The evil politics of a new and exquisitely laid out town

I think cities could be better planned, but I sometimes wonder whether planning in itself is the answer. A lot of really wonderful places have not been planned at all. They are organic entities. Sometimes, too, as in the case of Brasilia or high rise projects like Cabrini Green in Chicago, planning can have troublesome results. A lot of modernist architecture tried to "plan" cities and work environments in which nobody wanted to live.

Some of the most depressing architecture I have ever seen was row after row of Soviet era modernist apartment blocs in Russia. Every comrade was going to have an apartment, but at what price to his soul? Talk about numbing and bleak. Ironically, St. Petersburg (at least the 18th century parts of it) may be the most intentionally-planned city in the world. It's delightful, if a bit grimy after a 100 years of deferred maintenance. So what is the optimum balance between planning and letting a place organically emerge with all of its own idiosyncrasies and peculiarities? It's a tough question and one I've gone back and forth on. How much should cities be planned? And how much does planning stifle the process of a place developing its own unique identity?

Several years ago I happened to spend a few days in Geneva, Illinois, which was just being absorbed into the nimbus of Chicagoland. For the most part, Geneva is -- or was--in the process of being replaced with a lesser duplicate of itself. It was not so much a cloned Stepford wife as a cloned Stepford. Down by the river, there used to be an old brick factory, but it had been recently converted into a shopping and dining complex. The main street was also dotted with fashionable boutiques mimicking the functionality of what were once butcher shops and hardware stores, places where people actually needed to go as a matter of everyday necessity. Now it was a place where people went to buy things nobody needs.

I don't really go in much for a lot of French postmodernist theory, but I couldn't help thinking about the late Jean Baudrillard while walking around Geneva. He argued that the world was experiencing the death of reality. According to Baudrillard, it happens like this: First, things reflect a basic reality. That is, something that looks like an old brick factory down by the river is an old brick factory down by the river. It makes bricks.

But then the image of the thing starts to mask and pervert its own basic reality. In other words, developers put a shopping center in the old brick factory down by the river because the image of "factory" gives the shopping center a "funkiness" it would otherwise lack. Next, the image of the thing begins to mask its absence of any basic reality and developers build apartments across the street from the funky brick factory shopping center so that they too look like a funky factory, which they never were. Now the image and the thing bear no relationship to any reality anywhere. Or the relationship is so many steps removed as to become lost and unreadable. Suddenly there are retail and apartment complexes across America that are based on no reality anywhere.

It's like Applebees or TGI Fridays that come complete with old sporting trophies and black and white photos on the wall that relate to no athletic event or people who ever darkened the place's door. As one friend put it, an Olive Garden is not an Italian restaurant; it's an imitation of an imaginary Italian restaurant that has simply begun to imitate itself. As Baudrillard argued, we are now in the realm of total simulacrum. In other words, it's not the brick factory we want; it's the imitation of the imitation of the imitation of the brick factory. There are no more bricks at the bottom, only mirror after mirror.

Of course, the other way round is just as problematic, isn't it? Let's say we prevented a thing's image from ever detaching itself from its purpose: once a brick factory always a brick factory. This is precisely what certain designers and architects preached, most notably those associated with the Bauhaus. Any frippery or decoration was seen as dishonest, a corrupt bourgeois indulgence, a masking or perverting of reality to hide the economic truth at the material base of all reality. (We mustn't let the dupes know they're being fleeced in our morally bankrupt shopping center, so we'll dress it up in funky, nostalgic, brick factory imagery).

The problem here, as anyone who's ever lived in soviet-style apartment blocs can tell you, is that architecture at this ruthlessly unlovely level of "truth" is not liberating -- it's depressing. There seems to be an unavoidable human desire for play and fun with images. So the Bauhaus architects would build these thoroughly "honest" apartment complexes, and within months the residents would start repainting the walls and replacing the functional furniture with overstuffed antique chairs, complete with silk slip covers and tatted lace doilies on the armrests. Apparently, human beings can't resist mixing things up -- they love to detach the signifier from the signified and slap it onto something else.

Perhaps the difference is that when people do it on their own without any consciousness about it, there arises an unreflective eclecticism to the design. Whereas when it's done in a calculated way (to purposely mask or pervert the image for some usually economic or political motive) the design is somehow inhuman. I don't want to live in those honest Bauhaus Soviet apartment blocs above or Disney's Celebration, Florida. Both seem over planned and somehow inhuman. Maybe the capitalist image thieves are no different from the Marxist-inspired designers. They both inject an intentionally into design that subverts any truthfulness to appearances or realities.

I've made the same argument before about literature -- that when we approach the text with a conscious critical intentionality, we subvert the very thing we're trying to describe -- that is, what happens when we read without any overly conscious intentionality. Can we plan without planning? As the old saw goes, the trick in interior decorating is not to look like you used a decorator. The challenge, then, is to strike a balance between planning and creative freedom. And that's really the challenge of democracy in a nutshell. How do we hold together as a community and maximize individual freedom?

Good question. Wish I had an answer.


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