Where in the world is modernism?

What if the nationality of every artist represented in the Museum of Modern Art’s collections could be mapped to illustrate the Museum’s geographic diversity through time? Watch the data visualization below of 121,823 artworks at MoMA.

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Introduction

“The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) acquired its first artworks in 1929, the year it was established. Today, the Museum’s evolving collection contains almost 200,000 works from around the world spanning the last 150 years. The collection includes an ever-expanding range of visual expression, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, drawing, photography, architecture, design, film, and media and performance art.

“MoMA is committed to helping everyone understand, enjoy, and use our collection. The Museum’s website features 79,870 artworks from 26,215 artists. This research dataset contains 135,804 records, representing all of the works that have been accessioned into MoMA’s collection and cataloged in our database. It includes basic metadata for each work, including title, artist, date made, medium, dimensions, and date acquired by the Museum. Some of these records have incomplete information and are noted as ‘not Curator Approved.’

“The Artists dataset contains 15,757 records, representing all the artists who have work in MoMA’s collection and have been cataloged in our database. It includes basic metadata for each artist, including name, nationality, gender, birth year, death year, Wiki QID, and Getty ULAN ID.” – from MoMA’s website.

I have downloaded this dataset as a spreadsheet, imported the data into a visualization software called Tableau Public, and then proceeded to dissect this data to answer the following question:

What can big data reveal about the history of curating and the growth of museum collections?

The results are presented below in three case studies with accompanying infographics. Hover over the graph or toggle the buttons to explore the data in depth.

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Case Study One:

Geographic and Gender Diversity

The map below visualizes the nationalities of ~15,757 artists whose work is displayed at MoMA. There are 121,823 data points below. The data can be browsed by year or by department. This illustrates the constantly evolving geographic breadth of collections. Beginning in the 1930s, over 80% of artworks were from the four key countries of the US, UK, France, and Germany. Beginning the 1960s, the museum acquired some of its first works from Latin America and Japan. And, post-1991, the museum acquired the bulk of its collections from Russia and China. Recent years have seen a slight growth in African art.

An important distinction: This map does not show where each artwork was made. Rather, it shows where each artist is from. Nationality and national identity are, depending on the artist, an important influence shaping the unique perspective artists bring to their work.

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The bar chart below shows the gender distribution of artworks by date. On the horizontal axis: the date acquired. On the vertical axis: the number of artworks acquired in this year. Each bar is divided into three colors: Blue for artwork by a male artist. Pink for art by a female artist. Grey for art where the gender of the artist is not known.

This data can be explored by year and by department. Across departments, male artists comprise the large majority of holdings. The departments with the greatest number of works by female artists: Photography and Drawings. The department with the least female representation: Prints & Illustrated Books. The department with greatest number of works where the artists’ gender is unknown: Architecture & Design. However, across departments, the representation of female artists has slightly increased over the past few decades from around 0% to somewhere closer to 20%.

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Case Study Two:

Do newer acquisitions tend to be smaller?

The two graphs below plot the relationship between year produced, year acquired by MoMA, and the dimensions of each artwork (width in cm). I’ve plotted 12,250 points. They are color coded with the same blue, pink, and grey system as the previous chart.

In the first graph, we see how new artworks are becoming progressively larger and larger. In 1929, the year of MoMA’s founding, the width of the average work being produced was less than 100cm. Today, the average width of newly produced works in the collection is around 400cm – and is steadily increasing.

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In the second graph, we see how MoMA’s new acquisitions are becoming progressively smaller, even though newly produced artworks are larger than before. In 1929, the average width of a new acquisition was over 300 cm. Today, the width is less than 150cm.

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Contemporary artists seem to be working in ever larger dimensions – at least the contemporary artists whose work MoMA acquires. But, newer acquisitions tend to be smaller. Does this reverse correlation indicate that the growing costs of buying and storing art have priced MoMA out of larger artworks? What is the relationship between size and the decision whether or not to acquire a work?

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Case Study Three:

Is the scope and definition of modernism expanding to include older artworks?

The challenge facing any museum dedicated to modern art is: keeping up-to-date. Modern art is constantly being produced. Like any leading museum, MoMA is:

  • growing its collection of newly-produced contemporary works

  • while also enhancing its collection of older works

  • and expanding the geographic and national representations of artists and artworks

The graph below compares the relationship between production year and acquisition year for 7,797 items. The red trend line is the average of the acquisition (horizontal) and production (vertical) axes. Dot color indicates gender. Dot size indicates the number of works by this artist acquired in this year.

In 1929, most new acquisitions were produced in the 1920s – modernism was a new movement and a new idea. Today, new acquisitions range in date from the late 1800s to the early 2000s – the definition of modernism has grown to encompass both newer and older works. But, the average date of new acquisitions is between 1950 and 1960. There is modern art recently produced, and then there is modern art that is not as new but can reveal the history and birth of “modernism.” This is, so to speak, the history of the present.

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Modernism is not a geographically limited phenomenon. With globalization and the march of capitalism, the area effected by modernity is growing. And as new regions of the world come into contact with modern technology, materials, and ideas, the qualities of their respective art and the practices of their artists will change. Cultural institutions, particularly museums dedicated to modern art, are positioned to curate these global trends through the kinds of works they acquire and display in their galleries. More broadly speaking, the kinds of stories museums and curators can tell about history may reflect the geographic, gender, and temporal strengths (or weaknesses) of their collections.

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Links to Resources

The original datasets can be viewed or downloaded below:

  • MoMA’s dataset from GitHub is free to download here. It is published with the following license: Creative Commons Public Domain (CC0). The information presented above reflects this dataset as of 17 October 2018. New entries after this date are not included as these infographics are not updated in real-time.
  • The dataset, derived from MoMA’s, is also free to download here from Tableau Public.
  • These infographics are not affiliated with MoMA. MoMA does not endorse the conclusions of the authors, who themselves take sole responsibility. The conclusions presented below are limited by the scope of MoMA’s published metadata.
  • This author is aware that, according to some definitions, gender is not a binary. Yet, the colors pink and blue code for traditional gender norms. This color palette is for visual clarity; it does not represent an endorsement or rejection of this gender binary.
  • I have created similar data visualisations analysing:

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Big Data and Historic Preservation in New York City

What can a data analysis of New York City’s landmarks reveal about trends in the historic preservation movement?

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The video above is a visual history of landmarks preservation in New York City.

All records are downloaded from NYC Open Data. Soundtrack is from freesound.org

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Introduction

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There is an ongoing debate between in New York City between developers seeking to rebuild the city in the image of global capitalism and preservationists seeking to slow the rate of change and protect the appearance of the city’s many and distinct neighborhoods. This debate plays out every year in the hundreds of buildings  and structures that are added to (or rejected from) the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s running list of landmarks (LPC). Once added, landmarked buildings cannot be modified without first seeking approval from the city. And, to date, there is no process for de-listing a landmark once added – unless (sometimes intentional) decay by neglect requires demolition. This aspect of preservation is particularly contentious for developers because the legal barriers of preservation law are permanent, binding, and affect all current occupants and future owners.

Historic preservationists are the arbiters of taste. The sites they preserve will become the aesthetic lens through which future generations will appreciate the city’s past. The sites they do not preserve or neglect to protect from demolition will be lost to history – no longer a living testimony to vanished builders, architects, and immigrants. On the individual scale, preservation is about protecting structures of value. On the larger scale, preservation is part of a larger historical debate: Which aspects of the past are worth preserving? And what kinds of narratives can historians tell about cities, based on the material evidence that survives?

In this debate, there are many factors driving preservation: fear of losing heritage, fear of change, well-intentioned activists in the spirit of Jane Jacobs and NIMBYism, or concerned scholars and public servants who see something unique in the sites they add. The objective of this paper is to assess arguments made in favor of or against historic preservation through an analysis of publicly-available landmark records from the New York City Open Data website. We identified two datasets, both containing ~130,000 spreadsheet entries for every single LPC listing. The first dataset is entitled “Individual Landmarks” 1 and describes the date entered in the LPC database, the address, lot-size, the geographical coordinates of every single structure, etc. The second dataset is entitled “LPC Individual Landmark and Historic District Building Database” 2  and includes the construction date, original use, style, and address of all structures. We downloaded these two datasets as .csv files, imported them into mapping software called Tableau Public, merged them into a single file, and then conducted a data analysis – the results of which inform all the statistics presented here and drive the conclusions drawn in the following pages.

From this research methodology, we identify heretofore hidden trends in historic preservation. Firstly, we identify contextual preservation and historic districts as a means to protect the human scale of neighborhoods. Secondly, we identify a marked and potentially unjustifiable preference of preservationists for protecting pre-1945 structures. And thirdly, our data hints at the strength of market forces and developers in shaping the scope of preservation.

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Case Study One:

Distribution of Landmarks over the Five Boroughs

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Above is a tree map of the distribution of the 128,594 landmarks across the five boroughs. This includes both buildings and non-buildings, like street lamps, parks, statues, etc. The size of each rectangle corresponds to the number landmarks within one historic district. Or, in the case of the largest rectangle for each borough, the box represents the number of individual landmarks outside historic districts for that borough. The size of the box reflects the number of buildings within each district – the larger the box, the more buildings within that category. Each historic district is color-coded by borough and grouped alongside all the other districts within that borough. Manhattan. Brooklyn. Queens. Bronx. Staten Island.

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125,594 records above

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At first glance, we notice several trends. The densities and locations of preserved districts do not correspond to the most densely populated areas. For instance, Manhattan, with population only 19.3% of the citywide total, 3 has 30.46% of the landmarks. By comparison, Staten Island, with only 5.55% of the population, has 16.24% of landmarks – the greatest per capita number for all five boroughs. Or, the Bronx with 17.06% of people has only 5.36% – the lowest per capita. Given that the land area of Bronx (42.47 mi²) is comparable to Staten Island (58.69 mi²), and given that their histories are equally rich, then does the Bronx objectively have fewer landmarks worth preserving? Or, do preservation trends follow patterns of economics and race – with economically advantaged neighborhoods having stronger legal and political leverage to maintain and restore the appearance of their architectural heritage?

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Manhattan Brooklyn Queens Bronx Staten Island
% of NYC population in this borough 19.30% 30.72 27.36 17.06 5.55
% of NYC landmarks in this borough 30.46% 25.65 21.98 5.36 16.24

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Historic preservation does not operate off of a tabula rasa with objective standards and processes for listing, despite appearances to the contrary. There is an undeniably spatial pattern to urban growth and income inequality with a city segregated into districts by age of construction, race, and income. Historic preservation may operate on this unequal economic fabric.

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128,212 records above

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Case Study Two:

Contextual preservation?

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One of the most common criticisms of the preservation movement is that it limits economic development by preventing the demolition of older structures and their replacement with larger and more desirable new ones. Additionally, historic preservation is linked to a lengthy (and expensive) approvals process that developers must pass through. A committee of historians reviews each application and suggests revisions to ensure that new development is either a) “contextually” respectful of its neighbors if involving construction on vacant land or b) preserved the existing fabric if involving rehabilitation of an already landmarked building. 4

Developers often claim that historic preservation discourages development and reduces the potential of land to be profitably developed. To support this, developers will acknowledge that there doubtless are structures worth preserving, but that the same legal protections extended to genuinely historic structures are also extended to their less-significant neighbors. This criticism of preservation applies to vacant parcels within historic districts or more modern buildings that are surrounded by historic ones. Our data does not support this claim.

Within the city’s unequal fabric with pockets of concentrated, wealth, poverty, and history, we identify three general categories of protected buildings. First, there are individual landmarks, such as bridges, large railroad stations, statues, or street furniture. While aesthetically and historically important, these individual sites are rarely adjacent to other landmarks. Also, new development can occur adjacent with few restrictions on zoning. No approval from the LPC is necessary – only construction permits and variances as needed. The case for preserving these structures is strong, as application for each was individually made and individually approved on a case-by-case basis by city government and often with approval from the landowner at time of designation. Grand Central Station and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral are two examples. These structures, on account of their height, size, or appearance are genuine landmarks and place-makers in defining neighborhood identity.

Second, there are historic districts, comprising continuous stretches of smaller buildings. This includes structures of various age, use, function, and size. Preservation here is justified on the grounds that 1) the individual structures are historically unique or “significant” and 2) the relationships between these structures and the human-level streetscape they form are worth preserving. Here zoning and use restrictions may be restrictive as the majority of historic districts fall within mostly residential neighborhoods. Height limits are also stricter with the frequent stipulation that new additions must be setback from the main façade line and under one story. From the text of the 2018 city-wide zoning ordinance, zoning aims: “to protect the character of certain designated areas of historic and architectural interest, where the scale of building development is important, by limitations on the height of buildings.” 5

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Third, there are contributing and vacant parcels within these historic districts. The protections applied to category two buildings are extended to category three on the grounds that development on these less important sites will affect the quality and aesthetics of adjacent structures. The best example of this kind of contextual preservation comes in the form of a series of structures. Most may retain their original appearance, but a few interspersed between post-date the neighborhood’s age, are built in a different style, or suffered from demolition before the area was preserved. Above are two examples of these kinds of contributing structures.

