What About Clean Urbanism?

Rendering the clean
What about blue sky utopias and dreams of green cities?

Imagine a city for three million inhabitants. Now add pedestrian walkways separated from the noise of the traffic. Envision greenery in every space between well distributed buildings. Picture a center with skyscrapers, cross-formed for optimized sunlight and spatial distribution, specifically designed to house intellectuals, creative minds, and bureaucrats. Visualize low-rise high-density housing - buildings for workers surrounding the center- and between those buildings, green belts of leisure parks where kids and adults can play and relax in contact with nature and without the need to leave the city. Within the residential spaces, imagine an optimum amount of health facilities, schools and libraries. Now insert this city in the center of Paris. And voila!

There is a popular phrase that claims that one image says more than a thousand words; some images shout more than a million. The perversity behind the well known collage of the Cartesian city inserted next to the Ile de la Cité shows just how a plan driven by hygienic ideals can turn out to be a city’s worst threat (at least on paper). Le Corbusier obliterated the center of Paris in the name of a sanitary duty. Paradoxically, his urbanism depended on the eradication of actual cities in order to prove its efficiency as an urban strategy. The French capital was not the only one threatened. New York, Buenos Aires and even Stockholm were in the "cleansing" plans of the Swiss architect; who can ever forget the infamous VR-8 diagram sweeping three cities at once?

It requires an ambitious mastermind to transform the four apparently harmless values of travailler, habiter, circuler et cultiver le corps et l’esprit into a series of cruciform skyscrapers and paste them on top of the “cancerous parts” of Paris and Manhattan: the historic center in the first, the island in the second. Even more, it takes a perverse deliberation to acknowledge the power of the images that depicted such megalomaniac urban strategies. The bottom line is that Modernism’s real alchemy didn’t lie in its social impromptu; it was in its imagery. Le Corbusier utilized every graphic tool available to make the cities look clean and at the same time to persuade everybody to believe in it.

In his cities, the air was fresh and clean, but social classes were strictly divided by their “green” architecture. Le Corbusier’s plans were a clear suggestion that only a strict political regime could achieve such a massive wash-out, eradicating the anguishing problems of the past; starting from afresh with a new architecture, a new city, and new people. Les Villes Radieuses were skyscraper Edens for the bureaucrats and intellectuals, and a green prison for the lower classes.

Le Corbusier was not alone in the voracious crusade for a new clean city. With similar intent, urban, architectural, and artistic masterminds have envisioned blocks, sectors and even cities bulldozed in the name of cleanliness. Ebenezer Howard’s slumless and smokeless “Garden Cities of Tomorrow” seem like a prototype for what today would be a carbon neutral city. The American counterpart Frank Lloyd Wright designed his “Broadacre City”, where Americans could live in harmony with their vast amounts of nature. The Japanese Metabolists were busy wondering how to multiply housing schemes while preserving the little nature Japan had left. Yes, we can easily make up an almost endless list of attempts that tried to make a perfect combination between designed surface and idyllic landscape. The ideal cities of yesterday were betting on the power of urban planning and architecture to solve all of the social burdens and wash down the cities once and for all. Ironically, they were all trying to do the same cleaning only each one using a different “detergent.”

Today, Photoshop imagery has become the favorite tool of green warfare. Contemporary “urbanists” have been uncritically green painting every Google image in the name of sustainability. So, are we about to succumb to a tsunami of green perspectives of pseudo sustainable urban irresponsibility? Or will we be able to use the same imagery as a critical tool in face of the global warming paranoia?

At this point in time we persist with the same failed strategies. In an age of green slogans everything seems to point towards a “new” campaign against the so called global warming. Photoshop utopias display green-washed urban projects thanks to the filling tool (CTRL+DEL) presented for every kind of environment, from the rural villas in China, to the deserted and sanded no man’s lands in the Middle East. Sustainability has become a cache misère for our lack of intent, a trendy make-up hiding our impotence; clean urbanism being its apotheosis.

It is obvious that amnesia has become a critical part of the repertoire that enables us to repeat failed urban plans/strategies. In order to replicate the wrongs of before, we have got to ignore the urban threats of the fin de siècle. Clean urbanism has gone mainstream, and with it has vanished our ability to be critical. We have a resurrection of the megalomaniac clean cities of the 20th century, but we no longer have a Team 10 to pose the Shakespeareanism: “what is the city but the people?” We have also lost Archizoom’s power to ridicule the institutionalized. We can’t even pretend to have a Situationist naiveté and proclaim a war against the Green Corporation. The broadbands are saturated with redundant green slogans, senseless manifestos and trendy “yes is more” claims. We reiterate with blinded faith the credo of everything that was wrong with Modernism, and imitate with a fashionable style every menacing image that was created as Modernist propaganda for the “cleanest” of the strategies: the Tabula Rasa.

In a desperate attempt to resurrect, regenerate and renew the hopes for greener and sustainable cities, we have been selling ourselves as the cleaners of all the junk we’ve accumulated. We’ve been filling every blog, every magazine, every book, every international competition, and every commission with the opposite of an urban utopia: entire master plans with absolutely no intent, no strategy and no logic, displaying what is no more than a “nice looking” image from Google Earth and a pleasant picture from a render office.

To make matters worse, we have lost the power to be critical with the arrival of Photoshop. We’ve been blinded by the glare of the lens flare and sedated by the blue of happy skies. We’ve been fooled by the camouflage of virtual cities and perfect skylines of LEED certified skyscrapers. We crave for eye candy. While perspectives are being use to seduce instead of to inform, we have surrendered to a shallow trend of green images and uncritical superficiality. The pleasures of satisfying simulacra and e-fiction have anesthetized our ability to be critical.

Frivolity is the new substance. Architecture with a capital A has been usurped; no longer important it is disappearing behind layers of uniformly cropped trees. Whatever happened to the collage as a tool of guerrilla warfare against the institutionalized? Whatever happened to a time when architecture was used as a narrative Deleuzean tool to battle against the centralized powers of the established, of the politically correct, of the “socially responsible” and collectively accepted? Maybe we should reconstruct these last years of “inconvenient truths” and apocalyptic panic by way of the skepticism of a Foucaultian genealogy. Like at the time when there was an “Il Monumento Continuo”, an “Exodus” and a “Non-Stop City.” Maybe then, we will be able to subvert the “green” and criticize the uncritical. ■WAI

By N. Frankowski and C. García

What About Monu?

WAI has been featured in MONU

(Magazine on Urbanism #11)

Clean Urbanism also includes articles, interviews and projects by: OMA, Bernd Upmeyer (BOARD), Felipe Correa, The Jackson Community Design Center, Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today, Gerd Hauser, John Southern, Randall Teal, Nikonus Pappas, Bryan Norwood, Darryl Chen, Amanda Webb, Rogier van den Berg, Aleksander Tokarz, Simon Swietochowski, and Greg Keefe.


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