Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Medium of Architecture: History Part 1

In Orson Scott Card's writings, he has repeatedly placed humans living in the future in a culture that relies on underground habitations, above ground apartment style living, and peaceful coexistence with nature. Specifically, I reference the African cities in Pastwatch and instances in Songmaster where people have resorted to living in tight communities and let nature take over much of the land that today would be covered in low-income housing (such as in Africa or the slums of Rio). Looking at people through the imaginative eyes of authors would make it easy to believe that people could in fact live in the manner described by Gene Roddenberry or OSC. However, in the real world, where apartments are targets for robberies, murders, drug deals, fires that leave many homeless, and poverty, it seems to be an impossible task to take people who are used to living in isolationism in suburban houses and put them together in an apartment style habitat (no matter how luxurious) and expect them to get along.

So the first task is to determine why people live in the places that they do, and how human nature dictates that answer. To do that, we must first make several assumptions about human nature. I cannot answer for all the people in the world, but I can observe those around me, as well as myself, and make some conclusions. First, people as a rule would rather not be around each other. This is a rather large generalization, made mainly because I am an introvert and would rather not be around large amounts of people. Frankly, I'd rather drink Lysol. Also, we must account for basic needs of people (think Maslow's heirarchy of basic needs), and realize that people's needs are more aptly met when a group is able to work together.

Back in days prior to the Agricultural Revolution, nomads needed to move from place to place traveling with the herds of animals. Housing was made from whatever caves or shelter were available. People had to be together for shelter, for food (it took many hunters to bring down a mammoth), for safety, and for procreation. An individual would not last long against a Saber-tooth, but large groups with weapons would be more formidable.
As we became more advanced, more able to specialize and diversify, our need to be around other human beings became less. Well, except for the procreation part, and for that we developed social gatherings and events. One might even argue that the large gatherings made for religious ceremonies and the like were on some subconscious level created for people to actually have social interactions with each other. The main need to live near to each other for safety came not from animals at this point, but from other tribes and the possibility of war.

(I wonder, at this point, about the need for socialization, based on my last post about the coffee shops. It seems that we have an urge to socialize with other people. Whether it be because of biological needs, or the desire to be ourselves needed or loved. In this case, a paradox is created, where people want to be around each other, but only so long as it provides entertainment or escape. Only so long as it is pleasurable to do so. To live with another person, or around people in an apartment, is grating and makes one long for isolation.)

The idea of war and safety made the idea of a city, or polis, a much desirable situation. Athens, for instance, with the hill where the Acropolis is, with the ports below, or Rome, with its seven hills that were easily defensible. Even London had walls around the main area that still existed even in Shakespeare's time, although the city had far outgrown those walls. But when you look at the disastrous consequences that trapping an entire city within it's own walls, the idea of living together for safety becomes questionable. Take the events of the fall of Troy, or the outbreak of the plague that finally brought Athens' rule to an end during its war with Sparta. When people live closely together, the chance that an outbreak of disease, or fire, or entrapment by enemies, increases. But if you live scattered out in the country, the chances of being murdered or ransacked by your enemy becomes much greater. At least, in this time period.

We have to take a look at Shakespeare's London. A good general description of what London was like at the time comes from Bill Bryson's biography on Shakespeare (informative and funny at the same time). It's actually an excellent example of the problems associated with living together, and also how people from affluent families attempted to solve those problems. Disease swept through the city from time to time, especially the plague (which could have been any number of diseases, including the bubonic one), and killed scores of citizens. It effected Shakespeare the most in that, if the death toll for any one given period rose above 40, all social gatherings except for church were canceled. That included plays, so there were times when Shakespeare was forced to take his troop on the road to smaller towns to perform plays, often for less than what it took to travel. Then there was the London fire of 1666, which destroyed the city, the play houses, some of the most precious records of the past centuries, including most of the plays not written by Shakespeare from that period. Public quarrels were often settled in duels, often resulting in the death of one or both of the brawlers. Living in apartments at the time, if inside the walls, was dangerous business, and outside the walls, there was the butcher shops and leather shops to deal with (as in, the stench of dead animals.) In response to this, most affluent families built houses outside of the city, in the nearby towns, such as Stratford or Oxford (which today is a part of the London Metro area). Shakespeare had three houses in his home town, and most nobility had houses that they retreated to when sicknesses ravaged London.

1600's London shows the dangers and luxuries of living in a big city, close to other people. In London there was many attractions, trading in exotic and foreign goods, plays and sports (often deadly ones, like animal fights. Animals found in Africa, Asia, and the newly discovered Americas were very entertaining to watch). There were bars and parties for social gatherings, and undoubtedly, prostitutes and other distractions after the social gatherings were over. Of course, all this also made it risky as well, for crime and diseases were always present. Interestingly enough, this could describe Atlanta, or New York City, or any other urban areas today. Also the idea of affluent citizens going to houses in rural (or suburban) areas to escape the maladies of living in a city can be used for the 1600's or for today's world. Even here in Rockdale County, there are houses built in secluded areas worth millions of dollars where rich moguls escape from their busy urban lives.

In my next post, I'll look at a possible solution to the problems of urban flight that actually happened back in the early 20th century, as well as the ideas of an architect who dreamed of a Utopian city in the middle of Paris, and why it never got off the ground.

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