Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Wednesday, November 30, 2005
 
Imagining the Life of the City

One of my favorite textbooks in seventh grade was from Latin class, but it wasn't really about Latin. It was the elegantly illustrated black and white "City: A Story of Roman Planning and Construction," and the description of building an imaginary Verbonia--an Augustean laying out of civilization, cut from whole cloth, directly upon an Italian country side--has left me with a lifelong fascination with urban planning and architecture. On one hand, one must be slightly askance at the hubris of designing the entire shape of a city's life. Examples abound of what a bad idea that can be. On the other--if you were an emperor, would you be able to resist? When I'm lulling myself to sleep with dreams of suddenly winning the lottery, half the time my utterly hypothetical spending revolves around rebuilding whole city blocks. I indulge because it's so improbable that my ego will ever be tempted into something really foolish.

And of course it's easy to mock the immense amount of work and vision it takes to design and build something as huge as a city, or even a piece of it. It's easy for ordinary people to get sucked into letting the bigwigs handle everything. But even if ordinary people can't master all the details and nuances, they've still got to concern themselves with the shaping of their homes and geographies, and be afforded the opportunity to criticize and analyze. Perhaps too many cooks might spoil the soup, but I can't help but feel that checks and balances and the wisdom of the swarm will tend to fix bugs in urban design. And as Gandhi said, freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes. A free people, thoroughly engaged with the urban planning process--as they should be, in a real democratic state--will at least live with their own mistakes, instead of with the whims of a Caesar.

I don't know enough about the history of French urban planning politics to know if a little more egalitarian architectural civic engagement would have helped with the problems of the riots. Geeky Chic has a thought-provoking post up about a new New York Times article on the effect of Le Corbusier's placement of residential towers for the poor on the city outskirts. The article, by Christopher Caldwell:
But high-rise apartments mixed badly with something poor communities generate in profusion: groups of young, armed, desperate males. Anyone who could control the elevator bank (and, when that became too terrifying to use, the graffiti-covered stairwells) could hold hundreds of families ransom.
Geeky Chic points out that these same types of structures are, when placed near downtown, eminently desirable and almost exclusively the domain of the wealthy:
One of SSRD's friends this weekend told me that they wouldn't even allow him to view [the San Francisco St. Regis Tower] without being pre-approved for $1.69 million mortgage (though, I understand the sales staff's desire to keep out apartment tourists with neither the intentions nor ability to make a purchase). One explanation, is that with the right details (i.e. a Viking kitchen, a view, and a doorman), these towers are vertical gated communities in the city center.
I've often thought about the nature of security in a mixed-use residential tower. When I was in first grade, my reading textbook had a story written from the point of view of a little girl, describing the tower she lived in--everything was there, her school, her grocery store, parks and gardens, even her parents' offices. They might leave on weekends to go to museums or bigger parks, or the beach, but during the week she could safely get to anything via elevator. As a suburban child constantly warned not to cross a major street without holding an adult's hand, I found this deeply appealing. I have no idea where such a tower might exist in real life. The Next Generation's Starship Enterprise then came along and exacerbated this fascination--I was entranced by how many different kinds of places the ship's inhabitants could get to without leaving the ship.

So part of me thinks that the best way to secure a tower--for the rich or the poor--against elevator hijacking, or the excessive visits of outsiders, would be to hand out coded electronic keys, allowing for the pinpointing of troublemakers and the efficient exclusion of outsiders. "Communicators" are not remotely far-fetched anymore. They would also allow for the monitoring of children, giving them a lot of range without requiring more supervision. Parents would always be able to find their children, but their children wouldn't need to wait for their parents to go anywhere. It might give rich residents enough peace of mind to make them more amenable to not excluding poor or working class residents. But there are lots of privacy issues with this scheme--the building's computer would end up holding an easily searchable and subpoenable database of everyone's comings and goings. That's one thing in a hotel, office or university environment, but another in the supposed privacy of one's own home. Yet I am still enamored of the idea of troops of little children having whole palaces at their ready disposal.

That's all a little castle-in-the-air. Really, more like castle-in-outer-space! But the issues raised by the articles and Geeky Chic are important and current. Check out her post. Also note that Lenin's Tomb and then The Measures Taken had detailed discussions of the French specifics a couple weeks ago; the latter has a lot of interesting pictures.
 


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Saheli Datta started this when she was a journalism student at Columbia in New York. Now she lives in the Bay Area. *Old people call me R. New people, call me Saheli. Thanks! My homepage. Specifically, my links. Email me: Saheli [AT] Gmail [dot] Com

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