A Different Kind of Radiant City: Bucharest

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

.

.

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.

.

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]

.

Read article as PDF

Opens in new window

.

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.

.

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.

.

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.

.

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.

.

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.

.

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.

.

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]

.

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:

.

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]

.

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

.

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

.

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.

.

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.

__________

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.

.

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]

.

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.

.

Bibliography

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

Minkenberg, Michael. Power and Architecture: The Construction of Capitals and the Politics of Space. New York: Berghahn Books, 2014.

Rouvillois, Frédéric. “Utopia and Totalitarianism.” In Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World. New York City: New York Public Library, 2000. 316-32.

Scott Brown, Denise; Robert Venturi; and Steven Izenour. Learning from Las Vegas Book. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1972.

.

Paris:

Fishman, Robert. Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia. New York: Basic Books, 1987.

–––––. Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century: Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier. Boston: MIT Press, 1982.

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

–––––. “Plan Voisin, Paris, France, 1925 (Extract from Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, Oeuvre complète, volume 1, 1910-1929).” Fondation Le Corbusier. April 29, 2021. http://www.fondationlecorbusier.fr/corbuweb/morpheus.aspx?sysId=13&IrisObjectId=6159&sysLanguage=en-en&itemPos=2&itemCount=2&sysParentName=Home&sysParentId=65.

––––– and Jean-Louis Cohen (introduction). Toward an Architecture. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2007.

“Reflecting on the concepts of streets,” Urban kchoze, December 18, 2014. http://urbankchoze.blogspot.com/2014/12/reflecting-on-concepts-of-streets.html.

.

Bucharest:

Barris, Roann. “Contested Mythologies: The Architectural Deconstruction of a Totalitarian Culture.” Journal of Architectural Education (1984-) 54, no. 4 (2001): 229-37. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1425657.

Danta, Darrick. “Ceaușescu’s Bucharest.” Geographical Review 83, no. 2 (1993): 170-82. doi:10.2307/215255. https://www.jstor.org/stable/215255.

Cavalcanti, Maria de Betania. “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.

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

Gheorghe Apostol, Alexandru Birladeanu, Silviu Brucan, Corneliu Manescu, William Pfaff, Constantin Pirvulescu, “Letter of the Six, March 1989,” Making the History of 1989, Item #698, https://chnm.gmu.edu/1989/exhibits/unique-experience-of-romania/primary-sources/3.

Gillette, Robert. “Ceaușescu Getting Rid of Inefficient Small Villages.” Los Angeles Times. December 17, 1985. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1985-12-17-mn-30002-story.html.

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

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.

.

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.

Democracy’s Prison Problem

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

.

.

“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

.

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:

.

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:

.

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.”

Bulldozer Urbanism

As featured in:

1. Preservation New Jersey: Ten Most Endangered Historic Places  May 18, 2021
2. After Warren Street School Demolished, James Street Named ‘Most Endangered’  May 18
3. Newark Historic District Designated as Endangered  May 18, 2021
4. James Street Community Rushes to Stall NJIT’s Demolition of Historic School  May 6, 2021
5. Nothing Lasts Forever, Not even at NJIT   February 1, 2021
6. SHPO Delays NJIT’s Plan to Raze 4 Historic Buildings    January 8, 2021
7. NJIT’s Plans to Demolish Buildings in Historic District Temporarily Derailed   January 7, 2021
8. Old Jail Could Inspire Youth to Stay Out of Prison – But Only If It Survives   July 4, 2020
9. NJIT’s Plans to Modernize Its Campus Could Cost Newark Some History   March 12, 2020

.

James Street Commons demolitions completed and proposed as of April 2021

.

Note: Visiting NJIT’s architecture school at age six and seeing students working there was what initially inspired my desire to study architecture. NJIT is an asset to Newark, and the school deserves the quality of campus architecture to match. I wrote and circulated this essay about NJIT’s under-performing campus design to members of NJIT and the Newark community. I am sharing it online, too, in the hope that future leaders of NJIT will collaborate with the community to create campus architecture that is culturally and historically sensitive to Newark.

.

A Pedestrian’s Observations

Experiencing NJIT’s campus from the street

In publicity materials and in meetings with Newark residents and historians, the New Jersey Institute of Technology emphasizes the quality of its campus architecture and its track record of historic preservation. The school highlights its Central King Building (formerly Central High School) and Eberhardt Hall (formerly Newark Orphan Asylum) as trophies of historic preservation.
However, beyond its fortified campus carved out during the 1960s era of “urban renewal,” the university is now escalating its demolitions in the neighboring James Street Commons Historic District. Listed since 1978 on the National Register of Historic Places, this neighborhood is the city’s first historic district and contains some of Newark’s most significant historic assets. The spending of millions of dollars on building demolitions is odd when NJIT faced a 35 million dollar budget deficit in the first half of 2021,[1] and when other Newark institutions and developers are following an opposite path of historic preservation.
As NJIT expands into the James Street Commons Historic District, there is concern that new construction will not improve the built environment. For instance, NJIT’s proposal for 240 MLK included few to no windows at pedestrian eye level. The entrance to the parking garage and trash collection was from the side of the building that faced toward the residential neighborhood. Several other structures in the neighborhood are also at risk or have already been demolished by NJIT, such as Mueller’s Florist, which was a former corset and tin toy factory built in the 1880s to 1890s. Similarly, NJIT acquired the c.1890 brownstone at 317 MLK for ~$450,000 in livable condition. In following weeks and months before NJIT received demolition approvals, windows were left open and removed, thereby accelerating decay and water damage. The current demolitions follow a longer pattern among hundreds of other buildings demolished in my neighborhood. This would all be okay if only there was better quality architecture to replace what is being lost.
I write this essay as a series of architecture observations followed by recommendations. Firstly, I provide examples of how NJIT’s current campus design is detrimental to neighborhood street life. Secondly, I document the neighborhood’s appearance before and after NJIT’s interventions through my photo comparisons of past and present. Thirdly, I provide examples of more sensitive models for alternative neighborhood redevelopment.

.

Completed in 2017, NJIT’s athletic facility is the newest building on campus.
The pedestrian view along the sidewalk has no windows.

.

Demolition of the 140-year-old Bowers corset factory in progress (aka Mueller’s)

.

Map of NJIT campus. Buildings that face toward the street with no windows at or near eye level are indicated with red lines. Surface parking lots and parking structures for commuter students and faculty are indicated with red squares.

.

