Gilding the lily: On placemaking and society

Dear friends,

When I opened Marshall Berman’s chapter on Baudelaire in All That is Solid Melts into Air, I little expected it to reflect the urban environment and social effects of placemaking – a topic that has long fascinated me.

The work of Le Corbusier and Jane Jacobs has shaped the city of Vancouver, where I currently reside: the former in the propensity of podium-and-tower architecture, and the latter in the arrested movement in the 1960s to plunge a motorway through the heart of the city. We have the viaducts – which are soon to come down – and the Granville Bridge as remnants of the stalled project, and we still have historic Gastown, which would have been substantially razed had the work proceeded.

Modernist architecture reflects a rational ideal, and surely embraced innovations in building techniques and materials. Shorn of adornments, modernism sought to flatten social hierarchies and provide a kind of inhabited socialist idyll. Meanwhile, Jacobs felt that modernist spaces “were physically clean and orderly, but socially and spiritually dead.”

Jacobs may have been right. As it happens, a number of London’s famed modernist estates such as the Heygate and Robin Hood Gardens, have been pulled down in recent years. Far from idyllic, they became known as downtrodden and even dangerous places, where drug use and violence flourished in the shadows of their walkways. Depravity went unchecked where neighbours could, or would, not gather.

What would Baudelaire make, then, of the modern-day financialization of real estate, and the seemingly insatiable drive to re-develop properties according to a specious “highest and best use” assessment? Vancouver faces an unprecedented homeless crisis; tent cities and cardboard shelters contrast starkly with thousands of reportedly empty condos. And, what of the loss of social and green space in which people may gather, or of sunshine in the streets of an often-overcast city as buildings become ever denser and taller? Perhaps most importantly, where ought the social good take precedence over personal or corporate financial gain?

For, Baudelaire’s “new boulevard, still littered with rubble” persists beyond the Parisian streets he wrote of, and the “family of eyes,” those bedraggled wretches who stood in awe of the riches beyond their conception, remind us that, despite modernism, the gilded lily persists, and it is not universally attainable.

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