If ever a case is made against historic preservation, the flaws seem greatest with this form of contextual preservation because these structures are preserved and their modification legally obstructed solely on grounds of their location. Additionally, there are numerous vacant lots within historic districts, where the argument could be made that the legalities of preservation disincentive the kind high-density development that is preferable to developers. However, an analysis of our dataset reveals that non-designated structures comprise less than 15% of all items within historic districts. The data is broken down on the table below, by borough and for the city as a whole:

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Borough . Manhattan Brooklyn Queens Bronx Staten Island

NYC

Totals

Designated structures

(individual and districts)

32,376 28,680 25,560

17,325

 

5,344 109,285
Non-designated structures within historic districts 6,465 3,783 2,626 3,118

1,512

 

17,504
Number of vacant parcels within historic districts 40 457 74 444 29 1,044
Percentage of buildings in historic districts that are non-designated and/or vacant 16.731% 13.713% 9.5541% 17.054% 22.38% 14.74%
Borough totals 38,881 30,920 28,260 20,887 6,885

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This yields 128,594 6 protected buildings (designated and non-designated). According to NYC’s public database, there are 857,271 structures total in the city. 7 Meaning that protected buildings comprise slightly less than 14% of all structures in the city. In addition, the non-designated and vacant parcels within historic districts comprise less than 2.16% of the city’s fabric. These values stand in contrast to comparable world cities like Paris and London, which are millennia older and have protected a greater percentage of their historic fabric. Below, for instance, are two comparative maps of the conservation areas (green) in the Westminster area of London 8 versus those in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn (purple). 9

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Case Study Three: Keeping up to pace?

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When the first batch of 2,312 historic structures was landmarked in 1965, their average year of construction was 1882 – representing an 83-year gap during which these structures were not protected. In 2018, the average construction year of newly landmarked structures is 1908, representing a 110-year gap. Thus in the 53 year life of the landmarks movement from1965 to 2018, the average age of a building when landmarked has increased by 37 years.

The more recent inclusion of modernist skyscrapers, like the Lever House (1982) and Seagram Building (1989), may give the impression that the criteria for what qualifies as aesthetically important and worth preserving has expanded. Our data does not support this conclusion, because while recent years have seen newer landmarks granted legal status, the rate of designation has not kept up with the rate of construction and, in fact, has fallen behind.

The graph below illustrates the date a structure was registered on the horizontal axis measured against its construction date on the vertical axis. Every single protected structure is plotted on this graph by color. Individual dots represent individual sites. The black trend line indicates the only moderate increase in the numbers of modern structures receiving protection.

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5,451 records above

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Is historic preservation falling behind, even though the rate of construction and population has increased? Or, is the city no longer building the kinds of structures deemed worthy of preservation? This 16-year gap could be a fluke, or it could be indicative of larger trends.

To qualify for landmark status in NYC, a building must be older than 30 years or older than 50 if added to the National Register. From a publication by the The Trust for Architectural Easements: “LPC property must be at least 30 years old – no exceptions – whereas a National Register property must be at least 50 years old, unless it is found to be of exceptional significance, in which case there is no age limit at all.”  10 When the LPC was formed in 1965, none of the buildings from 1935 to 1965 would have qualified for designation. Today, as of 2018, any building from before 1988 could qualify. However, less than 5% of all listed structures date from the 43 years from 1945 to 1988 – a significant time in this metropolis’ history as it transitioned from an industrial economy to the world’s financial center and a major hub for tourism.

The graph below illustrates the age range of all landmarks and the distribution of landmarks by year. The horizontal axis corresponds to years, and the vertical axis represents the number of landmarks built in that year that are now included in LPC listings. Clearly, the vast majority falls within the 90-year span of 1850 to 1940, with few landmarks falling outside this range. The peak is in 1895 with 13,275 records from this year alone – a surprising anomaly. The rise and falls on this graph may also correspond to roughly 20-year periods of boom and bust recessions, along with corresponding halts to new construction. The shortage of pre-1850 sites is easily explained by the vagaries of time and the relatively smaller size of the city before 1850. But, the chronic shortage post-1940 may hint at a broader historical oversight or change in the way new buildings are designed and age.

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93,691 records above

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The LPC was created partially in response to the demolition of New York Penn Station in 1963. And, it was an attempt to prevent further destruction of aesthetically significant buildings, many of which had already been lost to progress and urban renewal. By the 1960s, urban renewal was winding down and New York was entering the prolonged recession of the 1970s and 80s, during which the rate of urban renewal and highway construction ground to a halt. In this light, the LPC originated as a post-facto response to demolition that had been going on for decades.

Despite the history of the LPC, must land marking occur after destruction has begun? There are doubtless hundreds of post-war buildings of significance – that have not yet been identified or deemed worthy. The question is not: Should we list these buildings? Rather, the question should be: Why are we not listing these buildings before they are threatened? And why should LPC status be limited to buildings older than 30 years? The demolition of the city’s American Folk Art Museum by MoMA in 2014 is one example. 11 The Temple of Dendur and its custom-built exhibit hall is another instance of an interior landmark completed pre-1988 and potentially eligible for LPC status.

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Case Study Four:

How might the preservation movement reflect economic patterns?

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As land values increase, and as it becomes increasingly unsustainable to develop land with single-family residential structures and townhomes, newer buildings are more likely to be commercial, mixed-use, and multi-family. However, the historic preservation movement exhibits a preference toward land-marking residential structures. The table below illustrates the types of buildings preserved, their quantity, and the percentage of the total number of preserved buildings this quantity represents. The buildings are listed below by their original functions. So, a building designed as a factory but more recently converted to residential is still listed as “industrial.”

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Type of Building Quantity Percent of Total
Residential 35,575 27.66%
Civic 16,920 13.16%
Street Furniture 13,943 10.84%
Commercial 4,574 3.56%
Infrastructure 2,490 1.94%
Transportation 2,145 1.67%
Institutional 2,026 1.58%
Religious 1,509 1.17%
Mixed Use 1,324 1.03%
Vacant 1,178 0.92%
Military 759 0.59%
Industrial 436 0.34%
Outbuildings 12 32,391 25.19%
All other uses 14,970 11.64%
Totals 128,594 100%

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The most salient figure in the above table is the disproportionate representation of residential and civic buildings that are preserved. For instance, as of 2018, Manhattan has 39,172 landmarked items. Of these landmarks, 35% (= 13,816) are residential use, 9% (= 3,443) are commercial, and 1.5% (= 650) are mixed-use. Mixed use, in this case, is defined by commercial on the lower level and offices or residential on upper floors. However, there are more commercial and mixed-use buildings in Manhattan than there are residential buildings. 13 So, the percentages of landmarked buildings are not representative of the percentage of residential versus commercial and mixed-use buildings that exist. In short, our data supports the conclusion that residential buildings seem more likely to receive landmarked status than commercial structures.

The numbers of landmarked civic structures strengthens the above conclusion. New York City owns 14,000 properties 14 across five boroughs. This MAS estimate does not include public monuments, statues, civic buildings built by the city and later sold, or civic buildings originally built for private use but acquired by the city. Yet, there are 16,920 landmarks designated as serving “civic” functions, including 11,726 landmarked items relating to hospitals and 571 related to armories. In fact, among all the 440 types of landmarks in this city, civic-related structures have the highest rates of landmark status and the rate of preservation closest to 100%.

What explains these inequalities? One explanation could be that civic sites, particularly those built in the early 20th century tend to be high quality, well built, and designed to articulate the civic values of democracy and government through the beauty of the neoclassical style. Therefore, these buildings are more likely to be deemed worthy of preservation. But, this interpretation is doubtful because there is little factual basis to assume that civic structures are “better than” commercial and mixed-use.

A more believable explanation could be that civic and residential structures are easier to landmark than commercial. The maintenance and upkeep of civic structures is managed by government and elected officials, who are responsible to voter complaints and community pressure. And, the public can threaten to vote out of office any leaders who neglect historic, city-owned properties. Additionally, there are few reasons for developers or residents to object to land-marking civic sites, as legally protecting these structures adds more red tape, not to city residents, but to the future bureaucrats who restore these sites. Again, this is speculation.

Still yet, there is a stronger factor influencing preservation. Civic structures are not subject to market pressures, and city-owned buildings do not have to help their occupants make a profit. For instance, the cost of rehabbing a historic public school building might more expensive than just demolishing and rebuilding it new, but the city is under less pressure to demolish the structure because, fortunately, city government is not run like a profit-driven corporation. And, so historically valuable but functionally outdated city buildings may be more likely to be landmarked and restored than demolished, as illustrated by the unequal distribution of building types in our data.

By contrast, commercial and residential structures are subject to strong market pressures favoring demolition. An old factory that has outlived its designed lifespan and is no long suitable for modern-day production line assembly will be abandoned or demolished if it cannot be converted. But, the process of conversion may require completely gutting the structure, environmental remediation, and a lengthy approvals process. If the cost of renovation is more expensive than the income the renovated structure can bring in, then there will be greater pressure to demolish than to preserve the fated structure. City-owned libraries and hospitals face less of this kind of pressure.

Our data also reveals a spatial concentration of residential buildings in historic districts. For instance, most of Manhattan’s residential landmarks are concentrated within historic districts in the Upper West, Upper East, and skyscraper valley between Midtown and Downtown. Residential sites are more likely to be collectively landmarked as part of districts. As illustrated in the table below, 94.93% of residential landmarks citywide fall within historic districts, and only 5.07% are outside these districts:

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Residential All Other Types
Within historic districts 35,029 = 94.93% 61,124 = 66.66%
Individual landmarks outside historic districts 1,872 = 5.07% 30,569 = 33.34%
Total Number 36,901 = 100% 91,693 = 100%

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What explains the disproportionate protection of residential structures? One possible motivating factor could be income-levels in historic neighborhoods and associated protectionism. The map on the following page overlays the locations of historic districts over 2018 block-level census data for income levels and length of residence. Our analysis reveals a spatial overlap between historic districts and areas with higher incomes and longer-term residents. For instance, the average length of residence for residents in the Brooklyn Heights historic district is between 17.1 and 48 years and incomes range between $51,500 and $289,000, while the rest of Brooklyn averages between 10.3 and 12.8 years and under $51,500 income. Similar patterns play out in the Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side. In short, residents in historic neighborhoods seem more likely to stay-put, and length of residency may be a proxy for measuring the degree to which residents are invested in maintaining the physical appearance and improving their community. From this data, we posit that the relationship between historic preservation and length of residency is too strong and too consistent across the five boroughs to be correlation. There may be causative factors at play between income, emotional investment in one’s community, and preservation, yet this remains to be conclusively confirmed by future data.

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Click map to launch interactivity − opens in new tab.

Individual landmarks in red outside historic districts in brown tend to be commercial structures.
There is no immediately identifiable relationship between the siting of commercial landmarks,
and the income levels of their adjacent community.

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The spatial relationship illustrated above is surprising for another reason: gentrification. Normally, gentrification in the past 20 years is associated with rising income levels and the displacement of existing residents. The physical appearance of historic neighborhoods should also make them more desirable for gentrification. However, the average length of residency is longer in historic than in non-historic districts, even though income (and presumably rent, too) are higher in historic districts. That is, neighborhoods with historic preservation more often have high and rising incomes with long length of residency. This seems contradictory because high-income areas should be more likely to push out longer-term tenants from the pre-gentrification era.

By contrast, neighborhoods without the benefit of historic preservation more often have high incomes and lower length of residency, meaning a high turnover rate. The Williamsburg neighborhood is one example with incomes over $51,500 (similar to Brooklyn Heights) but length of residency under 10.3 years. Additional research should examine if rent-stabilized apartments are more likely to be concentrated in historic districts. There is the possibility that the legal barriers of preservation make it more difficult for developers to push out existing residents, gut an old building, and then rebuild it to charge higher rent. Unfortunately, New York City Open Data has no information on the spread or geographical clustering of rent stabilized apartments.

These possible relationships between historic preservation and gentrification need to be confirmed by further analysis.

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Conclusion: The Future of Historic Preservation

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There are limits to our data – these statistics cannot reveal the intricacy of historic sites, the unique identity of each, or the reasons why each justify (or do not justify) protection. But, this data can reveal big picture trends in preservation, its biases, and some of its problems. While these trends are not visible from walking the street or looking at individual sites, they become visible through the lens of data. This data may also reveal causative relationships between income, length of residency, and the political strength of preservationists.

From this data-driven analysis, we can make deduct several conclusions:

  1. Historic preservationists prefer to landmark and protect pre-WWII buildings, even though numerous post-war examples may qualify. As a result, there are a disproportionately high number of pre-war buildings with landmark status, and comparably few post-war landmarks – less than 5%. Similarly, the rate at which landmarks are designated has not kept up with the pace of new construction.
  2. The market pressures to demolish civic structures are weaker than the market pressures to demolish commercial and residential. As a result, a disproportionately high percentage of city-owned or institutional buildings are preserved, and a disproportionately low percentage of commercial and industrial.
  3. Tangent to the previous point, a disproportionately high percentage of landmarks are for residential use and fall within residential districts. This may indicate that landmarks preservation is a strategy for neighborhood protectionism – that is, an effort by residents to ensure that the appearance of their community is not changed due to new development. Neighborhoods of lower-density old buildings, like the West Village, retain their popularity, charm, and high property values thanks to strong legal barriers against change that could lead property values to depreciate. While these barriers may discourage and prevent developers from reaping larger profits by building higher and larger, they also ensure that existing residents’ investment in their condos or homes will remain more stable.
  4. The, economic success of New York on a global scale and its continuing construction boom has led to the demolition of many non-residential commercial landmarks that might have otherwise qualified for landmark status had New York not been as successful. In the words of Professor Kenneth Jackson: 15

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History is for losers. By that I mean, cities which have chosen to preserve all their historical monuments and locations usually do so because no one else wants the land to develop. Modern progress has passed them by. New York’s history doesn’t litter the streets visually, it can be hard to find sometimes, but that is because the city is an economic winner on a global scale.

