That Time Columbia Built an Artificial Moon in Low Library

 

Low Library in 1905

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The best definition of a university is, to my mind, a city from which the universe can be surveyed. It is the universe compressed into a city the size of Morningside Heights.
Aesthetically ancient but technologically advanced, Low Library rose to this challenge in the 1890s. Buried within hundreds of tons of Milford granite, Indiana limestone, and the unchanging architecture of antiquity were the latest technologies: electricity, steam heating, Corliss steam engines, and internal plumbing in a time when hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers still used outhouses and made less than five dollars a day. Flushing toilets – also known as crappers after Thomas Crapper who perfected their flush mechanism – were also a relatively new consumer product. It has always surprised me how the bathroom stalls at Low Library are divided by marble partitions of the highest quality that must weigh several hundred pounds each. Low Library was indeed built at a time when toilets were something to celebrate, in addition to books of course.
The goal of a great library was to collapse the universe into the size of a room. From the dome’s center was suspended a seven-foot-diameter white ball, which Scientific American described in 1898 as “Columbia’s artificial moon.” So that students could read by moonlight under a canopy of stars, this moon was illuminated against a dome painted dark to resemble the night sky. So in awe was Scientific American that they devoted as much page space to describing Low Library as to documenting the mechanics of this moon with mathematical formulas. With no other point of reference except candles, scientists calculated Columbia’s moon as equivalent in power to 3,972 candles.

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From April 1898 issue of Scientific American

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The only trouble was the lightbulbs’ carbon filament could only burn for 2.5 hours before “Columbia’s artificial moon” went dark. Scientists had not yet perfected the technologies of light. As a result, Columbia needed to replace the carbon filaments daily and could only illuminate the universe between the hours of 5:00 and 7:00 p.m. And yet, in line with Columbia’s Latin motto “In lumine tuo videbimis lumen” (In your light we see the light), Low Library was flanked by the emerging research departments of the global research university: physics, chemistry, mathematics, mining, engineering, and architecture. Then as now, these fields were seen as the frontiers of human knowledge.
For all the university’s focus on science, its core is built on the art and literature of antiquity. Low Library’s walls are several feet thick, thicker than was necessary in 1890s America that had moved on from heavy stone construction to steel-frame skeletal structures for skyscrapers and railroad stations. From Scientific American: “The imposing pile which forms the home of the college library looks down upon the great metropolis of the New World with something surely of the same pride with which the Parthenon of old surveyed the ancient Athenian city.” America – flush with wealth after conquering indigenous peoples in the American west – saw itself as inheriting the values of ancient Greece and Rome. New York, the American empire’s economic capital, needed cultural and intellectual symbols of power to match. Low Library was this symbol.

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Civilization at left: Harper’s Weekly: The Journal of Civilization featured Low Library on its front cover
Colonialism at right: Scientific American described Low Library’s construction on the same page as an article about tree stump removal in the American west

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Part of the ambition – and also hubris – of Low Library was the desire to bring all knowledge under one roof. From the reference desk in the dome’s center, librarians could, in the sweep of the eye, survey the entire collection. Curved reading desks were arranged in rings around this centerpiece, like the orbits of planets that circled the sun. From the reference desk beneath the dome’s “starry firmament on high” came the source of all knowledge and all power, as if the library were a planetarium of Biblical proportions.
Rather than the church altar as visual centerpiece, like the altar in the Roman Pantheon on which Low Library was modeled, the mechanical moon and the quiet, methodical work of librarians were the visual centers of attention. Low Library’s architectural form – historically associated with religion – was adapted to new uses as a temple of reason. By contrast, Columbia University’s chapel was only an afterthought, built years later and barely visible from the College Walk. While the Gothic university chapel was the visual centerpiece of traditional universities, the library was the symbolic center of Columbia’s campus. This was a campus “made in the image of” the modern research university. The pursuit of truth was given architectural form and made its home in the university campus.

Low Library’s moon weighing 400 to 500 pounds was removed in 1965

Columbia had fewer than one million books in the 1890s, in contrast to over 13 million books today shelved across dozens of libraries. As industrialization in the image of Henry Ford’s moving assembly line spread to other fields like publishing, the printing and selling of books became cheaper. The market was flooded with books, and Columbia’s Low Library – built for a rarified time when books were more expensive – became too small. The collections soon outgrew their intended home, prompting the construction of Butler Library. The Butler stacks – lined with thousands of metal shelves, accessible by only one entrance behind a security desk, and organized by the Dewey Decimal System – symbolize the mechanization of knowledge. If Low Library resembles a temple of reason, the fireproof stacks of Butler Library resemble a bank vault. By the 1920s, many of the same technologies employed in the design of bank vaults were also employed in the design of libraries. The names of dozens of Columbia spaces named after wealthy donors also attest to the fact that architectural form follows finance. Columbia’s campus, although built in the eternal image of ancient Rome, was funded with New York fortunes made and lost in the speculative bubbles of Wall Street.
Except as an event space, Low Library’s rotunda has remained empty for decades. But the unmet challenge of adapting an ancient library to new uses should not be read as a failure. Architecture must serve the university’s vision. Architecture must make the university’s ideals of tolerance, diversity, and free speech visible in stone, metal, and wood. As much as Low Library represented one way of thinking, its monumental emptiness symbolizes a university that has moved on to include new voices in an expanded definition of the universe, such as women and other groups excluded from higher education for most of American history. The Core Curriculum, too, once limited to the literature of Greece and Rome now lives across departments and includes global voices. In ways both technological and metaphorical, the university has advanced beyond a vision of the universe illuminated for only two hours per day.
The university Columbia has become is radically different from President Seth Low’s time. It is culturally richer for these changes and for the 1968 protests occupying Low Library and Hamilton Hall. Low Library – the symbolic and visual center of Columbia’s campus – might have taken a few years to build, but the goal of building a university requires the labor of generations of scholars, administrators, and activist students. Like the universe, the university was not built in a day.

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Low Library Dome Interior, from Wikimedia Commons

Racializing Space

Why does the American city remain so spatially and racially divided?

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Why does the American city remain so spatially and racially divided decades after the 1960s civil rights movement? Practices like redlining, restrictive covenants based on race, segregated public transit, and literacy tests for voting have all been “abolished,” at least on paper and in theory. However, events since spring 2020 have returned to the public consciousness a reality that had always been obvious to millions of Americans living in poverty and in urban areas: that this country remains divided and that the racism of Jim Crow, rather than disappearing, has taken new forms.
Drawing from the perspectives of architecture, planning, sociology, and history, this conversation considers the evidence for how the American city and suburb – specifically Detroit – remain spatially divided and what steps must be taken to fulfill the dream of an egalitarian metropolis. Panelists include:
Karyn Lacy, professor of sociology and African American studies at the University of Michigan
LaDale Winling, professor of American history at Virginia Tech
Robert Fishman, professor of history at the University of Michigan’s college of architecture and urban planning

We cannot design our way out of this crisis.

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Design is supposed to solve the problems of pandemic and climate crisis. This is flawed thinking. The apostles of architecture, technology, and design confront crisis with what they call “design thinking.” They claim they can design our world out of crisis through new technologies: sustainable product packaging, vegetable-based meat substitutes, paper bags instead of plastic, wind and solar instead of coal and oil. Meanwhile, the global super rich build space ships that will allow them to one day escape the mess they made of our planet. “Design thinking” becomes a way of escaping this world entirely.
The techno-optimism of “design thinking” fails to recognize that “design thinking” is itself a poison. The problem is not with design per se. Rather, the problem is with the corporate power structures in which “design thinking” operates. They promise electric cars will replace fossil-fueled cars that pollute. They promise New-Orleans-style levees and elevated houses built on stilts will reduce property damage in flood zones. They promise improved artificial intelligence will stop the virus of online hate speech. They promise we are just one more consumer purchase away from happiness. But this techno-optimism does not address the deeper questions: Why are we not designing a society in which people do not need cars? Why are we building in flood zones in the first place? Why must the profit model of social media networks rely on users spending as must time as possible on their platforms, even when boosting engagement results in exposing users to hate speech? The limited palette of “design thinking” overlooks systemic solutions that require fundamental, but overdue, lifestyle changes.
The entrenched powers that be insist on inserting themselves into whatever solution is presented, when the real medicine needed might be a society in which the powers that be do not exist. It should alarm us all that tech company executives, who resist government regulation and changes to their platforms, restrict their own children from using the very platforms they designed. Online retailers now sell devices to help addicts like us spend less time on our phones, which begs the question whether such anti-phone technologies would even be necessary had phones been designed as less addictive from the start. In a 2010 interview, Mark Zuckerberg described that designers must have empathy for the people who use their products. However, if designing products to be addictive to users makes the designer more profit, then a tension is created where the needs of the user and the desires of the designer work at cross-purposes. Unless “design thinking” is uncoupled from motives of pure profit, design alone will not fix a world in crisis.
Take the twisted logic of Shell Oil rebranding itself as a company specializing in “renewables” and “green energy.” This seems to be the equivalent of a drug dealer selling both the drugs that will kill and then cure the addict. Last year, the public relations team at Shell announced that, by 2050, their company will have net-zero emissions. Offshore oilrigs will be carbon neutral because they will be powered by solar panels and wind turbines. What this “design thinking” hides is the deeper reality that no oil rig, no matter how well designed, can be good for our planet’s health or our own.
“Design thinking” innovates within the existing railroad tracks of a consumer society. Why should a tire company design an affordable tire never runs flat? Why should a bottled water company advocate for clean water laws that make tap water safer to drink? Why should a shoe company design a mass-market shoe that never falls apart? The existing market structure rewards profitable behavior and profitable design, which is different from ethical design. The ethical designer is likely to create the very conditions of their unemployment. The shoemaker who sells a shoe that lasts forever has just lost herself a future customer. “Design thinking” is like a railroad track. Innovation is possible within set limits, but the train must move forward. The products of design – be they cars, houses, or phones – must sell and ideally resell to returning customers.
The world needs a design revolution, not more “design thinking.” Maybe a design revolution produces architecture as stable and as lasting as the monuments of ancient Rome. Maybe a design revolution restricts the sophistication of cell phone design to the way phones were in the 1990s, clunky so that we are not tempted to stare at them for endless hours. Maybe a design revolution makes technology so easy to repair and upgrade that users need only buy one device that lasts for life. Is the 1/16th inch reduction in iPhone width really worth the environmental cost of millions of tons of landfill waste? These changes require revolution, not reform. No institution – just as much as no person – can imagine a world in which they do not exist. But that is the way design needs to be. Designers should be like doctors, who treat the patient and send them on their merry way. The doctor who never needs to see their cancer patient again has done their job and done their job well. Maybe a design revolution creates a world with fewer designers and less “design thinking.” And maybe a world with less design will be better place.
It is a strange world indeed where we have the unbelievably complex technology to shoot Jeff Bezos on a rocket to outer space, but we do not have the technology to design Apple phone and laptop chargers that last more than a few months. I have gone through at least a dozen iPhone chargers, all in different colors, shapes, and sizes but none that could last. Designers a century ago predicted that, thanks to “design thinking” and technology improvements, people today would have lives of leisure “to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, [and] rear cattle in the evening.” Why Americans are working as hard as ever and are as burdened as ever with debt from their consumer purchases is one of the miracles of modern society. A better world is possible, but that world requires nothing short of revolutionary thinking. The only limit to what is possible is what we think is possible.