1. Architecture of Fear at NJIT

NJIT’s newest architecture does not actively promote urban street life. For instance, Fenster Hall opened in 2004 at a cost of 83.5 million dollars. The architect Charles Gwathmey told the audience at the building’s dedication: “University buildings…have an obligation to give the campus a sense of place, and happily, that is what we are achieving here.” The main entrance to Fenster Hall faces inward to the campus community. Meanwhile, the side that faces toward the neighborhood and city is the parking garage and eight stories of bare concrete that rise straight up with no windows at ground level.

.

.

The photo above is the side of Fenster Hall that faces toward the neighborhood. The emergency police call box and video surveillance signs might make out-of-town car commuters feel safe. But defensive architecture perversely has the opposite effect of making local residents, who must live with this architecture, feel excluded and surveilled.
Activist and urbanist Jane Jacobs wrote that attractive and safe neighborhoods to live in will always have “eyes on the street.” In her ideal neighborhood, shop windows, apartments, and urban life always face to the street. In active and mixed-use neighborhoods where people both live and work, there is always 24-hour street life and therefore people looking from their windows onto the street at all times.
The blank walls and surveillance cameras surrounding NJIT’s campus can be justified on grounds of public safety. However, hostile architecture that turns away from the city eliminates eyes on the street and, ironically, encourages the kind of crime it was built to defend against. In successful campus architecture, there will be reduced need for surveillance cameras.

.

The side of Fenster Hall that faces toward the city discourages street life and looks like a fortress. There once was a brick mansion here like the Ballantine House or Krueger-Scott Mansion.

.

Metropolitan Correctional Center in Brooklyn
Google Earth street view image

NJIT Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering

.

Sidewalk view of NJIT Microelectronics Center

.

Warren Street School: NJIT says the building is too fire damaged to save.
The photo above shows the building after the fire.

.

 

 

Warren Street School before

 

and during NJIT’s demolition

.

 

Warren Street School before

 

and during NJIT’s demolition

.

Another project is the demolition of the Warren Street School for NJIT student dorms. NJIT announced demolition plans in fall 2020 on its website. The Warren Street School from the nineteenth-century is by Jeremiah O’Rourke, a resident of Newark and the same architect as Sacred Heart Basilica and some of the most important civic structures in the US. The Warren Street School passed preliminary review to be included on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also be included in Preservation NJ’s 2021 list of the ten most endangered historic sites in the state.
As a final image, here is a photo past and present of NJIT’s architecture school. At left is the Victorian structure named Weston Hall, built c.1886 as NJIT’s first home. At right is the architecture school that now occupies this site. Originally, Weston Hall faced toward the street and city. Now, the current building at this site faces away from the city and presents its rear toward the public street.

.

One of NJIT’s first homes at Weston Hall[2]

was demolished and now looks like this.

When NJIT’s architecture school hosted a Regional Plan Association conference in 2004, the organizers were afraid that Mayor Cory Booker and attendees could confuse the permanently locked street doors for the building entrance, shown above at right. A note was left on the door: “Mr. Mayor, please enter through the door inside the campus.”

.

2. The campus of NJIT before and after urban renewal

When the Historic Sites Council was reviewing recent demolition applications for old buildings in the James Street Commons Historic District, one of the commissioners asked: “If NJIT is taking something away from the community, what is it giving back?” This is a more fundamental question that goes beyond historic preservation. All buildings have a lifespan, and preservation is not always possible. But if a building is demolished, the building that replaces it needs to be higher quality and more actively contribute to the quality of street life than what was there before.
NJIT is a commuter school, and most educators who work at NJIT live outside Newark. This is unfortunate because Newark would benefit from having NJIT more involved in the local community. In some ways, NJIT community members who choose to live outside of Newark cannot be faulted because many Newark neighborhoods are not aesthetically pleasing. Therefore, it is in the school’s own interest to make the surrounding neighborhood a more pleasant place to live, walk, and work.
Unfortunately, the photo comparisons below illustrate that the walkability and aesthetics of my neighborhood have deteriorated since the 1960s. Universities are drivers of upward social mobility, economic growth, and knowledge production. NJIT deserves credit for this. However, the university’s built environment falls short of expressing progressive values. Architecture that presents a blank wall to the street does not benefit the city aesthetically. More crucially, this does not benefit the students’ educational experience either. Architecture that turns away from the city communicates to students that the urban environment is not safe and not worth engaging in.
In 1962, after over ten years’ preparation, the Urban Renewal Project NJ R-45 (Newark College Expansion), with federal capital grants of $7,674,309 and millions more of state and local bonds, displaced more than 1,300 families. Through eminent domain, the state demolished 87.5 acres of brownstones and historic structures next to the now James Street Commons Historic District. Five years later, the government expanded the urban renewal projects and displaced thousands more people for the campus of UMDNJ. The resulting civil unrest of July 1967 injured 727 people and killed 26. Newark’s reputation still suffers from the legacy of urban renewal.
These photos were all taken in 1960 immediately before the neighborhood’s demolition for NJIT. The wholesale demolition of old buildings, while unfortunate, was an opportunity to build back better. This opportunity was squandered with defensive architecture. Moving forward, NJIT must take every opportunity to shift toward a more inclusive and street-facing campus.

.

Mueller’s Florist in 1960[3]

Building demolition in 2021

.

Intersection of Warren and Summit Street in 1960[4]

The site is now a parking lot and building with no street-facing windows at eye level

.

Warren looking west to High Street in 1960[5]

The same scene today. The university bookstore here has no windows to the street.

.

Summit Street above Raymond Boulevard in 1960, home of a paper box company[6]

Now a multi-story parking garage for commuter students and faculty

.

251 to 245 MLK in 1964[7]

Now a parking lot for St. Michael’s and NJIT

.

Summit Street and New Street in 1960[8]

The winch used to lift up bales of hay is visible in the upper left of carriage house.

Fenster Hall now stands here.

.

Intersection of Bleeker and Hoyt Street in 1960[9]

Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering

.

3. A sensitive development model by Rutgers Newark

Rutgers made urban renewal mistakes in the past. But with a new university administration, the school is learning from past mistakes and becoming a better citizen of Newark.

.

Rutgers Living-Learning Community (Image courtesy of RBH Group)

.

Completed just last year is Rutgers’ Living-Learning Community on the full block just next door to the Hahne’s Building. At this site within the same James Street Commons Historic District as NJIT’s continuing demolitions, Rutgers inserted new student housing as infill within the urban environment. Existing structures at three of the four corners of the site help to mask the scale and mass of the new construction. The building is not too tall, includes ground floor stores, and employs brick materials and floor heights that mirror the neighboring brownstones and businesses from the nineteenth century. The result is a project of high quality that not only responds to its environment but actually feels safer and more pleasant to walk past.

