Search results for "Ludwig Hilberseimer"
A Little More
Mies's Lafayette Park gets first new project in 40 years
From Broadacre to Agronica
Charles Waldheim on the "profound implications" on urban farming for cities today
This article appeared as "Notes Towards a History of Agrarian Urbanism" in urbanNext, and was first published in Bracket 1 [on Farming], 2010.
If Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is correct, the twentieth century will have been no more than an anomaly: a brief interruption in the systemic logic of capitalism, where the inherent accretion of capital through capital remains an unbreakable cycle. Piketty’s analysis is exceedingly simple. He identifies two basic economic categories: income and wealth. He then proceeds to define social (in)equality as a function of the relation between the two over time, concluding that as soon as the return on wealth exceeds the return on labor, social inequality inevitably increases. Those who acquire wealth through work fall ever further behind those who accumulate wealth simply by owning it. Only during the twentieth century—under the pressure of two world wars, social unrest, revolutions, labor unions, and the daunting presence of a global alternative to the capitalist system in the form of a (former) communist world—was capital briefly surpassed by labor as the prime means to accumulate wealth. Piketty’s theory may have social and cultural implications beyond our wildest imagination. In the twenty-first century, inherited wealth could become the defining factor of class distinction once more, reducing any notion of social mobility to a remote possibility at best.
Ekaterina Izmestieva / Courtesy Strelka Institute
Although my training as an architect makes me utterly unqualified to comment on Piketty’s economic theories, I cannot help but notice the resonance between Piketty’s narrative of economic history and the story of my own profession. If one studies the history of architecture, and particularly that of the last century, a striking confluence emerges between what Piketty identifies as the period of the great social mobility and the emergence of the modern movement in architecture. From Le Corbusier to Ludwig Hilberseimer, from the Smithsons to Jaap Bakema: after reading Piketty, it becomes difficult to view the ideologies of modern architecture as anything other than the dream of social mobility captured in concrete.
The resonance of Piketty’s historic analysis of capital with the progression of architectural history is eerie. The first intersection, economic output exceeding the returns on capital just prior to World War I, clearly coincides with the emergence of the avant-garde, but the resonance even applies at a more subtle level within the twentieth century itself. From the early to mid-1970s, for the first time in the twentieth century, the lead of economic output over the returns on capital begins to diminish. And towards the end of the 1970s, a different political wind begins to blow. The conservative revolution first sweeps America and later Europe, forcing an agenda of economic liberalization and the slashing of government spending. The size of the public sector is steadily reduced and large public housing projects become a thing of the past.
This period essentially and concurrently marks the end of an unfettered belief in the merits of modern architecture. In 1972, the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex in St. Louis is demolished, an event that is generally heralded by critics as the end of modern architecture and, on a larger scale, the end of modern utopian visions for the city. After the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe, the confidence in the architectural profession is severely shaken. The mood becomes pensive and the major seminal works of architecture are no longer plans but books, no longer visions but reflections. It is telling that the most noteworthy architectural manifesto of 1989, the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the onset of an uncontested global rule of capitalism, is A Vision of Britain by Prince Charles. The modern age prefigured in The Futurist Manifesto, at the tail end of the ottocento with its hereditary hegemonies, ironically concludes with an anti-modern manifesto written by a member of the British Royal Family.
If the egalitarian climate of the 1960s and ‘70s had made modern architecture generally unpopular, the neoliberal policies of the ‘80s and ‘90s made it obsolete. The initiative to construct the city comes to reside increasingly with the private sector. “Thought production” by the architectural profession, in the form of theoretical manifestoes or wholesale urban visions, gradually comes to a standstill. The very grain through which the city is constructed changes. Large interventions in the city, using public housing projects as the texture from which to compose a new and alternative urban fabric, become virtually impossible. As part of a wholesale privatization program, public housing associations are privatized and home ownership takes a dramatic rise. By transforming large sections of society from tenants into homeowners, the prevailing powers also hope to garner political sway. As soon as people own their homes, a mortgage will give them a vested interest in keeping interest rates and inflation down. Locked into an inescapable financial reality, they will have little alternative but to sympathize with the economic agenda of the right.
In the 1980s, the built environment and particularly housing start to acquire a fundamentally different role, from a means to provide shelter to a means to generate financial return. A building is no longer something to use, but to own (with the hope of increased asset-value, rather than use-value, over time). Buildings become part of an economic exchange cycle: conceived for the lowest possible cost, traded for the highest possible sum. In this context, modern architecture’s original mission, an affordable living standard for all, largely proves counterproductive. From here on, modern architecture can only survive when stripped of its ideological dimension; only once it relinquishes its emancipatory pretentions can its aesthetics of reduction be used to the full advantage of the economic system. Under the imperatives of the market economy (maximizing profit), the contemporary home must be cheap to build, but should never be cheap to buy. Modernism evolves into a style because, as in the fashion industry, it is above all the idea of style that suspends (almost like a state of hypnosis) any awareness of a relation between production cost and selling price.