A Different Kind of Radiant City: Bucharest

Comparing Le Corbusier’s plans for Paris with Ceaușescu’s plans for Bucharest

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Abstract: Comparing Le Corbusier’s unrealized plans for Paris and dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu’s completed plans for the Romanian capital Bucharest reveals similarities in their urban forms. Analysis of three features in both cities – their nineteenth-century urban forms, the integration of twentieth-century plans into the existing urban forms, and the political symbolism of each plan – reveals the two places as reflections of each other. The comparison matters because it establishes an unconscious aesthetic link between the progressive (almost utopian) urban designs of an architect like Le Corbusier and the repressive (almost dystopian) urban designs of a dictator like Ceaușescu.

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Utopia and totalitarianism are both engaged in a mirroring game, tirelessly sending the same image back and forth as if utopia were nothing more than the premonition of totalitarianism and totalitarianism the tragic execution of the utopian dream. Only the distance that separates a dream from its realization seems to stand between the two.

– Frédéric Rouvillois
Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World [1]

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Introduction

The so-called “Free World” of capitalist democracies in Western Europe and North America has long been contrasted against socialist regimes in Asia and Eastern Europe. Long since the fall of communism, the political game continues. The two forces are represented in western media as if locked in a battle of good vs. evil: the so-called freedom and tolerance of western ideas vs. the so-called isolation and intolerance of foreign places without “free and fair elections” like China and Russia. The conventional narrative of architectural history contrasts the two worlds: the glass-walled and transparent skyscrapers for international corporations that pierce the skies of European and American cities vs. the massive geometry in stone for Soviet ministries with opaque and Orwellian sounding names like the Central Union of Consumer Cooperatives. Students are told the two worlds built in different styles and used architecture for contrasting ideological purposes.
What this political narrative leaves out is the “mirroring game” between regions. Leading civil engineers like the Swiss-born Robert Maillart and architects like the Swiss-born Le Corbusier traveled to and built government projects in Moscow. Russian architects admired the tapering limestone mass of New York City’s Municipal Building and adapted this form with few modifications for the shape of the prototypical Soviet skyscraper. The widespread demolition and rebuilding of cities that utopian architects proposed sometimes found a more receptive audience in Eastern European cities than in the capitalist cities of Western Europe that were anchored to tradition and private property. To analyze the mirroring game and to break down the false dualism of the “free” vs. “un-free worlds” is too much for one essay.
Instead, this essay will analyze the “mirroring game” between two cities. This article will compare the urban form of Paris – that imperial and industrial capital of the nineteenth century – with Bucharest. As a form of endearment, Bucharest’s residents nickname their city “Paris of the East” because of the quantity of French-inspired art and architecture from the nineteenth century. What interests me is less the old buildings of Paris and Bucharest because both cities are rich in neoclassical civic buildings and bourgeois apartment houses inserted into the late medieval fabric of streets. What interests me more is the twentieth-century history of these cities where they took divergent paths.
In Paris, massive urban renewal plans for modernist style “towers in the park” were made in Le Corbusier’s 1925 Plan Voisin. The un-built proposal would have demolished all of central Paris to carve through a superhighway lined with tower apartment blocks. This linear city was to be the capital of the new French state, which Le Corbusier hoped would be governed by a technocrat elite instead of fickle elected politicians. Le Corbusier’s plans for Paris would have produced a landscape devoid of the features people like most about Paris: its crooked and narrow corridor streets, pedestrian boulevards, and diverse building types built in the uniform earth tones of limestone. Paris would have lost all this.[2]
In Bucharest, comparable plans were realized in the 1980s during a brutal process that demolished a quarter of the central city. Over 40,000 people were displaced in the largest peacetime destruction of a capital city in European history, second to Haussmann’s rebuilding of Paris. Dozens of churches were smashed and thousands were relocated, often with a day’s notice and with requirements that they sign and pay for the demolition of their own homes. In its place, Romania’s dictator carved through a French-style boulevard wider and longer than the Champs-Élysées that was lined with parking spaces and tower apartment blocks.[3]
The comparison of Paris and Bucharest is richer than just an analysis of “the distance that separates a dream from its realization.” The differences between the two programs of urban renewal are just as revealing as their similarities. At the formal level, the rebuilding plans for Paris and Bucharest have little in common. The “towers in the park” on the outskirts of Paris have all the attributes of modern structures: horizontal bands of windows, concrete walls, flat roofs, and an aversion to ornament of any kind. By contrast, the 1980s urban renewal apartments and government ministries along Bucharest’s main boulevard are anti-modern. Although built with modern technologies, their external architectural language parodies antiquity with arches, columns, cornices, and limestone. Because of superficial differences between Paris and Bucharest, the comparison of their urban renewal plans has never been made. Nonetheless, the comparison reveals the modernist streak behind Ceaușescu’s built urban form, as well as the oppressive streak behind Le Corbusier’s unbuilt urban form. Understanding the mirroring game between Paris and Bucharest presents the utopian and totalitarian states as mirrors of each other, where one is “the premonition of totalitarianism” and the other is “the tragic execution of the utopian dream.” Which city is the utopia and which is the dystopia is, however, a false dichotomy that will be deconstructed.

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Figure [i]: Plan Voisin: The red cross-shaped buildings were 60-story office towers for elite administrators of the French state. The smaller red-shaped buildings set on the blue background were three to five story apartments for workers. A road network designed for different speeds of traffic cuts through the new city, as if to form the linear spine holding urban life together.

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Plan Voisin

An artist turned architect made a startling proposal in 1925 to demolish all of central Paris. The entire two-thousand-year old city between the Arc de Triomphe to the west and the Bastille to the east was to be cleared of buildings and rebuilt with 28 concrete and glass towers of 60 floors each. From their towers, workers would survey Paris rebuilt as a park. They would, to quote from the artist’s description of his project, “behold a dense mass of trees swaying beneath them. The stillness is absolute.”[4] Surrounding these towers, elevated highways stitched the city together in bands of concrete and asphalt. At the new city center, two highways converged at a vast subterranean shopping mall and transportation center with airport above. In no uncertain terms, he described his proposal’s sublime beauty: “When night intervenes the passage of cars along the highway traces luminous traces that are like the tails of meteors flashing across the summer heavens.”[5]
No details were provided for the subways, sewers, or water supply critical for the 400,000 residents living in this rebuilt Paris. No specific plans were made for the churches, libraries, theaters, or civic gathering spaces needed to support the cultural life of Paris either. This was an artist who, after all, fashioned himself an engineer and scientist but whose formal training extended little further than engraving watches in a Swiss village. This was an artist who looked down on trained architects and city planners, called for all professors at the École des Beaux-Arts to resign, and thought that Rome was “all the horrors”[6] and had built no worthwhile architecture in the four hundred years since Michelangelo’s death. “Architects,” he wrote, “live within the narrow confines of what they learned in school, in ignorance of the new rules of building, and they readily let their conceptions stop at kissing doves.”[7]
The artist was Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known by his nom de guerre as Le Corbusier. The project was called the Plan Voisin, which evolved into his proposal for the so-called Radiant City of the future. The public backlash against the Plan Voisin was swift and immediate. Alongside Albert Speer’s plan for rebuilding Berlin as Hitler’s world capital Germania, the Voisin Plan is among the most ambitious and well-known un-built proposals for a European capital city.
In the Athens Charter of 1933, Le Corbusier again described the ideal city in a list of proposals: Urban life and streets should be designed around the car. Urban centers should be depopulated of buildings, railroads, and industries for building parks, towers, and segregated roads with different speeds of cars. Urban forms should be shaped by an elite group of technicians, scientists, and planners. Most of all, cities should be systematized and reorganized around motor vehicles to reflect the new political, social, and economic structure of modern society. Le Corbusier hoped the transformation of urban life would become a vehicle for the larger transformation of society. As Le Corbusier concludes in words reminiscent of socialism: “Private interests should be subordinated to the interests of the community.”[8] Who defines the “interests of the community” is a question Le Corbusier leaves unanswered – the people themselves or the technocrats who know best?
Le Corbusier’s plan was designed for the wrong place, at the wrong time, and in the wrong political climate. The taciturn French state in the 1930s lacked the political will and motivation to follow through with so controversial a plan. Le Corbusier, in turn, interpreted resistance to his proposals as justification for political change. Elections and the messy business of democracy produced a negotiated urbanism of private vs. public that balanced the rights of individual property owners with slum clearance projects, highways, and new parks that represented the public good. What Le Corbusier needed in the 1930s was a central state that could overrule the interests of property owners and urban residents to plough through a new vision of urban life: his vision. In frustration at the challenges of his own career and with the failure of the French state to resist German invasion in 1940, Le Corbusier turned to the anti-Semitic, anti-Communist, and pro-Nazi Vichy state for employment. If democracy could not realize his urban visions, then perhaps other systems could. It was Hitler, after all, who had the power to build motorways and ambitious public works projects for the German people, and it was Le Corbusier who was often accused in the 1920s of building in a style too “Germanic.”[9] However, the Vichy made no attempts to ever follow through with Le Corbusier’s idea, and so his proposals for Paris remain paper architecture. Le Corbusier’s modernism was compromised by his tendency to align with any political party and system that promised to execute his urban visions.

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Figure [ii]: Ceaușescu’s plans for Bucharest overlaid over the bulldozed urban fabric. The areas in gray were cleared of buildings to erect the new buildings in black. The Victory of Socialism Boulevard slices through the new city. The building at left is the Palace of the Parliament, the heaviest building in the world that consumes as much electricity, light, and heat as a medium-sized city.

