LA’s Forties – a talk for Salon London

noirHere is an edited version of a talk I gave on 7 November for Salon London‘s ‘The Century’ event: 

So which city is 1940s Los Angeles, ‘sunshine or noir’ as Mike Davis put it? The great beach metropolis, light-soaked and perpetually optimistic? Or the dank, furtive city of Cain and Chandler that in the movies looks more like Engels’s Manchester than anything else (it’s always raining for a start, a trick Ridley Scott borrowed for Blade Runner). Well it’s both, of course, but at different times sunshine wins out over noir, at least in cultural terms. In the 1940s it’s certainly noir (…)

It is the Freudian city par excellence, a city defined by its unconscious. Whether or not you buy into Freud doesn’t matter: it’s literally a city full of Viennese emigrees who absolutely did. The compelling and influential culture of noir was an explicitly Freudian culture, produced by artists and writers and film-makers for whom psychoanalysis was alive. Knowing that, and knowing just how much of LA’s distinctive culture in the 1940s was produced by middle-European Jewish intellectuals explains a great deal: it’s noir rather than sunshine and couldn’t have been any other way.

Noir is sometimes produced intentionally and self-consciously, in the case of the novels of Raymond Chandler or the films of Billy Wilder. Or it may be unintentional, but no less affecting. My introduction to LA noir came through one of these unintentional products, a building, the Kings Rd house by Rudolf Schindler, a Viennese, who collaborated with the better known Richard Neutra Built in 1922, it is, you could say, emblematic of a set of typically Californian desires: to be modern, to suck up influences from anywhere, and most of all, to be outdoors. It consists of two interlocking, L-shaped pavilions. The structure is cast concrete, the walls and roof wood. It’s more than a little Japanese.

What struck me about it when I first saw it ten years ago was was the architecture, than its sexuality. Built for two couples, the Schindlers and the Chaces, it built on the memory of camping trips the two couples had taken together, and although nowhere it is suggested they shared sexual partners, the house nevertheless alludes to their sexual frankness (Schindler’s sexual appetites were well known. A notorious womaniser, no Southern Californian woman was safe). So the house is largely open to the elements. The living room is really an open patio with a fireplace, and the bedrooms are two sleeping platforms on the roof. You get the idea – everything is open to everything else, everything can be seen and heard. There is no privacy.

So why mention the house in the context of the 1940s? Well – it’s at this point that the sexual dream of the house well and truly soured. It never worked anyway: the Chaces moved out after only a few months, and then the Schindlers split, Pauline Schindler moving out of town. And then, having separated, she came back to live in the house in the 40s. The now divorced couple lived in separate parts of the house, communicating only through their respective lawyers. It was an appalling sexual standoff that lasted the whole decade and beyond, until Schindler’s death from lung cancer in 1953.

To me this story says it all about LA in the 40s. A utopian dream soured, light turned to darkness, sex gone bad. Of course it’s one house and one story in a vast city, but it is the kind of story that became increasingly popular with writers and film-makers. In Hollywood it became arguably the dominant trope.

ADORNO/HORKHEIMER

Noir LA was also the subtext to a notorious, or celebrated (depending on your point of view) piece of cultural theory by the exiled Germans Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’. It’s relevant because it was published bang in the middle of the decade (1944) and its authors were resident just a few miles from Schindler’s house. Cultural studies people love this essay. I’m never quite sure why, because it is possibly the angriest piece of writing you are every likely to come across, outside of a Daily Mail editorial (to which it bears a passing resemblance). All aspects of popular culture are dismissed: mass-produced trash, popular culture is also they write, borderline propaganda that makes independent thought impossible. Their LA is by inference as controlling as Nazi Germany.

It all seems a little unfair given their comfortable duplex in Brentwood (to be fair they were under effective house arrest). And their critique, dismayingly, shows no evidence of their actually having consumed any of the things that make them so angry. So they write if the whole of Hollywood, despite the fact that at precisely the same moment it was producing film after film in a highly critical vein. Why let facts get in the way of a good story? Most depressingly they dismiss jazz, all of it. And worst of all, Donald Duck.

