September 29, 2004

The Dark Towers of Paris

I went to Europe for the first time on my honeymoon a little more than two years ago. Shelly and I started our trip in France, went south into Spain, and then north up to Amsterdam. She had been to Europe before. I had not, preferring instead to visit Latin America. (I still prefer Latin America. I fight boredom in Europe. It is too much like home.)

I remember looking out the airplane window at the vast expanse of farms over France. It was like magic. I would finally see the storybook land of city walls and bridges, ancient churches and castles. I wished, not for the first time, that I could live there.

And then I got out of the airplane and into a taxi.

The driver pulled onto the freeway and I saw Paris for the first time. It has a sprawling skyline of gigantic concrete block towers. Peering into the neighborhoods I saw a lot of trash and broken glass and little activity. There were no signs of life. Every vista repulsed me. And it went on like that for miles. It didn't help much that the predominant color was gray and the weather was overcast.

This can't be Paris, I thought. It looks like a Soviet Republic. Where were the church steeples? The amazing French architecture? The restaurant-lined boulevards?

I became physically depressed. Every last drop of excitement and anticipation drained out of me.

I have always hated American suburbs with their strip malls, fast food joints, big box stores, and inland seas of parking. They’re hideous and I’m glad I don’t live there. I always wanted to know: why can’t we build cities the way Europeans build cities?

That drive into Paris taught me what I should have known all along. Europeans don’t build cities like they used to any more than Americans do. Architectural modernism is a worldwide horror. Everyone who had a hand in building the lovely quarters of Paris died a long time ago.

I was shocked – truly shocked – to discover that suburban Paris is many times worse than Suburbia, USA. I had absolutely no idea. No one ever told me. (Now you can’t say no one ever told you.) No one publishes pictures in travel magazines of those god-awful swathes of modernist blight. Hardly anyone ever writes about what most of Paris is actually like.

The charming old city really is something. If you haven’t seen it I can tell you it is every bit as fantastic as most people say. But that part of the city takes up much less than 50 percent of the surface area. It’s an outdoor museum where some people are lucky to live. It took almost two days before I could shake my first impression of Paris and enjoy the old city the way I wanted to.

Needless to say, I spent no time at all in the outskirts. I had barely even a flicker of curiosity about what lay beyond the peripherique. Walking around in those neighborhoods would have been a deeply depressing experience. It was harsh enough just riding through them in a cab for half an hour.

In the current issue of City Journal Theodore Dalrymple describes what it’s actually like to live in some of those neighborhoods. After reading this I’m glad all over again I live here instead of over there.
Reported crime in France has risen from 600,000 annually in 1959 to 4 million today, while the population has grown by less than 20 percent... Where does the increase in crime come from? The geographical answer: from the public housing projects that encircle and increasingly besiege every French city or town of any size, Paris especially. In these housing projects lives an immigrant population numbering several million, from North and West Africa mostly, along with their French-born descendants...

...A Habitation de Loyer Modéré -- a House at Moderate Rent, or HLM -- [is] for the workers, largely immigrant, whom the factories needed during France’s great industrial expansion from the 1950s to the 1970s, when the unemployment rate was 2 percent and cheap labor was much in demand. By the late eighties, however, the demand had evaporated, but the people whose labor had satisfied it had not; and together with their descendants and a constant influx of new hopefuls, they made the provision of cheap housing more necessary than ever...

The average visitor gives not a moment’s thought to these Cités of Darkness as he speeds from the airport to the City of Light. But they are huge and important—and what the visitor would find there, if he bothered to go, would terrify him.

A kind of anti-society has grown up in them—a population that derives the meaning of its life from the hatred it bears for the other, “official,” society in France. This alienation, this gulf of mistrust—greater than any I have encountered anywhere else in the world, including in the black townships of South Africa during the apartheid years—is written on the faces of the young men, most of them permanently unemployed, who hang out in the pocked and potholed open spaces between their logements. When you approach to speak to them, their immobile faces betray not a flicker of recognition of your shared humanity; they make no gesture to smooth social intercourse. If you are not one of them, you are against them.