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Bucharest

The irony is that visions of total urban demolition and reconstruction came closest in the communist states that the Vichy and Nazis were allied against. Granted, public housing projects in places like New York City or the Pruitt-Igoe houses of St. Louis have all the attributes of Le Corbusier’s urbanism: car-centric urban superblocks and cruciform shaped towers set in landscaped parks. But the urban renewal projects of Western European and American cities still represent a negotiated urbanism of new vs. old, preservation vs. replacement. No American city was ever demolished in its entirety for a tabula rasa urbanism, although the scale of destruction in places like Detroit comes close.
Instead, the wholesale destruction of cities in post-WWII Eastern Europe was an opportunity to rebuild cities on fresh ideological lines. Most of Warsaw, Moscow, East Berlin, Dresden, Belgrade, and Bucharest were destroyed first during WWII and then by the Soviets who erased much remaining architecture associated with monarchy and the bourgeoisie. In Warsaw, for instance, medieval buildings were deemed as symbolic of Polish identity and were therefore meticulously restored. Warsaw’s nineteenth-century bourgeois apartment blocks in the image of Paris were more likely demolished, even if they had survived the war intact. In both Eastern and Western Europe, the rebuilding of cities was part of an effort to write urban forms in service of postwar society.[10] In western cities like Rotterdam, for instance, the medieval city of canals was entirely bombed in WWII and rebuilt around the car and highway as primary modes of transport. As George Orwell writes: “Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past control the future.”[11]
Bucharest’s construction from 1977 to 1989 stands out for the degree to which the demolished and rebuilt city reflects the egomania and aesthetic tastes of an all-powerful master builder: Nicolae Ceaușescu, dictator of Romania from 1967 until his 1989 show trial and execution on allegations of genocide. Ceaușescu was no Le Corbusier and never encountered Le Corbusier’s work during his no-more than middle school education that ended at age eleven. Le Corbusier’s exposure to Romania was also brief, amounting to more than a few sketchbook pages from his extensive European tours. But the irony is that despite Le Corbusier and Ceaușescu knowing nothing of each other, the urban plans they produced overlap in an unconscious ways: Le Corbusier the architect who wanted to become a dictator vs. Ceaușescu the dictator who wanted to become an architect. Utopia and dystopia claim to have nothing in common but, on closer looking, are distorted fun house mirrors of each other.
Having introduced the two plans and their ambitions, this essay will break the comparison of urban forms into three parts. Firstly, the nineteenth-century urban forms of Paris and Bucharest will be compared. Secondly, the proposals in both places to build linear cities will be introduced. The failure of both linear cities to respond to and fit into the existing and ancient urban fabric will be then described. Thirdly, both urban forms will be analyzed as political statements about their respective societies.

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Figure [iii]: Les Halles, the central marketplace of Paris, was a metal-framed building with walls of glass resembling a greenhouse. Built in the 1850s in the image of London’s Crystal Palace, the site of Les Halles would have stood at the geographic center of Le Corbusier’s plan and was therefore proposed for demolition. Parisians consider the 1970s demolition of Les Halles an architectural and cultural loss.

Figure [iv]: The Bucharest marketplace near present-day Piața Unirii was a metal-framed building with walls of glass in the image of Les Halles. It, too, was demolished for Ceaușescu’s urban renewal plans. The distant construction cranes are assembling the new city. The French connection is no coincidence. Engineers like Gustave Eiffel built bridges and hotels in Romania, while the Eiffel Tower’s iron and steel are sourced from Romanian mines.

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1. Nineteenth-century city

Traditional urban forms are centered on the street. For centuries, the streets of European cities developed in piecemeal fashion, gradually filling out the open land in a chaotic jumble of streets. Buildings rose straight up at the property line with the street, thereby producing a dense and vibrant urban culture of narrow streets. With buildings so close to the street, and with windows looking down onto the street, public space became an outdoor room of sorts. Surrounded by buildings and activity on all sides, the street was open to all. But with the coming of the modern age, the narrow streets of European cities became crowded with the noise and fumes of traffic. The public street that belonged to all social classes was now privatized for car owners. This produced what Le Corbusier condemned as the corridor street. As he writes: “Il faut tuer la rue-corridor” (We have to kill the corridor street).[12]
The boulevard was the nineteenth-century response to perceived problems with the corridor street. Haussmann carved dozens of straight, wide, and tree-lined boulevards through the narrow alleys, winding streets, and crowded neighborhoods of medieval Paris. Haussmann’s projects brought the appearance of medieval Paris into the nineteenth century, transforming the old architecture of Paris into a modern capital of the French nation and colonial empire. Miles of boulevards had new tunnels beneath for the city’s water supply, sewers, and subways. Along these streets there also rose new apartment buildings of uniform materials, floor heights, and neoclassical architectural style.
Rather than a contrast to the corridor street, the boulevard is an extension and improvement on earlier streets perceived as dangerous and crowded. Haussmann’s boulevards were carved through Paris to ease the movement of people and delivery of city services. At the same time, boulevards produced the urban culture of the café, department store, park, and the pedestrian (also known as the flâneur). The boulevard is a public place to see and be seen. In equal parts, the boulevard and traffic circle frame views of defining symbols of urban culture, such as the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and the Arcul de Triumf it inspired in Bucharest, both of which are limestone arches celebrating military victories and set in traffic circles. In line with this military theme, the boulevard can also be read as an attempt to rationalize urban growth and to control the city’s population. Boulevards built after the 1871 socialist uprising known as the Paris Commune were allegedly sliced through neighborhoods where political dissidents lived, so as to facilitate armies marching into the city on the broad, flat, and long expanse of the new streets. In theory, a barricade is harder to erect on a boulevard than on a corridor street.
The nineteenth-century boulevards inserted into the street network of Bucharest were never as extensive as those in Paris. Nonetheless, the map above does show two French-style boulevards lined with apartment buildings. One street travelling north to south called ___ and the other east to west called ___ intersect at the city center (top center of map). Occasionally, other Bucharest streets radiate from traffic circles in the image of Paris. Along many of Bucharest’s old city streets there rise limestone and stucco apartment buildings in the French Second Empire style. The varying floor height, varying amount of ornament on each floor, and mansard roofs on Bucharest’s nineteenth-century buildings all express externally the class divisions of upstairs vs. downstairs and masters vs. servants these buildings contained internally.
The Second World War destroyed large swaths of Bucharest, while Paris was spared despite Hitler’s orders to bomb the city and leave it “as a field of ruins.”[13] As the Soviets swept through Bucharest in the closing months of WWII, they installed communists in power and began the process of destroying symbols and confiscating property linked to the nineteenth-century monarchy and French-speaking bourgeoisie that governed Romanian society. Walking through Bucharest, the change in political system is imprinted on changes in architectural style. In parts of the bombed out city center, Parisian style apartment buildings stand side by side with postwar socialist towers. The new towers lack ornament and have uniform floor heights and window sizes, as if communicating outside the equality of residents inside. The architectural style of Bucharest changed from the ornament, curves, and craftsmanship of the Art Nouveau to the pre-fabricated concrete geometry of new buildings, as if symbolizing Romania’s transition from the Western European to Soviet sphere of influence, and from nineteenth-century romanticism to twentieth-century modernism.
However, what Le Corbusier and Ceaușescu proposed for Paris in the 1920s and Bucharest in the 1980s were above and beyond ambitious than the boulevards and apartment houses of the nineteenth century. To be fair, both saw themselves as following and expanding on the earlier tradition of Haussmann. Yet the point was not to become Haussmann or to interpret the urban fabric through new buildings. Rather, the point was to outdo and to overwrite all that had come before. Builders and planners like Haussmann had only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, was to change it.[14]

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2. Linear City

Le Corbusier’s demolition proposals for Paris re-focused the new city around the highway. All buildings were pulled back from the street and surrounded by gardens. Buildings turned away from the street, and by extension society turned away from the street as the organizing principle of urban life. Le Corbusier expands in his typo-rife list of recommendations that condemn traditional urban forms:

