The Life And Death Of England's Cities

Warning! Long and rambling post with enormous swatches of quotes from articles and books about the evils of modern architecture to follow! I won’t be upset if this topic bores you and you want to move along. Otherwise, grab a beer or a Coke–you’ll be here a while with this one. I’ll wait while you hit the fridge–and I’ll understand if you skip this one entirely.



OK, here we go!

In one of his “Screeeeed” blog’s posts (currently offline as the Home of the Bleat is undergoing a massive urban renewal project of its own), James Lileks referred to this truly remarkable 1995 essay by Theodore Dalrymple, the nom de plume of an English psychiatrist who’s also a brilliant social critic. Lileks quoted from Dalrymple’s piece, but I don’t believe he linked to it, so it took a few minutes of Googling to stumble across it.

[Update: Lileks’ post is back online–Ed]

But needless to say, the whole thing is well worth reading. Dalrymple arrives, independently, at many of the same conclusions about England’s public housing that Jane Jacobs did in the mid-1960s and America’s then still burgeoning urban renewal projects, in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, one of the few books praised by both conservatives and the left. It’s probably not all that surprising that most of her findings translate all too well across the Atlantic.

As Dalrymple wrote in his piece:

Until quite recently, I had assumed that the extreme ugliness of the city in which I live was attributable to the Luftwaffe. I imagined that the cheap and charmless high rise buildings which so disfigure the city-scape had been erected of necessity in great gaping holes left by Heinkel bombers. I had spent much of my childhood playing in deserted bomb shelters in public parks: and although I was born some years after the end of the war, that great conflagration still exerted a powerful hold on the imagination of British children of my generation.I discovered how wrong I was not long ago when I entered a store whose walls were decorated with large photographs of the city as it had been before the war. It was then a fine place, in a grandiloquent, Victorian kind of way. Every building had spoken of a bulging, no doubt slightly pompous and ridiculous, municipal pride. Industry and Labor were glorified in statuary, and a leavening of Greek temples and Italian Renaissance palaces lightened the prevailing mock-Venetian Gothic architecture.

“A great shame about the war,” I said to the store assistant, who was of an age to remember the old days. “Look at the city now.”

“The war?” she said. “The war had nothing to do with it. It was the council.”

The City Council—the people’s elected representatives it transpired, had done far more damage to the fabric of the city in the 1950s and 1960s than had Goering’s air force. Indeed, they had managed to turn it into a terrible visual ordeal for anyone with the most minimal visual sensibility.

Dalrymple places much of the wreckage done in the name of modern architecture firmly at the feet of Le Corbusier, the Swiss born, but thoroughly French modern architect, who spent his entire life–first symbolically, and then eventually literally–dynamiting the street, something he saw as all too messy, with its smells of cooking, corner merchants, kids running and bicycling, parents conversing on stoops, etc.


Like most of Europe’s modernist architects, Corbusier came to prominence in the 1920s, when he built a series of remarkable–and remarkably handsome–expensive, airy white flat-roofed homes for the wealthy patrons of Paris’s art community (Michael Stein was one of Corbu’s early patrons–the home he built for Stein in Garches, France would eventually become hugely influential in its form. The brother of Gertrude, both were American expatriates living abroad.)

In many respects, these folks were the predecessors to the social class that David Brooks wrote about so memorably about a few years ago. Rather than today’s Bobos In Paradise, these were proto-bobos in Paris, and they had the money and inclination to fund not just modern art, but modern architecture, and found the perfect avant garde architect in “Corbu”.

Corbu’s architecture worked splendidly when he was building private homes for wealthy patrons who desired to live in their austere modernism, and maintain the enormous upkeep they required with their pure white walls and flat roofs.