Their hatred of official France manifests itself in many ways that scar everything around them. Young men risk life and limb to adorn the most inaccessible surfaces of concrete with graffiti—BAISE LA POLICE, fuck the police, being the favorite theme. The iconography of the cités is that of uncompromising hatred and aggression: a burned-out and destroyed community-meeting place in the Les Tarterets project, for example, has a picture of a science-fiction humanoid, his fist clenched as if to spring at the person who looks at him, while to his right is an admiring portrait of a huge slavering pit bull, a dog by temperament and training capable of tearing out a man’s throat—the only breed of dog I saw in the cités, paraded with menacing swagger by their owners.

There are burned-out and eviscerated carcasses of cars everywhere. Fire is now fashionable in the cités: in Les Tarterets, residents had torched and looted every store—with the exceptions of one government-subsidized supermarket and a pharmacy. The underground parking lot, charred and blackened by smoke like a vault in an urban hell, is permanently closed...

When agents of official France come to the cités, the residents attack them...Benevolence inflames the anger of the young men of the cités as much as repression, because their rage is inseparable from their being. Ambulance men who take away a young man injured in an incident routinely find themselves surrounded by the man’s “friends,” and jostled, jeered at, and threatened: behavior that, according to one doctor I met, continues right into the hospital, even as the friends demand that their associate should be treated at once, before others.

But [state entitlements are] not a cause of gratitude -- on the contrary: they feel it as an insult or a wound, even as they take it for granted as their due. But like all human beings, they want the respect and approval of others, even -- or rather especially -- of the people who carelessly toss them the crumbs of Western prosperity... The state, while concerning itself with the details of their housing, their education, their medical care, and the payment of subsidies for them to do nothing, abrogates its responsibility completely in the one area in which the state’s responsibility is absolutely inalienable: law and order.

No one should underestimate the danger that this failure poses, not only for France but also for the world. The inhabitants of the cités are exceptionally well armed. When the professional robbers among them raid a bank or an armored car delivering cash, they do so with bazookas and rocket launchers, and dress in paramilitary uniforms. From time to time, the police discover whole arsenals of Kalashnikovs in the cités. There is a vigorous informal trade between France and post-communist Eastern Europe: workshops in underground garages in the cités change the serial numbers of stolen luxury cars prior to export to the East, in exchange for sophisticated weaponry.
I’m as interested in the architecture of these places as much as the societies inside them. I believe that, on some level at least, the design of a city influences its culture. Some places make the heart soar. Others – like outer Paris – pulverize the human spirit. So I was not at all surprised to read this from the same essay:
Architecturally, the housing projects sprang from the ideas of Le Corbusier, the Swiss totalitarian architect—and still the untouchable hero of architectural education in France—who believed that a house was a machine for living in, that areas of cities should be entirely separated from one another by their function, and that the straight line and the right angle held the key to wisdom, virtue, beauty, and efficiency. The mulish opposition that met his scheme to pull down the whole of the center of Paris and rebuild it according to his “rational” and “advanced” ideas baffled and frustrated him.

The inhuman, unadorned, hard-edged geometry of these vast housing projects in their unearthly plazas brings to mind Le Corbusier’s chilling and tyrannical words: “The despot is not a man. It is the . . . correct, realistic, exact plan . . . that will provide your solution once the problem has been posed clearly. . . . This plan has been drawn up well away from . . . the cries of the electorate or the laments of society’s victims. It has been drawn up by serene and lucid minds.”

It makes me shudder, in part because I have actually seen the results of this inhuman architectural ideology.

France can worry all it wants about the problems of immigration. And they can start by asking what they themselves have done to contribute to such extreme feelings of alienation among their newest of citizens. I am not trying to blame all the problems on the native French themselves. But I have to wonder how often, if ever, they question the way they treat the non-white non-Western people in their midst. We will let anyone become an American. But can anyone become French?

Even if France is somehow able to resolve its ethnic and social problems, I can’t help but think the people who live totally cut off from the mainstream of society in hideous Stalinesque blocks are going to continue feeling mentally out of sorts. Suffering that landscape for 30 minutes drained me of hope. And I was on my honeymoon. Perhaps I over-reacted because of my own inflated expectations and the fact that I’m a big fan of architecture – the good stuff, anyway. Either way, I’ll never believe again that the people who live in France now are somehow superior in their cultural and aesthetic tastes than we are on this side of the ocean. They constructed themselves a physical Hell, and it doesn’t surprise me a bit that it turned into a social Hell, too.

