Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Looking at Modernism with David Brin -6

Sith Architecture: Le Corbusier and Star Wars 
(Return to Part 5)
When I originally sent David the link to my essay, Star Wars: A New Heap I knew he was an unlikely fan of my ideas about Star Wars. I understood what he disliked about the film's plot and the franchises influence on the world of scifi publishing. In no way, shape, or form, did I think I would change David's judgment of the movie (or even wanted to). But because he counts himself a contrarian, I hoped he would enjoy the spirit of my project. I was ecstatic when he replied to my email and have enjoyed the polite sparing of our sporadic correspondence ever since. The subject of our sparing hasn't been Star Wars, however, its been modernity and Modernism. David has made it very clear on a number of occasions that he believed that both art and architecture (but mostly architecture) had gone off the rail some time ago, and has never recovered:
Not the scientists and engineers and science fiction authors, who kept faith with Modernism as a central force for the enlightenment, but by the very communities that you most associate with "Modernism".... the artists and architects, who betrayed the movement absolutely, despicably and almost mortally, at the very level of personality. By preening and flouncing and calling themselves wizard-guru-masters, everyone from Le Corbusier to Wright to Warhol gave in to the old temptations and turned Modernist art and architecture away from the enlightenment's most fundamental notion -- modesty and accountability.
The vernacular improvised urbanism of the Barricades vs. the master plans of Le Corbusier.

It might then seem a little counter-intuitive then, that when David wrote to tell me he would be in New York this fall, that my very first impulse was to ask him if he would like a guided tour of some gallery shows in while he was in town, but perhaps I am a bit of a contrarian as well. I love the Modernism of art and architecture even though I don't disagree with even the harshest aspect of David's judgment. Because I believe Francis Bacon was right - that "Truth emerges more readily from error than from confusion" - I don't love modernity for its purity, perfection or inevitability - I love it for its flaws, contradictions and even its most horrible errors.

As it turns out, David's dislike of Modernist architecture's flat roofs and tower-in-the-park schemes was honestly acquired and hard earned. The Brins spent a year and a half in Paris starting in 1969 - that was in the immediate aftermath of the general strike and student protests that nearly brought down the French government. Uprisings that started, act least in part, in response to the Modernist urbanism that was transforming Paris. In his book, The Situationist City, about the group widely credited with transforming the strike into a full blown up rising, Simon Sadler writes, "Here is old Paris ravaged by Cartesian excess. Exactly as the Situationists seemed to be warning us, the social implicated in the aesthetic: Jussieu's nightmarish corridors, vertiginous stairwells, and campus desserts" The Jussieu Campus is precisely where Cheryl did her postdoc work. Having lived among its dysfunction - at the height of it's dysfunction - David holds Modernist architects in special contempt.
Hitler in Paris; Situationists in London

The Nazis famously spared Paris, it was never bombed during WWII. The Modernist however, were not so careful. By the time David and Cheryl first saw the city, over a third of the old city had been raised in order to build office parks, expressways and housing estates. Transforming the old world charm of one of the world's most beautiful cites into tracks of anonymous concrete, glass and steel that one critic dismissed as "a city only and American could love." That is a sin that is hard to forgive. But unlike David, I grew up in a city that had already been transformed by the Modernists. I understood that something had been lost, but I also loved the glass and steel brutalism of my youth. They were my playgrounds.

