Descartes, The Planned City, And Misplaced Philosophical Desires

In Part 2 of Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking for Truth in the Sciences Rene Descartes, as a prelude to his ‘clearing away’ of prior philosophy, writes:

[T]here is very often less perfection in works composed of several portions, and carried out by the hands of various masters, than in those on which one individual alone has worked. Thus we see that buildings planned and carried out by one architect alone are usually more beautiful and better proportioned than those which many have tried to put in order and improve, making use of old walls which were built with other ends in view. In the same way also, those ancient cities which, originally mere villages, have become in the process of time great towns, are usually badly constructed in comparison with those which are regularly laid out on a plain by a surveyor who is free to follow his own ideas….we understand how difficult it is to bring about much that is satisfactory in operating only upon the works of others.

Interestingly enough, as the examples of Chandigarh, Brasilia, and Canberra show, the planned city, built from scratch to purpose, the product of a singular architectural vision, is very often a counterpart to the bustling, chaotic, cosmopolitan cities whose growth has proceeded, at best, along an entirely haphazard trajectory.The ostensible beauty of the planned city’s design has not compensated for its lack of history, the absence of accretions of culture and lives lived within its precincts; the planned city gets off the ground with little interference from what came before, but it does not encourage riffs and improvisation. The planned city offers a gleaming surface and little else; it lacks the blemishes that speak of a rich interior. It has set itself apart, and there it shall stay. (No offense is intended to the residents of these cities; still, I think they would agree their city’s lack of a past, its ab initio origins, contribute in some measure to the contrast it offers to the great metropolises of the world.)

There is much that goes wrong with Western philosophy thanks to Descartes: the obsession with system building, the epistemic foundationalism, the quest for certainty, the alignment of philosophy with the sciences and mathematics, the appearance-reality distinction, the desire to ground truths in something beyond the human, the divorce of philosophy from history. (These sins cannot all be laid at Descartes door, of course; Plato is the original culprit for many of them.) Here, in the Discourse, we see the glimmerings of another problematic vision, one manifest in domains other than philosophy as well: that works made in splendid solitude are necessarily inferior to those made jointly with others, through acts of creative, even if sometimes clumsy and flawed, appropriation and improvisation. In doing so, Descartes reinforces–among other things–the fallacy of the lone creator, the solitary artist, the self-made man, the sole author.

Ironically, Descartes ended up generating a great deal of undergrowth that hasn’t been cleared yet (or alternatively, a foundation that still tempts too many of those who came after.)

Hankering for a ‘Comfortable’ Past

In Home: A Short History of an Idea (Penguin: New York, 1986, pp. 213) Witold Rybczynski writes:

If department stores or home-decorating magazines are any indication, most people’s first choice would be to live in rooms that resemble, as much as their budgets permit, those of their grandparents….such nostalgia is absent from other periods of our everyday lives. We do not pine for period cuisine. Our concern for health and nutrition has altered the way that we eat, as well as what we eat; our admiration for the slim physique would be puzzling to the corpulent nineteenth century. We have changed our way of speaking, our manners, and our public and private behavior. We do not feel the need to revive the practice of leaving visiting cards…or of indulging in extended, chaperoned courtship….Unless we are collectors, we do not drive antique cars. We want automobiles that are less expensive to operate, safer, and more comfortable, but we do not imagine that these improvements can be achieved by resurrecting car models from previous periods. We would feel as odd in a Model T as we would in plus fours or a hooped skirt, yet although we would not think of dressing in period clothes, we find nothing strange in dressing our homes in period decor.

Nostalgia for the past is often a sign of dissatisfaction with the present….the modern interior…represents an attempt…to change social habits, and even to alter the underlying cultural meaning of domestic comfort….People turn to the past because they are looking for something they do not find in the present–comfort and well-being.

“Comfort,” of course, is the notion that Rybczynski has devoted Home to developing:

[A]n invention–a cultural artifice. Like all cultural ideas…it has a past, and it cannot be understood without reference to its specific history….domestic comfort involves a range of attributes–convenience, efficiency, leisure, ease, pleasure, domesticity, intimacy, and privacy.

Hankering for the past in our domestic interiors–but not elsewhere in our lives–makes especial sense in light of the importance assigned to those spaces as settings for the emergence of an individual self, for the development of still-contested notions of privacy, family and sexual relations. It is where human beings begin lives and learn language. It beckons thus as a space of return–sometimes by changing furnishings. And if the interiors of domestic spaces filled up as the interior lives of their residents did, then conversely changing those lives could perhaps be best achieved by changing domestic spaces.

Of course, this act of restorative nostalgia, this seeking out our missing comfort in the interiors of the past, as domestic comfort, as furnishing for our private lives, has never been a low-cost endeavor. Those able to experience this form of nostalgia then, are enabled by their stations in life, their class. Comfort remains an economic privilege (as perhaps, does “dissatisfaction with the present”?) Many may want their homes, their private spaces, to resemble, in overt appearance and function, the homes they dimly remember from a romanticized past, but only a very particular subset is able to indulge that want.

