Brutalism, friend of the Pedestrian
Near the end of his criminally out-of-print 1966 study The New Brutalism, Reyner Banham, clearly disappointed that the architectural non-aesthetic he had praised so much had developed not into the architecture autre he hoped for but transmogrified into sophisticated masterpieces of proper architecture like the Leicester Engineering and Economist Buildings, listed the things which dated Brutalism, which meant that even then it seemed passe compared with the Fun Palaces and Walking Cities. Brutalism, he notes, is an architecture that abhors the motor car. 'The ethic of the Brutalist connection in architecture, like every reformist trend in architecture...is backward looking. It may make tremendous bold attempts to keep the automobile under control, but in the last resort it is to recreate a pedestrian city, as in the central plaza of Siedlung Halen, the street-decks of Park Hill.' Making such a hard and fast distinction between what is backward and what is progressive is often rather foolhardy, as history has a knack of being surprising. While for Banham the autopia of LA was Progressive, we can't be so sure. Signified in the UK by the point in the '70s related in Joe Moran's On Roads when, to the horror of the motoring lobby, the InterCity trains surpassed the motorways in speed, the car is no longer 'progressive'. In any sensible society it would be all but obsolete, a privatised mode of motion which not only carries rates of death in its wake that would never be accepted on any other kind of transport, but which carries in its train a landscape of endless sheds, retail parks and malls which, for all its cold fascination, is not one which even its defenders can be bothered to make a serious case for.
Brutalism's most retrograde element, its attempt to 'recreate' a city for the pedestrian, must now strike us as its most progressive aspect - especially as it is precisely in these pedestrian spaces that Brutalism created a genuinely new space, a new way of moving around the city. Rather than the idealised main street bafflingly turned into a model for all to follow (see this atrocity for a case in point), the Brutalist city of skywalks, under and overpasses and lakeside cafes makes the mundane act of getting from A to B exciting. This is something brought up in In Praise of Beech Street, a post on the Barbican's semi-secret underpass at Will Wiles' fine new blog Spillway. That was in response to a typically irritating post at Oobject, a sort of regular digest of high-in-pics low-in-thought design capitalist realism (eww housing projects! eww statism!), which took issue with New York's newly reopened Highline, because, um, it's not a proper street. This idiot version of Jane Jacobs is depressingly prevalent in urban design circles. Surely at least one reason for the enduring crapness of all the bland Plazas of the abortive 'urban renaissance', with their branches of Costa and optimistic seating spilling out onto the pavement was their spatial conservatism - everything always boringly tied to the ground, presumably with the knowledge that if we get light on our feet then we might not open our purses.
Critics and consumers alike seem to will any attempt to elevate everyday life to failure, anything that lifts us off away from the proximity of a coffee concession being some sort of mockery of the neoliberal city. Whether its the demolished walkways of innumerable council estates (usually for 'security' reasons, though it's moot whether they lead to endemic crime at the Barbican) to the imminent demise of Sheffield's multi-level tat extravaganza Castle Market (wonderfully, Sheffield City Council once planned to throw walkways over the whole Sheaf Valley), the attempt to create a pedestrian city that doesn't stay at a base level has become unpopular just at the point where it would seem most relevant, where it would make a (holds breath) sustainable urbanism something invigoratingly modern rather than tweedily conservative. It has been relatively intriguing, in the arid world of oligarchitecture, to see the reaction to Steven Holl's Beijing Linked Hybrid - not because it looks like it'll be a formally interesting building in itself, but because here the walkway has come back, and this seems to many critics to be an unforgivable urban faux pas. A perusal of the Skybridge-Skywalk-Skyway group on Flickr is a fine reminder that walkways, skyways, the excitement of multiple levels and a Metropolis worthy of the term are wholly part of the future we were promised and denied. Rather than sharing our streets with cars, we should be building car free streets in the air, from which we can rain down eggs and rotten vegetables on said cars.