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51. The existing network of urban communications has arisen from an agglomeration of the aids [sic] roads of major traffic routes. In Europe these major routes date back well into the middle ages [sic], sometimes even into antiquity.
52. Devised for the use of pedestrians and horse drawn vehicles, they are inadequate for today’s mechanized transportation.
53. These inappropriate street dimensions prevent the effective use of mechanized vehicles at speeds corresponding to urban pressure.
54. Distances between crossroads are too infrequent.
55. Street widths are insufficient. Their widening is difficult and often ineffectual.
56. Faced by the needs of high speed [sic] vehicles, present the apparently irrational street pattern lacks efficiency and flexibility, differentiation and order [sic].
57. Relics of a former pompous magnificence designed for special monumental effects often complicate traffic circulation.[15]
The new superhighway that cut straight through Paris in no way corresponded to the existing street system and was opposed to traditional urban forms centered on the sidewalk and street. Le Corbusier insisted that streets were only for cars. As he writes: “the alignment of housing along main traffic routes should be forbidden.”[16] The Plan Voisin contrasts with traditional corridor streets and boulevards. The public and multipurpose functions that the street once served – as traffic artery, as sidewalk, as park, as play space, and as framing device for “relics of a former pompous magnificence” like the Arc de Triomphe – have all been segregated in the Plan Voisin to different parts of the city. One area is for industry, another for wealthy, another for parks, another for play, and still another for the working classes. The main thing that links these disparate parts together is the linear form of the highways, on which these different elements of urban life are strung together like beads on a necklace.
Ceaușescu also saw urban life as an unwieldy force to control and to regulate. Instead of the superhighway Le Corbusier proposed for Paris, Ceaușescu desired a French-style avenue called the Victory of Socialism Boulevard that was a few meters wider and a few meters longer than the Champs-Élysées. Unlike the real Champs-Élysées that became a fashionable open space and shopping street, the Victory of Socialism Boulevard had no luxury shops to speak of along its length. Bucharest residents saw their boulevard in an unfashionable light. As if expressing the boulevard’s anti-urban quality on land that displaced thousands of people overnight, residents renamed it the Victory over Bucharest Boulevard. The nickname expresses discomfort with the boulevard’s vast scale, wide streets, apartment superblocks, and dimensions that are out of place with the rest of Bucharest’s granular urban fabric. Rather than enhancing urban life, the boulevard’s scale could provide a backdrop for military parades of soldiers and tanks, that is, a different kind of “mechanized transportation” from what Le Corbusier described.[17]
Ceaușescu was himself uncomfortable with the culture, business, and unpredictable quality of urban culture. There is in Ceaușescu’s vision of Bucharest a desire to systematize and control the greatest sources of discontent and the middle class intellectuals who inhabited the area of the city he demolished. Le Corbusier desired and called for all scholars in the École des Beaux-Arts to resign, but he had no power to fire them.[18] Ceaușescu did have that power, and his rule was marked by the arrest, torture, imprisonment, or firing of any person who objected to his demolition of Bucharest and cult of personality.
Ironically, French monarchism is the cultural reference behind socialist Bucharest’s rebuilding. The Champs-Élysées terminated at a public square called the Place de la Concorde, beyond which was the palace of the Louvre set in the landscaped Jardins des Tuileries. Bucharest’s Victory of Socialism Boulevard ended at a vast public square of dozens of acres, in which over a million Romanians could assemble before the nation’s capital building, called the People’s House. From his viewing stand at a balcony in the exact center of the building’s facade, Ceaușescu hoped to view the assembled crowds and to survey the city down the length of his boulevard. The balcony and chambers behind the balcony are modeled after rooms in Versailles and the Opéra Garnier. They are the point of convergence around which the entire city plan and state revolves; all is visible from the center. The rhetoric and place names speak of socialism, but the visual imagery is of Louis XIV, the Sun King of the City of Lights and the descendant of the Capetian kings. Ceaușescu, too, took after the image of nobility through the royal scepter he brought with him and his chosen honorific titles: “genius of the Carpathians, “source of our light,” and “treasure of wisdom and charisma.”[19] Incidentally, both Ceaușescu and Louis XIV were short men with double chins and chose in later life to mask their age through requiring all official portraits to show them in the strength of virile youth. In media appearances, Ceaușescu was quick to delete any instances of his lifelong stutter appearing on camera. This is not so much to say that Ceaușescu saw himself as Louis XIV as much as to imply that external opulence of the urban form compensates for deeper insecurities. That the People’s House was never finished and is now empty of people and activities, a fitting metaphor for the failed Romanian state.
In reorienting the city around new visual axes and reorienting society around new cultural institutions, both plans marginalized the traditional centers of urban culture. The area cleared for Ceaușescu’s Bucharest consisted of churches, monasteries, schools, and the range of all businesses and housing types for different social classes. The new city he built was monolithic in land use and function: a boulevard lined with identical housing blocks and government ministries set in geometrically landscaped open areas. The largest of these open areas was two hundred acres of flat and roughly landscaped open space that surrounded the People’s House, land that was once home to thousands but now served only to elevate and frame the center of power in splendid isolation. Monuments in Ceaușescu’s Bucharest are like pieces in a museum display case, surrounded by empty space and set in isolation to be viewed from all sides.
For all the demolition and displacement of thousands of people his project would have involved, Le Corbusier described his plans as, in fact, enhancing the urban form by preserving a select few monuments of old Paris. The Garnier Opera House, Palais Royale, National Library, National Archives, Élysée Palace, The Louvre, Grand Palais, Petit Palais, Place Vendôme and a handful of Gothic churches like the Church of Saint Augustine and Church of Saint Laurence were saved. In old Paris, these monuments were part of the urban fabric and of the neighborhoods that surrounded them, visual and cultural focal points for urban life. In Le Corbusier’s proposal, these monuments sat in isolation and were cleared of all surrounding buildings, which in so doing saved individual buildings but destroyed the neighborhoods and urban culture that produced those buildings. Driving down the highway through the new linear city, the monuments and churches of old Paris would have been visible on either side of the road. Set back from the street, they would have risen in splendid isolation like large road signs, each stripped of all deeper meaning and reading only “I am a monument.”[20] In the Plan Voisin, churches have become like trailer homes that can be rolled away and placed anywhere.
Bucharest’s Orthodox churches and institutions were the centers of urban life; their spires were the symbols of tradition in the urban skyline. But religion had no place in Ceaușescu’s vision of a socialist and atheist society. For instance, under the pretext that the 1977 earthquake had damaged landmarks and made preservation impossible, Ceaușescu proceeded by every means possible to weaken and dismantle history. Văcărești Monastery, built 1716-22, was the largest monastery in Romania, once home of the largest library in Southeastern Europe, and ornamented with hundreds of frescoes and stone carvings. While preservationists were in talks to save the monastery, Ceaușescu proceeded under cover of darkness and with no public records to strip out the windows, demolish the steeples, and later still to use the building as a stage set for a WWII reenactment film with live munitions. Ironically, WWII did not destroy the monastery and left Bucharest’s urban form intact, but Romanian soldiers dressed as German soldiers destroyed their own city decades later. This rendered discussions to save the building a mute point before historians could even develop plans. Plans to build an amusement park here never materialized, and the land at the former monastery remains a barren field adjacent to the People’s House.[21]

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Figure [v]: Weighing 9,000 tons, the Mihai Voda Orthodox Church and its standalone tower were rolled 289 meters.

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Figure [vi]: Church of Saint John the New 1986,

near present-day Piața Unirii

Figure [vii]: And again today, now wedged between two Soviet-era buildings that hide and belittle the religious architecture

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At least eighteen other churches and monasteries were destroyed under armed military guard, but a few were saved. With local tourists and onlookers from the United Nations, a dozen churches weighing thousands of tons were jacked up and rolled away on railroad tracks to new locations out of the way of the new boulevards’ paths. In their new locations, taller and Soviet-era buildings encircled the churches, hiding visibility of the old architecture from the main streets. Like Le Corbusier’s proposals for Paris, the parts of old Bucharest that were salvaged became isolated monuments decontextualized of the neighborhoods and streets that once gave them meaning.
In an ironic twist of fate, Bucharest is now building the People’s Salvation Cathedral. Situated next to the detested People’s House, it is the world’s largest Orthodox church. The new church will be taller than the People’s House in hopes to reframe the focal point of Bucharest’s skyline. Other proposals included erecting a wall of capitalist skyscrapers around the People’s House so as to block all views of it, as if inverting against Ceaușescu the very methods he employed against the church and private property owners. Architecture is a response to trauma. The urban landscape again becomes a political landscape for competing ideologies.[22]
The demolition and dislocation of Bucharest’s stone churches is an uncomfortable comment on the instability of culture. Churches, hospitals, and grand public buildings are inter-generational monuments that are supposed to outlive us and provide aesthetic vehicles for us to communicate with history. When they are demolished, the experiences of nearby urban residents and their connections with history are severed. The plans in both Paris and Bucharest to demolish this history reveals how deep the efforts of Le Corbusier and Ceaușescu were to sever society from past ways of thought and to rebuild society from the ground up. That the new city should coexist with the old churches and monuments was not enough; history must be erased for the new society. The urban form becomes a political statement, in which case the wanton destruction of history is justified on both economic and ideological grounds.

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3. Urban form as political statement

National leaders have long realized the importance of buildings as symbols of larger political projects.
Inspired by French principles of urban planning, Washington D.C. was measured out in 1791 on the uninhabited, desolate, and swampy banks of the Potomac River. The street network is as ambitious as Paris, but it was for a young nation with population four million. The plan symbolized the imperial ambitions of young America to settle the west and conquer nature. More than a century of urban growth and new construction would be required for these ambitions to become reality.
Inspired by the linear city of the Plan Voisin, Brasília was laid out in 1960 on Brazil’s vast unsettled interior of dry and grassy plains. Streets were planned as if to form a pictogram from the air of a bird in flight (or is it an airplane, or some modern rendition of a Mesoamerican city?). Brasília’s urban form was not designed for pedestrians, was rich in political symbolism, oriented around the “mechanized transportation” of the car, and symbolized the aspirations of the new government to colonize the vast nation’s interior.[23]
Canberra in Australia, Naypyitaw in Myanmar, New Delhi in India, Abuja in Nigeria, Nur-Sultan in Kazakhstan, Ankara in Turkey, Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, and Yamoussoukro in Ivory Coast are all political projects like Washington D.C. and Brasília, capital cities plotted out of thin air onto unsettled regions. The urban form was recognized as an active and necessary agent to bring about a new society. The construction of all these new capitals was justified on economic grounds (the existing capital city was too small or crowded for growth), political grounds (the new capital was better located near the geographic center of the country), and ideological grounds (the new capital would symbolize a reorientation in national values). In other words, the urban form of capital cities is aspirational and transformational, aiming to use urban planning to reshape public discourse.[24]
Both Le Corbusier and Ceaușescu tied an architectural and planning project to the larger social project of reorganizing society. Yet what sets their projects apart from the traditional urban form of capital cities is that they proposed to build in the city center, right in the middle of urban life. All the other cities mentioned were either built on undeveloped land, or they were new additions at the edge of existing cities. For instance, the plan of New Delhi was created by the British Empire in the 1910s through 30s with hopes to solidify colonial rule over India. New Delhi’s urban plan was as ambitious and symbolically rich as proposals for Paris and Bucharest, but it was built at the city edge of Old Delhi, effectively co-existing with the old city as an alternative to traditional urban forms. What Le Corbusier and Ceaușescu advocated through their architectural projects was a larger political project bordering on revolution. It was not enough that new society should inhabit new buildings; it should replace all previous urban forms that had existed for millennia. New ways of life and new means of production are needed in utopian society, and these goals require revolution against traditional urban forms.
The choice of capital city is strategic because it would provide a model for the rest of the country. Haussmann’s rebuilding of Paris inspired copycat projects in satellite cities like Lyon and Marseilles, as well as colonial capitals like Rabat in Morocco, Algiers in Algeria, and Tunis in Tunisia. Influence flows from centers of culture and power, along with new forms of art and architecture. The hope in both Paris and Bucharest was that, by rebuilding the capital city, the path for the rest of the country would become clear in an instant.
France was an undisputed colonial power in the nineteenth century, and Paris was the center of empire. The urban forms and boulevards of this capital city were as much practical projects for the movement of traffic and people as political projects to frame the monuments and institutions of French culture and governance. Paris is an imperial city with boulevards designed to frame views of, say, the Arc de Triomphe (a political symbol), the Madeleine (a religious symbol), the Gare de l’Est (a technology symbol), the Garnier Opera House (a cultural symbol), and the Louvre (a royal palace). Paris’ urban form communicates who is in charge. In this way, Le Corbusier’s project would have attempted to bring Paris into the twentieth century, as if to update the urban form so as to remain a relevant symbol of France’s modernity. By the 1930, Hausmann’s boulevards designed for the pedestrian and carriage would have symbolized an older political order and system. Le Corbusier would have replaced these older symbols with new symbols that represented the technocrat elite he hoped would govern French society.
By contrast, Romania was never a global power, but it had all the ambitions to reshape itself as one. Romania existed during the Cold War as a Soviet satellite state, within the Russian sphere of influence but never directly controlled by Moscow. Despite its Slavic neighbors, Romania looked to Western Europe to find, for instance, their first king from Germany and their national architecture with French Art Nouveau influences. Later, Ceaușescu had global ambitions through foreign aid to Africa and close relations with Iran, the United States, and Britain. Despite Ceaușescu’s numerous flaws, foreign policy was seen as one of his regime’s genuine strengths. At the same time, he banned all abortions and contraceptives so as to force population growth through unwanted pregnancies, causing 500,000 children abandoned in Romanian orphanages. Rebuilding Bucharest was part of this larger political project. Bucharest’s urban form copies the model of existing imperial powers, but it is above and beyond ambitious anything Romania would need. Seventy percent of the rooms in the People’s House remain empty in anticipation of a Romanian state with millions more people that never came to be. Bucharest’s urban form must be read as a political project well beyond in size and scale anything that the city needed. France, by contrast, has a capital city whose architectural size and ambitions align with the global reputation and power of the French nation.
Central to imperial and global ambitions is the desire to standardize and systematize language, arts, and communication so as to govern a large area that has a unified culture. Socialist Realism was itself a standardized aesthetic within the communist world. Dozens of Soviet-inspired skyscrapers for government ministries as far-ranging as the Sino-Soviet Friendship Building in Shanghai, the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, the Seven Sisters in Moscow, the Latvian Academy of Sciences, and the House of the Free Press in Bucharest are all variations on the same architectural tower type with silhouettes like wedding cakes. Ceaușescu did not create an international style of architecture that Romania exported abroad, but what he did promote in the last years of his rule was what he called systematization. This was a program to demolish every city and village in Romania. Seven to eight thousand villages were declared redundant, bulldozed, and their occupants moved to new pre-fabricated apartment towers in concrete.[25] City centers were demolished and rebuilt as concrete shopping malls. Later, when food and funding ran out during Romania’s economic crisis of the1980s, citizens renamed the unfinished shells of these urban shopping centers as “hunger circuses.” Estimates range, but by 1989, 85 to 90% of Romania’s 29 largest towns were razed and rebuilt, with an additional 37 towns partially demolished. Government plans called for 90% of all pre-WWII buildings to be demolished for Soviet-style apartment blocks. The aim was to produce a homogenized built environment by the year 2000, the better to govern an obedient people.[26]
Le Corbusier also believed in standardizing the world. He proposed a new international measurement system called the modulor, whose basic unit was the height and proportions of the human body, through which all other things in the world were measured with respect to. The International Style for buildings that Le Corbusier promoted, as well as the automobiles that would service Le Corbusier’s modern city, have no cultural boundaries. His own career marks him as a French architect, but he was not restricted to France. The technologies of globalism are universal, consistent, and not adapted to local conditions. The skyscrapers that the World Trade Organization, Exxon, and the Trump Organization erect in cities around the world are near identical architectural forms, and symbolize the same globalist values in different cultural contexts. In other words, the popularity of McDonald’s is that customers get the same thing wherever they go, and that consistency is key to both the company (which saves money through economies of scale) and the consumer (who knows what to expect). Our society does not measure things with Le Corbusier’s modulor, but the increasing standardization of building components from places like Home Depot is very much in the same vein of creating a house that acts like a car. Parts can be swapped out interchangeably. If houses are “machines for living” and cars are machines for movement, then by Le Corbusier’s logic, cities are machines for social engineering and require new urban forms that make social engineering possible.

