In search of a present-day utopia The heritage of the modernists

“Many people dream of a better world; Howard, Wright and Le Corbusier each went a step further and planned one. Their social consciences took this rare and remarkable step because they believed that, more than any other goal, their societies needed new kinds of cities.” Robert Fishman

“The world’s greatest happiness lies in action” Le Corbusier

Modernist planning, nowadays, equals authoritarian disaster, anti-social displacement of whole neighbourhoods, grey concrete buildings and large, uninspired open space – the Great Blight of Dullness, in the sarcastic words of Jane Jacobs. Indeed a lot of large-scale modernist projects didn’t quite work out the way their inventors had planned them on the drawing board. It may be en vogue to mock or discard the attempts of Ebenezer Howard, Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright to rebuild and reinvent the urban fabric and take the highly unsanitary 19th century slums well into the 20th century. Yet, there are good reasons to defend the project the modernists had in mind. Not all of their recipes worked, to say the least, but these urbanists may have had a quality lost to contemporary urbanism. The quality to dream, to formulate a vision and seek for big solutions.In this essay we will focus on the overall vision of the modernist planners on society and ‘morality’. Howard, Wright and Le Corbusier had quite different models but fundamentally they had made the same analysis of the late 19th century city. The modernist project and their architects had affinities with the radical leftist morale of marxism and fabianism and were waiting for the dawn of a new age of equality and freedom. It is suggested that, in terms of politics or morality their writings are paradoxical (Le Corbusier) or naïve (Howard). But we can acknowledge what is possibly their biggest feat: the conception of urban space as such and the possibility of an urban utopia, one they considered feasible, one they believed was essential for economic redistribution and social intervention.

After this we will go deeper into Jane Jacobs’s criticism of the modernists. First and foremost it is obvious that Jacobs would never be able to appreciate the desktop planning of the modernists. In her view it is authoritarian and functions purely as physical form-giving, ignoring the rational and social process of planning and designing space. Specifically towards Howard and Le Corbusier she has formulated harsh critiques. Yet, it is only after we see the four conditions she sees as vital for the livelihood of an area that we understand that a dialogue between her and the modernists is impossible. It is through with her (and some of her contemporaries) that western urban planning comes to realise the importance of the inhabitant in the total picture, one which will be put central by Jane Jacobs’ contemporary Henri Lefèbvre as the producer of space.

The dialectic between modernists and ‘post-modernists’ brings us to a brief sketch of contemporary urban thought: new urbanism, everyday urbanism and posturbanism – or in another framework: the dichotomy of centrists and decentrists. Contemporary urban thought is dominated by pragmatism, or describes dystopias like Dear & Flusty’s keno capitalism, Soja’s exopolis or Garreau’s edge cities. None of these examples are socially inclusive, they do not relate urban planning to social intervention, at least not in the way modernists urbanists did. But most of all, they lack a firm belief in the possibility of a new utopia, a new project which addresses great cities and the possibilities they hold.

The morality of modernist planning

It is no coincidence that modernism as an art movement was born in an era of industrialisation, during the systemic change towards a fordist system. The urbanisation, which came hand in hand with the industrialisation of the 19th century asked for a new planning, for the creation of a new planning, suitable for the changing conditions in the booming cities. The modernists are believed to having wanted to produce a more equal and more adjusted space, a dream of equal connectivity. As a reaction to the disorder, chaos and dirtiness of the streets, neighbourhoods, shantytowns and slums, modernist planning put the concept of space as such on the agenda. Like the concepts of work and leisure time, space as a concept had to be ‘invented’, before it could be used as a means to establish social and economic change.

When modernist architecture was first practiced, it was an avant-garde movement with moral, philosophical, and aesthetic elements. Immediately after World War I, the Great War which had changed Europe dramatically, architects sought to develop a style appropriate for a new social and economic order. This new style was to be radical in form, but also social and moral, meeting the needs of the middle and working classes. The architectural practise of the time, they believed, served and acknowledged the aristocratic order, which explains why all forms of historical references were to be removed from their buildings. Modernism changed drastically due to the second World War. The enormous holes this war had left behind in the urban fabric enforced the grasp of the modernists firmly. Their ‘artistic’ and avant-garde style all of a sudden got a lot of power to try out its (shock) tactics. Perhaps they were given too much power. This in turn explains why planning in the 60s became a business of crunching numbers instead of desktop drawing, the so-called data-driven parametric approach, away from a great artistic and social vision, towards a down to earth evidence-based planning.