It is not just newly built projects that are affected by this trend. The recent fire sale of council property in Central London boroughs is indicative of the same process. After the first generation of tenants is offered to purchase their rental apartments at subsidized rates, the next round of sales quickly conforms to market rates, generally making the apartments unaffordable for the income groups for whom they were originally intended. Where previously inner city modernist projects were primarily reserved for low and middle incomes—cheap to build, cheap to rent—we currently see the opposite trend, where they are increasingly the domain of the rich. Trellick Tower, a 31-story building with 217 flats in North Kensington, built in 1972 and very familiar to architects, long had a reputation for anti-social behavior and crime. Following the introduction of the “right to buy” council homes in the mid-1980s, many of the flats were bought by the tenants. A new residents’ association was formed and several security improvements were undertaken, including the employment of a concierge. After the building’s Grade II* listing in 1998, property prices rose sharply and flats in the tower came to be regarded as highly desirable residences. Despite serious technical problems within the building, properties in the tower have sold for between £250,000 for a small one bedroom flat to £480,000 for a fully refurbished three bedroom flat. The maximum obtainable mortgage on an average annual gross income of £32,188 in the UK in 2014 was £152,000.
Central London is not the only place affected by this phenomenon. Park Hill, a council estate built in 1957 in Sheffield, North Yorkshire, went into decay in the 1970s. In 1998 the complex was Grade II* listed. Following this, English Heritage in collaboration with a private developer launched a renovation scheme to turn the flats into upmarket apartments and business units. The renovation was one of the six shortlisted projects for the 2013 RIBA Stirling Prize. According to Sheffield’s own website, the city has “the lowest annual average salary of UK’s core cities” at around £24,000, allowing a maximum mortgage of around £115,000. Outside the UK, the original units of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation are currently being sold for: €151,000 (for a 31-square-meter studio); €350,000 (for a three bedroom flat) and €418,000 (for a four bedroom flat). The average annual wage in France is €30,300, allowing a maximum mortgage just shy of €120,000.
If we are to believe Piketty, we may well be on the way back to a patrimonial form of capitalism. With that, modern architecture’s social mission—the effort to establish a decent standard of living for all—seems a thing of the past. The existenzminimum: the establishment of a universally acceptable minimum standard of living in the twentieth century seems to have become a privileged condition in the twenty-first. Architecture is perhaps more than ever a tool of capital, complicit in a purpose antithetical to its erstwhile ideological endeavor. Fifteen years into the new millennium, it is as though the previous century never happened. For Trellick Tower, Park Hill, l’Unité d’Habitation, the same architecture that once embodied social mobility in béton brut now helps to prevent it. The twentieth century taught us that utopian thinking can have precarious consequences, but if the course of history is dialectic, what follows? Will the twenty-first century mark the absence of utopias? And if so, what are the dangers of that?
After more than 15 years as dean at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s (IIT) College of Architecture, Donna Robertson is stepping down at the end of this year. AN’s Midwest editor, Alan G. Brake, asked Robertson to look back on her accomplishments at the school, as well as the changes in Chicago’s architecture culture and built environment over the last decade and a half. After this year, she intends to continue teaching at IIT as well as focus on her practice, Robertson McAnulty Architects, and take an active role in Chicago’s civic affairs, including historic preservation, an issue of particular interest to her.
Why did you decide to step down now?
I had completed 15 years and that seemed like a good number. I also didn’t want to challenge Mies, who was dean for 20 years.
What do you consider to be your most significant accomplishments as dean?
The whole topic of Mies and beyond, which was an architectural question, played out in the continued dialogue of updating the campus. It was also a pedagogical question. I wanted to take the best ideas of the curriculum but not be bound by it. The big ongoing project was building a stellar faculty to execute that.
How did you go about building the faculty?
When I came in there were two main generations of faculty: people who had been taught by Mies and those who were brought in under Gene Summer’s deanship. There was some antipathy in the beginning, but we quickly discovered a lot of commonalities. It took some time to bring people together; my first effort was really leading the dialogue among the faculty to make us an academic community. Once that was underway, I then brought in the new generation: Jeanne Gang, John Ronan, Mark Schendel, Martin Felsen, and others.
We wrote up the undergraduate curriculum in my first year. That solidified the undergraduate degree, particularly the studio sequence. The graduate sequence was only updated recently. Now studio classes and the other courses support each other.
What were some other highlights of your tenure?
At the end-of-year show in my first year, some wag moved the bust of Mies into the center court—where I had thought the best work should be shown—and then tied a blindfold over Mies’ eyes to show that he would be ashamed of the work the school was producing, which of course he wouldn’t have been. That was pretty fun.
We’ve had other moments of excitement, such as when our students won the Art Institute’s Schiff Fellowship.
Another highlight was starting the landscape program, which was accredited the first year it went up for review.
Why did you decide to start a landscape program?
