Only by enlisting the movements of a building and accounting carefully for its “tribulations” would one be able to state its existence: it would be equal to the building’s extensive list of controversies and performances over time, i.e. it would be equal to what it does, to the way it resists attempts at transformation, allows certain visitors’ actions and impedes others, bugs observers, challenges city authorities, and mobilizes different communities of actors. And yet we either see the uncontested static object standing “out there,” ready to be reinterpreted, or we hear about the conflicting human purposes, but are never able to picture the two together!
-Bruno Latour, Albena Yaneva, “Give Me a Gun and I will Make All Buildings Move: An ANT’s View of Architecture”
The Wall Street Journal recently ran an essay by Andrew Manshel, the title of which, “Enough with Jane Jacobs Already”, expresses a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree. The article points out, and expresses concern over, the increasing ubiquity with which her work is cited in academic, urban development and architectural circles, as well as its official institutionalization in, for example, New York City’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, which governs land use, permit issuance, community interests, environmental and preservation issues. I would add that often her work goes unchallenged, serving as shorthand for an idealized set of urban dynamics. Moreover, that her work has been cited by people supporting virtually any side of any development issue also suggests that the full theoretical and practical implications of her ideas, as well as their philosophical basis, remain under-explored.
Jacobs’ work was part (though perhaps the most well-known example) of a larger backlash against what was perceived to be the sterile, hyper-rational disconnectedness and disinterestedness of high modernism, especially its city planning. Manshel concisely sums up Jacobs’ influence when he writes:
Jacobs’s book [The Death and Life of Great American Cities] is generally regarded as a jeremiad in opposition to the large-scale planning of the ’50s and ’60s. She is celebrated as the individual who did the most to end that era’s Robert Moses and Le Corbusier-inspired, automobile-centric view of urban life. In Jacobs’s opinion, the ideal of city living was the West Village of Manhattan, with its short blocks, narrow streets and little shops. She praised the human-scale aspects of city life; the “eyes on the street” of the shopkeeper and the social cohesion promoted by “street corner mayors.” In her view, large-scale planning was prone to failure.
It is easy to understand her appeal. The architecture against which she fought was often (though not categorically) unsympathetic to a vibrant, changing, diverse urban life. Le Corbusier and his discipliples, such as Moses, were too ready to accept a teleological view of the increased speed and efficiency brought about by new technology, as well as the absolute hegemony of a free-market economy. Moreover, the racism and classism underlying much post-war urban renewal needed an opponent like Jacobs, who should be commended for questioning many of its assumptions and tactics at a time when it was much more counter-intuitive to do so than it is today. In addition, places like the West Village of the late ’50s and early ’60s are easy to Romanticize, especially among city planners, who are generally left of center on the political spectrum, appreciate diversity, creativity, density and prefer walking to driving. Around the time Jacobs was writing The Death and Life of American Cities, the Village had also become synonymous with bohemian, avant-garde and alternative culture, embracing the Beat poets, progressive jazz and off-off Broadway’s reaction against commercial theater. The time and place of which Jacobs was so fond will always have a place in my heart because it helped facilitate the incredibly successful transition of Robert Zimmerman into Bob Dylan.
However, two of the issues Manshel identifies in Jacobs’ work—the emphasis on the human scale and aversion to large-scale planning—introduce potential problems. Jacobs’ focus on the human scale above all else obscures the important role that non-humans (technology, economics, ecology, etc.) play in design. Second, the suspicion of large-scale planning can obscure the significance of effective infrastructure. The “Bilbao effect,” as a more recent example of urban renewal, is often posited (either positively by proponents or negatively by opponents) as a process of building a formally progressive structure and filling it with art to create an enviable destination. However, the success and renewal of Bilbao depended as much on massive infrastructural improvements, as well as the addition of other urban features that receive less attention, as it did on the contribution of one individual architect or building.
Manshel raises a few other concerns when he writes:
Her views have now been broadly adopted and it is conventional wisdom in planning circles that participatory neighborhood planning is best, that preservation of old buildings is essential, and that in cities the car is bad. But Jacobs had a tendency toward sweeping conclusions based on anecdotal information, and some of them were overblown and/or oblivious to the facts. Perhaps most graphically, Jacobs predicted that the grand arts center planned for the Upper West Side of Manhattan would fail. But Lincoln Center turned out to be a great success—igniting the revitalization of the entire neighborhood. [...] More revealingly, the Greenwich Village she held out as a model for city life has become some of the highest-priced real estate in New York City—it’s no longer the diverse, yeasty enclave she treasured. Ultimately, many of the policies she advocated blocked real-estate development—causing prices of existing housing stock to rise and pricing out all but the wealthiest residents.
This passage ignores the ongoing vitality of Greenwich Village, but the point is nevertheless an important one. Richard Meier’s condominiums would seem to have more in common with Le Corbusier’s vision than with Jacobs’. The meat-packing district turned high-end boutiques and galleries is probably less than enviable from Jacobs’ perspective. Though apparently she would have approved of the High Line.
Part of the solution is to move beyond the unproductive and perennial dichotomy that posits these two approaches to planning (Jacobs’ and Le Corbusier’s) as the only two options for urban development. In fact, despite their superficial differences (which are great), Corbusian and Jacobean modernism, as well as the many variations and extensions of them, are supported by identical ontological foundations. Both positions begin with an idealized, pre-determined concept of being and endeavor to envision or create a city that will support this world view. That is, for both Jacobs and Le Corbusier, reality is “out there” awaiting the creation of a container or vessel—in this case one designed by architects, planners and developers—to support its pre-existing dynamics.