But, back to the modernists. Le Corbusier once wrote: “culture is an orthogonal state of mind”. This expresses the artistic and functional vision of the modernist art movement perfectly. Rectilinear is practical (allows for effective and fast traffic) and beautiful (clear and simple). Underlying these artistic and functional worries is the idea that one could change people’s lives through architectural form. This was, really, the cornerstone of Le Corbusier’s thought, and with him, also part of other great thinkers and architects like Ebenezer Howard and Frank Lloyd Wright. They believed that a radical restructuring of the urban form would solve the social crisis in the cities. To begin with: more air, space and light for families, and a social mix that is total: “they thought that social solidarity would be better promoted in cities that brought people together, rather than in those whose layout segregated the inhabitants by race or class.” (Fishman 2012: 28) Designers up until

3then had been ornamenting the world instead of changing it. Their ideal of a city was to be accompanied by radical programmes of redistribution of wealth and power. They refused to think within the boundaries provided by politicians and bankers, the boundaries of the immediately achievable. “The really striking point is that many, though by no means all, of the early visions of the planning movement stemmed from the anarchist movement, which flourished in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth. (…) The visions of these anarchist pioneers was not only of an alternative built form, but of an alternative society, neither capitalist nor bureaucratic-socialistic: a society based on voluntary cooperation among men and women.” (Hall 1988: 3). As Fishman (2012) points out the modernists sought social justice and battled against poverty and exploitation. Their plans reflected the fear and revulsion of the unplanned and chaotic 19th century metropolis, the belief that modern technology had made new urban forms possible, and therefore necessary, and the expectation of a revolutionary change towards brotherhood, equality and freedom.

Of course there are differences between the three. Ebenezer Howard, a stenographer and self- educated planner and social reformer, devised the so-called “Garden City”, a new city of approximately 30.000 inhabitants planted somewhere in the unspoilt countryside and surrounded by a green belt. This city would be compact, healthy, efficient and beautiful. Hundreds of these communities should relieve the pressure from the metropole London. Eventually big cities should vanish. If Howard’s view was built on cooperation, Frank Lloyd Wright was a distinct individualist and he wanted the whole United States to become a nation of individuals. His prototype city, called “Broadacres”, was therefore fundamentally decentralised, cities were reduced to an endless sprawl of family homes, small factories, offices and shops. Superhighways were to connect these numerous settlements. Le Corbusier’s central notion was organisation. Where Howard thought cities were too dense, Le Corbusier believed they were not dense enough. Large strips of the historical centre of Paris, in his vision, were to be levelled and carefully filled with skyscrapers of enormous proportions in a symmetrical grid of streets and surrounded by parks. Superhighways, like in Wright’s Broadacres, were to provide the connectivity and functionality of a truly modern society based on car use. It is often said that Le Corbusier leaned heavily on Howard’s Garden City as a model. Yet, the pastoral view with limited capacity was not Le Corbusier’s.

The modernist planning movement’s ideas are strangely similar to the work of the so-called utopian socialists: Fourier, Owen, de Saint-Simon, although they were not directly influenced by them. Two themes especially occur in utopian thought and in the work of the modernist planners: (1) to overcome the distinction between country and city, and (2) to overcome the isolation of the individual in one large ‘family’ structure. Ebenezer Howard, for example, based his Garden City on a sort of collectivist rental scheme. Renters would pay the cost of schools and other forms of infrastructure, which would render the position of the landlord superfluous. For Le Corbusier competition would provide harmony, regulated by central planners in a strict top-down manner. Most theorists agree that the modernist planning movement had its roots in Fabian, Marxist or anarchist thought. But if we look at the initial idea of Le Corbusier’s Radiant City, he was quite elitist. The central towers were supposed to be used as office space and housing for the elites: planners, businessmen, … These would replace the central place of town halls, churches, … So how can we reconcile his love for businessmen and meritocracy with the syndicalist socialism he mentions in his writings? In Le Corbusier’s thought contradiction, or paradox is always present. Things that should be transformed for the masses, for the good of the people, can only be achieved through the action of the few. Ideologically it surely is a bit of a mess: “idealistic paternalism, liberal elitism or fascist benevolence” (Jencks 1973: 72). It is a fact, though, that after a period of enthusiasm about capitalism, and after the stock exchange crash of 1929 Le Corbusier evolved away from meritocracy and, consistent with his view on man (or the city) as a machine, became a syndicalist by the time he wrote The Radiant City.

