Blog archive January 2012
those of you who follow my flickr feed will be well aware of my fascination with 1960s and 70s modernist design. partly this is a recovery of influences which i now realise were formative, such as apollo-era space books, or these two books which formed the bedrock of my architectural consciousness when i had them from the library as a teenager.
there is also a fascination of otherness. i can't travel into the future to sample its strangeness and difference, but i can go to the past. i begin to see why the elderly get lost in their memories - it's weird back there. the additional twist of the 60s and 70s is that they expected a different future, so in contemplating them we are also contemplating how things could have turned out differently for our own present day.
which introduces my third motivation. i find myself looking at these pasts in terms of alternative visions for us, now. things we didn't do that we should have done, and perhaps could yet do. i find the unbuilt scheme for hook new town particularly poignant, because it exists for a society unlike the one we actually inhabit - it exists for a society which is mostly about public goods. the form of the town quite literally embodies this, as it is largely determined and built by the public sector. private interests are told where and what they should build, and are not allowed to override the long-term public good made manifest in the master plan and megastructure.
at a personal level, the architecture of hook assumes that we will behave in a neighbourly fashion, not vandalising and mugging just because there are blind corners, not playing loud music or throwing trash from balconies. it assumes that we will accept limits on our use of cars, in favour of walking [the town is intentionally compact] or public transport. in fact the high density and strict masterplan are safeguarding ecological public goods, and also ones to do with public health [eg more time spent walking, less time spent commuting], which would be lost if development were allowed to sprawl or provide two-car garages.
the design of british rail asks us similar questions. do we want an integrated transport system run for public good, even if that means that it's heavily subsidised out of our taxes? should design be about legibility and clarity rather than branding and advertising? should it be helping you through a system, or trying to sell you things? it's sadly ironic that the british rail corporate identity was being taken as an example in denmark, of all places, at the very moment that it began to be dismantled in britain.
which comes back to gladwell's point, that there are those who want the whole world to be a marketplace for their own benefit, and the rest of us who play along at least some of the time in hope of a share in the proceeds. when public goods are eroded, always ask: who makes money out of this?
public goods are the things we have to buy or make happen collectively, as distinct from private goods which are the things we buy or achieve as individuals. gladwell's point is that we overvalue private goods and undervalue, or even actively undermine, the public goods. this is partly an ideological bias in a society like the united states - but it's also a matter of personal greed, because public goods tend to require that you pay your taxes and forego immediate personal gratifications for the sake of the wider good and the longer term.
public goods require that you see yourself as a stakeholder in a society. one of the problems we face is that the very rich have no commitment to the place[s] in which they happen to live and make money - all they ask is that it doesn't interfere with their own freedom to enrich themselves. or they will take themselves, and their money, elsewhere, in a way that was not generally feasible even 30 years ago.