Buildings, Communities, Cities: Things Fall Apart
Ice caps are rapidly receding; one of America’s two political parties is actively undermining federal authority; despite new materials and additive manufacturing, most houses constructed today are built much as they were several generations ago; the pathological suburbanization of the nation continues unabated. In the face of this and more, it seems, “the center cannot hold.” Such were several of the issues that prompted Keith Krumwiede, a soon-to-be fellow at the American Academy in Rome (AAR) at the time, to argue in 2017 that if a single detached house for every family is at the core of “The American Dream,” then we need a new dream.
As U.S. institutions struggle to survive amid rapidly shifting values in an increasingly polarized body politic, revisiting Krumwiede’s call for a new American Dream from a half-decade ago opens a window onto post-pandemic issues not possible when it was first published. Dreams are nettlesome things, however, not easily dismissed for a single person, let alone the collective dreaming of 350 million. Krumwiede posits that Americans will abandon the detached single-family house, propelled toward the collective, owing to sustained rates of high unemployment, creating more “leisure time” and therefore freeing us “from the obligation to sell our labor in order to survive, [unearthing] … other forms of human association, and of course other ways of living.” For Krumwiede—who returned from Rome as the dean at San Francisco’s California College of the Arts (CCA)—these “other forms” and “ways” inexorably lead to collective living.
A year or so prior to Krumwiede’s article (and related book), Neeraj Bhatia launched the Urban Works Agency at the CCA, with associated faculty from within the college and other North American universities. Bhatia’s studios have explored the political, formal, and spatial dynamics of housing, and he recently lectured on the topic, “Forming Life in Common,” at The Cooper Union in New York. In his virtual lecture, he used the neologism of “commoning.” By verbing the noun “common” (a space for public use), Bhatia extends the Marxist theme fundamental to Krumwiede’s earlier thesis: “’[C]ommoning entails the active participation in the mechanisms of sharing, including the shaping of rules that sustain the commons and exploring the emancipating potentials of sharing.”
The idea of living in and around a commons, is, of course, substantially different from living in common, akin to the ancient monastic model. At times, the Urban Works Agency uses the German Baugruppen, as in “an assembly,” but the notion is the same. The question remains: How does one square the ancient, secular model centered on a commonly held space with the historically sacred model of all things held in common?
An agrarian commons stretches back at least to the Middle Ages and was part of the colonization of North America. It’s the basis of the Dutch word landskip, a shared and protected space from which the English “landscape” was derived. This notion of community in the landskip was based less on shared religion (the Roman model) than on survival in the wild. Landskip was the anti-wild. In the ancient Roman state, the combined family and gens was a virtual landskip, protection from the wild-ness within the city walls. A millennium after the fall of the empire, the landskip was protection from the wild of everything outside the city walls. The motivation for each is clear. Less so in “commoning” and the argument against private ownership and personal industry, both central to the American Dream, whether or not one buys into the whole lot.
Both Bhatia and Krumwiede seem to proffer that the best way to promote the dismantling of private land ownership and promote the general approbation of common living spaces is through architectural design. For example, it’s one thing for Pier Vittorio Aureli (whom Bhatia cites in an early project brief) to advance that he finds interior space more interesting politically because it is a miniature version of the city (a curious claim, as Leon Battista Alberti first made the analogy in 1450), and quite another to suggest that we can redesign cities by rethinking interiors.
At the turn of the 20th century, in Stilarchitektur und Baukunst, Hermann Muthesius warned against such blinkered thinking, explaining that before the general public could accept modern design generally, it must first be accepted domestically, in the interior of one’s home. To achieve that, he explained, one must first feel at home with the modern; the interior must not threaten, but somehow feel welcoming.
If history teaches us anything, it is that good design cannot fix a bad idea any more than architecture can change architecture. Muthesius understood that people and the body politic change the course of architecture, inside and out, just as the shape of cities are largely the function of building codes and zoning regulations adopted by the body politic, not any single architectural agenda.
That codes and regulations tend to serve an elite over the greater good is a debate worth having. The focus, however, ought to be on reverse-engineering the regulations that hamstring the greater good, not simply one’s personal desire for self-expression. Moreover, feeling safe and welcomed has long been associated with boundaries and personal space, notions made problematic in the commoning of the post–American Dream. Bhatia and Krumwiede are situated, fortunately, in San Francisco, which, owing to the unintended consequences of the pandemic, has become a “stress test” of sorts, of American urbanism. It seems the perfect place for researchers of their ilk to affect positive change in the world of grit and knit.
A December 2022 New York Times article, “What Comes Next for the Most Empty Downtown in America,” hyperbolically represented San Francisco as the set for a Walking Dead episode. Sidewalks largely empty of pedestrians, streets all but absent automobiles, a few lights on, but nobody home. Yet the article rightly documented that many of the city’s office buildings (“home” to a now-remote-workforce) are substantially underoccupied, and the city center seems a bit hollowed out. While “things fall apart,” they are not quite as frightful in America’s 14th largest city as the Times article would suggest. Perhaps as a sign of solidarity, the 2023 national AIA conference will be convening there early next month.
There’s nothing new in proposing that many of America’s unoccupied office buildings ought to be reoccupied as housing, which is far healthier for any city. Domestic space is theoretically 24 hours rather than the 8-to-10-hour appearance of the commuting worker. Technically, retrofitting office floor plates as housing isn’t easily realized, particularly in buildings that span several generations of construction types with rigorous earthquake standards. Yet should even half be repurposed, the long-term reverberations on the city would be immeasurable. Crises are invariably opportunities: increasing affordable housing in a city long bereft of it is just one example.
The more normative electronic communities become, the more threatening seems this crisis of health, not only for our personal bodies and minds, but for the body politic and the American public sphere.
Beyond San Francisco, the post-pandemic economy is compounded by “The Great Resignation,” creating massive increases in “leisure time,” freeing many “from the obligation to sell [their] labor in order to survive, [unearthing] … other forms of human association.” Yet many have found these new associations wanting, as personal isolation has increased and reasons to come together in public/civic spaces have dwindled. The nation’s surgeon general, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, in a recent New York Times essay, wrote in very personal terms about the distinction of being alone, and loneliness, the latter being akin to a national health crisis. The more normative electronic communities become, the more threatening seems this crisis of health, not only for our personal bodies and minds, but for the body politic and the American public sphere, where the commons, politics, law, and culture were born.
This is yet another way that democracies can die. Not on loud battlefields against foreign forces, but in quiet, domestic isolation, sequestered with emoticons and absent signifiers. For many, dreaming a New America means doubling down on the old one, insofar as it supports the production of viable public and civic spaces, affordable dwellings, and healthier, safer, more equitable and welcoming communities. If America can produce and sustain such things, this would be not a commoning, but a communing of “a more perfect union.” Things fall apart, but they also can be fixed.
Featured image via the Dallas Morning News.