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Monday, November 28, 2005
From Lingotto to Larkin. 'Going, Going', written by Philip Larkin in 1972, includes the lines: 'I knew there'd be false alarms, In the papers about old streets, And split level shopping, but some, Have always been left so far; And when the old part retreats, As the bleak high-risers come, We can always escape in the car.'

Few people managed to express the end-century ennui with modernism more succinctly better than Larkin, and 'Split Level' was a swift rejoinder to the multi-level future of the architectural utopians. Although a spot of modernist nostalgia is no bad thing (we're fully paid up members of the Twentieth Century Society, wholeheartedly support their work, and adore it when we find the likes of 'modernism in the rain,' (a typically crisp Hyperkit gallery).

Those who fought tooth and claw to resist modernism always seemed a bit stick in the mud, reactionary for the sake of it. Don't get us wrong, as injustices continue to occur, but the early zeal of campaigners has been subsumed by a wishy-washy definition of heritage and what it's for. Consider Clough William-Ellis, who wrote angry polemics like England and the Octopus, apparently 'galvanising support for the newly formed Campaign to Protect Rural England in the 1920s'. William-Ellis has no contemporary equivalent, and the debate about town vs country is distilled into reports like Heritage Counts, a specially-commissioned EH publication that's a prime example of just how much hand-wringing and focus grouping goes on behind the scenes of our green and pleasant land, banging on about 'access' to 'rural heritage' as if a field is equivalent to a study collection of musical instruments.

We digress. Our current gallery features Matte Trucco's iconic Lingotto Factory in Turin, built for the Fiat company in the 1920s. Lingotto's most celebrated device is its roof-top test track. Here, freshly-built Fiats would be whizzed around on their maiden lap, high above the Turinese rooftops, on a celebratory lap before being sent off to the customer. It didn't take long for commentators and architects to extrapolate a new future from this incredible structure. By placing the car at the heart of the urban experience, the ideals and sheer exhilaration of Lingotto led in a more or less straight line to some of the most mind-numbingly bleak proposals that were realised in the latter half of the century. The car was king.

Consider the work of Robert Moses in New York (and his maxim that 'cities are for traffic'), or the heart-rending, whole-scale reconstruction of poor old Boston (via veritas et venustas), just one of countless cities obliterated in order to bring cars into town centres at the expense of historic streetplans and buildings. But then again, when one considers the unbuilt schemes, maybe the city got off lightly. Check the abortive plans for London Motorways, first mooted before the war and eventually spawning the short elevated stretch known as the Westway, rather than the whole of the GLC's ambitious Ringway 1. Consider too the Philadelphia Kahn / Bacon face-off (featured in in My Architect) to see how close we all came to be living in the promised land of the automobile.

Nowadays, such ambition is (usually rightly) discouraged, an opposition that's easy to understand when faced with Cumbernauld New Town, a place loathed even by its own inhabitants. The megastructure was apparently at fault, a fault-riddled architectural concept for buildings as monumental, near-continuous structures containing zones for eating, playing, working, parking, their access roads and walkways threaded through the concrete. Yet although Trucco's design was a precursor to multi-layered megastructuralism, its built legacy is relatively sparse, even more so when one focuses on residential schemes. Instead, the multi-level space found its true metier in super-sized commercial projects, from the Mall of America downwards, whereby the only justification for size and sprawl is as a consumer nexus, a honeypot stewed up mostly by one man, Victor Gruen, the high priest of mall culture (although admittedly Gruen also believed that his mall-centric consumer worlds would make the perfect basis for new cities).

For the most part, modernism chose to go up, and not out. The vertical city, a favourite of Le Corbusier, is a very different proposition to the dense, multi-layered horizontal city. Density would free up space, but to get to that space, cars had to be brought to the fore. Geoffrey Jellicoe's rather quaint and very English Motopia project was very much in thrall to his sponsors (the Pilkington glass Company) and the generally auto-centric nature of British society . We linked it before (the folks at British Pathe reorganised their database. You really have to jump through hoops to download a preview: 'this is a town of the future, a town whose 30,000 inhabitants will never know the meaning of road accidents'. Here are some preview stills) and have now scanned a few images from the book.

