Saturday, November 01, 2008

The Concept of Non-Ownership (by Phila)

I've been thinking lately about the form that architecture takes in an economy based on land speculation rather than, say, industrial productivity. Is there a certain type of building, or building style, that becomes dominant during a real-estate bubble?

McMansions seem like the obvious answer. They increase in size as land values skyrocket. And their interiors seem oddly divorced from how people actually live; they recall traditional ideas of wealth and gentility that were based on an entirely different sense of time and space and leisure, with the result that even when they're inhabited they have the feel of something that's outlived its purpose. They seem more like a crude stereotype of a rich person's house than an actual dwelling. Or a marker and a warning, like the hotels on a Monopoly board.

I was also brooding about how shopping centers seem to grow quainter and more village-like as communities become more fragmented, and houses more imposing and unwelcoming. Which reminded me that I'd addressed this question several years ago, in a long post on architectural imitation:
It's strange how often we romanticize aspects of America that we blithely destroyed because there was money to be made. And it's even more strange that having destroyed such things, we replicate them shoddily, and market them as antidotes to the very psychic emptiness that made the real things seem worthless.
At a cost hardly anyone can afford, I should've added.

Apropos of which, the American architect Lebbeus Woods notes that Americans increasingly view homes as "instruments for getting a return on their money," and wonders whether a new and improved American Dream could be built around the idea of non-ownership:
Architects, locked for so long in the ideal of home ownership -— from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, where everyone would have their sovereign acre of prairie (and a Wright house planted squarely on it), to Frank Gehry’s twisty luxury condo tower in Lower Manhattan —- have difficulty generating any comparable vision of the American home. It is telling that the most gifted designers today —- American and not -— can only come up with snappy new wrappers for prevailing, but finally fading, ideas. The current bursting of the “housing bubble,” and the coming financial shakeout, which will be global in extent, and giga in scale, could leave them with more time to consider the reality of how most people live, and about the nature of home in the contemporary world.

The concept of non-ownership would be good a place to start. Or, at least, with the idea that money is not at the heart of it.
It sounds like Georgism but with state-owned housing, which sounds like communism, which means that Obama will undoubtedly get right on it if he's elected.

Meanwhile, over at BLDGBLOG, Nicola Twilley discusses "micro-territoriality as both a cause and a symptom of social exclusion." She's responding to a cognitive mapping project that asked young people to draw their neighborhoods as they perceive them; what makes this project especially interesting was that the participants' maps included "enemy" areas:
Some of the sketches...remind me of medieval maps: the known world is an island of familiarity, simultaneously shown much larger than scale but made tiny and precious by the monsters of “Terra Incognita” that surround it. In the case of a 15-year-old girl from Bradford, today’s dragons are “moshers,” “chavs,” “Asians,” and “posh people” – all “Enemys....”

In other words, bored and economically deprived teenagers are transforming 1960s council estates and Victorian terraces into a real-world, multiplayer World of Warcraft.
Or perhaps the game was already there, and they're trying to find a way to win it.

Twilley goes on to point out that "current policies in urban regeneration are dominated by strategies to increase 'place attachment' as a means 'to reinforce social networks and maintain the quality of an area through pride.'" This, of course, can serve to encourage micro-territoriality, which seems to persist -- or perhaps even intensify -- when a place has virtually no worthwhile qualities:
It was difficult to say which was more depressing – the relentless defense of a featureless piece of open space on the fringes of a Glasgow housing scheme where there is nothing whatsoever by way of amenities, or the confinement to a socially isolated but densely populated and built-up quarter-square-mile of London of young men for whom the culture and wealth of one of the world’s great cities might as well be on another continent.
She also notes the use of sports as a means to "encourage association" and defeat "problematic territoriality"; Anthony's recent post on sports gives us ample reason to be wary of this strategy (though Subtopia's promotion of border ball is certainly heartening).

Like Woods, Twilley wonders whether these problems can be solved by architects and urban planners: "Can the design of the city itself generate – or mitigate against – territoriality?"

Obviously, urban design doesn't "generate" territoriality; it is territoriality, period. In psychological terms, it seems to me that the question of micro-territoriality hinges on the transgression of micro-borders, which in turn hinges on security and control, and ultimately on identity (which has a lot to do with the sense of one's own position within society).

If urban design is going to reduce this tension, and encourage a relative sense of non-ownership, it seems to me that it has to de-emphasize borders (e.g., by changing the uses of transitional spaces where, as Twilley notes, most territorial violence is concentrated); the installation of a community garden in an abandoned lot would be one possible way of turning a border area into something of value to people on both sides of a divide. Facilities dedicated to community clean-up -- or better yet, mediation -- would be other possibilities.

Needless to say, ideas like these are totally alien to current political -- and therefore architectural -- trends, which stress the need for hypervigilance, perimeter security, and preparedness, and which usually boil down to security rituals whose basic steps can be recognized in international airports as well as "across the spectrum of low-income housing stock." In this sense, the maps Twilley reproduces don't seem medieval at all; their assumptions are very much of our time.

But ultimately, the assumption that we can change society by changing architecture relies a bit too much on the assumption that architecture got us where we are today; theory's fascination with power tends to make power seem fascinating, and its plans for opposing that power are too often based on familiar, imperious assumptions about the ability to impose a particular worldview on citizens by rearranging their neighborhoods. Instead of cheap imitations of a conservative past, with fake Victorian lamps, and streets named after whatever natural features were bulldozed to make way for them, we could (continue to) end up with cheap imitations of a utopian future, which pay lip service to radical ideas of community while leaving residents' day-to-day life basically unchanged.

The point is, the struggle to improve neighborhoods is largely a political one, and the work involved is not particularly glamorous, or intellectually stimulating, or aesthetically thrilling. As the radical architect Teddy Cruz acknowledges:
“I can design the coolest-looking building, or I can engage the fact that the minimum parcel size is huge and the economic and political logics have been inflated to benefit privatization,” he says. “Without advancing housing and lending policies and subsidies, we cannot advance design.”
I'd add that without advancing, say, healthcare, contraception, abortion, sexual autonomy, and marriage as basic rights, the physical and conceptual space of neighborhoods is going to be less important than the stress and misery of the people who live in them. The problem isn't simply that housing and space aren't properly designed; it's that human beings (and women too, naturally) are so devalued and debased by the formal denial of rights and autonomy and compassion that their surroundings hardly matter. If you want to move towards a society of "non-ownership," a good first step would be to affirm people's ownership of their own bodies.