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The comparison of Paris and Bucharest should not be reduced to a simple morality tale of urban planning gone wrong. Bucharest might be an unconscious and twisted realization of megalomaniacal proposals like the Plan Voisin. The aesthetic similarities between Paris and Bucharest underscore the comparison of dream and reality, source and inspiration. However, to attribute the failure of Le Corbusier’s plans to the strength of private property and capitalism to resister urban renewal and the iron fist of the state is too simplistic.
Le Corbusier saw his plans as operating within the framework of market-driven and technocratic capitalism, not socialism. The Voisin Plan was for a future French society governed by syndicalism, a political system that glorified not a leader but the rational organization of modern life and its capacity for a liberating productivity. Hence, the plan tried to imagine what a beautifully organized modern city would look like. Like Haussmann’s urban renewal projects that paid for themselves, Le Corbusier hoped his city would be self-financing. The initial outlay of capital to acquire and demolish medieval streets for modern boulevards was paid for by the increased property values of buildings erected along these boulevards. Less discussed in Haussmann’s Paris is the extent to which urban renewal projects in the urban core displaced the urban poor to city edges, creating a circle of elites in the city center surrounded by less desirable suburbs. Many of those displaced in Bucharest were also moved to unfinished and desolate housing towers at the city edge. Like Haussmann, Le Corbusier hoped that corporations would pay for his rebuilding of Paris and would reap the rewards. This did not happen; thousands of people were never displaced for urban renewal. However, the more recent process of gentrification has displaced many of the people and features from the central city that Le Corbusier would have found most objectionable about urban life: buildings without plumbing and elevators, crowded apartments, the smoke and noise of steam engines, and factories pressed up against residential areas. Although planners did not displace the population of central Paris, market forces remade the central city in the image of global capitalism and, in so doing, displaced the social classes that had lived there for centuries. Central Paris has the most AirBnB rentals of any city in the world, and the company is accused of giving apartments to the jet-setting elite that would otherwise go to actual residents. The recurring civil unrest in Paris is concentrated in the modernist “towers in the park” that surround the historic urban core, and which ironically Le Corbusier advocated for as the healthier alternative to traditional urban forms in the city center. The minorities and immigrants living here feel removed from their place of work, must commute to the city center, and are alienated from French society. Le Corbusier wanted to rebuild central Paris. His plans failed, but in a twisted sense his image of the city took root across the globe. The pencil-thin new skyscrapers of New York, London, and dozens of other cities have become playgrounds for the global super-rich. The club of corporate technocrats holds the real power in capitalist society, and they are supported by a precarious underclass of housekeepers, security guards, and gig workers. Like the syndicalists a century ago, tech leaders today promise that technology and the internet will liberate productivity.
The Romanian Revolution of 1989 toppled Ceaușescu’s dictatorship and left his plans for Bucharest in a state of partial completion. The new capitalism had little desire to finish these plans because of the communist oppression they symbolized to the Romanian people. At the same time, a more nuanced assessment would be that Ceaușescu’s Romania symbolized not communism but, rather, the worst excesses of crony capitalism. In later years, Ceaușescu was buried in his own cult of personality, world of incalculable wealth, assets hidden in foreign bank accounts, and appointments of friends and family in high places. The Romanian people joked that everyone in Ceaușescu’s inner circle had nepotism to go around that the country had “Socialism in One Family.” As the 1980s brought economic hardship to Romania, and as the 1979 Iranian Revolution cut off oil supplies central to Romania’s economy, Ceaușescu cracked down hard through surveillance, oppression, and torture on unions, strikes, and workers demanding higher wages. The crisis was worsened by his decision to pay off the country’s foreign creditors and foreign debt through austerity measures and rollbacks in public services like health, education, and infrastructure. When workers dared to strike, Ceaușescu called in the military. No surprise then that one of the crowning moments of Ceaușescu’s career was a state visit to meet Margaret Thatcher and the British royal family, where he, too, was treated like royalty in exchange for signing lucrative trade agreements. Among Soviet Bloc countries, Bucharest retained the most independence from Moscow and the “most favored nation” trading status with the United States. Presidents like Nixon and later Reagan were hesitant to condemn Ceaușescu’s excesses and destruction of cultural heritage because they perceived Ceaușescu as a possible ally against the Soviet Union. Was the rebuilding of Bucharest in the image of socialism, or was it in the darker image of a technocratic oligarchy? At what point does Haussmann’s vision of Paris become megalomania?
The entry of Romania into the European Union has resolved some instability like food shortages and lack of consumer goods, but globalization has introduced new instabilities to Eastern Europe. Since the collapse of communism, skilled and young workers have left Romania and other Eastern European countries. From places like the Gara de Nord, Bucharest’s main rail station, millions of migrant workers now stream to Western Europe, where a restaurant worker abroad can make as much as a doctor at home. In places like the Gare du Nord, Paris’s main rail station and the busiest in Europe, ethnic groups like the Roma congregate and struggle on through begging and petty theft. As English-language rock music plays on local radio stations, Romania again looks beyond its borders for wealth and cultural influences.
The initial statement that Paris is “the premonition of totalitarianism” and Bucharest is “the tragic execution of the utopian dream” does not capture the full picture. In both cities, the rhetoric of Le Corbusier and Ceaușescu presented the pre-existing urban form as formless, empty, chaotic, and therefore needing the planner’s light from above. The city of darkness justified creating the city of lights. In both cities, the creation of the city of lights produced a new darkness in the cultures that were lost, the people that were displaced, and the oppressive symbols of absolute power embedded in new urban forms. Which is the city of dark and which is the city of lights becomes ambiguous on closer examination. The two leaders were different in their approaches, intentions, and images of the ideal city, but there are shared and darker underlying similarities.
The dichotomies of Paris and Bucharest, capitalism and communism, modernist and postmodernist architecture, utopia and dystopia start to fall apart. Bucharest’s urban form employs modern technologies but is built in a visual style that references monarchy and antiquity. In what era and ideological framework does this place Bucharest? Is Paris the utopian version of dystopian Bucharest? And, if Paris is a utopia, for whom is it a utopia? How could Ceaușescu’s Victory of Socialism Boulevard, one of the worst failures of city planning, be inspired by Haussmann’s boulevards that, we are told, get planning and public space right? Is the unhinged force of capitalism or the oppression of Soviet Socialism more responsible for destroying traditional urban forms?
Analysis of Paris and Bucharest raises larger and more fundamental questions about the feasibility of realizing utopia through architecture and social engineering alone. Le Corbusier’s vision for Paris emerged in the 1920s at a time when society had an unquestioning faith in progress and optimism in the technologies of airplanes, railroads, and science to advance humanity. Le Corbusier’s architecture was shaped around and celebrated the emerging technologies of glass, steel, concrete, and the automobile. Technology, Le Corbusier believed, must be incorporated into architecture and used in service of building a new society, a new Garden of Eden. Yet the horrors of World War transformed the technologies of modernity, like airplanes, chemical labs, and freight railroads, into agents of humanity’s own self-destruction and genocide. By the late twentieth century, the world had become skeptical of technology’s promise of progress and of architects’ promise that urban surgery to cities could further the project of democracy. Utopian projects Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, Le Corbusier’s Radiant City, and Ceaușescu’s Bucharest appear outdated to modern eyes.
In this context, Ceaușescu’s Bucharest is a cultural outlier, a project completed in the 1970s and 80s at a time when most other planners had turned away from ambitious urban renewal projects. In the 1970s and 80s, American cities were abandoning the “towers in the park” and massive public housing projects in favor of improving urban neighborhoods through conservation, instead of demolition. At the same time, old Bucharest was being demolished and reshaped in accordance with the same urban planning principles that the planning profession had begun resisting in other countries. Before the wrecking balls and demolition crews had even begun their work, Bucharest had become yesterday’s city of tomorrow, a project completed in the 1980s that looked back to the 1880s. And yet, in the thirty years since the fall of communism, Bucharest’s wide boulevards and empty fields are still haunted by yesterday’s vision. City planners have yet to identify land uses for hundreds of acres that Ceaușescu cleared of buildings but never developed. Past, present, and future all blur together in the urban form.
What is today’s vision of tomorrow, not just for specific cities and buildings but also for society as a whole? And if the so-called “creative class” of planners and intellectuals that have governed society since the fall of communism are unable to offer alternatives for the utopian city of the future, will society resurrect failed visions of urban renewal in the hope of making things great again, whatever “great” means?[27] Recent opinion polls indicate that if Ceaușescu were alive today and were to run for president, over 50% of Romanians would vote for him.[28] As the world sees a resurgence of nationalism, as China grows as a world power, and as right wing government take power in democracies around the world, there is still hope for Le Corbusier’s visions of the future.