Hat tip: Sean LaFreniere and Winds of Change.

UPDATE: I'm corrected in the comments. The City Journal article isn't current - it's two years old. Whoops. Sorry. Well, I just now saw it for the first time so it's "current" for me...

UPDATE: Dan G., who has a brand-new blog called Sound and Fury, published an extremely well-written response to this post about New York City's own tyrant of modernist planning - Robert Moses.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at September 29, 2004 07:38 PM
Comments

Man, first you went to France and then you saw the French In Action (so to speak) in Tunisia. You're catching on to something many of us figured out a long, long time ago: France and the French aren't all that great. And I'm being very generous and gracious here.

Posted by: Moonbat_One at September 29, 2004 07:50 PM

Moonbat One,

I have to say that no one - not one single person - was rude to me in France. I was there for a week and I speak hardly any French at all. I wouldn't say they are particularly friendly, they're just average. They were fine, I swear.

I did, however, experience a great deal of rudeness in Rome three months ago. Northern Italy was fine, though. Only Romans were rude, and they were frequently rude. I was surprised by this. Maybe it was because I was there at the height of tourist season and they were tired of people like me. I don't know.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at September 29, 2004 07:56 PM

The Romans were rude to me, too. I chalked it up to it being a big city.

Posted by: Moonbat_One at September 29, 2004 08:01 PM

Michael - it isn't just Paris. A numberof larger European cities seem to have a core city, built in beautiful style in earlier days, surrounded by ugliness as far as the eye can see. My wife and were loved the area of Vienna inside the Ringstrasse, but once we wandered too far outside of it - yikes.

Posted by: jeremy in NYC at September 29, 2004 08:11 PM

"Architectural modernism is a worldwide horror"

In defense of modernism, what you were seeing was neglect, a dependent mindset and thoughtless expedience. Buildings and cities, civilization itself, require care and maintenance. Decay is constant, stewardship takes work.

The decline of the dreams of modernism is not modernism's fault, any more than the decay of gothic cathedral is the fault of their spires. Places and things fall apart because residents do not take an active role in the upkeep of their surroundings. Too much dependence on government services leads to expectations beyond what government can or should be expected to do.

Saying "I live here" is a profound statement of responsibility.

Posted by: Joe Maller at September 29, 2004 08:36 PM

Joe Maller,

Those neighborhoods of France looked hideous on the day they were built. Everything the French ever knew about the construction of 'place' was chucked out the window and replaced with brutal ideological abstractions. There is a reason no tourists ever want to go there, and it's not because of a recent rise in crime.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at September 29, 2004 09:02 PM

Joe,

I do agree with you about the maintenance and responsibility part, though. That's one reason why neighborhoods full of renters tend not to be as nice as neighborhoods full of owners.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at September 29, 2004 09:07 PM

And they can start by asking what they themselves have done to contribute to such extreme feelings of alienation among their newest of citizens.

Perhaps nothing. When did it become the duty of the native population to make immigrants feel like they were back home in their own mother country?

Perhaps today's immigrants actually believe the lie of multiculturalism -- that the host population has to adapt to the immigrant population, instead of the other way around. I'm willing to bet many of those "alienated" young men aren't even trying to learn French, and the Left enables their dysfunction, and alienation, by telling them that France owes them something. France doesn't owe them shit. If they're so alienated, they can go right back where they came from.

Both my parents are immigrants. My mom picked cotton as a girl in Texas. My father came to America with all his worldly possessions in one suitcase. And they suffered discrimination. They never expected squat to be given to them. To took it, like everybody else does, legally, with no illusions about "multiculturalism". Yes, they felt alienated. And they took revenge by succeeding, on their own. They didn't waste their friggin time complaining and being angry at "the Man." Now they've retired to a ranch in the Texas hill country, paradise.

Posted by: David at September 29, 2004 09:09 PM

"The decline of the dreams of modernism is not modernism's fault, any more than the decay of gothic cathedral is the fault of their spires. Places and things fall apart because residents do not take an active role in the upkeep of their surroundings. Too much dependence on government services leads to expectations beyond what government can or should be expected to do."

