Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day
Since the collapse of the twin towers, I've been listening over and over to 'Wir Bauen Ein Stadt' a children's operetta written in 1930 by Paul Hindemith. This work of gebrauchsmusik (practical or useful music) was conceived and performed (mostly in schools, by amateurs) in a precarious time of anarchy and hyper-inflation which only retrospectively looks like a utopia: the Weimar Republic.
We Are Building A New City
This brief German socialist republic, a place of cosmopolitanism, loose morals, satire and modernist design, isn't the kind of place anyone (except perhaps Herr Issyvoo and his chums) would really want to live in. It was a place where you took a wheelbarrow full of money to pay for a loaf of bread, which might have doubled in price by the time you got to the head of the queue. Nevertheless, this crazy republic, home of Die Brucke and the Bauhaus, gave the 20th century much of its most distinctive style, its most rational art, literature, music, design and architecture before collapsing into the abyss of its utter nemesis, the insane and horrific orderliness of Nazism.
Hindemith's city is a practical, completely buildable place, a modernist Legoland. The children sing:
Let's build a cinema, an airport for sightseeing flights!
Hallo, Frau Bergmann, here is your milk delivery!
Look out, the crocodile has escaped from the zoo!
I've been listening both to the original and to an even more interesting version, the 1982 reading by Holger Hiller and Thomas Fehlmann, first drawn to my attention by my friend Frank Schroder. These members of the Deutsche Neue Welle group Palais Schaumburg recorded Hindemith's operetta on plinky plonky analogue synths, their voices made childlike by varispeed tricks. It's an absolutely exemplary recording where harmony and dissonance hold each other perfectly in balance, where utopia is both mocked and celebrated, where classical music meets pop, and where high modernism is complemented by the retro-futurism of early 80s analogue electronics.
Hiller and Fehlmann's reading of 'Wir Bauen Ein Stadt' (a cassette put out by Cologne label Ata Tak, never re-released since its original very limited issue in 1982) has been my favourite piece of music for a year now. You can hear its influence in 'Handheld' on the Folktronic album, and no doubt it'll reappear in pieces I make in future. Since the terrorist attacks it has only seemed more relevant, its message more essential. We need to rebuild New York, and we need to rebuild the world. We should do it with all the humour, the community-mindedness and childlike optimism of this record.
The Hacienda Must Be Built!
'People seldom state a wish to live in utopia, but there is a long tradition of architects designing them. Indeed, the attempt to realise utopia is the history of architecture.' Hugh Aldersey-Williams
Utopia. Here's the catch. Utopia means no place. The beauty of utopia is all tied up with its inherent unbuildability. But, like Don Quixotes tilting at Towers of Babel, architects, planners, visionaries and governments insist on trying to build utopia in concrete and steel, flesh and blood. (Sometimes quite a lot of blood.) And, of course, the minute you begin to make no place into some place, you force it into an act of self-betrayal. Utopia turns into dystopia, and dreams of perfection, sullied by the inevitable disappointments of reality, retreat once more into the realm of abstraction. Back on earth, chaos returns, the old familiar chaos we recognise as our human lot.
Yevgeny Zamyatin's 'We' and its descendents 'Brave New World' and 'Nineteen Eighty Four', Jacques Tati's 'Playtime' with its parodies of Le Corbusier's Ville Radieuse, Truffault and Ray Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451', not to mention real places like Waco, Jonestown and Taliban Afghanistan... You'd think we'd have learned by now. The abstract cannot be built in concrete. The body cannot reduce its appetites to the contours of the holy spirit. The human form does not fit a grid. Our city plans need to include insanity as well as ideology.
Some of the 'architects' of the recent terror strikes against New York liked to describe themselves as 'town planners'. They certainly made very radical alterations to the population stats, the skyline and streetplan of our city. Their actions, they believed, sent them straight to the immaterial utopia we call Paradise. It seems more likely, however, that if they're anywhere at all they're now on an endless holiday in Pol Pot's Cambodia.