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New York is indeed a winner “on a global scale,” with Wall Street as a symbol of America’s economic power, the United Nations as a symbol of political power, and the city’s over three million foreign born as representative of power of immigration and globalization to shape a city. But, this progress comes at a historic and aesthetic cost – the consequences of which are reflected in the dark and sterile skyscraper canyons of Midtown, the worsening congestion in cars and subways, and (more pressingly) this city’s fragility when faced with ecological pressures, such as flooding, hurricanes, and climate change. At the level of historic preservation, this progress comes at the cost of losing New York’s distinctive architectural heritage to the force of globalized change. The Gilded Age mansions on Fifth Avenue and the built-to-last-forever Penn Station are gone, as are the picturesque skylines and distinctive ethnic neighborhoods of Berenice Abbott’s 1930s photographs. The New York of today is different – whether it is architecturally poorer for progress can only be judged in retrospect. Historians prefer not to speak of what-ifs when writing about history, but would it have been possible to accept the benefits of progress without sacrificing history? This, however, is a question beyond the limits of data to contemplate.

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Links to Resources

The original datasets can be viewed or downloaded below:

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Footnotes

This author is not affiliated in any way with NYC Open Data, LPC, or the New York City government.

  1. “Individual Landmarks,” New York City: Open Data, https://data.cityofnewyork.us/Housing-Development/Individual-Landmarks/ch5p-r223 (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  2. “LPC Individual Landmark and Historic District Building Database” New York City: Open Data, https://data.cityofnewyork.us/Housing-Development/LPC-Individual-Landmark-and-Historic-District-Buil/7mgd-s57w (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  3. New York City’s 2017 population estimate is 8.623 million.
  4. More on this topic: Rachel Mollie Levy, “Contextual Zoning as a Preservation Planning Tool in New York City,” (Master’s diss., Columbia University: Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, & Preservation, 2015) https://academiccommons.columbia.edu/doi/10.7916/D8HD7TVM (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  5. “General Purposes of Residence Districts,” in The Zoning Resolution: Web Version, (published by New York City Zoning Department, 2018), pp.252-53. https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/planning/download/pdf/zoning/zoning-text/allarticles.pdf (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  6. The total for all five boroughs is 127,833. Including landmarks not registered in any borough, like Ellis Island, the total is 128,954.
  7. New York City Planning Department, “Spatial Data Properties and Metadata,” from MapPLUTO, (published to the web, 2018), pp.5 https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/planning/download/pdf/data-maps/open-data/meta_mappluto.pdf?v=18v1 (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  8. “Conservation Areas,” City of Westminster, https://www.westminster.gov.uk/conservation-areas (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  9. Published by NYC Zoning Department, “NYC_Historic_Districts_2016,” ArcGIS 9geographic information system), https://data.cityofnewyork.us/Housing-Development/Historic-Districts/xbvj-gfnw (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  10. Anthony W. Robins, “Differences between Landmarks Commission Designations and National Register Listing,” in Similarities and Differences between Landmarks Preservation Commission Regulation and Donation of a Preservation Easements, (Prepared for The Trust for Architectural Easements, 2009), pp.10, http://architecturaltrust.org/~architec/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/1a-2009-0512-Robins-Report.pdf (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  11. Michael Kimmelman, “The Museum With a Bulldozer’s Heart,” The New York Times, January 14, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/14/arts/design/momas-plan-to-demolish-folk-art-museum-lacks-vision.html (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  12. “Outbuildings” mostly include garages, stables, street furniture, and accessory structures, generally small. This category skews our results. Since many accessory structures were turned into residential structures, the actual percentage of residential dwellings should be slightly higher than 27.66%.
  13. Manhattan has more residential than commercial landmarks even though more people work here than live here. On weekdays, 3.1 million people work in Manhattan, while only 1.6 million live here.
  14. “New York City owns or leases 14,000 properties around the five boroughs—a public asset roughly the size of Brooklyn.” From: “Public Assets: Mapping the Sixth Borough of New York,” The Municipal Art Society of New York, https://www.mas.org/initiatives/public-assets/ (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  15. “Quotes from Kenneth Jackson,” CULPA, http://culpa.info/quotes?professor_id=97 (retrieved 5 November 2018).

A Brief History of Art

…according to the Metropolitan Museum, NYC

 

According to its founding mandate: “The mission of The Metropolitan Museum of Art is to collect, preserve, study, exhibit, and stimulate appreciation for and advance knowledge of works of art that collectively represent the broadest spectrum of human achievement at the highest level of quality.”

Over the past few years, the Metropolitan Museum has catalogued over 25% of its holdings online. This represents ~590,000 objects, covering over 5,000 years of human history from 17 curatorial departments. The diversity of objects in a museum’s collection (and the amount of contextual information known about these objects) may reflect the kinds of narratives a museum can curate about artistic and global history. This animation charts the provenance and year of production of every single object that is catalogued on the Metropolian Museum website, whenever this information is known.

 

 

In this animation, each colored dot indicates one geographical location represented by art in the Met’s online collection. The dot’s location indicates where this object was created. The dot’s size corresponds to the number of objects from this location. The time each dot appears corresponds to the year this object was created. Collectively this animation reveals the potential geographical and temporal preferences of the Met’s online inventories for objects collected in the common era (the year 1 c.e. to present-day). The dots above are assumed to be a relatively accurate sample size.

However, there are many objects in the collections with known provenance but unknown production date. Figure 1 below illustrates objects with known provenance and known year. Figure 2 shows objects with known provenance, regardless of whether year is known. The data-set in figure 2 has approximately double the number of objects, but these are concentrated in the same regions as objects in figure 1. This is because objects with known year also tend to have known provenance. Hence, figures 1 and 2 exhibit similar tendencies.

 

Art objects from ancient cultures like China, Egypt, and Sumeria frequently have known provenance but unknown year of production. This year might be estimated to the level of century with the help of carbon dating and through comparison with similar objects whose date is known for certain. Were the dates of these ancient objects known for certain, they could have been included in the animation above, thereby increasing the size and density of dots in under-represented regions. In this case, the animation would have resembled figure 2.

There is one more interpretive problem: Does this visualization reveal more about the diversity of the collections, or the preferences for which objects are selected for inventory online? For instance, does the statistical absence of objects from East Asia, in comparison to France, mean that the Met collects objects from East Asia less actively and in fewer quantities? Or, does this absence merely mean that fewer objects from the East Asian collections are selected for display on the museum website?

Metadata for this animation was downloaded here from the Met Museum’s website, then edited as a spreadsheet in excel and visualized in Tableau Public. This data was published by the museum staff in the public domain under a Creative Commons license. I am also publishing this visualization as an interactive map; it is open source and free to download  at this link.

 

Zoning and Affordable Housing in Newark

 

In the summer of 2017, I helped oppose the gentrification and rezoning of the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark. The area was zoned for buildings no higher than eight stories, which was respectful of the small and community scale of the existing structures. City officials, however, proposed rezoning a large section of the Ironbound for 18-story structures – four times taller than any other structure in the immediate area.

Motivated by profit, a large parking corporation and other landowners lobbied the city to increase the maximum allowable height – thereby increasing the value of their land and threatening the existing community with gentrification. The small streets and infrastructure of the Ironbound would not have been resilient or large enough to support such a large increase in density.

To oppose this ill-devised proposal, I created a computer simulation of how the neighborhood would appear, were the proposal passed. This computer simulation and the proposed legislation were also the subject of a Star Ledger article by human-interest reporter Barry Carter. I am providing the link to this article here. This computer simulation was also watched by members of the City Council and the property owners effected by this legislation. I also spoke five times before the City Council and at community meetings to oppose this project and argue for development in Newark that is genuinely sustainable and genuinely respectful of the existing community and the city’s people.

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Computer Simulation

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Speech before the City Council on Tuesday, September 19

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The text of this speech is transcribed below.

I’d like to speak on why opposing MX-3 is consistent with supporting inclusionary zoning.

To my knowledge, 7 members of the City Council voted in favor of inclusionary zoning. This is an important move to protect our city most vulnerable residents and to preserve affordable housing in our downtown.

MX-3 and upzoning will jeopardize this important piece of legislation.

Why?

inclusionary zoning kicks in when (firstly) developers build structures over 30-40 units and (secondly) they request a variance to build this structure.

But, when an area is zoned for larger and taller structures developers can build more and larger structures WITHOUT requesting a variance to build larger. And when developers do not need to request a variance for height, it is less likely they will need to include affordable housing in their project.

In effect, MX-3 will remove the requirement to build affordable housing in the effected area. When zoning is overly generous to developers and zoning permits overly large scale, develops do not need variances. And when developers don’t need variances, they do not have to built affordable housing.

In addition, since MX-3 could be expanded to anywhere within a half mile radius of Penn Station, it is quite possible that MX-3 could be expanded in the future. In effect, this would eliminate the requirement for developers to build affordable housing in this area. Upzoning does not benefit affordability.

Secondly, what is sustainability?

Sustainability and transit-oriented development is not just about a short distance to Penn Station. It is not just about green roofs or any type of development.

Sustainability is about affordable housing that we the people can afford to live in. We don’t want luxury condos for the 1% in the MX-3 area. We want development that our residents and you can afford.

All of us can agree that WE ALL WANT DEVELOPMENT. But, we want development that is 1. Affordable 2. Respectful of the Ironbound community. And 3. Respectful of our city’s diversity and history.

MX-3 is none of these things. It is about landbanking and benefiting the 1% wealthiest outside our city. I encourage you to strike down MX-3 and to encourage instead an open dialogue with the community about SUSTAINABLE and AFFORDABLE development in our city.

Developers should come to Newark and development should happen. But, we should not upzone entire sections of our city, in effect removing the requirement for affordable housing, undermining the inclusionary zoning we just created, and jeopardizing the recent master plan we created with public participation.

The Digital Cathedral of Amiens

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Cross Section of Choir

Cross Section from the Southeast Side of Cathedral

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Research Abstract

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amiensAs the apotheosis of Gothic architecture built during the 13th century, Amiens Cathedral is a dynamic and living structure. As the ninth largest Gothic cathedral in the world and one built in relatively short span of time, Amiens Cathedral exhibits remarkable stylistic unity throughout. Alongside the Parthenon, Amiens is taught each semester to several hundred students in Art Humanities. This has been a course required since 1947 of all undergraduate students in Columbia University’s Core Curriculum. This cathedral and the animations I created are currently used in classroom instruction.

My objective is to recreate Amiens Cathedral as it appeared in the 15th century. My method is to build an accurate computer model of the entire cathedral, accurate to the inch, photo-realistic, and fully interactive. My hope is to find new and creative ways to engage students and visitors with this work of architecture.

The final video sequence is in two parts. One, a three minute construction sequence of the cathedral’s erection between 1220 and 15th century, which has been viewed over 10,000 times on YouTube. Two, an eight minute fly-through of the finished work of art. Viewers approach the cathedral through the narrow medieval city streets and circumnavigate the exterior from bird’s eye and ground level. Viewers then enter the cathedral and are guided through the complex interior spaces. This trilogy is complemented by historically appropriate music from 13th century French composer, Pérotin and 15th century composer Josquin des Prés, who is incidentally also used on the Music Humanities component of the Core.

Amiens has undergone significant revisions and the destruction of almost all its original stained glass windows and large parts of its nave. Through digital modeling, it is possible to restore the structure to its idealized appearance as its initial architect intended. Through video, we can recreate and expand the intended audience of this building, recreating digitally the experience of pilgrimage. Through virtual reality, we can encourage new ways of engaging with art and architecture.

A building is dynamically experienced as a sequence of sights and rooms. A research text about such a building, however, can only capture a limited amount of a structure. Photography, computer simulations, and film are, by comparison, dynamic and sometimes stronger mediums to communicate the visual and engineering complexity of a building. This project seeks to capture that dynamism through a visual, auditory, and user interactive product. The nuances of gothic, in particular, are ideally conveyed through the creative use of computer simulations and interactive graphics.

Students can download this model and freely edit, revise, and explore from their personal computer. Over 1,000 students and scholars have downloaded and 3d printed this model, which is currently being used by students at Reading University (UK) to study acoustic archaeology. This model of Amiens Cathedral is built with free computer modeling software called Sketchup. Sketchup has a wide range of drawing applications, architecture, interior design, and civil engineering. And, for computer modeling software, it is remarkably easy to use. With just a few commands, such as draw, pull, animate, and toggle, students and teachers unfamiliar with the program can build their own models in minutes.