To a greater or lesser extent the moral and social ideas of the modernists proved naïve or confused. But what they definitely had in common was the conception of a utopia, an new urban form which they would design and, perforce, realise. In Karl Mannheim’s definition a utopia is a coherent programme for action arising out of the thought that transcends the immediate situation, a programme whose realisation would “break the bonds of the established society” (Fishman 1982: x). In the exploding cities of the 19th century (Paris quintupled, Londen tripled) a sanitary and profoundly spatial crisis wreaked havoc. Cities were no longer able to control their own growth, which in turn resulted in speculation and segregation. The revolutionary nature of the modernist planning was fuelled by disgust and hatred towards the condition of the contemporary city. This, together with the seemingly endless possibilities of new technology, explains the strife for an urban utopia by the modernists.

Criticism on the modernists

For Jane Jacobs the modernists were no more no less than megalomaniac criminals. All of a sudden they had had the opportunity to think and create an ideal city. Where a city is a product of social relations and gradual evolution, they imposed a external logic upon the urban fabric. In her view, this could never work because it didn’t take into account the infinite complexities of urban life. It was unworldly desktop urbanism, an act of art and social intervention. But it didn’t work. Slums were replaced by “low-income projects that have become worse centres of delinquency, vandalism and general social hopelessness than the slums they were suppose to replace. Middle-income housing projects which are truly marvels of dullness and regimentation, sealed against any buoyancy or vitality of city life. Luxury housing projects that mitigate their inanity, or try to, with a vapid vulgarity.” (Jacobs 1992 [1961]: 4) Jacobs’s 50s and 60s showed, in light of the modernist planning theory, the wrong parts of the city decayed, or refused to decay. Yet, the practitioners and theorists of modernism didn’t bother studying the success and failure of these areas, putting their theory to the test.

Ebenezer Howard was not an urbanist at all, for Jacobs. He hated the city. He thought it an outright evil that so many people should live in such huge agglomerations. He was not planning cities, but he was not planning dormant suburbs either. “His aim was the creation of self-sufficient small towns, really very nice towns if you were docile and had no plans of your own and did not mind spending your life among others with no plans of their own.” (Jacobs 1992 [1961]: 17) In doing so, Howard devised a paternalistic political and economic society, devised under the sole authority of the planner: “he conceived of good planning as a series of static acts; in each case the plan must anticipate all that is needed and be protected, after it is built, against any but the most minor subsequent changes.” (Jacobs 1992 [1961]: 19). The intricate, many-faceted cultural life of the city did not interest him, nor the opinion and wishes of the individual inhabitant. “Conventional planning approaches to slums and slum dwellers are thoroughly paternalistic. The trouble with paternalists is that they want to make impossibly profound changes, and they choose impossibly superficial means for doing so. To overcome slums, we must regard slum dwellers as people capable of understanding and acting upon their own self-interests, which they certainly are.” (Jacobs 1992 [1961]: 271). “[Howard] seems to have thought that members of the industrial working classes would stay neatly in their class, and even at the same job within their class; that agricultural workers would stay in agriculture; that businessmen (the enemy) would hardly exist as a significant force in his Utopia; and that planners could go about their good and lofty work, unhampered by rude nay-saying from the untrained” (Jacobs 1992 [1961]: 289).

