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democracy 2

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 29-Aug-1991

Edition: Late

Section: Special Supplement


Page: 2

Wordcount: 1361




CITIES don’t just happen. Like families, some are planned, some half-planned and some scarcely planned at all, but in any case the city is a diagram of the society it serves: the built form of that essential political tension between the one and the many.

It is curious but unfortunate fact, in the light of this, that the most attractive cities generally arise from the least attractive political regimes. Periclean Athens, Caesar’s Rome, Napoleon’s Paris and feudal England all produced the kinds of urban fabric we now admire – often envy – from a structural concentration of power and wealth in the hands of an educated elite.

Democracy, by contrast, has given us planned cities like Brasilia, Canberra, Milton Keynes, and “Pollyannas” like Houston, Phoenix, Surfers Paradise; cool and crass on the one hand, hot and crass on the other, but hardly representative of a great civilisation.

Is the urbanity-autocracy connection a causal one? If so, how does it work

The essential qualities of what we now think of as good cities derive in the main from the tight packing of multifarious small things into a finite space, according to pre-ordained rules and street patterns. The rules and confining limits were set from on high – authoritarian, certainly, but without them the medieval cores and neo-classical boulevardes of Paris, Barcelona, Seville would never have existed.

Modern cities, on the other hand, make their own rules, stretching, breaking and changing them as the citizens feel inclined. The size of the parts is no longer limited by wealth or technology, materials are infinitely varied and available, distances infinitely shrinkable, etiquette ignorable and, most crucially but also most ironically, the public interest no longer paramount.

Modernism, the urban arena, was an experiment which, like Mr Keating’s recession, had to be tried. But, as even Mr Keating now finds it convenient to declaim, the environments we have produced in this way are dreary, expressionless, windswept and unsustainable; forests of towers surrounded by endlessly spreading suburban mats. How did this happen – and what, if anything, can we do about it?

Mr Keating, like the Prince of Wales whom he belatedly echoes, is a closet leader looking for a job, and like the prince he wears simplistic specs which make architects an easy focus for urban blame. Certainly, there is some justification in this. Ebenezer Howard had been promoting his idea of a small but centralised Garden City since the 1880s (an idea not dissimilar, as it happens, from the “village” notion now back in favour among, for instance, designers of the Adelaide MFP), and the Americans had begun experimenting with”skyscrapers” over the same period.

But it was architects Frank Lloyd Wright and, in particular, Le Corbusier who gave the anti-city movement impetus with a heady blend of reason and Romanticism.

Frank Lloyd Wright was overtly anti-city, proposing a land-allocation of 1-3 acres (0.4-1.2ha) per family. But Le Corbusier was a devoted urbanist, as long as the rules could be re-written according to his vision. The vision, which he insisted must be applied not to new but to existing cities, was based on four principles curiously similar to Mr Keating’s, namely: decongestion of city centres, increased density of city centres, clarification of traffic circulation and increased areas of green and open space.

Contradictory, you might think, but so far so unobjectionable. The catastrophe came with the two stages of realisation; first Le Corbusier’s own translation of the verbal idea into an architectural one, and then the further translation – hijacking, even – of that idea by corporate capitalism into the reality we all now inhabit.

The only way that Le Corbusier could see of resolving the conflicting principles was to raze the city centre (old Paris, for instance, was seen as a suitable case for treatment) and rebuild a cluster of widely spaced commercial towers, set in parkland on a Cartesian grid, fed by 40-metre wide elevated arterials and surrounded by concentric bands of public buildings, greenbelt, and garden suburb linked to the centre by underground trains. The image is familiar enough; all we lack is the clarity and the parkland.

It must be said, though, in mitigation, that Le Corbusier saw himself very much as a sort of Promethean figure, clearing slums and protecting the public realm against a rapacious private sector which had, he said, turned the streets into death-traps, made cities inhuman and “given rise to the suffering of countless individuals” – which merely gives the alacrity with which the corporate world has since arrogated and debased his vision an even sadder twist.

But it should also be acknowledged that ideas alone are not culpable. Nothing is built without client enthusiasm and political sanction, if only by default. Our city, Sydney, has been deformed from its strong 19th century base not by Le Corbusier, or even by his unwitting disciples, but by the dilution and diversion of his vision in the service of insatiable private lust after the view-dollar, and above all by governmental acceptance of profit-protection as a legitimate planning principle.

It is 20 years since architects first recognised Modernism as a bull in the city’s china shop. Since then a severely chastened profession, scarcely in need of further flagellation from outside, has shrunk its grand world-saving discipline, town and country planning, into what we now call urban design -the tiny myopic science of wallpapering the street.

So okay, Corb was wrong, and the profession was wrong to follow him. But architects are no more capable of destroying the world than they have proved to be of saving it. Neither Wren nor Palladio could solve this problem.

What our cities really need, more even than good architects, is patrons educated to know and care whether their buildings are any good or rotten, and rule-makers with sufficient wit and wisdom actively to cultivate the public realm. But democracy has rendered these things unlikely, if not altogether impossible.

For better or for worse, Medicis are out of the question now, since democracy carefully separates wealth from education. It is democracy that makes us think we can all build whatever we like, collectivism go hang; and democracy which supports the supremely individualist vehemence with which we value the private and devalue the public. Even our government, far from preserving the public realm, is busy selling it off to the highest bidder and using the money to go on subsidising the suburban diaspora which even it agrees is no longer sustainable.

In the end, no doubt, if it does come to a choice between democracy and good city form, democracy must win. But it would be heartening to think, despite evidence to the contrary, that we can have both, and that the new Hawke Government initiative might give a real chance to prove it.


Illus: By Michael Fitzjames


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