Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Nobody Wants to Be a Saint

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There is a form of universal derision of the new in New York City when it comes to architecture: All form of contemporary construction, however necessary, is deemed ugly. I am not innocent in that regard. However, with endless criticism of postmodernist edifices comes the idea that aesthetics are the primary motivator of urbanity, especially when they are tied with movements to halt such development until, presumably, something better comes along.

This notion, like the musings of Ebenezer Howard, Le Corbusier and Lewis Mumford, is at heart anti-urban and therefore anti-human.

What this philosophy ultimately seeks to do is to weed what is inherently a chaotic state until it becomes a garden, one preferably in the form of an imagined and idealized past; one that speaks to a retrospective form of futurism: A once both a myth and a fantasy. It is what Jonathan Meade would call the illusory solace of stasis, and in New York City is a populist attempt to mimic the timelessness of the former imperial capitals London, Paris, Berlin and Moscow. In all those cities was the past worshiped, even when it was explicitly cast out.

The modern model of Paris was built by Baron Haussmann on cheap labor as ordered by an autocrat by the name of Napoleon, with architectural edifices stolen from Rome (which were stolen from Athens). It is modern in the sense that it has yet to change and likely never will. The city was frozen in amber, a museum city on a scale that Venice could only dream of. Immune to the needs of its citizens, it became a gilded fortress of the moneyed, exiling everybody else to far-flung suburban slums.

Moscow, that “Asiatic city hoping to be mistaken for a European one,” similarly bears the mark of an autocrat whose minions were bidden to create a timeless spectacle that looked nothing like western bourgeois decadence and ultimately looked exactly like western decadence, only larger. Stalin, like his great rival Hitler, sought to create a mythos for his capital and his people, buttressed by his built environment on slave labor, and like his peers in his conceit hoped to maintain that fantasy in perpetuity.

What Stalin had an eye for, however, was populist imagery. His not-Baroque Baroque Brutalism had much the humanist filigree that was and is inherently popular. He built apartment buildings as grotesquely large lumpen-palaces. His state buildings are nothing if not stately. They were built with the explicit task of impressing and suppressing a people, and are more or less effective at this task to this day. If urban planning and architecture can be said to have an influential effect on society, and they would not exist as disciplines if they didn’t, then the shadows of the circumstances in which they were built are long indeed.

So, too, is New York City enamored with the architecture and imagery of its own adopted past. If London had Classicist Christopher Wren, New York had the Beaux Arts firm of McKim, Mead and White. Where London embraced neo-Classical Imperial stylings and plumbed the Tudor edifices of its own medieval history, so too has New York readily accepted the Italianate Brownstones of its original landed aristocracy and the anachronistic futurism of Art Deco as forms which can neither be copied nor improved upon. To look at New York today is to see a New York that wishes dearly to return to the 1930s and 40s and remain there indefinitely; to live a dream of a future already past.

In maintaining this edifice, through historical preservation and zoning restrictions, New York suffers the same problem as London and Paris: It neglects the backlog of human demand that has since created a crisis and an untenable present. Like Moscow, the forms in which New York is enamored are enticing; indeed, I would prefer to live in an Art Deco structure than this post-modern monstrosity currently being constructed in Williamsburg, but I am aware that the aggregation of my sentiment would ensure that no longer will there be new New Yorkers.

Moscow represents a regime that longed for stasis, copying as it did Paris, which represents a regime that longed for stasis, copying as it did Rome, which half exists as a living archaeological survey. If New York is to represent more than the graveyard of yet another empire, then it must revert to its democratic and humanist ideal, which is to destroy as many monuments as it erects. The supposed great scandal of New York was the demolition of the old Beaux Arts masterpiece Penn Station; I contend that it represents New York’s greatest strength.

To wish heartily for the preservation in perpetuity of the city’s past, no matter how beautiful it may be, is to ignore the cries of its present. It is a tyranny of the dead, and speaks of a longing for death, for only in death can the chaos of humanity truly be quelled. It is the conceit of despots to believe that their ideals should last forever, that nobody can improve upon their work and indeed that nobody should try. It is their grandest work to deny the humanity of generations to come. Preservationists dream of being such despots, for while they laud saints, they know that to actually be a saint is to live miserably and die ignobly. They prefer the fantasy over the humanity.

Napoleon wanted a true imperial city and so created a monument against humanity. Stalin wanted a true communist city and ended up – as with his regime – with a looking-glass version of an imperial city. If New York is to be a true democratic city, then it should endeavor to live up to such notions, which means accepting that democracy is profane and often-times ugly.

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