Jacobs was even harder on Le Corbusier. His high density, something Jacobs should have liked, was created by impressive skyscrapers which left 98% of the ground surface open for highways and parks. She believed, and several modernist projects of her time proved her right, Le Corbusier forgot the importance of public space. Streets did not have any function and the parks were barely used. It goes without saying that public life has a pivotal function in her urban vision and, indeed, in the light of her ‘eyes on the street’ concept, it makes sense to kindle social interaction in public space, which creates livelihood and a feeling of safety. High-rise buildings in the dimensions proposed by Le Corbusier will never be able to generate this form of public life. The modernist solutions, which were a clean sweep, weren’t good solution. Some of the time they did not even address the real problem. In a funny footnote she elaborates on the problem of rats. Planners and politicians of her time enjoyed using one-liners like ‘we have to get rid of these rat-infested houses’, with which they denoted slums or derelict areas that indeed were infested with various forms of vermin. In reality, what they meant was ‘if we knock down these houses and replaced them by nice and clean concrete buildings, all other problems will vanish by themselves’. She remarks dryly that if you want to get rid of rat-infested areas it makes way more sense to start exterminating the vermin.

To take this beyond the anecdotal, we can structure the main points of critique by the chapters in her book The death and life of great American cities (1961) about (1) sidewalks, (2) neighbourhoods and (3) diversity, culminating in the four conditions she proposes, four necessary conditions for vital public life. Modernists underestimate the uses of public space and sidewalks. In Garden Cities, residential areas in cities, or certain suburbs, nothing is provided in public space, nor are there shops or other actors that provide variation in the public life. This has as a result that visitors do not feel at home or have a reason to hang around. This she calls ‘losing the advantage of living in the city without living in the suburbs’. She refers to a research “hunting the secrets of the social structure in a dull grey-area district in Detroit. [The researchers] came to the unexpected conclusion there was no social structure.” (Jacobs 1992 [1961]: 68) Actors in urban public space share experiences. She believes the public contact in vibrant areas is rich with ‘moderate’ sharing, passengers do not totally ignore each other, nor are they so familiar that they share everything (these forms of social interaction are wonderfully described by Ervin Goffman and later also by Lyn Lofland). It is her firm belief that this interaction based on difference and ‘moderate sharing’ results in tolerance, yet, it needs to be triggered by certain built-in equipment in public space, specifically in pavements and squares, equipment she does not find in modernist planning.

The success of neighbourhoods depends very much on the public life, and the self-government and negotiation that take place. Modernist planning, which is turned inward, does not have these forms of negotiation. She also points out that the idea of a ‘cosy’ town, very much in the vein of Howard, cannot be translated to neighbourhoods within the broader fabric of the great city, because they lack the interconnectedness of its inhabitants so typical of towns. They have nothing more in common than the fragment of geography they share, whereas in small towns this ‘commonality’ is provided by the fact that people know each other. Within the great city, difference is necessary, since this creates mobility, hence public life, hence successful neighbourhoods. Cities and small towns are, therefore, fundamentally different.

Via this way we arrive at the heart of Jane Jacobs’s urban view: diversity, or in the sociological lingo: mix of primary functions. Where modernists cleanly organised their cities by the principle of functional homogeneity, Jacobs choses for the vitality of difference. This is the first of her four conditions of a vital neighbourhood. (1) function mix and variety in schedules of uses, (2) short blocks and variety in uses, (3) buildings varying in age and condition, therefore, with a varied economic yield, and (4) sufficient density. It is clear that most of these conditions are in conflict with the modernist agenda. Additionally, Jacobs points out that not only do we need a mix, this is to be maintained while renewing a neighbourhood. If a whole area is renewed at once, the only thing it can do is gradually fall to pieces. This directly conflicts with the clean slate strategy of the modernists. There is only one potential zone of agreement, ironically enough between Jacobs and Le Corbusier. Both consider high density a necessity for a vital city.