But the piece is nevertheless interesting for its psychosexual dimension, a running theme through 1940s culture. Sex, they write is everywhere in popular culture, citing the way it suffuses the movies. It’s perhaps the only topic in the movies. But while it’s everywhere, it’s also compromised: it only ever appears as promise, never actuality, for to let it be, as it were, would be to satisfy desire, and satisfaction of course curtails consumption. The culture industry, they write, must never satisfy desire; it must inflame it, but always leave its customers wanting more. Precisely how culture might deal with sexual desire more authentically isn’t made clear. They weren’t looking at pornography, which is a pity: that might have challenged their views of popular culture. But what is interesting is how they understand the field of sexuality in 1940s LA as fundamentally perverse. The desire is there, but it can never be satisfied; it’s always compromised and corrupted; always bad.

DOUBLE INDEMNITY

Well there’s certainly some truth in that. By the1940s, this perverse view of sex has starts to become a major topic in cinema. There remains an open question about its ethics: for Adorno, perverse sex was represented to moral ends. In other words, bad behaviour gets punished, typically female bad behaviour. But I think this is too simplistic. In the films I’m going to describe, the protagonists are perverse in terms of what they do. They have sex for pleasure, often with multiple partners. They care little for family. Their sexual activities often get them into trouble. And sex and death are inescapably connected. That said the characters in these films are among the most attractive in cinematic history, and through that attractiveness, and our identification with them, we have – in the best films – a sense of the complexity of human existence.

‘Noir’ is a slippery term, one that didn’t appear in usage until sometime after its key films were made, and it was used in the first instance (1946) by A French critic, Nino Frank who to some extent projected his desires onto what he saw. There wasn’t a consumer category of ‘noir’ in 1940s LA: you didn’t, for example, set out deliberately to see a ‘noir’ in the same way as you would choose to see a romance.

Nevertheless a distinct style of film-making emerged at the time. Amomg the many definitions of noir, the most useful I’ve found is Paul Schrader’s from 1972. He says (I paraphrase) the following: (1) it’s always night; (2) horizontal lines are out; oblige angles are in; (3) the actors and their settings are of equal importance; (4) ‘compositional tension is preferred to physical action’ (i.e. no explosions); (5) ‘there is an almost Freudian attachment to water’; (6) there is an attraction to hopeless romantic scenarios, temps perdus etc; (7) chronologies are messed up. Almost all of these are relevant to the perverse LA that emerges in the 1940s. This is, in popular culture at least, a city that is made to resist the story of progress.

Double Indemnity, directed by the Austrian émigré Billy Wilder. The script was originally a James Cain novel, adapted by a grumpy Raymond Chandler (Chandler thought Cain was rubbish). It’s a great noir film, perhaps the greatest – and also a great LA film. It tells the story of an insurance salesman Walter Neff (played by Fred MacMurray) who finds himself entangled with an amoral, psychopathic housewife, Phyllis Dietrichson (played by Barbara Stanwyck), who is bent on murdering her alcoholic husband for the payout. Neff, a cynical tough guy, calls on Dietrichson in response to her request for a quote. When it transpires she’s out for the money, Neff backs off – only to become ensnared when she calls on him later and seduces him into complicity. Out of a feral attraction to her, and (one senses) his own boredom, he takes on the task with relish, embellishing the murder to ensure it takes place on a train – that unusual site of death results, he points out, carries a double indemnity, meaning a double payout. They carry out the task, and subsequently, through an increasingly anxious narrative it becomes clear Dietrichson has no feelings for Neff; in the penultimate scene she shoots him, only to be shot herself in by her lover. The final scene has Neff expire in the arms of his boss, Barton Keyes (played by Edward G Robinson) as he dictates his version of the story to tape.

There is a striking visual quality to the whole film, that is true of noir in general, but well advanced here. It’s always dark, for starters: a city of more or less perpetual sunshine appears in the movie in more or less perpetual darkness. Daylight, where it appears at all, refracts though venetian blinds, or rain. It rains far more in the movies than in reality: LA is technically a desert city, under constant threat of drought, then as now.

As well as dark, it’s always inside. The sunnier accounts of LA, for example Reyner Banham’s amazing book on the subject I mentioned earlier, portray a city constantly out of doors, never far from contact with nature: Banham’s TV film Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles depicts a city of the beach, of the freeways and of expansive views from the Holywood Hills: the sense of light and space and nature is infectious and seductive. Double Indemnitys action invariably takes place at close quarters. Interiors are dark, stuffy and claustrophobic. You never get a view out. The city dissolves into a set of dark fragments.

