Must we kill the street?
Not mentioned this until now, as I don't want this blog to entirely become a self-advertisement service, but I was telephoned to add some punditry to this Observer article on new towns a few weeks ago. As you might guess, I'm not really in agreement with the anti-(seemingly any) development position of the writer, although the few of you who would be remotely surprised by my opinions on concrete cows, tower blocks and underpasses should read this month's New Humanist, where I pontificate on these matters at length. But this - along with a recent re-reading of Marshall Berman and this Mike Davis interview (ta to Savonarola) where he talks about Constructivism as one of the most valuable intellectual engagements with the city, albeit one that ended in (literal) anti-urbanism - has made me think more than I am inclined to do about one of the central New Town tenets: the Modernist campaign against the street.
If pushed, my actual views on what 'should' be done in planning and housing are pretty much the same as Davis' - cities, public transport and public space, density, concentration, and plenty of what the Constructivists called 'social condensers' - so accordingly, the attack on the street, Corbusier's loathsome 'rue corridor', is the element of 'classical' (i.e, interwar) Modernism that I have spent the least time defending, partly because it is the biggest flaw in my long-standing defence/apologia. Anyone looking for the definitive proof of Modernist architects' alleged disdain for the real, rather than idealised life of the working class, would be advised to look here, rather than in the attempt at clean living under difficult circumstances which links mod and Modernism, and which only sentimentalists of right and left imagine is foreign to the proletariat. Bustle, noise, diversity, 'vibrancy', blah blah blah - pernicious cliché as they are, there's little doubt that the garden cities were never really meant to contain them, but favoured instead a sort of village-green polis which, even if it ever had existed, certainly couldn't be resuscitated. And the replacement of the street by the zeilenbau, the tower in the park, the blocks in the garden (etc) runs across the political spectrum, from Mies to Hannes Meyer. A street, with shops and doors leading directly out onto a pavement, facing much the same thing on the other side of the road, is almost always absent.
Marshall Berman, being American, experienced a very different Modernism to the one of the UK - when you read in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air that all Modernist, 'Corbusian' architects abhorred the street it's obvious that this is a man who knows a lot about Robert Smithson but nothing about Alison Smithson - the whole counter-tradition of Team 10 and its outgrowths is entirely absent, as indeed it was from the USA. Yet the love of the street has a reactionary element too, as he (nearly) acknowledges. I lived right on Deptford High Street (above the fine Pizza Vesuvio, if anyone's interested) for several years, a 'rue corridor' if ever there was, where on market days at the weekend it was barely physically possible to get from one end to another, and with a persistent smell of everything from rotting fish to old coathangers. I like eavesdropping, junk markets, noise, the weird conversations and chance encounters of these kind of places; but I was and am less keen on machete fights, slum landlords (Polish families sharing one room, and the memorable occasion when the kitchen suddenly became an African pentecostal church), general pestilence (a skirting board that had been chewed to the point where it was practically en piloti, with a continuous layer open to the rodent population) and the all-pervasive sense of being enclosed and trapped which is usually only romantic to gap year types.
And that, as much as the this-is-good-for you impulse, is part of why the street 'had' to be killed - because there were better ways for people to live than cooped up, hemmed in and casually exploited in rotting buildings. And the story which Berman couldn't have told in 1982 is that when the streets (in London often, and no doubt in New York too) were gentrified, sanitised and, the inner city incrementally transformed into a new professional suburbia, the places that were supposed to be without life and with only bleak and blank space - the plazas, the blocks, the walkways - became the places where the poor, both young and elderly, loitered, lingered, shopped, did their living. The Elephant and Castle shopping centre is a fine example of this process. All the corridor streets gone, in favour of that vast, aesthetically repugnant block on a roundabout - and yet nobody seems to have noticed that a street market coils itself around it, or that the shops inside are far weirder and more diverse than those of the nearby Walworth Road. And if the 'regeneration' planned for the area is ever completed, the montage and mess - the very things whose absence provided the pretext for demolition in the first place - will be the first thing to go, although 'streets' will no doubt come back.