Somewhat belatedly I’d like to link to this piece about slum urbanism: how environmentalists and other city-lovers can learn from the way slums are pieced together. “Slum” here is used to mean an informal settlement within a city, usually in the developing world. Spending time in these slums is a revelation to any American, I think, partly for the expected reasons, namely that they’re squalid, dangerous on account of the ubiquitously shoddy construction and exposed electrical wire. Less expected is that the streets of these slums often seem full of life and happy, not only in comparison to American urban ghettos, but also compared to our wealthy suburbs. Often there are a multitude of small shops, neighbors pausing in their daily errands to gossip, and children playing. It’s worth thinking about what a tremendous indictment of our built environment that this fact represents. Unlike the slum-dwellers we are subject to laws ensuring our buildings are built safely, but also unlike them we’re subject to laws that make our neighborhoods isolating, ugly, environmentally disastrous and hostile to all forms of retail except the big box stores we’ve been talking about on the blog. As Austen Bramwell writes:
sprawl — an umbrella term for the pattern of development seen virtually everywhere in the United States — is not caused by the free market. It is, rather, mandated by a vast and seemingly intractable network of government regulations, from zoning laws and building codes to street design regulations.
My own experiences with slums contributed mightily to my conviction that the built environment is a major determinant of our politics, culture, and even our religion. I wrote a post some time ago about urban form and religion by a particular slum, and since almost no one was reading Plumb Lines back then, I’ll take the liberty of quoting it in full:
I recall walking through a slum once in India, girdled by a wide moat doubling as a sewer, where the buildings were built so close to one another that at times I had to turn sideways to fit between them. Occasionally I had to duck while turning to avoid the naked electrical wires strung overhead. No street ran in a straight line for more than twenty feet without careening off at a random, vertiginous angle.
After advancing through this maze for several minutes, I emerged into a courtyard built up to two stories on all sides, not more than 500 feet square, with a great blue god in the middle, twice the size of a human being. This was the only space in the slum where the watery sun could illuminate the pavement without passing through a trellis of clothes lines, power lines, and architectural promontories, and the only space wide enough to walk with comparable ease for more than a few paces. The effect was intoxicating and over-awing, long before the arrival of the inevitable and cliched am-I-the-first-Westerner-to-see-this moment.
This memory returned to me as I was reading Lewis Mumford’s The City in History, when he discusses the invention of the formal axis terminating in a church or some other monument. This is a familiar form in our age, since it was considered the exemplar of civic grandeur for several centuries in Europe (it is also a natural, if rarely employed form in a gridded city built of skyscrapers — the view up Park towards Grand Central in New York and the view down LaSalle towards the Board of Trade in Chicago being notable examples).
According to Mumford, the axis was the quintessential urban form of the Baroque city, first employed in the approach to Santa Croce in Florence and spreading from Florence like a disease to the rest of Europe. His contempt for the form is obvious, and he laments in particular the “dreary” approaches opened up in front of the old cathedrals, which used to be approachable only by twists and turns, like the idol in the slum. Certainly, even if used in the service of the Church, the linear approach to Santa Croce testifies to the glory of Man, not G-d. Mystery has been conspicuously eradicated; every form is patent and legible. From the formal axis it’s a short step to van der Rohe.
There is much to be said for the beauty of straight lines, and for Baroque urbanism in general, but the slum-dwellers and the medieval Europeans understood religion better than the Florentines. A visitor to a medieval European town looking for its church would stumble suddenly into a small open space in the presence of a tremendous vertical element whose face was a mass of flowers, monsters and saints. Like my sudden stumbling onto Krishna, this slow, difficult approach to the transcendent could be read as an allegory of Augustine’s approach to G-d: a slow, difficult inward movement until you come to the very center of yourself and find G-d pulling you up and outside.