This perversion of atmospheres, this making the familiar uncanny occurs repeatedly, turning ordinary spaces into extraordinary ones. Nothing – in the great cliché – is as it seems. Perhaps the most imaginative example of this defamiliarisation occurs in the supermarket. Its role in Double Indemnity is to provide, post-murder, the safe space for Neff and Dietrichson to meet. Their encounters are excruciating: avoiding each other’s gaze, they hiss through pursed lips, distractedly pawing cans of baked beans, trying (but failing) to avoid engagement with the other customers. The safe space of the supermarket becomes an ever more anxiety laden one, the space where they come to talk about things that cannot in reality be talked about; the abundance of groceries, meant by the store to represent a benign freedom of choice, comes to be just overwhelming. A middle aged woman’s request to Neff for a package of baby food is not, as it ought to be, an opportunity for kindness; it is the last straw.

That perversion of the city leads us to the question of sex, for this is a film that is motivated by pursuing and having sex, but ultimately to its perversion. Neff first meets Dietrichson at her home, where he first catches sight of her as she emerges from a bath (exploiting the sense of her recent nakedness for all it is worth). That is a straightforward sense of sex. More perverse is what happens next, as she descends a spiral staircase, revealing her ankle bracelet as she does; the camera (and by implication Neff’s gaze) fixates on this piece of jewellery, which by the time she has reached ground level, has become, without doubt a Freudian fetish object – which is to say a stand-in for sexual experience, an object that is associated with a particular sexual experience and can produce feelings of arousal because of that association, to the point at which it displaces the real sexual experience altogether.

I think Billy Wilder knew his Freud well enough. He was a Viennese after all. I wonder if he knew Freud’s essay ‘Jensen’s Gradiva’, an account of a bizarre Danish novella in which the protagonist, a male archeologist becomes obsessed with the exposed ankle of a Roman girl, illustrated on a Pompeian mosaic. The girl’s ankle becomes an obsession, a fetish – to the horrifying extent that the archaeologist finds the girl come to life. Nothing so bizarre happens to Neff, but in a way, his fetish has more terrible consequences. It is his memory of Deitrichson’s ankle bracelet that softens his resolve; his palpable arousal leads him to murder.

Well, the Neff/Dietrichson relationship winds its perverse course through the rest of the film. Each moment that contains the potential for resolution finds subversion instead; as the pair remove obstacles to their being together, they find themselves paradoxically further alienated from each other; what should be moments of intimacy are moments of shocking estrangement. We slowly come to realise that the only true moment of intimacy, the seduction scene in Neff’s stuffy apartment, is in fact the pretext for the murder conspiracy – and Dietrichson turns out to be a sexual double agent, responsible ultimately for Neff’s murder. So it goes – towards the end of the film, it becomes clear that the only true relationship is in fact a homosexual one, between Neff and his boss, the tenacious, neurotic Keyes ‘I love you too’ ne says to Keys more than once, a piece of banter exchanged at moments of routine stress. But the final scene turns it – almost – into a reality: Keys cradles a sweating Neff as he sinks into death; they look like, and effectively are, lovers.

Wilder went on to refine these themes in Sunset Boulevard (1950) a tale of perverse love affair between a failing young scriptwriter and a forgotten screen actress (William Holden/Gloria Swanson), set in a semi-derelict mansion on the upper reaches of Sunset Boulvard: like Double Indemnity it portrays a city of interiors, or perpetual night and sexual perversity in which desire and death are never very far from each other, and no-one ever really gets what they want. These films also describe a precarious and anxious city, full of transients pitching for opportunities, and rarely getting them. The forties are arguably the decade this perverse culture crystallises as part of the city’s culture, and I would argue, makes the city all the better. Great cities sustain complexity and contradiction, and it’s striking to anyone who knows LA how contradiction is a part of the city’s everyday culture: it’s both/and, not either /or and all the better for it. LA’s 40s are a terrible decade, you might say, but also a beautiful one.

The Deal

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What you’re looking at is one of the towers of Lasalle College, a small private art school in central Singapore. Built in 2007 to a design by RSP, it was extensively funded by the Singaporean government who have been enthusiastic promotors of all things ‘creative’ since the early 2000s. Of all the things I saw in Singapore last week, this was perhaps the most thought-provoking, less for the architecture (which is undeniably spectacular) than for the attitude that it embodies. It makes a simple deal: accept that the arts are in the service of the national project, and they will be funded with an inconceivable generosity.