I disagree with this completely. Modernism is heavily implicated in the failure of these communities. If you want to see the American version of France's suburbs, visit a public housing complex aka ghetto in the US. These are inhuman places to live period. Read some Jane Jacobs. Read some more criticism of Modernism. I plan to attend architecture school for (hopefully) traditional architecture and urbanism and while I like some Modernism, the vast majority is actively anti-human in my opinion. Such a horrible setting would demoralize anyone. There is no way to NOT have a crushed spirit in places like those designed by Le Corbusier and his ilk.

Read about what happened at an arch school recently in Portugal. one of a handful of schools devoted to trad arch and urbanism and modernists conspired to shut it down. They fired everyone and installed all Modernists in the school. There were literally 5 schools left with trad arch curriculums, and modernists have actively conspired to shut down 3 of the five. There are thousands of modernist arch schools and they are so threatened by 5 schools that they work to shut down 3 of them!

Here's a link with some of the details.
http://massengale.typepad.com/venustas/2004/09/the_coup_at_vis.html

James David Kunstler's book The Geography of Nowhere describes how things changed in the 20th century and essentially a squadron of Modernists inspired by American shoe factories went about actively attempting to rob Western architecture of its rich history. And they are still at it despite the fact that most people hate these buildings. If you want more details, join the traditional architecture list for more details on the shenanigans. There's a link to the list on the site I provided.

Posted by: lindenen at September 29, 2004 09:12 PM

Check out the Hannibal Lecter Memorial Elementary School. They could film Oz and a host of prison films there. How can that not hurt those children? It makes the baby Jesus cry.

Posted by: lindenen at September 29, 2004 09:30 PM

This is what happens when you allow social engineers to impose their agendas on people. The problem with France, as with most of Europe today, is too much government control. Ossified labor markets, massive welfare states, rigid social structures, "warhousing" of "poor" people. These things are all part of the European political landscape, and it is represented in the drab, depressing architecture of modern Europe.

America's inner ring of older suburbs is now seeing revival, as are our center cities, as old strip malls are either remade or torn down, and old factories become loft condos. Much architecture in our newer "edge cities" often now appears more like that of the small towns of the past.

America is constantly reinventing itself, thanks to the freedom of our markets. Modern Europe is too inflexible. If France would abandon its social planning fetish and allow its society, including its architects, to be more entrepreneurial and creative, its architecture would improve greatly.

Posted by: freeguy at September 29, 2004 09:40 PM

Michael,

I actually walked through one of those areas back in 1994. There was some activity, and kids playing when school let out, but it was still a barren space with no physical graciousness. I've heard that it has become much worse since then.

Modern architecture! At last, a subject on which I find myself in complete agreement with you.

Posted by: chuck at September 29, 2004 09:51 PM

James Howard Kunstler. I got his name wrong. My apologies to Mr. Kunstler.

Posted by: lindenen at September 29, 2004 09:57 PM

Socialism crushes the human spirit. The details of architecture, any particular program, unemployment, etc. etc. are off the point. Without a system that encourages human desire and creativity, the spirit dies.

Posted by: thedragonflies at September 29, 2004 10:00 PM

Lindenen: James David Kunstler's book The Geography of Nowhere...

That is an excellent book. Everyone who is interested in cities and urban studies should read it. (And it's James Howard Kunstler.)

He reads this blog, by the way. Perhaps he will comment. (Come on, Jim. Where are ya?)

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at September 29, 2004 10:12 PM

Lindenen,

Nevermind my correction. Now I see you noticed already...

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at September 29, 2004 10:13 PM

Lindenen, I won't defend all modernist ideas, since many are indefensible. I have read Jane Jacobs. I believe Robert Moses wrecked more neighborhoods than he improved. However I also believe Eisenhower's highway system is one of the most underappreciated achievements of the 20th century.

As a devout urbanist, have wandered the streets of dozens cities and live in the middle of NYC. Living here I'm watching one dead socialist 'bright city' complex after another suddenly colonized and thriving. Stuyvesant Town & Peter Cooper Village is a prime example (they're essentially one complex). By all laws of Jane Jacobs that whole complex should be a permanent sinkhole on the neighborhood. Instead, thanks to aggressive maintenance, security and local commitment, the place is thriving and bringing up property values all around them. Big buildings are becoming hip again.