I hope this project will provide a meaningful and engaging way to explore Amiens Cathedral in the digital age. Watch the two films below, followed by links to explore this model in virtual reality. I am further expanding upon this work for my senior thesis and by building computer models for Columbia’s Media Center for Art History. I have also constructed computer simulations for the Eiffel Tower’s construction sequence and of a small parish church in Burford, England.

This project would not have been possible without the invaluable and expert guidance of my faculty mentor and professor Stephen Murray, who taught me in the Fall 2016 Bridge Seminar Life of a Cathedral. This project is also featured here on Columbia University’s website. A video lecture about the technical workings of this project is also available here.

 

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Part One

Amiens Cathedral: A Guided tour

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A guided tour of Amiens with music composed by Perotin: Viderunt Omnes, most likely composed in 1198, twenty-two years before construction started on Amiens. Viewers approach the cathedral from the west, as pilgrims would have in the Middle Ages. They then circle above and through the complex system of flying buttresses that support the cathedral. The animation finishes by viewing the cathedral from below the foundations in an abstract fashion; starting from the concrete ground-level view of the pilgrim, the animation becomes increasingly abstract and digital. This video was posted by the Media Center for Art History at Columbia.

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Part Two

Amiens Cathedral: Construction Sequence

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The construction sequence of Amiens Cathedral with music by Pérotin: Beata Viscera written circa 1200. A narrative written by Professor Stephen Murray are transcribed below:

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1220-c1225
Master Robert de Luzarches began work on the foundations
and lower wall. He may have been assisted by Thomas de Cormont

1225-30
Master Robert de Luzarches and Thomas de Cormont constructed the south nave aisle
rapidly to provide space for liturgical celebrations

1230-1235
Master Robert de Luzarches and Thomas de Cormont built the north nave aisle
soon afterwards

1240s-c1250
Master Thomas de Cormont constructed the upper nave
and belfries of western towers

c1250
Master Thomas de Cormont died having completed the upper nave,
begun the upper transept and laid out the lower choir

1250s-1260s
Master Renaud de Cormont completed the upper transept and upper choir. The axial
window of the choir clerestory was installed in 1269

1280s-c1310
Main roof installed from east to west

1360s-c1400
Construction of west towers

1528
Old steeple destroyed by lightning; construction of the grand clocher doré
completed c1533

 

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Part Three

Amiens Cathedral: In Cross Section

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The third video is the most abstract in the trilogy. Here, I have juxtaposed interior and exterior views of the cathedral, exploring the relationship between interior and exterior spaces. The sequence opens and closes with an abstract and animated cross section of the cathedral from below. Music is by Josquin des Prés: Mille Regretz.

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Section from South Façade of Cathedral

Section from Above

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The Cathedral from your Computer

An Interactive Animated Glossary of Amiens Cathedral

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In addition to viewing digital cathedral in animation, viewers can navigate the cathedral for themselves.

Here is a model of a single bay of the nave of Amiens Cathedral, with labyrinth below. I have imported actual images and textures into the model to create a photo-realistic effect. Click on individual numbers to see the names of the corresponding components of a medieval cathedral. Or orbit around this model to view from different angles. To learn more about this animated glossary of Amiens Cathedral, click here.

Please be patient while this model loads. Click and drag mouse to navigate around structure. Shift click to pan. Click the cube icon on the lower left hand corner of window to view in full screen. If you are on your tablet or smart phone, click the optical icon to view this model in virtual reality.

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Interactive Model of the Exterior of Amiens Cathedral

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I have uploaded just the exterior of Amiens for online viewers. Unfortunately, due to file size, it is not possible to view the entire model online. But, it is possible, to download this model to one’s computer and then edit in greater detail. Please be patient while this model loads. Click and drag mouse to navigate around structure. Shift click to pan.


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Section of the Nave Roof

Section of West Façade

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The Exterior Sequence

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Below are a few film stills taken from the animation sequence of Amien Cathedral’s exterior. Hover over image to display caption. Click thumbnail to view high resolution image in gallery.

South Side of Choir

The Buttresses and Rear of West Façade

Amiens Cathedral from Above

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The Interior Sequence

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Film stills of Amien’s interior. Hover over image to display caption. Click thumbnail to view full size in gallery. Gallery is organized linearly to evoke the sequence of interior spaces.

The Nave at Amiens, looking toward the choir.

Nave Aisles

Clerestory Level of Apse

Bracing and Joists Supporting the Roof

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Dynamic Angles

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Computer modeling allows one to explore angles of view not possible in reality. Of particular beauty are the view of Amiens from below. With the layers of earth and foundation removed, one looks up the grid of vaults and the forest of columns. The view is simultaneously a plan of the cathedral and a worm’s eye view, simultaneously of a real cathedral and an imagined world.

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Development of the Gothic Cathedral: An Evolution

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Amiens is at an apex in the development of Gothic cathedrals. The earliest cathedrals were modeled after Roman basilicas with two narrow aisles on either side of a long, rectangular open space spanned with wood trusses. This is best exemplified in the plan of Old Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Later Gothic cathedrals in following centuries modified this simple model. The dimensions and height of the cathedral grew, alongside the complexity of its vaults, columns, and ornaments. As Elizabeth Parker argues in “Architecture as Liturgical Setting,” the form and floor plan of the medieval cathedral evolved in response to changes in the use of the church and the rituals of the Mass.

Below are two animated videos illustrating the evolution of the Gothic cathedral: In cross section at left and in plan at right.

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Development of a cathedral nave from Early Christian to High Gothic. A process of evolution and synthesis.

Development of the cathedral floor-plan over 1,000 years. Animation courtesy of Columbia University.

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Many Thanks

This project would not have been possible without the generous help and expertise of Professor Stephen Murray at Columbia University’s Department of Art History & Archaeology. I am also indebted to Center for Career Education for funding this project via its Work Exemption Program. This project was inspired by a similar video trilogy from the 1990s about Amiens Cathedral: Revelations.

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What does “progress” mean to the American city?

PostcardT.

To view photos of progress in Newark, explore the interactive map above. If you are having difficulty using this map, please watch the accompanying video tutorial here.

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In 1916 and with great fanfare, Newark celebrated the 250<sup>th</sup> anniversary of its founding in 1666. Massive classical columns sculpted of plaster were erected at the city’s main intersection of Broad and Market Streets. Soldiers soon off to WWI marched down Broad Street with Colt rifles in hand. A few months later, women followed in their footsteps carrying banners reading: “The girls behind the men behind the guns.” The United States, though not yet in the midst of Europe’s World War, would soon be at battle and suffer 116,000 deaths, mostly caused by disease and influenza. Women had not the right to vote until 1920 and blacks, then a minority in Newark, lacked some of the basic human rights many of them sadly still lack.

 

 

And yet the citizens of Newark, alongside much of America, had come to believe that the future held great things in store for them. In a mere fifty years, America had transitioned from an agricultural to industrial economy, developed the world’s most extensive rail system, introduced electricity in every major city, and could boast the world’s largest industries from Chicago’s packinghouses to New York’s Wall Street stock market to Newark’s 37 breweries, countless tanneries, machine shops, and insurance companies. America had also the world’s most extensive power grid and the world’s most affordable and durable car: Henry Ford’s Model T. The way of life was rapidly changing, often for the better. At this rate of progress, the future looked promising. And as World War One drew to a close in 1919, America told herself that this would be “the war to end all wars” and confidently looked toward the future in hope of unremitting progress.

 

Drawing by Winsor McCary, which first appeared in a 1928 article "Newark 58 Years from Today"- when Newark would be 150 years from the year of its 1836 incorporation as a city.

Drawing by Winsor McCary, which first appeared in a 1928 article “Newark 58 Years from Today”- when Newark would be 150 years from the year of its 1836 incorporation as a city.

 

Indeed, leaders of the time predicted what the future would bring to cities like Newark and New York. Artists completed whimsical predictions of the Newark of 1986, a city of dense skyscrapers, railroads spewing outwards in all directions, and all manner of blimps and airplanes flying in the sky above. Planners like Harland Bartholomew drafted a master plan of Newark with infrastructure fit for a city of three million (Newark’s population in 1909 was a mere 280,000). Newark corporations like Public Service planned for the future by building the nation’s largest trolley terminal in 1916, capable of accommodating over 300 trolleys an hour. In fact, even the use of the words “future” and “progress” in printed media sharply increased after World War I, peaking around 1920 and declining every following year until World War Two.

 

Now, as Newark celebrates its 350th  anniversary in 2016, the city has opportunity to reflect on the past, at the Newark of 1916, and ask: What is the nature of progress?

 

A century ago, progress meant change; progress meant ceaseless improvement and the forward march of society. Today, after witnessing a century with two world wars, an almost fifty-year cold war, decolonization, and the emergence of an interconnected world economy, the implications of progress seem more ambiguous and less naively optimistic. Progress <em>does</em> mean an increasing standard of living, greater educational attainment, and a longer lifespan thanks to advances in public health. But, progress has also led to the decentralization of cities and the loss of distinct urban neighborhoods, processes that continue to play out today. Progress now means many much more than it did a century ago. Unlike the planners and artists of 1916, who predicted that progress would mean the never-ending onward and upward climb of Newark and America, society now knows that progress has not delivered on all it has promised.

America's Unhealthiest City

America’s Unhealthiest City

 

In many regards, Newark is a better city than it was in 1916. Newark, alongside the New York metropolitan region, is now more interconnected to the world economy. The average age of death has risen from age 50 in 1920 to about age 80 today. And, unlike the 1890s when the US Census Bureau deemed Newark as America’s “unhealthiest city,” Newark citizens now have better access to medicine at the city’s many hospitals. Admittedly, Newark is still a city of great poverty with 79,000 residents (or 28% of the population) below the poverty line. But, being in poverty today is very different from being in poverty a century ago when private charities were the extent of the public’s social safety net and when government did little to aid those in poverty. Our present society is, in many regards, more democratic, more egalitarian, less socially stratified, and a lot wealthier than before.

 

1911 Demographic Map

Newark’s Predominant Ethnic Groups in 1911

 

At the same time, often in the same name of progress, Newark has sacrificed large amounts of its cultural and architectural urban fabric. In the 1920s, Newark was home to countless densely built immigrant enclaves. Springfield Avenue was home to Newark’s Jewish community and its many businesses. A few blocks to the North was Newark’s Seventh Avenue Italian Community. And, behind City Hall was Newark’s Chinatown with its restaurants and alleged dens of vice. In the following decades, as the predominantly white population of second and third generation immigrants fled Newark for the suburbs, they left behind them the fabric of old and now empty neighborhoods. With time, many of these neighborhoods fell prey to demolition and urban renewal. For instance, the old Jewish and German communities of Springfield Avenue are now predominantly empty land, low-density public housing, and strip malls. A similar fate met Newark’s Italian community when it was forcefully evicted to construct the low-income Columbus Homes, ironically named in honor of the Italian explorer. Meanwhile, Newark’s Chinatown, Greektown, and other small communities are now largely devoid of large population or are dedicated to the ubiquitous parking lots of downtown Newark (click here for interactive map).

 

In the belief that the new is inherently better than the old, much of the city’s architectural fabric was outright demolished or replaced by structures inferior to what they replaced, as these images often testify to. The sterile housing project, strip mall, and block of low-income housing are not necessarily more beautiful than the dynamic neighborhoods of churches, businesses, and tenements they replace. Such is the direction progress can take.

 

Newark in 1873 and 2016

Downtown Newark in 1873 and 2016. Note the near complete loss of the neighborhood and its replacement by the city’s hockey arena at bottom and parking garage at top. In over a century, all but a handful of the structures pictured in 1873 were demolished.

 

A walk through Newark’s Central Ward will illustrate this direction of development. Let’s take a walk up Springfield Avenue, one of Newark’s major commercial thoroughfares linking the city’s center to its outlying suburbs. We stand in a desolate intersection at the corner of Prince Street and Springfield Avenue. In the distance rise the skyscrapers of Downtown. In front is a wide and street empty of pedestrians. Springfield Avenue slices diagonally through the urban grid, a band of asphalt with the faded markings of yellow and white lines indicating where to drive. On one side, is a vast empty lot now being developed into low-income housing. On the other side, is a low-slung housing project built to replace the decaying urban fabric. The scene is one of near desolation with few pedestrians and thousands of cars.

 

But, a century ago, this neighborhood was a vibrant immigrant community comparable to New York’s Lower East Side. Three and four story tenements edged up on either side of the street. Horse pulled trolleys and then electric streetcars plied up and down this street delivering immigrants to and from work. One block ahead was the Prince Street Synagogue, one of the city’s many vibrant churches and now an empty shell. A few block behind were three of Newark’s largest factories now closed, the Krueger Brewery, Pabst Brewery, and General Electric. Around us were crowded streets and the sound of horses on cobblestone pavement. This neighborhood, among many in Newark, was a dynamic one inhabited by subsequent waves of English, Irish, Germans, Jews, Italians, and finally Blacks during the Great Migration of the 1930s, each generation of immigrants leaving their mark on the built environment.

 

Prince Street

Prince Street in 1916 and 2016 respectively. The complete and total loss of a neighborhood.

