27 August 2010

Everyone Knows This is Nowhere

"Along the Passaic River banks were many minor monuments such as concrete abutments that supported the shoulders of a new highway in the process of being built. River Drive was in part bulldozed and in part intact. It was hard to tell the new highway from the old road; they were both confounded into a unitary chaos. Since it was Saturday, many machines were not working, and this caused them to resemble prehistoric creatures trapped in the mud, or, better, extinct machines -- mechanical dinosaurs stripped of their skin. On the edge of this Prehistoric Machine Age were pre- and post-Wold War II suburban houses. The houses mirrored themselves into colorlessness. [...]

... Actually, the landscape was no landscape, but 'a particular kind of heliotypy' (Nabakov), a kind of self-destroying postcard of failed immortality and oppressive grandeur. I had been wandering in a moving picture that I couldn't quite picture...

That zero panorama seemed to contain ruins in reverse, that is -- all the new construction that would eventually be built. This is the opposite of the 'romantic ruin' because the buildings don't fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into ruin before they are built. This anti-romantic mise-en-scene suggests the discredited idea of time and many other 'out of date' things. But the suburbs exist without a rational past and without the 'big events' of history. Oh, maybe there are a few statues, a legend, and a couple of curios, but no past -- just what passes for a future. A utopia minus a bottom, a place where the machines are idle, and the sun has turned to glass, and a place where the Passaic Concrete Plant (253 River Drive) does a good business in STONE, BITUMINOUS, SAND, and CEMENT. [...]

After that I returned to Passaic, or was it the hereafter -- for all I know that unimaginative suburb could have been a clumsy eternity, a cheap copy of The City of the Immortals. But who am I to entertain such a thought?"

-- Robert Smithson, excerpts from "A Tour of the
Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey" (c. 1967)

* * * * * * * *

On a semi-related note, Owen Hatherley recently published a pair of rants on the recent illogical of urban (non-)planning. From what I'd watched happen to my former neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago (and elsewhere in the city) over the past decade, I could definitely relate to his final comments in the Guardian piece:

"In reality, the shops and nurseries became empty units or estate agents, the squares were inept and windswept, and speculative developers crammed as many tiny flats into their plots as possible. In Stratford you can see the grimmest results – aesthetically stunted, architecturally bumptious towers crowding round wasteland. Does this invalidate the idea? Should we, as some Tories suggest in their screeds against the ludicrous myth of 'garden grabbing', celebrate the end of the attempted 'urban renaissance' and return to the pseudo-rural suburban sprawl of the 80s, and the depopulation and desuetude of our cities?

Or rather, should we acknowledge that the problem with New Labour, and Rogers and Burdett was that they didn't plan enough? Rather than being held to strict standards, developers were given carte blanche; instead of council housing easing the overcrowding of the poor, a percentage of allegedly affordable housing was sold in each block of terracotta-clad yuppiedromes. Meanness – 'value engineering' as it is euphemistically known – was what made the New Labour landscape so grim, not height, planning or modernity, and certainly not overcrowding."

Substitute a few (non-U.K.) references here & there and it's still applicable, especially the bit about "a percentage of allegedly affordable housing." Except: Where I just vacated, that sort of property didn't sell...because it was leagues beyond being remotely "affordable" for that part of the city, and there was insufficient interest in "urban pioneering" and gentrifying that far south of Cermak Avenue.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Images: From the "Non-Places" flickr pool.

No comments:

  © Blogger template 'Solitude' by Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Back to TOP