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by Mitch McEwen

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    We Are Not Innocent

    Mitch McEwen
    Mar 23, '17 7:16 PM EST

    Back in December I posted an entry about the White Flight from American Democracy, where I predicted that this new President wouldn't be using the White House and the L'Enfant Plan the way it was designed.  Rather:

    The axes of legislative authority and executive power must be extended dramatically -- to connect through Trump Tower in Manhattan and the Trump Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue.  The resulting plan is not read through a figure of landscape that it demarcates, but through the procession of motorcades and private jets.  It starts to reconfigure a private real estate empire into a nodal map of American political power.  

    This was before "winter White House" had become a phrase or military operations were planned over dinner at a private country club in Florida.

    In this post, I just want to say briefly -- and this may be controversial -- that our discipline is not innocent.  We watched, over the past few decades, the discipline of architecture veer off into luxury formalism for autocrats and dictators.  We watched our most experimental ambitions align themselves with oligarchy.  And here in the US, at home, we allowed a neo-traditionalism to fester and professionalize itself.  This faux urbanism of "form-based code" and other reductive packages of fake traditions have catered to the white self-segregation of the American suburbs and exurbs.

    Between these two poles -- Parametricism on one hand and New Urbanism on the other -- we knew that something was terribly wrong.  It is no accident that this failure of American democracy has attached itself to a real estate developer.  We cannot let this become a story only about reality television.  If the medium is the message here, the medium is also the production of horrendous buildings, neo-fascist fake urbanism, and luxury that depends on exploitation at every level.   

    (Trump Hotel in Baku.)



     

      2 Featured Comments

      All 32 Comments

      When have architects not served power? 

      Mar 23, 17 9:10 pm

      Thankfully, dictatorships and comfortable white supremacy are not the only forms of power in the world, even if they are the ones that we have best represented and served recently. 

      Mar 23, 17 10:44 pm

      We watched our most experimental ambitions align themselves with oligarchy.  And here in the US, at home, we allowed a neo-traditionalism to fester and professionalize itself.

      This is so painful and true. It parallels the disrespect so many feel towards professionalism these days. Scientists pointing to thousands of studies showing evidence that people brush off in favor of "mom sense" or oil-company propaganda that makes them feel good about their car.

      We architects try and try to show how a building like the Bullitt Center has an aesthetic that's smart and therefore beautiful, or show how a dense urban neighborhood accessible to decent jobs cultivates community no matter what "style" the buildings are, but people just call us elites and run home to their Mediterranean-ish McMansions.   

      As to when architects did not serve power, Evan: every damn day, but behind the scenes, in the small projects that fight for funding and press coverage.

      Great post, Mitch.

      Mar 24, 17 7:51 am
      jla-x

      The problem is embodied in the broad brush mentality of your post...

      Mar 24, 17 8:41 pm
      jla-x

      Even though I agree with it mostly...

      jla-x

      Its not so black and white as you and others paint it...and the solution/challenges/opportunities are in the grey...

      Thayer-D

      "And here in the US, at home, we allowed a neo-traditionalism to fester and professionalize itself.  This faux urbanism of "form-based code" and other reductive packages of fake traditions have catered to the white self-segregation of the American suburbs and exurbs."

      Allowing neo-traditionalism to fester?  What and who are you talking about? Traditionalism is prohibited in most architecture schools.  The only reason it exists is that people prefer it to modernism as every survey has shown.  Survey's being the same empirical evidence that proves global warming is real.  And what is faux about urbanism that is no different to the "old urbanism" that most of our beloved cities are based on?  Should we drop ideas that still work simply because they are old?  That's like saying we should only eat processed food because organic markets are so 19th century or the harmonies of modern music have no analogy in music of 100 or 1000 years ago.

      This kind of faux-politicizing of architecture is what's wrong with so much architectural education and what passes for criticism today. Politically we might be aligned (liberal), but conflating an architect's role with a politician's is misleading at best.