The nation they chose to hit, the United States (the only country in the world, notes Jean-Luc Godard, without a geographical name) could itself be seen as nothing more than an umbrella state for mini-utopias. From Salt Lake City to San Fransisco, from Delaware to Disneyland, from Walden to Waco and from Oregon to Organon, the United States has swelled its population with thousands of motley tribes subscribing to half-baked religions, half-cocked grudges, persecution manias and futurist fantasias. The US constitution, which guarantees the freedom to bear arms, to express any opinion and to follow any religion, is a charter for all manner of nutcases who only want to be left in peace to get on with building utopia on earth.
Benjamin Barber, author of 'Jihad Versus McWorld', said the other day that he would like to see the Declaration of Independence replaced by a Declaration of Interdependence, an admission on the part of the US that its freedoms have consequences elsewhere and depend on the consent of others. But the utopian roots of this nation will make that a hard pill to swallow.
It's one of many ironies of the current situation that the US is declaring war on the Afghan Taliban, a group of devout, disciplinarian theological 'students' who resemble many of the culty puritan fringe groups which have long helped to define the soul and essence of the US: Shakers, Mormons, Baptists and Brethren. Perhaps it's this similarity which has shaped US foreign policy over the past thirty years, leading it consistently to favour religious regimes over secular, democratic ones. Given the choice between God and democracy, the US chooses God. God is deep in its DNA. It's almost as if democracy in the US was cobbled together to support the freedom to practise religion. Where it conflicts with religion, democracy gets suspended.
Other cultures seem to have worked these questions out far back in their (admittedly longer) histories. Let's look at a couple of historical attempts to resolve the conflict between God and democracy or, if you prefer, between spirituality and sensuality.
Augustine and the City Of God
'I'm a cross between Saint Augustine and a window cleaner'. Momus, interviewed in 1987.
Saint Augustine (354-430) was the Bishop of Hippo, a little town in North Africa. His 'Confessions' detail a life of early sensuality radically changed by a Christian conversion. Augustine was originally a Manichaean, a sect who, like the Gnostics, condemned matter as evil. The Manichaeans condemned marriage and procreation but approved recreational fornication and orgies. After his conversion, Augustine believed there should be no sexual relations except for procreation and felt that the excitation of passion dissipates rational control.
In 'The City Of God', Augustine's most important book, he describes how Christianity might bring men into civitas terrena, the heavenly city. There are two cities: one where men live according to the flesh, the other where they live according to the spirit. The first city is the world. The second city is the church, which is both inside and outside of human history. According to Augustine, the two cities could one day be united. The world itself could be transformed into an organized kingdom of heaven, 'a spiritual society of the predestined faithful'. The church could become the ruler of the world.
Unfortunately, the history of the western world for the thousand years following the publication of 'The City Of God' is the history of the failure of this idea of divine world government. But the debacle of the crusades didn't stop men trying to superimpose utopia on the real world and build the 'civitas terrena'.
In 1474, while on a journey to Faenza, Savonarola heard a powerful sermon on repentance by a follower of Augustine and resolved to renounce the world. He carried out this decision at once and entered the Dominican Order at Bologna. Feeling deeply the widespread depravity of the era of the Renaissance, the young Dominican devoted himself to prayer and ascetic practices.
In 1481 he was sent by his superior to preach in Florence. In this centre of the Renaissance he immediately began decrying the pagan and immoral life prevalent in many classes of society and especially at the court of Lorenzo de Medici. As a reaction against the unbridled sensuality of Florence -- exemplified perhaps by Botticelli's painting of the naked Venus -- Savonarola set the example of a strict life of self-mortification; his cell was small and poor, his clothing coarse, his food simple and scanty.
In the late 1490s, when Charles VIII of France invaded Florence, he helped Savonarola set up a kind of theocratic democracy. Christ was considered the King of Florence and protector of its liberties. Christ's law was to be the basis of political and social life. The humanism of the Florentine renaissance was stamped out, the moral life of the citizens reprogrammed.
Savonarola organised a bonfire of the vanities. Many people brought articles of luxury -- playing-cards, ornaments, pictures of beautiful women, the writings of pagan and immoral poets -- to the monastery of San Marco; these articles were then publicly burned. Botticelli, himself a convert to Savonarolism, is even said to have brought some of his own paintings and thrown them enthusiastically onto the fire.