.

Teachers Village (Image courtesy of RBH Group)

.

Similarly, the Newark Teachers Village by Newark-born Richard Meier looks toward the street and stimulates street life with ground floor activities. The project is a first in Newark because it is targeted at encouraging educators to live in the community where they work. The developer was selective about preserving some old buildings to create a more visually rich and organic streetscape of old and new. The average building is no higher than four to five stories and includes frequent setbacks and varieties of materials. Although construction of the NJIT campus displaced an entire neighborhood, there is the opportunity for new construction to resemble the quality of urban life that was lost.

.

Urban renewal done wrong:
NJIT’s Cullimore Hall on Bleeker StreetMost of the façade has no windows and detracts from the quality of street life.Those boxes at sidewalk level are mechanical equipment.
Urban renewal done right: Rutgers’ Bleeker St. brownstones just one block from Cullimore Hall.These are a few of the brownstones that Rutgers fixed up and turned into university offices. The building entrances all face toward the city. Rutgers put a flowerpot at sidewalk level.

.

Urban renewal done wrong:
Warren Street SchoolThis school was built in the 1890s by Jeremiah O’Rourke. NJIT demolished this landmark.
Urban renewal done right:
Old St. Michael’s HospitalThis hospital was built in the 1880s by the same Jeremiah O’Rourke. The Hanini Group is renovating this building.

.

Old St. Michael’s Hospital and Warren Street School are two vacant and landmarked buildings by the same architect, built with the same method of brick construction, in the same neighborhood, and at the same period of time. However, one of these buildings is being demolished by NJIT while the other is being saved. The Hanini Group is transforming St. Michael’s Hospital into apartments and an arts center. Adaptive reuse of the hospital might be more expensive than demolition, but the success of a project must not be assessed on profit alone. As a non-profit and educational institution, NJIT needs to think longer term about higher quality projects that might have lower profit margins.

.

Urban renewal done wrong:
NJIT Fenster HallParking garage at Fenster Hall: The rock landscaping in the foreground and the bare concrete wall are unpleasant to walk past.
Urban renewal done right:
Rutgers Living-Learning CommunityRutgers’ new parking garage: There are street trees, brick walls, and shop windows at ground level.
What sets NJIT’s Fenster Hall and Rutgers’ Living-Learning Community apart is the attitude of the institution to the Newark community. Fenster Hall turns its back to Newark and expresses fears of urban life. Rutgers’ newest projects are part of the city and neighborhood at a later time when Rutgers reassessed its responsibility as an urban citizen. Infill housing and historic preservation put “creative restraints” on developers and institutions. When developers like Rutgers incorporate history into their projects, the process, approvals, and financial cost might be more difficult, but the project is universally of higher quality.
The priorities and values of an institution are reflected in the architecture it creates for itself. NJIT should be an asset to Newark’s economy with so many faculty and staff who genuinely care about Newark. The school deserves better architecture that reflects its commitment to Newark. NJIT and developers alike need to think about historic preservation and the pedestrian scale in all future projects.
“Transformation is the opportunity of doing more and better with what is already existing. The demolishing is a decision of easiness and short term. It is a waste of many things—a waste of energy, a waste of material, and a waste of history. Moreover, it has a very negative social impact. For us, it is an act of violence.”
– Anne Lacaton recipient of the 2021 Pritzker Architecture Prize

.

Endnotes and Image Credits

[1] https://www.njit.edu/pandemicrecovery/njit-fiscal-update

[2] https://newarkchangingsite.wordpress.com/ Images scanned from the collections of the Newark Public Library

[3] All historic images are from the Newark Public Library’s collection of photos by Samuel Berg: https://digital.npl.org/islandora/object/berg%3A96b40a0d-640a-46c0-bf48-8a232b155ccb

[4] https://digital.npl.org/islandora/object/berg%3Ab1889dcf-5009-4e8b-bbec-588c63fe3e9a

[5] https://digital.npl.org/islandora/object/berg%3Ae3100c3e-2ac2-4fb2-b42a-987ffbc0f781

[6] https://digital.npl.org/islandora/object/berg%3Ad65f7167-96a8-4e45-bb72-594ec57bf295

[7] https://digital.npl.org/islandora/object/berg%3Af94bf759-2be2-45dd-8e88-e3dd43ca8296

[8] https://digital.npl.org/islandora/object/berg%3Af58b08d8-f527-49d3-b841-2176bbba54d1

[9] https://digital.npl.org/islandora/object/berg%3A0286e6d3-b8ac-46b7-8968-5e8a39f863e2

The Privatization of Public Space in Lower Manhattan

Map created by author in QGIS with planimetric data from NYC Open Data

.

More than a specific threat to New York City, the decades-long erosion of public space is an existential threat to democracy.

About 60% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area is listed as being public in some way, but only about 25% is totally unrestricted to the public in practice.*1

.

New York City – and the world’s wealthiest corporations headquartered in Lower Manhattan – had much to do with inventing and spreading new technologies that influenced the urban form. Construction companies like US Steel at 165 Broadway supplied materials for the highways that sliced through cities. Car companies like Chrysler in Midtown encouraged America’s affair with gasoline. Groups like Chase Bank at 28 Liberty Street supplied home loans for whites-only suburbs. Stores like Woolworth at 233 Broadway helped replace small businesses on main street with one-stop department stories and suburban shopping malls. Above them all, the New York Stock Exchange at 11 Wall Street supervised the twentieth-century migration of wealth and capital from American industrial cities to foreign countries with cheaper labor. These changes might have started with the “titans of industry” perched in Lower Manhattan’s skyscrapers, but highways, cars, home mortgages, shopping malls, and de-industrialization all had consequences for the rest of us. This makes Manhattan the ground zero – and in more ways than just September 11 – to understand the forces shaping the loss of public space.
Over the past century, three forces in Lower Manhattan have been chipping away at the quantity and quality of public space: the car, the corporation, and the police state. Each of these three forces effected Lower Manhattan in particular and the nation at large. Each of these three forces, prompted by changes in technology, reshaped the urban form: 1) the invention of the affordable and mass-produced car that substituted for public transit; 2) the abandonment of cities for suburbs that was enabled by the car and encouraged by corporations; and 3) the invention of surveillance technologies to collect, store, and analyze data collected from public spaces. Each of these three technologies were, in turn, weaponized against the urban form to chip away at spaces that once belonged to society at large but which now belong to a select few. Each force will be analyzed in turn – the car, the corporation, and the police state – to reflect on the impact of each on Lower Manhattan’s urban form.

.

Public spaces in theory:
~60% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area

.

