Friday, June 3, 2011

The Psychological Ramifications of the Radiant City

This essay grew out of my brief page description on the subject. Honestly, I had no idea the psychology would run so deep...I just kept following the causal chain. --S.M.S.

Okay. Space can be assigned in a passive or active manner. Structures, such as houses, apartments, offices, retail, and so forth, are active insofar as they respond to their context; the space between, whether it is used as streets, sidewalks, parks, gardens, courts, quads, or whatever, is, by contrast, passive. Passive space isn't built for a particular activity, and as a result, all sorts of activity may happen in it. Enclosure is the way surrounding active space responds to the passive space so as to certain kinds of activity in the passive space and not others--that is, it activates it. When this activization process fails, passive space goes unused.

But to activate a passive space, there must be a critical mass of activity surrounding it. Even large parks are activated in such a manner: witness Central Park, Fairmount Park, Hyde Park, or Balboa Park. Enclosure is thus an act of definition above all else: if the opposite process is attempted, the interspersion of active uses in parkland, there is not enough of a concentration of active uses to effectively define and enclose a space: it cannot be activated, and hence becomes a barrier, both physically and mentally. Worse, if this parkland ethos is implemented via public controls on private property (zoning), this is an effective privatization of what should be amenity space (parkland)...and when enforced on human habitat (where we put our houses) via these means, where we raise our kids, the barrier aspects of undefined, unenclosed, inactive parkland can inculcate themselves deep into our young, and express itself in a surprising, fractal, chaotic manner. Unchecked, it can even define culture.

The idea of this pseudo-rural landscape, of houses dotting sweeping parkland, can be powerful, aesthetically enthralling, and sinfully seductive--but it conceals a dark underside--barrier mentality yields a more domesticated culture, a culture that can actually be controlled from the top down. Rulers have ruled populations from the top down, yes, but no culture has ever been centralized in such a manner. Only recently has technology even emerged that makes it possible--the technology we call "zoning", the privatization of public space, which causes the proliferation of the barrier mentality, further enforced by the norms we vaguely call "autocentrism" but could just as equally call the fortress mentality--the cloistering away of nearly every active use behind blank walls and vast parking lots, eliminating any possibility of activation of the passive in-between space, furthering the perception of "danger" of any space not so protected, which morphs into a fear of the city, due not so much to its intermingling of uses but rather because properly "urban" buildings have no need of protective fortressing, since they reinforce one another and activate in-between spaces synergistically. Eventually the slum belt around the urban core is treated, psychologically, as barrier space (the same type of space as the flowing parkland enforced by suburban setback requirements), and, without proper fortressing of the core, the indefensible space is abandoned.

The fortress mentality is an essentially militaristic way of looking at the world: the car becomes the tank conveying us from sanctum to sanctum through wilderness, and those who do not, whether through inability or choice, use it become something other, and hence inferior. Autocentrism is thus an outgrowth, and symptomatic, of this larger problem.

Corbusier, when he codified this barrier vision, the ironically-named Radiant City, foresaw the inevitable rise of autocentrism his vision would entail, and of suburbanization, but it is extremely doubtful he understood the full psychological ramifications of his vision, and how treacherous it ultimately is. The barrier and fortress mentalities I just described--they destroy freedom. They destroy freedom by the destruction of choice through the illusion of choice, but much more insidiously, they destroy freedom by control over marketplaces of ideas. They create and abet a narrow range of narratives (ideologies) of the world, and, over the long term, dogmatize them by making even the conception of narratives outside of these narrow ranges exceedingly difficult--a feat worthy of Newspeak. It's unlikely anyone could have ever foresaw these consequences, and frankly these are viewpoints only noticeable after several generations' worth of data, with a means of communication and understanding which transcends the limitations of lived world of the barrier and fortress mentalities (and which, in another feat of irony, emerged from them), and with serious grounding in deep Western thought, such as Nietzsche and Wittgenstein (it has to be Western because this argument employs causal chains, empiricality, and falsifiability, all of which are a priori to the conduct of Western science, i.e. the intellectual tradition of Galileo, Kepler, and Newton).

It is perhaps a direct result of the rise of the Internet that the psychological problems with a world built on the sweeping-landscape vision became evident to the degree they have, to the point where the rejection of this world has become a generational moment. (The end of the Cold War probably has something to do with it, too.)  But with entire successive generations of Americans raised under this worldview, its effects will continue to echo in our culture generations from now. And it is our responsibility, as the meta-architects of our generation, to start the process of healing our built form, of fixing our shared psychology at its source.

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