      Do you have any intellectual curiosity about why form-based codes even came about?  You make so many wild accusations that a little more rigor might be in order.  Why don't you tell us what are the "real traditions" you think we should adhere to, or maybe you are against the whole notion of tradition as retrograde or "neo-fascist".  BTW, Trump's go to style is neither parametricism (architecture) or New Urbanism (planning), it's the same corporate international modernism that's obliterated the character of modern cities for the last 70 years.  It would help your arguments if they weren't so immediately disprovable.  

      Mar 25, 17 4:16 am

      "Survey's being the same empirical evidence that proves global warming is real."

      Wrong. A survey of *preference* isn't science.

      Donna Sink's comment has been hidden

      "Survey's being the same empirical evidence that proves global warming is real."

      Featured Comment

      Chris, It's not just a matter of financial currency, it's also cultural currency. All this optimization of property  is presented with propped up provenance to justify it's presence, it's build-out, and in some cases interior ornament. Throwaway tropes like classical, traditional and "it's the way we've always done things," are equally suspect as the narratives that use contemporary, modern and  "a new way." 

      Mar 25, 17 11:34 am
      jla-x

      And styles carry a false sense of identity...as if stylistic consumption/taste is neatly correlated to goodness or badness or progress or regress.   Then theres the social warriors that oww and ahhh over stylised "progress" in regimes so regressive and brutal that its almost a hypocracy worse than bible belt trumpism.  Style may have political and philisophical roots, but its become so dislocated from those roots that Its meaningless.  Simply a surface treatment and a mode of brand identity.  

      Mar 25, 17 12:38 pm
      jla-x

      At the end of the day, big money and big business initiates architecture...and that shines through regardless if its a faux neo-classical or a glass tower or whatever other new thing you conjure up.  Building is and always has been by the elite and architects have always been servants to the elite.  And that goes for socialist, communist, capitalist, european, african, asian etc....the condensation of power is found in every society on earth from small tribes to large empires...and building is Dependent on power and resources.  

      Mar 25, 17 12:54 pm

      My friends, music and art are also "Dependent on power and resources," but they are not stuck catering to dictators and white flight.  Likewise technology and (until recently) politics.  The ease with which we conflate dictatorship and power-- or resources and whiteness-- may be part of what I am pointing to here.

      Mar 25, 17 5:52 pm
      b3tadine[sutures]

      Mitch, great work, I've been reading your posts with ever increasing interest, wondering how far this goes.

      I love how even when people feel compelled to argue against your points, their argument only strengthens yours.

      Mar 25, 17 8:29 pm
      jla-x

      Mitch, Building is much different than art and music.  Architects have always been cogs to the elite.  Even in aathird world" communities (not a term I like) other than the vernacular self built constructions (which im fascinated by) the local power structures control the major construction projects.  More often than not, they are very corrupt and cruel.  Im not saying this is acceptable, or unchangeable, just the way it is and has always been.  That reality is a human reality. and deeper than "whiteness", American oligarchs, oil dictatorships, etc.  There seems to be a correlation with being a greedy asshole and the aquisition of wealth and power.  No coincidence.  

      That said, to begin to overcome this, the masses must be empowered via new networks of economic leverage to manipulate their environements through some sort of decentralized development model...Architects new frontier?   Some examples of this are poping up here and there already...

      Also....White flight to the suburbs?   What is happening circa 2017 is the opposite.  Suburbs are becoming more and more diverse while gentrification is taking over urban cores.  White flight may have been a force of suburbanization in the 60s-70s, but now its actually an economic migration and usually one that correlates with family size more than anything else. Thats another conversation though...

      Mar 26, 17 12:03 pm
      jla-x

      power in numbers...organize, empower, leverage...

      Mar 26, 17 12:07 pm
      Featured Comment

      1- ^ , I think that's what she was alluding to?...

      2- ^^ , Migration, flight, and displacement have historically been an integral part of African - Americans(and other marginalized groups), property, and place in the United States. Through over control of the body as property, the fear and now through markets. To dismiss one of these mechanisms by referencing the replacement doesn't work. 