The street as public space

Pedestrians in American cities are confined to sidewalks. Most of the street is for cars. For instance, Manhattan avenues are ~100 feet wide with the middle 70 feet for cars and ~15 feet on either side for pedestrians. Pedestrians walking in the street risk possible death. After a century of the automobile, pedestrians are hard-wired that they must use only the sidewalk.
However, city streets before cars had a more democratic role in urban life. Old films of Lower Manhattan streets in 1911 show pedestrians walking wherever with little concern for the hard edge between sidewalk and street. Before the car, there were no one way streets in Manhattan, no traffic lights, no speeds limits, no road markings, and no crosswalks. There was no need for these features either. Nor was there a need for traffic engineers to optimize the timing of lights and direction of streets. Instead, the street without traffic laws was for everyone: horse-drawn carriages, trolleys, omnibuses, and pedestrians. With residents in dense tenement areas unable to access public parks and playgrounds, the street doubled as recreational space and as an extension of the sidewalk. With lower traffic speeds (horses move ~10 miles per hour), there was little risk of traffic accidents and pedestrian injuries. Fewer vehicles to begin with further allowed streets to serve multiple purposes with large avenues cluttered with pedestrians and traffic, while less busy side streets were alternative sidewalks.

.

Public spaces, not counting areas for cars:
~35% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area

.

1. Public space lost to cars (1900 to 1945)

Introducing mass-produced cars had consequences for street life. Firstly, traffic accidents increased year on year and pushed pedestrians to the sidewalk. New York City traffic deaths went from 332 in 1910 to 1,360 in 1929 (source, p.73). Crossing the street against moving traffic became dangerous, and using the street was governed by specific rules about speed limits and parking zones. Expanding the police state was needed to enforce these rules – that is, traffic cops. Not only were drivers punished with traffic laws, pedestrians could no longer use the street with the same freedom they had before the car.
Secondly, specific and class-based rules developed for using public space. The car was a measure of social class: The car owner would, by necessity, need to have enough income to buy a car and enough space to park it. This, in turn, restricted most urban residents from owning cars and using the public space given to car owners.
By the 1930s, Robert Moses was adding hundreds of new parks, pools, and public spaces to the city. But this expansion of public space in some areas must be measured against the contraction of public space in other areas. At the same time, Moses was clearing dozens of neighborhoods for urban renewal projects and highways. “Cities are created by and for traffic; a city without traffic is a ghost town,” he said. The value of public space must also be assessed by the rules that govern it. The city was taking away the free-form public space of city streets and was adding public space subject to new rules: Park closed from sunset to sunrise. Do not walk on the grass. No dogs allowed. No skateboarding. Children must be supervised.
Before the auto age, Lower East Side immigrant children played on streets within sight and sound of parents in tenements. Think of the 1969 advertisement for Prince Spaghetti that illustrates an immigrant culture of active and car-free street life. Today, play means a trip to the park with parents for supervised play in a gated enclosure. The car (among other causes) was the technology in urban life that transformed play from an independent activity in the public street to a regulated activity in designated playgrounds.

.

The “Anthony! Anthony!” commercial for Prince Spaghetti shows a boy running home from play in the streets. The ad invokes nostalgia to encourage consumer spending on processed food. Ironically, it was this consumer spending at suburban supermarkets that was eroding the urban street life and small businesses represented in the ad. By abandoning the street and theater culture of cities for suburban living rooms with entertainment on TV, the American public was turning away from the very traditions represented in this ad.

.

In 2008, 66% of New Yorkers (~5.5 million) commuted by walking or public transit. By contrast, 27% of residents in peer cities like Boston and San Francisco used walking or public transit for work. (source, p.72)
Of Manhattan’s 20 square miles, 36% is for public streets (source). An average Manhattan street gives two thirds of its surface area for cars and one third for pedestrians. So, of the 36% of Manhattan that is public streets, about one third of that is for pedestrians: 12% of available land.
Why are two thirds of all streets in Manhattan for cars when only 22% of Manhattan residents own cars? (source) Should the division of public space in streets be proportionate to the percentage of residents who own cars? Why are the majority of residents confined to the sidewalks that represent the minority of available space?
Taxes on New York City residents pay for paving the ~6,000 miles of roads and salaries for thousands of traffic police. Yet, most residents do not own cars. And most cars are either commercial vehicles on business or the private vehicles of non-New Yorkers commuting to work. In effect, urban residents are taxed for public space they do not use. At the same time, the non-New York commuters who use these streets do not pay for their upkeep. In other words, giving most public space to cars and taxing urban residents for its upkeep is a subsidy for suburban and business interests. Manhattan is the world’s most valuable real estate; there is no reason that the fraction of public spaces that remain should be given to private interests, too.
The city needs a redistribution so that the percentage of public space that is given to cars is similar to the percentage of New Yorkers who own cars. As designer and architectural critic Michael Sorkin writes in Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, a 2009 book about his experiences walking:
There is not exactly a biblical injunction that specifies the proportional division of the cross section of the block, nothing that requires that cars be given three times the space of pedestrians. Of the four lanes reserved for vehicular traffic, two are parking lanes. On our block – as with most blocks in New York – there are no meters, and parking is available on a first-come, first-served basis. The city, in effect, provides half the area of the public space on my block for the storage of private cars, and approximately forty will fit when all the spaces are occupied. The diversion of public space – some of the most valuable real estate on the planet – to the private interests of the least efficient and most dangerous and dirty means of movement in the city is a fundamental affront to the real needs and habits of New York’s citizens, the majority of whom do not own automobiles.

.

Public spaces, not counting areas for cars, not counting semi-restricted or privatized public spaces: ~25% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area

The site of the World Trade Center complex forms a large hole because the space is owned by a government agency but is managed by corporations. Details of privatized spaces are pulled from map of Privately Owned Public Space and official zoning and land use map.

.