Motopia was ambitious, but essentially bucolic at heart. Gordon Cullen's typically evocative sketches showed a new world rising up out of the English landscape, the perpetual mechanical conversation of commuting uniting all sectors. Far more realistic were the proposals suggested in Traffic in Towns, just two years later. Containing the results of a Working Group from the then Ministry of Transport, the document, known as the Buchanan Report, advocated wholescale restructuring of towns and cities to accommodate the car (more details here; Buchanan's winning coinage was 'car-owning democracy', which he used 'to warn how, as individual mobility increased, there would be inevitable conflict between those demanding more freedom of movement and those opposed to the road building programmes that would be needed to meet demand').

The schemes presented in the report were all speculative, but informed subsequent major bypass works and city centre reorganisations the length and breadth of the UK. We're most interested in the touchingly ambitious plan to rip apart the then rather down-at-heel London district of Fitzrovia. Three plans were suggested, minimum, partial and complete redevelopment, the latter reducing the existing Georgian streetscape to a series of thick motorways and flyovers, interspersed with a few nodal living spaces and recreation areas. A more 'piecemeal' redevelopment was also explored, which noted the council's provisions for about 7,000 parking spaces. The report reckoned that by 2010, this area alone would need about 15,500 parking spaces, 8,500 of which were for 'commuters and shoppers.' Today, the whole of Camden has just 1,127 parking meters and 2,591 pay and display spaces (source: Hansard).

It's pretty easy to pick holes in Traffic in Towns. The graphics are gorgeous, the renderings seductive, yet the entire conceit has been totally subsumed by changing perceptions. What's surprising, though, is that the heavyweights of modern architecture continue to be saddled with a reputation as the destroyers of urban life, progenitors of inhuman architecture that ushered in social and physical alienation. Traffic in Towns shows that it was government agencies and the media, not to mention lobbyist groups from road builders and car makers, who thought an automotive future was the only way forward, and, if necessary, huge swathes of the city would need to make way for progress. Nonetheless, blaming Corb continues to be fashionable, as the author of this NY Times piece, 'Revolting High Rises' makes clear. By condemning residents to modern developments that fail to factor in changing demographics, social movement or desire, culminated in last month's riots. Clay Risen rightly takes issue with this in his recent piece in the New Republic, 'No Fault'.

A postscript. The thing about Lingotto is how sad and lonely the whole place feels now. Even Renzo Piano's much-vaunted additions feel underused. To gain access to the roof one asks for a little key from the hotel reception (it's billed as a 'jogging track' in the brochure'). You're then instructed to traipse through the shopping centre, up a lift and then unlock a door with a scrawled paper sign on it. And that's it. Atop this icon of contemporary architecture there are only concrete bollards for company (placed to prevent any adventurous joyriders from testing the steep banking): it's about as disconnected from the real life of the city as it is possible to be.

*
Other things. We've obviously had our head under the sand for a bit. Metafilter Projects is a space for me-fi members to announce web-based projects. Samples include The Road Online, 'part of a project to gather ambient sounds (sounds that happen to be in an environment) from locations mentioned in Kerouac's On the Road' (the manuscript of which, famously typed on a 120 foot roll of paper, is currently on tour). Also via me-fi projects, Oh Blast!, who make things.

Related. Thanks to nick at Blanketfort for signposting wikipedia's page on field recording and collection of external links / modern music mag The Wire has a collection of images from the Her Noise exhibition, as well as videos from the launch event. We re-visited it on Saturday and might be persuaded to post our second attempt at 'reverse karaoke' / Reelstreets features GB film locations from the 20s to the 80s (thanks to scattergun). The straightforward list is gradually being updated with images, then and now, such as this entry for Ken Loach's Poor Cow or Night and the City / People Will Always Need Plates make beautiful chinaware.

The autograph man: a collection of celebrity signatures with a twist. Paul Schmelzer has so far persuaded 70 celebrities to write his own name. See the results at Hello, my name is Paul Schmelzer. Thanks Cam / the Best Word Book Ever, by Richard Scarry, a then-and-now comparison between the 60s edition and the 90s edition (via me-fi) / i luv mags have a huge pile of glossy magazines, all of which they will sell you / all sorts of things flagged up at the ultimate insult / structurae, 'works of structural engineering, architecture or construction through time, history and from around the world.'

Found Mattr, 'messages from the past', is our kind of website, a repository for postcards and other ephemera that would otherwise be lost / Her Noise website up and running, with weblog / I have a new piece at tmn, entitled 'Vexed in the City' (great title, but sadly not our doing) / the gadgetification of America (thanks to sachlichkeit) / Urban Country Lanes, a website 'created to record and appreciate the phenomenon that is urban country lanes'.