      3- Capital "chooses" to associate itself with things seen to be beneficial, and it has not always been associated with the iconic object. Levittown and Pullman are the prime examples, but also consider places like Endicott NY, where much of the response residential fabric was built by IBM. Think about the public building campaigns in Atlanta during the 80's as a means to provide services and create place in developing neighborhoods. Think of all the architecture in Columbus that is public. 

      4- The problem is that whiteness is more invisible than kaiser soze, because so many people take it for granted. It's more than present on the discussion because it frames it.

      Example: We take it for granted to that church burning occurred in the 50 and 60's, because that's when it happened- forgetting that more fires have occurred during the late 90's, because those attacks have been made invisible (it was fixed during the Reagan era and now it's not a problem - that's whiteness).

      Mar 26, 17 2:05 pm
      jla-x

      Again though Marc...yeah...its an economic issue that is demographically imbalanced because of existing racial economic imbalances.  In other words, racial geographies and access to spatial manipulation (through design and construction) are a result of economic imbalances and latent effects of inequality of the past and present.  In other parts of the world the same imbalances exist.  Same issues different faces.  To suggest that this is a battle between whiteness and color is inaccurate.  Yes domestically that is historically true, but globallyand historically the struggle between the haves and have nots has been a theme.  

      Mar 26, 17 2:39 pm

      But we're not talking about other places. The capitalocene we are discussing is that of the United States.  

      Mar 26, 17 3:08 pm
      jla-x

      My suggestion is that zoning go away all together.  Allow for greater subdivision of land down to tiny lots that are affordable to the average person to develop on.  20'x20' lots?  10'x10' lots for small cottage industry?  Organized Chaos is freedom.  Disrupt.  Take advantage of "free markets".  Through technology enable resource pooling and community developments (essentially a voltron like development strategy)...Architects become facilitators of chaos rather than form fetish control freaks.  Decentralize everything...production, energy, development...

      Mar 26, 17 3:34 pm
      jla-x

      http://www.pluspool.org/

      Interesting way how they funded this one   

      Mar 26, 17 5:07 pm

      -- Just a note, the point of my audio post on Descartes was pretty much the inverse of what's summarized above.  Descartes's geometrie is incredibly kinematic and imaginative and not dependent on the kind of flattening of the grid as a control mechanism.  Descartes, then, becomes a wonderful guide for the restitution of the Enlightenment project from the invention of whiteness.  But that's a longer discussion.

      -- Yes, depending on where you are in the US, the vector of white demographics may be filling in the city or still building out flight (eg Michigan, a little of both).  My point here is to tie New Urbanism specifically to the territories of white self-segregation (which might have been primarily in practice in the suburbs at the end of the 20th century and now moving into downtowns in this century).  If anyone has counter examples I would love to see them. 

      Mar 26, 17 5:41 pm
      Thayer-D

      People of differing race, religion, or whatever will always have a tendency to self-segregate...it's part of our nature and not inherently wrong.  To extrapolate anything from that into New Urbanism, suburbia or modernism sounds intelligent, but is just the opposite.  The political and economic interests expressed through zoning is more relevant to exacerbating segregation, but that's not architecture, like it or not.

      Mar 28, 17 11:17 am

      @Thayer-D, even if self-segregation is natural, would argue still is also inherently wrong. Diversity is more interesting, change and dynamism keep a civilization and mind, fresh and young. Self-segregation (genetically) leads to inbreeding and death.

      Mar 28, 17 7:58 pm
      Thayer-D

      I couldn't agree more Nam. I'm of diverse races and cultures myself and live in one of the most diverse areas of DC. My point is you can't assign nefarious reasoning to people who simply are drawn to their kind, however you define that. Look at this site...not too many traditionalists. Look how the author separated those who grew up in DC from those who grew up right over the boarder. New Urbanism like any other movement is used by people for their own ends, but the social, environmental, and economic rational is completely ignored in the author's formulation. Students get indoctrinated at schools where looking to the past for solutions is considered reactionary, even though they tend to contain the sustainable solutions that we desperately need today. In fact, New Urbanists tend to be liberal diversity loving types (like me) so the author's point is ridiculous. But she's playing a political game, not really trying to solve problems across the aisle. Maybe she's being groomed for some academic posting, but this kind of closed minded thinking is exactly what we don't need.

