Friday, May 28, 2010

further along the housing ... trouble

Still readin' along about ol' Ch'caga 'n 'bama, one thing pops out that casts me athought. They're regaling us with tales of Chicago housing history, and Robert Taylor Homes comes up, of course.
In the middle of the 20th century, Chicago built some of the nation's largest public housing developments, culminating in Robert Taylor Homes: 4,415 apartments in 28 high-rise buildings stretching for 2 miles along an interstate highway.
The force behind the Robert Taylor Homes project is entirely overlooked in the story, because the story is about tearin' into Obama, which is fine. But because of that, some might develop the notion that RTH, and public housing in general, was some ruthless plot against the poor and black. This is entirely understandable in our own time. And given the ultimate fate of RTH, it may indeed look that way. But it would be wrong.

In fact, Robert Taylor Homes, and many other similar projects around the country, were largely the product of America's mid-century fawning and thrall for all things Euro-suave/Bauhausian, and especially for Le Courbusier's Radiant City, which, in other, future contexts, would come to be another shit can alley. Sorta rhymes.

Yanks ate that shit up. They got themselves "Mies" buildings in freaking Baltimore, for fuck sakes. They gutted their inner neighbourhoods, tore up historic blocks, knocked down City Beautiful. There was a mad, nation-wide, entirely inexplicable rush to implement LeCourbusier's Radiant City. Mid-twentieth century, America was deep mad lusty for euro-whatever. Giant buildings, of course, are the biggest whatever around.

Check out this charmer. That's ol Grampa Mies in front. And that other fuckin' thing, that thing is his glorious creation, the thing for which Mies' vision blew away the once gorgeous Rennert Hotel. That black monolith; that is called The Charles Center. Known to some locals as the Upchuck Center. Gripers. I mean, you can see how homey it is.

It must be me, not understanding where the "radiant" part of this is.

Though they would ultimately fail, rather than blighted traps, these gargantuan public housing projects were initially conceived of as the solution to mankind's living problem. This would be the way that future humanity would live. I'm sure you can see the appeal. Picket fences? Lawns? Fuck That Shit!

Le Courbusier's La Ville Radieuse, 1935.

Robert Taylor Homes, 1962.

Le Courbesier's La Ville Radieuse, 1935.

Robert Taylor Homes, 1962.

This was it! The future! And, indeed, there it was. Of course, the real world implementation was obviously less euro-space-swank than the conception, if not outright Sovietesque, but still, the future was now. Or then. Whenever it was, it would prove disastrous.

Nonetheless, the fashioning of urban American cities stands as a remarkable achievement, however much blight the idea would eventually produce. Certainly, it stands starkly in contrast to our own feckless time: less than thirty years from pen to brick, and, one must indubitably add, done with grand and good intentions, whatever the grubby tactics and glowing egotism (which is starting to sound like the shit we heard about Iraq, so I'd better stop). I can't even imagine such a thing in today's American political scene: the very thought of massive public housing projects built to the specs of the Giants of Twentieth Century Architecture. Shit! Who wouldn't want to move in? *

Except, people didn't like living in these monstrosities. Still don't, for the most part. Certainly, in the right environment, big huge boxes suffice as personal quarter, while the surrounding city that compels such quarter itself furnishes the living space. New York, Tokyo serve archetype. But if the surrounding living space is unaccommodating at the human scale, as it obviously is in all of these images, the project is doomed. That was the ultimate problem. Le Courbusier, and most "modern," self-indulgent, egghead architects failed, and still fail, to grasp the human scale. With their narcissism running high, awarding silly buildings for being weird, the human scale was not a factor in the grand, ultimately pointless, "visions" the purveyors of architectural culture had foist upon land and human in the building rush to the Radiant City.

People seem not to be comfortable in beehives. Unless there's a really good bagel shop right down stairs.

*The US cannot and will not do such things today. What they will do, however, is spend thirty years of considerable investment taking out Iraq and Iran.

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