Despite this almost coincidental overlap, a dialogue between Jane Jacobs (and contemporaries like Richard Sennett) and the modernists is virtually impossible. This is most visible in their respective starting-points. “A city cannot be a work of art” (Jacobs 1992 [1961]: 272). Jacobs believes that the modernist school was always more a ‘design cult’ than a cult of social reform. Related to this is the idea that city planning can not be thought of in terms of a ‘project’. “One of the unsuitable ideas behind projects is the very notion that they are projects, abstracted out of the ordinary city and set apart.” (Jacobs 1992 [1961]: 392). “So many of the problems need never have arisen. If only well- meaning officials in departments of the city government or in freewheeling authorities knew intimately, and cared about, the streets or districts which their schemes so vitally affect – or if they knew in the least what the citizen of that place consider of value in their lives, and why.” (Jacobs 1992 [1961]: 406). City planning is not a physical science but a life science. Modernists have always over-emphasised planning as a physical form-giving, at the expense of planning as a rational and social process. In her concluding words Jacobs takes a stand for inductive planning, reasoning from particulars to the general, rather than the reverse. Planning should seek ‘unaverage’ clues involving very small quantities, which reveal the way larger and more ‘average’ quantities are operating. She believes classical planners are generally less suited for understanding a neighbourhood that some of its inhabitants, experts knowing it from the inside. This relates to the insights of Lefèbvre in his classic trichotomy of perceived, conceived and lived space. A modernist planner will never be able to understand the lived space, since he does not take into account the experience of the inhabitant. Modernists have been groundbreaking in conceptualising urban space as such, but it was only after several decades that man, as an inhabitant and producer of space was put back in the picture.

Present-day urbanism

We could argue that modernist and ‘post-modernist’ urbanism are juxtaposed fundamentally, remarkably simultaneous with the systemic change from fordism to postfordism. It is rather unclear whether the first decades of the 21st century herald a new systemic change. In urbanism however we can see that the present-day urban movements built on various elements, both from the first or second half of the previous century, taking up the heritage of the modernists and the ‘postmodernists’ in a typically postmodern collage. Three major movements in contemporary urban thought are new, everyday and post urbanism.

New urbanism is idealistic, even utopian. It aspires to a social ethic and mix people of different income, ethnicity, race and age. It promotes a civic ideal that mixes land of different uses and buildings of different architectural types, very much in the vein of Jane Jacobs, where public space is very important to make citizens feel they are part of the bigger community. In new urbanism sustainability is essential, to create an environment that is attractive to live in. In several aspects it builds on insights provided by Jacobs and some of her contemporaries but what they do forget, in their pastoral view on planning, is that vitality needs high density. The planning recipes proposed by new urbanists are, we could argue, somewhat nostalgic like the architects of the garden city movement. We could also argue that new urbanism is a bit elitist. It maintains that there is a structural relationship between social behaviour and physical form. It posits that good design can have a measurably positive effect on one’s sense of place and community, which it holds are essential to a healthy, sustainable society. As a result, most new urbanism projects and settlements attract middle-class citizens, and are often too expensive, so the principle of social mix is not easily obtained.

Everyday urbanism is not as utopian as new urbanism. Nor is it as ‘tidy’. It celebrates and builds on everyday, ordinary life and reality, with little pretence about the possibility of building a perfect or ideal environment. Based on ideas of ‘post-modernist’ urbanists like de Certeau, Jacobs or Sennett everyday urbanists focus on elements that are ephemeral, chaotic, serendipitous and informal. “Planners and architects … puritanically blind themselves from seeing that the prostitutes, homeless, street actors or street sellers are the ones who transform the street from traffic channels (human or vehicles) to a living-working space, to a space of performance and festivity, to a place to be in and not only to move through, and 24 hours a day.” (Doron 2000: 254) Unlike new urbanism, it does not specifically believe in the relationship between design and social behaviour. Building on Lefèvbre they study for example the ad hoc ways in indigenous and immigrant inhabitants appropriate space, preferring lived space over conceived space. Everyday space is not problematic as the new urbanists would see it, nor a Junkspace, as in the words of Rem Koolhaas, rather is it a zone of possibility and potential transformation. In that sense everyday urbanism is not so much a movement or an over- arching design, as it is a situated and contextualised method, an urban tactics.