The deal is legible enough in the window vinyls, the words ‘excellence’, ‘spectacle’ and ‘critique’ screaming out the message. For many UK humanities academics, this kind of of sloganising is simply grotesque: aren’t these words supposed to be a means of interrogating the very things they seem here to support? You can picture a generation of cultural studies scholars with their heads in their hands.

That reaction, to my mind, would miss the subtlety of the deal. Of course ‘spectacle’ and ‘critique’ and all those other words shouldn’t be turned into mere decoration. But I doubt those words are really much more than decoration in any of the work we might do in the west, the business of naming being, after all, a form of commodification (and where would critical theory be without all those publishers making a business from it?). Lasalle abruptly challenges that myth. To believe in the myth, you have to cling onto the comforting idea the arts can be somehow stand ‘outside’ society too, a zone of freedom beyond the reach of government.

That freedom would be nice were it real, but my twitter feed during the period I was away suggested that my world was in fact a narrow and censorious one. Too often last week, my academic freedom seemed to be the freedom to agree with a majority view.

Lasalle’s windows inadvertently say the unsayable: our freedom is conditional on complicity. It’s discomforting for westerners, but in Singapore’s case, for 50 years, the government has been adept at meeting its part of the deal, remarkably so. It houses and feeds its citizens better than any European country I can think of (certainly Scotland, whose record on both is scandalously awful). Of course, Singapore’s wheels may well be coming off, as two NUS academics, Donald Low and Sudhir Vadaketh, have argued in an excellent new book. But for the time being, Singapore remains a compelling, if troubling example.

Are You A NEW METROPOLITAN?

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Life has been a bit quiet in these parts because we have been busy with thenewmetropolitan.com A new web magazine about cities and citizenship, it brings together people from across the University of Edinburgh as well as half a dozen European institutions. It’s finding its way, but the hope is we develop a distinctive, but independent voice. Above all, we hope it looks good. Tell us what you think, the good and the bad. And if you want to contribute,  just say. We’re all ears.

The Urban History Man. Richard J. Williams interviewed by Richard J. Williams

IMG_0383It’s an unusually perfect day in Edinburgh and I’m sitting in Richard’s 1878 tenement flat, in the kitchen to be precise where sun is streaming through the big sash window. He fusses with the kettle. Do I want tea? Coffee? A cocktail? (‘I make a great breakfast caipirinha’). I settle for water, fresh from the Pentland Hills that are just visible from the window. ‘Good isn’t it?’ he says, referring to the water. ‘It’s the lead that makes it.’ He pulls up a chair, which screeches on the wooden floor, frightening a cat from its slumbers. So why did he agree to this solipsistic exercise? Well, he says, scratching his beard, it was time to get a few things straight. And ‘I wanted to do a conversation about research’, he adds, ‘which you rarely get a chance to do in enough detail.’ So I start by asking him the question that all doctoral students dread. What is he doing? What exactly is his contribution to the sum total of human knowledge?

RW: Oh God (laughs). Well actually I invited you to ask that question because I’ve so often struggled with it myself, especially when asked to say something straightforwardly disciplinary. I always end up saying ‘I’m not this, and I’m not that’, you know, without ever really coming to the point. So I did want you to ask that question…

And…

Well the answer is actually pretty simple. I’m interested basically in why cities look the way they do. You’d think it’s an obvious question to ask, but it isn’t because the people who ask it invariably have some agenda. So they lament the way things are, rather than keeping the question open. And there aren’t very simple answers. People like to think there are, but there aren’t. The production of something as complex as a city involves multiple actors, most of whom are perhaps not even conscious of being actors at all.

Can you say what you mean by that?

Well, people – I mean us – habitually think that cities are somehow designed. I want a method of looking at cities that incorporates things like material decay, but also use and inhabitation, and also if this is even possible their representation in things like films and art.

That’s clearly impossible.

Of course it is. But still I’d like to try because our perceptions of cities are conditioned by all of these immaterial factors. We don’t simply see them. We see them, like any other object, through what we expect and have learned to expect.

Can you give an example?

