Cities of Men

I think it was Hemingway who said that a good fiction writer always creates on the iceberg plan: nine tenths of what he writes or knows about a character never makes it to the page for the benefit of the reader.   And yet there is a benefit: the invisible mass below the waves is sensed unconsciously in the stability and cool assurance of what rises above.

If I may repurpose the metaphor, this roughly describes how I feel about cities and neighborhoods.  A good neighborhood is one with a sense of the submerged, of the continuity of space and human community in a single locale over time.  It needn’t be immediately apparent – new growth is necessary – but it needs to be there just the same, under the surface.  The best places to live have been lived in before with pleasure.  The second best places to live must at least have the promise of being lived in again with pleasure.

In the spring issue of City Journal, Roger Scruton writes about Léon Krier and his battle against the long hegemony of modernism in architecture and urban planning.  I think that Scruton, or at least Krier, gets at this same idea.  

According to Scruton, the trouble with architectural modernism is its lack of a universally intelligible vocabulary:

Traditional architecture produced forms expressive of human interests—palaces, houses, factories, churches, temples—and these sit easily under their names. The forms of modern architecture… are nameless—denoting not familiar objects and their uses but “so-called objects,” known best by nicknames, and never by real names of their own. Thus the Berlin Congress Hall is the “pregnant oyster,” Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles the “madhouse,” the new building at Queen’s College, Oxford, the “parking lot,” and the UN building in New York the “radiator.” The nickname, in Krier’s view, is the correct term for a kitsch object—for a faked object that sits in its surroundings like a masked stranger at a family party.

But Krier, like the New Urbanists he influenced, is not only interested in making war on the monumental expressions of architectural modernism.  He also targets the barren utilitarianism (a la strip malls and condo blocks) that threatens to slowly murder our everyday lived spaces.  Both threaten to smother the soul by way of the eyes.

It’s a mixed bag here in California (as it is throughout the United States).  In many of our major cities, it’s possible to find old neighborhoods where the extremes of dereliction and demolition have been kept at bay.   San Francisco, for example, has been fairly successful.  And there are other places (like Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Mendocino, St Helena, Sonora, etc.) where at least the core of the city has retained a sense of vitality and identity.  But too many of our citizens are atomized under curtain-walled glass towers or cooped up in soulless tract-home ghettoes where a pleasant stroll is out of the question and you have to drive twenty minutes to find a grocer, a coffee shop, or a decent park.  

With regard to the latter scenario, the tragedy is not so much that population trends have required us to build outward into the countryside, the marshlands, or the desert, but that we have done so in an essentially unsustainable way, a way that does not foster a continuity of space and human community to make it pleasurably livable for future generations.  By Krier’s lights, the human spirit requires a human architecture in which to flourish; we grow or shrink to fit the spaces we build for ourselves.  It’s both a promise and a threat:

By creating cities, we create ourselves. When we despoil our cities, we despoil ourselves…  A beautiful village, a beautiful house, a beautiful city can become a home for all, a universal home. But if we lose this aim we build our own exile here on earth.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Cities of Men

  1. Pingback: Cities of Men

  2. This last Sunday the NY Times Sunday supplement featured this subject and highlighted that by the end of this year more than half the population of the planet will live in urban environments.

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