Additionally David and I have entirely different relationships to modernity. He is trained as a scientist and has made his success working as an author; he therefore thinks of modernity as a set of ethics (modesty, accountability, etc). The communities he most associates modernism with are those who best embody Jefferson's metaphor of Enlightenment: "He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me." I meanwhile, am a sculptor. Because of what I do, I most associate modernity with things (cities, skyscrapers, abstract art, etc); things that in order to come into being must displace, over-shadow, crowd out, or redirecting other things. There is always a downside to making things, and not only do the down sides grow bigger as the scale of made things increases - they also grow deeper and darker as the number of us making things increases exponentially. David and I belong to almost entirely different Enlightenments - but they are complementary.
Word and Deed: Declaration of Independence and Monticello

David belongs to the Enlightenment of Jefferson the idea-man, I to Jefferson the builder. He can point with unalloyed pride to the modern innovation of "reciprocal accountability" as the basis of modern politics. What's not like? I can point to skyscrapers. That's a very mixed bag. The only actual large scale alternative to Modernist architecture attempted anywhere in the world was the 20 year reign of Stalinist Gothic - the majority of which was labor-intensive and time-consuming brick masonry covered in stucco. The Stalinist's ideological rejection of Modernism was based on appearances but meant the modern building technologies of steel I-beam and re-enforced slab construction were rejected. It lead to a terrible Postwar housing crisis throughout the Soviet Union. You don't have to embrace Robert Moses to see Stalin error. 

I sometimes try and imagine modernity as a shifting finite set of ideas (freedom, justice, accountability, etc) separating and recombining into new ideological configurations; some are beautiful, others, grotesque. Physical modernity is easier to see, but it is often harder to meaningfully separate the parts. The Enlightenment of things is expressed in terms of building techniques, materials, and physical densities. Unlike words, however, I-beams have no fixed meanings. Things have ethics of place and placement. In the built world ideas are made manifest but never truly articulated. Ideas can have carbon footprints. Ugly or stupid ideas can disfigure a city we love. Each of us walks past a dumb idea on the way to work every day; but we also walk along brilliant ideas that we never recognize. 
Stalinist Gothic brutalism of the Red Army Theater (1931); and the Modernist brutalism of Jussieu Campus (1964)

Art and architecture theorists periodize modernity along changing fashions in style, political innovations, and even according to shifts in technology - cycles of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The modernity of the built environment can also be periodized differently, according to the ways we dream of living in cities. Walter Benjamin called Paris the "Capital of the Nineteenth Century." In 1832, and again in 1849 Paris was decimated by an outbreak of cholera. The disease tore through the cities of Europe. In 1848, European cities were rocked by a very different epidemic - a series of revolutions that touch almost every government on the continent - none more than Paris where the February Revolution forced out King Charles X.

In 1853, after seeing London, a city transformed by the Industrial Revolution, which offered large public parks and a complete sewer system, the new President of the Second Republic (and soon to be its Emperor) Napoléon III decided to modernize Paris. He chose Georges Eugène Haussmann, who using the powers of the authoritarian regime, built a modern underground network of sewers and freshwater aqueducts, but more famously cut a new network of wide Boulevards through the mediaeval core of Paris intended to make the city easier for authorities to control. 
Pre-Haussmannization (Turgot Plan of Paris) and Post-Modernization (Debord's Psychogeography)

Le Corbusier, who's own plans for Paris and New York were far more radical than anything Haussmann or Moses ever dreamed of, complained against Haussmann only for being arbitrary: "The avenues cut were entirely arbitrary: they were not based on strict deductions of the science of town planning. The measures he took were of a financial and military character." As for Moses' New York, Le Corbusier only complained against its lack of ambition: "The trouble with New York is that its skyscrapers are too small." he explained on his first trip to the city in 1936. "And there are too many of them." - He was about to introduce the Americans to the scheme of the tower-in-the-park.

Haussmann's name will forever be linked with the repressive policies of Napoleon III, Moses with the racism that tainted the best intentions of LBJ's Great Society. Le Corbusier is, in the US and around the world, the face of the apocalyptically violent ideologies of American Cold Warriors. I have no urge to resuscitate Modernism; to take it back from Le Corbusier and remake it as a contemporary badge of honor. Modernism belongs to the 20th century. I prefer to leave 'isms along with ideologies to the last century.
Le Corbusier, Plan Voisin (1925); Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Highline (2011)

"No ideas but in things" cautioned William Carlos Williams. He was addressing other poets but looking back on Modernism William's words warns us to judge the things themselves. Just as a scientist has to resist growing to attached to a hypothesis, we have to be careful to look at how things were used, not what we were told about how they would or should have been used.