 

As the flow of immigrants slowed and as industry ebbed away, this neighborhood has gradually vanished without the people that cared for and resided in it. Industry too slipped away with the consolidation and closure of nearby factories to move abroad, the subsequent loss of employment, and later riots that rocked the city in summer 1967. Newark and its reputation are still recovering from this loss of industry and employment, as the appearance former neighborhoods like this one attest to.

 

Scenes of contrast much like this one play out across Newark to varying degrees. The manifestations of changes to the built environment may vary from street to street and from building to building but the social and economic factors motivating these changes remain consistent: white flight, the automobile, loss of industry, suburbanization, racial tension, urban renewal, among other factors too numerous to discuss in detail.

 

A city is more than its monuments. A city is more than its grand civic structures and skyscrapers. A city is a collection of structures, small and large, wood and stone, humble and grand. Newark has dutifully maintained its large monuments: cathedrals, skyscrapers, and civic structures. But, Newark has not successfully maintained the cultural and urban fabric of its tenements, town-homes, warehouses, and single-family homes. Individually, these small-scale structures are seemingly unimportant. But, collectively, they constitute the living and breathing heart of Newark.

 

In the turn of the century view of downtown Newark, one sees the architectural styles popular at the time: stone and granite victorian and gothic structures. At left, is Prudential’s old headquarters demolished in 1956. At left, is Newark’s central post office. Unlike today, the postal service was central to the functioning of society and was often the most important structure in a town. This post office happens to be in the Romanesque Style popular in the 1880s. After the post office outgrew this structure and moved elsewhere in 1934, the structure was soon demolished in the 1940s to 1950s to construct an unimpressive dollar store. All buildings in this image are currently demolished.

Circa 1916, the Prudential Headquarters at left and the City Post Office at right. Both later demolished.

 

My belief is that by examining individual instances of changes to the urban fabric, one can gain a more accurate understanding of the nature of progress in the American city. Though individual instances of say a church’s or factory’s demolition and the disappearance of a neighborhood might seem to be events independent of larger social and historical trends, these individual historic events can and do provide hints and are visual evidence of larger historic movements. By comparing scenes of Newark then and now, one can start to understand the bigger picture how cities developed historically, how suburbanization and de-industrialization affected the city, and most importantly one can start to question the nature of progress.

 

In many regards, one can examine these images and wish that society still built structures as tall, as proud, and as ornamented as those of a century ago. But, one must also recognize that the built environment of a century ago was the unique product of its time and is in fact inseparable from its era. The same culture and society that laid forth the grand boulevards of Paris, the skyscrapers of Newark and New York, and the vast parklands that surround many American cities, was also a society that denied women the right to vote, blacks the right to participate in society, and colonial peoples the right to govern themselves.

 

In fact, one could posit that the beautiful architecture of early America and its vast public works at the turn of the century would not have been possible without the wealth derived from imperialism, the availability of cheap labor, and the masses of immigrants willing to work twelve hours a day in trying working conditions. To embrace the beauty of the past, one must also recognize the concomitant negatives that made this beauty possible to begin with.

 

We can examine these images of vanished urban fabric of tenements, churches, factories, and densely packed neighborhoods. But, we must recognize that neither past nor present is superior to the other. The built environment of each era is merely the product of its society, culture, and economy. The objective of examining this visual history is not to pass judgment on past or present but to objectively understand where Newark was, where Newark is, and where Newark will be in the near and distant future. A century after 1916, we look forward to the future.

 

Click here for an interactive map about Newark’s vanishing heritage.

 

A century after 1916

 

 

A Not So Perfect Past

 

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Downtown Newark

Downtown Newark in 1912 and almost a century later in 2016. Note that the building at right, in construction in the first image, is now abandoned and awaiting restoration.

 

New York: City of Immigrants

The Viaduct

Golden Rectangles SuperimposedAs northbound Broadway dips down to the valley of 125th Street, the subway soars above. A jumble of steel slicing through the orthogonal city grid. A massive arch, 250 feet from end to end. Two hundred tons of mass channeled into four concrete pylons, resting on the solid bedrock of Mannahatta.[1] It is the intersection where the underground and aboveground worlds of New York converge.

The subway, the alphabet lines that snake their way beneath the city and above the boulevards. Take the  to Brighton Beach, the to Jamaica, the to Forest Hills. From the towers of Midtown, to the factories of Flatbush, to the shouts of Shea Stadium, the subway is a panoply of color, motion, and people. For the price of $2.75, the world is within reach. Chinatown, Little Poland, Russia, Greece, India, and Italy, all neighborhoods joined by the umbilical cord of the subway. New York is a world unto herself, knit together by the bands of black asphalt and steel subway track.

Voice of the City - Joseph Stella, 1922

Voice of the City by Joseph Stella, 1922.

Once wooded island of the Lenape Indians, now home to a peculiar race of people. Every day, New Yorkers step to the tune of the stoplight. Every day, they ride in sardine can subways. Like smoked ham on the butcher’s hook, they hang from subway straps. And, at their respective stops, they scramble on to work, home, and family. All New York is a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their entrances as subway doors slide open, and they time their exits to the familiar recording of “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors Please.” [2]

 

New York, New York, home of the Lenape, town of the knickerbockers, and city of immigrants and refugees. The Irish fleeing famine in 1845, the Germans fleeing Revolution in ‘48, the Italians in ’71, and now waves of Dominicans and Mexicans, Chinese and Czechs. As the metropolis pulsates in motion, the spirit of the city evolves with each wave of newcomers who ride her subways, inhabit her humid tenements, and dream of home, family, and future.

In 1856, Walt Whitman published “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”[3] He writes of immigrants and bourgeois businessmen alike, all part of “the simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme.” The scheme of the city. The cogs of capitalism. The human machinery of the metropolis. To each immigrant her place, to each worker his seat, and to each vagabond a place in the breadline. Together they form the metropolis.

 

Whitman also writes:

Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,

Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,

Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,

Others will see the islands large and small;

Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,

A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,

Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.

 

Rome is nicknamed the “Eternal City” for its ancient architecture and generations of development. But, New York too is an “Eternal City” of sorts. Its skyscrapers may rise and fall with changing tastes and a growing economy. But, people are the “eternal” constant that marks life in this city. A city with over three million foreign born from all corners of the world. A city whose functioning depends on the legions of immigrant window washers, janitors, and taxi drivers without whom this urban machine would screech to a halt. The centuries of men and women of New York, city of immigrants, capital of finance, and home to over eight million. In 1856, Whitman wrote of a fluid and dynamic city of people not unlike the New York of today.

New York, you have not the tree-lined boulevards of Paris, the pomp of London, the antiquity of Rome, the parks of Peking, or the beauty of Budapest. But in your diversity of people, cuisine, and culture, you are something far greater. You are home to a city of strangers, a city of neighborhoods, a city of sound. A city of subways, taxis, and buses flowing from the canyons of Midtown to the quiet bedrooms of Westchester and Park Slope, like rivulets of water. Flow on city, flow with the tide, and glide through the eras. Flow on Isle of Mannahatta for “a hundred years hence”. A ship anchored on bedrock between the two proud rivers of the Hudson and East.

 

 

But, New York, you too are home to the injustices and inequalities urban life nurtures. Hart Island, New York’s pauper’s cemetery, is the final resting place of over a million mostly unknown corpses, the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses of immigrant New York. Over a quarter million infants are buried here, each one in an unmarked coffin hewn of pine, the size of a shoebox. Mass graves three coffins deep and 25 long. Nearby Riker’s Island, America’s largest jail, imprisons 10,000 a night awaiting trial in the city’s many courthouses. The South Bronx, per capita income $12,500, is a mere mile away from the Upper East Side, per capita income $85,000+. The glassy condos of Manhattan are priced at a million plus per piece, but these homes are only made possible by the immigrant workers and janitors paid $10 an hour to sweep the hallways of dust and wipe the windows of grit. And, every night, they too return to their homes in the gritty outer boroughs. They too ride the subway that burrows underground, as generations have before them.

In the 1880s, social reformer Jacob Riis was working on How the Other Half Lives. [4] Through photography, he captured the squalor, darkness, and misery of New York’s impoverished immigrant community. He showed children at work in sweatshops, vagabonds at work collecting the refuse of those more fortunate. He exposed the darkness of another world a few steps from Wall Street and a few miles from the opulent mansions and department stores of Fifth Avenue and Ladies’ Mile. That very same year, on March 26th 1883, the Vanderbilt Family of railroad fortune hosted the largest and most expensive costume ball in New York history, costing six million in today’s currency. While the idle rich came dressed as the “Count of Monte Cristo” and “Otho the Barbarian,” the poor slept in squalor a carriage ride away in the Lower East Side. As the New York Sun reported three days later, “[This] festivity represents nothing but the accumulation of immense masses of money by the few out of the labor of the many.” [5]

 

 

Though a century has passed since Riis, New York still is a city of social contrasts and economic disparity. Ironically, Jacob Riis’ Lower East Side is now a fashionable community for the upper middle class. But, the eternal New York City of immigrants endures in the outer boroughs of Flushing, Queens, Jackson Heights, South Bronx, and Bed Stuy. And, in many regards, their social condition is not too different from Riis’ era. His images of New York testify both to how much and to how little New York has changed. America’s Eternal City still is a place of great inequity and injustice.

New York aggregates and accents both the dynamism and the dangers of urban life. New York, a place of wealth and of anonymity. New York, a place for the powerful and for the disempowered. To appreciate the beauty of this environment, one must realize that this city too, like Chicago, Paris, and London “has been [and still is] one of the dark places of the earth.” [6] New York, like any living individual, has both beauty and darkness. This product of human labor and ingenuity is only as perfect as its imperfect Creator.

George Tooker depicts the alienation of urban life in his 1950 painting "Subway."

Subway by George Tooker, 1950.

As E.B. White wrote in 1949: “The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain illusive.” [7] Over 400 years since New York’s founding in 1609 by the Dutch, these words remain true as each generation of Men and Women creates the City in their own image. [8]

 

 

A City of Immigrants: Then and Now

For more about walking in New York, click here.

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Footnotes:

[1] Before Manhattan was settled by Dutch explorers in 1609, it was known by the local Lenape Indians as Mannahatta.

[2] Adapted from “All the World’s a Stage” by William Shakespeare

[3]Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” from the 1849 book Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.

[4] How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis, 1890.

[5] The New York Sun, March 29th, 1883.

[6] Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, 1899.

[7] Here is New York by E.B. White, 1949.

[8] “So God created mankind in his own image.”

Mount Pleasant Cemetery

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Mount Pleasant was the resting place of Newark’s leading industrialists, politicians, and first families. Opened in 1844 and nationally landmarked in 1988, it fell into neglect as Newark’s wealth flowed away to foreign factories and its people to suburbia. It is now a tranquil spot in a hectic city. Cars may speed by on the nearby interstate and the surrounding neighborhood may shrink or grow, but the cemetery will endure in spirit.

The cemetery stones gradually weather with rain, its trees grow larger, and its grass taller. Names carved in stone are just as susceptible to the erasing power of time as anything else. The names of Newark’s proud families here memorialized may survive in fragment form, but the memory of the deceased slips away as slowly as murky waters flow past in the nearby Passaic River.

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To see a film featuring the work above: click here

Urban Garden

By Myles and Maia Zhang

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In the past 60 years, my home city of Newark has lost 40% of its population and had nearly 50% of its buildings demolished. This urban decay represents both loss, of a more culturally vibrant past state that has decayed into the present, and hope, that something productive can emerge from this now empty land.

And yet, the timely and needed development of this land is prevented through a combination of failed government policy, economic downturns, conservative landowners, and inefficient enforcement of land use laws. As a result, hundreds of acres of land remain undeveloped and remain instead as vacant lots — there are more than 200 hectares of paved, surface parking lots in my neighborhood.

One of the largest of these lands was formerly an electric factory and has sat empty for nearly 40 years — 25 years as a decaying warehouse and 15 more years as wasteland filled with yellow crabgrass and decomposing trash. For five years, rusting demolition equipment and a towering pile of brick, steel, and construction debris moldered in the center of the lot — visible to the millions of commuters who pass this site yearly, watching day by day as the building gradually deteriorated into a wall of weeds.

Then our family decided to experiment with ways to bring a semblance of new life to this tired soil: a garden. But our proposal to cover this raw earth in spring flowers was denied by the site’s owner. Undeterred, on a quiet weekend with few commuters passing by, we walked behind the barbed wire fence to silently sow under the smiling sun. The wondrous flower mixture danced out of the plastic seeder, humming a soothing rhythm. Thanks to more nourishing rain, hope germinated from the infant seeds. Soon, sprouts began popping up hesitantly. At first, the green shoots looked no different from the weeds, but with time they grew taller and flowers bloomed — clover, sunflowers, daisies, and queen anne’s lace. Where once commuters walked pass, now they would stop and take photos of our work, with the city skyline rising in background.

Every June, the sanitation workers come with their oily machines and sweaty equipment to level the land of the flowers we secretly planted. With hatchets, they destroy the flowering fruits of our labor and re-expose the rubble strewn dirt. With chainsaws, they chop down the trees that sprout from the chain-link fence. And they leave the mauled flowers and trees strewn on the ground where they fall. Over the following weeks, the flowers and leaves dry in the hot sun and return to the dusty earth tones of the dirt from which they sprang. But, each new year, the flowers return more resilient than before, and with more numerous and larger blossoms. In earlier years, the seeds’ return required our help and gentle watering. These days, they return unaided, attracting the occasional bird. And so the cycle repeats… “Where flowers bloom, so does hope.”

