Friday, January 27, 2012

The high-rise conundrum

In the film “Shame,” currently in cinemas, the Anglo-German hunk Michael Fassbender plays a sex addict who can never seem to get any satisfaction. His quandary is symbolized by his sterile, high-tech apartment located in a luxury high-rise in lower Manhattan. Just as the suburbs almost automatically symbolize familial dysfunction in the movies, so do residential high-rises signal anomie.

Some high-rise buildings are clearly problematic places to live, but others are not. How did they become so stigmatized? The bum rap is due in the first instance to the writer Jane Jacobs (1916-2006), who fifty years ago published her “Death and Life of the Great American Cities,” a book that proved incredibly influential. Earlier Jacobs had taken on the formidable New York City planner Robert Moses. She organized a coalition to oppose his Lower Manhattan Expressway and won. Then she took on an even more powerful adversary, the French-Swiss starchitect Le Corbusier.

In the 1920s Corbu sought to address the ilots insalubres (slum blocks) in Paris and other older French cities through his Radiant City concept. Put simply, this is the formula of the “skyscraper in the park.” By in essence verticalizing the street, Corbu sought to provide light and air for everyone at higher densities than heretofore.

The Radiant City ideal found little favor in interwar France, but it was widely adopted in Britain and the US. The mistake made by Corbu was a kind of Pavlovian one: the assumption that a change in housing configuration would be instrumental in reconditioning behavior. Instead, existing behavioral patterns tend to reassert themselves in the new settings. Ironically, Jacobs made a similar mistake, though her candidate for the reshaping situation was different: low rises with ready access to busy streets.

Jacobs’ larger context was her excoriation of modernist planning policies on the grounds that they were devastating existing inner-city communities. She maintained that modernist urban planning disrespects the city, failing to recognize the actual situation of human beings living in a community characterized by layered complexity and seeming chaos. The modernist planners used deductive reasoning to find principles by which to plan and reconstruct cities. Among these policies the most destructive was urban renwal, then widely touted as the solution to many urban ills. Nonsense, said Jacobs. These policies, she claimed, destroy communities and innovative economies by creating isolated, unnatural urban spaces.

Ever since the appearance of Jacobs’ pathfinding 1961 book, residential high-rises have had an unsavory reputation. Some do seem to deserve this critique, while others do not. The reasons are complex, but the argument so eloquently set forth by Jacobs cannot be readily dismantled by adducing a few success stories and setting aside the many failures. That tactic borders on anecdotal evidence.

Another source of the common disparagement of residential high-rises is more specific--the housing projects that sprang up in many American cities after World War II as places for the poor to live. The sites were usually created by aggressive slum clearance, euphemistically termed “urban renewal.” Many fine old buildings were lost in this way. But eventually the projects themselves became, in many instances, notorious for crime, drugs, and general misery. Many have been torn down as hopeless.

The emblematic instance of this fate is the the Pruitt-Igoe houses in Saint Louis. Designed by George Hellmuth and World Trade Center architect Minoru Yamasaki (of Leinweber, Yamasaki & Hellmuth), the 33-building complex opened in 1954, its modernist towers touted as a remedy to overcrowding in the city’s tenements. Yet rising crime, neglected facilities, and fleeing tenants led to its demolition-—in a spectacular series of implosions—-less than two decades later. One event was televised, and vivid photos have circulated ever since.

A current revisionist film seems to argue that this destruction was unnecessary. I have not seen the “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,” only the trailer (, but I gather that the documentary attempts to reframe the conventional wisdom, suggesting that Pruitt-Igoe might have thrived under different circumstances. No prizes for guessing what the culprit is alleged to have been: institutionalized racism. In fact, as I noted above in discussing Le Corbusier’s fallacy, new residents of such buildings do not generally experience the change as transformational. Instead, they bring with them their own existing culture. And the culture of the rural South, whence many of the black residents had come, provided little preparation for this bewildering new environment.

Focusing on one such project may make for a gripping documentary, but the decline and destruction of Pruitt-Igoe has been paralleled over and over again in American cities. Surely the accounts of the decline of these buildings cannot all be “myths.” In Chicago no fewer than seventy-seven dangerous and dilapidated projects have been demolished in recent years.

On March 30, 2011, the final high-rise of the infamous Cabrini-Green housing project in Chicago came down. The building-by-building dismantling of Cabrini-Green had unfolded over ten painstaking years.  Originally constructed in the post-war era to accommodate the massive influx of African Americans from the South, the Chicago housing projects had become symbols of violence and poverty. Once home to 15,000 residents, Cabrini-Green in particular stood as an example of failed urban planning. Life was chaotic and often violent for residents of the poorly-maintained buildings. The housing project gained notoriety in 1981 after a spree of gang shootings left eleven residents dead in only three months. The violence continued, claiming the life of a seven-y ear old in 1992, slain by a stray bullet as he walked to school. The most violent attack occurred in 1997, when a nine-year old girl was brutally attacked, raped, choked, and poisoned in the complex, leaving her unable to walk or talk. In 1981 mayor Jane Byrne moved into the complex for a few months to signal the seriousness of the housing project’s problems. But to little avail. It took three more decades for the monstrosity finally to disappear.

In summary, the continuing disparagement of residential high-rises stems from two causes: the Jacobs campaign against modernist planning in general, and the more specific issues stemming from the morass of public-housing projects. Obviously the latter is a subset of the former. Yet there is a spill-over phenomenon that affects our judgment of even luxury buildings such as the one the Fassbender character inhabits in “Shame.” Probably these negative sentiments should be more nuanced, but one documentary film won't do it.



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