Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The (Literally) Empty Legacy
Europe’s biggest housing project is slowly being taken apart. Marzahn, a massive complex of oppressively ugly concrete towers capable of housing 60,000 residents, will have at least 1,800 fewer apartments by 2008. Located in former East Berlin, Marzahn’s bleak, urban aesthetic once starkly represented “real existing socialism,” but after the Wall “fell” residents rushed to leave their skyscraper socialism. They moved on to prettier places, giving Marzahn a measly 85% occupancy rate in 2000. Empty apartments are expensive, and the current solution to the cost is to rip down the buildings and replace them with public parks, reports the Berliner Zeitung.

Earlier attempts have been made to spruce up Marzahn’s image, such as a golf practice course erected in nearby Hellersdorf that used vast stretches of underdeveloped and cheap land, yet as investors soon found out, this was not a place for country-club style patronage. Marzahn’s somewhat roughneck image has even been turned into a brand recently by a group of self-styled young thugs; “Marzahn Wear” peddles shirts with the iconic Plattenbau, or concrete tower, above the logo, “Don’t Mess with Marzahn.” On their website, a rapper beckons: “Do you have a knife? / Kids go to Marzahn. / Are you a criminal? / Kids go to Marzahn.”

I blame Le Corbusier. For the ugliness, for the crime, for everything. The man who proclaimed the New York City’s 1916 Zoning Law to regulate building height a “deplorably romantic city ordinance,”[i] dreamed up a housing model for the modern era that would become its worst nightmare. His Utopic city was composed of cloud-grazing high-rises with acres of greenery and highway between them. It did away with the traditional pedestrian street and also eliminated the fabric of social interaction and neighborly geography that, as Jane Jacobs was to argue, composed the city’s essential vitality.

Le Corbusier’s sanitary vision, created as a counterpoint to places like the crowded immigrant slums of New York’s Lower East Side, looked pretty good to many city planners, including Robert Moses. As twentieth-century New York’s Hausmann, he demolished twenty-one different neighborhoods to build Le Corbusier’s vision, which morphed from drawing-board Utopia into modern-day housing project. The housing project proceeded to “fail” miserably, proving a breeding ground for crime and mistreatment. People didn’t seem to take pride in their weird tower-garden terrain, which ultimately did not foster neighborliness, as the old streets, stoops, and small-built brownstones and stores had, but rather neglect.

As Spike Lee’s film Clockers (1995) perfectly depicts, the open space of the housing project became a vector for illicit behavior rather than community interaction. Critic James Sanders has pointed out that Lee’s film was the first to truly address housing projects, despite their previous four-decade existence, because unlike the crowded tenement streets they (sometimes) replaced, their harsh environment provided no home-grown stories and lacked what moviegoers wanted to see—engrossing human enterprise.[ii]

Even Le Corbusier’s high-end projects lack aesthetic charm or well-planned social fabric. Residents of his 1953 “Berlin typ” high-rise in western Berlin later had to add a small newspaper kiosk in the first floor, since the tower is ringed with park and driveway rather than stores, as well as storage and laundry space between the building’s concrete supports, since this hadn’t been thought of either. While offering great views, the interior resembles a bureaucratic labyrinth or jail rather than a living space, while the exterior’s boxy repetition is plain unattractive. Luckily, this high-rise is the only of its kind in the lonely neighborhood alongside train tracks and the Olympic grounds, rather than being part of a larger complex or social structure, so there have been no reports of excessive crime or resulting deterioration of urban fabric.

The government of the German Deomcratic Republic may have been inspired by idealism when they adopted the towers-in-the-garden model of social planning for Marzahn. Or they may have pragmatically picked the cheapest construction method possible. One thing is certain: the propagation of such a model is a legacy of Le Corbusier’s life work. As is its failure. Ugly and socially unappealing, Marzahn is now going the way of St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, modeled after Manhattan projects but dynamited barely fifteen years after it opened, because its crime and vandalism also led to incurable non-occupancy problems. As Harvard historian Alexander von Hoffmann puts it, “even poor people preferred to live anywhere but Pruitt-Igoe.” It appears that poor people would also prefer to live anywhere but Marzahn.

Another recent article linking the "modern housing project" model's replacement of streets with intermittent green spaces with drug use and crime appeared recently regarding Berlin's Paul-Hertz Siedlung: http://www.morgenpost.de/content/2007/01/26/bezirke/879035.html
Image of housing project with trees of New York City’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Houses courtesy of: http://www.nyc-architecture.com/HAR/HAR018.htm
Further reading: Caro, Robert A. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974.

Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: The Modern Library, 1961.
[i] Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan. (New York: Monacelli Press, 1994), 251.
[ii] James Sanders, Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 219.


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db said...

I know there's a lot out there on the sociological and psychological impact of ugliness and lack of light and this being mentioned as reasons why slums don't tend to change. But what I find interesting, and a point you may not be aware of, is that at least in the United States, the oppressive design of these structures was never a matter of soviet-style planning efficiency, it was always a conscious choice by planners like Robert Moses to establish a slum, make it inhospitable (to encourage mobility, in theory) and isolate it from the rest of the community.

Harlem-area projects, I believe those you used in your photographic depiction, were SPECIFICALLY built with small closets, bad layouts, poor sound insulation, and most notably, no terraces despite their being common for construction at the time. Robert Moses was known to have demanded these things.

Take New York beaches as a separate example: Brighton Beach is accessible by subway, but was never terraformed or developed as a world-class beach. Jones Beach and the state park that would eventually be named for Robert Moses were conceived as premier beaches, and Robert Moses want to ensure the "riff-raff" didn't get in, and he did so by specifically designing low overpasses on the Grand Central Parkway/Northern State (to prevent tour busses from passing) and not including a direct connection from the in-construction Long Island Rail Road. These beauties were purposely isolated from those that did not own automobiles.

My point is this: as far as I know, and I am no expert here so feel free to correct me, the soviet-era creations did have efficiency in mind, and there were some amenities. While they may look similarly ugly when compared to American creations of the same era, the fact that the American infrastructure was always intended to invoke a negative experience. I personally believe that Robert Moses, despite his tremendous contributions, ended up creating a de facto caste. Maybe someone more scholarly than I can argue the same result occurred from the Soviet design.

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