Brasília is a good case. I spent a lot of the last decade thinking and writing about it because it seemed to be such a reviled object, at least in Europe, and particularly Britain. Critics and journalists would routinely invoke it as an example of why the 1960s were so bad. It was always a great disaster, a dystopia – everything about it was appalling. It had a quite amazing status. Of course practically none of the people who invoked Brasília had actually been anywhere near the place, and in the rare cases that they had, their impressions dated from the moment of inauguration, 1960, when Brasília was still a building site. So it was this amazing discursive object. I went for the first time in (scratches head) about 2001 and found a place that was for the most part clean, well-ordered and perfectly normal. Yet the myths, the stories people told about the place, the memories of the candangos (note: the original settlers of the city)  – these things were all essential to the perception of the place.

Did you have a method for producing this synthetic knowledge?

No. But I knew that visuality was important.

Why?

Well, anecdotally, it seemed clear that around the visual, almost everyone had a view. They’d complain about eyesores, and the way things looked, ‘mess’ and so on, as if these things were straightforwardly resolved. Even perfectly intelligent people would start raging against modernist architecture. They seemed to lose their minds in the face of the visual.

Why do you think that is?

I don’t know, exactly. But I think it has something to do with seeing the visual world as a threat, something about it resisting control. For that reason I want to start with the visual and use visual artefacts to keep questions open as long as possible. That is something that art history was always good at, when it was good. I don’t have much patience with art any more, but I do still respect the way art history at its best used visual objects to keep questions open. It showed how meanings could be highly contingent on circumstance, how reception was important as production, and how ambiguity is in fact the condition we all live in, rather than something undesirable that has to be corrected. These are all pretty good things to understand in relation to cities. Who knows, if we could understand these things better, we might build better ones.

So what you’re proposing is an art history of cities?

In some ways, yes. It uses the visual as a way of keeping questions open as long as possible. I did a PhD in art history and still have a lot of respect for the methods. Panofsky, Gombrich, Tim Clark later on.

But isn’t that just another way of aestheticising the city? I mean, you’re always railing against the heritage lobby, but this sounds like the same thing, just in a different style.

Ha ha! That’s a good point, of course. But I’m not principally interested in aesthetics, rather the way the visuality helps keep other questions open. I basically think cities are good for us, and I want the most people to have the most opportunities. Exploring the visual world is often a way of asking awkward questions. So, for example, I’m fairly certain that the adherence to a single design aesthetic, whatever it is, has a limiting effect on the material opportunities of a city. The green belt, for example in the UK. It is an aesthetic position more than anything else that ends up being a tax on the poor. I’m quite convinced of that now, despite having spent large parts of my life enjoying them one way or another…

How?

Walking my parents’ dogs, mainly. But I don’t think the interests of a few dog-walkers should be allowed to trump the access of millions to reasonably-priced housing.

Can you say more about the kinds of sources you use? You once said that you got a lot from what we might call ‘professional’ discourses – what architects and planners say to each other.

Yes, that’s right. I work with academic material like everyone else, and draw on the usual urban theories. But I’ve always spent a lot of time with the professions themselves, especially the professional magazines. There’s a tendency for academics to ignore this material as it’s not always very sophisticated in a way that they recognise. But often they’re dealing with ideas that are as complex as anything academics deal with. It’s just that they have to explain them to a range of different constituencies, with a range of different expertises. I spent a lot of time with architects in the 1990s and 2000s in the UK, and felt that what was being played out in public, in the journals was very important. In the early 1990s, the climate was still deeply anti-urban in the UK and the US. That it changed so dramatically has a lot to do with what was happening in the journals.

You don’t automatically bash the real estate business.

No, that’s right. Part of the urban story of the past 20 years is the realisation by the business that there were market opportunities in cities, so they had to learn a new range of concepts in order to make the most of it. Those shifts are quite legible in magazines like Property Week and Estates Gazette that really nobody apart from people in the business reads. But it always seemed to me that it was there that you really found out what was going on, why for example there had been a gap site somewhere for a generation  (…..) Then there’s the developers themselves. When I was starting to research cities for the first time, I found people connected with the business very open. At least the people I talked to. Howard Bernstein, the CEO of Manchester City Council, for example, a public official, but a man with a very sound business head. He gave me a whole afternoon of his time in, um, 2002 or thereabouts, and then let me have his head of planning give me a tour. They were both extraordinarily generous with their time, despite the fact that they were as busy then as they had ever been in their lives. But they saw I was interested in their ideas. The profit motive mattered, clearly, but they were interested in a much longer-term transformation. You got the same thing from Tom Bloxham and Carol Ainscow in the same city. They needed to make money, obviously, but they weren’t driven by it. Ainscow (note: she developed Manchester’s Gay Village) was as interested in sexual politics as anything else. If these people were just interested in making money, they’d have found a much easier way to do it. Real estate development is hell a lot of the time. You have to really like buildings to do it.