There was an appreciation for landscape among the Miesians. Ludwig Hilberseimer and Alfred Caldwell both taught in the school.
We’re still the only landscape architecture program in Chicago. This is a city that is so enamored with landscape. Not only is landscape design highly valued here, but there aren’t enough landscape architects in this city to fill the need.
How has the experience of working on the campus been?
It’s been fantastic. We’ve been working on how to rehabilitate the campus, building the first new buildings in 30 years and demonstrating that the university is still building important new architecture.
If you hadn’t known the campus in 1996, you’d have had a hard time imagining the difference. Today, the campus is livelier and the students are more engaged. The Koolhaas Student Center has transformed the quality of student life. That building got them to lift up their gaze and find each other.
We wanted to announce that IIT is going to build the buildings you want to watch, with both the OMA building and the Helmut Jahn dormitory. We had to build the Jahn building really fast, as enrollment was climbing. So we conducted a limited, local competition, and I think the result is really wonderful.
What are the challenges the new dean will likely face?
With a new dean, the main challenge will be defining the next era for the discipline. We as a school haven’t suffered yet from the continued unemployment in our discipline, but that is something rumbling on the horizon. I’m interested in how architectural education can be applied more broadly, expanding employment opportunity beyond just building buildings.
As the economy comes back, we want to get back to building out the campus plan. Add a new recreation center, a new science lab building, restore the chapel, work on the main building, among other projects. There will be more landscape improvements. The business school is moving to campus. It’s going to occupy existing space, but it will be a great addition. The whole redevelopment of the 35th Street corridor. Most of that has been out of our hands, but we will participate in the planning.
There have been tremendous changes on the near South Side. Has IIT been active enough in the area?
It’s been the most active of any university I’ve ever worked with. Everyone has very serious intentions. We’ve partnered with Bronzeville. We have an associate vice president for community affairs and outreach. We always have studios that relate to the surrounding neighborhoods. We are doing a classroom for an urban agriculture program in the area. Our plan for Dunbar Park, to the immediate northwest of our campus, is being built out. We’ve built commercial housing on our acreage, which was opened to faculty and is helping to bring the population back.
IIT works closely with neighboring institutions, the White Sox, the churches, and the other educational institutions. We’re currently studying the commercial entities that impact both our students and the neighbors. We celebrated finally getting the Metra stop in. The university worked with the neighbors on that for decades.
You came to Chicago from New York and New Orleans. How has the city changed in the last decade and a half?
I love Chicago’s lively design culture. When I came here, it was in the doldrums. I’ve seen it grow and flourish. Chicago is a great place to start a practice. It’s a very supportive design culture. We want to see people succeed and find engagement with the community.
There’s also been a profound shift in architectural taste. It was all very New Urbanist/Pomo. The most visible first shot was the mayor embracing the Frank Gehry band shell and Soldier Field for all its controversy. Taste has shifted toward more abstract, more experimental forms. There’s an appreciation of the new and for the trajectory of modernism, as well as a growing interest in landscape design and preservation and rehabilitation.
The IIT campus is one of many modernist developments on the near South Side. Modernist buildings have met with a mix of fates in many of these areas, some of which have been restored while others have been destroyed. What does this say about the appreciation of modernism in Chicago?
It’s a really interesting question. Skidmore’s white towers, the Michael Reese campus… There was a lot built at a time of utopian euphoria—the scale of thinking and the scale of execution were so large. Some succeeded and others failed. It’s easy to argue that the commercially viable projects succeeded, but public housing did not. But that’s not universally true. The Chicago Housing Authority has beautifully restored the Bertrand Goldberg towers and spruced up others.
We’ll see how they go with the third-third-third program [the ratio of public, affordable, and market-rate housing that’s being used to rebuild on the tracts of land where public housing projects once stood]. It’s hard to comment yet on its degree of success.
What excites you about Chicago today?
One of the things that blew me away when I came here was to see how Chicago really is “The City That Works.” For example, they relocated Lakeshore Drive for the Museum Campus. It was very exciting to see the will, the drive, and the patience to engineer and execute large-scale projects. There’s a whole coalescing of civic energies to continuously improve the city. The Bloomingdale Trail and Millennium Park are possible here. Columbia College, for instance, has done a beautiful job with a major quadrant of the city. The recent attention to the boulevards—what to do with Northerly Island: these are very important questions. Our projects generally do get done. I really do think they’re going to pull off the Bloomingdale Trail.
Then there are the continued improvements to the Loop itself, where the pattern of its use has changed over time. Attention to the visitor community, as well as the commercial community, has really transformed people’s experience of the city. The developments that are happening in other neighborhoods—Bucktown ten years ago, now Pilsen and Bridgeport—this awareness that Chicagoans have in their built environment is really gratifying.
Being at IIT has been an enormous gift for me. I can’t think of a more interesting school, with students from around the world. It’s a laboratory, a place of inquiry. The city is such a place of design excellence—it’s been a very stimulating place to be.