sat 24 oct 2009 15:43:36 witte de withstraat
choosing your eternity
i just wrote this, more for the league of amateur urbanists.
choosing your eternity
a city is a practical necessity. it's a tool for the task of being human. a city should not be designed to only work for one economic order, philosophical system, political trend, or religion. why not? because those things come and go. the city must remain.
do we have special forks for capitalists, toilet paper for socialists, hammers for democrats, screwdrivers for atheists, pencils for muslims? hell no. some things will always be used by everybody, and the city is one of them. it should be built to serve human needs, not the needs of momentary ideological fashion.
even so, disagreements are bound to arise between visionaries as to what constitutes an eternal human need, versus what is a passing fad. and these differences will inevitably find expression in the built environment. in this sense, the city is the clash of civilizations.
wise urban design creates spaces that serve the needs of people we disagree with, even people we don't like. and it results in structures that won't embarrass us, like a once-trendy haircut, in the decades or centuries to come. in short: we must think broad and long in time. we must enlarge our now.
ideologies will clash. some are wider, some are narrower. the narrower the ideology that drives a phase of urbanization, the sillier the results. when we mistake the fashionable for the eternal, somebody usually gets rich, and we embarrass our posterity.
some people want to design habitats that make essential use of today's electronic technologies, so that when those go obsolete, the city will have to be gutted and refitted. their size of now is small: they think semiconductors are forever. some people feel that any urban design must include equal measures of automobilism and public transporation. their size of now is small: they think that what we have right now, we will always require.
some people believe the idea of property is eternally human, whereas others (like me) see it as an abstract artifact of the millenium we happen to be passing through. to me, property is the idea that we all agree that this is mine and that's yours, and some external power is available to enforce that agreement. what could be more transitory?
the concept of property is not in itself a basic human need, but it does serve two basic human desires: first the desire for undisturbed continuity (that i'll still be able to sleep here tomorrow, and my frying pan will still be in the kitchen), and second, the desire for aggrandizement and power. a survivable urban design will make it possible to satisfy those worldly urges. but it will not depend on the abstract concept of property. the city must stand with or without it.
in other words, two ideologues can stand and argue about the utility of property, but neither of them will prefer to do it out in the rain, and both will eventually have to pee. the city must serve them both.
i mention this because it's become clear that the idea of property did not serve urbanization well in the 20th century. the idea that this little square of land belongs to me led in the city to ridiculous expressions like the skyscraper, and in the countryside to an endless, meaningless sprawl of suburbanization. armed with new technologies, we attempted to base modern life on an antique social modality. in the urban case, we took the concept of "my house" and extruded it vertically as far as material technology would permit, to maximize exploitation of "air rights" — and incidentally to make egomaniacal shows of power. in the suburban case we made our houses shorter, and let them multiply like bacteria until there was no more room in the petri dish. both these acts were striking expressions of our arrogance. neither of them made the human habitat more habitable.
attempts to build "socialist" or "communist" cities were similarly disastrous. only the proprietors changed. such expressions did not become modern.
but when i speak of "modern life", how can i also be speaking of the eternal? in fact no species is eternal: life is eternally transforming.
our singular adaptability as human beings has lately given rise to a situation where there are very many of us, and we are ever more powerful. to continue, we must now do one of two things. either we must abandon our power and our number, and revert to a low population of weaker creatures — or we must learn to deal with our multitude and power in a way that won't kill the world.
instead of recommending the semi-annihilation of the human race, i am advocating that we instead discover new ways to habitate. stop choosing between livability and density, and invent livable density.
in our childhood and adolescence, we explore the extent of our powers, act out, swing our fists, test our limits, and make mistakes. in this phase we are unstable, and our mistakes can be grievous indeed. but as we mature, with any luck we learn to take from what we can do, and apply it to what we should do.
much later, there comes a time when we as this species become obsolete, and we are outrun and outlived by the next emerging creatures. but that will be their design task, not ours.
our job right now is to find human ways to live as humans.