Are there any other developers you admire?

Of course I sound like a Neo-Con nutjob saying I admire developers (laughs)….But yes, I do, at least some of them. John Portman (note: inventor of the atrium hotel) is amazing. There’s a hilarious piece on his Bonaventure Hotel in the French journal L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui from 1977 or so where the writers are so determined to hate it because it’s a product of the market…but in the end they grudgingly admit it’s a really radical building, possibly more so than the Pompidou Centre. Yes, Portman’s great. A real iconoclast.

You really sound like a Neo-Con now.

I’m really not. I’m just not a fundamentalist. I don’t automatically believe that markets are evil.

What are you doing now?

A few things. We want to set up a research centre in Edinburgh of some sort on the cultures of cities, and we have seedcorn funding to start. My colleague Igor Stiks will run it. He’s an expert on, and a participant in various urban-social movements, particularly in south-eastern Europe, and we’re both interested in the way younger people are developing new modes of urban citizenship. That seems to be a global phenomenon, and also seems to cut across political divides to some extent. Igor’s particular interest is in progressive change, Occupy and so on. I’m interested in the way generally people are developing new modes of urban behaviour and urban aspirations. We’ve a bit of a network already. Christoph Lindner in Amsterdam. Sharon Zukin in New York if we can persuade her. We’ll see…

And there’s a book.

Yes, another one for Reaktion, a history of the so-called Creative City. I wanted to put recent developments in some sort of cultural and historical context. Almost everyone in the developed world seems to have signed up to the creative industries, whatever they are – and there’s been a predictable negative reaction from the academic left. What I’m doing is putting a series of quite longstanding debates in context. I’m also hoping to produce a useable urban typology. There are big things like media cities, for example, but also smaller and more informal phenomema. The whole feel of eating and drinking, for example, the excessive sociability. When I was growing up, there literally wasn’t anywhere to go, and I think that applied in many parts of the developed world. Now there’s such an excess of it. And it’s global.

Will there be anything in it about sex?

Maybe, following on from the last book (note: Sex and Buildings was published by Reaktion in 2013). There’s certainly a question around all that frantic socialisation. The Creative city looks like a highly libidinal city in many ways, and work often morphs into something that to older people must look like dating, or at least flirting. But I wonder how much sex is really happening. Really busy people seem to like the look of sex, but don’t actually have time for it. I need a decent evidential base for that argument of course.

When is the book due out?

2016, we hope. There’s another project in the works too, on the visual culture of cities. But I can’t say any more about that until it’s a bit further on.

If you could do anything about cities now, what would it be?

It’s not in the gift of humanities professors to be prescriptive, you know. We’re just supposed to complain about things from the sidelines…

Oh, go on.

OK. There are certainly global problems around access to housing. The ‘great inversion’ as Alan Ehrenhalt calls it has drawn a lot of people to cities again, but the trade-off has been a general decline in the quality of housing and access to it, at least in the most popular places. The cost of housing in London or the Bay Area is pretty horrifying. I’d reduce the unit cost by increasing supply. There would have to be a bonfire of planning regulations, unfortunately, but that may be overdue. I’d also promote industrialised, systematised building. In the UK, everything seems to be done on a bespoke basis much more than it needs to, a problem made worse by the planning system. And I’d tear up the green belt. Did you hear my friend Karl Sharro on the radio the other night? He says just abolish planning altogether. I kind of agree with him. I have some sympathy with the old Parker-Morris standards, though, to get the basic level of space right.

That sounds like a recipe for sameness, a sort of grey-goo urbanism….

I don’t think it is. But even if it is, it doesn’t mean it stays the same. After all, in the UK there are probably ten million units of more or less identical terraced (row) houses, but more or less infinite variation in the way they’re used and inhabited. Buildings learn, as Stewart Brand says.

OK. Finally, I have to ask you about Scotland. You have really annoyed people there from time to time.

