Bruce Sterling considers the one small voice of socially responsible architecture — and the nefariousness overwhelming it.
Finally, we arrive at some legal, conventional, low-income housing. This is the first of these vast and growing structural complexes not directly intended to hamper or harm people, and the first that directly involves architects and architectural ethics.
But do-good architecture does not merely respond to material poverty. Instead, it tangos with the colossal dysfunctionalities outside any blueprints. Today’s durable disorder is the playground of city-busting militias, gangsters, armed fanatics, and the blooming demimondes of narcotics, offshore pollution, and human trafficking. A vast, planet-girdling belt where the majority of the population has been systematically marginalized. Meanwhile, the elite is increasingly sequestered in gated containers like so many figures encased in snow globes.
It’s easy to recognize the worst in do-bad architecture, because it’s the stuff that happens to “them”—say, in some obscure Chinese boom town where children are buried in an earthquake-shattered heap of criminally substandard cement breeze-blocks. Like fish in water, we are surrounded by the do-bad architecture that shapes us.
The American prison system, by far the largest in the world, comprises huge-scale badness engineered for those Americans legally guaranteed to be bad. It is so unwieldy, yet so vital to the country’s identity, that the mentally ill and the penurious are left untended to wander American streets. Their ghostly, ill-considered presence means that American cities must take on the general character of flophouses and madhouses.
Every passerby experiences the mildly psychotic affect of Jersey barriers, metal detectors, and vidcams. American cities have evolved a baroque decor of bum-repellents, including jagged sawteeth on all sittable and sleepable surfaces.
American do-badness has become the architecture of the “stealthy, slippery, crusty, prickly, and jittery,” as the geographer Steven Flusty memorably puts it. These spaces are much worse than the weirdly abandoned Koolhaasian “junkspace” where individuals have no opportunity or incentive to engage in the civic realm. These Flusty spaces—fence-ringed green spaces, uninhabitable “public” plazas, policed shopping malls—are bent on our frustration, since they are hidden from our sight, physically unreachable, legally inaccessible, built to repel or irritate, or placed under scary levels of surveillance.
Do-bad architecture is native even to societies that claim cohesion and common purpose. As the general levels of misery rise, even the respectable and the privileged regard their neighbors as potential bad actors. Thus, at the same time that Russian and Chinese wealth is expanding, Americans find themselves in an increasingly predatory environment taking on the classic symptoms not of imaginary “late capitalism,” but of real-world late Communism. The Stalinist-gingerbread erections of the nomenklatura no longer disguise the morale-crushing decline of the infrastructure, the loss of direction and confidence. The whole shebang is visibly going bust. Even if they can’t guess why, people sense it.
Architecture has the power to recognize and reverse the ills of bad construction. That is its very purpose. However, the social influence of architects is in inverse proportion to the problems: the explosive growth of the world’s poorest and least-organized cities, and the can’t-go-on exhaustion of oil-fueled suburbs mortgaged past the hilt.
Consider the modern spectrum of private apartments, homes, offices, prestige public buildings, transport hubs, stadia, museums, resort complexes, and at the needlelike Dubai apex, an astounding blowout of mega-palaces for the new fossil-fuel plutocrats. Since form follows finance, architects are absolutely necessary at the top of this scale. Architecture’s importance dwindles rapidly all the way down. Finally, the practitioners cross the border into the shadowy world of illegality where they have to go underground. There they must look and act rather like architect Teddy Cruz.
As a writer, Teddy Cruz is terrific. The Voltairean contrast between the gated communities of right-wing San Diego and the heterogeneous slums of Tijuana—those vernacular constructions made of wrecked American tires and refrigerator doors—inspire Cruz to fits of prophetic oratory worthy of his dystopic pal Mike Davis. But architecturally, the slums of Tijuana can make little use for the services of Teddy Cruz. Any barrio local who strikes it rich doesn’t redesign his slum with smart touches and appropriate technology. Instead, he flees the do-badness for something as much like San Diego as he can afford.
Cruz knows that San Diego is transforming into Tijuana even faster than Tijuana is becoming San Diego. In 2008, that’s the world’s story in brief. The quickest way to turn San Diego into Tijuana is to set fire to it. Given that San Diego undertook the largest peacetime evacuation in American history due to wildfires of unprecedented scale, that’s quite plausible.
Because Tijuana is San Diego: It’s made from San Diego’s exported debris. The underclass inhabiting the debris are not a thrifty proletariat gamely working in the informal sector. They’re scary agents of the badness, just like you and me.
Entropy requires no maintenance. The Golden Straitjacket, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman once described it, of neo-liberal laissez-faire gleams brightly when the economic boat is rising. If the boat is taking in water, though, a golden straitjacket is the fastest way to drown. We’re in the straitjacket. We’re hoping for someone who can undo its knots.
Where are they?