanks to Yale School of Architecture. (I am also astounded by his contribution of such a brilliantly nuanced and open standard for preservation as “subtlety and scholarship”).
Our social needs, of course, have not diminished since the Great Society projects. I’m not an apologist for the large warehousing of America’s poor that took place during the excesses of our welfare state, but I’m equally distressed that we as a country seem allergic to discussing or advancing solutions to the same problems we felt so urgent then. They have not gone away, our poverty problems have metastasized.
Although I believe giving people vouchers and subsidies is empowering and a far preferable way of spreading opportunity in poor communities, and that it is far better to diffuse poverty than to segregate and concentrate impoverished people for a host of social and economic reasons, the danger is now that we are not adequately providing in levels to the need. This will only bring us back to the Dickensian conditions that began the first progressive movement nearly a century ago.
I am not saying there is an architectural design solution to the rampant poverty in America, but to posit that the shortcomings in both the quality of this era’s construction and design have inhibited our abilities to think ambitiously. The crumbling architecture of the Great Society era are ever present symbols and advertisements of the failure of our most recent, large scale projects. Even worse, many inspirational architecture of a preceding era have been demolished. The landscapes of today often serve to deaden the political will and stiffens the conventional wisdom that success cannot come in big packages.