You know I can’t talk about that (laughter). Well I have a few supporters too. Scotland is in such a febrile state at the moment, it’s impossible to say anything without getting misinterpreted. But in terms of cities, it’s certainly a fascinating case. It’s got two of Europe’s great set pieces in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and a vigorous tradition of urban housing. The tenement is a really durable form. Unfortunately, Scotland just loves to regulate, and it’s obsessed with the past. So it’s impossible to either adapt buildings for contemporary conditions, or build housing where it’s actually required. If you live in Edinburgh (points at rattling sash windows) you’re not allowed to buy off the peg solutions for windows in tenements. Unless you’re rich, you’re basically encouraged to let them deteriorate. As for installing elevators, and adding extensions – well, forget it. There’s a huge amount of de-regulating that could be done. Not much political will, though. Same goes for the land issue. Edinburgh ought to be twice the size it is given the boom in financial services, but there is so much regulation designed to inhibit growth. That makes no sense to me at all. We need scale. Scale means opportunities.

Are you an optimist when it comes to cities?

Yes. You have to be, don’t you? And the return of cities in the developed world brings huge opportunities. It’s produced some hellish problems around housing, but I don’t see why they can’t be fixed. After all, it’s been done before.

Lies, Damned Lies…and Cities

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A short post about cities and statistics:

Cities are remarkably hard to define. You would think otherwise, given the amount of data we have at our disposal. There are few cities on earth that have not been comprehensively mapped and photographed. But certain problems of definition remain: even in a single context, let’s say the United Kingdom, the definition of a city’s limits might vary from one case to another; we often compare apples with oranges. I was reminded this in recent coverage of a survey which measured the relative ‘vibrancy’ of different UK cities. I didn’t think much of the survey (it was a ‘fucking bag of bollocks’ according to the architectural journalist Ian Martin). One reason I didn’t was that its definitions varied according to city. So ‘London’ was, strictly speaking, the Greater London metropolitan region, with a population of 7.5 million or so. Its ‘Manchester’ was the political city, which is to say, a constituent part of a much larger urban region. Its 510,000 population makes it more like a big London borough. In this particular case, smallness played to Manchester’s advantage, and it came it top. For this exiled Mancunian, of course that’s good news, but I still recognise it as a flawed comparison.

I explored the problem a little more in a class today. I showed the group a list of population figures, all of which define ‘Manchester’ correctly:

‘Old City’ (1800 boundary)                                          25,000
Political boundary city 2013                                       510,000
Urban core, including Salford and Trafford            1,200,000
Greater Manchester, political boundary, 2013       2,600,000
Postcode city including all GM codes                     3,000,000 (estimate)
Travel-to-work city                                                  3,500,000 (estimate)
MUFC supporters worldwide, 2012 estimate      659,000,000

Manchester City fans will want to discount the MUFC stat immediately, which is fair enough. It does however give an indication of the potential importance of a non-resident population, all of who, arguably have an interest in what goes on in the city. Anyway, put that figure aside. We still have a remarkable discrepancy between the core city population of 25,000 (up from a historic low of 250 in the 1990), and what is arguably the ‘real’ city, the travel-to-work city of 3.5 million. It’s a differential factor of 140. Even if we were to take the ‘low’ figure as the 2013 political city, 510,000, we’re still looking at a factor of 7.

Manchester’s far from alone in its discrepant representations. Buenos Aires seems to suffer a similar problem. Is it a European-scale large city of 3 million? Or an emerging-market megalopolis of 16 million? Well, both, and neither. It just depends who is speaking and what they are trying to prove. That is the lesson for all of us, and all cities.

NOTES:

Vibrancy survey by Experian, reported in FT (9 October 2013)  http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/2bc0e682-2f50-11e3-ae87-00144feab7de.html#axzz2iSUwJSb1

Madrid in the Journal of Iberian Studies

Here below is a link to a new issue of the Journal of Iberian Studies on Madrid, edited by Benjamin Fraser. Looks great. Madrid is very large, and complex, but often overlooked by Anglophone writers. It shouldn’t be: it grew at a prodigious rate during from the 1980s until recently, and arguably experienced more urban change than anywhere in Western Europe in that period. It bought into culture as an agent of change more vigorously (and earlier) than anywhere I can think of, and its reconstruction of its transport networks was likewise done with with rare conviction and thoroughness. The landscapes of change we now find in contemporary China were all there in early 1990s Madrid: new suburbs and satellite towns created de novo, forests of high rises, inexorably expanding subway networks, frenzied consumerism, a new, bewildered poor. I know, because I was there. It was an unforgettable and formative experience. Lately, Madrid has experienced waves of immigration that have changed its character markedly – and it’s an abrupt experience, with no historical precedent. Madrid’s recent experiences are thoroughly global ones; it’s a splendid test case for any number of global phenomena.

http://www.intellectbooks.co.uk/journals/view-issue,id=2454/

The Creative City. It’s War.

