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.
“exegi monumentum aere perennius”
(I have erected a monument more lasting than bronze)
— Horace’s Third Ode.
This phrase was adapted to the motto “quid aere perennius?” or, “what is more enduring than brass?”, by my old home city of Waterbury, CT formerly famed as the “Brass City”. It came via the suggestion of a local New England WASP, philanthropist, and all-around 19th century patrician; Frederick Kingsbury (who also happened to be a contemporaneous friend and confidant of famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted).
Ironically, plastics proved themselves to be more enduring than brass, and the city experienced a long decline from its manufacturing pre-eminence. However, I am haunted by the spirit contained within this phrase; both in Horace’s first incantation and later in its prosaic, civic booster formulation. A desire to make places of our present moment connect with times future and past encapsulates each expression, and with a similar aspiration, I am launching this blog.
The 19th century industrialist and Yale graduate Kingsbury seemed to make his classical allusion forthrightly and without any hint of modesty, whereas Horace’s comparison of his own poetry to the pyramids, impervious to erosion, had a decidedly sarcastic, but reflective quality. Horace, of course, is still read thousands of years later while many of the grandest structures of Waterbury on Grand Ave. are already struggling against erosive forces: shrinking city revenue, corrupt officials, and outright vandalism. My hopes for this blog is merely to continually post on themes posited here: a perceived lack of ambition in the body politic, on-going commentary on regional economic policies and interventions in the physical environments–the tangible loci where our present moments are already interconnecting with future developments.
Just a couple decades ago, it seemed to me the idea of erecting physical, everlasting monuments seemed itself a dead and forgotten notion–remembered dimly as vulgar, Epicot-like Disney-esque delusions. Architects and futurists talked of a fast-paced, convenient, disposable, and more utilitarian world. Indeed, many of the more epically conceived, ambitious structures of the modernist era ought to reproduce the grandeur and austerity of ancient Roman buildings in their current ruined state of beauty but eschewed their historical, freshly festooned antecedents in pursuit of sparse, clean lines. Yet, compare the current condition of the Parthenon’s concrete to Louis Kahn’s IIM-A or Moshie Safdie’s Habitat ’67. When modernists erected their monuments, their design and construction did not exude the same grand emphasis on forging a legacy. Perhaps they thought if they mimed the geometric starkness of form of the pyramids the structures would take on their permanence. By the 80s and 90s and 00s distopian world views seemed to command the popular mindset (from Escape from NY to Oyrx and Crake to Matrix).
Parallel to the fall of high modernism, environmentalist and ecological perspectives have evolved to provide an intellectual framework and a rationale of resistance to the turbulent, short-sighted notion that innovation is purely synonymous with cheap, easily replaced materials. Their concept of sustainability is now adopted widely and most have successfully avoided categorization as unrepentant luddites. Sustainability, perhaps the greatest buzzword of the past ten years, is so ubiquitous and often confused mantra that we must conclude the word has nearly lost all relevance and meaning. Yet, many feel an urgency, rationally constructed in response to threats of industrial pollution and climate change, to renew what it means to tie a building to its physical site, its land and the whole of nature. Should we build our homes of biodegradable straw or, foregoing the need to duplicate effort, carve them out of reusable, long lived stone? The answers to these kinds of specific questions will, presumably in a more environmentally conscious culture, once more reflect the ecological peculiarities of a location greater than the regional price for rebar. The aesthetic choice of a window framing a view of a clump of trees will no longer suffice as proof of an architect’s intention to unite a home in spirit to its surrounding nature; ideally, the energy efficiency of the glass will be given equal or higher consideration. Surely, at the heart of sustainability, is a question not just of the most efficient methods of consumption, but the manner in which we build and structure our cities and societies.
However, to my thinking, forever coupled with the idea of ‘sustaining’ must also be the idea of ‘enduring’. If we take as granted that our societies will reform themselves to achieve grand goals of sustainability, we must remember what bestows the grandeur and what animates its passionate pursuit. The desire to endure is the humanistic fundament for these projects’ appeal and all other concerns are ancillary benefits.
As I interpret the concept, it should neither be like the Italian Futurists that wished to entirely rupture from the past, nor in full lockstep with contemporary new urbanists, such as James Kunstler, who have exhaustively decried the aesthetic decay and alienation caused by an unholy, ahistorical, consumerist crush of sprawl on our landscapes, but also might seek to exhume dead architectural styles. By building in our present with a mind to last, we will create a consciousness of the future in the minds of the young. Hopefully, it will also enlighten respect for our treasured inheritances and by slow accretion transform the places of our daily lives with endearing qualities that will predominate overall.
Still, to my chagrin, even today I can hear glib utterances by young architects that resemble remarkably notions of planned obsolescence. The same individual from a top university, who might otherwise be a very dedicated humanist, or fascinated with executing energy efficient designs, can still be quoted as saying that most buildings are not meant or preferred to last longer than the fifty years. The response to those who question why, sometimes given with a scolding tone, is to remind the questioner we no longer live in ancient Roman times; as if durable construction in lasting materials is more than merely costly but also the hallmark of a more primitive civilization. For me, this has always sounded analogous to American car manufacturers who scoffed at designing fuel efficient cars because consumers wanted only power.
Of course, it will take more than architects to reverse the circumstances that have given rise to these types of commonplace opinions. I have lived in a neighborhood where, according to Census data, the plurality of building stock dated to the 1910s. I write this today from a building erected in the late 1920s. Indeed, I would argue that in the future buildings must be more enduring than bronze if our physical realm is to have any lasting economic value. While we do not have the same cheap labor, cheap masonry, or armies of skilled Old World artisans that made the enduring structures of the WPA era, neither did the designers of the 50’s and 60’s. Fifty years later, and our society has discovered rather than being able to upgrade and replace as planned, that it must lean only more heavily on the infrastructure and buildings of that era. Our current financial projections also seem to indicate little hope of our nation having the resources to upgrade or replace them in the next fifty years.
In this era where the word unsustainable, whether in environmental or financial context, torrentially pours from the mouths of every commentator and politician prominent in American life, and our post-WWII physical structures are deteriorating quickly, there are innumerable indications that Americans have awoken to this slowly unfolding crisis. On the other hand, there is little indication that any large scale measures will be taken to meet them. In addition to constantly questioning why this is the case, I will research, analyze, comment, and link to urban and regional planning efforts that are seeking to forestall or reverse this reality, and to highlight efforts that I believe are heroic in their pursuit of building cities and monuments more lasting than brass.
Please visit again soon.