2. Public space lost to the private sector (1945 to present)

In addition to reducing the amount of public space, cars empowered the migration of people, industry, and wealth from urban centers to the suburban and rural edge. In the decades after WWII, New York City lost a population of three million white people. Prominent industries relocated, such as Bell Labs that moved from Greenwich Village to new corporate campuses in suburban New Jersey. At the same time, as lower- and middle-class whites drove out of the city on bands of asphalt, minorities and immigrants with lower incomes and less consumer spending moved in. The net population loss increased poverty and made urban neighborhoods less desirable, causing consumer spending and property values to fall.
By the 1970s, the city was challenged with decaying public parks, public schools, city services, and infrastructure. But it did not enough revenue to make improvements. The city took out loans and cut back on public services like graffiti removal, causing a downward spiral with further decay of public spaces, further losses in the values of neighboring properties, and therefore less income from property taxes to pay for public services. With billions in debt and no revenue to pay off this debt, New York City wobbled within hours of bankruptcy in 1975. President Ronald Reagan’s inaugural address in 1981 captured the spirit of economic crisis:
Great as our tax burden is, it has not kept pace with public spending. For decades we have piled deficit upon deficit, mortgaging our future and our children‘s future for the temporary convenience of the present. To continue this long trend is to guarantee tremendous social, cultural, political, and economic upheavals. [….] In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.
Reagan condemned what he saw as the over-expansion of government into all aspects of American life: welfare, taxes, regulations, and civic spaces. During his eight years as president, he supervised the largest rollback of public services in American history. With the belief in “small government,” Reagan cut back on welfare to minorities, government regulation of airlines, and government funding for infrastructure and public space. With the desire to create a “free market” for corporations to compete, Reagan announced in his inaugural address that “it is time to reawaken this industrial giant, to get government back within its means, and to lighten our punitive tax burden.”
More broadly, Ronald Reagan’s policies in America and Margaret Thatcher’s in Britain gave birth to the political philosophy of neo-liberalism. Neo-liberalism believes that government is too large and that private industry can do a better job than government caring for the public good. Therefore, public services like water, electricity, parks, railroads, highways, and healthcare should all be entrusted to corporations. Following presidents like Bill Clinton followed Reagan’s lead by slashing taxes and de-funding public services, while shifting management of many public services to the private sector. As Noam Chomsky describes: “That’s the standard technique of privatization: defund, make sure things don’t work, people get angry, you hand it over to private capital.”
Neo-liberalism has consequences for public space. Since the 1970s, city government has been surrendering public space to non-government agencies. Since 1980, Central Park has not been maintained by the city’s parks department. Instead, the non-elected and wealthy members of the Central Park Conservancy rely on donations and private funding. The twenty acres of towers, parks, public streets, and memorials of the rebuilt World Trade Center are run by Brookfield, Silverstein Properties, and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation on behalf of the Port Authority. Green areas like Bryant Park are managed by the non-profit Bryant Park Corporation, while transit infrastructure like Penn Station is owned by National Railroad Passenger Corporation founded 1971. Similarly, streets in dozens of neighborhoods across the city and in Lower Manhattan are now part of Business Improvement Districts. Sensing that the government was not maintaining public space to adequate standards, business owners petitioned the city to form 76 Business Improvement Districts across the city that spend 167 million annually and can enforce their own preferences for the use of public space. (source)
What neoliberalism means for New York City is not so much a reduction in the actual amount of public space but rather restrictions on its use. Central Park is still open to the public, anyone can still mourn at the World Trade Center, or walk through a Business Improvement District. Many areas of Manhattan still appear to be and function as public spaces, but they are now managed by organizations that can restrict their use without being held accountable the way that city agencies report to elected officials.
More problematic is that neoliberalism has injected a corporate and business ethic for the management of public space. There was something civic and sacred about Central Park when it was built in the mid nineteenth century. Business interests like restaurants and trinket sellers were restricted from using the park, and the park was not expected to make an income for those managing it. Instead, park designer Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. saw the park as an investment by itself in the aesthetic and cultural life of New York City residents.
Public spaces today are expected to pay for themselves through incentives and tradeoffs. A common tradeoff is the public allows a developer to build higher in exchange for the developer setting aside a fraction of his building for public space, in effect sacrificing one public need (light) in exchange for another public need (open space). Old New York Penn Station gave the bulk of its spaces to the public. In the interest of profit and making public space pay for itself, the current Penn Station suffocates the public in dark and narrow caverns beneath the sports arena and office spaces above. Bryant Park hosts dozens of restaurants and dining areas that transform it into more theme park and shopping mall than open space. The new World Trade Center PATH Station opened 2016 devotes almost as much floor space to the movement of people and trains as to the selling of luxury goods at businesses surrounding the main atrium. To reach trains, passengers (or should I call them customers?) must pass through the largest shopping mall in Lower Manhattan. Stores at the PATH shopping mall, like Sephora, Apple, and Victoria’s Secret, pay rent to the real estate corporation Brookfield that values the assets under its control at 600 billion. The shopping mall might allow the magnificent and blinding white atrium that cost four billion dollars to pay for its own upkeep, but at what aesthetic and ethical cost? Why must the sacred land where almost three thousand civilians, police, and firefighters died in a terrorist attack become a site of commercialism and a source of profit?

.

How much of our cities belong to We The People?

.

.

3. Public space lost to the police state (2001 to present)

Hours after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President George Bush reassured a frightened nation:
These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed. Our country is strong. A great people has been moved to defend a great nation. Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America.
The foundation of democracy depends on events of public participation like voting, public meetings, courts of law, peaceful protests, and the inauguration of new leaders. These ceremonies, in turn, require public spaces that are often ceremonial in nature like the National Mall in Washington D.C., courthouses, state capitals, and even the in-glamorous public street. A place like the World Trade Center Memorial is itself a part of democracy: a place to see and be seen, to assemble, and to remember those fallen.
To follow the logic of Bush’s statement that September 11 was “intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat,” then the response to anti-democratic acts of terror should be to build more public space, more ceremonial spaces for public participation, not less. Instead, September 11 has frightened the nation into a retreat from civil liberties and public spaces that are now perceived as dangerous. The public has: their internet activity monitored by the likes of Google; their movements in public recorded on camera; their spending recorded by banks and credit card companies; and their use of public space controlled by armed police officers.
The previous two assaults on public space by cars and corporations could be combated through reason and policy. Cars threaten pedestrians and control too much of the street? Add a speed limit and traffic calming measures. Corporations control too much public space? Pass laws restricting them from, say, harassing protestors and closing public spaces by night. The alliance of corporations and state have too much surveillance? This is a more difficult threat to fight. Corporations and the state resist public demands through the language of “free choice.” This street has cameras on it, but you can choose to walk somewhere else. This airport searches all passengers and steals their “contraband” possessions like shampoo, wine, and food, but you can choose other means of transport. This social media platform monitors your activity to give you advertisements that will make you insecure, angry, or depressed – whichever emotional response will bring the advertiser profit. But you chose to use social media. The rhetoric of “free choice” suppresses criticism of surveillance in public space. Besides, surveillance is for “our your own safety,” so we are told. And if we are not doing anything bad in public spaces, then we should have nothing to fear, so we are told.
However, in Manhattan specifically, constant surveillance erodes the most important feature of urban life: privacy. As E.B. White described in Here is New York, his 1949 reflection on walking in Manhattan: “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. It is this largess that accounts for the presence within the city’s walls of a considerable section of the population.” Anonymity is one of the greatest joys of walking, the joy of blending into the urban crowd while remaining anonymous to everyone, to see without being seen. By forcing knowability and tracking the exact location and actions of every individual, the surveillance state erodes the anonymity that has drawn generations of artists, activists, and social outcasts to world cities like New York. From Occupy Wall Street protestors, to undocumented immigrants, to generations of Blacks and Hispanics that are targeted by law enforcement, surveillance denies them the anonymity that their work and use of public space require. In the past year, the murder of Blacks by law enforcement while shopping, driving, walking, and even sleeping has highlighted the dangers minorities face when using public space. While the car and corporation eroded the physical amount of public space, surveillance erodes the quality of public spaces that remain.

