Wednesday, June 15, 2011

White Walls, Crime Waves (Part 7)

Peter Seville, New Order, Substance (1988); Matrix Code (1999)
The art blogger, Hrag Vartanian, pointed out at a party recently that there is a disconnect between the whiteness fashioned for the Apollo missions and the whiteness of hi-tech today. For a time the look of the future was black diode screens with carbled green fonts. He is right, whiteness, as a marker of hi-tech  cool, seems to have disappeared sometime in the late 70s and only reappeared recently.

At the time whiteness faded from view because high technology had become powerfully linked with command-and-control systems, and those systems were felt to be rigid, threatening, and dehumanizing, not at all cool. Star Wars so thoroughly cast the Modernist NEW as fascist, that films like Blade Runner and Alien didn't have to show pristine white control rooms - they were implied, the sinister negative space of the dingy dark Used Futures where the real action was taking place during the 80s and early 90s. 
Alien (1979); Blade Runner (1982)

For well over a decade NEWness itself slipped from view, and whiteness with it. In the aftermath of WWII NEWness had been the promise of material abundance, moral progress and peace. It was to be delivered by the white walled laboratories, clean rooms and corporate boardrooms. The dream was for a home of the future with automatic doors driven by cybernetic systems like those used in aerospace labs, Jet packs and other space age technologies used by astronauts, and manly company men in crisp suits at the head of happy families; all living in what the urbanist Lewis Mumford called "Social Cities." 
An environment that possessed many positive urban values that London itself could no longer even give even to the wealthy... [a] town of limited size as capable of completely containing and transmitting our modern culture... based not on congestion but on decentralized organization.
In his autobiography, Life, Keith Richards gives some insight on the London Mumford was so impatient with: "My earliest memories are the standard postwar memories in London. Landscapes of ruble, half a street's disappeared." Some of it stayed like that for ten years." "The fact that I couldn't buy a bag of sweets until 1954 says a lot about the upheavals and changes that last for so many years after the war." The war had been over for nine years before Richards could buy candy without ration stamps. 
Lewis Mumford; Keith Richards

Mumford complained about the standard of living in London a ta time when that city was still rebuilding from the organized violence of the Blitzkrieg, and had only just ended rationing (1961). That same year, Jane Jacobs derided Mumford's ideal of decongested and decentralized urbanism as “harmony and order imposed and frozen by authoritarian planning,” and dubbed it "Radiant Garden City Beautiful." Mumford warned that cities functioned "as a container of organized violence and a transmitter of war." His idea of the Social City was an answer to the violence he saw as core to city life, an end run made around the aggression that had erupted in two world wars and threatened nuclear Armageddon if allowed to produce a third. 

In the US, where no cities had been bombed flat, but where infrastructure and housing stock were worn out after the slump of the Great Depression and the deprivations of the war effort. Planners were faced with massive shifts in population as the rural poor moved to cities for jobs and soldiers returned home to start families. No doubt still weary of the possibility of same sort of mass rage that had gripped Europe's more urbanized populations, American planners had an interest in rational planning along the lines Mumford suggested. Jane Jacobs points out that decentralization had a strategic Cold War value as well - dense centralized populations made inviting targets for nuclear attacks. But the most pressing violence that concerned urbanists in the postwar years was street crime. 
Corbusier, Plan Voisin (1925); Weyland-Yutani company man, Aliens 3 (1992)

In 1961 no one could have predicted how intractable a problem urban crime would turn out to be, and how mysteriously it would resolve itself. When NASA began retooling skilled engineers to work as urban planners they had every reason to believe Mumford and other authorities that the solutions were available. That all that was required of the engineers was to implement the existing ideas using the sorts of large scale systems management developed for the the Arms Race and used to "win" the Space Race. 

The sharp rise in crime during the 1960s and 70s has long been contrasted to the drop in crime during the Great Depression. Until recently cultural differences between the imagined ethic of self-control provided by intact family networks of the so called "greatest generation" and the atomized self-expression of postwar baby boomers were fingered as the root cause. Efforts of that era' architects, urban planners and reformers are felt to have simply exasperated the situation. Taking a hopelessly complex cultural situation from bad to worse. The whiteness of the NEW was tarnished. The possibility of progress and order that it had embodied exposed as utopian naiveté. 
Dwight Eisenhower; Pruitt-Igoe

But since the mid-1990s self-righteous finger pointing has become less sure-footed; urban crime rates began to fall, and haven't stopped their decline since. And the truth is, no one knows why. Cultural differences between generations of city dwellers remain impossible to measure and the inputs of architects and planners difficult to gauge. 

Researchers have had more success drilling down through more easily quantified aspects of city life and have begun to assemble a constellation of possible causes, from the introduction of TV and availability of cheap hardcore drugs, to more counterintuitive possibilities, like the effects of leaded gas, air conditioning and abortion laws. What is clear is that cities are growing and crime continues to fall - even as unemployment rises. The cultural life of the city is, as it turns out, far more robust than post war Modernists imagined. But our relationship to the environment of the city is also far more sensitive than they imagined. Inputs that they believed were benign, like lead, have turned out to be socially disruptive. 

City life defied the military-industrial logic of economies of scale, and has turned out to be something far more intimate - but not intimate in a way Mumford or Jacobs could have possibly understood. The re-emergence of hi-tech NEWness at the end of the 1990s had little or nothing to do with the whiteness of the structuring grip of a hidden latex girdle and bullet bras, and more to do with the provocative display of white underpants. (Continue reading Part 8.)
CK underwear (1993): Apple iMac Snow (2001)

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