0041-1THE USE OF ‘WAR’ TO DESCRIBE CITY LIFE IS A CULTURAL STUDIES CLICHE. In City of Quartz (1990) Mike Davis famously described Los Angeles as ‘militarized’, thinking of the bum-proof benches of downtown, and signs on suburban lawns warning of ‘armed response’ to intrusion. Teresa Caldeira’s account of São Paulo, City of Walls (2001) did something similar for the Brazilian metropolis, describing a city so conditioned by fear of crime that it might as well be at war. I’ve used the metaphor of warfare plenty of times myself, for example in my own accounts of Brazilian cities, which noted the tendency of local journalists to describe them as being in a state of de facto civil war. In that piece, I referred to a much-quoted statistic: during the four-year siege of Sarajevo 1992-6, more people of were killed on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, ostensibly a city at peace. War is a cliche, however, and an increasingly inaccurate one in these terms. LA, New York, São Paulo, Rio (etc. etc.) have become immeasurably safer since everyone started talking about how dangerous they were. And while Baghdad kills 50 or so people per day in a state of genuine warfare, it is frankly unethical to even use the term in relation to what are safe and wealthy places.

Still, that is what I am going to do. In my last post, I mentioned Richard E. Caves’s Creative Industries (2000) in relation to the sociability, or otherwise, of the creative city. The  intense, but intermittent, sociability of the creative city is in fact that of a condition of emergency. As Rebecca Solnit has written lately (A Paradise Built in Hell, 2009) natural disasters destroy communities, but also  produce  marvellous new ones. The more I thought about them, the more Caves’s core principles suggested such a condition of emergency. ‘Nobody Knows’, the ‘Motley Crew’, ‘Time Flies’ (and the rest) invoke an exceptional state of being. The future is unknown and unknowable, threats are permanent, change is ever-present, the project (movie, exhibition, artwork, performance, book, campaign) routinely demands the impossible. Time is  essential; everything must be now. The resources required are immense: it must store materials, skills and ideas in anticipation of a future that may never occur. It is subject to high levels of security and secrecy. Its workers are mobile and rootless, and live in de facto camps, separated and sometimes secured from the city proper. And each project – for which read ‘campaign’ – demands absolute commitment. Desertion is death.

Caves doesn’t describe the creative city in quite these terms, but the implication is there to  be had. And at the time he was writing, there were plenty of other writers invoking a sense of emergency in contemporary life: the sociologist Ulrich Beck’s ‘risk society’ is a perfect example.

On the ground, there are real figures of this metaphorical war. Superficially, many of the most creative cities have also been literal ruins at some stage of their development, caused, often enough by conflict (Berlin, London and Manchester bore until recently the literal scars of war). Artists have always been drawn to the ruined parts of cities for economic reasons, but they have also long cultivated an aesthetic of ruination – and resisted attempts to clean up. The creative city and the ruined city often seem to overlap.

However there’s more to this metaphorical war than ruins. Caves says a lot about LA and the movie industry, and if you know that city, you know how reminiscent its great studio complexes are of military encampments or munitions factories: sprawling, secure complexes, surrounded by high walls, blind to the outside world. And inside, they’re populated by transient gangs working secretly to impossible deadlines, for campaigns that become apparent only when they’re in progress. Making movies is uncannily like going to war. It’s no accident that war has been such a natural movie genre. And it’s arguably no accident that LA’s other main activity, at least until the 1980s, was armaments.

If the creative city is also metaphorically a city at war, is it right? The creative city undoubtedly suits those with the wits and education to take advantage of it, and weather its vicissitudes. I have thought of myself in that category often enough. But how does the creative city suit the weak, the sick, the very young? How does it work for anyone thinking beyond the next pitch?

Picture: Still from Alfred Hitchcock, ‘Saboteur’ (1942). Exploding munitions factory created on a Warner Bros studio lot.