PRINT September 1989


Ideal Cities

AMERICAN URBAN PLANNING IS a complex and seemingly wayward history of conflicting social and economic interests, a hodge-podge of styles, philosophies, and utopian programs. Perhaps its most salient feature, though, is what Kenneth Frampton points to as “the perennial American unease with the metropolis and the simultaneous nostalgia for the greatness of past urban civilizations.” Here we may find a clue to the current dilemma of urban planners and architects in constructing working concepts of “the city,” handed down in a legacy of, yes, good buildings, but overall designs that are imperialist in intent, overtaking neighborhoods with ideal projects that have little or no regard for cultural difference and community needs.

Who gives shape to the city, and how? A body of intellectual work has been produced over the past two decades in an effort to rethink the precepts of urbanism as laid down by vanguard Modernists such as Le Corbusier (who were in part responding to 19th-century planning), to rethink “the city” itself. Among others, Manfredo Tafuri, in Theories and History of Architecture, and Christine Boyer, in her Dreaming the Rational City, have offered alternative readings of city planning, revealing a similar discomfort with the efficacy of Master Plans and demonstrating the need to round out the planning process with due respect for history. And by history, we mean combinations of private and public experience, the individual and political realms, mediated by the factors of class, race, and gender. What gets lost, these critics say, in the continual remaking of the urban fabric are the collective spaces formed by the intersections of private and public experience.

This is a crucial time to reexamine our concepts of the city and how it is shaped, to rethink the politics of space, and to ask: to whom does the city belong? In urban centers across the United States, “revitalization” projects are reproducing a kind of suburban idealism, and in the process producing space as pure acultural commodity. Highly controlled real estate schemes depoliticize urban experience by providing complacent home-away-from-home atmospheres for a public of consumers. Under these conditions, American cities are fast becoming, not expressions of complex interactions, but rather ones governed by consumption. Mall culture, grafted onto the urban fabric in the form of such projects as Trump Tower in New York, or the Union Station “foodcourt” in Washington, D.C., provide havens for shopping or eating while offering samples of cosmopolitan commodities. Franchises, long an indication of suburban expansion, are transforming city streetfronts and business arcades with increasing rapidity. South Street Seaport, a wharf of boutiques and franchises, commercializes the waterfront history of New York through scenic, stylistic imagery. Miniaturization and facadism, earmarks of development projects that recreate Americana, merely preserve the picturesque with no regard for historical context. And this process of place-making has much in common with consumerist space like that created in Disney World’s “Little France,” or the same’s recreation of MGM’s backlot of New York (a reproduction of a reproduction, doubly ahistorical, doubly imagistic). Tourism is inverted in both kinds of space: one vocations in one’s vicarious life-style, and never has to go beyond the front door of popular American culture or subject oneself to the challenging interchanges of urban life.

Most of the inequities of urban spatial politics are happily disguised by 1980s “urban pioneer” rhetoric. Mixed-use megaprojects and gentrification advance the mythology of the American frontier, where everyone has a piece of the pie, while harboring a presumptive rejection of public life. Replete with valet parking, mall-style movie theaters, health clubs, and gourmet delis, an abundance of beehive condominiums are sold to model target audiences on the same basic principles that have in the past drawn people to vast suburban housing developments. With glamorous views of Manhattan, floors above it all, you can live in the city, but never have to deal with it. The desire to have the American dream, owning one’s home, right here in the city, is reflected in part by the imposition of domestic lifestyles currently purveyed by the magazine, advertising, and television industries. Noticeably, womanhood is being reinscribed as moral motherhood and romantic housekeeping, while marketing interests capitalize on children and childrearing and the elderly face higher taxes and relegation to warm-climate communities away from social participation.

All of these trends can be traced, in a certain sense, to Modernist idealizations of the city and its possibilities as taken up in postwar America. Modernist purism, evoked in the ideas of Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and the Bauhaus, and the concept of technological production in the service of the mass of the people, were usurped by American planners and designers and transformed into everything from skyscraper curtain walls to suburban tract housing and hermetic corporate headquarters along our highways. The utopian ideal of the democratic city suggested by Le Corbusier’s Open Plan for the Ville Radieuse with its natural gardens and immense Cartesian skyscrapers to house the populace, resonates in the egalitarianism of our own Jeffersonian city-grid, expressing that endlessly producible rationale where all are created and can create, materially, equally, and where zones of demarcation separate industry from private life and recreation. In the American context, despite many well-meaning experiments, the translation of Modernist democracy has always been less than ideal: the valorization of the white nuclear family isolated in acres of suburban tract housing, protected from corrupt urban (read: political) culture.

Traces of the desire for the garden city, or “green” city, which has a distinctly American development exemplified by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, and the categorical separation of different spheres of activity (with precedents in the City Beautiful movement), are present in current transformations of the urban environment. But instead of an outward movement into the suburbs, it seems that at least the psychology of suburban life is moving into the city, a distorted version of “bringing the country into the town.” And, like the ’50s suburban boom, the end product is isolating, encouraging fear and suspicion of “otherness”: fortresslike housing development projects, such as Battery Park City in New York, barricade their occupants against the urban outside by providing everything within the walls of the “city.”

But what a fabulous project to dream the Ideal City! What would it contain? Pools of water, trees, gardens, theaters, houses, mountains, zoos, amusements, terraces, fountains, temples, shrines, administration buildings, schools, studios, cemeteries, resources, glistening streets, color, light, and music . . . inventions, miracles, divinity, virtuosity, health, and well-being—all the good and worthwhile pursuits and pleasures of human history, a multiplicity of pasts and presents invested in a fantastic domain of buildings and people.

The problem is never with dreaming, but with the processes by which we attempt to merge democratic ideals and built forms. They don’t necessarily mesh. This doesn’t mean we should disavow or dismiss Corbu’s utopia. Instead, we must rethink the forms of the city by resisting the cynical order of relegating human rights and needs to a position second to business and so-called progress. Perhaps one way to embark on this is to acknowledge the generative role formlessness could play in our planning process. Squeaky-clean conceptions of urban space with rigid overall plans can’t account for the pockets of histories that enrich our sense of the urban fabric. In this regard, perhaps urban planners and architects could look more closely at the precedents of Jane Jacobs, or at Dolores Hayden’s cogent feminist analyses of urban domesticity and material relations, along with the work of politicized video and film artists who have documented the lives of urban people. Cities can and should be developed in relation to their citizens, not over them, with the goal of nurturing participation in urban political life rather than passive acceptance of some stupefying suburban order.

Molly Hankwitz is a freelance writer living in New York.