An out of hand dismissal of everything modern repeats the modernists' same mistake of dismissing history.

Posted by: Joe Maller at September 29, 2004 11:01 PM

Joe Maller,

I like big buildings. Big isn't necessarily bad. I love New York and Chicago. I wish Portland, Oregon (where I live) had more big buildings.

Ugly is bad. And any buildings, big or small, with blank windowless walls at street level are bad.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at September 29, 2004 11:09 PM

Rule of thumb. French cities and towns bad approaches good centre. British ones good approaches depressing centre. They are all beginning to look the same as well.

Posted by: Stephen at September 29, 2004 11:10 PM

Joe,

I also like Vancouver, BC a lot. Love it, actually. And that's a very modern city, one of the most modern in the world. The reason it works is because the glass-tower neighborhoods have restraurants, shops, and whatnot on the ground floor. The neighborhoods are full of life and are built that way on purpose. They combine modern architecture with traditional (pre-modern) urban design in mind.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at September 29, 2004 11:12 PM

Michael, I'm in complete agreement about sidewalks. Streets without doorways (flat windows don't count) are just wholly unpleasant.

A really interesting city for discussing the impact of hard modernism is Berlin (not to mention the footprint of so much 20th Century history). Especially the differences between old East Berlin (Unter Den Linden past the Brandenburg gate) and the areas around Potsdamer Platz, compared with the drabness around Zoo Station or areas north of the Tiergarten. Also the vibrancy of the old communist built areas of East Berlin, where the enthusiasm of the population has brought life back to otherwise dead gray buildings. So much of the city center was leveled by the Russians in WW2, the two sides of the wall are almost control groups of architectural philosophy.

It's been a few years since I was there, but there was an electricity to Berlin that I haven't felt in many other places.

Posted by: Joe Maller at September 29, 2004 11:56 PM

Michael,

Your post reminded me of Robert Moses and the urban blight he gleefully wrought upon New York City once upon a time. So moved, I posted something I wrote a while ago on the subject.

Suffice it to say that I concur with your disgust over careless "modernist" makeovers.

Posted by: dan at September 30, 2004 12:21 AM

Joe,

I've heard that about Berlin. A friend of mine toured Europe and told me he was surprised that it was his favorite city. I haven't been, though. I'd like to go and see.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at September 30, 2004 12:27 AM

Michael,

Minor nitpickery: The City Journal piece is a great article containing much truth but it actually dates from 2002 not "the latest issue".

France's big problem is that the state believes it can and should regulate everything. I have really never understood why Frenchmen who are genetically incapable of following simple rules about parking or road safety should somehow let others tell the how to run their lives but they do. As far as I can tell however the reason has been an informal bargain, by lettign the state tell you what to do you also let the state give you lots of money. This works so long as the state has lots of money. The problem is that the French state no longer has lots of money and it can't tell its EU neighbours to give it any because they don't have any either.

Posted by: Francis at September 30, 2004 01:06 AM

Francis,

Whoops, thanks for the correction. I posted an update.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at September 30, 2004 01:20 AM

"Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn't fit for people now..."

In Britain they blamed it all on the Blitz - had to rebuild the whole country rather quickly. Called them "New Towns", then and now. But not even the Nazis could have dreamt-up Cumbernauld.

Posted by: Fcb at September 30, 2004 04:07 AM

MJT:

I know you are an "Anti-Burbite" but the suburbs are rebuilding themselves into small-town USA. I live in the burbs outside DC and everytime an area is rebuilt or builtup for the first time they are including a "Town Center". A foot acessible area of shops, food and recreation. It's a great improvement over the strip malls of yore. It really is the best of both worlds. I get to live in an area that provides for my wants and needs and have the City just a short Metro ride away. The entire Northern Virginia area is bicycle accessible now as they are including bike paths next to the major roads.

Of course, getting on ANY road around here will make you suicidal :)

Semper Fi

Posted by: RickM at September 30, 2004 04:27 AM

I found that I admired Oslo, loved Copenhagen, and was happy with Helsinki. But Stockholm (save the old town) always gives me the creeps... it seems soulless for some reason. The same ugly architecture in smaller Swedish towns doesn't bring me into such a mood; it may be a matter of scale. Perhaps, it is just that a French general's family sits on the Swedish throne.