Post urbanism, or mockingly: ‘starchitecture’, is represented by Frank Gehry and other provocative architects. Perhaps Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright would feel comfortable with the panache of this group. Their language is usually abstract with little reference to surrounding physical or historical context, straight from the drawing board. It also continues the modernist project of avant- garde shock tactics, although it is not always clear whether they have an other aim in mind than the shock itself. Typically, post urbanist interventions do not take into account the surroundings nor do they seem to care about the urban fabric or the local discourse. Post urbanists are not directly modernist, since their recipes are not applied out of a major concern for social intervention. They do however also ignore most of the ‘post-modernist’ work of Jacobs and her contemporaries. It is not necessary to engage the public because they feel the traditional polis is something of the past, with institutions that are not adjusted to present needs. It is a return of the ‘genius’ in architecture. Exactly because of this we could argue these provocateurs are less urbanists as they are architects, engaged in art and disengaged with society as such.

Another way of classifying present-day urbanism is through the dichotomy of centrists (Le Corbusier) and decentrists (Howard, Wright, Mumford, Stein). The debate between these two groups is also one between different variants of modernism. In that way, Jane Jacobs has never painted a very fair portrait of modernist planners. Centrists like Le Corbusier and his followers had a fear of the silent suburbanisation that had started to take over the US and the UK in the 50s and 60s, adequately named ‘subtopias’ by architectural journalist Ian Nairn. Ironically, if we would have to divide urbanists in centrists and decentrists, Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would find themselves in the same team. Jacobs has understood quite well the everyday environment in neighbourhoods or on street level, but she was not always successful in observing and seeing the bigger picture: “the fundamental contradiction in Jacob’s work is that she failed to accept that big problems – the decline of cities and the dominance of urban sprawl – require big solutions. No amount of neighbourhood protection and promotion of diversity could reverse the decentralisation trends that she so despised. They might help, but no more.” (Breheny 1996: 21).

The so-called “decentrists”, amongst which Wright and Howard, treated urban streets as a bad environment for humans. Houses should be turned away from it and faced inward. They should aim for isolation and privacy. After the completion of the project, everything should more or less remain the same. We could argue that new urbanism is the natural heir of this thought, adding Jacobs’s insights on vitality and livelihood to the decentrist settlements of Howard. It is this form of decentrism that has won a lot of followers in the present-day United States. There are quite a few arguments pro centrism, a doctrine which nowadays is embodied by the concept of the ‘compact city’. Higher densities equal a lower energy consumption and less land is used. Yet, centrists do seem to miss the necessary dose of realism: if certain regulations wouldn’t exist even more people and services would move out of the city. It remains an element of the socio-economic dynamics of people that they prefer moving to the countryside once they reached a certain point in life (in age as well as in affluence). To make a city attractive, very much in the vein of Jane Jacobs, will not save the great city from endless suburbanisation. Breheny (1996) believes a middle-ground, not unlike Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities could provide a compromise. “The compromise line might seem like a little idea; perhaps properly packaged it could be big” (Breheny 1996: 34). He believes the ‘compact city’ can be the ultimate compromise in the debate between centrists and decentrists, not in the least because the environmental challenge is obligating us to.

So, what is the contemporary urban structure? The picture painted by Dear and Flusty (1998), “Keno” capitalism, is not very attractive: a city is a postmodern discontinuous space, a collage made up of border cities, corporate towers, ethnic districts, theme parks, places for leisure and entertainment, closed communities and malls connected by a net of communication systems. The concept emphasises the lack of logic in planning; the urban fabric is just a random succession of lots with ‘different templates’ next to one another, an evolution almost entirely pushed by real estate. The American architecture critic Michael Sorkin contended that “city planning has largely ceased its historic role as the integrator of communities in favour of managing selective development and enforcing distinction.” (Sorkin quoted in MacLeod & Ward 2002: 154). This relates to the concept of the ‘postmetropolis’ (Soja 2000). The classical design of real urban centre and ring of suburban sprawl is no more; now there’s a patchwork of edge cities, suburbs, gated estates, revitalised downtowns and gentrified areas. Sharon Zukin provided descriptions of great cities dominated by gentrification and theme-parking, words that do sound rather sourly after the inspiring vision of Jane Jacobs in that same downtown Manhattan.

