Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Outward and onward

Fritz Lang seduced Weimar audiences (as well as a few contemporary film critics) with his bold vision of the future city and architecture in Metropolis (review). Tall towers reach to the sky; automobiles move high above the ground on raised highways; biplanes weaving between the buildings; the workers toil far below on the sunless surface. Lang had taken his impression of the New York cityscape to the extreme. The design elements (as well as the robot) often overpower a conventional story about labor relations as well as a much needed message about moderation and mediation.



Lang had the opportunity to see the true future city unfold before his eyes when he hid from the Nazis in Los Angeles and filmed thoughtful noires. Against the backdrop of criticism and the decline of the efficient Red Car system (links to histories and bibliographies) (immortalized by another film, Who framed Roger Rabbit?), Los Angeles broke from the pattern of American cities reaching to the sky to create, what Edward Soja has called, the postmodern city.

But here is the kicker: Los Angeles is the densest city in the United States (HT: Kevin Drum).
Los Angeles is not a particularly good example of urban sprawl. Take the part about being unplanned. The truth is that New York, Chicago and most of the older American cities had their greatest growth before there was anything resembling real public planning; the most basic American land planning tool, zoning, did not come into widespread use until the 1920s.

L.A., by contrast, was one of the country's zoning pioneers. It has had most of its growth since the 1920s, during a period when planning was already important, and particularly since World War II, when California cities have been subject to more planning than cities virtually anywhere else in the country.



Then there is the part about how the city is too dispersed. Although it is true that the Los Angeles region in its early years had widely scattered settlements, these settlements were not particularly low in density. Since World War II, moreover, the density of the Los Angeles region has climbed dramatically, while that of older cities in the North and East has plummeted. The result is that today the Los Angeles urbanized area, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau, has just over 7,000 people per square mile — by a fair margin the densest in the United States.
Perhaps that should have been obvious. In the absence of high-rise appartments and office buildings (except in a few places) Angelenos settled into a pattern of narrow plots of land that limited the amount of undeveloped space. My wife calls them "postage stamps." But it also kept houses close together.

Technology, once used to drive human beings, air and power upward and light downward and inward, allowed people to move outward and away from one another, sometime isolating themselves from each other in otherwise contiguous spaces. The city retained its importance, as William J. Mitchell has written, by creating contexts for social and cultural relations -- spaces wherein signs and relationships find meaning:
Architecture no longer can (if it ever could) be understood as an autonomous medium of mass, space and light, but now serves as the constructed ground for encountering and extracting meaning from cross-connected flows of aural, textual and graphic, and digital information through global networks.
The skyscrapers that have been built outside already built up areas (as in Southeast Asia) represent prestige rather than utility. As the topography of ideas has been raised by technology, the topography of architecture has decreased.

Sprawl, as Geinter has noted, has been part of the urban tradition. Even to some degree urbanization avoided, as much as possible, increasing heights, both for health reasons and to maintain the visual character of the city (as I wrote here about Paris). The preoccupation of urban planners in Europe was to allow as much open space as possible so that light and air can get to street level, and the monumental architecture was still visible. Indeed, if there is anything tall in Berlin, it is either a shopping center in the west or a piece of technology in the east.

How funny that if it were not for the smog (as much a result of geography as the automobile), Los Angeles would have achieved these health concerns. What Los Angeles did not do, as is the cases of suburban sprawl, is drive people away from one another. A density of social relations still exists.

The stratospheric city may have been an historical phase in which the quest for prestige and utility found common ground upon which to build and the legitimacy to overcome public health concerns. It gave way to the edgeless city, driving outward rather than upward.

Links:

[ETA:] Eb has a few thoughts about the same LA Times article.

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