Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Medium of Architecture: History Part 2

In the last post, I looked at the pros and cons of living in a metropolitan area like London, together with fellow human beings. There were massive and often lethal disadvantages, such as disease, fire, and other people, but then there was entertainment and socialization to make it worth the risk to live inside the city. For the fortunate, they also had a house in the country to escape to whenever the plagues got too bad. Thus the situation stayed the same until the 1900's, when reliable and cheap transportation (the car), allowed the middle class to migrate away from the city and into the suburban or rural areas. Urban Flight, the sociologists call it. This leaves the middle and upper class with homes in towns outside the city, and the lower class living in apartments and the like in urban areas. This, of course, is much like it is today, where high crime areas and low-income housing springs up inside the city where property values are at their lowest. And it is ironic that, just next door, although well hidden from the lower socio-economic side of the city, are the attractions and social venues that keep the upper classes streaming into the city for the evening.

There must have been a way for companies to take advantage of lower income people and let them work their blue-collar jobs in factories without bringing the factories into the cities where the upper classes and the government would not want them to be. For it is well documented that factories were death traps in most cases, or were put out of the way of the general public so that sub-standard practices would not be discovered. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle comes to mind. So in this post-Industrial, pre-values America (or other countries), factories were placed in rural areas, such as the factories that were built in Guin, Alabama or the mining operations in Gordon, Georgia, and the companies that ran them came up with a very intriguing way of placing cheap labor close to the workplace and taking advantage of their labor. They simply bought up the whole town, or created a town around the factory.

The plan was simple. Buy large amounts of land out in the country, and make houses, factories, stores, schools, everything that the employees would need to live all in one place. The company was the landlord, the general store owner, the payer of the teachers and all the workers in the town. So all the money that went into the general store went back into the pockets of the company. The houses were meager, and it is obvious that no one enjoyed the luxuries of the upper class doing this, but there were some advantages.
The welfare of the people was taken care of by the factory itself. Now, it is normal to assume that some companies took advantage of the monopoly they had over people's lives, but ideally, this type of living arrangement would be effective and even environmental, if you were willing to live within walking distance of the factory. No cars were needed, people walked everywhere, which lessened the couch potato effect (which was non-existent because TV didn't exist.) This looks like an instance of socialism, but not with governmental control, but rather with the private sector controlling the lives of it's employees/customers. It would be like if I worked at Borders, and they owned the apartment building I lived in (or better yet, built the apartments above the store), owned the grocery store, provided for the local school, donated to the church. In some cases , this would be ideal living, because everything would be taken care of for you. The only disadvantage to this solution is that because of human nature, you would never be able to afford many luxuries at all. You would live comfortably, maybe, but that would be about it. Only in an ideal society where the pay would be allowed to leave the confines of the company-owned business would this actually work.
So, the socialist/capitalist solution that was tried in America during the early 1900's works, but not enough to allow people luxuries. What of the other people that lived during that time, and then see what the current situation of living is now.

People living in the rural areas lived in the same fashion as company controlled areas, for towns were constructed in such a way where everyone was within walking distance (meaning within a few miles, people walked more those days) of the church, the school, the store, the work place. And then there were the apartments in the city, where the stores were positioned on the corners of the apartment buildings, much like you see in New York City today. The only downside of this was that you didn't just move to another town and expect to see your friends or relatives regularly, or ever again, in some cases. The farther you live away from each other, the less social interaction occurs, unless some technology fixed that problem.

What made the flight from the cities possible was the invention and mass production of the automobile. Especially after World War II, when gas prices were relatively cheap (thanks to oil deposits in Oklahoma, Texas, and nearby states), the distance between home and work was of little consequence. So towns such as Conyers (in Atlanta) and other rural towns that were 30 miles any side of a major urban area (and connected by the Interstates developed by Eisenhower's administration) started growing exponentially. Of course, there were racial issues involved in these flights away from the city, but that's for another time.

So let's look at the current state of urban planning. People that have moved away from the urban centers of America live up to 50 miles away from that center. Therefore they must travel, with current traffic, sometimes up to 2 hours back and forth to work every day. This is an exorbitant amount of money in gas, car repair, time spent back and forth, psychological stress in dealing with traffic, two hours of sedentary non-movement that could be better spent exercising, the list goes on and on. If you look at the town structures of many of the suburban centers, you'll see that the commercial centers are quite a distance from the residential ones, and those are quite far from any industrial centers. The towns are sprawled out along major highways, with oasises of neighborhoods nestled in trees (or not, since they've taken to cutting them all down), with houses nestled closely together (although it seems that we never know our neighbors). And the purpose for all this is what? To use their homes as islands of escape away from the rest of their lives.

It makes no sense economically and environmentally. Why should it take 15 minutes for me to get to the nearest grocery store when, as the crow flies, it's only 7 minutes away? It's a waste of time and gas to have to go south, east, only to have to go all the way back north again. And forget walking, since the only way for it to not take an hour or more to get to that same store would involve crossing a rickety bridge and sneaking over the golf course across the creek. And current neighborhood planning makes it worse, for neighborhoods are now connected to main roads by a quarter mile of useless roads. They try to make it seem you're entering a whole new world from the busy world outside. And while that might sell houses (probably not), the distances you run away from the outside world tend not to make any difference with telephones, internet, and the TV connecting us all to the world around us.

So to fix all these problems, we should create an environment where people could live closely together, with themselves, with their work and with the commercial, recreational, and educational facilities within walking distance. It would save time, money, space, the environment, the benefits are huge. And actually, there was an architect that proposed this very thing, in Paris, around the turn of last century. His plans would have created a Utopian style living environment in the center of the City of Love. For the next post, I'll take a look at that plan, and show why it never got off the ground.

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