      Based on my experience with CNU, YIMBY types, this '

      Had a whole reply written but lost it somehow. Essentially, in my experience with CNU / YIMBY types this "In fact, New Urbanists tend to be liberal diversity loving types (like me)" is generally true. However, I think Mitch and Marc are highlighting "the social, environmental, and economic" rationales you alluded to. Moreover, New Urbanist programs like HOPE VI are inextricably linked to neo-liberal agenda/policies and modes of production with concomitant historical causes/implications.

      Thayer-D

      If by neo-liberal you mean loosening the regulatory armature of production, I don't think it's inextricably linked with New Urbanism, greed being agnostic politically. I recommend reading The Power Broker by Caro that lays out the story of Robert Moses and the projects that the Hope program sought to replace. There was plenty of cheese to go around.

      Been meaning to read the book. Had heard good things! And agreed re: greed and cheese.

      Thayer-D

      I also agree that New Urbanism has been used by many developers to maximize yield. Sometimes, all we can do is make it look better. I will warn you the book is thick with data..and spoiler alert, Mr. Moses doesn't seem like a nice guy.

      A standard "I choose to surround myself with this small segment of the whole and you should have the same opportunity to be isolated-" that does not consider being concentrated in a location through calculated manipulation. And of course redlining was a choice deemed acceptable in communities, as were discriminatory housing covenants and infrastructure being built through neighborhoods. Keyser Soze working in the planning office...

      Mar 28, 17 8:33 pm
      jla-x

      Yes, But there are also ethnic neighborhoods like little italy, flushing queens, korea town, etc.  they do imo serve a very important role as a sort of way station for immigrants, and for outsiders as a source of concentrated culture and richness.  Those areas are mostly self segregating and also very dynamic   

      Mar 28, 17 10:10 pm

      Yes-

      if you consider the Chinese Immigration Act and all the reactions to asians workers being employed to break unions- as non-threats, they fully chose to live in segregated communities. 

      Oddly enough, similar conditions of applied to Italians- that is, before they were considered (allowed to be?) white.

      Mar 28, 17 11:08 pm
      jla-x

      The Largest lynching in US was against italians.  They were considered black on the census until the early 1900s. I agree that historically there where/are outside forces in play, but that doesn't explain present day communities that are still growing like korea town in nyc, flushing queens, little Odessa, Some Hasidic jewish communities, etc...it makes sense that immigrants feel comfortable around people who share language and culture. 

      Mar 28, 17 11:37 pm
      b3tadine[sutures]

      1. That's not true,

      b3tadine[sutures]

      There's this event.

      Then this event.

      Hmmm, give me more info on your time frame. And would you also consider that whiteness was granted to Italians?

      Mar 29, 17 12:12 am
      b3tadine[sutures]

      Fuck. Me. This is horrific.

      jla-x

      Mark, Eventually it was to an extent.  Italians are still portrayed as other though unless they have completely assimilated culturally.  Those who haven't fully assimilated are often made into a sort of  caricature.  There are still many stereotypes in media.  

      Mar 29, 17 1:21 am

      But that was a hesitant "yes..."

      That was not directed at you.

      How about the caricatures/misappropriation of traditionally early African-American housing types, particularly shot gun shacks to promote new urbanism development-  having the effect of marginalizing those communities of color and erasing the complex history behind their formation proven and special organizations. 

      Or the willful lack of detailing in subsidize housing especially in those units built in response to the group in subsidize housing especially in those units built in response to the great migration.  An example being how insulation was committed from the wall section in many developments. 

        But here's a question. Can we hide behind claims of planning and banking as being the  agents at fault, and then turn around and shame international firms (firms not based in the United States) for their   engagement with organizations or money sources that we see as oppressive? It's not my fault that my client behaves that way - it's really society, but shame you.