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Learn more about this project on GoFundMe.

Read more about Newark’s urban decay.

This project was also featured in the Sine Theta magazineRead here.

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Westinghouse Demolition

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Now an Urban Garden

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Trouble in Utopia

Ironically, the most unequal and dystopian of societies are often founded on utopian principles. Utopias, almost by their very nature, are oppressive. From Plato’s Republic of strict castes and rampant censorship to Thomas More’s Utopia of puritanical laws and slavery, a utopia for the few is often a dystopia for the many. The question then arises: How do the benefactors of utopia confront its detractors? Utopia has several choices. It can maintain its monopoly on media and education, strangling nascent free thought before it grows into free action. Or… It can physically punish and oppress free thought, which requires systems to detect and punish dissent. Detection requires gathering information about the populace. Punishment requires control and physical torture: the police, the army, and the prison. Ironically, to maintain power, utopia often adopts trappings of dystopia.[1]

Despite the seeming differences between them, most dystopias share one common trait: they resemble the panopticon, a model of the ideal police state. In fact, panopticon, dystopic police state, and utopian society share common goals: total observation, total power, and unquestionable control.

 

 

The panopticon models the workings of a society.

The panopticon was initially an architectural concept for the ideal prison. Conceived in 1791 by Jeremy Bentham, a social reformer and utopian thinker,[2] the panopticon embodies the ideals of observation, control, and discipline. In its physical form, the panopticon is a circular prison with cells ringed around a central tower from which prisoners can be watched at all times. This slender central tower contains a covered guardroom from which one guard simultaneously surveys hundreds of prisoners (see diagram below). The panopticon aims for constant surveillance and prisoner discomfort. In this all-seeing system, dissent is detected and discipline is enforced.

Article on the Panoptic Surveillance State

2013 Article on the Panoptic Surveillance State

The panopticon is also a system of ingrained injustice. In Discipline and Punish, a 1975 treatise on the origins of the modern prison, author Michel Foucault describes the absence of real communication in the panopticon, “He [the prisoner] is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication. The arrangement of his room, opposite the central tower, imposes on him an axial visibility; but the divisions of the ring, those separated cells, imply a lateral invisibility” (Foucault 200). The panopticon is defined by visibility, or the lack thereof. The guard sees the inmates, but the inmates see neither the guard nor each other. In this unbalanced relationship, there is unhindered visibility between center and periphery, guard and prisoner. But, there is not comparable visibility between prisoners; they are firmly divided. Whereas in the panopticon, this is a physical arrangement of walls, windows, bars, and brute force, in dystopian society, this is a metaphysical or political arrangement where the government values control and observation over communication between citizens.

The panopticon is more than a structure; it is a model for the workings of the dystopic police state. Foucault describes the panopticon’s practicality, “Whenever one is dealing with a multiplicity of individuals on whom a task or a particular form of behaviour must be imposed, the panoptic schema may be used. It is – necessary modifications apart – applicable to all establishments whatsoever” (205). The panopticon and the police state are the ideal systems of control for three main reasons. Firstly, both control a “multiplicity of individuals.” In the panopticon, one guard watches hundreds of prisoners. In the police state, the powerful few watch the powerless many. Secondly, both impose “a particular form of behavior.” In the panopticon, this behavior is penitence and fear of observation. In the police state, this behavior is obedience to the government, its social norms, and its interests. Thirdly, both are systems of enforced inequality where prisoner and citizen are watched with neither their approval nor their knowledge. In both systems, control is simultaneously anywhere and nowhere. Anywhere: the state is all knowing. Nowhere: its power is implacable. In this way, the power of the panopticon translates into the power of the police state. Though specific methods may vary from panopticon to police state, their objectives are the same: to centralize power, to manipulate the citizen, and to ensure order.

 

 

Panopticon and police state are tools for psychological control.

Even in its manifestation as police state, the panopticon is more than a political or social structure; it is a psychological tool. Foucault describes the panopticon as an independent microcosm,

To arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. (201)

The panopticon exhibits three forms of power. Firstly, there is the power of the architecture: walls, windows, doors, and bars. Secondly, there is the power of the intendants: the panopticon’s guards and the police state’s bureaucrats. Thirdly, there is the psychological power that stems from the latter two forms: the “power relation” in which the inmate is its “bearer.” Desire to avoid possible detection leads the inmate to self-censor her behavior. Desire to avoid possible punishment leads the inmate to suppress her instincts. Only then does the pernicious system triumph; the individual oppresses herself independently of direct coercion. In other words, panopticon and police state use physical power for psychological ends.

The panopticon as psychological tool is explored in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Winston, the protagonist in the empire of Oceania, describes the one-way telescreens that spy on every room. Telescreen and panopticon bear three main similarities. Firstly, both panopticon and telescreen are like one-way mirrors: the state sees the citizen but the citizen does not see the state; Winston does not know when he is watched for he could be watched at any moment. Secondly, both are all knowing: “As long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard” (Orwell 3). No matter what Winston does, the telescreen of the state is watching. Thirdly, both are psychological tools. Winston describes: “You had to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized” (3). Winston, like the panopticon’s inmate, is the “bearer” of his own “power situation;” the mere presence of a telescreen leads Winston to self-censor his behavior. Thus, the Orwellian police state is merely a manifestation of the “panoptic schema.”

The panopticon as psychological tool is also explored in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Offred, the protagonist in the theocracy of Gilead, describes the anxiety and fear she feels daily. When the commander’s chauffer merely winks at her, she wildly speculates: “Perhaps it was a test, to see what I would do. Perhaps he is an Eye”[3] (Atwood 18). When attending a religious service, Offred warns herself: “We’re on the sidewalk now and it’s not safe to talk, we’re too close to the others and the protective whispering of the crowd is gone” (223). When meeting a new handmaid, she censors herself: “I should give it a week, two weeks, maybe longer, watch her carefully, listen for tones in her voice, unguarded words” (284). Anyone could be an informer. Anyone could be an Eye of the state. Anyone could turn you in. In every situation, one must guard one’s body, one’s language, and one’s thoughts for fear of detection. In Gilead, so pervasive is this culture of fear that the individual becomes the “bearer” of her own “power situation”, like Offred. By infiltrating society with informers and by brainwashing its citizens, the resulting culture of fear ensures obedience to the theocracy.[4]

Both 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale demonstrate panoptic principles. Though actual observation may be discontinuous, fear of observation is continuous. And, this constant fear of observation produces self-censorship, which, according to Winston, is a “habit that becomes instinct”. Consequently, the panopticon’s monopoly on the body gradually becomes a monopoly on the mind. It indirectly controls the mind by directly controlling the body.

 

 

Panopticon and police state suppress communication.

In Oceania, Big Brother government controls all communication. Through Newspeak, the system “simplifies” language at the expense of creative writing. Through censoring words such as freedom, equality, and justice, it purges the citizen’s mind of revolutionary ideas. Through suppressing sexual expression, it transforms sexual tension into hate for enemies of the state. Through monopolizing media and education, it ensures that communication occurs through the “appropriate channels.” Through brainwashing the minds of the young, it creates citizens who will blindly obey the system.

Similarly, in Gilead, government control of social norms impedes communication between individuals. When Offred goes on her daily walks with a fellow handmaid, their conversation is limited, regimented by socially acceptable phrases like “Praise be” or “Blessed be the fruit.” When individuals from different classes pass each other on the street, they spit, glare, and stare, envious of each other’s government-granted privileges and clearly “different” from each other, as proven by their government-granted uniforms. When in bed, government dictates the socially acceptable coital position. When speaking, one must guard one’s words. Anyone is an informer. Everyone is watched. Government power is omnipresent, from the sidewalk to the bedroom. And, punishments for human communication and self-expression are draconian: public shaming, prison, or even death. Clearly, the theocracy of Gilead values its monopoly on power over honest communication between people.

As Virginia Woolf writes, “He who robs us our dreams robs us our life.” In the name of enforcing discipline, the panopticon robs society of her dreams, her freedom, and subsequently her life. Revolution stems from the right to hope, dream, and communicate. Without dreams, there is no communication. Without communication, there is no revolution. Kill the dream, cut the communication, and the panoptic system will prevail.

 

 

The panopticon realizes the ideals of an autocratic and all-knowing police state.

The autocratic system, in its many forms, relies on injustice. According to Foucault, “[the panopticon] is a machinery that assures dissymmetry, disequilibrium, difference. Consequently, it does not matter who exercises power. Any individual, taken almost at random, can operate the machine” (Foucault 202). In the ideal autocracy, the system is self-perpetuating. As already discussed, the citizen becomes the “bearer” of her own oppression. But, the state also starts to function independently of its operators. This consequently insures control and order, two of the primary tenets of autocracy.

The panopticon is the ideal autocratic police state for several reasons. It reduces the number of people needed to exercise power, ensuring that a dedicated minority controls a complacent majority. It predicts revolutionary thought before it becomes revolutionary action because it is all seeing. Its strength is one that never intervenes; the system acts independently of its operators.[5] Ironically, the perfection of power renders its actual use unnecessary.

 

 

Utopian endeavors often lead to dystopic panopticons.

Utopia must make concessions to reality. Nathaniel Hawthorne describes: “The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.” Utopia concedes to reality. The graveyard is an acceptance of the fragility of life and the inevitability of death. The prison is a concession that all societies, no matter how perfect, will have victims and revolutionaries. As Atwood warns: “Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some” (Atwood 211). Ultimately, utopia is forced to reconcile contradictory aims: the freedom utopia promises vs. the oppression it delivers, the collective spirit utopia promises vs. the collective misery the panopticon creates, and the ideals of utopia vs. the realities of human nature. Seemingly peaceful utopia cannot ignore these glaring contradictions; these contradictions undermine utopia leaders and legitimacy. Consequently, to maintain its semblance of perfection and peace, it often adopts the most dystopian of institutions: the prison. The prison, be it physical or psychological, is utopia’s dystopian tool.

Both utopia and dystopia contain elements of each other. In Utopia, an essay anthology, Frédéric Rouvillois writes: “On the one hand, the most blatant utopias, with their obsession to rehabilitate man and condemn him to happiness, do indeed reveal traits that we habitually attribute to totalitarian systems. On the other hand, totalitarian systems – Fascism, Nazism, Stalinist or Chinese Socialism – even when they don’t acknowledge the connection, invariably remind us of utopias, whose goals, mottoes, and means the appropriate” (Schaer 316). Although utopia espouses noble ideals, it often realizes them on the tip of a metaphorical bayonet. The individual is “condemned to happiness”, systems of surveillance impose an oppressive peace, and the stability of the state is valued over the autonomy of the individual. Indeed, utopia exists primarily as an ideal whose every manifestation is totalitarian and dystopic. The word utopia is doublespeak for all that it claims to stand for: “the perfectibility of man [and woman]”, the creation of happiness, and the protection of liberty.

As Orwell writes, “Inequality was the inalterable law of human life” (Orwell 202). Despite its best efforts, utopia is marked by inevitable inequality. Humans, by their very nature, are born with different outlooks and attitudes. Utopia, by its very nature, prescribes one outlook and attitude to all, regardless of circumstance. The interests of the individual and the demands of utopia will conflict. One must prevail, the individual or the system. The panopticon emerges; the system prevails.

 

 

Afterword: Panopticism and Contemporary Society

Foucault, writing in 1975, traces the appearance of the panopticon to the disappearance of a collective culture he calls the “spectacle”,

Antiquity had been a civilization of spectacle. “To render accessible to a multitude of men the inspection of a small number of objects”: this was the problem to which the architecture of temples, theatres and circuses responded. With spectacle, there was a predominance of public life, the intensity of festivals, sensual proximity. In these rituals in which blood flowed, society found new vigour and formed for a moment a single great body. The modern age poses the opposite problem: “To procure for a small number, or even for a single individual, the instantaneous view of a great multitude [i.e. a panopticon].” In a society in which the principal elements are no longer the community and public life, but, on the one hand, private individuals and, on the other, the state, relations can be regulated only in a form that is the exact reverse of the spectacle. (Foucault 216)

Foucault differentiates between the spectacle of the past and the panopticon of the present. In the spectacle, the many observe the few, be they actors or gladiators. In the panopticon, the few observe the many, be they wardens or doctors. They are different systems of control; while a collective spirit of “sensual proximity” and communication defines the spectacle, individualization and isolation defines the panopticon. Foucault claims these two systems are polar opposites.

Yet, does this disconnect between spectacle and panopticon still exist in contemporary society? Discipline and Punish was written before all-inclusive government spying on its citizens and before our digital age of the internet. Today, unlike in Foucault’s time, the panopticon is part of the spectacle. On the one hand, the spectacle of creates conformity and groupthink, through the currency globalization, the proliferation of digital entertainment, and the spread of generally Eurocentric social norms. On the other hand, the panopticon is ingrained in the technology of the spectacle: the computer, the cellphone, and the credit card. To name a few, Google provides one’s search history, Facebook describes one’s personality and preferences, and credit card transactions reveal one’s purchases. The panopticon thrives off of the spectacle of technology. Therefore, the two are no longer disconnected entities from separate eras, as Foucault claims. Rather, in our modern society, they are almost interchangeable.