Despite the significant, albeit largely superficial, differences between Jacobs and Le Corbusier, both planners promoted static and timeless urban environments for static and timeless subjects. For Le Corbusier, cities were Taylorized machines facilitating efficient operations inhabited by logical and rational subjects, who need such order to operate successfully. Jacobs’ city, like the people it supported, was much more heterogeneous and lively. However, it was equally quantifiable (expressed as a certain relative balance among building heights, old and new construction, programs, as well as absolute measurements for sidewalks and streets), maintaining a behaviorist relationship between subject and place inspired by a belief that mastery of one’s environment is possible. Both Jacobs and Le Corbusier design for a pre-determined people and both fail to take into account the ongoing, ineluctable and ceaseless nature of change. What Jacobs and her followers, like Le Corbusier and his, fail to understand is that no time and place can be frozen in its idyllic state. That is, the physical city is not superimposed over an already pre-existing and static reality, nor does it serve as a spatial repository for pre-existing people, ideas and relations. The city actively creates its people along with its environment, and this is what both Le Corbusier, Jane Jacobs and figures such as Robert Moses, influenced by the former, and the new urbanists, influenced by the latter, despite their disparate and opposed methodologies, fail to understand.
Manshel suggests that “More attention ought to be paid to the finely grained thinking of William H. Whyte and less to Jacobs’s overblown pronouncements and unprovable theories.” I like the reference to Whyte because his work emphasizes the relationship between humans and objects, as well as environment and ongoing change, to create dynamic urban spaces that are more difficult to territorialize in an absolute manner. However, another important key to urban planning success is accepting the process as a continual one without end rather than an evolutionary one working to make physical reality commensurate with an ideal image. There is always an excess of reality for which formulas and images cannot account. In short, Jacobs, no less than Le Corbusier has emphasized a quantitative agenda at the expense of an ontological one capable of embracing flux and creating a means of ongoing, qualitative change to address its nature. Once a city, its principles and dynamics are absolutely codified, it ceases to be the city is was and loses the qualities that made it so enviable. This teleological desire is common but never warranted.
This is all to say that it is difficult, if not impossible, to identify an ideal city or to hold an image up as a perfect example, since formal features, dimensions and current dynamics often mask the process of becoming and true significance of a city’s development. It is also more elusive to discuss (much less for politicians to run on or a planner to promote to the general public) a concept of constant flux over concrete metrics and features. The reality that we will never achieve an end to the planning process can seem overwhelming and cynical, as well. However, at a certain level the validity of this approach should be so apparent as to make it more palatable. Cities and neighborhoods that don’t undergo constant and qualitative change eventually reach one of two extremes: a level of blight so severe that only those with no other options inhabit it, or places so enviable that only a select few can afford to inhabit it.
Despite the great value of its past, Rome’s identity depends as much on its present dynamics, its capacity to embrace tensions (between archaeologists and architects, between future goals and historical preservation, between cultural tourists and a largely working-class citizenry, between the sacred and the profane). The success of Rome can readily be perceived by comparing it to other Italian cities, such as Venice and Florence, which have been frozen in an idyllic time or state and remain inhabited (seemingly at least) by more tourists than residents. Another recent example, Barcelona, became during the past 20 years a positive example for treating major renewal, spurred in this case by the Summer Olympics, as an occasion for ongoing, qualitative change rather than merely representing an idealized image of itself for a few weeks in 1992. However, as the energy and vivacity with which planners took on challenges two decades ago grows weaker and more people rest on the laurels of the city’s notable achievements, the perennial issues of development are once again threatening the city. Much of Barcelona, especially historic central portions of the city, despite having many of the characteristics of which Jacobs would approve, have been gentrified so that few can afford to live there. Other areas further afield, such as the area surrounding Forum Park, seem to have abandoned the strategies that worked in the ’90s altogether.
This is to say, Barcelona (like New York and all cities) will remain an effective city only as long as it continues to change even when it might not seem as though it needs to. Right now Berlin is one of my favorite examples. Spurred in large part by the need to rebuild after WWII, as well as the cultural aftermath of the fall of the Wall, it has taken on a massive rebuilding effort, which is readily apparent on virtually any block. What is significant is that much of its past, no matter how blemished or shameful is still there as the city continually and actively grapples with means of maintaining these internal tensions to construct points of intensities. Berlin contains some of the most expensive areas in Europe, which are, however, closely aligned by neighborhoods that make Berlin one of the most affordable cosmopolitan areas in the world. It is entirely conceivable that a neighborhood like Kreuzberg, with its burgeoning art enclaves and galleries, will eventually suffer the same fate as parts of Manhattan or Brooklyn, but for now it signifies a process-oriented approach to development that does not measure its success in comparison to an idealized image of the city.
Nietzsche is the progenitor of a line of thought (going through Bergson and Whitehead, Foucault and Deleuze) the promotes life instead of truth. A viewpoint, agent, cause, effect, image, object, building or city is never true or false, good or evil to the extent that it reflects, represents or correlates to reality. It is useful to the extent that it promotes life as change. The term “useful” in this sense does not refer to a vulgar or rational functionalism but a method for keeping the flows of systems, institutions and geographies open to further exploration and connections. Nor is this approach teleological or evolutionary in a linear sense. Unlike Nietzsche, neither Jacobs nor Le Corbusier ever refer to anything yet to come. Their views have little to say of becoming and process. Where they both focus on negation, repetition, identity, being and a pre-existing future, we should be emphasizing creation, difference, nonidentity, becoming, a created future yet to come.