The people are handsome and the stores are stylish but there is something disturbing about Stockholm that brings about the condition you describe, Mr. Totten.

Posted by: Virgil K. Saari at September 30, 2004 05:33 AM

The ugliness of modernist architecture notwithstanding, it's silly to ask why all of Paris can't look like central Paris or American suburbs can't be like the Upper West Side.

Central Paris and New York were built centuries ago for aristocrats. Back when the proletariat lived in shacks and hovels around the rich quarters. Now, believe it or not, the proles today probably live better than back then, even in dysfunctional ghettos. Now most people at least have a roof over their heads. In you want to see people literally living and dying, bathing and giving birth in the streets like in 15th century Paris, go to Calcutta.

But the real change in Western society in that we no longer have a few very rich and a great mass of the wretched poor. Most people now belong to the middle class, generously defined. And many of them live in the suburbs. And yeah, with their quarter-acre lots and strip malls, they are not as visually pleasing as Central Park West or the Ile de St. Louis, but the numbers of people in the suburbs and the fact that they have to live on $40,000 a year means it's not possible to have wide avenues lighted by hand-blown gas lamps.

Posted by: Matt Ward at September 30, 2004 06:13 AM

I have always hated American suburbs with their strip malls, fast food joints, big box stores, and inland seas of parking. They’re hideous and I’m glad I don’t live there.

Michael, that's not where people from the suburbs LIVE, it's where we shop.

Compartmentalization is not necessarily bad. there's a reason why the toilet is in the bathroom, you know. You go there to do your business, and then you leave. Many people are happy not to weave commerce into every aspect of their lives, you know.

The suburbs are in many respects utilitarian because for people with families, life needs to be utilitarian. But the suburbs are also a response to several of the problems of the city that you describe and bemoan and others you may have left out: crime, litter, high rent, noise. The concentrated commercialism in the mall areas is both a blessing and a curse. If I plan my life effectively, I can keep my exposure to high bustle commerce to a real minimum.

And this is undoubtedly a blessing. The suburbs allow me to have the things I want: privacy, tranquility, security, affordabilty, space, a garden with cats in the yard...

If the suburbs are not for you, that's cool, but don't go hatin' on us.

Posted by: bk at September 30, 2004 06:30 AM

I can't contribute much here. I'm not a city person by any stretch. I do live on .28 acres and I guess that my town could be considered a suburb of Salt Lake, even if that would be a reach.

Americans originated the concept of individual mobility with the automobile. Now we deal with the mechanics of that reality.

I passed through Europe long ago. Central france, bleech, the Med coast, wowsers. I regret not having visited Prague. Yet.

Have a fine day.

Posted by: TmjUtah at September 30, 2004 07:33 AM

We should ask ourselves what we are accomplishing by importing 2 million new unskilled workers a year who might become superfluous at some time in the near future. The cultural impact will probably not be as dangerous as in France, but the numbers are incredible.

Posted by: jj USA at September 30, 2004 08:12 AM

In my home town there used to be two residential tower blocks, built in the modernist style you describe. They were designed as government owned housing. Nobody who actually lived in my town could understand why these towers were built as there was and is plenty of space for housing to be built that wouldnt be such an eyesore.

When the government finally decided to tear them down a couple of years ago, there was a party held in the car park outside the towers. The residents were happy because they were getting re-housed and the neighbours were happy as they didn't hve to live in the shade anymore. A cheer went up when the demolition charges went off.

Stephen
Yeah, most British town centres are starting to look the same wherever you go in the country. The outskirts are often still quite nice though.

Posted by: sam at September 30, 2004 08:20 AM

Any pictures Michael?

Posted by: Dave at September 30, 2004 08:31 AM

Fascinating discussion. Bad architecture certainly does deaden neighborhoods and contribute to the feel of a place. Everyone who loves and lives in cities and has read Jane Jacobs great work knew intuitively that she was right--doorways, pedestrican traffic, multiple uses is inherent in what makes neighborhoods work. Looking at Le Corbusier's drawings, even in a cursory manner, demonstrates that the guy has nothing but contempt for cities and their dynamic messiness. Much of modernist architecture seems like a triumph of purist theory over the ambiguous reality.