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Figure [viii]: Le Corbusier waved his hand above his urban renewal plans for Paris and declared: “The advent of the machine age has caused immense disturbances to man’s habits, place of dwelling and type of work […] Chaos has entered into the cities.”[29] This chaos must be solved through new ways of living that use machines to restore harmony between man and nature.

Figure [ix]: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. – Opening lines of Genesis[30]

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Acknowledgments

I am grateful to Robert Fishman, the advisor in my architecture PhD program, for his research on Le Corbusier and utopian urban forms that inspired this essay. I am grateful to my parents and pet dog whose companionship supported my research and writing during a challenging pandemic.
In a more twisted sense, I am grateful to the local universities and institutions in my native Newark, New Jersey. Their urban renewal actions from the 1950s to present day that demolished hundreds of historic buildings and dislocated thousands of people inspired me to consider the consequences of tabula rasa urban planning. More than an isolated instance of misguided urban renewal in a single American city, the demolition of traditional urban forms in the name of modernism has happened across the United States and world. Reading about utopian projects to build the ideal city inspired me to situate my subjective individual experiences in the larger history of architecture.

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Iuga, Liliana. “Reshaping the Historic City under Socialism: State Preservation, Urban Planning and the Politics of Scarcity in Romania (1945-1977).” PhD diss. Central European University, 2016.

Ronnas, Per. “Turning the Romanian Peasant into a New Socialist Man: An Assessment of Rural Development Policy in Romania.” Soviet Studies 41, no. 4 (1989): 543-59. http://www.jstor.org/stable/152536.

Walker, Shaun. “Romania comes to terms with monument to communism 30 years after Ceaușescu’s death: Bucharest’s notorious Palace of the Parliament bears witness to the folly of dictator shot dead on Christmas Day 1989” The Guardian. December 22, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/dec/22/romania-palace-of-the-parliament-communism-30-years-after-fall-nicolae-Ceaușescu-christmas-day.

 

Footnotes

[1] Frédéric Rouvillois, “Utopia and Totalitarianism” in Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World (New York City: New York Public Library, 2000) 316.

[2] Robert Fishman, “Plan Voisin,” in Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century: Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier (Boston: MIT Press, 1982), 205-212.

[3] Maria de Betania Cavalcanti, “Totalitarian States and Their Influence on City Form: The Case of Bucharest: Journal of Architectural and Planning Research 9, no. 4 (1992): 275-86, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43029085.

[4] Le Corbusier, “Plan Voisin, Paris, France, 1925 (Extract from Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, Oeuvre complète, volume 1, 1910-1929),” Fondation Le Corbusier. http://www.fondationlecorbusier.fr/corbuweb/morpheus.aspx?sysId=13&IrisObjectId=6159&sysLanguage=en-en&itemPos=2&itemCount=2&sysParentName=Home&sysParentId=65.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Le Corbusier (author) and Jean-Louis Cohen (introduction), “The Lesson of Rome: Rome and Us,” in Toward an Architecture, (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2007), 211-12.

[7] Ibid., “Eyes that do not see,” 149.

[8] Le Corbusier, “Charter of Athens,” The Getty Conservation Institute, 1933. https://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/research_resources/charters/charter04.html.

[9] Fishman, “Quest for Authority / Vichy,” in Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century, 235-252.

[10] Liliana Iuga, Two Meanings of Reconstruction, in “Reshaping the Historic City under Socialism: State Preservation, Urban Planning and the Politics of Scarcity in Romania (1945-1977),” PhD diss. (Central European University, 2016), 67-77.

[11] George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (London: Secker & Warburg, 1949).

[12] “Reflecting on the concepts of streets,” Urban kchoze, December 18, 2014.

http://urbankchoze.blogspot.com/2014/12/reflecting-on-concepts-of-streets.html.

[13] “Historically, the loss of Paris always meant the loss of France. The Führer repeats his order that Paris has to be defended. […] The strongest measures to quell insurrection inside the city must be taken. […] The bridges across the Seine are to be prepared for demolition. Paris must not fall into enemy hands except as a field of ruins.” Adolf Hitler, 1944.

[14] “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” – Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, 1845

[15] Le Corbusier, “Charter of Athens,” The Getty Conservation Institute, 1933. https://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/research_resources/charters/charter04.html.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Darrick Danta, “Ceaușescu’s Bucharest,” Geographical Review 83, no. 2 (1993): 178.

[18] Le Corbusier, Toward an Architecture, 211-12.

[19] Danta, “Ceaușescu’s Bucharest,” 174.

[20] Denise Scott Brown, Robert Venturi, and Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas Book (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1972).

[21] Alexandru Dumitru, “Destroyed Bucharest,” Bucharestian. http://www.bucharestian.com/Destruction.html.

[22] Roann Barris, “Contested Mythologies: The Architectural Deconstruction of a Totalitarian Culture,” Journal of Architectural Education (1984-) 54, no. 4 (2001): 229-37.

[23] Valerie Fraser, “Brasília” in Building the New World: Studies in the Modern Architecture of Latin America, 1930-1960 (Verso: New York, 2000), 212-72.

[24] Although his book never mentions Bucharest, inspiration for the line of critique taken in this section of the essay is inspired from: Michael Minkenberg, Power and Architecture: The Construction of Capitals and the Politics of Space (New York: Berghahn Books, 2014).

[25] Per Ronnas, “Turning the Romanian Peasant into a New Socialist Man: An Assessment of Rural Development Policy in Romania,” Soviet Studies 41, no. 4 (1989): 543-59, http://www.jstor.org/stable/152536.

[26] Dinu C. Giurescu, The Razing of Romania’s Past (Washington D.C.: National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1989).

[27] Donald Trump, “Executive Order 13697: Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” National Archives, December 23, 2020,

https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2020/12/23/2020-28605/promoting-beautiful-federal-civic-architecture.

[28] Raluca Besliu, “Communist Nostalgia in Romania,” openDemocracy, April 13, 2014, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/can-europe-make-it/communist-nostalgia-in-romania/.

[29] Le Corbusier, “Charter of Athens,” The Getty Conservation Institute, 1933. https://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/research_resources/charters/charter04.html.

[30] “Genesis” 1:1-5, New International Version.

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Figures

Figure [i]: Faut-il raser Paris ? Le plan Voisin de Le Corbusier (1925), 2021, image still from film, Le Tableau de Paris, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wRQ7-A_mhyk.

Figure [ii]: Maria de Betania Cavalcanti, “Totalitarian States and Their Influence on City Form: The Case of Bucharest, Journal of Architectural and Planning Research 9, no. 4 (1992): 280 fig. 1, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43029085.

Figure [iii]: Les Halles Marketplace in Paris, photo, telerafi.com

https://telegrafi.com/rrnofte-teatri/.

Figure [iv]: Marketplace in Bucharest: Andrei Pandele, “30 Astonishing Vintage Photographs Capture Everyday Life in Bucharest Under Ceausescu Era of the 1970s and ‘80” Vintage Everyday, May 11, 2018,

https://www.vintag.es/2018/05/andrei-pandele-romania-photos.html.

Figure [v]: Mihai Voda Orthodox Church: Kit Gillet, “Eugeniu Iordachescu, Who Saved Bucharest’s Churches, Dies at 89,” The New York Times, January 11, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/11/obituaries/eugeniu-iordachescu-dead.html.

Figure [vi]: Church of Saint John the New in 1986: “Urbán Tamás,” Fortepan, 1986,Biserica Sfântul Ioan cel Nou

https://fortepan.hu/en/photos/?q=bucharest,%20urban%20tamas.

Figure [vii]: Church of Saint John the New in 2019: image from Google Maps street view.

Figure [viii]: Le Corbusier with Plan Voisin: Robert Fishman, Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century: Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier (Boston: MIT Press, 1982).

Figure [ix]: Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, 1508-12, Vatican.

Optimizing Architectural Models for Display Online

Difficulty Level: Intermediate to Advanced

This workshop for designers is paired with an interactive history animation about the construction of Notre-Dame of Paris. You will learn how to create highly detailed but low-polygon-count models of any building you desire. These visually and geometrically complex models will have a small enough file size to load in your web browser. They can be viewed by clients, possible employers, and others online, with no need for them to download files or own specific software. Based on the content delivered in this six-part tutorial, you will be able to create similar models of any other building, real or proposed. You will be able to share these models online in a virtual reality format through Sketchfab.
1.  Introduction
2.  How much detail does a model need?
3.  How can strategic use of components save on time and polygon count?
4.  How can any image be transformed into a seamless texture?
5.  How can custom image textures reduce polygon count?
6.  How can models be uploaded and optimized for online views?

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The Model:

Please allow a minute or so to load. Model is 500,000 polygons.

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1. Introduction

8.5 minutes. Optimizing computer models of architecture for interaction online.

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2. How much detail does a model need?

3.0 minutes. Determining the right level of detail a model needs.

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3. How can strategic use of components save on time and polygon count?

6.0 minutes. Creating complex geometric forms from simple component building blocks.

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4. How can any image be transformed into a seamless texture?

7.5 minutes. Creating your own seamless image textures in Photoshop.

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5. How can custom image textures reduce polygon count?

7.5 minutes. Editing custom image textures to create visual complexity from geometric simplicity.

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6. How can models be uploaded and optimized for online views?

4.5 minutes. Finishing touches.

