Socialist Worker

Out of the dead zone

Why can’t all our cities have the life, diversity and verve of Paris, Rome and Barcelona—or the West End of Glasgow, asks Stirling Howieson

Issue No. 1935

Illustration by Tim Sanders

Illustration by Tim Sanders

I RECENTLY walked from a hotel room in central Dallas about two miles to the book repository where Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly shot JFK. The journey took about 30 minutes and in total I passed less than ten people on the street. Here was one of America’s gleaming cities with a dense concentration of skyscrapers—most over 60 storeys tall—and the streets below are eerily empty on Saturday at midday.

Contrast this with the hustle and bustle of street life in Paris, Barcelona and Rome and the question is obvious—what has the 20th century done to our cities?

Many contemporary city centres across Britain may be filled with shoppers during the day, but at night they are ghost towns. So why has this come about and whose interest does it serve?

Town planning is a relatively new profession, charged in the main with regulating and alleviating the worst excesses which occur when you build primarily for short term profit. To increase the yield, developers will try to reduce building costs by using cheaper materials. These are quicker to manufacture, which speeds construction time.

It has never been cheaper to build, and the results are all around us. Windswept, brutalist concrete town centres can be found across Britain.

Several factors influenced how our post-war towns and cities were reconstructed—bomb damage requiring immediate replacement, skill and material shortages produced by an economy geared primarily for arms production, political pressure and subsidies to fund certain construction types. But at the root of all of this was the dominance of modernist ideology among the architectural elite.

In his essay of 1929, entitled The City of Tomorrow and its Planning, the Swiss architect Le Corbusier set out the principles which were to influence three generations of technocrats, earnestly wishing to construct a brave new world.

At the core of his proposals for a city for three million people was one clear idea: zoning. Le Corbusier detested the complexity and lack of geometric order found in most European cities, which had grown organically over centuries.

He proposed an intervention in central Paris that would see serried ranks of multi-storey blocks dissected with super-highways, replacing the grand boulevards of Housmann. We must remember that the prime motive for Housmann’s boulevards and circuses was to ensure that a strategically placed cannon could fire down many streets, quelling the citizens who were periodically disposed to revolution.

Le Corbusier wished to deconstruct the city into its various functions. The city centre would consist of skyscrapers and multi-storey blocks laid out in a precise geometric and repetitive pattern. Even the infrastructure—sewers, gas mains etc—were to be exposed so that we could admire their engineered beauty!

There would be the living zone of garden suburbs with the worker humanoids periodically transported to one central station through which all life would daily flow.

There would also be an industrial zone and a separate civic quarter to be enjoyed during “hours of repose”. Galleries and libraries, as well as games and sports, were the answer to the “harmful forces of the past”.

He laid out the plan for the working day but appeared to ignore the time wasted in being transported from one zone to another. This may be one reason why he advocated that the working day should be limited to six hours—an idea with some merit!

Zoning has now become commonplace and it is the model that was used when planning new towns and city centres. Such an approach has many benefits for order and control.

Business can retreat behind high fences. Cameras can monitor the streets for shoplifters and vagabonds. The population is forced to purchase cars to get to an out-of-town shopping zone. Public spaces are limited, sterile and not conducive to gatherings and debate. Is this the way we really want to live?

Contrast this with the West End of Glasgow or central Edinburgh. Areas where good quality tenement housing is integrated with offices and small workplaces, shops, pubs, clubs, libraries, cinemas, restaurants, sports facilties, hotels, schools and universities, all within a ten minute walk.

The buildings are Georgian and Victorian and are constructed using sandstone which gives them a quality unmatched by their cheap 20th century counterparts. It is the density however—300 to 400 people per hectare in four storey tenements—that produces diversity and activity. Barcelona and Paris have even higher densities. The modernists were wrong. A dwelling is not a “machine for living in” and we should not “construct one dwelling for all climates”.

Diversity and culture enrich our lives. They are the reason why we visit and enjoy other cities and other peoples. The city is a place of power—the periphery and suburbs are not! We must now rebuild our cities in stone and repopulate their centres—not just to enhance our quality of life but because we will, one day, have to take control of them.

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Sat 22 Jan 2005, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1935
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