.

Public spaces in theory vs. in practice

Of the public space that occupies ~60% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area:
~25% is for cars; ~10% is semi-restricted or privately-owned; ~10 is for green space in parks; ~15% is for paths in parks and sidewalks along streets *2

.

.

Can democracy survive with eroded public space?

The past thirty years have seen the return of large numbers of middle class young people to New York City, as well as the gentrification they brought. For a few years, there seemed to be a resurgence and reinvestment in public space with new bike lanes, parks, and traffic calming measures in Lower Manhattan. But just over a century since the car arrived in Lower Manhattan streets, the future of public space is again in doubt.
Coronavirus represents both an opportunity and a challenge for public space. Since the virus prohibited indoor dining, thousands of restaurants have expanded onto sidewalks. Entire lanes of parking have been transformed into dining areas, a change that will likely be permanent. While using a parking space requires several thousand dollars to participate in the club of car owners, using a restaurant built on a public space costs only as much as lunch or dinner.
At the same time, the political uses of public space have migrated online. The activities of courtrooms, classrooms, cultural events, and ways people express their dissatisfaction with government have all migrated to online forums and social media. The internet might substitute for some public spaces, but it is not owned by the public. The US Bill of Rights promises that the accused has the right “to be confronted with the witnesses against him” during a “public trial.” For generations, a public trial has meant a real space where witnesses voice their accusations in the physical presence of the accused. But can a digital space owned by private company still be considered public? Can the proprietary technology of social media and the video camera substitute for actual public space? Is the World Trade Center Path Station still public space if most Americans are priced out of shopping in nearby stores? Is the High Line still public space if the only people who can afford apartment views of it are the super rich?
E.B. White would cite that diversity and democracy cannot exist without public space. In his stroll across dozens of Manhattan neighborhoods, he observed that urban life forces people of diverse identities into the same crowded public spaces and therefore requires them to coexist and be tolerant of each other:
The collision and the intermingling of these millions of foreign-born people representing so many races and creeds make New York a permanent exhibit of the phenomenon of one world. The citizens of New York are tolerant not only from disposition but from necessity. The city has to be tolerant, otherwise it would explode in a radioactive cloud of hate and rancor and bigotry. If the people were to depart even briefly from the peace of cosmopolitan intercourse, the town would blow up higher than a kite. In New York smolders every race problem there is, but the noticeable thing is not the problem but the inviolate truce.
Time and again, researchers and writers observe that social media and the digital world allow people to self select the communities they are part of and the political views they are exposed to. The rise in both political parties of polarized identity politics and intolerance of anyone who disagrees with one’s views on gender and race are largely the products of a social media world that isolates and radicalizes people.
Public spaces like the city street and subway car mix people of all identities and incomes in a single space and are a lesson in tolerance. It is easy to hate foreigners and people of color when one’s views of these groups are filtered through the polarizing lens of social media, Fox News, and the mainstream media. But prejudice is a good deal harder to feel when one views these groups every day in public spaces going about the same routine as everyone else. While social media highlights the identity politics that make us different, public space highlights the qualities we share in common.
The loss of Lower Manhattan’s public spaces is not just a threat to urban culture. The loss of public space is an existential threat to democracy. More than ever before, this fractured country needs public space.

.

City Hall Park and skyscrapers in Lower Manhattan

.

“With increased use of automobiles, the life of the sidewalk and the front yard has largely disappeared, and the social intercourse that used to be the main characteristic of urban life has vanished.” – Kenneth T. Jackson

.

Further reading

Michael Sorkin. Twenty Minutes in Manhattan. New York: North Point Press, 2009.
E.B. White. Here is New York. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1949.

.

236,250 = total   |   92,934 = water   |   143,316 = land
Non-public before: 55,558 = 38.8% (rounded to 40%)
Non-public after: 90,826 = 63.4% (rounded to 65%)

  1. * Percentages are rough estimates from author, based on area south of Chambers Street with planimetric data from NYC Open Data. An exact estimate is impossible to arrive at because there is no single definition of public space.
  2. .

Architecture of Redemption?

Contradictions of Solitary Confinement
at Eastern State Penitentiary

Master’s thesis at the University of Cambridge: Department of Art History & Architecture
Developed with Max Sternberg, historian at Cambridge

.

.

The perfect disciplinary apparatus would make it possible for a single gaze to see everything constantly. A central point would be both the source of light illuminating everything, and a locus of convergence for everything that must be known: a perfect eye that nothing would escape and a centre towards which all gazes would be turned.
– Michel Foucault

.

Abstract

Prison floor plan in 1836

In the contemporary imagination of prison, solitary confinement evokes images of neglect, torture, and loneliness, likely to culminate in insanity. However, the practice originated in the late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century as an enlightened approach and architectural mechanism for extracting feelings of redemption from convicts.
This research examines the design of Eastern State Penitentiary, built by English-born architect John Haviland from 1821 to 1829 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This case study explores the builders’ challenge of finding an architectural form suitable to the operations and moral ambitions of solitary confinement. Inspired by Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, Haviland’s design inspired the design of over 300 prisons worldwide. With reference to primary sources and to philosophers Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault, this research interrogates the problematic assumptions about architecture and human nature encoded in the form of solitary confinement practiced at Eastern State Penitentiary, which has wider implications for the study of surveillance architecture.

.

Click here to read

Opens in new window as PDF

.

Acknowledgments

I am indebted to Max Sternberg for his attentive guidance throughout this research, and his support of my experience in providing undergraduate supervisions at Cambridge. I am grateful to Nick Simcik Arese for encouraging me to examine architecture as the product of labor relations and relationships between form and function. I am inspired by Alan Short’s lectures on architecture that criticize the beliefs in health and miasma theory. My research also benefits from co-course director Ronita Bardhan. Finally, this research is only possible through the superb digitized sources created by the staff of Philadelphia’s various archives and libraries.
I am particularly indebted to the guidance and friendship of Andrew E. Clark throughout my life.
The COVID-19 pandemic put me in a “solitary confinement state-of-mind,” allowing me to research prison architecture from a comfortable confinement of my own.