But Corbu also saw himself as a social planner desiring to work on an enormous scale, which Dalrymple mentioned in another, more recent, essay on modern architecture:

Le Corbusier (the French-Swiss architect) once said, a house is a machine for living in. By the same token, a school is a machine for being taught in, and a hospital for being cured in. Unfortunately, if you spend you entire life living in machines, you are likely to end up by feeling like a machine part.Le Corbusier wanted to raze Paris to the ground and start again. Its irregularity, its nooks and crannies, its accretions of ornament, its grandeur, its illogicality and lack of overall plan, irritated him. He thought he could do better: pull the whole lot down – Sainte Chapelle, the Louvre, Notre Dame, everything – and replace it with militarised ranks of buildings like the UN Headquarters, separated by open spaces in which rapists might safely rape for lack of anyone else in them. Cars would speed down the multi-lane highways between the ranks of the buildings, as people (those irritating flies in the ointment) rushed from one machine to do something in to another,

Well, his dream – everyone else’s nightmare, of course – has come true, at least in small part. All over the world, people have been decanted into dwellings that provide them with cubic space and the bare amenities but little else. When I say people, I mean principally the poor, of course, those with little choice of where to live; the architects and planners who do the decanting them prefer to live in bijou cottages or, where available, Georgian mansions. Not for them the self-denying ordinance of frugal functionality: it is the ornament of others they hate and despise, not their own. Hell for them is not just other people, it is other people’s taste.

What is so obvious about the Corbusian vision, and that of so many of its followers, is its complete lack of tenderness, its deliberate, full-frontal brutalism, as if the only thing that protects is from the sentimentality of kitsch is a complete and conscious rejection of anything approaching ornament, of anything that could imply a fondness for the world. In other worlds, the Corbusian vision is but a gestalt-switch away from kitsch, upon the existence of which its own existence is parasitic.

Perhaps it is not altogether surprising that people who live in a brutal or brutalised architectural world should themselves so often turn out brutal or brutalised. My argument does not require, of course, that bad architecture should be the only or even the main cause of human brutality; it would be obviously absurd to argue that human brutality first entered the world with Le Corbusier. But it is not surprising if people who are herded into machines for living in, and are educated in machines for learning in, and cured when they are ill in machines for being cured in, should not have a very tender attitude to their surroundings or even their fellow machine-inhabitants.

It has fallen to the post-Corbusian age to erect housing and public buildings devoid of all embellishment. If you observe the mud huts of Africans in the bush that they build with their own hands, you will rarely find one that is not embellished in some way, often with great good taste, sense of colour and design. They express thereby not only a love of the world but of life. By contrast, bleak Corbusian functionalism expresses in concrete form the insignificance of man as an individual. Le Corbusier wanted to build a world fit not for heroes (he was active between the wars), but for clones. His buildings are to architecture what Maoist overalls were to clothes; and it is no great surprise that his work was much appreciated by collectivists, both Communist and Fascist, to both of which groups he was himself drawn.


In England, Corbu’s vision was adopted to both reduce post World War II housing shortages, but also by England’s liberal politicians to simultaneously eliminate the last refuges of Victorianism, which Dalrymple notes in the 1995 essay we were discussing at the start of this post:

After the war, bien pensants universally agreed that pre-war British society had been grossly unjust. The working class, it was said, had been shamelessly exploited, as was manifest principally in Britain’s great inequalities of income and its overcrowded housing. A sharply progressive income tax (which at one point reached 95 percent) would redress the inequalities of income, while slum clearance and the construction of large- scale housing projects would alleviate the housing problem.The middle class reformers thought of poverty wholly in physical terms: an insufficiency of food and warmth, a lack of space. How, they asked, could people come to the finer things in life if their basic requirements were so inadequately met? What could freedom mean (I remember my father asking) in the absence of decent housing conditions? Since social problems such as crime and delinquency (which we were soon to discover were in their infancy) were attributable to physical deprivation—to the environment rather than the criminal or delinquent—the construction of decent housing would solve all problems at once.

But what was decent housing? A civil servant, Parker Morris, provided the answer: a certain number of cubic yards of living space per inhabitant. The Ministry of Housing adopted the Parker Morris standards for all public housing; they governed the size and number of rooms—and that was all.