The panopticon is core to modern society. Jeremy Bentham’s simple invention has evolved from a concept for the punishment of felons to a method of societal control. The physical panopticon may seem a harmless enough tool employed in factories, barracks, hospitals, and schools.[6] But, the technological panopticon is far more frightening for it reveals the darker side to governance and human nature. Foucault writes:

There were many reasons why it [the panopticon] received little praise; the most obvious is that the discourses to which it gave rise rarely acquired, except in the academic classifications, the status of sciences; but the real reason is no doubt that the power that it operates and which it augments is a direct, physical power that men [and women] exercise upon one another. An inglorious culmination had an origin that could be only grudgingly acknowledged. (225)

According to Foucault, the panopticon “augments” or realizes the human thirst for power. In doing so, it exposes humanity’s darkness: the desire to control others in body and mind and the desire to seize and maintain power by any means whatsoever. In other words, the panopticon permits the prosecution of thoughtcrime. Naturally, the frightening darkness of panopticism is only “only grudgingly acknowledged” for when one stares at the panopticon, the darkness and depravity of human nature stares back.

Granted, we do not live in a full-fledged panopticon. But, disconcerting parallels between panopticism, dystopian society, and our post 9/11 culture are emerging. As Edward Snowden’s heroic struggle reveals, the panopticon is not as impossible as it appears; government has the technology, the means, and the desire to create the panopticon. It needs only the public’s tacit indifference and silent nod of approval. As citizens of the panopticon, what power do we have over our rights, our freedoms, and our futures?

 

Panopticons Throughout History

 

 

Endnotes:

[1] The police state has many manifestations in societies founded on utopian principles: the Stasi of East Germany, the NSA of America, the Gestapo of the Third Reich, the State Security Department of North Korea, the Eyes of Handmaid’s Tale, and Minipax of 1984. The list runs on.

[2] Ironically, Bentham popularized the phrase “the greatest good for the greatest number.” In reality, the panopticon creates the greatest power for the fewest number.

[3] Eye – a member of the state security services in Gilead

[4] In the Soviet Union, so pervasive was fear of government spying that public revolt was oppressed. For instance, in Romania, one out of every forty-two people worked for Securitate (the state security services). Yet, because the public was so fearful, rumors wildly circulated that one out of every four worked for Securitate. In this sense, fear of the state was more powerful than the actual state. Ceausescu’s Romania was not alone; Stalin’s Russia and Honecker’s East Germany had similarly frightening police states

[5] Obedience also strengthens panopticon and police state. Fear of the system induces obedience to its demands. Ceausescu, Stalin, or Hilter could never have risen to power without the public’s tacit approval of their crimes. Fear and helplessness fuels tyranny.

[6] Bentham writes, “Among schoolchildren, it [the panopticon] makes it possible to observe performances (without there being any imitation or copying), to map aptitudes, to assess characters, to draw up rigorous classifications and, in relation to normal development, to distinguish ‘laziness and stubbornness’ from ‘incurable imbecility’” (Foucault 203).

 

Works Cited:

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. 1st ed. New York City: Anchor, 1998. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 2nd ed. New York City. Vintage Books, 1995. Print.

Ledoux, Claude-Nicolas. Plan de la Saline de Chaux. Digital image. Wikipédia. 18 May 2007.

Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-four. New York City: Signet Classics, 1977. Print.

Schaer, Roland et al. Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World. 1st ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.

Love and Longing in New York


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Walking is my form of enlightenment.

I live in Newark.  My city is generally ten degrees hotter than its neighboring environment.  The airport.  The port.  The downtown.  All are blanketed in asphalt that turns my city into a hot desert.

Tens of thousands of cars, and one of the largest garbage incinerators in the country, spew their fumes into my city.  Returning home, the smell of burning garbage often greets me.  As a child, I had asthma.

At night, I am alone.  Nobody my age lives in my neighborhood. From my front window, I see a parking lot for corporate commuters. From my back window, I see a vast parking lot for university students.  Both are desolate after dusk. As an infant, my first words were “demolition” and “truck.”  As a child, I never had play dates; my suburban “friends” feared my city.  As an adult, I hope to see my city’s vacant lots developed.  I keep on dreaming.

The streets of my city are not made for walking.  They are made for driving.  I walk.  I stop.  I wait.  Speeding traffic and interminable stoplights hinder my progress.

But I love walking in New York City.

When I walk, I am free to choose.  Each street guides me forward.  Each intersection is a choice.  Each destination is irrelevant.  When I walk, I sometimes choose a random order of directions, left, right, left, right, right, left, left, straight.  I see where they lead me.  I know not where.

When I walk, I am free to move.  I love walking on the High Line.  I float above the cars that prevent the city from realizing itself as a community.  I see the crowded streets twenty feet below.  I see the gardens on either side of me.  I let the verdantly landscaped path channel me forward.

When I walk, I am no longer alone.  I walk in the footsteps of the millions who passed before me.  I am one among millions, all of us on our separate voyages.  Lawyers.  Butchers.  Tourists.  Homeless.  We all walk alone.  Yet, we are together in walking alone.

When I walk, I see the world.  In Spanish Harlem, street fairs sell traditional Mexican foods.  In college town Columbia, well-dressed university students amble on their way to class.  In the Upper West Side, the shabby chic push their grocery prams.  In Times Square, tourists lug their large shopping bags from theater to theater, store to store.  Finally, after many neighborhoods, I reach the ceaseless bustle of Wall Street.  Tired after many miles of walking, I descend the subway steps.

When I walk, I achieve tranquility. I am happy.

One of my recent projects is painting New York City, neighborhood by neighborhood.  Each day, I choose a new district to stroll through.  Then, equipped with my miniature watercolor palette and notepad, I walk and paint.  I discover the city block by block.  I aim to capture a fragment of what I see through painting.

Like a pianist who memorizes music by heart, the flâneur (or urban pedestrian) embraces the street symphony with his soul and feet.  People’s voices and buildings serve different, but equally important, clefs in the symphony.  As le Corbusier wrote, “… first to look, and then to observe, and finally to discover.”  My countless urban walks enhance my passion for cities, their architecture, their history, and their planning.

Living in Newark inspires me to dream.  Walking in New York City enlightens me to walk.  I am ready to walk my next journey.

(Selected from college application essay)

Growing up in Newark

Arrested Motion(selected from college application essay to Columbia College)

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One of my first intelligible words was, oddly enough, “demolition.” My Newark childhood was immersed in countless scenes of urban destruction. Only years later have I come to appreciate this irony. Newark is the undoing of two things I love: urbanism and construction. Yet, my own city intellectually inspires me to appreciate my urban environment.

Growing up in Newark has not been easy. My city is generally ten degrees hotter than its neighboring environment. The airport. The port. The downtown. All are blanketed in asphalt that turns my city into a hot desert. Tens of thousands of cars spew their fumes into my city. As a child, I had asthma. The streets of my city are not made for walking. They are made for driving. I walk. I stop. I wait. Speeding traffic and interminable stoplights hinder my progress.

At age eight, I discovered a powerful photo book, The New American Ghetto, by Camilo José Vergara. More than thirty percent of the photos are of my city. Sturdy structures one day become piles of rubble the next. In turn, the rubble becomes gravel for another ubiquitous parking lot. Time passes and my recollection of the former structure slithers away. Over time, swaths of my neighborhood gradually dissipate into an urban desert.

At age ten, I innocently presented a City Plan to Mayor Cory Booker. I removed all surface parking and buried I-280 beneath a bucolic park, which healed my neighborhood’s brutal highway-born split. The mayor smiled and murmured, “Oh yeah, that’ll only cost $35!”

At age thirteen, I joined Columbia University economist Dan O’Flaherty to oppose my city’s water privatization scheme. We spoke before the Local Public Finance Board in Trenton. I also helped organize over 700 pages of city legal documents scanned into my laptop. Based on these files, a local advocacy group produced a damning report on the corrupt scheme, leading to State and Federal investigations. During that roasting summer, in front of my city’s supermarket, we collected hundreds of signatures for a public referendum to derail water privatization.

In retrospect, my transient city inspired my quest for permanence and stability. The mundane features of normal communities, such as street and sewer repairs, could not be taken for granted here. If permanence were not a reality, art would have to suffice for my childhood imagination. My earliest whimsical creations – miniature buildings, factories, and bridges – mixed my perception of Newark’s bleak past and hopeful future. I hid slips of paper in my creations that read, “This will last forever.” I feverishly preserved my environment through drawing and painting. In a transient and decayed city, I needed something eternal and malleable.

From my back window, I see Mies van der Rohe’s sleek 1960s high-rise. From my front window, I see the Newark Museum designed by Michael Graves. Motivated to improve my imperfect urban environment, I spoke at many public hearings on the museum’s expansion. Later, Mr. Graves generously invited me to his Princeton studio, where we discussed Italian architecture and the importance of hand drawing. His tranquil home, a former warehouse, inspired me to dream of retooling my city’s “ruins.”

Desiring to see cities beyond my own, I was fortunate enough to voyage with my family to Istanbul, Barcelona, Prague, Paris, Mexico City, Toronto, Montréal, Chicago, Detroit, Shanghai, and Beijing. I learned that most people cultivated their cities with pride, love, and gentle creativity. However, every time, I could not wait to rush back to my city, despite its defects and scars. This fertile place is the source of my intellectual strength and the cornerstone of my sense of justice and hope. My father often quotes Schopenhauer: “One can do what he wants to do, but not think what he wants to think.” My city, however, frees me “to think what I want to think.”

Popup Park

Situated in front of New York City’s Flatiron Building is a triangular spit of land bordered by three major streets, Fifth Avenue, Broadway, and 23rd. The currently underutilized space could become a vibrant public square. Such a park should reflect the vitality and dynamism of its neighborhood. Thousands of pedestrians pass through this highly visible intersection daily.

Popup Park creates a mixed use public space that adapts to its many users. Narrow metal panels measuring three by five meters roll out of a wedge-shaped storage container. Each panel serves a different function: bleachers, benches, bookshelf, public mural, basketball hoop, etc. When in use, the panels are alternated to adapt to multiple uses. When not in use, the panels slide back into their container, leaving an open communal space. Each panel is arranged according to the Fibonacci series or the golden rectangle. This permits for a both functional and aesthetically pleasing panel. The geometry of the rectangle partially determines its functional look. The square’s periphery is arrayed with trees to shade the communal area and to offer a respite from the hectic concrete jungle.

 

urban park 1

urban park 2

Parking vs. Preservation

On a warm Sunday this August, bulldozers started tearing away at a historic, turn-of-the-century loft space.  Although the first floor was sealed with unsightly cinder blocks, the upper floor was adorned with large Chicago windows and intricate terracotta fretwork.  In the neo-classical tradition, the structure sported a detailed cornice, white ornamentation, and copious bunting.  The building was so sturdy it took demolition crews many hours of pounding and loud smashing to significantly weaken the structure.  When the outside walls finally fell, they exposed sturdy concrete floors over a foot thick and hundreds of re-bars for added durability.

Situated on the corner of Washington and Bleecker Streets, the 2-story neo-classical structure stood in the heart of the James Street Commons Historic District.  Normally, such a structure would never be demolished but . . . The property’s owner is Edison Parking, one of the largest landowners in Newark and New York City.  Its owner, Jerry Gottesman, spent $1 million to oppose the High Line.  His company also owns Manhattan Mini Storage, whose billboards in New York City read — “Bloomberg is gone.  Time to put the bikes away.”  To profit from blight, this landbanker buys cheap land, waits for its value to improve, and then profits without doing anything.  While waiting, Edison Parking generates huge revenue from surface parking. Often ten dollars an hour for one parking spot.  Multiply the results by 60,000 parking spots daily!

In fact, demolition is in Edison’s best interest.  Real estate is taxed according to the value of the structure, not the land.  Therefore, Edison’s huge land holdings share almost no tax burden.  Edison doesn’t even pay for storm water runoff, which is calculated by a property’s water consumption.  In other words, the public heavily subsidizes surface parking.  Only under the current land-use policy is Edison’s greed and urban blight rewarded.

Edison’s evasion of the law is a high art.  In this case, the property Edison destroyed is on the National Register of Historic Places and is protected by local and Federal law.  But, this parking mongol quietly acquired surrounding land.  Then, it secretly removed the property’s windows and poked holes in its roof.  Finally, Edison hired an unlicensed engineer to inspect the property.   Edison then obtained a demolition permit from Newark’s corrupt Engineering Department, without approval from the Historic Preservation and Landmark Commission.  In one weekend, this historic building and its many stories were purged from history.

When the public noticed the illegal demolition, it was too late.  The Landmarks Commission called an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis.  Sitting directly behind me was a heavy, suburban lady, obviously working for Edison.  Upon learning no city code enforcement officers were present, she whispered under her breath, “Yes! Excellent!” and  promptly left the meeting.

Joined by many outraged citizens, I spoke before the Commission:

My name is Myles.  I am a life long Newark resident.

Parking is a travesty. I have seen . . .

Too many viable buildings demolished in the name of progress.

Too many parking lots erected to serve commuters indifferent to Newark.