.

Related Projects

.

Digital Reconstruction
of Eastern State: 1836-1877

Digital Reconstruction
of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon

Exhibit on Prison Design
Research begun before MPhil

.

 

Tour of desolate NYC during Coronavirus

This NYC tour follows the route of Kenneth T. Jackson’s night tour. As a Columbia University undergraduate, I joined Jackson’s 2016 night tour of NYC by bike, from Harlem, down the spine of Manhattan, and over the bridge to Brooklyn.
With a heavy heart, I gathered my courage on 30 March 2020 to revisit my beloved NYC, along this same route in the now sleeping city attacked by an invisible pathogen. The empty streets hit me with emotions in the misty and rainy weather – perhaps fitting for the city’s low morale.

.

 

.

The tour route is drawn below.  View this drawing in detail.

.

.

Audio effects from Freesound:  Street ambiancehighway ambiancepassing carsiren blastshort sirenlong siren

Eastern State Penitentiary: Decorative Fortress

Developed with Max Sternberg, historian at the University of Cambridge

.

Presentation

Paper delivered 6 March 2020 at the University of Cambridge: Department of Architecture
As part of my Master’s thesis in Architecture and Urban Studies

 

.

.

 

Digital Reconstruction

Created in SketchUp. Based on original drawings and plans of the prison.
All measurements are accurate to reality.

.

With ambient music from Freesound

.

Eastern State Penitentiary was completed in 1829 in northwest Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by architect John Haviland. It was reported as the most expensive and largest structure yet built in America.
The design featured a central guard tower from which seven cell blocks radiated like a star. This system allowed a single guard to survey all prisoners in one sweep of the eye. A square perimeter wall surrounded the entire complex – thirty feet high and twelve feet thick. The decorative entrance resembled a medieval castle, to strike fear of prison into those passing. This castle contained the prison administration, hospital, and warden’s apartment.
As we approach the central tower, we see two kinds of cells. The first three cell blocks were one story. The last four cell blocks were two stories. Here we see the view from the guard tower, over the cell block roofs and over the exercise yards between cell blocks. Each cell had running water, heating, and space for the prisoner to work. Several hundred prisoners lived in absolute solitary confinement. A vaulted and cathedral-like corridor ran down the middle of each cell block. The cells on either side were stacked one above the other. Cells on the lower floor had individual exercise yards, for use one hour per day. John Haviland was inspired by Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. (Don’t know what the panopticon is? Click here for my explanation.)
Over its century in use, thousands visited and admired this design. An estimated 300 prisons around the world follow this model – making Eastern State the most influential prison ever designed.

.

360° panoramic view from guard tower

.

Computer Model

Shows prison as it appeared in the period 1836 to 1877 before later construction obstructed the original buildings.

.

.

Research Paper

Eastern State Penitentiary’s exterior resembles a medieval castle. More than a random choice, the qualities of Gothic attempt to reflect, or fall short of reflecting, the practices of detention and isolation within. Contrary to the claim often made about this structure that the appearance was supposed to strike fear into passerby, the use of Gothic is in many ways unexpected because of its untoward associations with darkness and torture, which the prison’s founders were working to abolish. It is therefore surprising that America’s largest and most modern prison should evoke the cruelties and injustices of the medieval period. The choice of Gothic appearance, and the vast funds expended on the external appearance few inmates would have seen, leads one to question the audience of viewers this penitentiary was intended for – the inmates within or the public at large?
This essay responds by analyzing what the Gothic style represented to the founders. The architectural evocation of cruelty and oppression was, in fact, not contradictory with the builders’ progressive intentions of reforming and educating inmates. This prison’s appearance complicates our understanding of confinement’s purpose in society. The two audiences of convicted inmates and tourist visitors would have received and experienced this prison differently, thereby arriving at alternative, even divergent, understandings of what this prison meant. More than an analysis of the architect John Haviland and of the building’s formal qualities in isolation, this essay situates this prison in the larger context of Philadelphia’s built environment.

.

Acknowledgements

I am indebted to my supervisor Max Sternberg, to my baby bulldog, and to my ever-loving parents for criticizing and guiding this paper.

.

Continue reading paper.

Opens in new window as PDF file.

.

.

Related Projects

Master’s thesis on this prison
Animation of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon
Computer model of panopticon in virtual reality
Lecture on problems with the panopticon

What’s wrong with Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon?

Postmodernist thinkers, like Michel Foucault, interpret Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, invented c.1790, as a symbol for surveillance and the modern surveillance state.
This lecture is in two parts. I present a computer model of the panopticon, built according to Bentham’s instructions. I then identify design problems with the panopticon and with the symbolism people often give it.

.

Related Projects

– Computer animation of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon
View the panopticon in virtual reality
Explore about Eastern State Penitentiary, a building inspired by Bentham

Computer Model of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon

Created at the University of Cambridge: Department of Architecture
And featured by the Special Collections department at University College London
As part of my Master’s thesis in Architecture and Urban Studies
.
To say all in one word, it [the panopticon] will be found applicable, I think, without exception, to all establishments whatsoever, in which, within a space not too large to be covered or commanded by buildings, a number of persons are meant to be kept under inspection.
– Jeremy Bentham
.

.

Since the 1790s, Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon remains an influential building and representation of power relations. Yet no structure was ever built to the exact dimensions Bentham indicates in his panopticon letters. Seeking to translate Bentham into the digital age, I followed his directions and descriptions to construct an exact model in virtual reality. What would this building have looked like if it were built? Would it have been as all-seeing and all-powerful as Bentham claims?
Explore Bentham’s panopticon in the animation above or in virtual reality below
based on Bentham’s drawings at University College London:

.

.

c.1791 plans of panopticon, drawn by architect Willey Reveley for Jeremy Bentham

Creative Commons image credit: Bentham MS Box 119a 121, UCL Special Collections

.

Panopticon: Theory vs. Reality

Central to Bentham’s proposed building was a hierarchy of: (1) the principal guard and his family; (2) the assisting superintendents; and (3) the hundreds of inmates. The hierarchy between them mapped onto the building’s design. The panopticon thus became a spatial and visual representation of the prison’s power relations. As architectural historian Robin Evans describes: “Thus a hierarchy of three stages was designed for, a secular simile of God, angels and man.”