In the circumstances, who can be surprised that the architectural style, if style it can be called, of Le Corbusier came to dominate the construction of public housing, even though it had already proved disastrous in the one place, Marseilles, where Corbusier had been given full rein? It was the simplest and cheapest means of complying with the now-sacrosanct Parker Morris standards. Besides, Le Corbusier was a kindred spirit to bureaucrats and town planners—not just an architect but a visionary and would be social reformer; Of Paris he wrote: “Imagine all this junk, which until now has lain spread out over the soil like a dry crust, cleaned off and carted away, and replaced by immense clear crystals of glass, rising to a height of over 600 feet!” In this spirit, much of my city, especially the terraced housing of the working class, was cleaned off and carted away, to be replaced by Le Corbusier’s ” vertical city . . . bathed in light and air.” Some light, some air!

It occurred to no authority that perhaps more was being swept away than a mere dry crust. If the reformers had been right, the people who lived in such poor housing should remember the conditions with bitterness: but they don’t. Even allowing for the roseate glow that the passage of time lends to experience, what my patients tell me of the streets where they grew up does not vindicate the reformers.

True, the houses in which my patients lived often lacked the basic amenities now taken for granted: proper indoor plumbing, for example, They were cramped. And much of the terraced housing—known as two up-two-down—was aesthetically undistinguished. But with imaginative adaptation and improvement (now belatedly under way in what remains of such housing), more than adequate, even pleasing accommodation could have been produced without the wholesale destruction of communities that resulted from the indiscriminate demolitions of the fifties and sixties.

For as my patients tell me, a sense of community did exist in these streets of little red houses, to such an extent that people who came from more than a few streets away were regarded as strangers, almost as foreigners. No doubt the community feeling resulted in a certain small-mindedness, but it also meant that life was not then the war of permanently inflamed egos to be found in Corbusian housing projects—egos inflamed by the fact that the inhabitants have been, and continue to be, treated so transparently by social policy makers as faceless, interchangeable, passive ciphers that the only way to assert their individuality is to behave antisocially. I fight, therefore I am.

This sense of communally, now destroyed, allowed people to withstand genuine hardship—hardship that wasn’t self-inflicted, like so much of today’s. I remember a patient who described with great warmth the street in which he had lived as a child—”until,” he added, “Adolf Hitler moved us on.” What an admirable depth of character, uncomplaining in the face of misfortune, those few words convey! Nowadays the victim of such a bombing would be more likely to blame the government for having declared war on the Nazis in the first place.

The housing projects were built at what (for Britain) was record speed, and whoever wants to see for himself the reductio ad absurdum of the materialist and rationalist conception of human life cannot do better than to visit one of these projects. The idea that happiness and well-being consist of the satisfaction of a few simple physical needs, and can therefore be planned on behalf of society by benevolent administrators, is here bleakly mocked.

As the architects failed to foresee, the spaces between the vast, geometric shapes of the Corbusian apartment blocks act as wind tunnels, turning the slightest breeze into a hurricane. I know an old lady who has been blown over so many times that she no longer dares to do her own shopping. Nature itself is turned into one more source of hostility. Walkways are isolated and ill- lit, so that rapists may safely abduct: two of my patients were raped en route to my clinic in a walk-way not a hundred yards away. Notices planted in the grass around the apartment blocks of one housing project added to the Orwellian spirit of the place before they were ripped out by residents: DO NOT WALK ON THE GRASS. IT IS AN AMENITY TO BE ENJOYED BY EVERYONE.

As for the buildings themselves, they are, with a vengeance, Le Corbusier’s “machines for living in”—though perhaps “existing in” would be more accurate. The straight line and the right angle reign supreme: no curves, no frivolous decorative touches, no softening materials add warmth to the steel, glass, and concrete. There is nothing that Mies van der Rohe, another dictator in architect’s clothing, would have condemned as “aesthetic speculation.”

What do the tenants think of their apartment blocks? They vote with their urine. The public spaces and elevators of all public housing blocks I know are so deeply impregnated with urine that the odor is ineradicable. And anything smashable has been smashed.


