Yesterday’s Utopia

Learning from extra large-scale modernism

“Modernism’s alchemistic promise—to transform quantity into quality through abstraction and repetition—has been a failure, a hoax: magic that didn’t work. Its ideas, aesthetics, strategies are finished. Together, all attempts to make a new beginning have only discredited the idea of a new beginning. A collective same in the wake of this fiasco has left a massive crater in our understanding of modernity and modernization.” Rem Koolhaas S,M,L,XL, 1995

What has become of experiments in modernist housing? That utopian project was inspired by the radiant city of towers, highways and green spaces but instead produced giant block housing projects whose morphologies, according to the usual criticism, destroyed street life by walling off neighborhoods and locking inhabitants in the sky. These huge public experiments transformed the landscape, redefined urban experience and forced a new social organization.

The alchemy, as Koolhaas put it, of the materialization of a perfect urbanism may have failed, but another urbanism has arisen in its place. Giant carcasses survive — legacies of abandoned theories — and communities mutate into unexpected forms as daily life within these sites presses on. A perversion of scale is the typical attack directed toward extra large-scale modernist developments, but there is nothing inherently wrong with really really big. Problems arise from a lack of diversity and differentiation within the projects and from their isolation from existing urban fabrics. Because modernist architecture did not yield to its surroundings — to the social and cultural contexts in which it was placed — societies coped by growing around developments like a scar, becoming neither skin nor wound.

Then there are moments when the tensions mount to a break-point, as in the weeks of rioting across France that began in late October. The one-way integration policy that protected the sacrosanct culture of France by resisting the culture of its immigrants has exacerbated isolation within the country’s suburban ethnic ghettos. A now famous observation of François Mitterrand’s from 1990 lays the blame on architecture: “What can a young person hope for who is born in a soulless neighborhood, lives in an ugly building, surrounded by other ugliness, gray walls on a gray landscape for a gray life, while all around him there is a society that prefers to look away and only intervenes when it has to get angry and forbid things?” Beneath this seemingly sympathetic attitude lurks a denial of responsibility. These same “soulless neighborhoods” were the utopian projects of the 1960s — their slip into wasteland was not some accident of ill-conceived planning but rather the product of neglect and racial inequality.

After a distressing silence following the first weeks of rioting, lame duck president Jacques Chirac came forward with a cautious admission of fault. While still maintaining a focus on clamping the violence by granting emergency powers (a euphemism for the suspension of the civil rights of non-white French), Chirac sited the ubiquitous discrimination as one of the factors leading to what he called France’s “crisis of identity.” Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, on the other hand, clearly denied any government accountability and ignored the charge that he was in part responsible for the riot’s escalation by slinging such nasty epithets such as “scum” and “gangrene.” In the same statement, Chirac made promises of reform, yet we shall see if these will translate into real solutions or if Sarkozy’s (and more importantly, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s) rhetoric will provoke a backlash that escalates France’s xenophobia. In any case, the rehabilitation of France’s housing projects will surely come to the table.

In the following series of articles, Bidoun assesses the state of XL scale modernism in the Middle East. First came Le Corbusier’s Plan Obus for Algiers, an unrealized urban plan to overlay a massive modern infrastructure on the city and establish it as a world capital, thereby ensuring colonial dominance. The plan, Le Corbusier’s most ambitious, demonstrated his new interest in forms inspired by encounters with other cultures. Next we look at Medinet Nasr, a development zone on the edge of Cairo gripped by modernist sprawl, and the communities that have emerged there despite deep infrastructural flaws. Contrasting Medinet Nasr is the mega-scale housing development of Ekbatan in the center of Tehran, which has dealt with its isolation by moving toward self-sufficiency. Finally, leaving the modernist epoch but following the tangent of discrete housing communities within an urban context, we discuss the self-imposed isolation of gated communities in Istanbul. In some ways, these communities are a reaction to the failed idealism of modernism; they intend to blot out urban experience in favor of a leisure