I Remember Hating You For Loving Me

Douglas Murphy, one of my favorite architecture critics, has reposted a paper on his blog Entschwindet und vergeht about the rise and fall of Modernism in British housing design. It’s a long read, but draws important parallels near the end between nascent housing policy in the UK vs. that France:

The ConDem government’s proposals on capping housing benefit payments mean that there is a strong chance that the ongoing gentrification of central London will accelerate, leading to what you might describe as ‘Parisification’, and the effects further north in the cities that suffer from the UK’s ridiculous focus of wealth and work in London will most likely be allowed to decline yet further. Meades’ film ends with the statement that the long term meaning of urban regeneration is that there will be ‘no riots within the ring road’, while showing footage of the 2005 Paris riots. This is a very real and dangerous possibility.

The reference to the events of 2005 is salient; for all that those riots have been portrayed as purely Arab resistance to assimilation into French mainstream culture, it must also be said that French Arabs (and other groups marginalized into the exurban working poor) were geopolitically shut out, zoned for exclusion from an urban core that has historically been, and continues to be, heavily gentrified sites of strong urban primacy in terms of economic development. There is a palpable reason why rioters focused intensely on destroying cars, to which they were so often chained at the same time as it liberated them, at exorbitant prices, to seek whatever employment they could find at the margins of regions that were as alienating physically as they were alienated from French culture socially and linguistically. It is unsurprising that violence, particularly against cars, is so strongly correlated to banlieues that are simultaneously distant, poor, and transit-inaccessible.

Increasingly, as oil production is generally understood to have already peaked*, this is not only the likely direction of British housing markets but also that of our own in the United States. (China appears to be responding to the realization that it will need two Earths to consume like Anglospheric westerners by ramping up its industrial development to consume resources from space, but the feasibility of this can be the subject of an entirely different tirade.)

Even as post-Jacobean neoliberal urbanists (most notably Richard Florida) talk about reimagining the city as a haven for the “creative class”, the plight of the working class and low-income populations are somewhat swept under the rug. This needn’t necessarily be the case, but socio-cultural forces are conspiring with economic and class issues to make it so. Even (especially!) after the real-estate bubble exploded, many low wage-earners have internalized the logic of “drive until you qualify”, relocating to very distant, but technically affordable, exurbs and inner-ring suburbs poorly served by transit.

(Reinforcing this is an equal internalization of the cargo-cultic anti-transit attitudes of suburbanites, particularly and ironically among many affluent suburban African-American households, that the provision of necessary services will generate an “urban” atmosphere that attracts the various urban ills they have sought viscerally to escape. Thus, in a desire to avoid recreating that which is in any way like the urban core of Washington or Atlanta, the transit infrastructure of suburban Prince George’s or DeKalb counties often lies fallow, and perhaps will for another generation to come.)

Slowly, but with increasing urgency, developers are realizing that traditional modes of development are not going to sustain the future – not only in terms of greenfield development, but the redevelopment of existing automotive suburbs. Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the pre-eminent New-Urbanist developer, admits a lack of necessary focus on transportation and pledges to redouble it. But will that eventual, gradual, and ongoing market shift to pedestrian forms and focus on active transportation for in-town property-owners be enough? Murphy concludes it might not be:

[Conservatives] pandered to the desire to be homeowners, and encouraged the worship of the house. A home is a fairly rudimentary object, but it is encrusted with symbolic detail, signifying deeply held desires. Although the means have been there for a long time, housing remains a technologically backward industry, reliant on ‘wet’ trades and bespoke construction. 1997 presented an opportunity to genuinely attempt a modernisation of the house-building industry, but it was missed by the myopic New Labour project, instead leaving us with vulgar monuments to vapid greed.

To sum up, because it is so inherently capital-intensive, change in architecture can only really come from the top-down. We cannot now, nor could we ever, trust developers and speculators to create the housing that we need, and we have been terribly let down by the last government. It seems unlikely that the housing situation will improve in the UK without a shift in ideology, and a resurrection of the notion that collective housing is a vital and civilised way of organising the way we dwell.

But is a truly revolutionary urbanism any more possible than trickle-down urbanism has proved to be? Or have either of these been proven at all? The inevitable future of our resource demands may dictate either or both, whether we like it or not.

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~ by J.D. Hammond on November 15, 2010.

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