      Mar 29, 17 7:49 am

      I don't have have the time to dig deep, but if I recall correctly, the first major housing project in New York was completed one of the preparators of graphic standards.

      I think that association is coincidental- at least I hope it is. Imagine- A person writing a book of architectural standards saying "meh, they don't matter enough to warrant a proper wall section as a matter of common practice." That would be heinous.

      I need to look on my other laptop to find that material.

      Hint of sarcasm

      These - event- links posted take the historical frame of the discussion back to the early 20th century in an interesting way. What I am focused on is not whether architecture has been racist -- obviously, yes, it's a profession in USA of course it has been racist and continues to be so, not so interesting that-- but how it intersects democracy, its weaknesses and challenges. This is a very old question, as well as a pressingly urgent one. Of course, in this country, because the greatest challenge to democracy has been white supremacy, architecture's relationship to the performance and protection of whiteness needs much more attention. Likewise, how our work abroad intersects dictatorship and its terms feels newly urgent here at home. From one of the articles cited: In May 1919, civil rights activist and prolific writer W.E.B. Du Bois declared, “We return from fighting. We return fighting. Make way for Democracy! We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why.”

      Mar 31, 17 7:10 pm

      Q: could this be straight forward as how democracy is represented? The idea that brutalism is a bad thing for public buildings because it is not representationally (although it might be proportional) appropriate explicitly creates a binary between the modern and the classical- which is a very specific thread in global architectural history.

      But if democracy is indeed inclusive, it would seem to me that it would not be a such a binary, but more of a pluralist approach.

      Apr 6, 17 9:55 am
      Thayer-D

      Three cheers for pluralism!!!

      jla-x

      "n this post, I just want to say briefly -- and this may be controversial -- that our discipline is not innocent.  We watched, over the past few decades, the discipline of architecture veer off into luxury formalism for autocrats and dictators.  We watched our most experimental ambitions align themselves with oligarchy.  And here in the US, at home, we allowed a neo-traditionalism to fester and professionalize itself.  This faux urbanism of "form-based code" and other reductive packages of fake traditions have catered to the white self-segregation of the American suburbs and exurbs."

      I agree with most of this...especially that the trend of "luxury formalism" has really taken over the profession.  Its some sort of stylized shallow minimalism/modernism. In South America it seems that true deep modernism is still alive.  While there is a fare share of luxury formalism in SA also, Some very interesting work still surfaces.  Any thoughts on why modernism seemed to survive down there?  

      Apr 6, 17 12:03 pm
      jla-x

      Their form of modernism also seems more brutal and dirty in good way, in a Corbu way, and Im sure his work down there played a role in that, but my main point is that possibly that style where perfect lines are not that important lends itself better to non-elitist clients. this recent batch of "luxury formalism", where perfection and cleanliness is the sought, demands a wealthy elitist clientelle. So what comes first te chicken or the egg? Is style like a self fulfilling prophecy, where an artistic goal/culture finds it patrons, or does the rich client beg for a certain outcome thus influencing the artistic culture/style? Also, as architects are more remived from the everyday, sfr, commercial generic strip malls, etc, is the architect being pushed into either complete complacency or fancy acts of tectonic acrobatics to Maintain relevance? Is this trens

      jla-x

      *trend being manipulated from the top mainly, or is much of it rooted in expwnsive architectural goals readymade for photography and magazines (starting at the university)?

      jla-x

      Writing In a rush...plz excuse the errors...

      won and done williams

      Comment placed in wrong thread.

      Apr 6, 17 3:09 pm

      Checked out the podcast from GSAPP earlier today. Interesting story.

      And to be clear, this really has nothing to do with Hawthorne, but is about Sharon Egretta Sutton.

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About this Blog

Posts are sporadic. Topics span architecture, urban design, planning, and tangents from these. I sometimes include excerpts of academic articles. There is an evolving series of interviews with non-architects about subjects often discussed by architects (neighborhoods, social justice, style, etc). This blog started during my fellowship at Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany.

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