Yet it's also too easy to say all Modernism is bad (ever see the Lever building?). Our taste and sense of what constitutes good-looking architecture changes significantly over time, even thought shuch change is glacial. Sometimes architects (and artists) have to wait thirty years in order to create an audience to appreciate their work. I'm sure the good citizens of Chicago ca. 1895 were scandalized by the "brutality" of the new buildings we now find beautiful and old-fashioned, from Marshall Fields to the emergent skyscrapers, so many of which are still preserved in Chicago (I grew up in Chicago, and have lived in NY for the past 20 years).
Just as bad architecture can crush the spirit, good architecture can ennoble the spirit, as you can see in great public spaces. Frozen music, art you can walk through--good architecture is a gift to all of us. I actually think we're in a boom time for interesting and innovative architecture.

One side ntoe to jj--I don't know about the unskilled workers coming to the U.S., but I do find it fascinating that in Cali and NYC, many immigrants (often quite well-educated and well-paid ones) are moving directly to the suburbs, seem to love thier functionality, and are changing them into far more interesting places. City dwellers should travel to the burbs again--they're not your father's suburbs anymore.

Posted by: Daniel Calto at September 30, 2004 09:41 AM

Michael -
I totally concur with the comments of BK. It boils down to are you an urban type of person or one who likes a bit more elbow room. Personally, I'd prefer to live on about 10+ acres, however, I'll settle for a little plot in a suburb. Stick me in one of those lofts in downtown Portland (OR) and I'd quickly develop claustrophobia.

There is nothing wrong (IMHO) with having an area designed for business and an area designed for business. Take for example one of the present problems plaguing the newly renovated downtown Portland area. It was (and is) an area of commerce, of business. Some of that business is carried out in early morning hours. Now that our 'social engineers' have decided that people should also live in this area (in numbers much greater than was ever thought about), there are numerous complaints about the 'early morning noise'. Well, duh, why don't you go out and buy a house near the airport and then complain about the airplanes flying overhead.

We WASTE (yes, waste) our tax dollars subsiding folks buying these lofts, being conned into thinking that this is a better way of life (rather than the suburbs). We waste our road dollars building light rail that only 3% (or less) of our population uses, but we tax the businesses heavily to support this white elephant. The majority of the promises of light rail (less cars on the road, less pollution, faster times, etc) have proven to be empty promises; yet the politicians continue to shove them down our throats (we've defeated, at the polls, requests to fund more light rail - the politicians find ways around the votes).

As I said before, I can't stand what they have done to this, previously, wonderful city. It sucks now, to someone like me. You love it, great, it is (obviously) not everyone's cup of tea. For those who like living urban, they should go live in New York or someplace similar, I hate that they want Portland to be like 'european' cities.

Just my two cents.

Posted by: mike from oregon at September 30, 2004 09:57 AM

There's a film called "Le Haine" (Hate) which shows the suburbs of Paris two or three years ago. I think it's readily available, easy to rent from most video stores that have recent French films. It's a melodrama, and as such not bad. But it transmits some of the atmosphere. The reality is worse.

Posted by: miklos rosza at September 30, 2004 10:44 AM

Mike from Oregon: Now that our 'social engineers' have decided that people should also live in this area

Which 'social engineers' are deciding people 'should' live downtown? I used to live downtown and I loved it. All my neighbors lived there by choice because they wanted to be in the heart of the city. No one was forced to move there. Apartments and condos were built; people rented and bought them at a steep price because they are highly desirable. This is not 'social engineering.' Social engineering is when you prohibit people from living anywhere near the action, which is what happens when suburbs are zoned...house here, shops waaaaay over there. Corner grocery stores are banned in the suburbs, for God's sake, unless they were built a long time ago. (This excludes the areas of New Urbanism, which I wholeheartedly approve of, where the old "small town" style of building is coming back again.)

I'm sorry you don't like Portland anymore. I hated the old Portland. And the fact that this city is a more popular destination than it has ever been says the city has dome right by most of us.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at September 30, 2004 10:48 AM

Well sure, but note that the suburbs are a more popular destination than they ever have been, too.