Incontrovertible Proof of the Corporatized University: Its Modern Architecture

In “Laboratory Conditions” (New Yorker, September 19 2011), Paul Goldberger waxes lyrical over the architectural details of new science buildings like the Rockefeller University Collaborative Research Center, Columbia University’s new “fourteen-story tower for scientific research,” and the University of San Francisco’s “new center for stem-cell research.” Goldberger clearly likes what he sees:

[A]ll three of the new buildings I recently visited managed to satisfy a daunting list of functional demands and still have room for poetry….scientific research can be conducted in an environment of both zest and dignity….scientists have become the architecture profession’s most optimistic clients. They believe that well-designed buildings can help them.

To which my reaction is: I’m glad someone is happy with the buildings now under construction for centers of learning. The recipients of Goldberger’s admiration appear to be exceptions to a broad regularity, for a ghastly fact staring us in the face is that university buildings are on a Road to Architectural Perdition, wherein their buildings get uglier and uglier, hankering apparently, for some summum bonum of sheer architectural banality.

Most newly-constructed university buildings now seemingly aspire to the status of Generic Corporate Park Resident, with an exterior that resembles a thrown-together assembly of dull, mass-manufactured, pre-fabricated parts. My own academic home–Brooklyn College–has provided a particularly undistinguished addition to the pantheon of Ugly University Architecture. Our most recently erected building stands, in dramatic and depressing contrast, across Bedford Avenue, to the older Georgian structures on the older quad; its ugliness defies reasonable description. Many years ago, when a graduate student at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, I heard Cullimore Hall, a nondescript lecture hall, described as Ham-n-Cheese Hall. Nothing else quite captured its sheer ordinariness, its sinister and yet dull color scheme, than that little nickname, nothing quite deflated a component of the university like a naming after a boring, run-of-the-mill, easily-made-shapeless edible item. All too many modern samples of university architecture aspire to, and emulate, the two samples I have just noted.

But even corporate park buildings i.e., actual Generic Corporate Park Residents, come off better than most modern university buildings. Their glass, steel, aluminium, their straight-lines and metallic countenance, all speak to corporate efficiency, to a streamlined mode of operation that no matter how mythical in denying its own rough edges and inefficiencies, is at least true to a dream-making associated with it. In the case of corporations the Corporate Park Look might work; in the case of universities, the Corporate Park look is jarring. What part of the academic mission is this architecture speaking to?

Only in the context of a throughly-corporatized university do its new architectural inclinations make any sense.  That is, the modern, ugly university only makes sense if one understands it to be no longer committed to its older mission of fostering inquiry but rather to be pursuing considerably less-elevated bottom-lines (perhaps “outcomes”, “deliverables” and the like?). That is, if one accepts as concrete the clash between that older mission and the visible  goal of the contract awarded to the lowest bidder. Then, all of a sudden, all is made clear: the architecture of the modern university is a loud testament to the race to the bottom that is sought to be enacted within its walls.

Allison Arieff on Architecture and Jargon, and Why Ethical Theory Should Listen

Allison Arieff’s article, “Why Don’t We Read About Architecture” (New York Times, March 2nd, 2012), concludes, roughly, that the use of jargon in descriptions of architecture interferes with our appreciation of, and engagement with, the sciences and arts of the ‘built environment’. Arieff’s complaint is a familiar one in bemoaning jargon in fields of writing that have acquired an academic dimension; you would have to be particularly perverse to want to read some of the ‘prose’ that is all too frequently brought to bear on descriptions of building, urban spaces, architectural choices and the like. Buildings are where we eat, sleep, make love, bring up children, fight, resolve familial crises, develop relationships; they are where set up home. But writing about them is shrouded in impenetrable, jaw-breaking, ennui-introducing language; it repels rather than invites participation in thinking more about where we live, and how.

Buildings are, of course, used to make political and aesthetic statements, and they are not only used as dwelling spaces. They are also sites of work and storehouses of art, for instance. So some invocation of theoretical language, pitched in several registers, in unpacking an architect’s vision is almost inevitable. But still; the average article on architecture is almost unreadable (and it doesn’t have to be so, given that theory can be written clearly). This lack of readability prohibits a broader ‘engagement’ with the the issues that architecture raises, and perhaps even permits the ghastly buildings that are now ever increasingly a feature of our urban landscapes. It is almost as if the sheer intractability of the linguistic apparatus used to grapple with building spaces has permitted the hijacking of that activity by uninspired economic and artistic decisions.

The closest analogy to this state of affairs is, I think, the state of writing in ethical and moral theory. I am not going to suggest, for a second, that that venue is where anyone even considers looking for guidance in making ethical and moral decisions; for that it seems we have made the decision to turn to literature, the movies, and the plentiful, daily, vivid examples of our friends, lovers, family and co-workers. But that reluctance to turn to the products of professional philosophy should be curiosity-invoking: Does that branch of theorizing–given its subject-matter–have to be so remote from our lived experiences? (I have to admit, there is something richly comic in the idea that someone caught in the horns of an ethical dilemma would run to the local library and start a systematic search through The Philosopher’s Index; and I find this possibility comic even while knowing that that is not what journal articles are meant for.)

The analytically-oriented philosopher is particularly guilty of the sin of inquiry framed in sterile, specialized language, of course, but it doesn’t seem to me that things are any better in any other orientation. It is almost as if the professionalization of ethical and moral inquiry–via its placement in university departments associated with ‘disciplines’–brought with it a linguistic package that demanded a conformity so stifling that its end result has been a rather comprehensive obscuring of its original aim: providing orientation toward the good life.