Jetfuel of the Vanities
The fire which has been smoking in lower Manhattan for three weeks now has been seen by some as a kind of new bonfire of the vanities. Since the terrorist attacks, many of my friends, people in creative occupations, have felt that their lives are suddenly meaningless, their jobs trivial. Fearing recession, they wonder what 'real' work they can do instead of consumer journalism, graphic design, pop music. One of them, a fashion photographer, flew in from Paris to find all her photo shoots cancelled. She went to Ground Zero to work in a soup kitchen. She says she never wants to work in fashion again.
While I understand this reaction, I don't share it. My view is that the renaissance must continue. We must not allow Osama Bin Laden to become the 21st century Savonarola.
The response which has come closest to my own so far is the painter who said that in the days following the terrorist strikes he spent a lot of time looking at pictures of shiny plastic furniture from the 1960s and 70s. The bright colours and futuristic optimism cheered him up, he said. This furniture, formalist and fickle though it might seem, is actually a powerful manifesto, a declaration of faith in manmade materials, human ingenuity, and the desire to strike out from the dead weight of tradition and habit.
The day after the attack, when the rest of lower Manhattan is cordoned off and quiet as the grave, I go for lunch to Universal News on Broadway. This magazine store and cafe, staffed by Arabs, stocks thousands of fashion, art and style magazines from all over the world. You're free to take a pile of them to the neat grid of orange chairs and lime green tables and read as you chew your eggplant salad. Today even the radio is silent, giving Universal the feel of a subterranean library -- a reading room preserved deep below the ruined New York landscape of Beneath The Planet Of The Apes, or a pharoah's death library at the heart of some pyramidal mausoleum.
Like relics from another age, these magazines know nothing of the explosions, the fireballs, the thousands of deaths, the sour smoke which now engulfs New York, and the new era of doubt and fear they've plunged the planet into. Like radio waves from an extinguished star, like news from a vanished empire brought by a courier on horseback, the magazines' optimism, overtaken by events, is all the more welcome. I take a scoop of titles from the Design and Architecture sections: Blueprint, Metropolis. And, like that painter, I take comfort from pictures of bright red chairs, unfinished buildings, plastic gadgets pointing to a future it's no longer easy to take for granted.
Like the beautifully sober artifacts of the helter skelter Weimar Republic, these things seem more beautiful, more rational than ever. They're no longer luxuries, they're necessities. We must rebuild the city that bequeathed us these happy, elegant, hopeful relics. Rather than abandoning our half-finished renaissance, we must rebuild the world which valued these things.
The Only Good Manifesto Is A Retroactive Manifesto
"A new architect is coming. It is we, the illuminators of tomorrow's cities." Vladimir Mayakovsky
Utopia contains all that is best and worst about us as humans: our control freakery, our denial of our animal sensuality, our need for cosmic projections of our own secret desires. But if we have to have utopias and manifestos, perhaps we should turn first to those which are ambiguous, contingent, playful, and respectful of human psychology.
Rem Koolhaas published 'Delirious New York' in 1978 before he'd built anything. The book is subtitled 'A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan.' Koolhaas treats New York like a man who has found a machine half buried in sand and sets about writing a speculative manual for its possible uses, its likely or unlikely origins.
Borrowing Salvador Dali's Paranoid Critical Method, Koolhaas sees Manhattan not as a result of planning decisions, not as a construction of stone, steel and glass, but as a factory of human experiences, an incubator of social longings, the collective unconscious of millions of city dwellers, each full of powerful unconscious forces, together piling up a landscape of pure fantasy. '20th century European architecture is a mountain of manifestos without proof ', Koolhaas writes, 'New York on the other hand is a mountain of proofs without a manifesto.' So Koolhaas becomes 'the ghostwriter of the metropolis', writing its 'retroactive manifesto'.
He sees Coney Island as Manhattan's R&D lab, a place where its towering dreams could be 'imagineered', its spaces compressed and stretched, its human desires encoded, its skyscrapers invented. Manhattan, built according to discoveries made at the funfair, becomes a vast urban pleasure zone or 'clitoris'.
Never trust a utopia without a clitoris.