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Democracy’s Prison Problem

How much does the existence of democracy depend on depriving some of its people of the benefits of democracy?

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“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

– Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, 1865

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In 1865, the United States government revised the Constitution to make slavery illegal. Six little words, however, change the whole meaning of the sentence: Forced confinement is illegal “except as a punishment for crime.” These six words hint at a larger flaw in a document that opens with high words about liberty and justice. The existence of democracy depends on depriving some of its people of the benefits of democracy.
As of 2020, the number of Americans in jails, prisons, and out on parole after prison is just over three million. That is, at least one percent of America’s population is at this point incarcerated. Also one third of Americans have a criminal record, meaning that they have been in jail or prison at some time. This is a permanent stain and barrier to existing in society as a full citizen; prisoners and many former prisoners cannot vote.
The most common conclusion from these facts is that America keeps too many people locked up. Changes to the legal system are needed. But what if the problem is deeper than anything that small reform can solve? What if the problem strikes to the core of this country’s founding?
There is a line from American author Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 book called The Scarlet Letter. The story is in Puritan Massachusetts just after the arrival of the first colonists to the New World:

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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.
American history textbooks present the people who founded this country as a group in search of freedom and liberty. What is less remembered, however, is these people were generally a pretty intolerant lot. Perhaps this intolerance is descended from their reading of the Old Testament in the Bible, which is rich in images of vengeful and wrathful God. No matter the reason, their society was a punishing place to live in an uncolonized continent. Suffering and repentance, the Puritan and Quaker founders of America believed, was a requirement of society. The Bible is rich in descriptions of solitude and revelation. Jesus went to the desert and spoke to God; saintly hermits lived in the desert and gained self-knowledge through the pain of solitude. The founders of America found their democracy through the country’s geographic isolation from the wars and problems of Europe.
In 1830, the largest and most expensive structure ever built in the young democracy of America was not the White House (built with slave labor) or any similar structure built in the image of ancient Greek democracy. The title of largest structure ever built in the now 200-year-old nation was a prison, Eastern State Penitentiary. One of the cruel ironies – or is it an irony? – is that this prison was built in the same city in which the U.S. Constitution was signed and where, in effect, this country was first imagined on paper. The external appearance of the prison was not built in the style of Greece and Rome, as if to imply that the values of these past democracies were embodied in the operations of this prison. Instead, the external appearance of Eastern State was fancifully modeled after a castle with tapered walls, slit windows, towers, and a jagged silhouette. This prison, its builders believed, should inspire fear in those who saw it. And what better aesthetic precedent for the new democracy to follow than the medieval castles of Europe lived in by kings and queens? Inside Eastern State, the isolation of prisoners was absolute. Prisoners spent 24 hours a day in solitary confinement; the average sentence was for five years. Solitude and punishment, the Quaker founders believed, was the path to redemption. Eastern State was one prison, but it was the most influential prison of its time, visited by all manner of foreign dignitaries interested in designing prisons for their own countries. In its time, Eastern State was almost as popular a tourist attraction as Niagara Falls. It set the design precedent that most American prisons today still follow.
Does democracy require that some people be deprived of their freedom? The builders of Eastern State and the authors of the U.S. Constitution were familiar with French philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The ideas of Rousseau are now credited with inspiring the actions and writing of the founding fathers of America. One quote from Rousseau stands out:

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The word Liberty may be read over the front of the prisons and on the chains of the galley-slaves. This application of the device is good and just. It is indeed only malefactors of all estates who prevent the citizen from being free. In the country in which all such men were in the galleys, the most perfect liberty would be enjoyed.
For Rousseau, slavery is not incompatible with democracy. A democracy can have slaves, so long as those people are made slaves “as a punishment for crime.” But who defines crime, and who defines punishment? What if the crime is being born Black, or woman, or crippled? One definition of crime would seem to come from religion, whose laws were not made by humans. Crime is what God defines as a crime. To go against the Ten Commandments of the Bible is to commit a punishable sin. But at the same time, the Puritans, Quakers, and Christians who founded this country and wrote the Constitution ruled that church and state must be separate. The government cannot rule by religious law. The legitimacy of democracy comes not from God, but from the people. Therefore, the definition of crime comes from what the people define as crime, and not from any higher power or document. This is deeply problematic: Human rights can be revoked for having committed a crime. But since crime is a social construct, then simply convicting someone of a crime becomes justification for all manner of human rights abuses like forced labor, convict leasing, and profit from modern-day prison slavery in America.
Where do we go from here as a society? If democracy requires rules to function, what does democracy do with those who break those rules? I do not know. The challenge seems deeper than anything that reform can fix. But maybe the best path to becoming a democracy is recognizing the many ways you are not yet a democracy. Democracy should not be a state of being; it should rather be aspirational as a state of becoming. Once you are a democracy, that is it; there is no room for improvement. You are perfect, and any flaws are just kinks in the perfect system. At best, this self-congratulatory naivete seems lazy. At worst, it is dangerous.
American lawmakers often claim that America is the world’s oldest democracy. As Republican lawmaker Paul Ryan claimed in 2016: “The United States is the oldest democracy in the world, and its endurance is a testament to our Constitution.” The claim that we are an ancient democracy and that other countries are not has become justification for all manner of American military action in other countries. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that began as missions to take down foreign threats to American citizens soon became exercises in nation building. Our civilizing mission, politicians told us, was to spread democracy and the American way of life. Within a few years of the Iraq invasion, images circulated the world over of American soldiers torturing prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. At each instance of police abuse, military torture, drone strikes, and systemic injustice, the problem is represented in the media as not being an inbuilt flaw with democracy but rather a flaw with a few individual bad actors. The torture at Abu Ghraib was not the fault of the US government; it was the fault of individual solders, we were told. The rhetoric of democracy expects us to separate the images of the Iraq invasion from images of torture, as if the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib had nothing to do with the opening of Baghdad’s new parliament a few miles away.
Perhaps, recognize the torture and injustice within America’s own borders. Perhaps, recognize that maybe we were not fully a democracy before the time in the 1960s when Blacks, and women, and others could not vote. Perhaps, recognize that we are not the world’s oldest democracy, but one of its youngest. Perhaps, recognize the ways that you are not in order to become what you should be. John Locke might have inspired the leaders of the American revolution when he wrote: “Liberty is to be free from restraints and violence from others.” But this ideal is not reality so long as three words define the national conversation: “I can’t breathe.”
Just like the architects at Eastern State who believed that self-reflection and introspection would produce better people, maybe the work of becoming democracy happens not in the voting booth but in the constant process of self-reflection and self-improvement. The legitimacy for democracy comes not from the country’s innately flawed founding documents, philosophers, and slave-owning “founding fathers” but from people who are alive today, and the degree to which they can participate in the workings of democracy. A utopia we are not and a utopia we must become. But the fact that we can never be a utopia as much as we can never be a democracy is the whole point in trying to become one because it is only in trying that progress is possible. Progress is measured not by what we have but by what we have left to do. So, yes, admitting that democracy requires prisons avoids the harder work of creating a democracy without prisons. There is, as yet, no democracy without prisons. However, that is precisely the point in trying to create one because, even if fail, we will have become better off and more humbled for having tried. As civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. observed: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Detroit Redlining Map in 1940

A data visualization of urban history and racializing space
Created with urban historian Robert Fishman

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This map illustrates in three layers some of the impacts of a racist government policy called redlining:
  1. The base map shows the extent of street network development, as well as the locations of important industries, institutions, and urban features in 1940.
  2. The population dot map shows the areas where Black and Whites lived in the segregated city.
  3. The redlining map shows the areas where government and banks chose not to invest, and to therefore deprive people living there of homes.
All three features – the physical city, the urban residents, and the urban policy of redlining – are interlinked. By displaying these three features together, previously invisible aspects of urban history become visible in plain site to the public.

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View project full screen

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Data sources:

Topoview from USGS for street network maps
Mapping Inequality Projecct for redlining data
IPUMS at the University of Minnesota for population and race by census tract

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Created with help from:

Robert Fishman academic mentor
Karl Longstreth from the Clark Map Library at the University of Michigan
Gergely Baics and Wright Kennedy from Columbia History Department
whose project about racializing space in New York City inspired this proposal

“The State is Responsible”

Racial Segregation in Royal Oak Charter Township and Detroit Public Schools, a Comparative History

Written with urban historian Robert Fishman

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Black children standing in front of half-mile concrete wall, Detroit, Michigan. This wall was built in August 1941, to separate the Black communities of Royal Oak Township / Eight Mile-Wyoming from a White housing development going up on the other side.

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“Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men [and women] – the balance-wheel of the social machinery.”

– Horace Mann (1796-1859) promoter of free public education for all

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If an educated public is necessary for democracy to function, then the strength of our nation’s public schools predicts the strength of our democracy. This observation would seem to be obvious and universally agreed, but in many parts of America it is not. Only seven percent of students in Detroit public schools read at or above their grade level when compared to children from neighboring suburbs. In Detroit metro, forty-seven percent of people are functionally illiterate as of 2017; the large majority are Black. These low levels of even basic literacy exist in thousands of places across the United States, not just in Detroit. In large part, this is the result of urban policies that assume that race should determine the quality of public services the state provides. An autopsy of how and why America came to be this way deserves several books and traces back several centuries. Instead, this article will analyze race-based policies that excluded Blacks from well-funded public schools in just one Detroit suburb: Royal Oak Charter Township.
First, the legal background is presented of Milliken v. Bradley, a key case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1974 that shaped metro Detroit’s current system of school segregation. Second, the historical case study of Royal Oak Charter Township is introduced: how this township came to be and why its present existence is a continued legacy of state-sanctioned racism. Third, the history and present problems of Royal Oak Township are reflected in its failed school system. The case of Royal Oak Township is also situated in the larger context of Detroit and is linked back to Milliken v. Bradley.

