The City in Decline: Dreaming of Mickey Mouse

With the four volume Selected Writings, which began with entries in 1913 and concluded in 1940, the year of his death, Walter Benjamin was leaving notes for the future. Not just in the way that all material and ideas become the purview of posterity, but something more direct, so that reading on most of his topics–and he wrote about virtually everything on which his mind and eye alighted–has me asking, what did he mean when he wrote to us in the future, and in this case, on what can be extrapolated as the future of the city, since it’s clear he’s referring to contemporary buildings and to an urban rather than an agrarian mindset. How did he see so clearly what it would be? I find myself both unsettled and somehow reassured that he was despairing, as am I–or, at the very least, alarmed. He charted the trajectory in his writings, but did that also mean it was fixed?

Most of us live in cities of varying densities and in these we find community. In Canada, happily, when we gather it’s for entertainment, for the relatively easy expression and exercise of democracy (although the last few years have brought some darker changes in tone) and for various common purpose. The cynical definition of a city implied in Rem Koolhaas’s statement, “Shopping is arguably the last remaining form of public activity” (Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, Taschen GmbH, 2002), is both a comment on what he observes and, as an architect with substantial power and influence, a self-fulfilling prophecy. He is among those architects and planners shaping cities everywhere.

In 1933 Benjamin published an essay, “Experience and Poverty” (Selected Writings, Volume 2, 1927-1934, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999). He begins by stating that experience has fallen in value. After the unspeakable horrors of the First World War and the rush and amplification of technology, there seemed to be no connection between what was known through experience and the reality being presented. Into this space there was a flood of new ideas and a surfeit of information, but how to apply it when it was so distant from what had been absorbed, a distance that ultimately resulted in a poverty of experience, not only personal, he pointed out, but applying to human experience in general. This impoverishment or simulated experience led in turn to what he called a “new kind of barbarism.” He noted with interest that individuals who were creative–artists, scientists, philosophers, politicians–recognized it as an opportunity to begin anew and make something singular to fill the void. He uses Paul Klee as an example, an artist, he said, who has modelled his work on mathematical and engineering forms based on interior structures and supports, but not on inwardness. It’s this lack of inwardness, by which I think he means reflection and interior psychic substance, which is the source of their barbarism.

Here is the endless pursuit of the new, the temporary, shifting, glossy surface of a trend so transient and unfounded that it slips past even before it’s had a chance to influence the couturiers’ next Paris season. This lack of inwardness and inclination to embrace the new has Benjamin noting, “Here and there, the best minds have long since started to think in these terms. A total absence of illusion about the age and at the same time an unlimited commitment to it–this is its hallmark.”

In one long, rapturous polemic, Franco La Cecla gives us his book, Against Architecture (PM Press, 2012), decrying the decline of cities and the role architects play in this unconscionable, irresponsible slide. Trained as an architect, he explains why he chose instead to write, about cities and the buildings that fill and shape them, and he refers to the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, who also left behind his intention to study architecture in order to write. Pamuk recognized the necessary, complex interiority of cities and sensed that he would be constrained to build, instead, suburban rows of uniform apartment buildings. And houses to live in aren’t like that, he knew, and cities to live in must accommodate the unruly mix and jumble of winding streets narrowing when buildings needed to lean to each other, opening out to a square for a street market and curling around a bend for a slow river making its way to the sea. There had to be pharmacies two steps down from the pavement, coffee houses where the same seat could be settled in daily, shopkeepers with a lineage linked to an address, laundry strung across rooftops, pots of green on small balconies and the sound of conversation and footfalls rising and settling with the changing light. You know and claim a city when you walk through its particular interiors.

To further explain why he chose not to build, La Cecla says, “better to write, to narrate, because places don’t stand still, they change with the swelter of the lives that leave their imprints there, with the elusive approximation of intrinsicality,” and further on adds, “writing keeps in step, it cherishes the stones and the people who live with them, it speaks to the process through which the stones and the people mingle with one another.” This he calls the “local frame of mind.”

He writes about a city’s inhabitants leaving an imprint, and I’m back to Walter Benjamin and his interest in the early 20th century German author Paul Scheerbart, whom he identifies as the first science fiction writer. Scheerbart conceived of housing his man of the future in buildings that would correspond to this splendid new being. His ideas about the use of glass and light and its effect on living spaces were picked up for a time by architects such as Walter Gropius and Bruno Taut. So while he may have been somewhat playful in designing glass covered buildings for this new man in a new era, Benjamin pointed out that these fictional structures were actually realized by architects like Le Corbusier. Nothing cleaves to glass, Benjamin noted. It doesn’t allow for an individual’s imprint, is cold, is lacking in “aura” and makes no allowance for privacy or secrets.