What’s remarkable is how universal the negative effects of what American bureaucrats in the 1950s dubbed “urban renewal” have been. This passage from Tom Wolfe’s early 1980s From Bauhaus To Our House precisely forshadows Dalrymple’s bleak mid-1990s picture of England’s council flats:

In 1955, a vast worker-housing project called Pruitt-Igoe opened in St. Louis. The design, by Minoru Yamasaki, architect of the World Trade Center, won an award from the American Institute of Architects. Yamasaki designed it classically Corbu, fulfilling the master’s vision of highrise hives of steel, glass, and concrete separated by open spaces of green lawn. The workers of St. Louis, of course, were in no danger of getting caught in Pruitt-Igoe. They had already decamped for suburbs such as Spanish Lake and Crestwood. Pruitt-Igoe filled up mainly with recent migrants from the rural South. They moved from areas of America where the population density was fifteen to twenty folks per square mile, where one rarely got more than ten feet off the ground except by climbing a tree, into Pruitt-Igoe’s fourteen-story blocks.On each floor there were covered walkways, in keeping with Corbu’s idea of “streets in the air.” Since there was no other place in the project where one could sin in public, whatever might have ordinarilly taken place in bars, brothels, social clubs, pool halls, amusement arcades, general stores, corncribs, rutabega patches, hayricks, barn stalls, now took place in the streets in the air. Corbu’s [aerial] boulevards Hogarth’s Gin Lane look like the oceanside street of dreams in Southampton, New York. Respectable folk pulled out, even if it meant living in cracks in the sidewalks. Millions of dollars and scores of commission meetings and task-force projects were expended in a last-ditch attempt to make Pruitt-Igoe habitable. In 1971, the final task force called a general meeting of everyone still living in the project. They asked the residents for their suggestions. It was a historic moment for two reasons. One, for the first time in the fifty-year history of worker housing, someone had finally asked the client for his two cents’ worth. Two, the chant. The chant began immediately: “Blow it….up! Blow it….up! Blow it….up! Blow it….up! Blow it….up!” The next day, the task force thought it over. The poor buggers were right. It was the only solution. In July of 1972, the city blew up the three central blocks of of Pruitt-Igoe with dynamite.

Curious, isn’t it, the two divergent paths of modern architecture and its pioneers from 1920s Europe. Modern architecture for wealthy patrons can be exceedingly attractive and livable. Modern office buildings, when done on a large enough budget, can be handsome and functional spaces: Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram building on Park Avenue is a remarkable design that has stood the test of time and has been designated a landmarked building. And modern apartment buildings, such as Mies’s 860-880 Lake Shore Drive complex, designed for wealthy urban renters who can afford its upscale address, can also be attractive, exceedingly livable, spaces.


But modern architecture designed to benefit the poor has been a disaster of hugely epic proportions. Ironically, most of the modernist architects of ’20s never envisioned that they’d be best suited to be either builders of spaces for enormous corporations, or of villas for the wealthy bourgeois patrons they (somewhat ironically) relied upon to launch their early careers. Amidst the rubble of post World War I Europe, they wanted to entirely rework the landscape to match the tabla rasa that Freud, Marx and Lenin all saw the modern man to be.

If that sounds like a horrific, 1984/THX-1138 sort of vision in retrospect, well, Europe’s Bauhaus architects were far from alone in sharing it. It’s no coincidence that the rulers of Nazi Germany looked at the charred moonscape of Dresden in February of 1945 and saw an upside to it, as Robert Ley, the head of the Nazis’ Labor Front, wrote immediately afterwards:

“After the destruction of beautiful Dresden, we almost breathe a sigh of relief. It is over now. In focusing on our struggle and victory we are no longer distracted by concerns for the monuments of German culture. Onward!…Now we march toward the German victory without any superfluous ballast and without the heavy spiritual and material bourgeois baggage”.

(From Frederick Taylor’s Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945.)

The goal of “Starting From Zero” (to borrow Tom Wolfe’s phrase), and trimming away at all of the superfluous ballast of the heavy spiritual and material bourgeois baggage of the past was a near-universal European impulse in the first half of the 20th century, that spread far beyond Corbu and the Bauhaus boys. That such hubris would infect American and English bureaucrats of the 1950s, who believed that they could relocate the poor into cheaply built towering urban landscapes and better(!) their lives is staggering in retrospect. And a crime in its own right.

Update 10/7/05: Welcome City Journal, Brothers Judd and Willisms readers! Please look around, we’re sure you’ll find lots of other posts you’ll enjoy.


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