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Lorch Column at the University of Michigan

As featured by Taubman College

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Lorch Column at Taubman College

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As a new Ph.D. student, the massive Lorch Column welcomed me to Taubman College. On spotting the tall column from a distance, I knew I had arrived at my new home. I later learned this column was architectural salvage from the demolished Mutual Benefit Life Insurance building in my childhood neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey. To my surprise, an important lost landmark in my own city had become an important landmark to the University of Michigan. The column’s ancient stone base and ancient stone top, linked by a modern steel skeleton, is a fitting metaphor for the synthesis of past and present, the old and the new. In another way, its unusual history of transplantation and loss is a fitting metaphor for architecture’s own fraught relationship with capitalism.
Like many 19th-century insurance companies, Mutual Benefit saw its Newark headquarters as an advertisement to customers. Grand palaces to commerce modeled after the civic structures of ancient Rome would have symbolized to customers that this was a safe and permanent place to park their money. The logic followed that the taller and more imposing the monument, the more powerful and wealthy the company that built it. And a monument it was: eight stories of white Dover marble, copper-framed windows, and ornament copied from the temples of ancient Rome. The first floor was a banking hall lined with Vermont marble, while the floors above contained offices. Richly decorated cornice crowned the building. Behind this windowless cornice was an entire fireproof floor of life insurance records for the company’s thousands of policyholders. In other words, in its original form, the powerful and weighty Lorch Column supported the weight of nothing more substantial than the paperwork of bureaucracy.
Architect George B. Post modeled the four Corinthian columns and temple portico after the New York Stock Exchange he had completed a few years earlier. Comparing the details of the Lorch Column to the New York Stock Exchange, you will see they are almost identical in height, material, and ornament. The New York Stock Exchange was, in turn, modeled after the Roman Pantheon. A Roman temple to the gods had become an American temple to capitalism.
When erecting the structure that would eventually become the Lorch Column, Post faced stiff competition. His building was on Broad Street, Newark’s main commercial street, which was lined with dozens of other insurance companies and banks. After Hartford, Connecticut, Newark had the country’s second largest concentration of insurance companies. Across the street, there was the even larger home of the Prudential Insurance Company, built in stages by Post and Cass Gilbert. To the thousands of downtown commuters and life insurance policy shoppers, Mutual Benefit needed to one-up the competition. As The New York Architect wrote in 1909: “The problem was to design a building as different as possible from the Prudential Building and at the same time make it indicative of the strength and greatness of an important insurance company.” After some thought, Post concluded that since Prudential’s building was a granite castle in the Gothic style, his building for Mutual Benefit should be a marble palace in the Neoclassical style. In this way, the two structures and two companies would play off of each other: the industrial laborers and proletariat who purchased from Prudential’s Gothic castle vs. the upper-class and bourgeois clients who purchased from Mutual Benefit. For thousands of downtown shoppers and commuters, the two buildings stood on opposite sides of Broad Street, framing the entrance to downtown. The giant columns, Post reasoned, would be a fitting advertisement to the upper-class life insurance policy holders Mutual Benefit needed. So ironically, before what is now known as the Lorch Column met its own untimely death, it was an advertisement for others to insure against their own deaths.

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The Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Company building (left) and the Art Deco skyscraper that replaced it (right)

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Prudential Headquarters (across the street from Mutual Benefit, also demolished)

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Why was Mutual Benefit’s home demolished, despite its at-the-time cost of $1 million, its grand columns, and its important architect? The calculated logic of capitalism dispenses with history whenever the next and newest building can deliver its owner more profit in the name of progress. By 1925, Mutual Benefit moved shop to a larger building two miles away and sold its old home to the National Newark and Essex Bank. Looking to turn a profit in the overheated 1920s real estate market and to build a suitable monument to their own corporate power, the new owner demolished the six-floor Corinthian palace to erect a 35-floor tower of its own. Opened 1929, the National Newark Building was the tallest tower in New Jersey with its ornate temple roof modeled after the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, one of the lost seven wonders of the ancient world.
In another twist of fate, William Starrett, who attended the University of Michigan and whose company built the Empire State Building, gifted the column to U-M. While the National Newark Building was inspired by a wonder of the ancient world, the Empire State Building is listed as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Like the 102-floor Empire State Building, the 35-floor National Newark Building was finished just as the stock market crashed. Both entered the Great Depression as largely empty buildings that were urban monuments to corporate ego — hence, the Empire State’s early nickname the “Empty State Building.”
Ironically, the Lorch Column built, in the image of Roman columns that survived 2,000 years, barely survived 20 years. In the end, it was not time or nature or war that brought down the column; instead, the same calculated logic of profit and real estate that built this column demolished it shortly after.
As the American writer Kurt Vonnegut would say: “So it goes.” One monument to commerce replaces another. If not for the foresight of Emil Lorch, the first dean of Michigan’s architecture school, to accept the gift of this column, it likely would have ended in the landfill. As demolition crews hacked away at the monumental old New York Penn Station and carted its carcass to the landfill, architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable condemned its demolition. Her 1963 New York Times article about old New York Penn Station speaks to the fate of that train station as much as to the fate of the Lorch Column:

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It’s not easy to knock down nine acres of travertine and granite, 84 Doric columns, a vaulted concourse of extravagant, weighty grandeur, classical splendor modeled after royal Roman baths, rich detail in solid stone, architectural quality in precious materials that set the stamp of excellence on a city. But it can be done. It can be done if the motivation is great enough, and it has been demonstrated that the profit motive in this instance was great enough.
Like the column that once advertised corporate strength but fell when the financial winds changed, Mutual Benefit Life Insurance itself fell apart in 1991. One of several reasons: investments in Florida real estate that never paid off and left the company bankrupt. By the 1950s, Mutual Benefit had become entangled in financing real estate; their largest projects included Mies van der Rohe’s Lake Shore Drive Apartments in Chicago. Mutual Benefit’s fall was, to date, the largest bankruptcy of a life insurance company in American history. The company’s assets were sold off, and the Newark buildings it still owned were sold to the Kushner family, who is now better known for their relationship with Donald Trump than for their real estate speculation.
In its afterlife as the Lorch Column at Taubman College, fate still follows the old column. It was capital and a desire to attract customers that motivated Mutual Benefit to build such a large column. It was capital and a desire to make more money that motivated the National Newark and Essex Bank to tear down this column. And it was success in real estate development that enabled Al Taubman to make a substantial donation to the architecture school that now bears his name. In a fitting metaphor for the power of capital to make or break architecture, the architecture school’s old home on the Central Campus, where the Lorch Column was first displayed, is now U-M’s Department of Economics. Where this column goes next in its journey across space and time is anyone’s guess. One thing is for certain though, even something carved in stone can change meaning depending on time and place and fate. “So it goes.”

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Related: Essay on the Demolition of Old New York Penn Station

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Historical Reconstruction of Ford Model T Assembly Line

As featured on Kottke.org
This digital model and film show, for the first time, the entire Model T being assembled from start to finish in a single time-lapse shot of the Ford factory in Highland Park, Michigan. Numerous photos were taken and some films were made in the 1910s and 1920s, but no film from the time tracks the entire car’s assembly from start to finish. There were many types of Model Ts produced, but the specific car shown here is the 1915 Model T Runabout. Watch the film and see as the various car components are hoisted over and bolted into place. Or walk across the factory floor in the virtual reality computer model.

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The film’s audio replicates the sound of Model T production. The accompanying music at start and end is from the 1936 film Modern Times, where comedian Charlie Chaplin parodies Ford’s assembly line production methods.

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Explore Model T assembly in virtual reality.
Give thirty seconds for browser to load. Link opens in new window.

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Henry Ford did not invent the car, nor he did invent the assembly line to produce the car. For years before Ford, cars were being built in small numbers at local workshops. For centuries before Ford, assembly line production was being used to make all manner of goods like pins, fabrics, and steel. At the same time as Ford, others were making cars and building assembly lines.
Ford was not the first, but his car and moving assembly line were certainly the most successful and memorable. After creating his version of the automobile in 1896, Ford moved workshops first to Mack Avenue and later to Piquette Avenue in Detroit. These first two factories were small-scale structures for limited car production. Only in 1913 at Ford’s third factory at Highland Park did mass-production begin on a truly large scale. As shown in this film, here Ford applied assembly line methods throughout the factory to all aspects of car production.

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Final Stage of Model T Assembly in Highland Park c.1915, David Kimble’s illustration for National Geographic

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Between when the first Model T rolled off the assembly line in 1913 and when the fifteen millionth rolled off in 1927, the car’s appearance did not change significantly. The car chassis, motor, and color-scheme in 1927 were almost identical to 1913. Despite variations in the number of seats and exterior of car, the motor and chassis beneath were consistent and unchanging over time. Henry Ford liked it that way to bring down costs and to produce the greatest variety of car types with as few variations as possible to the car’s internal structure.
However, although Ford resisted changes to his car design, he was always redesigning the factory floor and assembly line to produce the greatest number of cars with the least amount of human labor. In this same period from 1913 to 1927, the Highland Park factory was constantly redesigned and expanded. Few records survive of all changes to the factory. However, the 1915 book Ford Methods and the Ford Shops includes detailed plans and photos of the factory at one point in time. Ford was still tinkering with the assembly line, as Model T production had begun just over a year before this book was printed. Within a few months of these photos, assembly line methods had improved once again as Ford redesigned the factory floor shown in this film. Rather than documenting Ford production for all time, this film captures Ford production the way it looked in the months it started.

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Assembly line flowchart of River Rouge c.1941, showing Ford’s production methods applied to the design of an entire complex. The ideas in embryo at Highland Park become fully visible at River Rouge.

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After Ford stopped producing Model Ts in 1927, newer models started production at the new and larger factory at River Rouge, where Ford makes cars to this day. The Highland Park factory switched to producing other goods like tractors and later tanks for WWII. Within a few years, production methods had so quickly improved under Ford that Highland Park became too small and obsolete. The factory was largely demolished, and with its demolition the initial appearance of Ford’s first and greatest invention was lost for all time: the moving assembly line.
Some of the factory buildings still stand, and the specific part of the factory shown in this film still exists. But the buildings were all cleared of their original machinery, and the most impressive part of Ford’s invention was not the factory itself but instead the equipment and processes within that factory that are no longer visible. The buildings themselves were simply functional warehouses designed with large open spaces to allow the easy movement of machinery.
The entire complex covered many acres, and the other factories that supplied the Highland Park factory with materials and components created a web of trade that spanned the globe. Instead of filming the entire process, this film focuses on the final and most important stage of production where finished parts from all over the world and factory complex came together for final testing and assembly.

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Sources

Main reference text: Fay Leone Faurote and Horace Lucian Arnold. Ford Methods and the Ford Shops. New York, Engineering Magazine Company: 1915. See esp. Chapter V on “Chassis-Assembling Lines” that includes factory floor plan and photos from pages 131-57. Also see pages 142-150 that describe the 45 steps required for chassis assembly. Link.
Main reference photo: David Kimble. “Exploring the Model T Factory.” Motor1.com. September 1, 2017. Link. Kimble’s image originally published in June 1987 National Geographic centerfold.
Animation opening image: Postcard of Highland Park in 1917. Link.
Animation opening music: Factory Scene from Modern Times, directed by Charlie Chaplin in 1936. Link.
Model T shown in film can be downloaded as a computer model at this link.