.

Author’s images from computer model

.

To his credit, Bentham recognized that an inspector on the ground floor could not see all inmates on the upper floors. The angle of view was too steep and obstructed by stairs and walkways. To this end, Bentham proposed that a covered inspection gallery be erected between every two floors of cells.
By proposing these three inspection galleries, Bentham addressed the problem of inspecting all inmates. However, he created a new problem: From no central point was it now be possible to see all activity, as the floor plans below show. The panoramic view below shows the superintendent’s actual field of view, from which he could see into no more than four complete cells at a time. The view from the center was not, in fact, all-seeing. Guards would have to walk a continuous circuit round-and-round, as if on a treadmill. They, too, are prisoners to the architecture.

.

.

Author’s images from computer model

.

The intervening stairwells and inspection corridors between the perimeter cells and the central tower might have allowed inspectors to see into the cells. Yet these same architectural features would also have impeded the inmates’ view toward the central rotunda. Bentham claimed this rotunda could become a chapel, and that inmates could hear the sermon and view the religious ceremonies without ever needing to leave their cells. The blinds, normally closed, could be opened up for viewing the chapel.

.

.

Bentham’s suggestion was problematic. The two cross sections above show that, although some of the inmates could see the chapel from their cells, most would be unable to do so.
In spite of all these obvious faults in panopticon design, Bentham still claimed that all inmates and activities were visible and controlled from a single central point. When the superintendent or visitor arrives, no sooner is he announced that “the whole scene opens instantaneously to his view,” Bentham wrote.

.

.

Despite Bentham’s claims to have invented a perfect and all-powerful building, the real panopticon would have been flawed were it built as this data visualization helps illustrate. Although the circular form with central tower was chosen to facilitate easier surveillance, the realities and details of this design illustrate that constant surveillance was not possible. That the British public and Parliament rejected Bentham’s twenty year effort to build a real panopticon should be no surprise.
However flawed the architecture, Bentham remained ahead of his time. He envisioned an idealistic and rational, even utopian, surveillance society. Without the necessary (digital) technology to create this society, Bentham fell back on architecture to make this society possible. The failure of this architecture and its obvious shortcomings do not invalidate Bentham’s project. Instead, these flaws with architecture indicate that Bentham envisioned an institution and society that would only become possible through new technologies invented hundreds of years later.

.

Related Projects

My computer model is available here in virtual reality.
Read my research on Eastern State Penitentiary, a radial prison descended from Bentham’s panopticon

.

Credits

Supervised by Max Sternberg at Cambridge, advised by Philip Schofield at UCL
The archives and publications of UCL special collections, Bentham MS Box 119a 121

Audio narration by Tamsin Morton
Audio credits from Freesound
panopticon interior ambiance
panopticon exterior ambiance
prison door closing
low-pitched bell sound
high-pitched bell sound

You may reuse content and images from this article, according to the Creative Commons license.

Exhibition Design for the Old Essex County Jail

Developed in collaboration with Newark Landmarks
and the master’s program in historic preservation at Columbia University

.

.

Since 1971, the old Essex County Jail has sat abandoned and decaying in Newark’s University Heights neighborhood. Expanded in stages since 1837, this jail is among the oldest government structures in Newark and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The building needs investment and a vision for transforming decay into a symbol of urban regeneration. As a youth in Newark, I explored and painted this jail, and therefore feel a personal investment in the history of this place. Few structures in this city reflect the history of racial segregation, immigration, and demographic change as well as this jail.
In spring 2018, a graduate studio at Columbia University’s master’s in historic preservation program documented this structure. Eleven students and two architects recorded the jail’s condition, context, and history. Each student developed a reuse proposal for a museum, public park, housing, or prisoner re-entry and education center. By proposing eleven alternatives, the project transformed a narrative of confinement into a story of regeneration.
Inspired by this academic project and seeking to share it with a larger audience, I and Zemin Zhang proposed to transform the results of this studio into a larger dialogue about the purpose of incarceration. With $15,000 funding from Newark Landmarks, I translated Columbia’s work into an exhibition. I am grateful to Anne Englot and Liz Del Tufo for their help securing space and funding. Over spring 2019, I collaborated with Ellen Quinn and a team at New Jersey City University to design the exhibit panels and to create the corresponding texts and graphics. The opening was held in May 2019, and is recorded here.

.

.

My curator work required translating an academic project into an exhibit with language, graphics, and content accessible to the public. Columbia examined the jail’s architecture and produced numerous measured drawings of the site, but they did not examine social history. As the curator, I shifted the exhibit’s focus from architecture to the jail’s social history – to use the jail as a tool through which to examine Newark’s history of incarceration. As a result, much of my work required supplementing Columbia’s content with additional primary sources – newspaper clippings, prison records, and an oral history project – that tell the human story behind these bars. I worked with local journalist Guy Sterling to interview former jail guards and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka about his father’s experience incarcerated here during the 1967 civil unrest. The exhibit allowed viewers to hear first-hand accounts of prison life and to view what the Essex County Jail looked like in its heyday from the 1920s to 1960s. Rutgers-Newark organized seminars connected to the jail exhibit on the topic of incarceration in America, and what practical steps can be taken to change the effects of the growth of incarceration.
The finished exhibit was on display from May 15 through September 27, 2019. The exhibit makes the case for preserving the buildings and integrating them into the redevelopment of the surrounding area. The hope is that, by presenting this jail’s history in a public space where several thousand people viewed it per week, historians can build support for the jail’s reuse. Over the next year, an architecture studio at the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s College of Architecture and Design is conducting further site studies. Before any work begins, the next immediate step is to remove all debris, trim destructive foliage, and secure the site from trespassers. These actions will buy time while the city government and the other stakeholders determine the logistics of a full-scale redevelopment effort.
My interest in prisons drew me to this project. This jail’s architect was John Haviland, who was a disciple of prison reformers John Howard and Jeremy Bentham. In my MPhil thesis research about Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, I developed my exhibit research by looking at the social and historical context of John Haviland and early prisons. As I describe, Eastern State began as a semi-utopian project in the 1830s but devolved by the 1960s into a tool of control social and a symbol of urban unrest.

.

Launch Virtual Exhibit Website

.

.

Related content

  1. Read my January 2021 article in The Newarker magazine.
  2. Read this July 2020 article from Jersey Digs
    about my exhibit and the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s proposal to reuse this jail site.
  3. Hear my September 2019 interview about this jail and exhibit from Pod & Market.
  4. Explore this jail as an interactive exhibit online.
  5. View this artwork as part of my short film from 2016 called Pictures of Newark.