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2005 03 31
Architecture and Utopia - Part 2
imageThe utopian impulse is so often foolish, or dangerous that is sometimes hard to take it seriously; it is, indeed, a ready shorthand for the reckless ideologue, the heedless architect of change. The critic Mark Lilla calls this overweening desire "the lure of Syracuse": the desire to make a shiny political idea real, as Plato tried -- and failed -- to do with Dionysus the Tyrant, leaving the scholarly safety of Athens for the hurly-burly of ancient Syracuse. Dionysus was a ruler who, despite his sobriquet, struck Plato as proto-philosophical, noy tryannical: mouldable clay for the master of the transcendental Forms. He was wrong, as most utopians have also been wrong.

And yet, we need utopia. Its energy and drive, its optimism that things could be better than they are. Once transcendental, as in Plato or Augustine, then geographical or spiritual, as in More or Butler, the impulse now seems largely temporal: the future as the site of our dreams, the notional undiscovered country of time, now that there is no physical country left to discover.

Of course, a desire that big is not to be trusted. There is too much associated destruction, too much associated faith in staamroller ideas like reason or technology or socialism. Good cities, as we know, are less planned from the top down than they are grown, from the bottom up. Utopian desire, given too free rein, reveals itself as a kind of inner tyrant, a dark overwhelming form of hope, that pecuilar desire to be, as the critic Wayne Koestenbaum has said, "somehow simultaneously avant-garde and dead."

In the seminar, we read Jane Jacobs for the usual cure to soaring urban ambition. We note that she lives not far away from where we sit. Also, however, that her ideas, so often celebrated, are actually confused and vague. She lauds street life, but only at one scale; she doesn'tseem to know what inspires or edifies, only what merely functions. So much here is about blocking things, keeping things from happening, halting the imagined. A distrust of the grandiose pervades. Fine for Boston's North End or the West Village, maybe, but here, looking out, we feel the need for large scale, not small. Big ideas, transformations, something to enliven the dead zone of our gaze, the junkspace of Toronto.

We cannot ignore the thought, too, that the North End is nowadays a virtual theme park, artificial and tourist-addled, with gangs of college-logo'd teens lining up for pizza or cannoli. The West Village, meanwhile, has become a supermodel haven, priced into the stratosphere by Gwyneth Paltrow and Helena Christensen, pushing their babies along Hudson Street in limo-expensive prams. Before her incarceration, Martha Stewart bought a floor in the new Richard Meier building at the corner of Perry Street and West. Martin Scorsese too. The building was featured in a recent New York Times spead, its unihindered view of the Hudson rendered as a two-page photpspread of lifestyle porn. Good neighbourhoods, kept good, just get expensive: gentrifiction without regulation, or rather with the dominant regulation only, the one of money. Even the hippy Annex, with its futon stores and used-record shops, is too expensive for any of us, including me, the only one in the room with a job.

I lived in the West Village when I was teaching at the City University of New York, and people would always ask me how I could afford it. The answer was, I couldn't. It was a dream, a wishful thought, a vacation from reality. I loved it even though -- or maybe because -- I knew it couldn't last. I used to go running down Perry to the river and see the Meier building, its two perfect towers framing the intersection. I would imagine myself there, somebody else, with somebody else's life. Not a nightmare, but a bad dream.
[email this story] Posted by Mark Kingwell on 03/31 at 08:22 AM

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