Envoi: a new utopia?

We could argue that everyday urbanism, as a grassroots movement, has an inclusive angle on city life. Yet, they lack a plan on a bigger scale. New urbanism can hardly be considered a social movement, however it does seem to provide a ‘big’ solution, having taken up the thread where Ebenezer Howard left it. Post urbanist architects discard the whole idea of having to have a view on the entire urban scene. The fact seems to be that several methods and recipes of either modernist or ‘post-modernist’ urbanists have been taken over in present-day movements, except perhaps the belief in a ‘big solution’, a utopia.

Could we say that post-ideological times are necessarily also post-utopian? Do urbanists still believe in the possibility of building a society through building in physical form? Robert Fishman does not seem to think so: “the ideal cities of Howard, Wright, and Le Corbusier have not been pushed aside by more up-to-date solutions. They have been superseded by the belief that no such ‘solution’ exists… There is now a widespread reaction against the idea of large-scale planning. Its most profound source, I believe, is the loss of confidence in the reality of a common good or purpose which can become the basis of city life” (Fishman 1982 [1977]: 267). The modernist disasters aside, the one big feat of these planners was the formulation of the desirability and necessity of social ‘solidarity’ or urban restructuring in enacting the spatiality of the city. In order for there being an urban utopia it should in the first place be urban. In order for the utopia to be urban it must be social. All of the above contemporary models describe the decentred city, often with L.A. as the archetypical example. Yet, what they don’t do is offer a critique of current affairs. The new urbanist settlement, the theme parked ethnic districts or the common interest districts, all of them are, in the words of Harvey (2000), ‘degenerate’ utopias or developer utopias. It is indeed the question if these models do provide utopias or rather dystopias. As in the case of Garreau’s edge city where office space outside the city functions as the new centre of living, “marked not by the penthouses of the old urban rich, or the tenements of the old urban poor, but by the celebrated single-family home with grass all around.” (Garreau 1991: ix). Or in neo-traditional utopias which substitute the postmodern fragmentation for a return to 50s values, with front porches and green villa districts, in gated or common interest districts. This may be an American New Eden, but it is not socially inclusive, let alone, socially interventionist. We can take the debate on subtopias one step further. Beside their being anti-urban and barely social, they are inherently contradictory:

This is the mirage of liberty. There are millions who want to feel nature’s green grass anew under their feet. Millions who want to see again the clouds and the blue sky. They want to live near trees – those friends of man from time immemorial. These millions go out to the country only to find their dream shattered. Nature dissolves before them, for everywhere there are roads, railway stations, shops and houses. (Le Corbusier 1938: 20).

Jane Jacobs tell a similar story. A family spends summer after summer on a vacant lot, the nicest place in the whole neighbourhood, picnicking, sitting in the sun. Finally they decide to buy the lot and build a house, upon which they realise having destroyed the nicest place in the area. People flee to edge cities and suburbs in an endless sprawl which makes the city and the countryside become something ugly. This is the mirage of liberty: if each individual builds his house in the countryside it will destroy the countryside.

So, on the one side of the prism there’s the modernists, who mistook planning for a highly personal formulation of a highly personal emotion and vision – a mistake currently also made by the posturbanists –, forgetting about the rational and social process involved in planning. On the other side there are the romantic subtopias or the nihilistic keno collage. Since the 60s we have lost confidence in the planners and their big solutions, after which they lost confidence in themselves. But, if we were to chose against present-day subtopias, if we were to hold on to the urban utopia, one which is by definition socially inclusive, aren’t we then in need of a new solution, or at least in need of the belief in the possibility of one? Perhaps the time is right for some urban optimism, for a social and truly urban vision, for a step beyond street-level pragmatism: “the world’s greatest happiness lies in action.”


Disclaimer: This essay is an exercise in salvaging the modernist philosophy and their belief in the ‘big solution’ from the many ruins in concrete and steel they left behind. It is a bit provocative and should be read accordingly, with some irony and tongue-in-cheek. The modest aim of this essay is to inspire thought, rather than pass judgement on 20th or 21st century modernism.



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