Look at the skylines of every city, windows glittering against a night sky; in the dawn light their reflective glass skins an annual deadly lorelei to hundreds of thousands of migrating birds. I’d said earlier that Against Architecture is a passionate polemic. In his introduction, La Cecla says his book “is an indictment against the laziness of a profession that used to promise a lot and that today is a washout. It’s an indictment against those who believe city planners to be the mediators capable of understanding the urgency of a turnaround.” His disappointment is profound, his rage palpable, his arguments and illustrations irrefutable. Who, in any position of power, will be first to acknowledge and then act to curtail or even slow the depletion of resources; will recognize that isolating working or unemployed poor in stacks of housing on the outskirts of cities is dysfunctional in every regard; that wherever we live, it has to feel like it’s the geographic, notional, real and readily negotiable centre of somewhere; will identify greed for the ugly, destructive quality it is and not laud its adherents as economic drivers of anything? It’s the absence of voices from the inside, which is where power is, the voices La Cecla feels would be able to show an alternate way of designing, planning and working that fuels the ferocity of this book. In spite of years of evidence to the contrary, he expects something more and is confounded by its almost total absence.

He returns always to the city as an organic entity that won’t be squelched. As an aggregate of people, a place where we cluster, the city prevails and, if allowed, could lead and teach out of its own inherent knowledge. Cheering the city (without the corporate brand architects) he writes that when everything else collapses, it does not. “It resists by its urbanity, holds on to a style, a ‘way of life,’ really in a Wittgenstein sense, something that predates all intentions, a practice made up of the inveterate stubbornness of curves and straight lines, of levels that overlook one another, the glimpses of gardens, and the onion-shaped trees.”

Inside the city but outside its institutional structures is the working space that seems to me the most productive. La Cecla makes reference to Rebecca Solnit, whom he calls the poetic punk, and her book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (Viking, 2005). She understands well the subterranean, tobacco-green quality of light that illuminates a working city, whether it’s in full sunlight or not. It’s a quality of enclosure, possibility and surprise, with a patina of use and the depth carried by that rubbed lustre. She wrote about coming of age when punk was in its ascendancy. “It was clear we were at the end of something,” she says, “–of modernism, of the American Dream, of the industrial economy, of a certain kind of urbanism. The evidence was all around us in the ruins of the cities.” But ruins are generative sites, are, as La Cecla writes, “what remains of the city, left over, neglected, set aside when the intentions of the planners, the administrators and the architects cease to exist.” Now the city can assume its reasonable, not rational, integrity. It throws off or reconfigures the superimposition of the builders and claims its own purpose. Solnit correctly identifies the ruins as the city’s unconscious, its memory, and this is its richest resource, “something that can be explored,” she says, “but perhaps not mapped.” Elusive and resistant, in spite of the weight and noise of wrecking balls and building cranes, it is a place she identifies as having fallen outside the economic life of the city, which makes it, as she points out, “an ideal home for the art that also falls outside the ordinary production and consumption of the city.”

Nearing the end of his book, in a chapter titled “Italian Cities, C & G (Cool & Garbage)”, La Cecla looks at Milan and his birth city of Palermo. Both are in extreme decline. “My city is in the hands of the bandits,” is the line that runs through his head when he returns home. But both cities are being rebranded as successes of ruin and neglect. They are being recast as “exotically impoverished.” This isn’t the same generative ruin state Rebecca Solnit conjures. This is instead, a kind of abject cultural tourism, of social crises made compelling to visitors because, La Cecla points out, the new architecture is communications. He writes: “The vocation of the architectural profession today is to dematerialize the city, to remove it from the daily flesh of its stones and its inhabitants and to transform it into liquid crystal.”

Walter Benjamin’s question, asked in 1933, applies here: “Do people like Scheerbart dream of glass buildings because they are spokesmen of a new poverty?” Are glass and crystal appealing materials because they don’t accommodate traces and untidy layers of memory, don’t allow for an interior space closed to visibility? Benjamin tells us we have become impoverished because we are yielding up our memory. “We have given up one portion of the human heritage after another, and have left it at the pawnbroker’s for a hundredth of its true value, in exchange for the small change of ‘the contemporary’.”
Franco La Cecla speaks of exhaustion and the kind of distraction the pace of our period provokes. “It’s not by chance that a great part of the world is falling into desuetude, into indifference, into being unable to take on the burden of its own upkeep, of human caring.” We are ceding control and the habitation and conduct of our lives.
Benjamin tells us that while people are sensing an impoverishment of experience, they are not seeking to replenish it. They have already taken in too much and are spent by its consumption. Worn, they seek sleep and sleeping, they dream. As though it could be orchestrated, the subject of their dreams, out of the “sadness and discouragement of the day,” is the resilient and amazing Mickey Mouse. Unbounded, unlimited by the constraints of reality, he can achieve a happy, enviable transcendence.

If a smile is lifting the corners of your mouth and you find yourself tickled and enticed by this dream possibility, Benjamin concludes his essay (written in 1933) with prescient and ominous comment: “In its buildings, pictures and stories, mankind is preparing to outlive culture, if need be. And the main thing is that it does so with a smile.”

Volume 31, Number 4: Made and unMade

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #124, published December 2012.

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