Too many vacant lots awaiting non-existent development.

This blight of so-called “development” must stop.

Newark is a city with a strong history.  Its buildings are testament to that.  Yet, unscrupulous developers’ utter disrespect for our heritage threatens our urban identity.

Newark has future potential. Its buildings are testament to that.  Yet, unscrupulous land banking slows down the development our city so desperately needs.

Newark is a lawless city.  Its buildings are testament to that.

Parking developers have no right to illegally demolish historic structures.  They do so anyway.

Parking developers have no right to channel millions of gallons of storm water runoff without paying a cent.  They do so anyway.

Parking developers are not above the law.  They think they are anyway.

Those who break the law must be held accountable.

Letting unscrupulous destruction continue without government oversight is permitting lawlessness to continue.

Letting Edison Parking demolish our architectural heritage is telling them, “Go ahead, do it again.”

A thief does not think he will be caught.  A thief does not stop until he is punished.

I realize Newark’s Historic Preservation Commission does not have the power to levy fines or jail these surface-parking criminals.  But this commission has . . .

The power to lobby for stronger legislation that will protect our neighborhoods.

The power to prevent continued parking construction.

The power to force corrupt city officials to do their job.

I admire the invaluable service you have rendered this city so far.  I encourage you to do more.  I encourage you to fight these ignorant developers.  Even if victories may be pyrrhic, at least there is the comforting knowledge that one fought greed, corruption, lawlessness, and ignorance.

In 1978, the James Street Commons were made a historic district.  In the Federal approval process, each building was meticulously identified and photographed.  Each time I review these images, I painfully remember vanished buildings and our lost heritage.  Edison Parking is not alone.  Many other institutions in this historic district also contribute to the destruction of public assets and, therefore, to their own identity.  For instance, a few years ago, a large public university schemed a land-swap with Jerry Gottesman at this very demolition site.  It did so to evade regulations preventing state institutions from demolishing historic structures.  As a result of this short-sighted practice, this university has painfully transformed itself into an inferior commuter school, a trend it now tries to reverse.

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The Legacy of Today

   Rome left a legacy. What will we leave?

Roman Ruins

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When one visits the ruins of vanished civilizations, such as Greece, Carthage, and Rome, one sees them not as whole structures, but as shards of memory and as the detritus of what once was.  Their grandeur stems not from seeing them intact but from imagining them as they once were; grandeur lost is more moving than grandeur still extant.  This architecture is powerful because of its ability to display dignity despite decay, not in spite of it.  These ruins are by all means a legacy.  But, will we too be fortunate enough to leave as indelible a mark for future generations?

To answer this question, it is critical to compare the principles of ancient architecture with the realities of modern culture.  This divide is perhaps no better illustrated than by one book:  De Architectura or The Ten Books on Architecture, written by Vitruvius, a Roman architect and engineer (also infamous for his nepotism).  For hundreds of years, from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution, European architects were governed by this book, their user manual and Bible.  His principles of design guided the likes of Palladio for his Venetian villas, Brunelleschi for his Florentine dome, and even da Vinci for his drawing of Vitruvian Man.  Yet, despite centuries of tradition, modern architecture diverges from Vitruvius’ aesthetic standards.  The globalized world of today with its glimmering skyscrapers, speeding trains, and growing reliance on the Frankenstein of technology bears little resemblance to the Rome of centuries ago.  Rome and Vitruvius were steeped in tradition and precedent that modern architecture largely abandons, either rightfully or wrongfully so.  But, so complete a break with the past is questionable without examining the past’s strengths and weaknesses.  Thus, the question arises: What lessons about modern architecture can be drawn from examining Rome’s architecture?

In De Architectura, Vitruvius identifies the three principles of architecture:  firmitasquality, utilitasutility and venustasbeauty.  For Vitruvius, to attain all three and to pass the test of time is the ultimate signifier of great architecture.  But, to fail in this endeavor, through shoddy construction or succumbing to time and the elements, guarantees that a building will be relegated to the dustbin of oblivion.

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Venustas—Beauty

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Unlike modern architecture, the architecture of Vitruvius’s time was governed by strict aesthetic principles.  Above all, Vitruvius emphasizes that architecture must relate to the human body,  “In the human body there is a kind of symmetrical harmony between forearm, foot, palm, finger, and other small parts; and so it is with perfect buildings” (Vitruvius 14).  Vitruvius desires a continuum where well-proportioned and symmetrical humans inhabited equally well-proportioned structures.  As the human body attains perfection through harmony, so must architecture.  Consequently, the architect becomes less of a freelance designer and more of an interpreter, translating the proportions and elegance of the body into the forms of perfect buildings.  As the human body has legs, torso, and head, architecture must have base, middle, and top.  As the human body is symmetrical from left to right, architecture must be symmetrical from left to right.  As the human body considers each organ in relation to the greater being, architecture must consider each detail in relation to the greater building. Vitruvius emphasizes continuity between man and his world, a place where man has an environment befitting his stature.

Yet, behind this devotion to replicating human forms in architecture, there are the seeds of racial prejudice.  “In fact”, writes Vitruvius, “the races of Italy are the most perfectly constituted in both respects — in bodily form and in mental activity to correspond to their valour” (173).  There seems to be the following implication:  If perfect buildings replicate perfect humans, then humans are the perfect species, no further evolution required.  Furthermore, since Roman people are the finest people in the world, Roman architecture must be the finest architecture in the world.  To the modern world, the existence of the perfect species (or the perfect anything) is laughable given the basic biology mantra:  There is no perfect genotype.  (Nonetheless, it may be possible to forgive Vitruvius, assuming that he never took high school Biology.)  Vitruvius sees aesthetics as a linear evolution where Roman architecture and Roman culture are the specious pinnacles of progress.

Modern architecture, unlike Roman architecture, does not obey Vitruvian principles of construction and aesthetics.  Building materials have changed; sheetrock, fiberglass, and plastic have supplanted stone, earth, and wood.  Scale has also grown, the superhighway and skyscraper of today dwarf the Roman road and proud obelisk of yesterday. Unlike Vitruvius, the modern architect probably would not lay claim to racial or aesthetic divinity.  The constraints of economy, in tandem with the desire for architectural variety, dictate that modern structures need not model the human form.  Unlike Roman structures, which were almost always perfectly symmetrical, modern structures employ symmetry and ornamentation as mere “icing on the cake,” not as critical components in the architectural scheme.  In other words, the Roman human to building harmony is no longer a guiding principle.

On the one hand, the absence of aesthetic standards and the wide array of new building materials gives the architect greater autonomy.  On the other hand, this same absence permits clutter and disorder.  For instance, take Learning from Las Vegas, a 1972 essay by architect Robert Venturi comparing the plan of Rome to that of Las Vegas.  Rome, a classical city created over millenia, is built of stone in general adherence to Vitruvius’ principles of perfection.  Most Roman structures have a clearly defined base, middle, and top (usually the terracotta roof) and are of similar symmetry, height, style, and scale.  Most structures also relate to their urban environment through their density and orientation.  The scale is human; the city is a microcosm.  On the contrary, Las Vegas, a modern city created virtually overnight, is fabricated of all materials with little planning or care for beauty.  Consequently, the highway and city street feel hectic and visually crowded.  The presence of a foe brick and stone casino clashes with the glass and metal of a next-door skyscraper.  The Moroccan style theater clashes with the Federalist style motel, which clashes with the postmodern fairytale castle.  Las Vegas is not alone; rather, its chaos and clutter are merely exaggerations of Main Street and roadside America, which employ the principles of Las Vegas more discretely.  Ancient architecture imbued order; modern architecture imbues confusion.  Yes, anything goes when buildings may adopt any form or any style from any culture, regardless of Vitruvian principles.  But, this variety comes at the cost of aesthetic disarray that would make Vitruvius aghast.

The question then arises:  Might it be possible to continue practicing the aesthetic of Vitruvius in contemporary society?  Probably not.  To start, the scale of architecture and its role in society is different.  Monolithic architecture was key to solidifying the legitimacy of Roman rulers and the breadth of Roman conquests.  Monolithic architecture does not play a comparable role in our society, where politicians quibble over funding for infrastructure and the arts.  The profession of architect is also different.  In Vitruvius’ time, the architect was also an engineer who oversaw even the smallest technical detail; for example, Vitruvius devotes much of his book to precisely describing engineering methods to be employed by architects.  In our time, the architect is not always an engineer for the complexity of a modern building is far beyond the design abilities of any single person.  Whereas Vitruvius’ time saw the concentration of talent and power in the hands of the master architect, our time sees the dispersal of talent and power in the hands of engineers, electricians, plumbers, lawyers, architects, and the rest.  In this manner, the construction methods (and materials) underlying Roman architecture are inapplicable to contemporary society.

Society should shape its architecture according to its needs, not the reverse.  Architecture, even if it is as refined as Rome’s, should not confine society to the trappings of history and style.  As historian Kenneth Jackson writes:  “History is for losers. [Preservation] is used as a political tool rather than a tool to preserve buildings.”  We cannot and should not emulate Rome because Rome was what it was, and we are what we are.  The identity of the one should not restrict the development of the other.

Met 4.

Firmitas—Quality and Utilitas—Utility

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Although Vitruvian aesthetics are potentially outdated, his principles of quality and utility are not.  Quality and utility transcend culture and time and are just as applicable to our society as they were to Rome’s.

Vitruvius believes the architect is responsible for building enduring structures.  He writes:  “Stone, flint, rubble burnt or unburnt brick, — use them as you find them […] so that out of them a faultless wall may be built to last forever” (53).  Vitruvius believes that any structure, no matter how humble, must be built to last.  In this manner, there is continuity, from the humblest wall to the grandest temple; all are to endure the test of time.  Furthermore, it is the architect’s duty to factor both beauty and time into construction, so that a wall will be just as beautiful in ten years as it will be in a hundred.  This mindset reveals a fixed understanding of beauty; what is valued for beauty today will remain so tomorrow.  A faultless wall will remain a faultless wall; a beautiful temple will remain a beautiful temple.  A building is thus an investment in quality and taste.

Roman construction methods were based on precedence and tradition.  In describing the responsibilities of an architect, Vitruvius writes:  “An architect ought to be an educated man so as to leave a more lasting remembrance in his treatises” (6).  An architect is responsible for creating a legacy through his proud buildings and lasting treatises, much like De Architectura did for Vitruvius.  The treatise serves to maintain a continuum, whereby future architects can learn from their forefathers.  The building serves to commemorate one’s era and its leaders for time immemorial.  Thus, there is continuity where each generation of architects contributes to following generations, gradually refining architecture.

Although Vitruvius and modern architects seem to share little in common, they both agree that “form follows function” (a phrase ostensibly coined by Chicago architect Louis Sullivan).  Vitruvius writes that each building must be constructed in a manner that reflects how it is to be used and where it is to be situated.  He goes to immense lengths describing the building materials and methods best suited to each environment.  This concern with function mirrors the founding principles of modern architecture.  The fathers of modern architecture, like Vitruvius, believed that a noble architecture is the pure expression of function, verticality for the skyscraper, openness for the train shed, airiness for the cathedral, and efficiency for the factory.  For them, each building should have an aesthetic form that parallels and expresses its function.  Ironically, modern architecture has the same founding principle as ancient architecture.  As postmodern architect Robert Venturi writes:  “We look backward at history and tradition to go forward” (Venturi et al. 3).

St. John the Divine 5.

Cause for Concern?

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Modern architecture radically differs from Vitruvian principles, in terms of both aesthetics and construction.  Roman roads lasted millennia and Roman sewers are still in use; will our crumbling infrastructure last as long?  Roman towers of stone withstood the elements for centuries; will our rusting skyscrapers of steel last as long?  The Roman forum became legendary; could the same destiny await our “forums” of today, the strip mall, the grocery chain, and the drive-thru?  The Renaissance aspired to the grandeur of Rome; what society will aspire to the “grandeur” of our society?  Or, will there even be much to aspire to with the twisted piles of fallen metal and the troubled environment our children will inherit?

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But, in the end, who am I to judge?  The broken statues, pottery, and amphora proudly displayed in our museums were not made with us in mind nor would they be valued by their creators in the shattered state the public now sees them in.  The sources of much of our knowledge about Rome stem not from official texts but from the vulgar graffiti scrawled on the walls of Pompeii and the tall tales of the Satyricon, Rome’s equivalent of modern pulp fiction.  If anything, this unintentional legacy humanizes past civilizations better than the often pompous monuments of intent.  Rome left a legacy, although not always in the places and manner it intended to leave one.  Perhaps we too may leave a legacy, although neither through our desire nor our intent.  The detritus of modernity may (or may not) be valued centuries from now, if it survives.  Twisted piles of rubble and plastic tupperware may (or may not) intrigue future archaeologists as they ask:  How did this once prosperous and powerful civilization meet its end?  History has a strange habit of reviving old skeletons and turning trash into treasure.  Commemoration or oblivion, a future fountain of inspiration or a lasting cause of sorrow, what will become of our globalized world?  Only time will tell.

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St. John the Divine 1

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Works Cited:

Venturi, Robert et al. Learning from Las Vegas. 1st ed. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1972. Print.

Vitruvius, Marcus. The Ten Books on Architecture. 1st ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1914. Print.