As David and Cheryl and I finished our tour of galleries we walked south along the new High Line - the park that now inhabits what had been a rotting elevated steel freight line left over from a time when the neighborhood still supported light industry and slaughter yards. As we walked we discussed some of the more disastrous mistakes embodied by the brutalism of "Jussieu's nightmarish corridors, vertiginous stairwells, and campus desserts." But we also discussed how much we both enjoyed the urbanism and moving sidewalks in Robert Heinlein's The Roads Must Roll (1940) and Isaac Asimov's Caves of Steel (1955). 
Harvey Wiley Corbett, The Three Deck City (1931): Paul Rudolph, LoMEx (1972)

I found myself wondering at the weirdness of the High Line itself. Since the birth of the skyscraper architects like Harvey Wiley Corbett began planning cities as tiered spaces of sunken road beds, elevated walkways, rooftop landing pads, and dirigible mooring towers. The brutalism of Jussieu and other Post-war developments made a fetish of raised pedestrian decks overpasses, terraces and walkways, even in places where there was no traffic to be elevated above. By the time the postwar building boom was going bust in the early 1970s schemes like LoMEx were in danger of updating Haussmann's Boulevards as "nightmarish corridors" of decked super highways. The Highline is the most successful elevated pedestrian space I've ever encountered. Given how long we have wanted to occupy a space like this, it's amazing that it took so long to make one work.

David and I exist within parallel intellectual traditions - if at times disconnected, the back and forth between the visual and the literary is crucial. David finds it offensive that Modernists like Corbusier liked to pretend that their schemes were "based on strict deductions of the science of town planning." Their counterparts in the arts adopted the moral superiority of "truth to materials" but finally hanging above AbEx and LoMEx was a dream, a dream just like the one that hung over the Empire State building's mooring mast - dream of the city of the future. 
Paul Rudolph, LoMEx (1972); George Lucas, Death Star (1977).

Appeals by architects and artists to the authority of science, if often spurious, shouldn't be surprising - it speaks to the success of science to convince. The success of schemes like LoMEx are not, however, examples of science gone wrong, they are the greatest expressions of science fiction. How could Paul Rudolph and Robert Moses have proposed a scheme as outrageous as destroying SoHo and Little Italy in order to extrude a pyramidal wall dividing Manhattan? 

They could not have done so unless an awful lot of people - architects, planners, artist, journalists, mayors, whoever - hadn't been reading Heinlein, Asimov and other scifi authors of the 50s and 60s who had so compellingly set their novels within futuristic megastructures. We had been convinced in advance that they were a good idea - it was only as we actually began to see those ideas take shape that we realized they were a mistake. Part of derailing those schemes was not just the real world efforts of Jane Jacobs; it was also a decade's worth of imaginary destruction. All those megastructures had to be discredited.
Destruction of Pruitt Igoe (1972) Destruction of the Death Star (1977)

The destruction of the Death Star was just the most dramatic example of the binge of imaginary megastructure destruction (Logan's Run, Silent Running and THX 1138 leap to mind). My experience as a sculptor is that to imagine something is entirely different than to build it - that making something is to be confronted by any inadequacies or contradictions that simply imaging a thing allows us to gloss over.

Today very Star Wars-like pyramidal slabs seems just out of sight above Rem Koolhaas' CCTV Headquarters - a tower that seems to have been built to evoke both awe and dread - they are part of a feedback loop that involves David's Enlightenment and the Enlightenment of built things as well. Less the cycle of stylistic "thesis, antithesis, synthesis" and more a building process of hypothesis and experimentation, followed by a period of evaluation and further hypothesizing. It sounds a lot like science, but has much more to do with science fiction. Williams might have said that, there are no dreams but in things. 
Death Star; OMA, CCTV HQ

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