And note which way the poor folk are going. The gentrification that "revitalizes" urban areas does so at least in part by making living there into an unaffordable option for increasing numbers of low and middle income people.

Posted by: bk at September 30, 2004 11:39 AM

I lived in Paris for 5 years and now live next-door to France in Geneva, Switzerland (after a 4 year interlude in Montreal and Toronto). Although I consider myself a francophile, I have to agree that almost all of the buildings put up there since the 1960s are abominations, far worse than the equivalent in North America. During our time in Paris, my wife and I were fortunate enough to live in the central part of the city, first in the 7th arrondissement and later in the 16th. It was charming, but you couldn't just put the suburbs out of your mind because the crime spreads out affects every part of the city.

A few examples: My brother-in-law also spent some time in Paris as a street musician and on one occasion he was beaten unconscious by a gang of North African youths using brass knuckles (Aside: he plays the bagpipes, and liked to joke that that was why he was attacked, but he wasn't actually working when it happened. He made extra money later out of sympathy when he busked sporting his kilt and a black eye). Another time he helped a girl who had been gang raped in the Jardin to Luxembourg late at night. We also had a lot of friends and family visit us in Paris, and ALL of the older ones (60+) were victimized in some way, either mugged, pick-pocketed, purse-snatched or conned. My wife and I were threatened by some very scary guys in La Defense late one evening on our way back from an art class, which was the one time in my life that I thought I might actually be killed (and I say this as someone who lived through an attempted coup in Kenya in 1982 where there was gunfire all over the place). To top it all off there was the campaign of terrorist bombings on the RER, one of which my wife and I witnessed from my parents' appartment next to the Musee d'Orsay.

As awful as modern architecture is I don't think it is the cause of this kind of criminality. At most it is a contributing factor.

Posted by: Coleman Nee at September 30, 2004 01:15 PM

Michael,

here's a resident of Berlin who'd like to share a beer with you if you ever do come. But Berlin can be pretty depressing too. It has almost no "old city", for obvious reasons.

Ian

Posted by: Ian Jennings at September 30, 2004 02:46 PM

MJT, you say -
"Social engineering is when you prohibit people from living anywhere near the action, which is what happens when suburbs are zoned...house here, shops waaaaay over there." Uh, mind if I disagree with you on the definition of social planning?

Here is what social planning REALLY is:
" Controlling and shaping people's attitudes and behavior by techniques of behaviorist psychology as developed by its founder, B. F. Skinner. Skinner believed that freedom is an illusion and that all living organisms, including people, are totally controlled by their environment. Skinner said that the ideal society would be one that is under complete dictation by a small group of psychologists who would condition people into believing they were free when they were actually being controlled by elitist central planners."

Which is EXACTLY what the central planners and the government of this state have done to the state and to this city. They stuck up these artificial boundaries and forbid anyone from setting up homes beyond that (without jumping through insane hoops). They encouraged, using tax subsidies, folks to live in these places in downtown. You say, "All my neighbors lived there by choice because they wanted to be in the heart of the city. No one was forced to move there." True, but they were encouraged and enticed to move there using delayed, deferred and reduced (for a period of time) property taxes to make those properties sell.

You say, "Corner grocery stores are banned in the suburbs, for God's sake, unless they were built a long time ago." I ask, why do I want to go to the corner store? Why do I want to go to a mom and pop store where I have to pay inflated prices for every little thing. Give me my roads where I have a choice of buying things at a lower price. That is what bugs me about this "small town" mentality that they try to push - I don't want to be captive (or even semi-captive) to the one or two vendors "on the corner". I revel in free market enterprise, I want to have choice up the wazoo, you don't get that in the 'captive neighborhood' model.

Posted by: mike from oregon at September 30, 2004 04:47 PM

One of the most interesting things is that people bemoan the loss of the corner grocery, yet it was one of the main apsects of modern urban "planning", namely ZONING, which caused these things to happen.

It is supremely ironic that the people who now complain about what they call the "sterile" suburbs are the same Leftists who worship "planning" and who brought us the whole concept of zoning in the first place.

How about this idea : ITS ALL GOOD

What a novel idea !

Posted by: freeguy at September 30, 2004 06:00 PM
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